Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Jeffrey Rusten, Jason König​, Philostratus. Heroicus, Gymnasticus, Discourses 1 and 2. Loeb Classical Library, 521. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2014. Pp. 532. ISBN 9780674996748. $26.00.

Reviewed by Graeme Miles, University of Tasmania (Graeme.Miles@utas.edu.au)

Version at BMCR home site

This new volume completes the Loeb Classical Library's edition of the surviving works of Philostratus. The texts, at first sight, seem rather disparate in subject matter: the Heroicus is a dialogue between a Phoenician and a Vinedresser, the latter of whom communes with the still active hero Protesilaus, learning the true story of the Trojan War. The Gymnasticus is a treatise on athletic training, which urges a return to old-fashioned methods over the degenerate practices of the present day. The two brief texts with which the volume concludes are equally varied: the first is a brief discussion of epistolary style, the second a re-examination of the old theme of nature and custom (physis and nomos).

Both of the substantial texts in this volume are translated by authors who know these works intimately and have published valuable work on them in the past. The relatively full introductions to each (96 pages on the Heroicus and 64 pages on the Gymnasticus) manage to convey an impressive breadth of useful background. These and the bibliographies they contain will undoubtedly be valuable to readers new to the texts and finding their way into the increasingly sophisticated discussions surrounding them. The translations read very well and are dependably accurate. Though neither is the first English translation of its text, there is a definite need of them. The only earlier full translation of the Gymnasticus into English1 has long been unavailable. The first published English translation of Heroicus was that of Maclean and Aitken.2 Though this performed a useful service, it does suffer from a number of errors. Readers of German will still want the much larger translation and commentary of Grossardt.3 Turning to the shorter texts in this volume, the list of previous English translations is once again brief. The (so-called) Dialexis 1 has appeared in Malherbe's Ancient Epistolary Theorists,4 and the other Dialexis received a translation and discussion by Swain in Bowie and Elsner's edited volume on the Corpus Philostrateum.5

As these recent translations reveal, along with the increasingly large body of secondary literature on Philostratus, the corpus as a whole has been moving steadily closer to the mainstream. Yet there is still value in bringing this particular selection of texts further into visibility. All of these works address topics of broad interest in the Greek culture of the Roman Empire. There is much to learn from them regarding hero-cult, the various articulations of Greek identity (through literature, religion and athletics), physiognomics and interpretation, among much else. They are also subtle, playful and elegant works of literature in their own right. In keeping with prevailing scholarly opinion the editors/translators treat the texts (with the exception of the 'first Dialexis') as the work of Flavius Philostratus, author of the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Lives of the Sophists, the first set of Imagines, Love Letters and the brief dialogue Nero.6 It is necessary to raise one disagreement regarding the description of Discourses 1 and 2. It has been usual since the first edition of Kayser (1844) to speak of two Philostratean Dialexeis, that is, short speeches which were sometimes given as the introductions to longer performances.7 Though the Souda does ascribe Dialexeis to the second Philostratus, it is an open question whether either of these two pieces fits that description. The so-called Dialexis 1, despite some apparent similarities to the genre in its ostensibly relaxed and understated tone, its literary topic and its brevity, is in fact an open letter about letter-writing. This piece comes down to us among the Letters of Philostratus, and it is only in Kayser's edition that it was transformed into a dialexis. A further discussion lay behind this transformation. Olearius in his edition of 1709 had already observed that this piece was almost certainly the letter to the sophist Aspasius mentioned in the Lives of the Sophists (VS 628); it was not the work of the Philostratus who was the author of the rest of the collection, but rather of his nephew, Philostratus of Lemnos.8 In his 1842 edition of Philostratus' Letters, Boissonade accepted and extended Olearius' arguments, though he still published it as Letter 1.9 Kayser rejected the identification of this piece with the letter of Philostratus of Lemnos, proposing instead that it was a dialexis,10 and printed this and the other proposed dialexis after the Letters. As Münscher observes, the two points most fully handled in the letter are precisely those which are mentioned in the Lives of the Sophists: that artful periods should be avoided in letter writing, and that clarity is all-important. Münscher rightly rejected Kayser's dismissal of the resemblances between the letter and the passage in the VS.11 This brief letter, then, is the only work which can be attributed with reasonable certainty to Philostratus of Lemnos, and it is not a dialexis.

