BMCR 2019.10.57

The Divine Spark of Syracuse

, The Divine Spark of Syracuse. Waltham, Ma: Brandeis University Press, 2019. 152. ISBN 9781512603057 $19.95 (pb).

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This short book, based on a series of lectures given at Brandeis University in 2014, brings together biography and topography in an attempt to demonstrate the role of Syracuse in the creative lives of three geniuses: Plato, Archimedes, and Caravaggio. It is clearly aimed at a general audience: no prior knowledge of classical antiquity is assumed, references are given as endnotes, and non-English words (even toponyms) are always translated. Twenty-five colour plates provide excellent illustration, with the images referenced throughout the text, which is very readable. This accessibility must be commended, and I would not hesitate to recommend this book to a non-specialist as an “alternative” guidebook to Syracuse, though it offers less that classicists or ancient historians will find original.

After a lively introduction linking ancient Syracuse with the modern city, chapters 1 and 2 provide a biography of Plato, with a focus on the role of Syracuse in the development of his philosophical ideas. The apparent aim is to show how, despite Plato’s mainly negative experiences there, “Syracuse may also have given Platonic literature two of its most memorable positive images for describing the transforming impact of philosophy on the human soul.” One of these images comes from the Seventh Letter (341 c-d), in which Plato compares philosophy to “a light ignited by a spark, [which] comes to life within the soul”, while the other is the allegory of the cave from the Republic (516 b), in which the imagined prisoner emerges from the cave unable to see the real world due to the brightness of the sun. Although the Seventh Letter describes Plato’s time in Syracuse and is addressed to his followers there, it is difficult to see what is especially Syracusan about the metaphor of philosophy as a spark. And Rowland’s suggestion that the limestone quarries in Syracuse, in which Athenian prisoners from the expedition of 415-413 worked, were the inspiration for the allegorical cave from the Republic, is equally tenuous: we have no evidence that Plato ever visited the quarries, and even if he did, it is strange to suggest that any particular real cave inspired the theoretical cave in the thought experiment. After all, The Cave is not really about a cave, but about human perception of reality; we may as well ask which cat was the “inspiration” for Schrödinger’s cat. The argument is anyway never fully fleshed out, as the bulk of these chapters consists of narrative history and biography: chapter 1 recounts the familiar events of Athenian political history during Plato’s formative years, emphasising the failure of the Sicilian expedition and the rule of the Thirty Tyrants as key reasons for Plato’s disillusionment with public life, whereas chapter 2 focuses on Plato’s three visits to Syracuse, and his relationships with Dion and Dionysius the Elder. The chapter ends with the conclusion that “For Plato, Syracuse…became another Athens, similar to the city where he lived but just distant enough to provide him with a larger perspective on the world and humanity’s place in it” (55).

Chapter 3 turns to consider the mathematician and inventor Archimedes. Much attention is given to his role in the defence of Syracuse during the city’s siege by the Romans under Marcellus in c. 213-211, but the importance of his inventions in repelling the attackers is exaggerated: in reality, the existing fortifications of Syracuse were virtually impregnable, and the city was constantly being resupplied by sea (Livy 25.23.3). No real argument is offered as to why Syracuse was especially conducive to Archimedes’ genius, other than royal patronage, which of course could be found elsewhere in the Hellenistic world. We are left with a rather cursory overview of Archimedes’ life, works, and legacy. Chapter 4 jumps forward to the seventeenth century and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who spent a brief period in Syracuse and several other Sicilian cities. Again, there is a lot of biographical narrative before we get to the real focus of the chapter, his Burial of St Lucy, which depicts the patron saint of Syracuse after her martyrdom.

Caravaggio was a master of light and shadow, and light is the main theme of this book: the eponymous “spark” from Plato’s Seventh Letter, the light which dazzles the imaginary prisoner emerging from the cave, the light which Archimedes was allegedly able to focus with mirrors to ignite Roman ships (although Rowland acknowledges that this story first appeared in Byzantine texts), and Caravaggio’s painting of St Lucy, whose name comes from the Latin lux. But there seems to be no argument to unify these threads, and there is no conclusion in which to offer an overall interpretation. Much of the book is simply descriptive, quotations from ancient sources are sometimes excessively lengthy, and there are many digressions, some of which are interesting and tangentially related to the subject in hand, others less so: at pp. 48-9, for example, do we really need to know that Marsilio Ficino, the fifteenth-century Florentine translator of Plato, “had a thoroughly Italian attitude toward food—he loved it—including a predilection for that Sicilian speciality, almond cookies”?

I spotted a few factual errors, although they are fairly insignificant to the book’s central focus: on p. 29, Rowland states that, after the defeat of the Athenian expedition to Sicily, Carthage “began mounting raids against its nearest neighbors, Segesta and Selinus”. Aside from the fact that Segesta and Selinus were hardly neighbours of Carthage, Carthage was actually on friendly terms with Segesta, sending mercenaries to help the Elymian city against Selinus in 410, and attacking Selinus directly (with Segestaean support) in 409 (D.S. 13.43-44, 54). On the same page, Rowland writes of conflict within Syracuse in 413 between supporters of Athens and supporters of Sparta, which seems to be a misreading of Diodorus’ set-piece debate (13.19.4 ff) about what to do with the Athenian prisoners of war: surely these prisoners were the only supporters of Athens left in Syracuse by this point! And at pp. 61-2, it is claimed that Hieron II “had become ruler of Syracuse by popular acclaim in 264”, which conflates two separate events: his initial rise to power as Syracusan strategos in 275, and his acclamation as basileus by the allies, which is usually dated to either 269 or 264. 1

This is a book that retains the feel of a guest lecture series aimed at engaging a broad audience with colourful anecdotes and digressions. For the specialist, it re-treads familiar ground without offering much original interpretation, but for the general reader unfamiliar with the material, it will make an informative and entertaining read.


1. B. D. Hoyos (1985), ‘The Rise of Hiero II: Chronology and Campaigns 275-264 B.C.’, Antichthon 19, pp. 32-56.