BMCR 2008.07.60

Die griechische Biographie in hellenistischer Zeit. Akten des internationalen Kongresses vom 26.-29. Juli 2006 in Würzburg. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 245

, , Griechische Biographie in hellenistischer Zeit : Akten des internationalen Kongresses vom 26.-29. Juli 2006 in Würzburg. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ; Bd. 245. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2007. vi, 492 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3110195046 €98.00, $157.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Two giants cast a long shadow over the study of ancient biography. Friedrich Leo in 1901 stands at the fountainhead of all modern study of the subject, yet such was his dogmatic fidelity to a theory of genres that even his foremost pupil who cherished his memory could not refrain from reservation in this matter.1 Seventy years later the sparkling intellect and all-embracing erudition of Arnaldo Momigliano led people to ignore his cavalier approach to the necessary distinction between biography and biographical elements in other literary genres. Yet, to twist slightly a famous line by Goethe, only where there is much light is there a deep shadow. Is the light bestowed by these giants, or the shadow they cast the more influential? The present volume of twenty-one essays by scholars from seven countries provides a welcome opportunity to assess some of the latest scholarship on the subject.2

The book consists of five sections, the first of these (‘Vorformen und Anfänge) of four papers. Bernhard Zimmermann analyses the autobiographical narratives of Odysseus in Phaeacia and the pseudo-autobiographical ones in Ithaca. They already exhibit some of the most characteristic features of the genre: Odysseus deliberately chooses what to include and what to omit, and the episodes chosen lead to the revelation of the fully developed character and identity of the narrator; also Philippe Lejeune’s pacte autobiographique between the storyteller and his public makes its appearance here.

Michael Erler maintains that in Plato’s oeuvre a sort of anecdotal, and fictional, biography of Socrates is created, starting with the young philosopher in the Parmenides and reaching its climax in the seven dialogues connected with his trial and death. However, Plato the philosopher is interested in the general and exemplary rather than the particular and consequently this Socrates is rather the figure of a ‘protophilosopher’ than a real-life individual. By contrast, Alcibiades’ encomium in the Symposium aims at a ‘real’ Socrates, his actions rather than his philosophical motivation; both these approaches foreshadow trends in Hellenistic biography.

After short analyses of Xenophon’s obituaries of Cyrus and the Greek generals in the Anabasis and the factual and encomiastic halves of the Agesilaus, Michael Reichel devotes most of his discussion to the Cyropaedia. It is argued that this mirror of princes distorts historical events in favour of its aim, and projects on the hero some of the admirable qualities of Socrates, Agesilaus, and above all the Younger Cyrus observed in real life and idealised by the author, as well as some traits of Xenophon’s character as perceived by Xenophon himself. His great flexibility both with regard to literary techniques and to historical facts serves his aim of presenting us with the ideal figure of a leader of men.

Entirely under the spell of Momigliano and his assertion that ‘Aristotle did not cross the bridge from anecdote to biography’ (Momigliano 1971, 76) stands the contribution of William W. Fortenbaugh. As a consequence, we get, inter alia, lengthy discussions of Menander’s Perikeiromene and Theophrastus’ Clitarchus, about which we know little. The next eleven (!) pages are devoted to Polybius’ discussion of his earlier work on Philopoemen (10.21.1-8). This offers some good insights, but what the author admits of a part may be true about the whole: ‘… while Aristotelian passages may be helpful in interpreting what Polybius says, the historian need not be influenced by Aristotle or any other Peripatetic. What he says is common sense.’ (67) The paper ends with a discussion of several Peripatetics and concludes by agreeing with Momigliano about Aristoxenus being the first Peripatetic biographer. Yet the tenor of the paper can best be perceived in quoting from it: ‘I would like to believe that Aristotle … recognized biography as a distinct genre that need not distort the truth. But no text tells us that he did so. The same holds for Theophrastus.’ (71-72).

The next section (‘Themen und Arbeitsweise’) consists of two papers. Graziano Arrighetti’s contribution rests under the spell of Leo. After some discussion of modern views on anecdote — starting with Nietzsche and Burckhardt but inevitably focused on Leo (and Diels, who followed him in this matter), its use by Aristotle and some members of his school is at issue. Plutarch claims that it is small actions that disclose the character. It is of course correct to say that this opinion can be seen as a logical deduction from what Aristotle said of poetry and history in the Poetics. However, the necessary connexion between anecdote and biography remains unproven, since anecdote is employed also in other literary genres. I found the last short section of the paper on biographies without anecdotes (the Life of Pindar and Philodemus on the Epicureans) of great interest.

