BMCR 2012.01.41

Eros at the Banquet: Reviewing Greek with Plato’s Symposium. Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture, 40

, Eros at the Banquet: Reviewing Greek with Plato's Symposium. Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture, 40. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011. xxiii, 407. ISBN 9780806141428 $29.95 (pb).

As one of the most well-known and beloved dialogues of Plato, the Symposium is an enticing selection for teachers of intermediate language courses. Unfortunately, it is generally not considered to be an ideal text for third- semester students: its length (roughly twice that of the Apology), its complexity in both language and thought, and its wealth of cultural details requiring explanation seem to make it more fitting for upper-level classes than for students first dipping their toes into the sea of Greek literature. There are several excellent commentaries on the dialogue, including the Bryn Mawr edition by Rose and the Cambridge edition by Dover,1 but these either refrain from commenting on the intellectual and cultural material within the dialogue (Bryn Mawr) or lack the meticulous grammatical and syntactical explanations that intermediate students often need (Cambridge). Louise Pratt’s Eros at the Banquet successfully addresses both these concerns in a lucidly written, thoroughly researched, and engaging edition of the dialogue. Teachers should be aware, however, that the first five readings of the book contain a moderately altered Greek text that has been simplified for intermediate readers; I discuss the nature of these alterations below.

Like other commentaries in the Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture, Pratt’s edition provides students and teachers with almost everything they will need to study the Symposium, including text, running commentary below each passage, and glossary in the back. The opening sections contain: an outline of the book’s format and helpful suggestions on using it in the classroom; a key for grammatical abbreviations found in the commentary; and a brief but detailed introduction divided into several topics relevant to the dialogue, including religion, history, sexuality, and literary themes. Students will appreciate the clear and succinct writing in these sections, and teachers will find many helpful references to primary and secondary sources at the end of each discussion. Pratt’s three-page bibliography is not meant to be exhaustive, but she consistently cites reliable sources that are appropriate for intermediate-level classes. For example, rather than overwhelm readers with a comprehensive list of scholarship on Diotima’s speech, Pratt directs them to the sound, though cautious, analysis found in Allen’s The Dialogues of Plato.2

The text itself is divided into eleven groups of readings based on the structure of the dialogue. Each group, in turn, contains a number of distinct sections, ranging in length from 20-60 lines of Greek (the sections grow as the book continues). The first five groups (from the beginning of the dialogue until the end of Eryximachus’s speech) contain an altered version of the text simplified for intermediate students. Although many teachers (including myself) are not fond of altered Greek in intermediate texts, I believe that in this case the rewards outweigh the liabilities. The changes are relatively minor, generally limited to excising difficult, often extraneous material and converting indirect speech to direct speech. Otherwise, Pratt keeps very close to the vocabulary and syntax of Plato. There are only a few instances where I would direct students to the original text, including the end of Pausanias’ speech (his praise of Athenian customs from 183e6-185c3, which Pratt omits) and Aristodemus’ acceptance of Socrates’ invitation at 174b2 (Pratt inserts deliberative subjunctives into her text to show hesitation on Aristodemus’ part, though her comment for the line rightly notes the “alacrity” of Aristodemus in the original text). From the sixth group to the end, however, Pratt provides the unaltered Oxford Classical Text of Burnet (1901) with a few emendations based on other editions. Pratt uses her own numbering system for the line numbers throughout the book, though in the first five groupings she identifies the Stephanus pagination on which each section is based; thereafter the Stephanus pages and sections are written beside her own line numbers.

Each group of readings and most individual sections begin with an introduction of relevant themes and contextual details. As with the general introduction, these discussions contain clear and engaging analysis, as well as citations of important primary and secondary sources. Each section opens with a suggested review of grammar pertaining to the section and a vocabulary list ranging from three to thirty words (as the passages increase in length, so the vocabulary lists begin to shrink).

