Tuesday, July 16, 2019


M. C. Bishop, Lucius Verus and the Roman Defence of the East. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2018. Pp. xv, 197. ISBN 9781473847606. £19.99.

Reviewed by Thomas R. Keith, University of Chicago (trkeith@uchicago.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


In this monograph, M. C. Bishop has set himself an ambitious goal: to rehabilitate the reputation of Lucius Verus, who has long lingered in the shadow of his adoptive brother and co-emperor, Marcus Aurelius. In particular, Bishop wishes to challenge the accepted view, based largely on the Life of Verus within the Historia Augusta (HA), that Verus was a dissolute playboy who made little or no material contribution to Roman military success in the East prior to his untimely death. What has resulted from Bishop's inquiries could perhaps best be described as two books which have been somewhat uncomfortably combined into one. The first is an examination of Roman military activity in the Eastern Empire and the Roman-Parthian wars; this is superb. The second is a biographical/historical study of Verus himself, and while it is certainly not without its merits, it is rather more problematic.

Bishop's background is in Roman military archaeology, and where the details of Roman warfare are concerned, he knows his subject matter backwards and forwards. Chapter 4 of the monograph is devoted to a compelling analysis of the various campaigns Rome waged against Parthia from the late Republic on, considering how military and political objectives shaped Roman success or failure in the region, and, in particular, how the kingdom of Armenia often served as a cockpit over which the two great empires clashed, as putting their preferred candidate on the Armenian throne was the only real method either power had of gaining material advantage over the other. Bishop pays careful attention to matters of equipment, logistics, tactics, strategy, and the like. His account (Chapters 6-7) of the Parthian campaign carried out under Verus' aegis is fully convincing, and this reviewer has no doubt that, as Bishop would argue, the strategy and skill of the Roman army in that campaign has been underestimated by historians. The stage-by-stage analysis of the campaign that Bishop offers, and especially his prosopography of the various commanders involved in the effort (pp. 83-89), will be invaluable to students of the Roman military.

But the question remains: to what degree was Lucius Verus himself responsible for Roman success against Parthia? Here we run into the central difficulty of the book. Bishop wishes us to set aside the Historia Augusta's portrayal of Verus as lazy, devoted to hedonistic pursuits, and little interested in the details of matters military. He accuses the HA of bias (pp. 12-14); in this he is surely right, as no serious student of the HA would argue that it is an impartial source, or one that can be taken at face value. But by and large, Bishop's solution to the source-critical problem he faces is simply to replace negative value-judgments in the HA with his own more positive value-judgments, without adducing meaningful supporting evidence. It is as if, having decided that Verus was a man of diligence and a capable commander, Bishop feels free simply to dismiss the HA's claims to the contrary. His favored method of analyzing the text is a distinction between "fact" and "opinion": "facts" presented in the HA are generally taken at face value (a perilous approach in and of itself), while "opinions" the author of the HA offers are dismissed simply qua opinion (literally struck through, in the case of Appendix 2, "Redacting the Historia Augusta") and replaced with Bishop's own biases.

This is not to say that Bishop is necessarily wrong. Certainly there is room for doubt whenever the HA takes it upon itself to blacken the character of an emperor, especially one, like Verus, for whom we have so little in the way of other evidence to complicate the picture. And Bishop's ultimate conclusion (pp. 130-32), that the author of the Life of Verus deliberately downplayed Verus' positive traits and exaggerated his negative ones to please Commodus, may well have some truth to it. But so much of his case rests upon speculation and assumption that even if he is right, the matter at hand still must be counted, to cite the Scottish legal verdict, "not proven."

Making matters more difficult is that Bishop sometimes uses the HA in slightly naïve fashion when it does bolster the case he wants to make. For example: he makes much of the fact that the Life of Marcus Aurelius credits both Marcus and Lucius Verus with aiding the victims of a Tiber flood "by their own personal care and aid" (p. 71; HA Marcus 8.4-5). For Bishop, this is a sign that Verus was more active and engaged in civic matters that the Life of Verus will allow; but surely it is better taken as a topos of how good emperors ought to behave, reaching back as far as Augustus' boast in the Res Gestae that he refurbished collapsing buildings in the city. Again, while Bishop may be right in his conclusions, the methods by which he reaches them are dubious.

To give more weight to Bishop's character-rehabilitation attempt, one would need to begin with a much more detailed source-critical analysis of the Life of Verus, viewed within the context of other Lives that might bear on it (e.g. Marcus Aurelius, Antoninus Pius, Commodus) and other writers dealing with the period, such as Cassius Dio. One would then need to turn to epigraphic, numismatic, and archaeological evidence as well to see how much of the HA's account can be substantiated and where it may fall short. To be fair, Bishop does briefly summarize the relevant sources (literary and otherwise) in Chapter 2, but afterward he does little with them, other than excerpting them where needed to flesh out his narrative of the Parthian campaign.

The book would also be strengthened by greater attention to detail. There is a frustrating pattern of errors in Latin (notably the recurrent use of "Ad Marcus Caesarem" instead of the correct "Ad Marcum Caesarem" in the endnotes) which a diligent editor should have caught. Errors of fact also occur from time to time; notably, Octavian was Caesar's great- nephew, not nephew (p. 66), and the work Bishop identifies as the Panegyric to Constantine is in fact the Panegyric to Constantius (p. 128). I doubt, too, whether either the Romans or Parthians would have seen Tiridates' placing his crown at the feet of Nero's statue as a "bizarre ceremony" (p. 55), since the connection between visual representations of the Emperor and the symbolic power of the Emperor himself was well-established by that point in Imperial culture. And finally, while the plates in the center of the volume are a helpful addition, they are unnumbered, yet Bishop refers to them by number in the text; trying to count to find the correct plate is irksome.

