Friday, May 24, 2019


Nicola Di Cosmo, Michael Maas (ed.), Empires and Exchanges in Eurasian Late Antiquity: Rome, China, Iran, and the Steppe, ca. 250-750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. 500. ISBN 9781107094345. $145.00.

Reviewed by Richard Payne, University of Chicago (

Version at BMCR home site


Late Antiquity is a matter of perspective. The historiographical construct has expanded the concerns of ancient historians once exclusively focused on a "classical" Mediterranean—still their primary object of inquiry—to include not only later, post-classical centuries, but also Middle Eastern and, to a lesser extent African regions beyond the Roman frontiers. Nicola Di Cosmo and Michael Maas urge the extension of Late Antiquity's geographical scope along an axis of steppes and highlands reaching from Constantinople to Chang'an. They do so, importantly, without seeking to disrupt the traditional constructs of Central Eurasian and East Asian historiographies. They rather introduce "Eurasian late antiquity" as an ancillary perspective, an interpretive instrument, to be employed to locate Rome and China like within transcontinental processes beyond their control—and often beyond their knowledge—that nevertheless shaped their respective destinies in the same centuries, circa 250-750. The contributors to the volume demonstrate the unambiguous utility of the instrument and set a historiographical agenda encompassing once disparate fields, in a manner reminiscent of the original Late Antiquity of the 1970s and 1980s.

What China and Rome shared was—to borrow Luo Xin's term (166)—an "Inner Asian-ness" in the period. Xin has in mind the extent to which the political cultures of nomadic and Chinese formations and become so interwoven and interdependent as to have become inextricable, even indistinguishable from one another, from the era of the Sixteen Kingdoms through the Tang dynasty. Di Cosmo outlines the ascendancy of the Xiongnu and Xianbei dynasties, with varying degrees of success, in what had once been the Han heartland of the Yellow River and of the empire of the Turks better organized than its predecessors to check Chinese dominance. The famous self-proclamation of the Tang ruler Taizong as emperor and qaghan reflected, according to Jonathan Skaff, Turk success at rivaling the Chinese claim to imperial legitimacy, which had gone unchallenged in the Han era. Valerie Hansen and Max Deeg document the cultural and material impacts of the erosion of boundaries with the steppe, ranging from grand phenomena such as the rise of Buddhism together with its novel dharmic discourse of imperial legitimacy to the more mundane discovery of linguistic tonality or the introduction of chairs.

So far, so familiar to students and scholars of Chinese history, in the broad outlines of a China repeatedly transformed through nomadic encounters. The notion of a nomadic role in Roman or Iranian history, however, remains largely alien to a historiography regarding nomads as mere military challenges. Daniel Potts retains such a traditional outlook in his rather encyclopedic—albeit bibliographically highly partial—overview of Iranian martial confrontations with the Huns and Turks. The Romanist contributors, by contrast, place an emphasis on the development of networks of political communication and the acquisition of knowledge regarding nomadic political formations whose complexity the Roman court increasingly, if hesitantly, recognized. For geographical reasons, Rome never entered into the intimacy characteristic of Chinese-nomadic relations, with the Eastern European steppes distant from Constantinople (Mark Whittow, 274). Peter Golden, moreover, argues that the nomadic political formations in the West never developed imperial aspirations on account of their distance from the competitive interstate politics of the eastern steppes. The late Roman court nevertheless made a priority of acquiring accurate knowledge of steppe polities, establishing working diplomatic relations their courts, and even enlisting their military forces as allies in their relations with Iran, in stark contrast with high imperial ethnographic and diplomatic practice, as Michael Maas, Ekaterina Nechaeva, and Whittow all persuasively argue. Its knowledge, as Giusto Traina emphasizes, never encompassed China.

Geographical distance limited the cultural and social impact of Central Eurasian phenomena on the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and there is no talk here of a hybrid "Eurasian synthesis" in the west of the kind Hansen (110) posits for the East. The Silk Road—studiously undefined here, as usual, despite nods to the challenges of Tamara Chin's landmark article —nevertheless subjected Roman and Iranian societies to transcontinental flows, wittingly or unwittingly.1 Richard Lim provides an overview of the paroxysms of exchange—cultural and commercial—characteristic of the era that precipitated a "demonstrable rise in the cultural knowledge of the other" (82). Rong Xinjiang charts the political and social developments in the Sogdian communities who established the enduring infrastructures of exchange that drove trans-continental commerce. The result, Peter Brown reveals, was the steady expansion of the imaginative horizons of late Roman elites, as well as of their central and eastern Eurasian counterparts. An awareness of distant worlds gave new agency to exotic goods no longer simply luxuries, but artifacts of distant, dimly understood polities—and evidence of their possessors' global, cosmopolitan reach. Such objects validated the universalist claims of imperial elites, so effectively captured in Matthew Canepa's contribution concerning Iranian cosmology and its influence on other Eurasian ideological frameworks. Joel Walker takes the use of Iranian pearls as an index of the pan-Eurasian impact of Iranian court culture. Frantz Grenet traces the exchange of politically consequential astrological knowledge—and associated material assemblages—between India, Iran, and central Eurasia. And in what is perhaps the volume's most original contribution Sören Stark demonstrates that exotics exercised an appeal and possessed an agency no less powerful and nomadic than in Roman or Iranian communities. The Turks, in his account, made thoughtful use of the ideological potential of the high-value commodities whose trans-continental commerce, according to Di Cosmo (52) they consciously fostered. Their recombination of Roman, Iranian, Indian, and Chinese elements in the service of an imperial, cosmopolitan project suggests their perspective on the known world of Late Antiquity closely approximated the lens the volume's editors propose.

Stark's chapter highlights a historiographical contribution of the volume of special importance for scholars of western Eurasia: its emphasis on the political complexity of nomadic state makers. The notion of nomads as simple in terms of their political cultures and economies remains dominant. It recurs in a tentative form in Averil Cameron's conclusion, where nomadic empires are "reliant on conquest, tribute, and booty," unlike the supposedly more bureaucratic Roman and Chinese empires. The most clear example of such a tendency to simplify is the imaginative grip of "migration" on ancient historians. One would hardly tell a Roman history through arrows on a map. It remains conventional to do so for nomadic elites, Huns, Avars, and Turks, not to mention less consequential groups. At the conceptual level, Michael Kulikowski offers a searching genealogy of the historiographical construct of migration and its embedding within an episteme of the "barbarian," both ancient and modern. At the evidentiary level, Ursula Brosseder brilliantly deconstructs the archaeology of a Hun migration from Mongolia to the west. Patrick Geary challenges the new genetic histories of migrating peoples that are particularly popular in studies of central Eurasian nomads, albeit in the pre-historic and Mongol periods, so far. Walter Pohl presents a constructive approach to accompany such salutary deconstructions. Primordialist notions of ethnicity underpin arrow-animated accounts of migration: "real" Huns migrating from Mongolia to the Hungarian plain, for example. Pohl applies models of ethnic groups as constantly changing their composition in accordance with political circumstances worked out in scholarship on the early medieval West to argue for the peculiar salience of ethnicity and highly fluid nomadic polities as a means of "translating the ever-changing allegiances to social groups of all sizes into a relatively time-resistant set of distinctions between collective actors" (205). The arguments fits nicely with the contributions of Michael Drompp, Andrew Eisenberg, and Naomi Standen that locate the success of nomadic polities in their ability laterally to integrate mobile elite communities, often around ethnic imaginaries such as those of the Xianbei and the Turks. Engaging in varied ways with David Sneath's arguments for nomadic states as aristocratic orders, these articles introduce ancient historians to the phenomenon—and the relevant literatures—of nomadic political stability and endurance of the kind that ancient ethnography and modern historiography alike have served to obscure. The conceptual center of Eurasian Late Antiquity resides in the "biological infrastructures" (303), in the memorable phrase of Michael Drompp, sustaining such regimes whose comparative invisibility vis-à-vis the physical infrastructures of Rome or China has led historians to ignore their existence. The greatest achievement of Empires and Exchanges is in making such ignorance inexcusable.

