Monday, August 18, 2014


Ilenia Achilli, Le ali di Clio. Massimo di Tiro e il pensiero storico classico. Biblioteca di Sileno, 5. Lugano: Agorà e Co., 2013. Pp. 136. ISBN 9788897461197. €25.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Michael Trapp, Kings College London (

Version at BMCR home site

The subject of Ilenia Achilli's elegant monograph, Maximus of Tyre's Dialexis 22, cannot be bedside reading for many, so it would be sensible to begin with a synopsis. The orator opens his homily in classic chria style with Odysseus among the Phaeacians, asking what 'more gracious consummation' (χαριέστερον τέλος) there could be than a people rejoicing in a rich banquet and the singing of their bard (cf. Od. 9.2-11). But this verdict is quoted only to be immediately challenged: doesn't it betray an impossibly low and vulgar idea of worthwhile enjoyment, unworthy of the hero who, elsewhere in his adventures, was capable of resisting the lure of the Sirens' song and the sweet taste of the lotus? A second thought then strikes the orator. Perhaps Homer is allegorizing in this scene, and means us to understand him and Odysseus as recommending the purer pleasures of the ear over the gross pleasures of the belly. Yet even this, on its own, may not be enough for respectability: pleasures of the ear embrace the irrational and senseless sounds of music, which do nothing constructive for the soul (sic), as well as articulate speech (λόγος), and it is surely the latter that is really needed to nourish us. In that case, the question becomes one of what kind of logoi the truly superior diner is to feast on. Logoi which 'imitate the strife and rivalry of the lawcourts' (i.e. epideictic speeches, declamations) are a sham (not real-life speeches, only imitations) and too dark-toned (σκυθρωπά) to be appropriate. Historical logoi look much better: they preserve the memory of past achievements and the virtues of great men; they systematize facts about individuals, cities and geographical features; and they permit their audience to survey vast panoramas of space, time and perilous events in complete ease and safety, providing an Odyssean breadth of knowledge without the personal risk. And yet this form of discourse too has its limitations and inadequacies, as is evident from a proper consideration of the contents of the works of Thucydides, Herodotus and Theopompus. By presenting an indiscriminate mix of good and bad behaviour in its narrative of the past, indeed a narrative dominated by vicious conduct and irrational, undeserved outcomes, history foregoes the opportunity to provide a reliable moral example, or a means of avoiding future misfortune. By concentrating on literal, external strife, it fails to illuminate the still more important form of strife caused by the operation of the passions on the human soul. What is required instead – what will provide true nourishment and the best kind of festivity – is the Apolline gift of philosophy, the diet that brought health to Socrates, Plato, Xenophon and Aeschines.

This is, then, an assertion of the superior human value of philosophy over other well-regarded forms of discourse, comparable in its general thrust to what Maximus has to say elsewhere in Dial. 4 and 26, where he asserts that poetry (Homer's above all) is, when properly understood, a vehicle for philosophy, and in Dial. 25, where he argues that true beauty of discourse resides uniquely in philosophical logoi, rather than in any mere symmetry of word and deed or superficial elegance of style. In this particular oration, however, the chief rival to philosophy is very clearly historical discourse, and it is on this aspect that Achilli's monograph concentrates. Picking up on some pregnant pages in the third volume of Santo Mazzarino's Il pensiero storico classico (2nd. ed., Rome / Bari, 1983, pp. 14 and 164 ff.), which succinctly relate Maximus' rejection of history-writing to larger trends in Antonine period historiography, she aims to broaden and deepen the analysis by means of a close reading of the relevant paragraphs of Dial. 22, combined with a more extensive examination of their place in the culture of their times. The contextualizing part of this project involves, principally, a broad brush (and again Mazzarinian) account of major trends in classical historiography up to the later second century AD (pp. 21-35), and an examination of points of contact between Maximus' declarations about the value of histor(iograph)y and those of Diodorus Siculus (in the preface to the Historical Library), Seneca (in the Preface to Book 3 of the Natural Questions), Plutarch, Lucian (in his How to Write History) and Marcus Aurelius (pp. 76-91). In probing Maximus' own approach to the issue (pp. 36-76), Achilli looks also at the adjacent Dial. 23 and 24, debating whether soldiers or farmers are of greater benefit to the state, which she suggests reflect a similar sensibility and line of argument to 22. The volume is rounded off with the Greek text of Dial. 22-4, accompanied by the first translation into modern Italian (pp. 95-123), a short Appendix on possible connections between Maximus and Diodorus (pp. 125-7) and a Bibliography (pp. 129-35); there is no Index.

