BMCR 2022.09.41

Pythagoras redivivus: studies on the texts attributed to Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans

, , , Pythagoras redivivus: studies on the texts attributed to Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans. Academia philosophical studies, 74. Baden-Baden: Academia Verlag, 2021. Pp. 509. ISBN 9783896659583 €109,00.

This is an important book. It collects fifteen articles derived from ten international workshops held in Paris between 2015 and 2019 as part of the project “Pseudopythagorica. Stratégies du faire croire dans la philosophie antique”. The words “redivivus” (cf. O’Meara 1990) and “attributed” in the title are key to the content of the book: the focus is not on what survives from the authentic treatises of the ancient Pythagorean School, but on what, since Burkert 1961, have been known as the Pseudopythagorica. These are texts that were attributed, for a variety of reasons, to the ancient Pythagoreans or to Pythagoras, deriving mainly from the late Hellenistic age up to the early Imperial period.

The volume represents the most significant study in depth and coverage to date on this elusive material. The editors announce a sequel focusing on the influence of these writings in Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism, especially in Rome and Alexandria; but the approach of the present articles is more general. Constantinos Macris writes an extremely helpful introduction—an article in its own right—presenting the material, the history and state of the art, and the methodologies and approaches that are likely to yield results. (He has 23 pages of references!) Thesleff (1961 and 1965) is the seminal figure in the field, but his geographical organization of the corpus has been replaced with a chronological perspective. Thesleff believed that the treatises written in Doric (37, of which 19 are attributed to Archytas) were composed in Southern Italy and reflected continuity with the ancient Pythagorean tradition. Most researchers now take a middle ground between his view and the other extreme represented by Burkert (who read the texts as literary pastimes), incorporating considerations from the study of ancient textual communities (Orphic, Christian, Jewish), and taking into account the diversity of the corpus. Macris proposes four main paths for research: (a) explaining the Pseudopythagorica as a phenomenon, by looking at (a.1) similar corpora such as the Orphic writings, or (a.2) by analyzing ancient accounts of the creation of pseudepigraphical texts; (b) expanding the corpus with texts not included in Thesleff’s edition; (c) studying antiquarianism in antiquity; and (d) situating the Pseudopythagorica in the broader history of ancient philosophy. It is nevertheless puzzling that the organization of the volume is not explained or described in relation to these paths, apart from some mentions of the contributions in the footnotes. For example, the articles in Section III correspond to Macris’ path (b). Not every path is covered in the volume (e.g. (a.1) and (c)), which is not a criticism, but a desideratum for the future.

Section I. This section is purely philological. In the first chapter, Rosa Maria Piccione analyzes the distribution of Pythagorean material in Stobaeus’ Anthologion, providing useful observations on the situation of this material within the compendium. She makes no distinction between authentic works and Pseudopythagorica, but since most fragments are of the second kind, her investigation falls perfectly within the present theme. Piccione warns of the peculiarities of her source that affect the study of the presence of Pythagorean lore. Some remarkable facts: (1) the first two books (the Eclogae) were reworked in such a way that most of the Pythagorean material got lost (if we compare with the lemmata given by Photius). (2) A substantial portion of the material is of sententious type, so-called apophthegmata, but there are no symbola / akousmata, the short enigmatic sentences with encrypted ethical which are considered more ancient. (3) In favor of the hypothesis that the Anthologion has affinities with Iamblichus’ library (as far as we can reconstruct it) and his overall project, Piccione argues that the lemmata of the Pythagorean excerpts are at times very regular: in a similar way, Iamblichus is especially careful in his presentation of his cherished Pythagorean authors. Clusters of Pythagorean material in the Anthologion could indicate the use by both authors of an earlier collection.

The second article focuses on Archytas fr. 1, from the Introduction to Arithmetic of Nicomachus of Gerasa. This seems to fall outside the present theme, since this fragment is considered authentic. Carole Hofstetter focuses on disentangling the problems of the Doric forms in this fragment, which present the curious and persistent presence of Aeolic-Lesbian features that are usually interpreted as poetic embellishment. Looking in detail at the manuscript tradition of Nicomachus’ works and making comparisons with attestations in other authors, she concludes that these forms are rather the result of readers’ and copyists’ interventions aiming in good faith at restituting the original Doric text. The key argument is that some Byzantine grammarians gave such forms as Doric.

