Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Mary P. Nichols, Thucydides and the Pursuit of Freedom. Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press, 2015. Pp. vii, 196. ISBN 9780801453168. $49.95.

Reviewed by Neville Morley, University of Bristol (neville.morley@bristol.ac.uk)

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In this stimulating, provocative and sometimes frustrating book, Mary P. Nichols offers an interpretation of Thucydides' work founded on the concept of freedom, arguing not only that this was a crucial idea for his protagonists – think of the praise of freedom in Pericles' funeral oration or the rhetoric of freedom in Brasidas' speeches to Thracian cities – but also that Thucydides himself conceived of his project as advancing the cause of freedom through the exploration of this theme. Nichols develops this idea through a mixture of general commentary and close reading, beginning with a survey of the nature of Thucydides' historiography before working through such familiar episodes as the funeral oration, the plague, the Mytilene debate, Brasidas in Thrace and the Sicilian expedition, and concluding with some thoughts on the relationship between Thucydides and Athens and the underlying purpose of his account. He presents himself, she argues, as a true Athenian, still dedicated to the cause of freedom espoused and exemplified by Pericles, even though his ideal Athens has now been lost (or has destroyed itself) – surviving only in the pages of his own work.

As is now well established, there are several distinct modern traditions of interpreting Thucydides, many of which assimilate him to one or other modern genre – historiography, political theory, political philosophy – and draw from this a conception of his methodology and motivation. They thus offer different ideas of what kinds of knowledge we may expect to obtain through reading this work, and how we should understand its claim to speak to posterity. Historical readings focus on recovering trustworthy data about the ancient Greek past (which may or may not have a wider significance, but that is secondary), the political theorist or international relations specialist looks for general principles or laws of human and state behaviour (which may or may not have a grounding in historical reality, but that is secondary), while the political philosopher finds timeless wisdom and understanding, reflections on universal problems of human existence.

Nichols' book is, in both style and conclusions, an example of the last, following explicitly in the footsteps of Leo Strauss and his pupils. She firmly rejects readings of Thucydides either as a narrow positivist and 'scientific' historian or as a post-modernist or constructivist. She doesn't engage directly with questions of historicism – surprising, perhaps, given that this was one of Strauss's major preoccupations in his dealings with Thucydides – but would clearly have little time for historical or philological readings that see his work as wholly embedded in its original context and alien to modern sensibilities. Nichols' Thucydides is not a pure philosopher, as he is undoubtedly concerned with the particular as well as the general, but he certainly intended to speak to us of things that go far beyond the particular events he describes; he easily transcends Aristotle's dismissive attitude towards historiography, and so we can draw trans-historical wisdom and understanding from his work, of the sort we can also find in poets or philosophers.

Classicists who are unfamiliar with this style of discourse may find reading Nichols' book an odd or frustrating experience at times.1 Its argument is rarely stated explicitly or expounded in any detail, but is developed through a series of paraphrases of and commentaries on passages of Thucydides (which often beg questions), interspersed with gnomic assertions; elision and anachronism seem at times to constitute a methodology rather than an oversight. Contrary interpretations are occasionally mentioned – for example, the argument of Monoson and Loraux that Thucydides actually treats Pericles critically rather than setting him up as an ideal – but rarely answered directly; Nichols' response on that point is simply to note that "such a critique of Pericles gives little weight to the nobility or beauty in the image of Athens that Thucydides' Pericles presents" (43), as if that constitutes an unproblematic and conclusive answer. In the absence of any opportunity to button-hole the author and insist that she explains things more clearly, one simply has to go with the flow, keeping in mind that this is just one of many possible readings, and making the most of the moments where Nichols hits on a point or suggests a reading that is illuminating even when extracted from its context and the unspoken assumptions that underpin her reading.

That does happen quite frequently, and on that basis this book is well worth reading by anyone with an interest in Thucydides as a political thinker. However, there are times when the degree of ambiguity and lack of clarity becomes a serious issue. The most obvious example is the organising theme of 'freedom' itself. On the one hand, this concept is presented in the broadest terms imaginable, blurring the distinctions between (among other things) political freedom, legal freedom (e.g. the opposite of slavery), individual freedom of action as opposed to determinism, and Thucydides' intellectual freedom from inherited traditions and supposed facts. On the other hand, the concept is narrowed down to the specific theory – never, as far as I can see, explicitly developed or justified – that true freedom is intimately connected to the idea of home.

Clearly this approach conflates various ideas of freedom that the Greeks kept separate through the use of different terminology, and introduces various others that are more closely (if not exclusively) associated with modern philosophical debates. That is in itself not necessarily a problem – of course we can read ancient works in our own terms, through our own conceptual frameworks – except that Nichols is wholly opposed to the 'post-modern' idea that this is just one reading among many possible readings of a complex, multi-faceted text, and instead seeks to imply that this is Thucydides' own understanding of the subject. For the most part, the terminological issue is not even acknowledged; the discussion simply switches from one sense of 'freedom' to another without any apparent consciousness of inconsistency or possible anachronism. For example, Nichols includes in in a single sentence Thucydides' freedom from the Athenian perspective and the freedom that Athens at its best represents (81), and in another Sparta's reputation as a free city and the question of Brasidas' freedom to act (91), as if these are all basically the same thing, or at least unproblematically included in the same general conceptual category. From certain perspectives, of course these ideas are closely associated; but it is quite a step to assume that the differences between them are trivial, let alone that Thucydides himself organised his work around a conception of 'freedom' that encompassed all these different meanings.

There is similar ambiguity when it comes to the question of how far such themes are intrinsic to the reality of these past events, how far they are being identified by a modern reader (i.e. Nichols) in Thucydides' narrative, and how far Thucydides himself was deliberately putting them there and shaping his account accordingly. One might reasonably assume, given the focus on Thucydides as a kind of poet-philosopher, that Nichols' whole discussion is focused on his representation of events, without worrying about historical veracity – except that every so often she appears to evoke a reality prior to the text. Most obviously, Pericles is presented here as a real individual with his own ideas (faithfully transmitted in the account) that inspire Thucydides and his work. Diodotus in the Mytilene Debate is identified as a fictional character (a gift not of God but of Thucydides, as Nichols puts it) – but he is contrasted with a Cleon who is apparently not fictional, or not to the same extent. "Brasidas transcends his city… but Thucydides shows us how much his actions depend on the necessities that Sparta provides" (103-4); is this just loose phrasing, where what is really intended is "Thucydides shows that Brasidas transcends his city… but that his actions depend…", or is there actually an attempt here to distinguish between real events and Thucydides' representation of them, on the basis of a reading of the latter? The problem is not that Nichols does or does not believe in the possibility of recovering historical reality from Thucydides' account – there are reasonable arguments on both sides – but that it is simply unclear, at least to me, which position she actually holds. The one certainty is that she believes that her interpretation is derived from Thucydides rather than imposed upon it.

Numerous modern readers have recognised their own situation and concerns in Thucydides, and concluded on the basis of his claim to be writing for posterity that they are his intended audience and that the themes they have discerned must be his intended message. It is fair to say that I find many aspects of Nichols' interpretation unconvincing simply because Thucydides says different things to me – and perhaps because I am more conscious of the possibility that I have projected these ideas onto Thucydides and then found what I have put there. Certainly we can read Thucydides in terms of different ideas of freedom and compulsion; indeed, it is surprising that Nichols makes relatively little of some episodes that directly speak to this theme, such as the Corcyrean stasis or above all the Melian Dialogue, with its suggestion that the Athenians themselves are effectively compelled by circumstances to act as imperial oppressors (and anyone else in their position would do the same). One possible reason is that she wishes to interpret the dialogue as exemplifying the principles of Alcibiades, who acts as if he is freer than he really is, so ideas of compulsion and limit are clearly inconvenient in this context.

