BMCR 2020.12.31

Presocratics and papyrological tradition: a philosophical reappraisal of the sources

, Presocratics and papyrological tradition: a philosophical reappraisal of the sources. Studia praesocratica, 10. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. Pp. xii, 690. ISBN 9783110663211 €129,95.

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

The question of what papyrology can do for ancient philosophy has decidedly come to the fore in scholarly debate in the last fifty years. The publication of sensational papyrological discoveries, like the Derveni Papyrus (first provisional text published by ZPE in 1982) for the Orphic tradition and the Strasbourg Papyrus (1999) for Empedocles, and the emergence of new sophisticated technologies (e.g. multispectral imaging and x-ray phase contrast tomography) for reading Herculaneum’s carbonised rolls have breathed new life into the studies of early Greek philosophy and made it urgent for scholars of ancient philosophy to be brought up to speed. Thus, scholars necessarily had to get acquainted with the methodologies and technicalities of papyrological research, as the physical reconstruction of the text inevitably bears huge interpretative consequences. The volume under review here, in its editor’s words, “aims to bring back to their specific field of study numerous and relevant sources that are usually neglected by the majority of scholars of Presocratic thought and its tradition, owing to the prejudice according to which papyrological texts are the exclusive competence of papyrologists” (p. 11).

The contributions of this volume comprise the papers presented at a conference held in Trier in 2016 and are written by some of the most influential scholars in the field of Presocratic studies. Their papers deal with the most prominent early Greek philosophers, but also touch upon less-known figures, such as Anaxarchus of Abdera, Damon of Oa and Metrodorus of Lampsacus. The result is an extremely rich book, as it is more than 700 pages long and it contains 18 papers. Chapters are grouped by topic rather than by text (e.g. “Orpheus and the Orphic Tradition”, and not “The Derveni Papyrus”), which is especially useful for readers. Papers are in most cases excellent, but are of uneven length and scope: some contributions reach up to almost 80 and 120 pages (Vassallo and Lebedev, respectively: see below) . For this reason, the reviewer cannot dwell on each single paper as it would deserve, but I will give an overview of the issues raised in each chapter and then discuss the methodologies and the variety of scholarly approaches that emerge from the volume as a whole.

Part I is devoted to the Orphic tradition and it comprises four papers. Bernabé and Jiménez San Cristóbal offer a thoroughgoing discussion of Gurob Papyrus 1, focusing on the literary and ritual features of the text, as well as some magical papyri that are connected to Orphism. Sedley’s and McKirahan’s papers deal with the much-discussed Derveni Papyrus, but in completely different ways from one another.  Sedley offers an ingenious attempt to redeem columns I-VI as part of the commentary proper, a hitherto neglected hermeneutical path; to prove his point, he suggests several alternative and tentative restorations to the text. On the other hand, McKirahan tackles some controversial issues in the Derveni cosmology (e.g. how early did the sun exist?) in a more pointed and less tentative way. The conclusive chapter of this section, by Santamaría, focuses on the twofold reception of Pherecydes of Syros, the alleged “first” prose-writer in the history of Greek literature, as a physicist and a theologian. The inclusion of a detailed discussion of PGrenf. II 1 (the wedding of Zas and Chthonie: Pherec. fr. 68 Schibli) is a particularly welcome feature.

Part II explores traces of Pythagoreanism in papyri. Zhmud’s chapter provides a commendable overview of the papyrological evidence of Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, starting from the chreia on Pythagoras and then moving to Philodemus’ treatment. Fleischer offers a thoughtful and sensible analysis of PHerc 1691 col. 2 containing the episode of Plato purchasing Philolaus’ books. Brancacci’s essay on Damon of Oa, the last one of this section, offers a much-needed critical reappraisal of this philosopher as interested in the ethical value and educational potential of music.

Part III collects two papers on Heraclitus. The first one, by Betegh and Piano, is fully devoted to Heraclitus’ presence (B 3 and B 94) in the Derveni Papyrus. It offers a new and intriguing interpretation of column IV, providing new readings, with the important addition of fr. F17 below F 15. Ranocchia’s chapter focuses instead on Heraclitus’ biographical tradition and in particular on the hostile contribution of Philodemus’ On Arrogance (PHerc 1008) and its relationship to the earlier and later biographical tradition.