The second text currently described as a dialexis was first proposed to be such by Olearius. This piece, which he found among the letters in codex Vaticanus CX, p. 126, was printed by Olearius in the preface to his edition of Philostratus' Letters.12 Olearius was, however, cautious: 'Praeterque quae cod. Vatic. CX p. 126 exhibentur inter Philostrati epistolas, non epistolam mihi sapere videntur, sed laciniam philosophicae διαλέξεως'.13 Kayser followed Olearius' lead on this point and printed what he proposed were two dialexeis after the Letters in his edition of Philostratus. There is more to be said for the identification of this brief text as a dialexis, as it is quite different in character even from the non-amatory letters in the Philostratean collection. So we may have here either an atypical letter or a dialexis. In any case, the caution of Olearius regarding the genre of this piece seems advisable.

It would be unreasonable to expect a Loeb to go deeply into the history of these two curious texts. What is necessary, however, is to state that there is considerable uncertainty as to their nature. Whether readers approach these as letters or as dialexeis can make some difference to how they might read them, and on this occasion the confidence one encounters in the scholarship regarding these texts is not well founded.

There are relatively few passages in the translations with which I felt the need to quibble. One, however, has some effect on both the characterisation of the Vinedresser and the degree of faith which readers are encouraged to have in his version of events. Here (pp. 137–9) the Vinedresser describes Protesilaus as εὐπαγὴς . . . καὶ κοῦφος, ὥσπερ οἱ δρομικοὶ τῶν ἑρμῶν (Her. 10.4). This is rendered as 'well-proportioned and graceful, like the Herms one sees at race-courses'. Grossardt similarly translates 'gut gefügt und leicht wie den Hermen an der Laufbahn'. Here I believe Beschorner was closer ('so wie die in Rennbahnen aufgestellten Hermestatuen') though still misconstruing the adjective δρομικοί as 'in Rennbahnen'. Though Herms were, of course, set up at race-courses, the supposed use of δρομικός as 'set up in race-courses' is without other examples (LSJ s.v. II gives only this passage). Philostratus elsewhere uses this word to mean either 'concerned with running' (e.g. VA 2.6, Gym. 15.10) or more usually 'specialised in running' or 'good at running' (e.g. VA 1.24, VS 554, or the Heroicus itself at 26.14 (of Antilochus)). The problem seems to have arisen because of the genitive plural: one would normally expect the plural of Hermes to mean 'Herms'. Given, however, the frequency with which Greek writers speak of statues as gods rather than as images of gods14 the phrase is quite comprehensible as 'the runner-like ones [i.e. statues] of Hermes', or in more idiomatic English, 'statues of Hermes as a runner'. The use of a partitive genitive after an adjective is common in Philostratus,15 and such a construction requires a plural of Hermes. The Vinedresser refers, in other words, to a class of statue of Hermes as a runner. Olearius was close, translating bene enim compactus est ac leuis, ut Mercuriales statuae, quasi cursu ferrentur effictae, though the Greek phrase need not imply a Hermes who is actually running. Surviving statues do not show him running, but the light, athletic body which is typical of several statue-types could well be described as δρομικός, especially by a writer as interested in athletics, and in types of athletic body, as Philostratus.16

The translation of this phrase does have some importance, as the apparently bizarre comparison (athletic body to block-shaped Herm) has been taken as a slip by the Vinedresser. Such errors do occur: Rusten presents a list of these 'obvious slips' on p. 37, and, correctly to my mind, interprets them as part of Philostratus' characterisation of this speaker. It is an important prompt to readers of the dialogue that these slips raise some uncertainty about the Vinedresser. Philostratus shows an ongoing reluctance to establish any final authorities, in the Heroicus and elsewhere, though that is a point which requires more discussion than is possible in a short review. The genuine slips by the Vinedresser are considerably less odd and easier to understand: 'Nemea for Tegea (8.3), Ariadne for Evadne (11.8)' (p. 37). We have, in short, a Vinedresser who is fallible but not ludicrous in his errors.