The strongest feature of this edition is Pratt’s meticulous attention to grammar and syntax in her comments. Her explanations of tricky constructions are accessible for students at this level (her comment at 5A18-21 – “…it looks more complicated than it really is” – reflects the voice of a seasoned and sympathetic teacher addressing her class). She not only identifies important grammatical constructions but also discusses their rhetorical significance (her discussion of an objective vs. partitive genitive at 9A.13/201e5 raises an interesting question concerning Diotima’s argument). I was particularly impressed with comments containing prompting questions (asking students to identify genitive absolutes, contrafactual conditions, etc.), though I wish these were more frequent. Earlier sections occasionally provide too much hand holding for students (e.g., three purpose clauses are explicitly identified in section 2A). As the book progresses, however, the explicitness of the comments fits the expected progress of the students. I noted only a few examples where I disagreed with Pratt’s analysis (her translation of -τός verbal adjectives as -τέος ones at 7C.11-12/197d5-6; her contention that the μή, rather than the οὐ, is redundant in the construction πάνυ ἀνόητον…μὴ οὐ…χαρίζεσθαι at 10F.10/218c9;3 her odd assertion at 9G.1/207c8 that ἐκείνου = τοῦ γεννησέως, which I assume is a typo).4 Pratt frequently cites her own grammar text, Essentials of Greek Grammar. Though I could follow most of her identifications without this reference, I would highly recommend that teachers purchase it as an accompanying text.

The feature of the book I found most troubling was its handling of vocabulary, though my feelings are based primarily on an ideological difference rather than on any obvious deficiency. I typically use Bryn Mawr Commentaries in my classes on the grounds that it is a worthwhile exercise for students to look up words in the dictionary. This often leads to student frustration (especially when they confront longer entries such as χράομαι), but it often leads to fruitful discussions of word meaning and development in the classroom. Pratt employs a system of introducing key words at the beginning of each section, glossing other words in the comments below, and placing an asterisk beside those glossed terms that are important outside of the Symposium; the glossary includes all these terms as well as those not identified in the sections themselves. This will no doubt save students time and allow them to develop a large vocabulary, and for the most part Pratt provides concise definitions that are representative of Greek prose usage. Occasionally, however, her specificity clouds the full scope of the word (e.g., at 6D.31/193b6 she defines ὑπολαμβάνω as “undercut, diminish” without noting it can mean “to interrupt”; at the beginning of 9I she provides only the demonstrative sense of ἔνθα without mentioning its relative use; at 10A.6/212d1 she provides the definition of the masculine substantive ὁ ἐπιτήδειος as “intimate friend” without discussing the wider meaning of the adjective). This specificity will not hurt students trying to understand the Symposium, but in the future they will likely have to relearn such words with fuller attention to their different shades of meaning.

The final portion of the book contains review exercises keyed to the sections in the first six readings, helpful appendices on the dialogue’s key figures, relevant dates, and even seating arrangement of the Symposium ’s guests, and a glossary. The review exercises are mostly short translation pieces focusing on particular grammatical concepts (indirect statement, uses of ὡς, etc.) that appear in the corresponding section, but there are also some verb drills and identification exercises. Pratt includes a nice selection of relevant “challenge passages” (i.e., quoted – and sometimes adapted – passages from Greek literature) for ambitious classes. Teachers will have fun showing students some of Agathon’s poetry as well as amusing bits on excessive drinking.

It would be an impossible task to cover the entirety of Eros at the Banquet – text, review exercises, and all – in one third-semester course, as Pratt herself admits in her opening suggestions for using the book. But she has provided instructors with a wealth of material from which they can construct an engaging course designed to fit their interests and their students’ needs. The commentary succeeds in providing students with clear and generous guidance for understanding Greek language, literature, and thought.


1. Rose, G. R. 1985. Plato’s Symposium. 2 nd ed. Bryn Mawr; Dover, K. J. 1980. Plato: Symposium. Cambridge.

2. Allen, R. E. 1991. The Dialogues of Plato, Vol. 2: The Symposium. New Haven and London.

3. Cf. Smyth 2746, who cites this passage of the Symposium. Pratt cites a larger section of Smyth (2739-49) without noting the distinction.

4. I agree with Dover (1980) ad loc. that the pronoun refers generally to earlier comments about desire at 206e4 (the desire to give birth in presence of beautiful) and 207a3-4 (the longing for immortality).