Another explanation may be that there is no obvious connection in either episode to the idea of homecoming, which Nichols insists is the consummate human activity and the basis of true freedom, since human action and hence freedom are possible only in response to a specific time and place. Again, we can certainly read Thucydides through the prism of an Aristotelian idea of the polis as the basic environment for human self-realisation, explored through a series of figures who are separated from their home and respond to that separation in different ways – Brasidas, Nicias, Alcibiades, and Thucydides himself. The idea that Thucydides' work should be interpreted in terms of his exile and psychological response to it is not a new one. But the idea that there is an intimate link between home and freedom and that this connection is the fundamental message of Thucydides' work seems forced. The connection appears to be taken for granted – although Nichols does not discuss it explicitly, it is hard to avoid the sense that this draws on a larger debate – so that, if Thucydides is understood to be concerned with the question of freedom (let alone if, as Nichols argues, his entire commitment is to the cause of freedom), then he must also have been concerned with the issue of home – and this connection is then 'discovered' in the work.

Thucydides cannot truly return home to an Athens that has ceased to be a home for freedom, except by recovering the old Athens through his writing; he thus "finds a homecoming time and again in the future" (183) – but that is precisely a switch from imagining Thucydides' own feelings (a dubious enough exercise) to elevating our sense of recognition, our conviction that we are the readers he has been looking for and hence his true 'home', as a fundamental principle of interpretation. Tempting as this line of thought is – of course we want to believe he would acknowledge us as his truest disciples – we modern readers of Thucydides really need to have more humility, and more scepticism about the spell he sought to cast on us.


1.   It may be worthwhile preparing oneself for the experience by reading Seth Jaffe's chapter on "The Straussian Thucydides" in Christine Lee and Neville Morley, eds., A Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides, Malden MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

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Michael Von Albrecht, Ovids Metamorphosen: Texte, Themen, Illustrationen. Heidelberger Studienhefte zur Altertumswissenschaft. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2014. Pp. 262. ISBN 9783825363208. €28.00.

Reviewed by Jo-Marie Claassen, Stellenbosch University (jmc@adept.co.za)

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Table of Contents

The fifteen chapters of von Albrecht's compact volume of an exemplary series of close readings seemingly represent a lifetime of cogitation on Ovid's Metamorphoses. The articles were originally published from 1958 to 2010 (on average two papers from each decade), some originally in German, while others have been translated from English, Latin, French or Italian. After an initial foreword on the importance of Ovid for a modern readership (Chapter 1, pp.7-10), chapters are arranged within five unnumbered thematic parts: 'Autor und Werk' (pp. 11-80), 'Längsschnitte' (pp. 81-102), 'Gestalten und Themen' (pp. 103-138), 'Poetische Technik' (pp. 139-166) and 'Tradition und Fortwirken' (pp. 167-220).1

First, a brief overview. The first part, 'Autor und Werk', comprising two chapters, represents more than a third of the book. A brief introductory chapter (Chapter 2, pp. 11-13) succinctly places the poet "in seiner Zeit" Then follows a virtual monograph in miniature, on which more below. The second part, 'Längsschnitte' (roughly translatable as 'longitudinal sections'), comprises one chapter (4) on the gods of the Metamorphoses (especially Venus and Bacchus) and another (5) on travel and journeying. Next, in 'Gestalten und Themen' ('figures and themes'), three chapters (6 to 8) in turn consider Ovid's presentation of Actaeon, Arachne and Orpheus. The next three chapters (9 to 11) cover 'Poetische Technik'. Von Albrecht treats, in turn, the proeemium of the Metamorphoses (9), Ovid's use of similes (10) and the relationship of the Metamorphoses with the ancient novel (11).

The last thematic section, 'Tradition und Fortwirken' (pp.167-220), concentrates on aspects of reception in four chapters. Chapter 12 deals with tradition and originality. Chapter 13, a philosophical rumination on Ovid as 'poet of memory', offers an overview of the earlier chapters, covering all aspects of reception: Ovid as both receiver and received. The last two chapters represent an excursus lying outside the main thrust of the book. Chapter 14 analyses the handling of the topic of tree- felling, demonstrating contrasts in the reception of a mythic topos by Ovid and three other authors, particularly in the use of the 'sub-topos' of trees as 'sacred'. In the final chapter (15), Ovidian influence on Dante, von Albrecht displays equal sensitivity to both authors.

This review will concentrate on Chapter 3, which apparently represents new, previously unpublished research. Lack of space precludes individual discussion of the remaining chapters. I shall rather consider aspects of von Albrecht's combination of narratological theory with his technique of close reading.

First, Chapter 3, 'Bücher als Leseeinheiten: Gesamtdarstellung mit Abbildungen' (Books as Reading Units: Representation Combined with Pictures). Von Albrecht discusses plates illustrating an eighteenth-century edition of the Metamorphoses, giving a close literary reading of a close visual reading of the work. He meticulously analyses the fifteen engraved plates that illustrate the fifteen books of the Metamorphoses in a melange of translations published in Amsterdam in 1717, titled Ovid's Metamorphoses. Translated by the Most Eminent Hands. Adorn'd with Sculptures.

The individual pictures on the plates (termed 'sculptures' in the title) closely resemble similar types of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ovidian illustrations, such as those by Giacomo Franco (1550-1620) or Leonard Gaultier (1561-c.1635). 2 Von Albrecht shows how the unknown artist, while following this graphic tradition, gave his own interpretation to the narrative sweep of each book, through the arrangement into different patterns of representations of its key figures. All the major myths within a particular book are represented. These patterns are carefully analysed by von Albrecht. The narrative line of different books is conveyed in various ways: In Plate 1 a clockwise spiral starting at the top of the page guides the reader's interpretation of Ovid's tales of creation and deluge, the gods as lovers, various 'beloveds' as goddesses and the creator-god as demiurge. Representatives of pietas look toward the left, the impious look right. Architectural features such as temples indicate the embedding of a tale within a tale, but also highlight the political aspects of the work. Other book plates arrange the illustrations of various myths in a variant series of patterns. Horizontal, vertical or diagonal groupings are combined to represent the themes of each book. For von Albrecht (p.73), the illustrations together contribute toward our understanding of the poem in its complex entirety.

After von Albrecht's minutely detailed analysis of each plate (pp.17-72), showing each book as a reading unit (Leseeinheit), he next considers how individual units 'work'. The books, as von Albrecht points out, are seldom discussed as cohesive units, citing as an example the antiquary Voss (1751-1826), who split each book into separate myths, ignoring all connective passages. For von Albrecht, consideration of the plates gives reception-oriented access to the books as units, indicates the structure of the books and shows thematic relationships, with details such as gesticulation representing feeling and ideas. Spatial arrangement of the main figures, juxtaposed or contrasted, illustrates the inventio of the book (so, for instance, Minerva's central position on Plate 5 shows her protecting Perseus but speaking to the Muses, thereby indicating her relationship with the worlds of both men and women). Von Albrecht displays consistent narratological interest. Ovid's embedded narrators are portrayed so as to show their relationship with the tales they tell, indicating a visible relationship between primary and secondary narrative. Similar positioning of characters on different plates shows relationships between books. For von Albrecht, it is clear that the unknown artist clearly understood the structure and intention of Ovid's text and aimed to guide readers to see each book as an articulated whole.

The artist occasionally deviated from the text to combine different aspects of stories, or left out gruesome aspects of myths that had been included by other illustrators. Sometimes additions were made: an Eros on Plate 1 serves to point to Book 2; the judgment of Paris is added as 'background information'. Use of anachronism clarifies themes: the creator-god on Plate 1 and the 'demonic' god of the underworld on Plate 10 emulate contemporary Christian illustrations; Orpheus on Plate 11 plays a violin.