Mary R. Lefkowitz, well known for her analysis of the fictional Lives of Greek poets, discusses the fictitious visits of Euripides, Plato, and Eudoxus to Egypt. These served as ‘the source of a myth that survives today, that philosophy originated not in Greece, but in Egypt’ (101). Black Athena, Beware!

The first of the two central sections of the book deals with particular biographers. First among these is Neanthes of Cyzicus, the earliest author On Famous Men, whose entry in FGrHist Stefan Schorn shows to be in serious need of revision. Now dated in the fourth century, Neanthes’ reports concerning Plato depend on first hand information of contemporaries, and the picture that emerges is much more down-to-earth than the later idealised image of the philosopher. Next, the Pythagoraeans (including Empedocles). Neanthes is critical and trustworthy concerning the death of Empedocles as well as on Pythagoras and his pupils; in all his fragments of biographies and biographical fragments of other works a powerful local colour, derived from a periegetic interest, is discernible. His method is that of the historian both in the use of sources and in the appreciation of autopsy and thus he is closest to the biographical interests of Herodotus and Thucydides and far removed from ‘Peripatetic biography’. This is a long, detailed and important study, and no doubt the impressive figure of Neanthes painted in it will provoke a variety of reactions.

An edition and discussion of eight fragments found in Diogenes Laertius is the subject of Tiziano Dorandi’s analysis of Aristippus’ Περὶ παλαιᾶς τρυφῆς. Six of the fragments come from the fourth book: the love of Socrates for Alcibiades, of Xenophon for Clinias, of Plato for a number of youths, citing some of the epigrams ascribed to the philosopher, of Xenocrates and Polemo and the love of Theophrastus for Nicomachus, the son of Aristotle. There is nothing left of the second and third books of the otherwise unknown author, and I see no compelling reason to assign the two fragments of Book One, — Periander’s incestuous relationship with his mother and Aristotle’s disgraceful marriage to the concubine of Hermias, tyrant of Atarneus —, to a book on tyrants; after all, Periander was one of the Seven Sages and Aristotle rather than Hermias could easily have been the subject of the story. In my reading Book Four treated homosexual relationships and Book One scandalous heterosexual ones, all, as far as we can tell, of philosophers. Despite this minor disagreement one looks forward to the author’s edition of Diogenes Laertius.

Johannes Engels treats the twenty-three fragments of Hippobotus, but since we know next to nothing about his life and times, there is no telling how he relates to other known authors of Diadochai. A discussion of the fragments shows their closeness to the biography of philosophers, both literary genres typical for Hellenistic elitist culture.

Erwin Rohde identified the Apollonius named as source in Porphyry’s Life of Pythagoras and in Iamblichus’ On the Pythagoraean Life as Apollonius of Tyana. Despite some protests this became the communis opinio (see e.g. FGrHist IVA 7 1064). In a detailed analysis, Gregor Staab rejects now the identification; it remains to be seen whether his own proposal (Apollonius Molon) will gain widespread acceptance.

Only specialists can stay in step with the breathtaking speed of the publications and discussions of the Herculaneum papyri: all but one of the biographical texts are by Philodemus of Gadara. Francesca Longo Auricchio does in her exhaustive and authoritative survey (and over four pages of small-print bibliography) a great service to scholarship. It is only to be hoped that in ten years time an equally useful review will be provided.

The second central part, also of five papers, is concerned with biographical traditions about individuals. Despite the very few references to the personal traits of Socrates in the Corpus Aristotelicum Klaus Döring finds it possible to deduce, somewhat speculatively, a consistent interest in and approach to them.

It is best to let Luc Brisson (in fact, his translator) speak for himself (‘Aristoxenus: His Evidence on Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: The Case of Philolaus’). Acknowledging the ‘principle … that scholarly production increases in inverse proportion to the information available’ (271) he reminds us of the ‘vicious circle: to interpret Plato, one appeals to a Pythagoreanism wholly reconstructed on the basis of Plato.’ (ibid.) Case study: in a meticulous analysis of the sources, Philolaus the Pythagorean is debunked. However ‘[e]ven if it is largely an invention, the intellectual figure of Philolaus plays an important role in the history of Platonism and Pythagoreanism.’ (283) This is an impressive piece aimed at the all too often denied horror vacui.