For those who wish to understand how the Roman commanders fighting under Verus achieved success in the East, Bishop's book can be heartily recommended. Where his goal of rehabilitating Verus' posthumous reputation is concerned, Bishop has laid some interesting groundwork, but a great deal yet remains to be done. This monograph is not the final word on the subject, but, at best, a fresh beginning.

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Francesco De Angelis, Miti greci in tombe etrusche : le urne cinerarie di Chiusi. Monumenti antichi. Serie monografica, 8. Roma: Giorgio Bretschneider, 2015. Pp. 455; 182 p. of plates. ISBN 9788876892905. €395,00 (hb).

Reviewed by Lisa C. Pieraccini, The University of California, Berkeley (lisap@berkeley.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

Miti greci: le urne cinerarie di Chiusi offers the best, most up-to-date and well researched assessment of Chiusine stone relief cinerary urns yet produced. The decorative containers represent a class of objects analyzed in several publications from the last century dedicated to various aspects of their décor, use and function—but only now have these stone (predominately alabaster) urns been fully assessed through detailed analyses and keen observations about the historical and social contexts of their production. There is much to celebrate in what De Angelis brings to the forefront in his tome, including a fresh theoretical approach applied to the visual rhetoric of the decorative programs (both conventional and obscure) that adorn this class of monuments.

Miti greci is dedicated to relief urns from a specific place—Chiusi—and time—the third to second centuries BCE. The center of the author's discourse, as stated in the title, are Greek myths and their significant role as visual language on the objects that served as the final resting place for the ashes of their patrons. In the Preface, De Angelis sets out his two fundamental objectives: first, to examine, through the lens of the urns, the artistic dynamics of the third and second centuries BCE, and second, to look at the function of the images as they relate to an individual, a community and Etruscan culture as a whole. The intricate minutiae of the ever-challenging reading of these "Etruscanized" myths is at the heart of De Angelis' inquiry and analysis. He addresses the relationship between the Etruscans and Greek myths by looking at how the Etruscans negotiate Greek myth into an Etruscan funerary context. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in the urns where the Etruscan appropriation of Greek myth is often made into an Etruscan narrative (even if simply by inserting Etruscan Underworld guides such as Vanth or Charun into the composition). De Angelis thus engages in a broad and delicate conversation about myth and cultural identity, fleshing out the discourse with historical context.

The book opens with a brief Introduction (Introduzione, urne, miti e identità culturale) that provides background information about Etruscan urns, myths and cultural identity from the Hellenistic period in Chiusi, Volterra and Perugia, and sets the stage for a deeper dialogue that reflects the heart of De Angelis' argument and prepares the reader for the following two chapters (Chapter I, Le urne etrusche e la tradizione iconografica del mito; Chapter II, Le urne Chiusine: cronologia e contesto storico). The Introduction also frames the period under consideration—a time when Etruria had already been engaging for centuries with Greek myths as "cultural products" (p. 55) even as they were losing their cultural "identity" to the ever-increasing power that was Rome. Chapter I explores the Greek myths as they are envisioned, formed and executed on Chiusine urns, and here De Angelis supplies a rich assortment of comparanda for his visual comparisons (e.g. bronze mirrors, terracotta relief sculptures, painted vases, and stone sarcophagi). As for the "Etruscan-ness" of Greek myths, the iconography of the urns from Hellenistic Chiusi reveals much about the funerary beliefs and anxieties of the city's inhabitants. With respect to the issue of the reliefs as expressions of identity, De Angelis argues for a consideration of the concept within the framework of a broader – that is, "globalized" – Mediterranean koine (p. 102). Analyzing iconography makes sense only when we realize the "fluidity and elasticity" of the how Etruscans used Greek myths in their funerary iconography (p. 102). De Angelis' analysis of how the Etruscans used Greek myths in Hellenistic Chiusi moves beyond object analysis towards fluent visual literacy.

Chapter II is dedicated exclusively to the chronology and historical context of Chiusine urns, along with stylistic groupings. We learn that even though the number of urns is probably greater at Volterra than at Chiusi, the workshops at the latter produced receptacles with a more complex visual palette and rich inscriptions, elements that add more depth to our understanding of the leading Chiusine families and their intricate social relations (p. 103). In the second half of the third century BCE these urns were produced in extraordinary numbers – a clear sign that there was an "artisanal koine," as De Angelis explains (p. 147). It is not surprising that the early stylistic impulse for the scenes came directly from southern Etruria (p. 146), while towards the end of their production Roman influences began to take hold. But De Angelis goes beyond Etruria and Rome in discussing stylistic engagement when he looks at the metopes of Taranto in Magna Graecia as a source for stylistic comparanda, citing one of the "last connections in the long history of southern Italy and Etruria" (p. 148). Exposing this network of artistic exchange (beyond Etruria and Rome) makes this contribution to the field of Etruscan funerary art all the more valuable.