The chapter closes with a discussion of the 'mnemotechnical' and didactic use of the illustrations. The plates serve as aids to remembering the contents of books and together promote interpretation of the whole. These illustrations represent a type of reception of Ovid that contrasts with all other Ovidian research. Such perspicacious recognition of an unusual type of reception is a fitting tribute to that most 'visual' of poets. Yet von Albrecht's punctilious literary criticism is predominant. His acute awareness of matters stylistic (termed 'poetological technique') stands out in his close reading of Ovid's introductory passage in Book 1, showing his careful attention to the implications of every word (pp.140ff). Examples abound throughout, as in his comment on the portrayal of Actaeon's alienation between his body and his consciousness by means of anaphora, alliteration and contrast (p.110); comment on the metrical indication of change of tense of the verb venit (věnit, to vēnit,) in Metamorphoses 6.42 (p.113); on the changing colour-spectrum of vowels to convey Orpheus' wailing when Eurydice dies in Metamorphoses 10.10-11 (p.234, n.84); discussion of the jauntiness of Orpheus' dactylic speech before Hades (p.129); detailed argument regarding the stylistic probabilities of variant readings illis / illas in Metamorphoses 1.2, with judicious opting for the latter (p.143).

Chapter 10 (pp.157-66), on Ovid's similes, is a stylistic comment in its entirety. Yet analysis of Ovid's similes goes further, also considering narratological aspects. The value of similes lies in their simultaneous retardation of action and provision of inner movement in so-called 'dead' passages (p.147ff). A simile works as 'Kunstpause' with different functions, depending on its position within a tale (p.149). Similes tying together present and past work in three distinctly different ways: toward the beginning of a tale, a simile sets the tone; in the middle, it enlivens a static passage or changes the pace of the narrative; toward the end, apparently mundane 'Homeric' similes make realistic and believable aspects of fantasy within a tale (in the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe (pp.155-6), blood spouting 'like a fountain' provides a rational explanation for why mulberries are red). Conversely, Ovid is not averse to humour and even bathos in frequent contrasts between epic simile and 'unepic' main action.

Von Albrecht's awareness of the need for narratological analysis most clearly appears in the discussion of the structure and unity of the Metamorphoses (pp. 92-102;183ff.), from the initial cosmology of book 1 to Pythagoras' monologue in the fifteenth book. In an obiter 'Stand der Forschung' (pp. 184-5) and with reference to his own preceding chapters, von Albrecht discusses aspects such as thematic unity, Ovid's method of sliding from one tale to another and cliff hangers at the close of books, calling for further research on Ovid's technique of linkages (p. 187). Other narratological aspects occur: Various catalogues (as in the names of the hounds in the tale of Actaeon in Metamorphoses 205-25) create suspense by means of a long pause in the action (p. 108); the description of Eurydice's journey toward the light fluctuates in focalisation between Orpheus and Eurydice (p. 135).

Also on genre and intertextuality von Albrecht is profound: The Metamorphoses is an epic sui generis (p.164). In passing he offers an excursus on the fluidity of generic exchange among ancient authors: Herodotos and Homer; Thucydides and tragedy (p.165). Ovid throughout displays a rich awareness of genre and literary history, sometimes harking back to Homer, sometimes to Vergil (p. 160). Ovid's intertextuality reaches both backward to Callimachus and forward to Apuleius (p. 157). A note (195 on p.241) traces parallels between Ovid and Petronius. Ovid's playful approach is indebted to both epic as 'history' and the novel as 'fiction'. A short excursus on the origins of the novel indicates that recent discoveries trace it back to Hellenistic times. Common sources influenced Ovid's take on epic. Commonalities with the novel are: 'dramatic irony' in a character's lack of the knowledge shared by the author with his readership; a 'cinematic' narrative style, with the difference that there is no single 'hero' as with Apuleius. Von Albrecht also calls for research on Ovid's work as 'science fiction' (p. 166).

Intertextual awareness enabled Ovid constantly to fluctuate between elegiac feeling and epic objectivity, also combining epic, elegy, epigram and rhetoric (p.188). Particularly intriguing are von Albrecht's analysis of the rhetorical elements of Orpheus' suasoria, delivered before the gods of the underworld (Metamorphoses 10.16-39, pp. 130-2), and his subsequent analysis of its 'thematic' (structural) elements, showing thesis, antithesis and synthesis (pp.133-4).

Profound statements about the nature of the work, verging on aphorism, abound. I paraphrase a few. On Augustus: 'It was very Roman to strive for apotheosis' (p. 82); on Arachne: 'A human with many possibilities becomes an animal with only one' (p. 116); on the domain of Hades: 'Political or cosmic order brings tragedy' (p. 121); on Ovid's style: 'Ovid fills rhetorical categories with poetic life' (p. 137) and 'Where a monarchy dethroned rhetoric, it became a structural paradigm for poetic (and musical) inventio' (p. 138); on the poem as a whole: 'It is a collective poem of a new kind, comparable with Hesiodic catalogues or Hellenistic aetiology, but truly Roman and Ovidian' (p. 187) and 'it is surreal rather than baroque' (p.190).

It is difficult to convey appropriate appreciation for von Albrecht's dense argument, but also to have to quibble about small aspects of layout. Why a reference to endnote '66' on page 116 and note '44' on 117? The relevance in context of these two notes is not clear. Endnotes are numbered from 1 to 324, running consecutively throughout the book. Some chapters have only one or two notes, others are prolifically annotated. Notes relating to individual chapters are preceded by a first (unnumbered) endnote offering bibliographical details, starting with the source of the article (the journal or Festschrift in which it first appeared), followed by a run-on list of works consulted, alphabetical according to author. A consolidated final bibliography at the end of the volume would have facilitated quick reference, out of the context of a particular chapter. However, the very first unnumbered endnote (p.225, titled 'Zu Kapitel 1') gives a fairly comprehensive select bibliography, again in run-on lines. An index of passages cited would have been useful for consultation on matters of compositional style, as discussed above.

I have been enriched by the new insights provided on the Metamorphoses by von Albrecht's literary perspicacity and versatility.3


1.   Table of Contents
2.   See Sarah Schell, 'Checklist of the Exhibition The Transformation of Ovid's Metamorphoses,' 2013, Washington, National Gallery of Art.
3.   Sincere apologies to the author for my long delay in producing this review.

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A. J. Boyle, Seneca: Medea. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. cl, 481. ISBN 9780199602087. $199.00.

Reviewed by David Braund, University of Exeter (d.c.braund@exeter.ac.uk)

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A.J. Boyle, who has played such a central role over decades in the renaissance in post-Augustan Latin, has produced another volume on a Senecan tragedy that will immediately become standard. In this large volume, he employs a broadly traditional commentary format to show inter alia how and why Seneca's Medea deserves to be read and, indeed, staged. Among the "silver" works that have earned attention (if not always respect) across the centuries, this play stands out for many reasons, largely centred upon the powerful predicament of Medea and her "madness" in killing her own sons. This is a big book because there is a great deal to say. It falls into three main parts. First, a meaty introduction of some 150 pages is almost a book in itself. Secondly, there is a text and translation, all the more valuable in view of the play's significance for non-Latinists: some critical apparatus is appended, together with a clear statement of differences from the OCT (36 in all). Finally, some 300 pages of commentary, plus bibliography and very useful indices. Readers familiar with Boyle's Octavia (Oxford 2008) and Oedipus (Oxford 2011) will recognize the format (note also his Troades (Leeds 1994)). Here at the outset, Boyle states his purpose with commendable clarity, "to elucidate the text dramatically as well as philologically, and to locate the play firmly in its contemporary historical and cultural context and in the ensuing literary and theatrical tradition" (p. viii). And that is very much what he does.

The substantial introduction covers a lot of ground. A handy summary of Seneca's life and works nicely brings out the tendency of theatre to reach and even dominate every aspect of the Neronian regime, in particular. This is the "theatricalised world" (p. xxiii) of a court environment in which distant polarities have amalgamated, so that truth is untruth, fiction is reality and the world is indeed a stage – a political nightmare in which theatrical creativity and performance can be everything (further, p. cvii). Boyle aptly observes that, in such a world, the themes of Seneca's tragedies were also the stuff of his very life (p. xxv). An overview of Roman theatre ensues, Republican and imperial, featuring valuable remarks on similarity and difference with and from Athenian theatre (inevitably, Euripides is never far away) as well as offering intriguing glimpses of elite engagement with theatre long before Nero. That flows into a sparky treatment of an old issue, namely whether Seneca and others wrote their tragedies for theatrical performance (p.xli). While we simply do not know whether Seneca's plays were performed in his lifetime (still less whether he intended that), there is surely something odd and counter-intuitive in the claim that they were not (or could not have been): there were theatres aplenty in need of plays to perform, and this was drama. Boyle makes the telling point that they were certainly performed often enough later. We may do best to presume that in his lifetime Seneca's works were performed in a range of ways from time to time and context to context, including recitals and full-blown theatre (a shaky distinction in any case, as Boyle observes: p. xliii). Such considerations soon lead, through treatment of the "rhetoricity" of Senecan drama, to discussion of its remarkable onstage violence (p. xlix) and thence to Seneca on anger (p. liv). Exploring anger across Medea and the De Ira, Boyle draws attention to the absence of wives' anger in the latter, whereas it was exemplified so strikingly and so much on stage in the play (p. lx).