There is much to commend in this discussion, as a contribution both to the study of Imperial period historiography, which needs a broader rather than a narrower range of texts and authors to work with, and to the study of Maximus, who continues to hover on the margins of most scholars' attention and needs all the promotion he can get. It is clearly right that §§5-7 of Dial. 22 can and should be seen in the context of a much longer running story about the interface between historical fact and moral judgement, and can illuminatingly be juxtaposed both to encomia of history like Diodorus' on the one hand, and the moralizing programme articulated in the prefaces to Plutarch's Lives on the other. Achilli also has some perceptive things to say (e.g. pp. 52, 56-7) about Maximus' own, overtly philosophizing take on history and the paradoxes it entangles him in: he embraces the facts of history and the texts in which they are recorded as material for his moralizing, but at the same time in that moralizing denies value to both texts and events as lacking in real nourishment. This is indeed an aspect of Maximus' self-positioning that would repay more extended consideration, since his ambiguous relation to historical fact and writing is part of the larger issue of what it is to take a philosophical attitude to conventional culture and attitudes, particularly when, as is the case with Maximus, his own discourse, at least on the surface, is so deeply imbued with conventional Hellenic paideia. More attention to Dial. 25, where Maximus can be seen extricating himself from the predicament of using an extremely elegant, classicizing style to denounce elegant, classicizing style as a guarantee of merit, might have helped to bring this out. So too might a more extensive look at the presence of historical material throughout the corpus of the Dialexeis, which is so regularly – indeed almost without variation – reprocessed as moral or psychological allegory.

Where Achilli's reading of Dial. 22 becomes more directly debatable is in her assertion of closer and more specific connections with particular authors, and a specific historical context. She returns several times (pp. 50, 56; cf. 125-7) to the suggestion that Maximus may be responding directly to Diodorus' Library 1.1.1-4.5 when he first praises historical writing for its ability to synthesize large quantities of information from many different places and times, then dismisses it as none the less inadequate for the purposes that really matter. But although some relation to well established ways of praising history is undeniable, the match with Diodorus is by no means perfect. To speak of the universalizing scope of historical writing, as Maximus does, is not necessarily the same thing as speaking of universal history, particularly when the authors cited in illustration are Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and Theopompus.

A possible retort on Achilli's behalf might be that Maximus, in his normal classicizing mode, is speaking through a veil of classical references, but actually using those references to talk about more recent practice. But this in its turn raises the larger, and equally debatable issue of the degree of conscious and deliberate contemporary reference it is legitimate to see in him. Achilli argues strongly that Dial. 22-4 belong squarely in an Antonine context, chronologically and in historical sensibility. For her, when Maximus mentions the Athenian Plague of 430-426 BC (and Thucydides book 2), his words are consciously designed to resonate with his audience's experience of the Antonine Plague of 165-180 AD. When he voices dismay at the prevalence of irrational and undeserved events in historical writing he is expressing a disenchantment (not only with the moral compass of historians but also with traditional faith in the hand of Providence in history itself) which is a natural consequence of the external and internal troubles of the Empire under Aurelius and Commodus, and closely parallels Aurelius' exhortations to himself in the Ad se ipsum to disengage from the external world of chance and set his inner citadel in order instead. When he speaks of acquisitive tyrants and unjust wars (Dial. 22.6), or laments the elusiveness of 'the golden visage of Peace' (Dial. 23.7), he is consciously distancing himself from Imperial expansionism, as seen in the eastern campaigns of Lucius Verus, and from the empty rhetoric of the pax Romana, in a way that may also be visible in Lucian's How to Write History.

These are intelligently argued suggestions, presented with careful attention to possible difficulties, but in the nature of things they are as hard to establish conclusively as they are decisively to disprove, and are certainly not indispensible to a satisfactory placing of Maximus' work. Dial. 22 needs no urgent contemporary reference to make sense as a sermon on morally responsible reading habits, and can as satisfyingly be lined up with Plato's strictures on poetry in the Republic and Plutarchan advice on listening in the De audiendo and the De audiendis poetis as with Aurelius and Lucian. In debating the relative contributions to human happiness of farmers and soldiers, Dial. 23 and 24 stand in a tradition of comparison that goes all the way back to the Iliad, and can also be read as picking up an issue from the Republic (Auxiliaries vs. Producers in the ideal state). The closeness of their connection with Dial. 22 is moreover open to question, since their position in the sequence of works in the manuscript tradition is as likely to be the result of editorial intervention as of any planning by Maximus himself.

Achilli is at her least assured on textual and philological matters. She prints Hobein's outdated and excessively conservative 1910 Teubner text, without an apparatus criticus and without line numbers (which makes locating passages cited in her main text unnecessarily cumbersome), but then allows herself to diverge from it in her translation at a number of points where she feels it to be faulty, without indicating explicitly where these are. In at least two places she opts for an impossible translation of a manifestly corrupt manuscript text, prominently fussed over by editors: at Dial. 22.6, πολλῶι καὶ γενναίωι λογοποιῶι cannot mean 'un valido storico che parla tanto bene' (p. 52), and the text must be altered because the following apostrophe requires a plural not a singular addressee; at 22.7, ἀκρατοτέραν τῆς τῶν σωμάτων συμμετρίας cannot mean 'estranea, almeno originariamente, all'analogico referimento ai corpi' (p. 67), but is unintelligible as it stands and again in need of emendation. At 22.2 (pp. 70-1), LSJ μήποτε I.3 is confused with μήποτε I.1: μήποτε οὖν ἔοικέν τι Ὅμηρος αἰνίττεσθαι ἄλλο means 'perhaps Homer . . .', not 'Homer of course didn't . . .'. A little more time and care spent on the text of Maximus' sermons would have set off the real virtues of Achilli's discussion of their contents more effectively.

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