To take just one further (and I stress, very rare) quibble with the translation, the long and quite convoluted sentence at Heroicus 17.6 gets rather jumbled. The future infinitive βοήσεσθαι is here translated as though it were βοηθήσεσθαι ('come to the aid of', p. 157), and there is one 'though' / 'although' too many in the phrase 'he killed although at Troy though totally undistinguished'. The reasoning in this sentence is not really made clear: the Vinedresser argues that if Greeks are going to sacrifice to the Thracian Rhesus, with his undistinguished track-record among the living, then there is all the more reason to sacrifice to Diomedes, who killed him, and to other great warriors of the Greeks.

This new Loeb Philostratus is a volume to be welcomed. It provides dependable and eminently readable translations of two major texts and two opuscula, completing the set of Philostratean works. Its introductions and notes are clear and up-to-date, and make a valuable contribution to the broader appreciation of these works. It will be a standard resource in the study of Philostratus for the foreseeable future. ​


1.   Thomas Woody, 'Philostratus: Concerning Gymnastics', The Research Quarterly of the American Physical Education Association 2, 1936, pp. 3–26.
2.   Jennifer K. Berenson Maclean and Ellen Bradshaw Aitken (edd., trans.). Flavius Philostratus. Heroikos. Writings from the Greco-Roman World. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001.
3.   Peter Grossardt (edd., trans.). Einführung, Übersetzung und Kommentar zum Heroikos von Flavius Philostrat. Schweizerische Beiträge zur Altertumswissenschaft 33. Basel: Schwabe AG Verlag, 2006.
4.   Abraham J. Malherbe (ed., trans.). Ancient Epistolary Theorists. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1988, pp. 42–3.
5.   Simon Swain, 'Culture and Nature in Philostratus', in Ewen Bowie and Jaś Elsner (edd.), Philostratus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, especially pp. 41–5.
6.   On authorship see Ludo de Lannoy, ''Le problème des Philostrate (État de la question)', Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 2.34.3, 1997, pp. 2362–2449.
7.   Further brief remarks on the genre by Swain: 'Culture and nature in Philostratus', pp. 43–4 and by Rusten in his introduction, pp. 500–1.
8.   Gottfried Olearius (ed. and trans.), Philostratorum Quae Supersunt Omnia. Leipzig: Thomas Fritsch, 1709, p. 914.
9.   Jean François Boissonade (ed.), Philostrati Epistolae. Paris and Leipzig: Brockhaus et Avenarius, 1842, pp. 49–50 and 52–3.
10.   Carl Ludwig Kayser (ed.), Flavii Philostrati Opera. Leipzig: Teubner, 1844 (18712), p. v in the prooemium to the Epistolae.
11.   Karl Münscher, 'Die Philostrate', Philologus Supplementband 10, 1907, p. 510. See also Jaap-Jan Flinterman, Power, Paideia and Pythagoreanism. Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben, 1995, p. 6, who concludes that 'there is no reason to doubt that the extant pamphlet on this subject is identical to this "open letter" to Aspasius'.
12.   Olearius, Philostratorum Quae Supersunt Omnia, pp. 912–914; reprinted with additional textual notes in Boissonade, Philostrati Epistolae, pp. ix–xiv.
13.   Olearius, Philostratorum Quae Supersunt Omnia, p. 911.
14.   See Verity Platt, Facing the Gods. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 78 with further bibliography.
15.   Wilhelm Schmid, Der Atticismus in seinen Hauptvertretern von Dionysius von Halikarnass bis auf den Zweiten Philostratus. Vierter Band. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1896, pp. 52–3.
16.   Olearius 1709, p. 673. For the lightly built Hermes see 'Hermes' in LIMC, for instance the Lysippean type in nos. 958 (Hermès attachant sa sandale) or 961 (Hermès au repos). ​

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