The introduction forges on with "the myth before Seneca" (p. lxi), where we find a plurality of myths, as usual in mythology. This accurate overview probably suffices for a book on Seneca's play that is already large, but one might have had more on the Italian and Adriatic claims to Medea (e.g. M. Falcone, Aevum 85 (2011): 81-98, on Medea and the Marsi). Here too Boyle rightly flags the fact that Medea is Colchian, but makes nothing of the significance of her ethnicity, despite some promising remarks on her homeland in the commentary (e.g. on lines 42-3). The same neglect characterizes scholarship on Euripides' play too, but it must be important – for example – that classical writers (including Seneca here: Medea 211-16, 483-7 with Boyle ad locc) commonly elide Colchians with the Scythians, who were still more famous for their grisly tendencies to mutilation and butchery (cf. D. Braund, Georgia in Antiquity, Oxford 1994, esp. ch.1). However, the great virtue of this part of the introduction is its cumulative demonstration of the sheer ubiquity and importance of Medea in Roman culture before Seneca, as exemplified by Cicero's famous passing mention of her at De imperio Cn.Pompeii, 22, where she is set beside another major figure of the Black Sea region, Mithridates Eupator himself, also resourceful even in flight.

And so, finally, we come to Seneca's play with a strong sense of its Roman cultural context. At this point, Boyle offers his vision of the play itself (p. lxxix) as probing and problematizing human society within a world framed by gods, with Medea transformed centre-stage. Roman imperialism is evoked (esp. p. lxxxix), as also are the issues of selfhood and madness that swirl around this Medea and other characters in the play besides (p. xc). This section closes with a vigorous assertion of the metatheatre of the play, especially in Medea's conscious creation of her own legend by killing her sons and soaring away from Corinth on the chariot of the Sun (pp. cvii-cxviii). The introduction concludes with a long essay on the reception of the play (pp. cxix-cxli), remarks on metre and a brief explication of the translation to come. To have this excellent translation as well as the Latin text is invaluable, and not only for the Latin-less reader. In a similar spirit of accessibility, one might have avoided the colossal Roman numerals used to paginate the introduction. The commentary itself is rich in learned detail, not least with regard to other Senecan works, on which it is very good indeed. Such learning is expected of commentaries, but here we also have a less commonplace and more important concern with the appreciation of the play itself, in part and in whole. As in the introduction, Boyle never fails to convey not only the intellectual interest of Medea, but also his enthusiasm for the sheer pleasure of it, however coloured by the grimness of its action and the disturbing assemblage of its themes.

It should by now be clear that this book is a very substantial achievement, and one which will certainly inspire. Inevitably, there will be points of disagreement for many, and perhaps complaints about omissions. For myself, I would have liked to see more attention paid not only to broad strands of contemporary culture (which are handled very well), but also to specifics within the big picture of Roman imperialism in the play, upon which Boyle only touches. Surely a play on Colchian Medea in the mid-first century A. D. should be connected with contemporary events around Roman imperial involvement in the region. Under Claudius we have Roman military intervention in the northern Black Sea (the so-called Bosporan War), to which Tacitus gives so much space in the Annals and which brought the remarkable Mithridates VIII into Roman high society. And under Nero, from c. A. D. 64 the annexation of the Pontic kingdom of Polemo II turned Colchis itself into Roman provincial territory. Of course, it remains entirely obscure how these events may have impacted upon the creation or contemporary appreciation of Medea, especially since we cannot date the play closely. However, the particularities of Roman imperialism in the region demand consideration. When, for example, a Roman cohort was shipwrecked and massacred by Taurians of the Crimea under Claudius (Annals 12.17), did not Seneca and other educated Romans recall Euripides' Iphigenia among the Taurians? Certainly, Seneca might refer in passing to inhospitable Taurians at Phaedra 168, while Boyle rightly draws attention to the key theme of inhospitality in all its forms that pervades Medea and also characterizes the whole Black Sea region, in general and in the play from Medea's opening speech onwards. And what of the remarkable imperial women, such as Messalina, Agrippina and Poppaea? In this theatricalised world, and despite their positions, were they not also Medeas, if only potentially ? Meanwhile, should we not reflect rather more, too, on Nero's concern with the Sun and, for example, the chariot of the Sun (?) that was depicted on the awning over the theatre in which he received Tiridates of Armenia, his greatest political show (Dio 63. 5. 2, without serpents, to be sure)? However, for all that, Boyle is very aware of the potential importance to the play of such contemporary concerns (and vice versa), as his agenda for the book makes explicit from the first (above). And he articulates very well much of the mood of the imperial court of Seneca's day, not least in the detailed commentary.

Accordingly, while there is even more that might have been done, we must recognize and applaud all that has been achieved in this excellent book.

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Gareth Sears, Peter Keegan, Ray Laurence (ed.), Written Space in the Latin West, 200 BC to AD 300. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. Pp. x, 293. ISBN 9781441123046. $120.00.

Reviewed by Virginia L. Campbell, University of Oxford (virginia.campbell@classics.ox.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site


[The reviewer sincerely apologises for the lateness of this review.]

This volume, states Sears and Laurence in the introduction entitled, 'Written Space', was born out of a previous collaboration that yielded The City in the Roman West (2011) and the realization that public space and writing were linked to such a degree that the impact of the texts warranted its own study. One element they noticed was that the different kind of texts – whether large and permanent or small and temporary – might impact how texts were read, how people moved, and thus the development of spatial use within an urban centre. They then held a panel at the RAC in 2009, and this book of fifteen chapters is the result. Thus this work examines various aspects of writing – in all its forms – across Italy and the Western provinces. The editors challenged the authors to consider the inscriptions not just as texts or as part of an archaeological context, but to combine the two in order to think of written space, and how that in turn influences style, form, location, use of space, urbanization, and a number of other issues. In this aim, the book is divided into four thematic sections with an Introduction and Afterword, with two to four papers in each dealing with aspects of movement, time, space, social groups, buildings and regional variation.

The first section, 'Writing, Reading, Movement, and Time', contains four papers. Corbier (pp. 13-47) argues for the elimination of neat boundaries in typologies for texts in order to look more completely at all acts of public communication. She further suggests that Rome is unique in its proliferation of a 'durable display' of texts: thus, though it cannot be compared to other societies, they can be used to draw useful parallels. Social and cultural issues of writing are explored by Keegan (pp. 49-64) through the medium of funerary epitaphs, which place writing in a spatio-temporal context that allows the examination of both form and function. He argues for a combination of Woolf's 'epigraphic culture' and Purcell's 'landscape of property' that is evident in the funerary epigraphic environment of the Roman city wherein the tombs provide a 'common place' of the inscribed built environment where the 'cultural practices of a diverse social community' are expressed, defined, and reformulated (p. 60). Newsome (pp. 65-81) takes a spatial-temporal approach to subversive texts, looking at evidence in ancient literature, wall frescoes, and epigraphy, for the re- appropriation of official space for non-official texts, specifically of a political nature, thus rendering the act of writing and the use of space as dynamic across both space and time. The section concludes with an examination by Hannah (pp. 83-102) of time and lists, specifically the various fasti. He considers not only the differences in recording time – cyclical versus linear – but also how these records became politicized with the transition from Republic to Empire. He notes that under Augustus the office of consul was no longer of utmost importance as it was subsumed by the princeps, but that the concept of time that it represented became the significant aspect of its inclusion in the fasti.

