BMCR 2008.04.06

Porfirio, Sullo Stige. Testo greco a fronte, 99

, Porfirio, Sullo Stige. Testo greco a fronte, 99. Milan: I edizione Bompiani, 2006. 485; pls. 36. €13.50 (pb).

Cristiano Castelletti’s volume, the author’s doctoral thesis, is the first translation in a modern language ever published of the 9 fragments that form the lost book On the Styx by Porphyry (c. 234-305/310 AD the great Neoplatonic pupil of Longinus and Plotinus. Notwithstanding its importance as a translation, this volume is also very welcome for its careful and expert scholarship, the instructive introduction and the judicious arguments in the commentary.

Castelletti (hereafter C.) has used the annotated text of Andrew Smith.1 In this work, Smith has collected and edited fragments for more than seventy-five works. The edition of Porphyry’s On the Styx comprises 372 F to 380 F in Smith and are all found in Stobaeus’ Anthology (c. fifth century AD). In the Appendix, C. has added fragments 381, 382 and 383, which are denoted by Smith as Excerpta apud Stobaeum ex ignoto Porphyrii opere, and which are found in the same order in Stobaeus I 49, 59; I 49, 60; I 49, 61.

For the critical edition of the text, C. compared all the principal editions of Stobaeus, from that of G. Canter ( Ioannis Stobaei Eclogarum libri duo, Antverpiae, 1575) to that of Wachsmuth-Hense ( Ioannis Stobaei Anthologium, libri duo priores, ed. C. Wachsmuth, Berolini, 1884; libri duo posteriores, ed. O. Hense, Berolini, 1894-1912). Furthermore, C. took into consideration also the text of F. Jacoby, Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker (II, B, Leiden, 1962) and the editions of various authors cited by Porphyry. C.’s approach, following Tiziano Dorandi2 and Philippe Hoffmann3 whom he thanks in his introduction, considers the whole history of a text with all the circumstances of its transmission.

The Introduction (pp. 15-88) comprises four sections, which are in turn divided in numerous subsections. The author offers a review of the life and works of Porphyry (pp. 16-22); a mythological, allegorical and philosophical interpretation of the river Styx (pp. 23-35); and a general introduction to the treatise On the Styx (pp. 36-82). The Translation follows, with the Greek text on one side and facing Italian translation (pp. 94-137), followed by a Commentary (pp. 141-289).

Before we give a short presentation of the fragments, let us make a note on the name of the treatise. According to Pausanias, it was Homer who first mentioned in poetry the river Styx (VIII, 18, 2). Homer always mentions the “waters of the river Styx”, on which the gods swear, as the “greatest oath and the most terrible to the blessed gods” (Odyssey V, 755). Hence, the river Styx has the power to punish the transgressors. Moreover, it represents the primordial waters, giver of life and death.

The treatise of Porphyry, which is an allegorical interpretation of the river Styx, is composed of nine fragments.

Fr. 1 (372 F Smith = Stob. II, 1, 32) proposes to use the allegorical method since Homer expressed himself “sotto forma di enigmi”.

Fr. 2 (377 F Smith = Stob. I, 49, 53) expounds the plan of the treatise: to inquire into the meaning of the river Styx. It starts by explaining the disposition of the souls in the Homeric poems.

Fr. 3 (378 F Smith = Stob. I, 49, 54) continues the discussion about the condition of the souls that traverse Acheron.

Fr. 4 (373 F Smith = Stob. I, 49, 50) cites the views of Apollodorus about the etymology of the rivers that are found in Hades.

Fr. 5 (374 F Smith = Stob. I, 3, 56) talks about the terrestrial waters of the Styx.

Fr. 6 (375 F Smith = Stob. I, 49, 52) continues the discussion about the properties of the waters of the river Styx.