Chapters III-VI focus on the stock narratives of Greek myths, such as battles (Le scene di battaglia) which make up a large part of the imagery, brotherly conflict and friendship (Conflitti tra fratelli e amicizia fraterna), youth at risk (La giovanezza a rischio), and family, power and other themes (La famiglia, il potere e altri temi sulle urne Chiusine). This useful grouping is beneficial both for the features examined on the urns and also for the comparanda cited by De Angelis, among them themes painted on the walls of the François Tomb at Vulci which also appear on the Chiusine urns. The Theban fratricide of Polynices and Eteocles (included in the François Tomb), for instance, was a very popular motif on Chiusine urns for over a century. Such examples not only help illustrate the rich artistic exchanges that occurred within Etruscan city states, but also, as De Angelis has noted, the strong northward movement of artistic impulses from southern Etruria, especially Vulci.

The concluding chapter, the tour de force of the book, dives into the relationship between the mythic images and the culture which produced them. It looks at the aristocratic ideology of Chiusi from the third to second centuries BCE and the themes of battles, brotherly conflict and friendship, youth at risk, the hunt, and violation of sacred space within a broader context (i.e., by looking at Hellenistic Chiusi and the role these decorative funerary urns held in Chiusine society). De Angelis also explores how these urns collectively expressed pathos, emotions and sentiments (p. 302), all vital aspects of Etruscan funerary art.

The Conclusion is followed by a comprehensive Index (Schede) where each Chiusine urn is grouped within the iconographic divisions laid out in the book. Each urn is listed with vital information such as material, provenience, location (often urns and lids are not in the same place today), measurements, description, date and a full bibliography with a list of published illustrations, all of which is very helpful. The format of the work as a whole is tightly organized, with a vast bibliography and many very clear black and white photos as well as line drawings of mirrors and urns, in addition to some color photos at the end.

With all the detailed analysis that De Angelis brings forth, this book will be a template for future studies on Etruscan funerary art in general and other aspects of Chiusine urns, such as comparing the Etruscans featured on the lids with the iconography and inscriptional evidence below. Likewise, looking at the Etruscan inserts, such as Vanth and Charu, in the Greek myths certainly promises a rich understanding of how the Etruscans made Greek myths work in their own funerary narratives. All in all, the weight of the book, not just literally (it is very large), but also metaphorically, is considerable. To be sure, De Angelis has filled a significant gap in Chiusine history, art and culture and for this alone the book should be celebrated. The considerable cost of the book makes it predominantly available to libraries and research institutes –the investment will be worthwhile. There are few tomes that offer such depth and scope as Miti greci in tombe etrusche—De Angelis raises the bar in the study of Etruscan funerary art for years to come.

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Sunday, July 14, 2019


Rosa Andújar, Thomas R. P. Coward, Theodora A. Hadjimichael (ed.), Paths of Song: The Lyric Dimension of Greek Tragedy. Trends in Classics. Supplementary volumes, 58. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2018. Pp. x, 456. ISBN 9783110573312. €109,95.

Reviewed by Ruth Scodel, The University of Michigan (rscodel@umich.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The connections between tragic song and other Greek lyric poetry have been a lively topic in recent years and are probably the most salient area of work on tragedy now. This volume includes a selection of the papers from a 2013 conference at University Collge, London, with a couple of additional contributions and an afterword by Andrew Ford (full disclosure: I chaired a session at the conference but did not give a paper; one thanks me for helpful comments, though I have no memory of making any). Salient influences are Albert Henrich's famous articles on metamusicality and "choral projection" and Laura Swift's The Hidden Chorus. 1 Although the papers range widely over tragedians and lyric poets and genres, and there are few direct cross-references between chapters, this is a coherent volume., and it felt like the right length. Some of the essays argue for connections between choral songs and lyric genres, others for links with specific lyric poems; while I mostly found the latter less convincing, all the papers were well worth reading and thinking about. The volume is divided into three sections, the first "Tragic and Lyric Poets in Dialogue," the second "Reconfiguring Lyric Genres in Tragedy," and the third "Performing the Chorus," but while the last section had more attention to ritual and to dance, they were not sharply distinct.

After the editors' introduction, the first paper is a mild surprise, as Patrick Finglass warns us that we may be prone to overestimating the influence of Stesichorus. By the end of the essay, however, he has given back some of what his (entirely convincing) skepticism has taken away, especially with his argument that Stesichorus may have anticipated the independent-minded women of tragedy. Thomas Coward then suggests that the parodos of Agamemnon imitates the orthios nomos and Stesichorean rhythm and narrative method. Pavlos Sfyoeras argues that the olive tree of the first stasimon of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus alludes to the olives of Pindar's Olympian 3: Pindar implies that Heracles first brought olives to Greece, contradicting the Athenian version. The paper then argues that the locus amoenus that is Colonus in the song, when linked with the meditation on suffering that is the third stasimon, offers intimations of immortality that recall Olympian 2, while the treatment of Polynices in the play stands in contrast to Theron's claim of descent from his son. To this reader, the argument seems far-fetched, but others may find it more plausible. Lucia Athanassaki examines especially the geography of the storm predicted at Euripides' Trojan Women 87–94 (where Poseidon agrees to help Athena punish the Greeks) in relation to Bacchylides 17 (where Athena and Poseidon both help Theseus) and 18. The Theseus of Bacchylides represented thalassocracy in its Cimonian form, and so did paintings in the Theseion and the Painted Stoa. Euripides evokes a time when Greeks opposed Persians instead of trying to use Persian help against each other. The interpretation actually works even if we see no specific allusion to Bacchylides.