Section II. Phillip Horky seeks to explain the dominant place of Archytas in the Pseudopythagorica, going beyond the classical arguments that Archytas was a polymath and a statesman, or that he was close to Plato. Maybe he discards these too quickly in his search for a single explanation, but he adds something important by looking at the ancient accounts on collecting Pythagorean writings (cf. Macris’ path [a.2]). Horky includes in the discussion the letter where Archytas appears as a collector of the writings of Ocellus for Plato (DL 8.80); the famous passage of Olympiodorus on King Juba’s passion for Pythagorean writings (on which Horky is wisely cautious); and the accounts of Porphyry both in the Vita Pythagorica and in a longer passage in Ibn Abī Uṣaybi‘a. Archytas might have been viewed (perhaps correctly in historical terms) as an early transmitter of Pythagorean texts, who was well connected to the school, but not himself a Pythagorean.

In the second chapter of this section, Francesca Scrofani convincingly argues that two fragments of ps.-Archytas show significant affinities with the early pseudo-Platonic dialogue Minos, which could have functioned as a direct inspiration. She mostly focuses on arguments involving the etymological metaphor νόμος / νέμειν (“distribute”) / νομεύς (“shepherd”), probably developed from definitions in Plato’s Laws (e.g. 697a-b).

The next chapter, by Johan Thom, discusses the social aspects of the poem known as the Golden Verses. Thom argues that the label Pseudopythagorica is probably not applicable in this case, since the text shows signs of being a real code of conduct for a Pythagorean community. In particular, he adduces the teaching of two exercises in the verses—pre-deliberation and self-examination—and he discusses what can be said about the original community: they do not seem to have been ascetics, there was no property in common, and they practiced the common cults. This ‘normality’ is taken to suggest that the text was not just a literary exercise.

The next two chapters deal with one of the best-known Pseudopythagorica, Timaeus Locrus’ On Nature, a summary and rewriting of the cosmological discourse of Timaeus in the eponymous dialogue by Plato. Both articles fruitfully analyze changes with respect to Plato, reaching similar conclusions. Matteo Varoli explores the astronomical section of Timaeus Locrus, claiming that the best argument for situating it in the circle of the Alexandrian Eudorus (1st c. BC) is its eternalist argument. Timaeus Locrus argues that time has no beginning, and rewrites the Platonic statement on the generation of the world as λόγῳ γενέσθαι (“it came to be, causally speaking / in discourse”), which resembles Crantor’s doctrines. Other demystifying modifications include the description of the Earth as ἱδρυμένα (“founded”) instead of the Platonic ἰλλομένη (“errant”); the description of the planets as σώματα (“bodies”) instead of minor gods; and the statement that the Sun moves one degree per day. Lucia Saudelli for her part analyzes Timaeus Locrus’s rewriting of the end Plato’s Timaeus, on the superior part of the soul and its role in our share of immortality and happiness. Timaeus Locrus, drawing from passages in Plato’s Republic and Laws, adds that recalcitrant men need to be taught false discourses about afterlife punishments to dissuade them from their way of life: such traditional images would simply be fictions used for a good purpose.

Marco Donato deals similarly with a curious text from the Pseudopythagorica, the treatise of ‘Pempelos’ On the Parents, which already in antiquity was seen to be directly derived from Plato Laws XI, 930-932. Donato analyzes the whole Pythagorean text, paragraph by paragraph, both philologically and philosophically (comparing it with Plato), and he concludes that it was a school text because of its extremely rare poetic words. Πέμπελος (“decrepit”) is one of them, an apt author-name for a text on the authority of parents. Donato adds a tantalizing hypothesis interpreting the place linked to ‘Pempelos’ in the lemma, the pan-Hellenic colony of Thourioi. Since ‘Hippodamos’ figures as the author of a Pythagorean text in the collection, and considering that Hippodamos of Miletus is deemed to have made the city plan of Thourioi, ‘Pempelos’ could have been mythologized as another Pythagorean founder of the city.

The first two articles in Section III deal with texts that were influential in the later tradition, but which have only survived in a highly precarious state. We have two pages of testimonia and fragments from Androcydes’ On the Pythagorean Symbola, given by Thom in the first chapter. The terminus ante quem is the 1st c. BC, but, beyond this, the chronology and the relation of the work to Aristotle is uncertain. Androcydes was possibly only called Pythagorean because he wrote on Pythagorean symbola. Thom examines possible sources, and also the reception of the work, using a comparative table which is impossible to read with the naked eye (p. 328: an exception in the otherwise impeccable editorial job). The second article is by Leonid Zhmud, on the so-called Anonymus arithmologicus, a text used by a number of writers who did not cite it by title or author, whose existence is theorized from textual criticism. The text was to inaugurate the genre of arithmology, which uses the Pythagorean-Platonic associations of numbers with geometric magnitudes, and incorporates more traditional number symbolism, establishing a series of properties for each number from 1 to 10. Zhmud examines the history of the scholarship, concentrated in the first third of the 20th century, and reconstructs the contents of some of the chapters.