The next section, 'Written Space and Social Groups', begins with Hillard's (pp. 105-122) discussion of political graffiti in the late Republic. He uses a forensic approach to the texts in order to 'contextualize parietal polemic and popular political texting' in the belief that this will provide a better understanding of the impact of such non-official texts (p. 105). He specifically uses examples of graffiti contained by Plutarch's lives of the brothers Gracchus to demonstrate not only the power such politically motivated texts may have had on their audience (whether the Gracchi themselves or the people of Rome more generally), but also the importance given the texts by their preservation in later literature. Quite succinctly, Hillard concludes how clear it is that 'public space was contested' through writing (p. 116). Laurence and Garraffoni (pp. 123-134) continue the section by attempting to determine if there are patterns to be found in types of graffiti in terms of subject matter, form (verbal v. visual texts), or another factor in their distribution across the urban landscape of Pompeii. Whilst the patterns (or lack thereof) are not always what might be expected, the authors determine that being able to read or write 'was an action that allowed a person to have quite a different relationship with their city', and that writing was an important aspect of urban life (p. 132). The presence of women in written space is the basis of the next chapter. Hemelrijk (pp. 135-152) considers three spaces – the monumental centre, sanctuary precincts, and necropoleis – where writing appears, and examines the frequency with which women are responsible for, or named in, texts. The evidence demonstrates a preponderance of dedications to family members and deities, and where women are named, emphasis on the rank of male family members and their piety. In the final paper in this section, children and slaves are the focus of discussion by Baldwin, Moulden and Laurence (pp. 153-166). They use the Villa of San Marco, buried by Vesuvius, as a case study for testing the use of spatial analysis and 3D modeling of graffiti to determine if who wrote a text can be determined by where it is located within a single domicile. In some areas, such as the kitchen, they are unsurprised by a large numbers of numerical texts, but in others, like the baths, the lack of verbal graffiti is unexpected. The authors do well to recognize some of the flaws inherent in using text height and other factors as determining authorship, but ultimately demonstrate that there is more work to be done in this area.

'Written Space and Building Types' is the focus of the next two papers provided by Trifilò (pp. 169-184) and Cooley (pp. 185-198). Trifilò looks at the use of the term platea in inscriptions as part of the 'collective experiences of urban space' (p. 169). The examination of such texts across Italy and the provinces demonstrates that its use, the majority of which use platea to refer to a broad street, are cities or towns that are in the process of expanding. This can then be tied to elements of spatial definition within the urban landscape, in terms of text, experience, and organization. Inscriptions found in the baths of Italy and the provinces of North Africa are used by Cooley to examine the different types of texts that may appear in one very specific location. She has found that these go beyond the usual means of demonstrating status and identity as is expected in public spaces, but also 'performed functions distinctive to bath buildings' that ranged from advertising amenities or special features of a particular bath house, but also demonstrated an appreciation of the surroundings or served an apotropaic purpose (p. 185).

The ultimate section of the book poses the question: 'Regional Written Spaces?' Three papers follow that attempt to provide an answer. In the first, Sears (pp. 201-216) explores the interrelationship of urban space and texts in Severan Africa. He notes that not only are there a greater number of inscriptions put up under the Severan emperors, but also that due to the lack of installations by subsequent rulers they continued to dominate until Late Antiquity, and thus had a significant impact on the shaping of the urban landscape. This is particularly true in the placement of milestones at transition points between the old and new fora of Cuicul. Next, Cleary (pp. 217-230) focuses on Aquitania in order to determine the role of inscriptions in provincial cities. One intriguing aspect of this chapter is the methods of survival of Roman epigraphy, specifically that cities that did not build walls re-using Roman-era stones in later periods have a much lower recovery rate, or that a city with proximity to a marble quarry (such as Convenae) had a higher rate. He also notes the survival in one instance of a painted inscription, suggesting that there is far more evidence of a temporary nature that is overlooked in the analysis of ancient writing. Cleary also looks at the synchronic nature of texts, and discusses the display of texts as an expression of power that was more dependent on their existence than on legibility or comprehension of the words themselves. Finally, Revell (pp. 231-246) examines political inscriptions located in Baetica. This study focuses on texts recovered from the forum in order to assess how social norms influenced the display of texts, and the interplay between political and social authority evident in the inscriptions. She argues, I think correctly, that 'We tend to concentrate on the immediate message of these inscriptions, but they also embodied deeper values, and the ongoing act of reading the text and acknowledging these values formed one of the repeated acts which maintained the ideology of urbanism' (p. 243).

One aspect that could have been addressed more comprehensively throughout the volume is literacy, as it remains a hotly contested issue in the scholarship of texts and writing. The majority of the contributions never mention the ability to read, or how this might otherwise affect the evidence or the overall argument presented. Hannah demonstrates some awareness of the issues in a comment about the abbreviated nature of lists such as the fasti, whilst Garraffoni and Laurence discuss it in terms of the ability to learn or practice writing in a public space, whether this is limited to no more than a name or consists of something more complex (Hannah p. 87, Garraffoni & Laurence pp. 123-124). Corbier and Revell are the only authors who address literacy in a more substantial manner, both presenting a similar concept regarding different levels of literacy, and how this relates to the public texts present in the urban centres of Roman antiquity. What Corbier refers to as 'weak literacy' is more or less akin to the argument made by Revell, who states that reading an inscription 'relies on different literacy or interpretation skills' than reading literature (Corbier p. 38, Revell p. 233). For a volume that focuses entirely on the written word, a greater inclusion of this kind of discussion would have elucidated the overall impression of the importance of text in the visual and cultural landscape.

The greatest success of this volume is its attempt to force the reader to think of writing as a concept in toto, not dividing practice based on official or monumental inscriptions versus non-official, sometimes subversive, or vulgar texts (in both senses) associated with graffiti in conjunction with how these texts appear in space. This is summed up well in the Afterword provided by Keegan (pp. 247-256) when he states that no matter the type of inscription 'studying the discursive interdependencies of written space has demonstrated the possibilities available for modern eyes to reconceptualize how those who worked in and passed through these spaces perceived the nature of their particular urban environment and how the discourse which surrounded them shaped their perceptions – of themselves, their place in the world, their city, and their society' (p. 248). The authors all go beyond the concept of the epigraphic habit itself, pushing both traditional urban studies and textual studies in a new, and necessary, direction. Whilst each individual chapter has a clear merit for the study of that particular place or type of writing, it is the work as a whole that should be viewed as an important contribution to furthering the scholarly discourse on the significance and prevalence of writing in Rome and the West.

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Monday, June 29, 2015


Andrea Capra, Plato's Four Muses: The "Phaedrus" and the Poetics of Philosophy. Hellenic studies, 67. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, trustees for Harvard University, 2014. Pp. xvii, 234. ISBN 9780674417229. $24.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Carl O'Brien, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg (carl.obrien@uni-heidelberg.de)

Version at BMCR home site


This erudite volume is part of a recent surge in interest in the cultural background of the Phaedrus.1 Capra's study focuses on Plato's authorial self-portrait, as it can be gleaned from the dialogue, as well as his relationship to poetry, examining the intertextualities between this work and those of Stesichorus and Sappho amongst others. A major strand running throughout the study is the question of how Plato sees his own works fitting in amongst the pre-existing literary genres and how his self-understanding of his authorial role can be used to resolve his ambiguous, and often contradictory, attitudes towards the poets.

The volume is structured around four chapters treating the Phaedrus: three of them are named after the Muses Plato mentions at Phaedrus 259c-d: (1) Terpsichore, (2) Erato, (3) Calliope and Ourania; while the fourth focuses on the setting of the dialogue. These are framed by an introduction and conclusion, both of which contextualize the dialogue against the background of the wider Platonic corpus, while an appendix focuses upon Gaiser's interpretation of Plato's self-disclosures.2 Most of the chapters are preceded by a 'cover page' with supporting texts and images, and conclude with an "Endnote: New Facts", outlining the principal thread of the argument. Both of these sections are prepared in the style of a handout and make the volume attractive background reading for undergraduate courses (as does the lucid style of writing). A particularly extensive bibliography rounds out the work.

