The Other Olympians. Philosophers and Poets at the Ancient Greek Games by Thomas M. Robinson is a small surprise. Not often do scholars engage in the field of creative writing. Robinson has published widely on the topics of early Greek philosophy (Pre-Socratics and Plato),1 but this time he decided to imagine what would happen if the most prominent personalities of a given time (between 476 and 348)—intellectuals, philosophers, poets, artists or politicians —met and engaged in discussions. He calls his works plays, but they rather resemble (Platonic) dialogues. Most of them take the form of a discussion in the evening after having watched the sporting competitions, accompanied by some drinking of wine (of the eighteen plays, fifteen take place in Olympia at the Games).
Robinson researched well into who might have been present and said what at a given time, whether it be the year 476, when he lets—among others—Heraclitus, Parmenides and Pindar present their philosophical and poetic ideas, or 348, when Demosthenes, Isocrates and Aristotle discuss the current situation with Philip right around the corner.
The topics of the plays vary greatly. From philosophical questions on the nature of justice ( A Question of Justice), where Thrasymachus vehemently makes his point of the right of the stronger against Socrates with his aporetic try to find at least the definition of justice, to the political situation of the Peloponnesian War ( War without End). We hear of the Peloponnesian War ( Prospect of War, A Break in the War, Sparta Triumphant), of the conflicting ideas of Pericles and Cimon on democracy and the way of leading Athens after the Persian Wars ( Reaching for Democracy). Even the upcoming disaster of Chaeronea gets mentioned by the ever-worried Demosthenes ( Plato at Bay).
When Aspasia comes onto the scene the atmosphere changes slightly. We are no longer in the circle of aristocratic Greek men discussing philosophy or politics. With her, the play turns from a dialogue into a true drama (the trilogy Aspasia with the parts: Lioness, Lioness at Bay, Lioness in Winter). From Olympia it moves then to Athens, first to Aspasia’s Thinkery then to her establishment for sexual pleasure.
Additionally, the book contains a fictional diary of Socrates and three letters of Plato. In the diary, which was presumably written during Socrates’ imprisonment just before his death, he discusses mainly the person and work of young Plato. Plato seems to worry him as a young man bursting with his own ideas. Socrates senses that already in their preliminary discussions Plato is trying to impose his own views on him —especially those on the existence of the Forms. In this fictional diary, Socrates tries to distance himself from this kind of philosophy. In the fictional letters, Plato, on the other side, discusses his œuvre (the first two) and the impact of having Aristotle as his most intelligent and challenging student (the third).
Robinson engages quite personally with the characters. One senses his sympathy for Socrates throughout the plays. He tries to solve some problems that seem to be doomed to be eternally unsolved (like the question of the ultimate source for Plato’s ideas). Robinson embarked on these new waters of literary writing because he always wondered what meetings of the great personalities might have looked like. He admits that accounts of such meetings are very scarce. One famous example would be the Symposion of Plato. He intended his literary work to be an incentive for further engagement with the Greek antiquity for laymen. For this reason, he explicitly recommends the reading of certain passages. The passages are supposed to be embedded within his plays, as he allows—mostly—their authors to present their work to the other partners of the discussion (e.g. a passage from Herodotus, Thucydides or the Tragedians). Regrettably, he only mentions the passages without quoting them in full. Since he is addressing a lay audience foremost, he cannot possibly expect that everyone has all the ancient authors on their bookshelves to easily grasp and fill in the gaps of the plays. Even if the passages recommended for reading are rather long, it would have been advisable to provide them (either within the text or at least in an appendix).
The idea of the book is very interesting and engaging. However, one senses that the author is more used to writing scholarly monographs than literary works. The style is at times rather static, the protagonists are schematic and lifeless. Robinson presents an impressive knowledge of his dramatis personae, but that sometimes overshadows the need for liveliness. The timeframes for the plays are chosen carefully and provide a good back-drop for most of the discussions (especially political ones).
When they have been presented either in theatrical form or as dramatic readings, Robinson’s plays seem to have found an audience among academics around the world. I admit: I am not fully convinced by them, but I cannot refuse them a specific charm created by the idea behind the plays themselves. The need to see our great authors in action is probably a dormant wish of all people engaged with classical antiquity.
1. This is the list of his monographs: Plato’s Psychology (1970; 2nd ed. 1995), Contrasting Arguments: An Edition of the Dissoi Logoi (1979), The Greek Legacy (1979), Heraclitus: The Fragments (1987), Cosmos as Art Object (2004), Logos and Cosmos (2008).