The last article in this section, by Luc Brisson, reviews the interrelations and Pythagorean elements (mostly secretism) in the five Pythagorean letters attributed to Plato (II, VI, IX, XII, and XIII).

Section IV. A study by Adrian Lecerf is interesting both for two fragmentary texts—the Sacred Discourse in Doric prose attributed to Pythagoras and Orpheus’ Hymn to Number—and for their influence in the Neoplatonic school (Iamblichus, Hierocles, Syrianus: a stemma of texts and authors is given at the end). Lecerf suggests that both texts were probably intrinsically interrelated in such a way that the Discourse was a commentary of the Hymn (p. 421).

In the second article, Marc-Antoine Gavray examines how Simplicius uses Timaeus Locrus in his commentaries on Aristotle’s De caelo and Physica. As it turns out, Timaeus Locrus appears in Simplicius as a fully authoritative source, going beyond the historical role attached to him in Proclus. The passages are clearly revealing of Simplicius’ strategy, since they are connected with Aristotle’s criticisms of Plato’s Timaeus. Simplicius makes use of Timaeus Locrus’s hylemorphism to argue that certain statements in the Timaeus are not to be taken at face value, for example concerning the changing of the elements into one another (in Timaeus Locrus the elementary triangles are physical).

In the final article, Anna Izdebska looks at the Arabic and Syrian tradition of the Pythagorean symbola. These short enigmatic sentences were extensively collected in the Arabic and Syriac sources, where they are actually more numerous than in the Greek tradition. Maybe an explanation could have been ventured in terms of the practical value and the ease of cultural translation for these items. Izdebska begins with the chapters on Pythagoras in Mutabashshir ibn Fātik and Ibn Abī Uṣaybi‘a, containing symbola similar to those given in Porphyry Vit. Pyth. (a table is provided on pp. 479 ff.). The long Syriac list of symbola in a letter from the patriarch Theodosius is probably witness to a tradition of ongoing addition of maxims, only some which are traceable to Greek sources. Finally, Izdebska surveys some collections of symbola attributed to Socrates, set out in the appendices to the article.



Burkert, W. 1961. “Hellenistische Pseudopythagorica”, Philologus 105, 16-42, 226-246.

O’Meara, D. J. 1990. Pythagoras revived: Mathematics and Philosophy in Late Antiquity, Oxford.

Thesleff, H. 1961. An Introduction to the Pythagorean Writings of the Hellenistic Period, Åbo.

Thesleff, H. (ed.) 1965. The Pythagorean Texts of the Hellenistic Period, Åbo.


Table of contents

Notes on the contributors
Constantinos Macris. Texts attributed to Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: a brief introductory guide

I. Sources and transmission of fragments
Rosa Maria Piccione. Pseudopythagorica nell’ Anthologion di Giovanni Stobeo: provenienza, principi di selezione e distribuzione
Carole Hofstetter. Les fragments d’Archytas et de Philolaos dans l’Introduction arithmétique de Nicomaque de Gerasa

II. Authors and texts
Phillip Sidney Horky. Archytas: Author and authenticator of Pythagoreanism
Francesca Scrofani. Le traité Sur la loi et la justice et le fragment 3 attribués à Archytas. Une théorie de la loi en rapport avec celle du Minos attribué à Platon
Johan C. Thom. The Golden Verses as a pseudo-Pythagorean text
Matteo Varoli. Il tempo, la Terra, i pianeti. Osservazioni sull’esegesi di Tim. 37c-39e in Ps.-Timeo di Locri
Lucia Saudelli. L’eschatologie du pseudo-Timée
Marco Donato. “Pempélos” Sur les parents et les Lois de Platon

III. Expanding Holger Thesleff’s corpus
Johan C. Thom. Androcydes’ On the Pythagorean Symbola as pseudo-Pythagorean text
Leonid Zhmud. The Anonymus arithmologicus and its philosophical background
Luc Brisson. Les lettres “pythagoriciennes” attribuées a Platon

IV. Reception(s)
Adrien Lecerf. Jamblique source des néoplatoniciens tardifs : les cas du Discours sacré dorien et de l’Hymne au nombre
Marc-Antoine Gavray. De l’usage d’une authorité : Timée de Locres et Simplicius
Anna Izdebska. The riddles of Pythagoras. Arabic and Syriac Symbola attributed to Pythagoras and Socrates