Decentering is supposed to be an inherently good thing. The value of the volume seems rather to be in re-centering our narratives: in fluid steppe networks across thousands of miles rather than the fixed points of Rome or Constantinople. The utility of such a perspectival shift resides in the commonalities revealed across the otherwise disparate historiographies of Rome, Iran, and China, in precisely the designated chronological parameters. The framing device "Eurasian" may prove, in time, no less politically troubled and analytically constrained as its compeer "Silk Road."2 Its exclusion of the Indian Ocean only seems justifiable pragmatically in the short term, not conceptually over the long term. Global history has never been pursued literally, as if Tasmania and London were analytical equals. As Averil Cameron suggests in her concluding remarks, associating the turn toward trans-regional, trans-cultural history in Late Antiquity with the emerging literature of global history—perhaps best embodied in the work of Jürgen Osterhammel and Chris Bayly—seems promising, perhaps more so than employing another geographical framework heavy laden with political and philosophical baggage. But such a suggestion quibbles. There can, thanks to the labor of Di Cosmo, Maas, and their contributors, be no doubt of the utility of Eurasian Late Antiquity as a lens, especially in fields and disciplines to which Late Antiquity is a foreign chronological category. If decentering is an ambiguous good, defamiliarizing yields reliable dividends. We need to look at the societies traditionally—and rightfully—at the center of ancient historical interest from the perspective of the steppes.

Table of Contents

Part I. Historical Thresholds
1. How the steppes became Byzantine: Rome and the Eurasian Nomads in historical perspective. Michael Maas
2. The relations between China and the steppe from the Xiongnu to the Türk Empire Nicola Di Cosmo
3. Sasanian Iran and the projection of power in Late Antique Eurasia: competing cosmologies and topographies of power. Matthew P. Canepa
4. Trade and exchanges along the silk and steppe routes in Late Antique Eurasia. Richard Lim
5. Sogdian merchants and Sogdian culture on the silk road. Rong Xinjiang
6. 'Charismatic' goods: commerce, diplomacy, and cultural contacts along the silk road in Late Antiquity. Peter Brown
7. The synthesis of the Tang Dynasty: the culmination of China's contacts and communication with Eurasia, 310-755. Valerie Hansen
8. Central Asia in the Late Roman mental map, second to sixth centuries Giusto Traina
Part II. Movements, Contacts, and Exchanges
9. Genetic history and migrations in Western Eurasia. Patrick Geary
10. Northern invaders: migration and conquest as scholarly topos in Eurasian history. Michael Kulikowski
11. Chinese and inner Asian perspectives on the history of the Northern dynasties (386-589 CE) in Chinese historiography. Luo Xin
12. Xiongnu and Huns: archaeological perspectives on a centuries-old debate about identity and migration. Ursula B. Brosseder
13. Ethnicity and empire in the Western Eurasian Steppes. Walter Pohl
14. The languages of Christianity on the silk roads and the transmission of Mediterranean culture into central Asia. Scott Fitzgerald Johnson
15. The spread of Buddhist culture to China between the third and seventh centuries. Max Deeg
16. The circulation of astrological lore and its political use between the Roman East, Sasanian Iran, Central Asia, and the Türks Frantz Grenet
17. Luminous markers: pearls and royal authority in Late Antique Iran and Eurasia. Joel Walker
Part III. Empires, Diplomacy, and Frontiers: 18. Byzantium's Eurasian policy in the age of the Türk Empire. Mark Whittow
19. Sasanian Iran and its northeastern frontier: offense, defense, and diplomatic entente. Daniel T. Potts
20. Infrastructures of legitimacy in inner Asia: the Early Türk Empires. Michael R. Drompp
21. The stateless Nomads of Central Eurasia. Peter B. Golden
22. Aspects of elite representation among the sixth- to seventh-century Türks. Sören Stark
23. Patterns of Roman diplomacy with Iran and the steppe peoples. Ekaterina Nechaeva
24. Collapse of a Eurasian hybrid: the case of the northern Wei. Andrew Eisenberg
25. Ideological interweaving in Eastern Eurasia: simultaneous kingship and dynastic competition, 580-755. Jonathan Karam Skaff
26. Followers and leaders in northeastern Eurasia, ca. seventh to tenth centuries. Naomi Standen
Epilogue. Averil Cameron


1.   Tamara Chin, "The Invention of the Silk Road, 1877," Critical Inquiry 40 (2013): 194-219.
2.   See S.V. Glebov, Evraziistvo mezhdu Imperiei i Modernom: Istoriya v Dokumentakh (Moscow: Novoe Izdatelstvo, 2010), for a comprehensive study and collection of key texts of the Eurasianist movement.

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Gertjan Verhasselt, Die Fragmente der Griechischen Historiker Continued. IV. Biography and antiquarian literature, B. History of literature, music, art and culture. Fasc. 9 Dikaiarchos of Messene No. 1400. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2018. Pp. xx, 725. ISBN 9789004357419. €236,00.

Reviewed by Robert Mayhew, Seton Hall University (

Version at BMCR home site


Dikaiarchos1 of Messene was "a student of Aristotle, a philosopher, rhetorician and geometer. He wrote Measurements of the Mountains in the Peloponnese and Life of Greece in three books. He wrote the Spartan Constitution," etc. This is from the Suda entry on Dikaiarchos (Δ 1062), which is Testimonium 1 in the volume under review—the most recent volume in the continuation of Felix Jacoby's Die Fragmente der Griechischen Historiker.2

The book has three main parts: a lengthy introduction (pp. 1-74), edition and translation (on facing pages) of the testimonia and fragmenta (76-191), and commentary (195-583). The concordances, bibliography, and indexes (locorum and nominum) add well over 200 more pages (585-725).