Part IV is made up by three papers on Empedocles and is nicely varied, as its chapters dwell on different texts. Kotwick’s very interesting paper argues for the presence of Empedocles in the Derveni Papyrus: she successfully demonstrates that the Derveni Author might have in mind Empedocles, and not Anaxagoras, when describing the joints of heterogeneous things. Trépanier explores a long-debated issue raised by Empedocles’ Strasbourg Papyrus, namely the contents of ens. d and their possible link to the text of B 62, which shows some convergences with the passage under analysis. He argues that in both texts Empedocles is talking about Strife’s separating force and that the “fecund beings” in the papyrus and the “whole-natured beings” in B 62 must be plants.[1] This paper is especially of use also because it reports with clarity the positions of the other scholars who worked on the subject. Leone’s chapter offers a most useful survey of Empedocles’ presence in the Herculaneum papyri, from which we learn that Epicurus and Epicurean authors engaged in a polemic with him regarding animal respiration.

Part V, “Anaxagoras and his school” opens with Vassallo’s gigantic effort to print and comment an updated corpus of papyri dealing with Anaxagoras. He has to be praised for offering an edition and thorough analysis of 21 texts, which also touch upon hotly debated issues, such as Anaxagoras’ alleged atheism and subsequent trial for impiety. Pozdnev’s paper, on the other hand, focuses on PHerc 1676.2 and on the alleged reference to Metrodorus of Lampsacus, which the author tries to demonstrate despite the absence of his name in the text.

Part VI contains two essays about the early Atomists. Piergiacomi’s scrutiny of traces for Democritus’ doctrine of eidolain papyri is especially sensible and rewarding for the reader, as it provides some interesting additions to what we already knew but also questions the pertinence of other passages previously and perhaps improperly ascribed to him. Dorandi explores the three extant testimonies on Anaxarchus of Abdera (two out of three come from Herculaneum) that all deal with biographical tradition and not with his own thinking.

Part VII, “the Sophistic Movement,” hosts only one paper, Lebedev’s very long and articulated discussion on the identity of the Derveni Author. Against all previous scholarship on the subject, he believes that the papyrus has nothing to do with Orphism and is instead better described as a sophistic treatise written by Prodicus of Ceos. The concluding section, Part VIII, is devoted to the relationship between papyrological evidence and doxographical tradition and, again, contains only one paper. Mansfeld’ chapter explores the problem of the doxai on the gods, comparing evidence from multiple sources (for example Clement of Alexandria, Aëtius, Cicero, and so on) with Epicurean materials preserved in Philodemus.

The above-summarized essays will without doubt open new perspectives on papyri of philosophical relevance, especially on the Derveni Papyrus and on Herculaneum papyri, and its impact in the field is unquestionable. All the chapters display a first-class expertise in the field of textual approaches to philosophical texts, innovative solutions for both old chestnuts (like the Derveni Papyrus) and for lesser-known topics. This fact makes this stimulating book an essential reference for any scholar interested in the above-mentioned texts and will without doubt push the scholarly debate forward. However, the editor’s claim that this book is the “first systematic attempt to make philosophical papyrology a crucial component of the history of ancient philosophy” (p. 11) seems a little bit of an overstatement. It is true that this volume brings together for the first time all the strings of philosophical papyrology, but the chapters mostly tackle specific case-studies, with the exception of the thorough survey by Vassallo on Anaxagoras and the papers by Leone, Santamaría, Zhmud, and Dorandi. In addition, the approaches differ quite significantly across the volume. Whereas most of the contributions are based on a cautious editorial practice, other papers (Sedley, Trépanier, Lebedev, Pozdev) show a less tentative, at times adventurous, approach to the subject (which, in Sedley’s case, is acknowledged at the end of the paper). In addition, and this is a remarkable flaw for a volume that claims a systematic approach, not all the Presocratics are represented in this book, with Parmenides and Xenophanes being remarkable exceptions (see Vassallo’s remark at p. 2 n. 2).[2] As for its readership, while the volume will definitely become a fundamental reference for specialists, students of early Greek philosophy who approach papyrological material for the first time may find it difficult to grasp the technical details and hermeneutical background of the discussion. Perhaps, to confer a more systematic tone to the volume, it would have been profitable to develop the book’s introduction further, offering insights on the scholarship on the most quoted papyri, on the most controversial issues, and on the special case of the papyri from Herculaneum.