How did the tradition about the trial of Protagoras, in all probability unknown to Plato, arise? Michele Corradi establishes as terminus ante quem the turn of the fourth and third centuries, and discusses the part Aristotle played in the tradition of the trials for ἀσέβεια. As for the origin of the anecdote of Protagoras asking his disciple Euathlus for the fee he did not pay because he hasn’t won a case yet (Protagoras’ reply: ‘If I win this case against you I must have the fee, for winning it; if you win, I must have it, because you win it’) a number of possibilities are weighed without an evident conclusion.

Two more giants cast their shadows on the next contribution. The accounts of Aspasia in Plut. Per. 24, Harpocratio and the scholia on the Menexenus are credited to a common source, a Hellenistic biography by Wilamowitz, an Atticist compilation Περὶ ἑταιρῶν by Eduard Schwartz. The solution of Mauro Tulli is an attempt at combining the two. Pace late giants one may remind latter-day practitioners that Quellenforschung is a no less rigorous discipline than textual criticism, and that in both only common mistakes and significant formal correspondences can be considered as proof.

Now to the last paper in this section. The only biography of a Greek mathematician is known from two fragments of a Life of Archimedes preserved by his commentator Eutocius of Ascalon. Though one is ascribed to a Heraclides and the other to a Heraclius it is more than probable that both refer to the same work by the same author. Radicke in FGrHist IVA 7 1108 opts for Heraclides and adds as ‘Uncertain Testimony’ two notices from Archimedes about an Heraclides, who brought writings of his to Dositheus.3 On the contrary, Klaus Geus opts, to my mind convincingly, for the lectio difficilior Heraclius, whom he dates to the second to first centuries BCE, and sees in Heraclides a different person. There is only one statement in this paper with which I find difficulty in going along: since Eutocius did not even have all the works of Archimedes at hand, Geus assumes (331) that he knew the biographer only at second or third hand. But Eutocius studied, and apparently taught for years at Alexandria, and no doubt had there works at his disposal that were not available in his native Ascalon.4

The last section (‘Beziehungen zu anderen Gattungen und Rezeption’) starts with a solidly theoretical discussion of the relations between biography and historiography by Guido Schepens. While paying due homage to Momigliano, the greater part of the paper consists of a criticism of his separation of biography from historiography, followed by a demonstration of the proximity of the two and their points of contact. This heavily annotated paper by the chief continuator of Jacoby should be required reading for anybody interested in ancient biography. The present reviewer will not hide his satisfaction with the fact that the only reference in this volume to the problem of political biography in the Hellenistic age (354-355) amounts to a declaration that this ghost has been irrevocably laid. Who would have imagined a generation ago a volume on Hellenistic biography with only one paper dealing (in part) with a putative source of Plutarch?

The related genre of self-epitaphs is discussed by Irmgard Männlein-Robert. These amount to programmatic self-presentations of the poet, consisting of autobiographical and poetological elements. After dealing with the Locrian poetess Nissus and Callimachus, the main part of the paper analyses the four well-known epitaphs of Meleager of Gadara and their place in his Garland. I think she is mistaken in interpreting the address of the different passers-by in Syrian (Aramaic), Phoenician, and Greek as a reference to the various stations in Meleager’s life (375): the fiction of the inscription on the tomb requires these people to be in the same place — in fact it is evidence for the mixed culture of his native Gadara.5

Yet another giant, Felix Jacoby, is taken to task by Peter Scholz. After surveying Hellenistic memoirs and their Classical precursors as well as the remnants of Republican autobiographies, the author arrives at the conclusion that the root of the difference between the two is not in the Volksindividualität, as Jacoby would have it, but rather in what he terms ‘Habitus’. The Greek writings were meant for the educated urban elites of the entire Greek world while the Roman ones were tools in the political competition of the senatorial aristocracy. This may well be so, though some may raise the question whether both the ‘democratic’ element in Roman politics and the spread of literacy are not underestimated.

How far the limits of genre-theoretical discussion can be stretched is shown by Bernhard Heininger in his analysis of the figure of Paul in Acts. Comparisons with the Lives of Philosophers, and especially Socrates, of ‘godlike’ persons from Empedocles to Apollonius of Tyana reach their peak in comparing the technique of Luke with that of the Plutarchean Parallels: Jesus of the Gospel compared with Paul, Paul with Peter, and the child Jesus with John in the Gospel.6

Finally, by the case-study of the life of Democritus Jorgen Mejer tries to deduce some general conclusions about Diogenes Laertius. He arrives at the following inferences: 1. Diogenes composed this Life himself and is not dependent on a Hellenistic source. 2. We have little reason to consider the biographical information found in Diogenes reliable. 3. The selection of anecdotes serves to give a positive impression of the philosopher, and though only in some cases do they tell something about the person in question, they are usually helpful for the later tradition on the philosopher. 4. The most important point seems to be that since there are no indications that doxographies were part of Hellenistic biography, it appears to have been Diogenes’ own idea to combine biography and doxography. This puts him in an altogether better light than is his accustomed image.