Scholars of early Peripatetic thought after Aristotle will naturally be curious to know at least in a general way the difference between Verhasselt's book and the most recent previous edition with interpretation of the fragments of Dikaiarchos: W.W. Fortenbaugh and E. Schütrumpf, eds., Dicaearchus of Messana: Text, Translation, and Discussion,3 which contains an edition and translation of the 'sources' for Dikaiarchos, by David Mirhady, followed by ten essays. One comparatively minor difference: Verhasselt retains the traditional distinction between testimonia and fragmenta, whereas Mirhady (following the general practice of Project Theophrastus) does not. Another, more significant, difference is that a detailed commentary ensures that each text receives attention, which is not the case with a collection of essays (which cover some texts and topics in greater detail than a commentary can, but others barely or not at all). The other main difference is this: whereas Mirhady included all of the source texts, Verhasselt has intentionally omitted two kinds (as he explains in his introduction): "The edition is … limited to the so-called historical fragments, which is why Dikaiarchos' philosophical fragments on the soul [nos. 13-32 Mirhady] are omitted. The geographical fragments [nos. 117-127 Mirhady] are not included here either, since they will be edited in volume V" (p. 59). I refrain from further discussion of differences—for instance in the edition and translation, and assessment and interpretation, of the fragments —which would take me beyond the proper scope of a review. I shall simply add that both books are indispensable for the serious study of Dikaiarchos. Besides being an introduction to his edition of the texts (as is clear at the end, § 7, which explains the nature of this edition, compared to earlier ones, and provides detailed sigla for all testimonia and fragmenta), Verhasselt's introduction is now quite simply the best source for anyone wanting a detailed introduction to the life, work, and thought of Dikaiarchos. There are sections titled Life, Dates, Famous Homonyms, Works, Dikaiarchos as historian, and Dikaiarchos' reception. They are all excellent and informative. There is very little we can know for certain about Dikaiarchos' life, or about his precise dates, though Verhasselt argues that he "was probably born between ca. 370 and ca. 350 BCE and was still active in the late 320s or early 310s, which probably coincides with his acme" (p. 6). The core and gem of the introduction is the section on Works (§ 4), which contains seventeen subsections (most of them headed by book titles, which I have italicized): Life of Greece, On the destruction of men, On the Sacrifice in Ilion, Descent into the Sanctuary of Trophonios, Olympikos and Panathenaïkos, On Musical Contests and On Dionysiac Contests, On Alkaios, Works on Homer and Euripides?, On Lives and the fragments on philosophers, Tripolitikos, Constitutions, Letter to Aristoxenos, A work on proverbs?, Geographical works, Works on the soul, Rejected works: the 'hypotheses', and, Spurious works: Descriptions of Greece and the periegetic prose fragments. Note that even the omitted material on the soul and on geography receive attention (pp. 29- 38). Verhasselt's discussion of these titles (or topics), and the assigning of fragments to them, is of a consistently high quality. He often corrects the errors of earlier editors, and in general steers a proper course (in my view) between unwarranted skepticism and overly ambitious speculation. He does sometimes reject (and with cogent reasoning) fragments that were included in earlier editions: see for instance pp. 33-34, on Stobaeus 1.38.2 (p. 252 Wachsmuth) = F 114 Wehrli/127 Mirhady. He also argues convincingly—in the introduction (p. 38) and further in the commentary (pp. 509- 14)—that one of the fragments in his collection, namely A. Gellius 4.11.14 (F 58 = 36 Wehrli/42 Mirhady), which he includes under the heading 'Philosophy and philosophers', but which is often attributed to the On Lives, might actually belong to Dikaiarchos' work on the soul. One last comment on this superb introduction: the section on Dikaiarchos as historian includes an excellent discussion of his methodology (pp. 47-53), which features both positive aspects (e.g. his attention to chronology) and negative ones (his indulgence in the biographical fallacy). Verhasselt summarizes:

Dikaiarchos' research seems to have had a certain ambition: he was praised for being "well-informed" (T 34) and "learned" (T 35a-c). However, his moralizing intentions sometimes got in the way of the historical truth. Some of his views come across as naive: his story of women missing their brothers and forming a new type of union through their gatherings…. His three-stage model for early history is mainly a philosophical construction (inspired by Plato and perhaps Theophrastus), which he does not back up with evidence….

Some brief general comments on the edition and translation: although Verhasselt has relied on existing critical editions of the sources, his texts come with two apparatuses and he has provided information on the stemma of the relevant manuscripts (see the Sigla on pp. 61-72). Note also that Verhasselt is a skilled papyrologist: see as evidence fragments 37, 63a-d, 64, 68a-d, and 69 (with commentary). Aside from moving back and forth between text and translation in the course of reading the fragments, I selected a half dozen (Greek) passages at random for the purpose of comparing translation and text, and I found the translations quite reliable.4

There are 39 testimonia (pp. 76-93), the first four of which are on Dikaiarchos' life. These are followed by lists of references to his being: from Messene (5a-i); a contemporary of Aristoxenos (6a-b); a student of Aristotle (7a-f); and, a Peripatetic (8a-f). There are three uncertain testimonies (9-11). Testimonies 12-30 are the references to his works, in most cases referring to a title. The last ones (31-39) are appraisals of him—e.g. "Dikaiarchos, a great and prolific Peripatetic" (Cic. Off. 2.16 = T 36a). The commentary on the testimonia is quite brief (195-206), in large part because much of what needs to be said about these texts had been covered in the introduction.

There are scores of fragments and a massive commentary on them. I cannot begin to describe all (or even much) of the valuable material here. Further, what each reader is likely to find especially valuable will depend in part on his or her own interests. For instance, as my current interests include ancient Homeric scholarship, I was particularly intrigued by F 41 (from Porphyry's Homeric Questions on the Odyssey), which contains a criticism that Dikaiarchos leveled against Homer's portrayal of Penelope; Verhasselt's commentary on it (pp. 407-412) is quite illuminating. So given the space available to me, I thought it best to describe only a couple of fragments, with commentary, as an indication of what the reader can expect by way of presentation: one is pretty basic, the other more complex (and I think quite important).

I begin with F 2 (schol. Apoll. Rhod. 4.276, p. 278 Wendel). The first line of the passage is in small print, to indicate that it was included for context and is not part of the material from Dikaiarchos. The remaining text is brief enough to include Verhasselt's entire translation:

In the first book, Dikaiarchos says that after Horos, the son of Isis and Osiris, Sesonchosis was king. From Sesonchosis to the reign of Neilos there are 2500 years, [from the reign of Neilos to the capture of Troy there are seven years,] from the capture of Troy to the first Olympiad there are 436 years. In total 2943 years.

The commentary on this fragment runs to about six pages (pp. 213-19). Its first two sections are 'Context' (in which the general content of the scholium is briefly described) and 'Scope of the fragment' (in which Verhasselt explains why he did not limit the fragment to the first sentence). These are followed by a few conceptual lemmata (in English) with commentary: 'Sesonchosis or Sesostris'; 'Sesonchosis as Horos' successor'; 'Sesonchosis' dates'; and, 'The fall of Troy'. There then follow a couple of lemmata from the Greek text, with commentary.

Verhasselt writes in his introduction (p. 9) that "The most informative of the fragments of the Life of Greece—and indeed of the entire corpus of fragments in general—are F 6a-d, on the development of early life." These five fragments (6a includes two texts, a.1 & a.2) are fascinating (see pp. 98-107), and especially 6a.1, from Porphyry's De abstinentia, which is the lengthiest of them (and the only one in Greek). They fall under the subsection on Life of Greece labeled 'Fragments without book number'. The commentary on these texts (pp. 231-55) is—as is typical for the volume as a whole—superb. Verhasselt begins with commentary on this entire set of fragments: The first section is 'Origin of the fragment', in which he briefly makes the case for attributing these texts to Life of Greece, despite the fact that no title is cited. This is followed by four other sections: 'Ancient anthropological theories', 'Vegetarianism', 'Dikaiarchos' models', and 'Dikaiarchos as primitivist'. 'Dikaiarchos' models' is especially noteworthy. Here Verhasselt demonstrates the various influences on Dikaiarchos with four sets of two column lists of passages, comparing lines from F 6a-d with similar lines in Plato's Politicus, Laws 3, Republic 2, and Theophrastus F 584a FHS & G. The commentary then moves on to the individual texts. For instance, in the case of F 6a.1, there are sections labeled 'Context' and 'Porphyry's reliability', followed by nine lemmata from the Greek text, with commentary, all of which is of high quality. The commentary on 6d (from Censorinus' De die natali) contains a rare instance of something in the commentary that I disagreed with or thought was lacking in some way. In this text, Censorinus claims that Dikaiarchos was a proponent of the view that humans have always existed, and that Aristotle held the same view. In the commentary on the lemma Aristoteles quoque Stagirites, Verhasselt writes (p. 254): "It is unclear what Aristotelian text Censorinus means. In the extant works, Aristotle nowhere defends the eternity of the human race…." This may ultimately be correct. There is also evidence, however, that Aristotle may have maintained that species (eidê) are eternal, which if true would of course include humans. James Lennox's "Are Aristotelian Species Eternal?"5 is the best discussion of this topic that I'm aware of, and it should be consulted in this connection.