To write this review, the reviewer had at her disposal an e-book kindly shared by Walter de Gruyter. Reading on a computer screen is much different than reading on paper, so the reviewer has not been able to spot typos in the text. What was clearly visible instead is an issue affecting the Greek text, namely all the vowels having a circumflex accent are of a different font than the others (in the main text, not in the footnotes), a most annoying circumstance that affects this publication. Another annoying circumstance is the lack of a list of editorial conventions adopted for the text of the papyri, which only appears before Vassallo’s edition of Anaxagoras’ testimonia, but which seems to apply to all the others in the volume.

Table of Contents

Ch. Vassallo, ‘Introduction. The Presocratics from Derveni to Herculaneum. A New Look at Early Greek Philosophy’, pp. 1-13.
Part I: Orpheus and the Orphic Tradition
1. A. Bernabé and A.I. Jiménez San Cristóbal, ‘Two Aspects of the Orphic Papyrological Tradition: PGurob 1 and the Greek Magic Rolls’, pp. 17-43.
2. D. N. Sedley, ‘The Opening Lemmas of the Derveni Papyrus’, pp. 45-72.
3. R. D. McKirahan, ‘Some Controversial Topics in the Derveni Cosmology’, pp. 73-90.
4. M.A. Santamaría, ‘Pherecydes of Syros in the Papyrological Tradition’, pp. 91-107.

Part II: Pythagoreanism and Beyond
5. L. Zhmud, ‘The Papyrological Tradition on Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans’, pp. 111-146.
6. K.J. Fleischer, ‘Philolaus’ Book(s) in Philodemus’ Index Academicorum, pp. 147-160.
7. A. Brancacci, ‘Music and Philosophy in Damon of Oa’, pp. 161-176.

Part III: Heraclitus
8. G. Betegh and V. Piano, ‘Column IV of the Derveni Papyrus: A New Analysis of the Text and the Quotation of Heraclitus’, pp. 179-220.
9. G. Ranocchia. ‘Heraclitus’ Portrait in Diogenes Laërtius and Philodemus’ On Arrogance’, pp. 221-247.

Part IV: Empedocles
10. M.E. Kotwick, ‘Aphrodite’s Cosmic Power: Empedocles in the Derveni Papyrus’, pp. 251-270.
11. S. Trépanier, ‘Empedocles on the Origins of Plants: PStrasb. gr. inv. 1665-1666, Sectiond d, b, and f’, pp. 271- 298.
12. G. Leone, ‘Empedocles in the Herculaneum Papyri: an Update’, pp. 299-331.

Part V: Anaxagoras and his School:
13. Ch. Vassallo (with a foreword by D. Sider), ‘Anaxagoras from Egypt to Herculaneum: A Contribution to the History of Ancient ‘Atheism’’, pp. 335-414.
14. M. Pozdnev, ‘Metrodorus the Allegorist as Reflected in Philodemus’ On Poems, Book 2: PHerc. 1676, col. 2+ N 1081, col. 12 (= 61 A 4 DK; Test. 34.3 Lanata)’, pp. 415-433.

Part VI: Early Atomists
15. E. Piergiacomi, ‘Democritus’ Doctrine of Eidola in the Herculaneum Papyri: A Reassessment of the Sources’, pp. 437-472.
16. T. Dorandi, ‘Anaxarcus from Egypt to Herculaneum’, pp. 473-487.

Part VII: The Sophistic Movement
17. A. Lebedev, ‘The Authorship of the Derveni Papyrus, A Sophistic Treatise on the Origin of Religion and Language: A Case for Prodicus of Ceos’, pp. 491-606.

Part VIII: The Papyrological Tradition and Doxographical Questions
18. J. Mansfeld, ‘Lists of Principles and Lists of Gods: Philodemus, Cicero, Aëtius and Others’, 609-630.
Index locorum, 633-678.
Index nominum antiquorum, 679-686.
Index nominum recentiorum, 687-690.


[1] It is unfortunate that an article defending the same interpretation, but on the basis of a different textual reconstruction and overall exegesis of the role of the “fecund beings”, has been published in the same year, so that the author was not able to discuss it in his paper (C. Ferella, “Empedocles and the birth of trees: reconstructing P.Strasb. gr. inv. 1665-6, ens.d-f 10b-18”, CQ 69.1 (2019), 1-12.

[2] For example, for Xenophanes, see Vassallo’s paper “Xenophanes in the Herculaneum Papyri. Praesocratica Herculanensia IV”, Archiv für Papyrusforschung 60 (2014) 45-66; for Parmenides, Janko’s “Parmenides in the Derveni Papyrus: new images for a new edition”, ZPE 200 (2016), 3-23.