As usual, this collection of papers is of somewhat unequal quality. However, the present survey will have shown that the interesting, and even important contributions definitely outweigh the rest. We are in the debt of the conveners of the conference and editors of the volume, edited with commendable speed. Inevitably, there is some repetition in the book, and the editors could have done a greater service in cross-referencing. Each paper has its own bibliography, and the volume ends not only with an Index Nominum, but has also a useful Index Locorum. On the whole this is a well edited volume, with but a few trivial misprints.

Table of contents:

Michael Erler and Stefan Schorn, Vorwort, v-vi

Bernhard Zimmermann, ‘Anfänge der Autobiographie in der griechischen Literatur’, 3-9

Michael Erler, ‘Biographische Elemente bei Platon und in hellenistischer Philosophie’, 11-24

Michael Reichel, ‘Xenophon als Biograph’, 25-43

William W. Fortenbaugh, ‘Biography and the Aristotelian Peripatos’, 45-78

Graziano Arrighetti, ‘Anekdote und Biographie. Μάλιστα τὸ μικρὸν φυλάττειν‘, 79-100

Mary R. Lefkowitz, ‘Visits to Egypt in the Biographical Tradition’, 101-113

Stefan Schorn, ‘”Peripatetische Biographie” — “Historische Biographie”: Neanthes von Kyzikos (FgrHist 84) als Biograph’, 115-156

Tiziano Dorandi, ‘Il Περὶ παλαιᾶς τρυφῆς attributo a Aristippo nella storia della biografia antica’, 157-172

Johannes Engels, ‘Philosophen in Reihen. Die Φιλοσόφων ἀναγραφή des Hippobotos’, 173-194

Gregor Staab, ‘Der Gewährsmann “Apollonios” in den neuplatonischen Pythagorasviten — Wundermann oder hellenistischer Literat?’, 195-217

Francesca Longo Auricchio, ‘Gli studi su testi biografici ercolanesi negli ultimi dieci anni’, 219-255

Klaus Döring, ‘Biographisches zur Person des Sokrates im Corpus Aristotelicum, 257-267

Luc Brisson, ‘Aristoxenus: His Evidence on Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans. The Case of Philolaus’, 269-284

Michele Corradi, ‘L’origine della tradizione sul processo di Protagora’, 285-301

Mauro Tulli, ‘Filosofia e commedia nella biografia di Aspasia’, 303-317

Klaus Geus, ‘Mathematik und Biografie. Anmerkungen zu einer Vita des Archimedes’, 319-333

Guido Schepens, ‘Zum Verhältnis von Biographie und Geschichtsschreibung in hellenistischer Zeit’, 335-361

Irmgard Männlein-Robert, ‘Hellenistische Selbstepitaphien: Zwischen Autobiographie und Poetik’, 363-383

Peter Scholz, ‘Autobiographien hellenistischer Herrscher und republikanischer nobiles — “Ein Unterschied der Volksindividualität”?’, 385-405

Bernhard Heininger ‘Das Paulusbild der Apostelgeschichte und die antike Biographie’, 407-429

Jorgen Mejer, ‘Biography and Doxography. Four Crucial Questions Raised by Diogenes Laertius’, 431-441


1. See Eduard Fraenkel’s letter quoted in A. Momigliano, The Development of Greek Biography (Cambridge MA 1971), 89 n. 23.

2. For a different approach see B. McGing and J. Mossman (eds.), The Limits of Ancient Biography, Swansea 2006.

3. Add on him to Geus’ bibliography R. Netz, ‘The First Jewish Scientist?’ SCI 17 (1998), 27-33.

4. See L. G. Westerink, ‘Elias on the Prior Analytics’, Mnemosyne 14 (1961), 126-139.

5. Cf. J. Geiger, ‘ Language, Culture and Identity in Ancient Palestine’, in: E.N. Ostenfeld (ed.), Greek Romans and Roman Greeks. Studies in Cultural Interaction (Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity III, Aarhus 2002), 233-234.

6. Though some eighteen pages of text and notes are accompanied by a bibliography of seventy-eight items, the author does not seem to be aware of the work of Richard Burridge and his criticism by Mark Edwards; for the latest contributions in this controversy see their papers in the book mentioned in n. 2 above.