The second section begins with a very rich contribution by Laura Swift on the tension in the Oresteia between epinician and paean. The echoes of epinician and athletic language particularly point to Agamemnon's failure to be reintegrated in Argos and to excessive individualism, while the paean belongs to the community and its hope of healing. Only at the end of the trilogy do the genres work felicitously. Then Andrea Rodighiero gives three case studies in Sophocles' adaptations of lyric forms, none straightforward: the parodos of Antigone should be a paean, but it does not have the formal features; it becomes Dionysiac, and a chorus of old men are not normal paean-singers. The parodos of Women of Trachis distorts the usual hymnic conventions, and the second stasimon of Ajax evokes hymnic forms but deviates from them, with a sort of "double beginning." This dense essay deserves careful study. Anastasia Lazani looks at the chorus of Prometheus Bound first in relation to partheneia and then to wedding-songs, and cautiously suggests that it reflects the Athenian reception of Alcman (Athens itself did not have maidens' choruses). Alexandros Kampakoglou looks at the prominence of epinician discourse in Alexandros and suggests that, while other Euripidean tragedies used epinician themes by associating the victor's return with kindred murder, in the Alexandros, violence and exile were delayed until later in the trilogy.

The third section opens with Richard Rawles on how the Danaids in the Aeschylean tragedy present themselves as a chorus, combining their supplication with themes that evoke the arrival of a theoric chorus. The chapter also offers a very interesting analysis of the exodus as prosodion slipping into quasi-hymenaios. Then Giovanni Fanfani looks at the first stasimon of Trojan Women, often included among Euripides' "dithyrambic" songs, and sees a complex mixture of citharodic, threnodic, and dithyrambic. I would, however, note that the women of the chorus are widows, not parthenoi, at 1081, which complicates the choral projection.

The next chapter, Rosa Andújar's "Hypochorematic Footprints in Euripides' Electra," provides a very useful survey of the confused evidence for the hypochorema and suggests that the form entails a separation between singers and dancers. She then applies this idea to the interpretation of 860–78. This is one argument that I would take a little farther. It is very difficult to sing and leap while dancing at the same time, so it would make sense for the chorus to separate when exceptionally energetic dancing was required. In this passage, the chorus first invites Electra to leap like a fawn, and a few lines later to sing accompaniment. These are surely distinct: first they invite her to perform a dance solo, but since she does not move towards them, they suggest that she sing instead, and she again refuses.

Enrico Emmanele Prodi then considers the chorus of Phoenician Women. The chorus members envision song and dance as central to their unfulfilled mission to Delphi. They have come to Thebes after sailing over the Ionian Sea (208–11), which means that Thebes must have been an intentional detour, not an incidental stop on their itinerary, so that singing at Thebes is entirely appropriate for them. Naomi Weiss looks at the metamusicality of the third stasimon of Iphigenia at Aulis, suggesting that the chorus fuses itself first with the Muses, then with the Nereids. I am unsure whether this fusion is quite as complete as that: while the audience will certainly link the present performance with those imagined, can there ever be no gap between the human chorus and the Muses themselves? The song evokes the hymenaios only to stress that Iphigenia will be killed, not married. Timothy Power makes the appealing suggestion that in Sophocles' Ichneutae, the newly invented lyre is also the concert kithara—this new music is the New Music.

Finally, Andrew Ford's afterword celebrates the disappearance of the earlier tendency to treat tragic songs as a category entirely different from other lyric poetry, while reminding the reader both of how much we do not know about the wider lyric corpus and that tragic lyrics are real lyrics. Ford points that not all the choral songs in Greek tragedy can be fitted into a particular lyric genre—they may mix genres, or address a situation for which no existing genre is quite appropriate.

All this is true, yet it raises my one reservation about the approaches in this volume. For a long time, scholars neglected the ways in which tragic choruses are in fact choruses. Now I worry a little that we will pay so much attention to what they share with other lyric genres that we will ignore what they do not share with them. In some tragic songs, the chorus is truly a chorus within the mimetic world, performing a song that belongs to a recognizable genre. Even in those, however, the choral song and dance is presented as spontaneous, although it evokes a genre of scripted performance. The performers may not belong to a social group that would ever have performed songs in this genre, or served in a chorus at all. Even in the case of those songs that most directly reflect a choral genre, in everyday life groups of people did not react to events by singing original songs with appropriate choreography. Dramatic choruses are rarely quite within the lyric genres they evoke.