I could go on and on about this rich source of material on a wide range of topics. That such a mature piece of scholarship is a revised version of a Ph.D, dissertation (in Classics, KU Leuven, 2014) is remarkable (see p. xi). I'll simply add that the volume is beautifully produced, and I encountered no typographical errors.


1.   Out of respect for the author of the volume under review, here and throughout I write 'Dikaiarchos' rather than the more standard (in English) 'Dicaearchus'.
2.   The Editor-in-Chief of Part IV (Biography and antiquarian literature) is Stefan Schorn.
3.   Rutgers University Studies in Classical Humanities vol. 10 (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2001).
4.   I for one am pleased that Verhasselt has "not used Sperrdruck for the verba ipsissima" (p. 59).
5.   In Aristotle's Philosophy of Biology (Cambridge University Press, 2001). Note for example that Metaph. Z.8.1033b11-19 argues that forms or species do not come to be; and, DA 2.4.415a22-b8 and GC 2.338b1-19 seem to connect generation and eternity. These are some of the texts discussed by Lennox.

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Wouter Vanacker, Arjan Zuiderhoek (ed.), Imperial Identities in the Roman World. London; New York: Routledge, 2017. Pp. xii, 225. ISBN 9781472440815. $165.00.

Reviewed by Robyn L. Le Blanc, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review]

Imperial Identities in the Roman World focuses on the role of ritual in defining the methods and contexts in which people were drawn together in the Roman world. Despite increased interest in questions of local and regional identities, the ways in which peoples were drawn together by the Roman Empire is still a topic of great interest. 1 Although what it meant to be a member of the empire changed over time and place, there is a general notion that some institutions and practices existed in the empire that were distinctly "imperial" and worked to create a sense of belonging to Rome. The eleven contributions to this volume, which comes out of a conference on the volume's theme held in Ghent in 2014, cover a variety of themes and locations, and embody a number of different methodological approaches in order to explore how imperial identity (or shifting imperial identities) was created, how it linked inhabitants of the empire, and how the rituals employed in simultaneously maintaining and transforming these identities might also be used to frame and validate imperial power structures. Ritual is used as the framework for defining the contexts and methods in which people were drawn together in this volume, but the concept is not focused entirely on religious ritual, although about half of the volume's contributors do approach it from a religious perspective.

The introduction by Zuiderhoek and Vanacker serves to establish several emergent themes and approaches in the volume. The discussion is interested in how ritual frames and extends legitimacy, and creates a sense of belonging to a larger, distinctly imperial, cultural and political entity. Zuiderhoek and Vanacker situate their interest in imperial identity and legitimacy within the interplay of ideas surrounding the Romanization debate, and theoretical frameworks concerning identity in the Roman Empire. The focus on ritual expressions of power and engagement in the text allows them to engage with the three main themes that are present in discussions of Romanization and identity, which Zuiderhoek and Vanacker discuss briefly, particularly the multiplicity and dynamism of identity formation and expression and the role of individual and institutional agency in this process (4-6).

Chapters 1 and 2 consider how communal activities brought large groups of people together. Andreas Hartmann looks at the ways that ritual surrounding the ara maxima, and Italian traditions surrounding Aeneas at Lavinium, and how they allowed elites from outside Italy and the old Roman patrician aristocracy to tie themselves into Rome's unique past through reenactment of certain important historical moments or religious rites bound to the landscape of Rome itself (16-35). He embeds these examples in a larger analysis of so-called "Greek" rituals and rites which linked Rome to the Greek past, and served to project current elites and their roles, and the cosmopolitan nature of the empire, into the past. Johannes Han surveys the ways in which participation in public forms of violence and punishment in the context of the arena forged a sense of communal acceptance of the power of the state to control the bodies of its citizens and inhabitants, and allowed the spectators a position within this hierarchy, above those upon whom power was being exercised, and in conversation with the higher orders of the power structure.

Chapters 3 and 4 move to the army as a body engaged in ritual. Conor Whately's stimulating chapter traces the development of legionary war cries as described in Roman literature, demonstrating that while the legions alternated between cries and silence, the terminology used to describe the war cry reflects a distinct shift in Late Antiquity. Whately asserts that the baritus, described by Ammianus Marcellinus and Vegetius as a Roman war cry, was a Germanic tradition that developed into a quintessentially Roman one, mirroring the "barbarization" and increasing provincial make-up of the legions known from other sources and studies. Gwynaeth McIntyre also explores ritual in the military, particularly in the ways that ritual in the forms of the triumph and commemorative rites created a sense of belonging within the legion, and loyalty and belonging to the imperial family. Germanicus' career and popularity is used as a case study, and it is well-chosen, as McIntyre is then able to discuss public ritual (the triumph), commemorative monuments (his arch), and more.

Jesper Majbom Madsen focuses on the role of the imperial cult in creating a common identity. This chapter provides an interesting thematic link between those preceding it and those coming after, considering peoples both in the provinces and in Rome. Madsen argues that the main differences between Romans and non-Roman citizens in the imperial cult occurred in the opportunities and contexts in which the emperor was worshipped. Throughout, however, the participation in a variety of rituals organized under the umbrella of 'imperial cult' brought Romans and provincial citizens together as citizens of the emperor. He also suggests that the role of the Roman administration and the emperor himself, albeit ad hoc in approach and engagement, were crucial in maintaining the rituals and contexts of the cult of both the deceased emperor and the living one, establishing several interesting themes about imperial intervention picked up in subsequent chapters.

Religious landscapes in and outside Rome take center stage in Chapters 6 and 7. Jussi Rantala contends that the Severan ludi were designed to represent Septimius Severus' power to the senatorial and Roman elite within the city and to reconfigure and cement the power hierarchies within the city. The new participation of the Vestal Virgins in the sacrifice of the first night is a particularly interesting part of the analysis; Russi discusses how the special status enjoyed by the Vestals in the city allowed the group to represent the city as a whole and integrated them into the symbolic household of the emperor during the ritual sacrifice. In the subsequent chapter, Claudia Beltrão da Rosa takes up the theme of the shaping of ritual and landscapes by the imperial administration by considering the Augustan reconfiguration of archaic myth and ritual landscapes attached to those myths using the Terminalia and the Fortuna Muliebris.

In Chapters 8-10, the self-definition of provincial peoples and how this changed under Rome is key. Augustus Morales takes the discussion into the provinces, looking at the Augustan period transformation of the Athenian Acropolis. Morales studies the range of ways that the monopteros on the Acropolis reflected continued local strategies to honor foreign benefactors and integrate foreign power structures into the local landscapes. He argues that the monopteros expressed and helped perpetuate the notion that there was a new imperial identity in which Athenian traditions and past were upheld, valued, and preserved while simultaneously working to validate and support Roman power structures. Joel Allen continues the discussion about imperial identities in the world of Roman Greece, considering Herodes Atticus' pupil, Memnon. Allen suggests that Memnon represented an attempt by Herodes Atticus to reconfigure his identity as a distinctly imperial elite whose associations broadened and transcended traditional Greek models and forms. By integrating Memnon into his family and involving him in traditional modes of Athenian youth performance and coming-of-age rituals, Herodes Atticus simultaneously made Memnon a Greek insider while retaining a distinctly cosmopolitan identity marked by his origin elsewhere. By highlighting how Herodes Atticus tapped into the strategies and frameworks of the Roman world writ large, Allen also contributes to discussions concerning the mechanisms and frameworks for creating an imperial identity, and the ways that they were adopted and adapted for local and personal purposes.