The introduction evaluates the nature of Plato's dialogues, asking both how they can be generically classified (in relation to poetry, given the parallels between the dialogues and both tragedy and lyric) and whether they were intended for a general audience. (This section reflects the influence of reception theory on Gaiser's work.) Since Plato's dialogues never directly comment upon themselves as literary works, Capra relies upon the various allegedly self-disclosing strategies that Plato utilizes: his thesis, that Socrates in the Phaedrus has an "authorial aura" (pp.19-20), is supported by various parallels between the Socrates figure and Plato (particularly Socrates' claim that philosophy is an oral and written undertaking, which is inapplicable to the historical Socrates).

The first chapter connects the dialogue to Stesichorus: Socrates' recantation of his first speech is presented as a re-enactment of Stesichorus' palinode, but Capra also examines less obvious indications; the opening of Socrates' palinode, "this is not a genuine logos", was a verse in one of Stesichorus' poems, and the correspondences between Socrates' and Stesichorus' performances are confirmed via detailed textual analysis. Capra explores the philosophical consequences of this intertextuality: Stesichorus was particularly popular amongst the Pythagoreans since he provided an example of how to 'cleanse' traditional myths, and his championing of the austere Phrygian mode makes him a far more acceptable poet to Plato than the producers of decadent modern music, whom he criticizes in the Republic and the Laws. Potentially the most influential aspect of this Stesichorean background for Plato's thought is Capra's argument that the eidōlon (image) of Helen that Paris uses to soothe his thwarted erōs for the real Helen (found in Stesichorus' text) influenced Plato's concept of the eidōlon which serves as the lover's anterōs (counter-love) in the absence of the beloved.

Chapter 2 explores the Helen theme further, by examining the manner in which the Phaedrus creates an intertextual web with other works concentrating on her: Gorgias' Helen, Isocrates' Encomium on Helen and Sappho's poem on Helen. Since the primary theme of Gorgias' Helen is the manner in which irrational forces, especially rhetoric, can deceive the mind, it forms a logical intertext for Plato, and Capra regards the four types of divine madness that Plato identifies in the Phaedrus as a rehabilitation of the four forces that Gorgias claims led Helen astray. The possibility of Isocrates' work as an intertext is perhaps more noteworthy, given his noted rivalry with Plato, as well as the use both writers make of Stesichorus' palinode to Helen. A much more complex example of intertextuality involves Plato's relationship with Sappho. The poet is mentioned along with Anacreon at Phaedr. 235b-d, and Maximus of Tyre would later identify Platonic and Sapphic love. Capra explores such references in order to re-evaluate Plato's relationship with the lyric poets, as well as his redirection of the language of lyric poetry into philosophical channels in his conception of the lover who transcends the physical body in pursuit of abstract beauty.3 The list of symptoms experienced by the lover upon seeing Beauty at Phaedr. 250-1 is attributed by Capra to the inspiration of Sappho 31, while Plato's emphasis on the sight of the beloved and upon the erotic importance of memory in retaining an impression of beauty, even in the absence of the beloved, are likewise attributed to Sapphic influence.

The Platonic concepts of mimēsis and enthousiasmos are treated in the third chapter. This allows Capra to address the apparent contradiction between the treatment of poetic inspiration in the Phaedrus and Plato's negative attitude towards it in the Ion and Republic. Mimēsis can either mean identification (with immoral characters in the Republic) or reproduction, in the sense of producing representations that are removed from reality (p. 92). Capra frames both of these interpretations of mimēsis in more positive terms, offering the possibility of audience identification with noble characters (instead of morally reprehensible ones) or the idea of poetry as an attempt to reproduce intelligible realities at a lower level. Similarly, enthousiasmos is an ambiguous notion in the Ion, where its non-rational nature means that it is not a comprehensive or all-encompassing form of knowledge, a position which is at odds with its more positive evaluation in the Phaedrus. Capra finds a rehabilitation of the rhapsode's role in the Symposium, where Socrates' recounting of Diotima's speech can also be regarded as a rhapsodic performance. Furthermore, the multiple layers of narration that separate the reader from the original speech can be compared to the Ion's famous explanation of the ever-decreasing force of the Muse in terms of a chain of iron rings suspended from a magnet. The Muses occur again in Plato's myth of the cicadas. Capra suggests three possible reasons for Plato' choice of this myth: the cicadas are (1) excessively devoted to mousikē, (2) representative of Athenian autochthony or (3) loquacious philosophers. Most importantly of all, the cicadas conduct their mousikē in dialogue form and thereby represent the emergence of Plato's distinctive method of philosophizing.

The Phaedrus is unusual amongst Plato's dialogues on account of its setting, which is in the countryside around Athens: Capra uses this setting as a culturally-charged frame in which to read the work, particularly focusing upon the central image of the plane tree (which is possibly a pun upon Plato's name).4 Furthermore, the plane tree had cultic significance; while Capra explores the later evidence for Socrates as the recipient of heroic honours (such as the rites which Proclus conducted at the Sokrateion, or Plutarch's celebration of Socrates' birthday), his argument rests primarily upon the internal evidence of the dialogues themselves, as well as the evidence for a statue of Socrates in the Mouseion of the Academy. Furthermore, the landscape of the dialogue highlights once again the significance of Helen: the plane tree, Capra argues, is evocative of the cult of "Helen dendritis (of the trees)" as well as of the Academy itself. The Academy is further connected to Helen via its association with Hecademus, a minor figure whose sole significance is his role in the Helen myth, and who was the reason that the Academy was spared during the Spartan invasion of Attica. Capra uses this interweaving of connections to suggest that the setting of the Phaedrus collapses into that of Academy itself, with the plane tree representing chastity and lust. According to Capra, in the later reception of the dialogue the plane tree was also regarded as symbolising Plato's writings (pp. 16-18; 145).5

A key question that reappears throughout the study is why Plato feels the need to "musicalize" philosophy (p. 149). A possible explanation is that he was attempting to rehabilitate Socrates, who in Aristophanes' Clouds is negatively represented as fostering a distaste in his students for the traditional arts, and who in the Frogs aids Euripides in ruining tragedy. This rehabilitation leads Plato to associate Socrates with Stesichorus and Sappho, as well as with poetic initiation and heroic poetic cults. Since mousikē is the result of inspiration, and rationalistic rhetoric is criticized in Phaedrus, this leads Capra to identify a surprising anti-intellectualist strand in the dialogue (pp. 150-6).

An important contribution made by this volume is its engagement with much of the influential non-Anglophone scholarship, which Capra uses to counter the insularity that he thinks can increasingly be found in Platonic studies (p. 11). The appendix outlining Gaiser's interpretation is worth noting, particularly since it also addresses the issue of the extent to which Plato's criticism of writing in the Phaedrus applies to his own dialogues, even though the Laws suggests that a fine education and a philosophical state require appropriate writings. While Plato's alleged self-disclosures do not appear to fit into a coherent framework, Capra avoids simply relying upon the differing contexts of the dialogues to account for this. Instead, he ties the appendix in to the rest of the work by presenting an image of Plato already advanced in the main text as an author who is transitional between orality and writing. He also defends Gaiser's claim that Plato regarded his dialogues as a new form of poetry. This allows Capra to trace a unity in Plato's self-disclosures, though the form of poetry he presents is one containing both tragic and comic elements, as well as reinforcing one of the major observations made throughout the study: the notion that Plato's dialogues are fluid with regard to genre.

In Plato's case, scholars have been particularly conscious that his dialogues were not composed in a vacuum and paid considerable attention to the cultural and intellectual background of his works. A significant aspect of Capra's work, however, is that he focuses upon literary or metaliterary references that have traditionally not been accorded much importance, and investigates the extent to which this either shaped certain unusual details in Plato's thought or may provide clues towards understanding both Plato's self-presentation and his portrait of Socrates. In so doing he tackles the issue of the unity of the dialogues, searches for a fundamental coherence underlying Plato's remarkably ambiguous attitude towards poetry, and has produced a thought-provoking book.