Table of Contents

Rosa Andújar, Thomas R. P. Coward, and Theodora A. Hadjimichael, Introduction. 1
P. J. Finglass, Stesichorus and GreekTragedy. 19
Thomas R. P.Coward, Stesichorean Footsteps in the Parodos of Aeschylus' Agamemnon. 39
Pavlos Sfyroeras Pindar at Colonus: A Sophoclean Response to Olympians 2 and 3. 65
Lucia Athanassaki Talking Thalassocracy in Fifth-century Athens: From Bacchylides' 'Theseus Odes'(17 & 18) and Cimonian Monuments to Euripides' Troades. 87
Laura Swift, Competing Generic Narratives in Aeschylus' Oresteia. 119
Andrea Rodighiero How Sophocles Begins: Reshaping Lyric Genres in Tragic Choruses. 137
Anastasia Lazani Constructing Chorality in Prometheus Bound:The Poetic Background of Divine Choruses in Tragedy. 163
Alexandros Kampakoglou, Epinician Discourse in Euripides' Tragedies: The Case of Alexandros. 187
Richard Rawles, Theoric song and the Rhetoric of Ritual in Aeschylus' Suppliant Women. 221
Giovanni Fanfani, What melos for Troy? Blending of Lyric Genres in the First Stasimon of Euripides' Trojan Women. 239
Rosa Andújar, Hyporchematic Footprints in Euripides' Electra. 265
Enrico Emanuele Prodi, Dancing in Delphi, Dancing in Thebes: The Lyric Chorus in Euripides' Phoenician Women. 291
Naomi A.Weiss, Performing the Wedding Song in Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis. 315
Timothy Power, New Music in Sophocles Ichneutae. 343
Andrew Ford, Afterword: On the Nonexistence of Tragic Odes. 367
Bibliography. 381
Notes on Contributors. 415
Index of Proper Names and Subjects. 419
Index Locorum. 433


1.   A. Henrichs, "Why Should I Dance? Choral Self-referentiality in Greek Tragedy," Arion 3.1 (1994–1995): 5¬-111, and "Dancing in Athens, Dancing on Delos. Some Patterns of Choral Projection in Euripides," Philologus 140 (1996): 48–62; L. Swift, The Hidden Chorus: Echoes of Genre in Tragic Lyric (Oxford 2010).

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Frédéric Fauquier, Le Parménide au miroir des platonismes: logique, ontologie, théologie. Collection d'études anciennes: série grecque, 157. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2018. Pp. 546. ISBN 9782251448275. €55,00 (pb).

Reviewed by Renato Matoso, Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (renatomatoso@puc-rio.br)

Version at BMCR home site

After the publication of E. R. Dodds' seminal paper 'The Parmenides of Plato and the Origin of the Neoplatonic "One",1 it became widely accepted that Plotinus was the first Neoplatonist to interpret Plato's Parmenides in terms of his distinctive three 'hypostases': One, Intellect, and Soul. It also became common ground that it was Plotinus who conceived the theory of an existing One beyond being, finding in the first hypothesis of the second part of the Parmenides the textual foundation for this claim. But what philosophical paths led Plotinus to this innovation? What are the antecedents of this rather particular interpretation of the Parmenides? And how did this revolutionary reading of the Parmenides influenced other generations of Neoplatonists?

Fauquier's book addresses these questions and, in doing so, provides an excellent entry-point for understanding both Neoplatonist metaphysics and the history of ancient Platonism. It gives the reader valuable material for understanding how ancient Platonism changed from the skeptical debates of the New Academy to the scientific theology of Neoplatonism. The work also addresses important philosophical questions related to Neoplatonist metaphysics, such as: How can absolute transcendence can be reconciled with causality? And how is it possible to understand and talk about a first principle that transcends all forms of knowledge and discourse?

The book is a revised and modified version of the author's PhD dissertation and the enormous amount of information that Fauquier provides makes it clear that it is the outcome of a thorough investigation on the topic. With more than five hundred pages and more than fifteen hundred references and footnotes, the book is probably the most complete assessment of the history of ancient interpretations of Plato's Parmenides that has ever been written. As a result, just because of its magnitude and of Fauquier's meticulousness, the book is already an indispensable asset for those interested in the history of the reception of Plato's Parmenides and, indeed, for anyone interested in the history of ancient Platonism.

In order to organize the great amount of information it deals with, the book follows the conceptual scheme proposed by Proclus in his own Commentary on Plato's Parmenides. There, Proclus divides all the interpretations proposed before him into three different groups: logical readings, ontological readings, and theological readings. This is exactly how Fauquier divides his exposition.

The first part of the work discusses logical interpretations of the Parmenides. The author distinguishes them into two kinds, again following Proclus: those that understand the dialogue as a refutation of Zeno, and those that read it as a manual of logic. After presenting compelling arguments, the author concludes that there is not enough evidence for attributing the first kind of interpretation to the New Academy, as others have suggested. With respect to the second kind of reading, the author argues that they represent Middle Platonist interpretations, providing convincing evidence that Middle Platonists used the Parmenides to debate Aristotle's Topics and Categories. Nevertheless, the author seems to beg the question when dealing with J. Whittaker's hypothesis that passages in Alcinous and in Clement of Alexandria suggest the existence of a Middle Platonist 'theological' interpretation of the Parmenides.2 His argument against Whittaker presupposes that Middle Platonist readings must have a logical nature to conclude that, even if we have evidence of theological speculation, "we would have a theological use of a logical dialogue, which does not compel us to consider it as a theological dialogue."3 This first part of the book is completed by a well-documented chapter on the place of the Parmenides in ancient classifications of Platonic dialogues, and ends with a very interesting chapter on Proclus' concept of dialectic.