Mark Depauw's chapter surveys changing naming practices in Roman Egypt using data collected by Trismegistos, a digital database comprised of papyrological and epigraphic documents from the region. He correlates changes in naming practices with changes in the way that peoples in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt conceived of themselves, and their relationship to larger cultural and political structures and practices. He identifies a number of interesting trends—for example the rise in Greek double names replacing Greek-Egyptian double names, and the appearance of filiation identification perhaps inspired by Roman naming and identification practices—and the chapter is illustrated with several charts and graphs. The chapter is an excellent example of the utility of Trismegistos, and the immense amount of data to which the project provides access.

The final chapter deals with changes to imperial identity and its manifestations in Late Antiquity. Luise Marion Frenkel surveys the changing role of the Senate and its power (both real and symbolic) in the fourth to fifth centuries CE, through a study of senatorial ritual and institutional practices, such as speech giving and taking minutes. Frenkel demonstrates that even though the power of the Senate was in decline, ritual and rhetoric in the Senate promoted a sense of legitimacy to rulers and their decisions and a connection to the past. The Senate's connection to the Roman past gave it the power to represent the antiquity and power of the past even when held outside Rome, and with little in the way of actual power. Sections of the chapter can be read against those preceding it; imperial identity, and the way it was formed, was a dynamic process, but one kept alive through institutions deriving from or articulated within the political and social systems of empire.

Overall the book strikes a good balance between focus and methodological approach, incorporating material, digital, and textual techniques, and moving between the early and high empire, and from Rome to the provinces, although there is rather an emphasis on imperial control over ritual and manipulation of ritual behavior and landscapes to validate and legitimize power. One might wish for a more direct engagement with ritual—at the very least, a working definition provided in each chapter—but the text's strength is in demonstrating the richness of the subject, and the multifaceted approaches that can be fruitfully taken to study this type of identity. The chapters work well in comparison to each other, considering how the themes or approaches of one are picked up on, or modified by others. The volume will be a nice resource for those interested in a variety of approaches to the topic, and to see how a sense of belonging to the cultural, religious, social, or political world of Rome was manifested in different areas and in different times.

Table of Contents

Arjan Zuiderhoek and Wouter Vanacker, Introduction: imperial identities in the Roman World, pp.1-15.
Ch. 1: Andreas Hartmann, Between Greece and Rome: forging a primordial identity for an imperial aristocracy, pp.16-35.
Ch.2: Johannes Hahn, Rituals of Killing: public punishment, munera, and the dissemination of Roman values and ideology in the Imperium Romanum, pp.36-60.
Ch.3: Conor Whately, The war cry: ritualized behavior and Roman identity in ancient warfare, 200 BCE—400 CE, pp.61-77.
Ch.4: Gwynaeth McIntyre, Uniting the army: the use of rituals commemorating Germanicus to create an imperial identity, pp.78-92.
Ch.5: Jesper Majbom Madsen, Joining the Empire: the imperial cult as a marker of a shared imperial identity, pp.93-109.
Ch.6: Jussi Rantala, Promoting family, creating identity: Septimius Severus and the imperial family in the rituals of the ludi saeculares, pp.110-124.
Ch.7: Claudia Beltrão Da Rosa, Constructing a religious landscape: Terminalia, Fortuna Muliebris, and the Augustan ager Romanus, pp.125-140.
Ch.8: Fabio Augusto Morales, The monument of Roma and Augustus on the Athenian Acropolis: imperial identities and local traditions, pp.141-161.
Ch.9: Joel Allen, Herodes Atticus, Memnon of Ethiopia and the Athenian ephebeia, pp.162-175.
Ch.10: Mark Depauw, Roman influence on rituals of identification in Egypt, pp.176-198.
Ch.11: Luise Marion Frenkel, The imperial identity of senatorial rituals in Late Antiquity, pp.199-218.


1.   e.g., Ando, C. 2000. Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire. Berkeley: London and Ewald, Christian Björn, Noreña, Carlos F. 2010. The Emperor and Rome: space, representation, and ritual. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2019


Stefano Casarino, Amedeo Alessandro Raschieri (ed.), L'arte della parola: tra antichità e mondo contemporaneo. Mnemata, 3. Canterano: Aracne Editrice, 2017. Pp. 311. ISBN 9788825501926. €18,00 (pb).

Reviewed by Elena Colla, Liceo G.D. Romagnosi. Parma (

Version at BMCR home site

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

I dodici saggi raccolti nel volume sono la rielaborazione delle relazioni tenute durante il convegno omonimo promosso dall'AICC cuneese nel 2014. L'argomento allora scelto era volutamente in controtendenza rispetto alla situazione culturale italiana (ma anche, direi, più generale): infatti, a fronte dei settorialismi e tecnicismi dilaganti, l'arte della parola rappresenta per i curatori il punto di convergenza di molteplici campi d'indagine (in particolare, alcuni dei contributi sono d'argomento giuridico) e consente una visione olistica.

Come si desume dal titolo ("Potere e parola nella cultura dei sofisti"), il saggio di Nasi si concentra sul nesso che lega parola e potere, considerato il perno del pensiero sofistico. Poiché esso ha influenzato tutta la cultura greca non solo filosofica, l'autore accenna alla parodia di Aristofane (Nuvole) e alla polemica di Platone (Teeteto) prima di affrontare le implicazioni politiche delle indagini linguistiche e retoriche di Prodico e Gorgia: nello specifico, la sinonimica del primo, alla ricerca della definizione più esatta di ogni termine, si riverbererebbe nell'analisi tucididea (cf. in particolare Th. III 38, 5-7; 39, 2; 82, 2-4). Per quanto riguarda il secondo, infine, accantonata l'idea di una presunta apoliticità, Nasi richiama l'attenzione sulla svalutazione del νόμος nell'Epitafio, da un lato, sull'esaltazione della parola e della sua forza persuasiva, che incide sulla realtà nell'Encomio di Elena, dall'altro.

Premessa fondamentale del lavoro di Cuniberti ("La retorica nascosta e smascherata: Senofonte e l'arte socratica delle domande retoriche") è la consapevolezza di Senofonte dell'importanza della ricezione e della possibilità di orientare il destinatario sia attraverso la selezione dei fatti, sia attraverso strategie narrative e retoriche. Pertanto, l'Autore intende esaminare l'uso delle interrogative retoriche nella produzione senofontea. Il primo dato che emerge è che il numero delle domande dirette, non solo retoriche, è molto alto, soprattutto nelle opere "socratiche" (e in quelle storiche d'impronta socratica), per ovvie ragioni: un confronto con Tucidide, in cui tale mezzo espressivo risulta raro, lascia supporre che Senofonte abbia concepito l'interrogativa come uno strumento stilistico particolarmente efficace. Sono quindi esaminate la Ciropedia, le cui interrogative sembrano ribadire i valori cari a Senofonte, e l'Anabasi, dove l'uso delle domande retoriche appare finalizzato all'autodifesa. Le Elleniche segnano un cambiamento: le interrogative retoriche diventano anche interventi autoriali grazie ai quali Senofonte anticipa le riflessioni e soprattutto le obiezioni del lettore operando una sottile deformazione degli eventi. Significativa è anche la distribuzione: assenti nei primi due libri, si concentrano nelle coppie III-IV e VI-VII, esprimendo aspetti essenziali del pensiero politico dell'autore. Analogamente, nell'Agesilao e nella Costituzione degli Spartani, le valutazioni di Senofonte sono espresse in una forma che vuole comunicare certezze, secondo strategie retoriche più che secondo un metodo storiografico oggettivo.