1.   See, for example, D. Werner, Myth and Philosophy in Plato's Phaedrus (Cambridge, 2012), reviewed by Jenny Bryan at BMCR 2013.06.22.
2.   As outlined principally at K. Gaiser, Platone come scrittore filosofico: Saggi sull' ermeneutica dei dialoghi platonici (Naples, 1984).
3.   See also E. E. Pender, 'A Transfer of Energy: Lyric Eros in Phaedrus', in P. Destrée, and F.-G. Herrmann (eds.), Plato and the Poets (Leiden, 2011), 327-48.
4.   platanos = plane-tree.
5.   Capra cites passages from Themistius and Timon of Phlius to demonstrate this.

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Nina Fenn, Christiane Römer-Strehl (ed.), Networks in the Hellenistic World. According to the Pottery in the Eastern Mediterranean and Beyond. BAR International series, S2539. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2013. Pp. vi, 382. ISBN 9781407311579. £52.00.

Reviewed by Rocco Palermo, Università di Napoli Federico II (roccoplrm@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The increasing interest in recent years in regional and global perspectives on the material culture and the historical dynamics of the Hellenistic period is the cornerstone upon which this book was conceived. A wide-ranging geographical approach to the analysis of pottery in a specific time period aims to highlight macro-analogies and regional differences as well as to define a series of networks based on the circulation, imitation and use of artefacts. This perspective is particularly useful as regard the Hellenistic kingdoms, which encompassed an incredibly large area. The vastness of Seleucid-controlled territory, for instance, although it may induce us to think of regional differences, finds common roots when it comes to material culture since a sort of koinè is easily observable in the whole area stretching from the Levantine Coast to Central Asia.1

The present volume takes a further step by including the entire Eastern Mediterranean region into the discussion. The book collects the contributions of a congress held in Bonn and Cologne in 2011, which was specifically intended as a workshop on local and interregional connections as evidenced by Hellenistic ceramics. The editors have organized the book following a geographical order from west to east, with Albania being the westernmost area treated.

The first section of the book is dedicated to case studies from Greece. It opens with a theoretical introduction by Shipley, who stresses the necessity of connecting analysis of the material culture to broader archaeological and historical dynamics. Rotroff offers an analysis of a pottery workshop in Athens (the city probably being responsible for the invention of the mould-made bowls of the late 3rd century BC). Two papers in the "Greece" section specifically point out the formation a koinè related to the material culture. Ackermann discusses several mould-made bowls excavated on the acropolis of Eretria, near the sanctuary of Athena. Particularly interesting is the evidence of a plate decorated with a Macedonian shield, which leads the author to consider the probable presence of a Macedonian garrison in the area. Bollen investigates the case of the West Slope Ware by focusing on a reversible lid with decorations whose existence might confirm interregional connections. Kallini's paper considers the interesting issue of the production and circulation of kantharoi from Greece to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant, while Kotitsa discusses the co-existence of local and imported materials among pottery from the graves of Pydna.

Regional characteristics and external influences are also observable in Albania (papers by Lahi, Shehi and Tichit and Fiedler and Döhner) and the Aegean (papers on the Hellenistic ceramic repertoire from Delos by Gros and Peignard-Giros). In the case of Delos, which always represented a bridge between the Greek mainland and the Asia Minor and acted as a free port in this period, the investigation mainly regards imports and local imitations, which is often the main characteristic of Hellenistic strata.

The section devoted to the East starts with a series of papers that discuss recent research in Hellenistic ceramic assemblages from Turkey (mainly Asia Minor). The pottery production of the region is notably influenced by both indigenous traditions and external sources. A very interesting analysis is proposed by Japp, who approaches the Hellenistic pottery at Pergamon with a special focus on both the indigenous features of decoration and the wide geographical network of Pergamene ceramics. The short but significant article by Lätzer-Lasar is one of the few contributions with a strong sociological and theoretical approach to the ceramic material; it uses the imports to Ephesus in the late 1st century BC to trace social networks and processes.

Among the other contributions on the Hellenistic material from Turkey particularly interesting is a specific study of the emergence and distribution of the important Eastern Sigillata B in the East by Fenn, who starts from the data retrieved at Priene and convincingly suggests that the diffusion of Eastern Sigillata B may be the reflection of a local impulse thereafter developed by Italian potters.

Cyprus and Egypt are the focus of six contributions investigating regional features and imports, with a particular attention to the social habits, cultural interactions and economic life of Hellenistic communities as perceived through their material culture. Particularly interesting is Berlin's paper, whose focus on the Ptolemaic period ceramics from Coptos, Naukratis and Elephantine points to wider social and cultural changes. Berlin's analysis persuasively shows that the coming of Ptolemaic rule in Egypt, with some of the Greek-oriented kitchen and table traditions, possibly contributed to a change in the dining habits of the entire region, which had been basically unchanged since the Pharaonic period.

The last section is devoted to the region between the Levantine coast and central Asia, grouping together evidence from southern Anatolia (Dülük Baba Tepesi) and inner central Asia (Merv). If this large grouping seems challenging, linking and gathering together as it does data from different regional contexts, the aim of the volume is precisely to show a common cultural horizon in a wide geographical framework. Papers in this section discuss data from Turkey (Gaziantep area and Dülük Baba Tepesi by Strothenke) and the Levantine Coast and the Southern Levant (Kramer and Stone for the coastal area, Krenkel for the Southern Levant region).

Although Palmyra reached its peak in the Roman period, the site always had a certain importance because of its strategic position. Even if its history in the Hellenistic period has not yet been fully investigated, the article by Römer-Strehl intriguingly shows how the material culture was strongly affected by influences from both the Orontes valley, western Syria and possibly the Levantine coast, as well as the middle Euphrates and Mesopotamia. The pattern affirms a pivotal role in the region for the city already in pre-Roman times. Likewise, the importance of local traditions mixed with western impulses forms the basis of Alabe's contribution on the Hellenistic vessels from Dura Europos. The particular position of the city, on the edge of the Roman Empire and the Parthian kingdom, favoured the encounters of western style imports (West Slope, Eastern Sigillata A) and local productions and imitations.

Tidmarsh and Jackson's presentation of the pottery material from Jebel Khalid occupies a peculiar position within the contributions in this section. Jebel Khalid was a Macedonian settlement, which always preserved its western roots. Western pottery types outnumber local types, a clue about the large presence of Macedonians in this Seleucid fortified citadel, which controlled the route crossing North Syria from the Mediterranean towards the Mesopotamian plain.

The last two articles treat ceramic material from central Asia. Puschnigg's quantitative analysis of the pottery from Antiochia in Margiana demonstrates the increasing number of serving vessels in the oasis along with the persistence of locally produced wares and points to a change in social habits (mostly related to dining and food preparation), probably due to western influences. The last article of the volume is by Riedel who discusses the application of network theory to material culture, which may mark social interactions within ancient societies as well as economic.

The volume is undoubtedly a valuable source for scholars dealing with the Hellenistic world and its material culture, but it also brings a wider theoretical perspective to ceramic issues in general. Considerations such as the diffusion of certain types, the imitation of others, the presence or absence of specific vessels even in relatively small geographic contexts call the reader's attention to the broader issues of social reconstructions, economic dynamics and cultural habits. Such a wider perspective on the Hellenistic world in general underlines the intentions of the editors, who aim at the definition of a "network" that embraces the cultural contacts, the exchange of ideas and the inclusion of local traditions within the new world order. Ceramics certainly help to identify such a connection and the similarities and/or differences in this large spectrum of cases prove that. The construction of a "new world order" during the Hellenistic time is something that obviously is reflected in the material culture.

What is missing from the book is a substantial conclusion that proceeds beyond the collation of evidence to the creation of a theoretical model for understanding trans-regional cultural networks through the analysis of the ceramics. The impact of these artefacts on the daily life of different Hellenistic communities shows how the mutual relationship between tradition and innovation drove these communities towards the adoption of common fashions and similar dining habits while retaining, however, their uniqueness.