The second part of the book is dedicated to ontological readings of the Parmenides. The author identifies Origen the Platonist as the name behind Proclus' commentaries on this kind of interpretation, and argues that this disciple of Ammonius represents a middle point between Plotinus' theological interpretation and Middle Platonist logical readings. Responding to previous publications on the subject as well as presenting new arguments, the author succeeds in demonstrating how Origen based his exegesis on a more straightforward reading of the Parmenides' first hypothesis. This is a reading that takes the negative conclusion of the first hypothesis seriously. This conclusion, famously ignored by Plotinus, states the impossibility of a concept of One deprived of being. According to the author, Origen's restatement of this impossibility puts him closer to Middle Platonism than to Neoplatonism. It also makes his interpretation an interesting challenge for the subsequent generations of Neoplatonists, who will find in the criticism of his ontology an important source of doctrine. The last sections of the second part show how Porphyry, Iamblichus, Syrianus, and Proclus developed important aspects of their philosophical systems based on the criticism of Origen's interpretation.

The last part of the book tackles 'theological' readings of the Parmenides. This part comprises almost half of the book's length and presents a lot of important, well documented debates on Neoplatonism and its origins. First, it looks into three conditions for the emergence of a theological reading: the identification of the concept of unity as a first principle; the development of a scientific theology through the study of Platonic dialectic; and the rise of an exegetical tradition of the Platonic dialogues in Late Antiquity. Starting from Speusippus and his more mathematical understanding of the One, the author shows how this concept passed through successive modifications until Plotinus proposed it as an absolute transcendent principle of reality. Then the book considers how Platonic theology, understood as the scientific analysis of first principles, developed into negative theology in the hands of Neoplatonist philosophers. Another chapter considers the nature of Neoplatonist commentaries on Plato's dialogues, and the significance for Neoplatonism of this exegetical form of doing philosophy.

The nineteenth chapter is probably the most controversial. It discusses the book's underlying thesis that the Plotinian reading of the Parmenides represents a radical innovation and a fundamental break with previous interpretations. The chapter reviews all major attempts to find in figures such as Moderatus, Numenius, and the Gnostics a theological interpretation of the Parmenides, here understood as a reading that uses the first hypothesis to present the One as a first principle beyond being. The book's strategy is to approach these attempts with skepticism in order to see if the evidence provided really corroborates their conclusions.

The book is indeed successful in casting doubt on the results of these interpretations, favoring a more moderate point of view against those that are too eager to find a direct source for Plotinus in Middle Platonism. However, we should not consider the lack of a definitive proof for the existence of a Middle Platonist theological reading as equivalent to the confirmation of its nonexistence. Specifically, this is because our access to Middle Platonist interpretations is, in many cases, only indirect or fragmentary. Discussing Moderatus, for instance, the book brings forth the possibility of Neoplatonist contamination in the vocabulary of the most relevant fragment, since its ultimate source is Porphyry. However, such contamination is always possible when dealing with fragments, and this kind of skepticism would eventually undermine the analysis of any philosophical fragment. The author himself recognizes this, deciding that the evidence on Moderatus is inconclusive. But similar reasoning should be applied to the analysis of other Middle Platonists. The fact that we do not find explicit reference to the Parmenides in Numenius' fragments does not rule out the possibility that his negative theology anticipated some aspects of Plotinus' theological reading. And the same goes for the Gnostic texts. The author seems to expect very high standards of similarity between Middle Platonist interpretations and Plotinus in order to decide for the continuity between them. Therefore, his conclusion about Plotinus' radical novelty comes as no surprise.

The last two chapters investigate the Neoplatonist interpretation of the Parmenides' first hypothesis. With clear and acute argumentation, the book describes how the identification of the absolute transcendence of the One, as well as the formulation of a radical negative theology through this text, serves as a unifying feature for a Neoplatonist "spiritual family". The reader will also find in these last chapters an interesting discussion on the rather polemical Anonymous Commentary on Plato's Parmenides, which the book identifies as Neoplatonist. Finally, sixteen short annexes complete the book with a more detailed examination of specifics topics that were debated along the exposition.

Without any doubt, the book represents a great contribution to the study of the emergence and evolution of Neoplatonist metaphysics. It also presents abundant material on Middle Platonism and its metaphysical debates. At the end, the reader is left wondering if the book's conclusion about the novelty of the Plotinian interpretation would not be different had the author not followed Proclus so closely on his exposition. But this does not undermine in any way the importance of this book's contribution.


1.   E. R. Dodds, "The Parmenides of Plato and the Origin of the Neoplatonic One", Classical Quarterly 22 (1928), Pp. 129-43.
2.   J. Whittaker, "Platonic Philosophy in the Early Centuries of the Empire", ANRW II.36.1 (Berlin; New York: de Gruyter, 1987). pp. 81-123.
3.   "Le propos de Clément comme d'Alcinoos reviendrait à montrer l'incapacité qu'a l'outil logique à faire connaître le principe, ou pour le dire autrement, on aurait un usage théologique d'un dialogue logique, qui n'impliquerait pas de considerer ce dialogue comme théologique" (p. 91).

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Catherine Gines Taylor, Late Antique Images of the Virgin Annunciate Spinning: Allotting the Scarlet and the Purple. Texts and studies in Eastern Christianity, 11. Leiden: Brill, 2018. Pp. xiii, 240. ISBN 9789004346758. €176,00.

