Thursday, November 21, 2013


Henri Dominique Saffrey, Alain-Philippe Segonds, Jamblique: Réponse à Porphyre (De mysteriis). Collection des universités de France. Série grecque, 496. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2013. Pp. clvi, 364. ISBN 9782251005805. €95.00 (pb).

Reviewed by John Dillon, Trinity College Dublin (

Version at BMCR home site

Here is an edition long-awaited and much to be welcomed. It is simply a great pity that one of the authors, Alain Segonds, is no longer around to see it appear, having tragically passed away in May 2011. The present edition of what we must now learn to call The Reply to Porphyry's Letter to Anebo, but which has for over five centuries been burdened with the title, bestowed upon it by Marsilio Ficino, and adopted by all editors since, of On the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans and AssyriansDe Mysteriis, for short – supersedes magisterially the 1966 Budé edition of Edouard des Places. This in its turn was not at all bad – we used it, by kind permission of the publishers, for our annotated text and translation with SBL in 20031 – but this edition goes far beyond it in detailing the background and analysis of the structure of the text, together with quite a number of useful emendations (though none, I think, affecting the meaning in any vital way).

It is indeed a weighty tome. The introduction, of 153 pages, is divided into six chapters. In the first, we have a comprehensive discussion of the title, author, true order of the text, and date. There is here nothing, I think, that can be quarrelled with. The editors relate, among other things, the interesting story (pp. xxvi-xxix) of Ficino's discovery that a whole segment of the text (folios 37r-63r) was inverted in the tradition, which restored sense to an important part of the work. With their account of Iamblichus' life and works, comprising Chapter 2, I likewise find no fault, except that I note that they waffle somewhat (p. xli) as to the identity of his first teacher Anatolius, though one can hardly blame them for that. In what sense was he 'second' (ta deutereia pheromenos) to Porphyry, as Eunapius describes him? As his second-in-command in the school in Rome? But then why would Iamblichus have been studying with him in Alexandria? Or just as the second most distinguished Platonist of the age? I doubt this latter option. At any rate, Iamblichus was certainly a pupil of Porphyry's at some stage in the last two decades of the third century, very probably in Rome (rather than Lilybaeum).

The next chapter concerns a topic covered also in the authors' edition of Porphyry's Letter to Anebo, 'la fiction égyptienne'. Here they go over again the probable circumstances of this remarkable exchange of documents. As a suggestion as to why Porphyry, who had never been to Egypt, chose to address Iamblichus, who was by now (c. 305 CE) firmly established in Syrian Apamea (and had probably never spent much time in Egypt either) in the guise of an Egyptian priest, they select the reputation of Egypt as a hotbed of magical practices (since Porphyry is determined to identify Iamblichean theurgy with magic) – and the experience that Porphyry would have had of seedy Egyptian magicians infesting Rome, and I think that is very reasonable. Whether or not Porphyry devised the name 'Anebo' in the knowledge that it could mean 'great is his master' (sc. Hermes) seems debatable – the name is not attested in Egyptian prosopography – but he could, I suppose, have asked around his Egyptian acquaintances. In any case, Iamblichus seems to have risen to the challenge, with a name meaning 'He belongs to Amun' (the most probable interpretation of 'Abamon').

Following on this, there is a detailed and comprehensive account of the manuscript tradition (ch. 4). Here the editors give due credit to the labours of Martin Sicherl, in his 1957 study,2 but have much of interest to relate nonetheless. We are faced with two chief manuscripts (both admittedly no older than the 15th century), that obtained by Cardinal Bessarion, Marcianus graecus 244 (M), and that presented by Cosimo de' Medici to Marsilio Ficino, Vallicellianus F 20 (V), both containing the inversion mentioned above, which is caught by Ficino, but not by Bessarion. The editors give a fine account of what happened to each of them, followed by details of all subsequent editions and translations, from Scutelli (Rome, 1556) on. It was Scutelli who devised the division into ten books, which no one later, until this edition, ever ventured to undo.

In fact, as the editors demonstrate clearly in their Plan (ch. 5) and then their detailed Analysis (ch. 6) of the work, there are simply three main topics into which Iamblichus' Reply may be divided, corresponding to the overall thrust of Porphyry's questions: (1) the proper classification of the higher beings (Books I and II of the old dispensation); (2) the question of divination (Book III); and (3) the nature and aims of theurgy (Books IV-X) – this last admittedly embracing a number of apparently independent topics such as Egyptian theology, fate and free will, and the personal daemon. The editors' analysis of the course of the argument is particularly helpful in showing how the Reply is constructed around the sequence of Porphyry's questions.

As for the text itself, there are, as I have mentioned, at least minor emendations to des Places' edition on virtually every page, and the apparatus criticus is more copious, but the overall sense of the text is rarely altered to any radical extent. I do note, however, one rather embarrassing detail, in which we uncritically followed an ill-judged emendation of des Places, at 181.7, where he altered tois axiois, which actually makes perfectly good sense ("to those who are worthy"), to tois hagiois ("to the holy ones" or "the saints"), thus introducing a characteristically Christian term into Iamblichus' text – which would indeed be significant, if it were there, but it is not in fact the reading of the manuscripts. We (Clarke-Dillon-Hershbell) did not notice that we were dealing with an emendation, and comment on this notable turn of phrase! But I note no other detail of comparable significance. In fact des Places makes many good emendations – as did Marsilio Ficino, Thomas Gale, and Gustav Parthey before him and, recently, Leendert Westerink after him – and the text is probably now in as good a state as can be hoped for. The supplementary notes are of a high order. Overall, I should say that this should remain the standard edition of the Reply to Porphyry for the next few centuries at least.


1.   Iamblichus, De Mysteriis, trans., with introduction and notes, by Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon and Jackson P. Hershbell (Atlanta: SBL Publications / Leiden: Brill, 2003).
2.   Die Handschriften, Ausgaben und Ubersetzungen von Iamblichus De Mysteriis (Berlin, 1957).

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