Nel suo contributo "L'ἠθοποιία bifronte in Lisia", Cresci si sofferma su un aspetto dell'etopea lisiana che ancora merita di essere esplorato, ovvero la possibilità di conoscere la natura delle corti giudicanti a partire dalla capacità del logografo di adeguare il discorso alle piccole manie e ai pregiudizi dei giudici. In effetti, rileggendo con la dovuta cautela i testi di Lisia alla luce delle testimonianze sui processi desumibili da Aristofane e Aristotele, emergono gli aspetti salienti della mentalità dei giurati: la consapevolezza del proprio ruolo di difesa non solo della legge, ma dell'intera politeia; la predisposizione a condannare, che il logografo tenta di neutralizzare avviando un processo di identificazione con una delle parti in causa; l'apprezzamento per pudore e ritrosia; la comprensione mostrata verso l'ira come possibile movente di un crimine. In generale, appare rilevante il ruolo delle emozioni: l'appello alla pietà, il tentativo di suscitare il riso o una sorta di complicità. In conclusione, Lisia si muove con sicurezza nell'ampio spazio che la natura non specialistica delle corti ateniesi, nonché le argomentazioni prevalentemente fondate sull'eikós lasciano alla retorica, conformando il carattere e i discorsi dei suoi clienti alla mentalità e alle aspettative dei giudici.

Nel mondo attuale, in cui numeri e immagini dettano legge e la parola appare manipolata e compromessa, diventa fondamentale recuperare una buona retorica. In effetti, proprio il XX secolo, che ha conosciuto la enfasi vuota e reboante dei totalitarismi, ha avviato una riflessione su tale disciplina, grazie soprattutto all'opera di Perelman.1 Questo premesso, in "La buona retorica e il λόγος ἡγεμών di Isocrate", Casarino suggerisce un ritorno ad Isocrate, affrancato da alcuni pregiudizi critici,2 come esempio di fede in una parola utile alla comunità, non divisiva, che sollecita il confronto dialettico ed è alla base della democrazia: spunti utili provengono dal Panegirico (in particolare il concetto di logos come rivelatore di libertà: cap. 49), dal Nicocle (logos come vettore di paideia: cap. 8) e, infine, dal Panatenaico, in cui Isocrate rivendica di essersi sempre dedicato a quei discorsi che potessero essere utili per la sua città.

La sistemazione data alla retorica in ambito romano da Cicerone e lo stretto rapporto tra forma e insegnamento che caratterizza le sue opere retoriche hanno fatto di lui un maestro della disciplina. A ciò ha forse contribuito la rappresentazione che Cicerone dà di sé: pertanto, il saggio di Raschieri "Cicerone come maestro di retorica" intende mettere alla prova tale ipotesi, esaminando i termini pertinenti all'area semantica dell'insegnamento nel De inventione. In effetti, emerge una notevole consapevolezza: Cicerone attribuisce grande importanza al magistero retorico per la formazione del cittadino, ma non ne nasconde le difficoltà (ne conseguono la necessità di rifarsi alla tradizione e il legame con la filosofia); ancora, la strutturazione degli argomenti, il gioco di rimandi, le esemplificazioni rivelano notevole sensibilità pedagogica; infine, si segnalano l'attenzione a delimitare gli ambiti di retorica e filosofia e la rielaborazione in chiave romana dei precetti greci.

Come si può desumere dal titolo ("Il mezzo e il messaggio. Le tecnologie della parola nella storia della ricerca sulle tradizioni sinottiche"), Grosso compie una ricognizione storica degli studi sulla composizione dei Vangeli sinottici, in funzione del mezzo comunicativo utilizzato. Dopo alcuni cenni a Lessing, Schleiermacher e Lachmann, l'attenzione si posa su Herder, per l'importanza da lui conferita all'oralità. Più ampia la trattazione delle tesi novecentesche: mentre Bultmann ipotizza una progressiva stratificazione e cerca di recuperare le forme primitive via via inglobate nella narrazione, pur rimanendo legato ad una visione letteraria, Gerhardsson appare più sensibile alle sollecitazioni derivanti dagli studi sull'oralità e suppone una trasmissione controllata, scritta o mnemonica, dei materiali relativi alla predicazione di Gesù secondo il modello rabbinico (ma nei Vangeli non c'è testimonianza di ciò). Per quanto riguarda il panorama tra XX e XXI secolo, sono considerati sia gli studi oralistici (nel testo di Marco, il legame con la tradizione orale è riconoscibile tanto nelle modalità di costruzione del racconto, quanto nelle scelte sintattiche) sia il performance criticism (la dinamica tra esecuzione e ricezione consente di prospettare una situazione in cui il testo plasma il pubblico e ne è contemporaneamente plasmato).

In "Hermann Broch e i diversi fini dell'arte della parola: Virgilio versus Augusto" Giuliani si concentra su alcuni passi della terza sezione del romanzo La morte di Virgilio, in cui Augusto e il poeta si confrontano sul destino dell'Eneide: mentre l'imperatore si ostina a considerare la letteratura in funzione della celebrazione di un sistema politico, Virgilio/Broch, influenzato dalla rivoluzione scientifica novecentesca (in particolare il principio di indeterminazione di Heisenberg) e dal pensiero heideggeriano, ritiene che essa debba tendere verso l'infinito e il trascendente, anche se può solo offrire una pallida idea della verità. Virgilio, dunque, diviene il pretesto per esprimere una concezione dell'arte liberata, autonoma.

Il saggio di Fenoglio ("Tra parola e azione: la lezione di Leonardo Ferrero, filologo e partigiano") rievoca la figura di Ferrero, studioso e uomo impegnato nella vita civile: da un lato, si ricorda il suo contributo ad una migliore comprensione della definizione ciceroniana della storiografia come opus oratorium; dall'altro, si sottolinea la sua consapevolezza che, se la conoscenza del presente offre chiavi d'interpretazione del passato, lo studio del passato può aiutare a vivere con maggiore lucidità il presente. Negli anni del fascismo questo si è tradotto in un magistero di libertà e impegno morale, prima, nella scelta di aderire alla Resistenza, poi. Infine, in opuscoli successivi sull'esperienza antifascista, compare il forte legame tra cura della parola e rettitudine dell'azione, da cui nasce la buona retorica.

In "Aristotele chiama Obama", Desderi propone un'interessante analisi del discorso indirizzato dal Presidente USA ai giovani raccolti a Bruxelles il 26 marzo 2014, alla luce dell'insegnamento retorico antico, pur nella consapevolezza delle specificità delle diverse epoche. Dopo alcune indispensabili avvertenze sulla "macchina della comunicazione del Presidente" (p. 207), sul fatto che i discorsi sono scritti da suoi collaboratori e sull'opportunità di studiare l'originale inglese, Desderi esamina il testo: di genere deliberativo, può essere suddiviso nelle quattro parti canoniche (anche se il passaggio da narrazione ad argomentazione non è netto); i precetti e i mezzi retorici sono applicati con efficacia, dimostrando la loro attualità.