Fr. 7 (376 F Smith = Stob. I, 3, 56) cites the views of the Syrian Gnostic-Christian poet and philosopher Bardaisan (154-222 AD who lived at the court of Abgar IX the Great, at Edessa (today Urfa). This one received information about India from a certain delegation around 218 AD.4 Bardaisan was a religious writer whose cosmology that influenced Mani (216-276 AD founder of Manichaeism. Later he was condemned as a heretic by the Syrian Orthodox Church.5

Fr. 8 (379 F Smith = Stob. IV, 41, 57) and Fr. 9 (380 F Smith = Stob. IV, 36, 23) refer to the same verse from the Odyssey.

The presentation of the text is exemplary, and the proof-reading of a very high standard. Double square brackets enclose a title given by C. to delineate the main argument of each fragment. Below the text are references to parallel items in other editions and a full critical apparatus.

C’s important contribution is to argue that, despite appearances, “lo Stige è dunque un pretesto più che valido, che permette a Porfirio di consolidare ancora una volta la figura dell’Omero filosofo e teosofo, spiegato con Platone in una mano e Aristotele nell’altra, conformemente alla sua linea filosofica, tesa a mostrare l’armonia e la complementarità del pensiero Greco antico, con il prezioso supporto delle dottrine e pratiche teosofiche provenienti da culture lontane (come quella indiana), che in fondo praticano gli stessi riti del mondo ellenico” (p. 88). In other words, this treatise is a programmatic writing in order to show the “harmony” and the “complementarity” of Greco-Roman culture, supported by theosophical practices and doctrines. But considering the philosophical and theological arguments of the treatise, it must be assumed that Porphyry had a larger scheme in mind (see for example the astronomical speculations found in De Antro Nympharum, another treatise on Homeric exegesis, which have to do with the ascent and salvation of the soul). And the salvation of the soul was one of them, if not the main theme.

Thanks to this edition, it may become possible to have an idea about Porphyry’s use of the allegorical method, which has been used also in the other Homeric treatises, as in the treatise on the cave of the nymphs in the thirteenth book of the Odyssey. Much of course is traditional and leads back to the first allegorists. But Porphyry also displays a particular interest in ancient names and gives an etymological analysis of the rivers of Hades —Acheron, Styx, Cocytus and Pyriphlegethon (Porphyry cites Apollodorus of Athens), which is reminiscent of Stoic etymology (fr. 4).

The volume is completed by a variety of Appendices covering prosopography, fragments 381 F, 382 F, 383 F Smith, texts relative to the river Styx and a synoptic table. Moreover, the book comes with 36 maps, a selective bibliography of works referred to (ancient authors, pp. 344-50; modern authors, pp. 350-69) and indexes (an Index Locorum, pp. 375-410; general index, pp. 417-20; index of Greek terms, pp. 413-15; index of ancient authors, pp. 421-29; index of geographical locations, pp. 431-33; index of modern authors, pp. 436-40; and even an index of Indian texts, pp. 411-12).

C’s translation is an impressive philological achievement. The translation reads very lucidly, and his notes are generally most helpful, and they must be valued for their thorough illumination of the arguments found in the fragments. All his work combines the highest intelligence with the keenest insight and most industrious learning. No one can fail to profit from it.


1. A. Smith, Porphyrii Philosophi Fragmenta (Stuttgart and Leipzig: Teubner, 1994), pp. 442-467.

2. The book has a forward by Tiziano Dorandi. Among other works, Tiziano Dorandi has translated and edited: Filodemo. Storia dei filosofi: La Stoa da Zenone a Panezio (PHerc. 1018), Edizione, traduzione e commento (Leiden: Brill, 1994) and Antigone de Caryste. Fragments (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1999).

3. Philippe Hoffmann is most known for his studies on and translation of Simplicius’ commentary on Aristotle’s Categories : Simplicius. Commentaire sur les Catgories, Fascicules I et III (Leiden: Brill, 1990) and Simplicius. Commentaire sur les “Catégories” d’Aristote, Chapitres 2-4 (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2001).

4. Porphyry also cites the Babylonian Bardaisan in De abstinentia 17-18, about the rites of the Indians.

5. See in particular, H. J. W. Drijvers (ed.), The book of the laws of countries. Dialogue on fate of Bardaisan of Edessa (Assen, 1965) and by the same author, Bardaisan of Edessa (Assen, 1966).