Reviewed by Mary Joan Winn Leith, Stonehill College (mleith@stonehill.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

This book, a revision of the author's dissertation, is the first full-length study devoted to early (mostly fourth- and fifth-century) images of the Annunciation in which the Virgin Mary is spinning or accompanied by a wool basket or both. While the earliest securely identified image of Mary is the late second-century Adoration of the Magi in the Priscilla Catacombs, Rome,1 the spinning Annunciate image is certainly early. The scene comes from the second-century apocryphal Protevangelium of James (hereafter, PJ) in which Gabriel encounters Mary as she spins wool for the "veil of the temple." The introduction states, "No other symbol from the late ancient world could equal the spindle and distaff in illustrating the capable attributes of virtue in images of the Mother of God" (1). Five (footnoted) chapters plus introduction and conclusion advance the thesis that scenes of Mary spinning privilege "the virtuous matron type over the ascetic virgin" (2). Numerous illustrations indicate the variety of objects depicting this subject, from sarcophagi to pilgrim tokens, from gold medallions to textiles. The subject is interesting, but readers should use this book with caution. After summarizing the contents, I will discuss my reservations.

The introduction proposes that portrayals of Mary engaged in the archetypal matronly task of spinning aligned marriage and house-holding activities with spiritual power. According to the author, the "growing influence of monastic asceticism and the codified rules established by the Church Councils of the fifth and sixth centuries" brought a new emphasis on "Mary's virginal chastity" (author's italics) as the model of holiness for Christian women, a model that "was nearly impossible to emulate and which undermined the sanctity of familial relationships" (1).

Chapter 1, "Roots and Precedents," covers the visual and textual evidence for Roman (and to a lesser extent, Jewish) linkage between wool-working and ideals of wifely chastity and industriousness. Also invoked are the Fates (Moirai), Classical myth, the wilderness Tabernacle (Exodus 35:25-26), and mother goddesses. Chapter 2 places texts advocating female asceticism alongside others that viewed marriage more positively. Among the former are the Acts of Paul and Thecla, works by Ambrose and Jerome, and Proclus's "First Homily" (431), in which Mary's womb becomes the workshop weaving Christ's flesh. Inclusive approaches to spiritual status are found in Jovinian, Helvidius, and the Liber ad Gregoriam. The author envisions an early domestic cult of Mary where "images of the spinning Annunciate were revered" (65).

The focus of Chapter 3, "Matron," turns to jewelry decorated with the spinning Virgin. These almost certainly belonged to women and are plausibly interpreted as related to marriage, fertility, and well-being. Chapter 4, "The Household," begins with a gazetteer of elite women like Galla Placidia and Pulcheria as householders who commissioned, purchased, and owned these objects, then goes on to examine pilgrim tokens and ampullas. Textiles follow, especially the late fourth/early fifth-century "Mary silk" in Bern showing Mary in a series of episodes from the PJ including the Annunciation (where she does not spin). The chapter ends with a discussion of textiles in relation to burials and death. Most of Chapter 5 is devoted to an excellent iconographic analysis of the fourth-century Pignatta Sarcophagus in Ravenna along with a brief discussion of Christian Phrygian tombstones which depict wool working implements but no Annunciation scenes.

I turn now to the problems. First, the author is familiar with current trends in early Christian studies but often oversimplifies, not just generally, but more problematically with regard to Marian theology and devotion after 431, when Mary became Theotokos. It is simply wrong to claim that as a "divine Theotokos type," Mary was elevated "beyond lay accessibility and became central to the rhetorical codification of Orthodoxy by the fifth century" (2). This declaration ignores the multifaceted, multi-locational, and ever-evolving traditions of Marian devotion. Mary is the Byzantine warrior credited with single-handedly routing Constantinople's attackers.2 Mary resolutely deploys her biblical knowledge to defend herself against Joseph's suspicions in a Syriac dialogue poem.3 Frescoes from seventh-century Egypt show her nursing Jesus.4 Arentzen has even argued that Romanos the Melodist (sixth-century) stages the Annunciation as an erotic encounter.5

There is a bewildering reference to scholars who claim that early Christian "fathers and husbands imposed images like the spinning Annunciate upon daughters, wives and mothers to keep them in their place at home, engaged in the drudgery of daily life" (184). E. Clark, G. Clark, and S. Elm (84) are accused of celebrating the spirituality of ascetic women at the expense of everyday Christian women, and of taking an approach "so essentialist that it restricts our understanding of the domestic and devotional experience of Christian women" (66). On the contrary, contemporary scholars have drawn attention to women as leaders in the early Church, married women and widows as benefactors, and mothers as teachers of their children. This book's own contention that images of the spinning Annunciate spoke primarily to women could itself be viewed as essentializing. Yes, the spindle and wool basket belonged to the realia of women's lives, but the spiritual connotations assigned to the Virgin with her spindle could transcend the boundaries of both gender and social status. Harvey points out that Ephraim of Syria (fourth century) imagines God and Jesus as weavers and God as keeping house. 6 Sessa's recent work shows how bishops in Late Antiquity were judged according to traditional ideals of household management.7

Promised evidence for women's responses to images of the spinning Virgin remains largely speculative, as in this example: "…we must not disregard the possibility that late antique women appropriated these motifs … as potent symbols on objects they wore and owned" (102-3). Wording can be perplexing; what is meant by the statement that "the earliest artistic evidence associated with death and burial are (sic) clear indicators for a widespread Christian fascination with the matronly model of Mary…" (210)? That a few textiles decorated with the spinning Annunciate were used as burial shrouds, while suggestive, hardly provides evidence of "the Christian matron as the unsung participant in holy paideia or culture during late antiquity" (13), especially given the great variety of images on surviving shrouds. Intuition is invoked: "That the image of the Virgin Annunciate spinning did evoke a consistent response from individuals can be intuited from the number of pilgrimage objects surviving…" (151); but pilgrimage objects had many uses and the Adoration of the Magi far outnumbers the spinning Annunciate on tokens and ampullae. Basil of Caesarea (fourth century) urged his community to contemplate the edifying nature of their daily tasks (101), but the suggestion that an ordinary matron could engage in similar introspection cannot carry the weight of the claim that the iconography of the Virgin spinning is evidence for an early lay-centered cult of Mary. The spinning Annunciate must necessarily be considered alongside other early Marian images and texts as Shoemaker has recently shown.8