È pressoché ovvio che la retorica intesa come mera arte della persuasione trovi applicazione nell'ambito del diritto. Tuttavia, poiché nella storia della giurisprudenza si sono avvicendate (anche se talora coesistono) due diverse concezioni di essa, quella logico-deduttiva (che vorrebbe offrire la certezza del diritto) e quella logico-argomentativo retorica (che tende a muoversi sul terreno del ragionevole), quest'ultima può ricevere un utile contributo, come sostiene Sicardi ("Retorica e diritto. Spunti introduttivi") anche dalla retorica come tecnica dell'argomentazione, soprattutto come ars inveniendi di ragionamenti su cui fondare il convincimento dell'uditorio, tanto più in una realtà complessa come l'attuale, in cui si possono verificare situazioni non ancora disciplinate dal codice.3

Nel saggio "Circolo ermeneutico e autorità della tradizione: tentativi di ricostruzione tra diritto e letteratura" Cavino distingue tra circolo interpretativo (dal caso concreto alla norma e di nuovo al caso) e circolo ermeneutico (dalla pre-comprensione alla comprensione piena) e riflette sulle possibilità di applicazione di questo al diritto. In particolare, individua due importanti limiti: la difficoltà di valutare quando si sia giunti alla piena comprensione e la solitudine dell'interprete, che mal si addice al giudice il quale deve invece entrare in contatto con il vissuto di altri soggetti.

Negli ultimi decenni la cura dell'immagine ha investito non solo l'ambito politico, suscitando un ampio dibattito, ma anche la sfera privata; viceversa, si tende a considerare che il diritto, soprattutto nella sistemazione novecentesca, ne sia immune e si fondi esclusivamente sulla parola razionale. In realtà, come il contributo di Heritier ("Tra umanesimo e postmodernità. La politica, l'uso normativo dell'immagine e la retorica processuale") evidenzia, non solo nella storia del diritto l'immagine è spesso stata utilizzata con funzione normativa, ma si può tentare di individuare "tratti normativi dell'immagine" (p. 287) accettabili nella concezione giuridica attuale.

I contributi proposti, sebbene tutti ricchi di spunti di riflessione, appaiono disomogenei: alcuni, più profondamente radicati nella realtà culturale italiana, rivelano maggiormente le finalità di difesa e promozione della cultura classica; altri, invece, sono più nettamente destinati alla fruizione specialistica. Ciò mi sembra si riverberi anche nelle bibliografie dei singoli studi, caratterizzate da opere prevalentemente in lingua italiana i primi, internazionali i secondi.

L'edizione è complessivamente curata e pochi sono i refusi: in particolare, correggerei, a p. 60 r. 9 ἠθοποϊία con ἦθος. In tale quadro generale, stupisce la trascuratezza formale dell'ultimo saggio, che avrebbe meritato un'ulteriore rilettura.

Authors and titles

S. Nasi. Potere e parola nella cultura dei sofisti
G. Cuniberti. La retorica nascosta e smascherata: Senofonte e l'arte socratica delle domande retoriche
L. R. Cresci. L'ἠθοποιία bifronte in Lisia
S. Casarino. La buona retorica e il λόγος ἡγεμών di Isocrate
A. A. Raschieri. Cicerone come maestro di retorica
M. Grosso. Il mezzo e il messaggio. Le tecnologie della parola nella storia della ricerca sulle tradizioni sinottiche
S. Giuliani. Hermann Broch e i diversi fini dell'arte della parola: Virgilio versus Augusto
S. Fenoglio. Tra parola e azione: la lezione di Leonardo Ferrero, filologo e partigiano
E. Desderi. Aristotele chiama Obama
S. Sicardi. Retorica e diritto. Spunti introduttivi
M. Cavino. Circolo ermeneutico e autorità della tradizione: tentativi di ricostruzione tra diritto e letteratura
P. Heritier. Tra umanesimo e postmodernità. La politica, l'uso normativo dell'immagine e la retorica processuale
Gli autori


1.   C. Perelman - L. Olbrechts-Tyteca. Trattato dell'argomentazione. Torino 1966 (ed. or. 1958).
2.   In particolare il giudizio di A. Lesky. Storia della letteratura greca. Milano 1980 (ed. or. 1957-1958), pp. 724s.
3.   Mi sembra utile precisare che la tradizione giuridica a cui Sicardi fa riferimento è quella fondata sul diritto romano, che pone al centro il codice.

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Pierre Destrée, Zina Giannopoulou (ed.), Plato's 'Symposium': A Critical Guide. Cambridge critical guides. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. 282. ISBN 9781107110052. £64.99.

Reviewed by Anna Novokhatko, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Few texts of ancient Greek literature have engaged scholarship to such an extent as Plato's Symposium, written probably between 384 and 379 BCE and presenting an account of a fictional banquet in the house of the Athenian tragic poet Agathon to celebrate his first victory in the dramatic competitions of 416 BCE. Even the most recent work is copious. 1

The present volume contains thirteen contributions and includes a broad spectrum of scholars, from very well-known experts on Plato's philosophy to young researchers. The volume is focused on the text of the dialogue and in general corresponds to its structure: four contributions analyse the three speeches delivered before Socrates (F. V. Trivigno, S. Obdrzalek, D. Sedley and F. J. Gonzalez), four contributions deal with Socrates' speech itself (F. C. C. Sheffield, A. Nightingale, C. Shields and A. W. Price), and, finally, two contributions at the end of the volume (R. G. Edmonds and P. Destrée) examine Alcibiades' arrival and his praise of Socrates. The chapter written by J. Reid provides an overview of all the speeches in the context of Plato's educational principles. The first (rather philological) and the last (rather philosophical) chapters stand out, the first by Z. Giannopoulou providing a narratological approach to the text and focusing on time as a principle of narrative structure; the last chapter, by R. Kraut, dealing with eudaimonism in relation to Plato's ethical thought.

Giannopoulou argues that the regressive temporality of the dialogue's frame (the present leads to the past and mirrors the past) corresponds to the first part of Diotima's speech (204a-206a). But the prologue's progressive temporality, in which the present leads to the future, corresponds to the second part of Diotima's speech (206b-212a), concerning begetting in beauty and a procreative model of desire.

J. Reid provides an intertextual reading highlighting parallels between the speeches prior to Diotima's and the goals of early education in the Republic. In both dialogues, Plato is concerned with the goals of education.

F. V. Trivigno deals with Eryximachus' speech and regards it as constituting a methodological rivalry between medicine and philosophy as these are developed in Plato. The parallels between Plato's treatment of Eryximachus, with various cues indicating to the audience that his speech should be taken as parodic, and the figure of the doctor as a stock character from Old and Middle Comedy are convincing (though two important attestations from comedy are missing from the list: Crates fr. 46 PCG and Ameipsias fr. 17 PCG both refer to doctors' speech and reinforce the author's argument on the parody of medical discourse).

S. Obdrzalek argues further that Aristophanes' speech, which is very significant in relation to Socrates', represents a profoundly pessimistic account of desire as a state of lack and as an irrational urge incapable of satisfaction. Plato objects to Aristophanes because Aristophanes treats human nature and desire as irrational and because he assigns the wrong object to desire, a union with a human beloved rather than contemplation of forms.

D. Sedley considers this same tale of human origins by Aristophanes to be a tragi-comic perversion of the creation story told by the eponymous speaker in the later Timaeus (the list of textual correspondences is presented in the appendix). Plato in his Timaeus adds four reasons for the spherical shape of the world-god: inclusiveness, the beauty of symmetry, self-sufficiency, and rotation. The highest achievement of human life is to succeed in identifying the core of a person's being with the intellect, located in the head, setting aside the lower psychological drives, housed in the heart and gut (Tim. 90a-d). The human goal of becoming godlike, while absent from the earlier speakers' attempts to capture love's divine nature, is twice represented in the Symposium as the real aim of love: it is first sketched misleadingly by Aristophanes, then correctly by Socrates.

F. J. Gonzalez argues further that Agathon's speech, which precedes Socrates', is prominent and central, conceptually coherent and sophisticated. It introduces various points that are further developed in Socrates' speech such as the definition of the nature of desire, the identification of happiness with the possession of goodness and beauty, a critical distance from the poetic tradition (Hesiod and Parmenides), and the distinctly Platonic conception of temperance. Agathon is the last to stay awake in discussion with Socrates, and thus the kinship between the two seems much closer than usually thought, something suggested by the central importance of their rivalry in the dialogue.

In foregrounding Diotima's speech, F. C. C. Sheffield examines the nature and structure of erotic desire, explaining why desire is a uniquely appropriate term for the characterization of the philosopher's pursuit of forms (and exclusively associated with passionate sexual desire). A basic feature of desire is what the Greeks would think of as its axiomatic relationship to beauty (beauty being how the goodness of a thing – a body, a soul, a poem or law – appears to us). Desire is more than a lack or a longing, and it involves cognitive components, specifically an evaluative judgement of its object as kalos or agathos in some respect. Desire constitutes a fundamental urge to self-creation. It is our relentless pursuit of beauty, a drive to reproduce the value we see in the world and capture it in a life of our own, as parents, poets, legislators, or philosophers. The proper end of all desires is the form of beauty, and that is why desire emerges most strongly in those dialogues in which the theory of forms plays a central role: the Phaedo, the Symposium, the Phaedrus, and the Republic. Finally, the author's focus on the intertextual relationship with Aristotle (Metaphysics Lambda) represents a significant contribution to scholarship. Scheffield emphasizes that the metaphysical significance of desire for Plato has been neglected, despite the fact that its significance was appreciated by Aristotle. Aristotle used desire in a context that employs features highlighted in Plato's Symposium. Aristotle is drawing on the ability of desire to capture action in relation to the divine end, and on the features that make the desire- term eros appropriate for action in relation to the divine.

A. Nightingale analyses the discourse associated with the body and the realm of becoming. In the Symposium all the emphasis is on the philosophical lover who gives birth to ideas in the presence of his beloved. The metaphor of the philosopher's fathering of a discourse that carries his seed in the Phaedrus (finalized written texts vs. open-ended and on-going philosophical dialogue) differs from the metaphor of the philosopher giving birth to discursive offspring in the Symposium. The philosopher plants discourses in the student's mind; the student develops arguments that are fruitful and full of seeds; from these seeds other discourses grow up in other people's minds and thus become immortal. Two models of psychic pregnancy (great poets and lawgivers vs. the philosophic lover) are set forth by Diotima. Philosophical work does not take the form of a finished product; poems and law-codes, by contrast, are fixed and finalized. In Diotima's discussions of the discursive children of the poets and lawgivers (model 1) and of the philosophic lover (model 2), Diotima effectively contrasts a finalized discourse to an ongoing and changing philosophic discourse.

C. Shields poses the question why creatures who live and love in a world of change and impermanence should embrace a conception of the culmination of human life that may seem to them not its apotheosis but rather its abnegation. This criticism is valid only within a partial and decontextualized understanding of Plato's motivation for characterizing the ascent toward beauty. The final goal of love is not the serene contemplation of beauty itself, but rather the secure possession of the form of the good. Diotima treats the vision of the form of beauty as the culmination of an attraction consistent with a larger, overarching ultimate end. Knowledge has a special role in Plato, and the possibility of cognitive achievement will dwarf other, lower, non-cognitive types of love. Shields' contribution is not aided by a number of incorrect citations (such as Plato's Republic book 6 quoted repeatedly as book 5).

A. W. Price concludes the series of four contributions devoted exclusively to Diotima by posing two questions about how best to interpret the point in the Symposium that Socrates pretends to derive from Diotima: (1) Within the Lesser Mysteries, is desire generic (desire in general) or specific/erotic? (2) Within the Greater Mysteries, is interpersonal desire maintained or supplanted? Similarly to Nightingale's discussion, Price argues that Plato plays with the ambiguity of the vocabulary tokos and tiktein, describing procreation in the language of pregnancy. In invoking the impact of poetry and legislation, Diotima applies the language of generation freely: all poets are procreators of wisdom and the rest of virtue; legislators such as Lycurgus and Solon procreated laws and virtue of all sorts, which they have since then counted as their children.

Two further contributors, R. G. Edmonds and P. Destrée, deal with the final episode of the drunken Alcibiades. Edmonds argues against Christoph Riedweg's suggestion that the references in the Symposium to the Greater and Lesser Mysteries may reflect an actual sequence of initiations focused on imparting secret doctrines to the initiates. He claims that Plato deploys the imagery of mystery rituals and the idea of Alcibiades as a profaner of mysteries to provide an answer to the problem of the spectacular failure of Alcibiades. Alcibiades was able to perceive the beauty in Socrates, but failed to understand that beauty was not a possession of Socrates himself. He tried to appropriate beauty just as he would try to appropriate the Mysteries of Eleusis. The point of the metaphor of the mysteries is that the philosophy Alcibiades desires is not some piece of information that he can learn (mathein) and keep for himself, but rather an experience he must undergo (pathein), such as a ritual. Alcibiades' failure in philosophy is illuminated by the parallel with the Mysteries, which he failed to treat with due respect. In the Symposium, Plato uses the imagery of the Mysteries to elucidate the nature of philosophy, both in the metaphor of the epopteia of Diotima and in the profanations of Alcibiades.

P. Destrée on the contrary argues that Alcibiades' speech can shed positive light on Diotima's speech. Alcibiades came to Socrates the Silenus to learn a special knowledge, knowledge of one's desire for happiness. Alcibiades' concluding sentence is seen as providing the clue as to how to interpret Diotima's final words (212a), which should be read in this perspective. At the very end of the Republic, it is similarly only the philosophers who are able to obtain true moral knowledge and thus practice true virtue, which allows them to obtain true happiness.

R. Kraut concludes the volume arguing that the Aristotelian ultimate end should not be imposed on Plato, and that Socrates' goal of loving as the contemplation of the form of beauty should be considered to be the finest activity of the gods who comprise happiness and not as the only form of happiness. The best kind of embodied existence is in the right relationship to all beautiful things.

The volume represents various approaches to the interpretation of the text of the Symposium on a synchronic level. A desideratum remains discussion on the generic (i.e. genre-related) contextualisation of this dialogue in the late 5th and early 4th centuries BCE.2 However, the book constitutes a very useful survey incorporating current scholarship of the highest quality, spanning an impressive breadth of topics ranging from minor interpretive explanations to questions of Plato's social and ritual context.


1.   The classical Cambridge commentary by K. Dover (1980), the Warminster translation and commentary by C. J. Rowe (1998), the monographs by K. Sier (Stuttgart and Leipztig 1997), R. Hunter (Oxford 2004), and F. C. C. Scheffield (Oxford 2006), the volumes of collected papers edited by J. Lesher, D. Nails and F. Scheffield (Washington DC 2006) and C. Horn (Berlin 2012). I will not here mention the numerous recent translations of the Symposium.
2.   On placing the Symposium within the system of genres of the time, see B. Zimmermann, 'Platons Theorietheater: Einige Gedanken zum Symposion', International Yearbook for Hermeneutics 13 (2014), 34-47.

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