Dating and the identification of some images deserve more caution. Dating the many unprovenanced early Christian objects is notoriously difficult, but one cannot propose earlier dates simply because items assigned to earlier centuries are "conspicuously missing" (cf. 111). Omitted from the discussion of the so-called second-century Annunciation in the Priscilla Catacombs is the fact that this identification has been and remains controversial.9 This is equally true of another Priscilla Catacomb image, claimed as the "earliest extant image of the Virgin and child" (183).10 It is also unclear by what criteria items were selected for discussion. There are other early images of the spinning Annunciate—a pilgrim token and at least one pilgrim ampulla in the famous collection at Monza, for example— which highlights how useful an appendix listing early Christian artifacts with the spinning Virgin would have been.

The book also omits references to scholarship on the PJ, even though the last few years have witnessed something of an explosion in PJ studies; a number of them have useful points to make about the Annunciation narrative.11 It is indeed plausible "that the apocryphal texts which detail the extra-canonical details of Mary's life were formulated as popular tales in the early church and became well-known enough to be written down by the second century" (63). Any claim for the origin of the motif in women's household cult must interrogate its function within the overall narrative of the PJ. The claim that "[t]he degree to which the stories and tales that became Christian apocrypha are evidence of the earliest Marian cult cannot be over-emphasized" (63) is problematic since outside the PJ, Mary as Jesus's mother—and thus a householder—features only peripherally in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (second century). When she does appear in other early apocrypha, Mary is primarily a ritual leader, not a maternal figure. 12

There are scattered factual errors. The oldest manuscript of the PJ is late third- or early fourth-century not second-century (3). The resurrected Christ never appears to his mother in scriptural accounts (contra p. 198). An episode involving Aphrodite in Nonnus's fifth-century Dionysiaca (24.237–329) is cited as evidence against the "spindle's exclusive association with ascetic virginity" (33). However, contrary to the assertion that the spindle "provides a sexually charged precedent for Christian iconography" (33), the "distaff-enamored" Aphrodite bungles the job and has to return the loom to Athena, the virgin weaver. The pages for the Gambero citation (200) in footnote 30 should be 279-280. Finally, unlike most of the book, the introduction has a distracting number of typographical errors and unclear sentences.

These are serious shortcomings, but this book is still a useful source for the symbolism of spinning and weaving in late antiquity and it brings welcome attention to an important early Christian Marian image.


1.   Mary Joan Leith, "Earliest Depictions of the Virgin Mary," Biblical Archaeology Review (Mar-Apr, 2017)
2.   Bissera Pentcheva, "The Virgin of Constantinople: Power and Belief," in Byzantine Women and their World, edited by Ioli Kalavrezou (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003) 113-118.
3.   Sebastian Brock, "A Dialogue between Joseph and Mary from the Christian Orient," Logos: Cylchgrawn Diwinyddol Cymru (The Welsh Theological Review) 1.3 (1992) 4-11.
4.   Elizabeth S. Bolman, "The Enigmatic Galactotrophousa and the Cult of the Virgin Mary in Egypt," in Maria Vassilaki, editor, Images of the Mother of God: Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium (Ashgate, 2005) 2-22.
5.   Thomas Arentzen, The Virgin in Song: Mary and the Poetry of Romanos the Melodist. Divinations: Rereading late ancient religion (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017) Chapter 2. BMCR 2018.02.39
6.   Susan Ashbrook Harvey, "Feminine Imagery for the Divine: The Holy Spirit, The Odes of Solomon and Early Syriac Tradition," St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 37 (1993) 133.
7.   Kristina Sessa, The Formation of Papal Authority in Late Antique Italy: Roman Bishops and the Domestic Sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
8.   Stephen Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
9.   Geri Parlby, What Can Art Tell Us about the Cult of the Virgin Mary in the Early Roman Catholic Church?: A Re-evaluation of the Evidence for Marian Images in Late Antiquity (PhD Dissertation, University of Roehampton, 2010) 55-56.
10.   Geri Parlby, The Origins of Marian Art in the Catacombs and the Problems of Identification," in Chris Maunder, ed., Origins of the Cult of the Virgin Mary (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2008) 41–56.
11.   Notably, Lily C. Vuong, Gender and Purity in the Protevangelium of James (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013); Alexander Toepel, Das Protevangelium des Jakobus: Ein Beitrag zur neueren Diskussion um Herkunft, Auslegung und theologische Einordnung (Münster: Aschendorff, 2014); Eric M. Vanden Eykel, "But Their Faces Were Looking Up:" Author and Reader in the Protevangelium of James(London; New York: Bloomsbury T & T Clark: 2016); and the still valuable Ronald F. Hock, The Infancy Gospels of James and Thomas: Scholars Bible with Original Text, Translation and Notes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1996).
12.   Stephen Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016) 64-99.

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