However, the role of ancient pottery within both the physical and the socio-economic environment where it was produced and/or circulated appears to have been fundamental in the Hellenistic period and the diversity of case studies offered by Fenn and Romer-Strehl's book certainly support this. Despite some very minor flaws, the book demonstrates the appeal of the topic with a series of highly valuable papers, each of them with appropriate plates, pictures, tables, and stratigraphic plans. Drawings and photos are clear and make the reading very much enjoyable.


1.   P. Kosmin, The Land of the Elephant Kings. Space, Territory and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.

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Gabriella Barbieri, Gianna Giachi, Pasquino Pallecchi, Polychrome Rock Architectures: Problems of Colour Preservation in the Etruscan Necropolis of Sovana. Science and technology for cultural heritage, 2. Pisa; Roma: Fabrizio Serra editore, 2013. Pp. 130. ISBN 9788862275194. €76.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Vincent Jolivet, CNRS, UMR 8546, Paris (vincent.jolivet@ens.fr)

Version at BMCR home site

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

À dix ans de sa création, la collection Science and Technology for Cultural Heritage, conçue pour encourager les recherches interdisciplinaires susceptibles de mettre les technologies nouvelles au service de l'archéologie et du patrimoine peine manifestement à trouver son rythme. Le premier volume, publié en 2005, était consacré à Pitigliano et Sorano,1 tandis que celui-ci, le second seulement de la série, l'est à Sovana—c'est à dire que la zone géographique concernée est restée depuis pratiquement la même, et que les problématiques abordées par les auteurs (patrimoine, sauvegarde, conservation...) sont demeurées extrêmement voisines.

Entièrement rédigé par des auteurs italiens, mais publié en langue anglaise, ce léger (130 p.) ouvrage résume l'activité de cinq années de travail d'un groupe multidisciplinaire réunissant une archéologue (G. Barbieri, chap. 1, 4, 7-10), une chimiste et un géologue (Gianna Giacchi et Pasquino Pallecchi, chap. 2-4 et 6), ainsi que cinq membres du département de chimie de l'université de Pise (Francesca Modugno, Erika Ribechini, Ugo Bartolucci, Ilaria Degano et Maria Perla Colombini, chap. 5). Son sous-titre est un peu réducteur, dans la mesure où il ne s'agit pas ici seulement de "problems of colour preservation" (il est clair que la couleur de ces monuments est vouée à la destruction totale d'ici quelques décennies, dans la meilleure des hypothèses), mais surtout de documenter, d'analyser et—malheureusement trop peu ici—de restituer le décor peint externe des tombes de Sovana. Il s'agit d'une vingtaine de tombes rupestres (dont l'ordre de présentation n'est pas clair), pour la plupart, et pour les moins mal datées d'entre elles, datant du IIIe siècle av. J.-C., dont certaines ont déjà fait l'objet de nombreuses études à partir de celles, pionnières, de Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli (tombes Ildebranda,2 Pola, del Tifone et, depuis 2004, dei Demoni Alati ; une utile photo aérienne permettant de les localiser par rapport au site antique figure à la p. 24).

Le volume se compose de 10 chapitres, dont certains inutilement légers (chapitre 9, une page) ; la fusion des chapitres 7-9, dont les thèmes sont à peu près indissociables, et signés par le même auteur, aurait donné plus de consistance à son propos. Le quatrième, qui constitue le corpus des monuments sur lesquels repose l'étude—rédigé conjointement par ses trois éditeurs, et qui représente la moitié du livre (p. 23-83)— aurait dû plus normalement constituer une partie distincte, ou un appendice : plus ou moins développée en fonction des cas, de leur complexité et de leur degré de conservation, elle traite successivement du monument, de son histoire, de ses caractéristiques architecturales, de son décor (avec proposition de datation), de son revêtement et des techniques picturales adoptées, de son état actuel et de sa conservation—toujours de manière aussi exhaustive que possible, et en renvoyant à une riche bibliographie (plus de 120 titres, p. 127-130). Dans le reste du volume, G. Barbieri traite de la conservation de la polychromie au fil des siècles (chap. 1), des rapports entre couleur et architecture (chap. 7) et entre couleur et décor plastique (chap. 8), ainsi que de la signification de la couleur (chap. 9) ; P. Pallecchi, de la géologie de la zone (chap. 2—une chronologie des différentes éruptions documentées dans cette zone aurait été utile) et, avec G. Gianchi, des méthodes d'analyse (chap. 3) et des techniques picturales (chap. 6), en exploitant notamment une étude collective des liants organiques utilisés par les peintres—essentiellement de l'œuf—réalisée en recourant à la chromatographie en phase gazeuse et à la spectrométrie de masse (étude collective publiée au chap. 5).

S'agissant d'un ouvrage sur la polychromie, et compte tenu du prix du volume, l'éditeur aurait sans doute pu faire un effort supplémentaire sur l'utilisation de la couleur dans ses pages : hormis pour les photos de sections d'enduits (le plus souvent sans numéro de figure, ce qui ne facilite pas la consultation du volume), celle-ci est rarement utilisée, et pas toujours à bon escient (fig. 22, 35, 29, qui auraient supporté le noir et blanc), pour illustrer le propos des auteurs—comme c'est notamment le cas pour le chapitre 8, "Colour and plastic decoration," qui n'en comporte aucune. On peut aussi s'étonner de ne trouver aucun plan ou relevé des façades figurant in situ les lambeaux d'enduit conservés sur ces tombes (comme il en existait dans le précédent volume de la série) et, subséquemment, aucune restitution hypothétique des décors peints, lorsque celle-ci était possible, au moins partiellement, à partir des vestiges conservés (tombes Ildebranda ou dei Demoni Alati, en particulier).

En dépit de ces réserves, l'ouvrage a le très grand mérite d'aborder de manière approfondie un aspect capital, mais généralement négligé, de l'architecture des tombes rupestres, et de le faire au moment précis où ces témoignages évanescents sont en train de disparaître à tout jamais, en alertant ainsi les archéologues sur l'importance des observations qui le concernent et sur la nécessité de tout mettre en œuvre, avec le renfort de spécialistes, pour les étudier et, si possible, pour les conserver. Les auteurs relèvent, dans les tombes les moins mal préservées, l'existence de trois couches distinctes : un enduit de préparation recouvrant le tuf, une fine couche de peinture blanche formant le fond du décor, et les couleurs ajoutées—en l'occurence une palette réduite composée pour l'essentiel de blanc, de jaune, de rouge, de noir et de bleu égyptien (qui représente le seul pigment d'importation), parfois utilisées pour tracer des inscriptions (fig. 49).3 Outre son caractère décoratif, ce revêtement aurait eu, selon eux, une fonction de protection des fragiles parois en tuf de la tombe.4 S'il est certain, comme ils le soulignent, que cet enduit a pu contribuer à une meilleure conservation de l'extérieur des tombes, on remarque cependant que nombre de tombes rupestres antérieures, qui ne furent jamais peintes, se sont bien conservées en dépit de leur exposition prolongée aux intempéries (grâce à la qualité du tuf dans lequel elles ont été taillées), que ce revêtement n'avait guère de raison d'être pratique dans les parties couvertes du monument, probablement dévolues aux banquets funéraires (la « sottofacciata » des tombes rupestres, dotée ou non de banquettes), et que les sculptures, bien qu'exposées elles aussi aux intempéries, n'étaient pas peintes (p. 94). Or, l'usage de peindre l'extérieur des tombes ne semble pas antérieur au dernier quart du IVe siècle av. J.-C., comme en témoignent les deux grandes tombes rupestres jumelles de Norchia (tombe Lattanzi) et de Grotte Scalina (entre Viterbe et Tuscania), qui présentent d'importantes traces de polychromie :5 il n'est pas indifférent, dans ce contexte, de noter que ces deux tombes témoignent de liens directs avec la Macédoine, où la peinture était utilisée très largement, à la même époque, en façade des tombes les plus monumentales.

Ce type de recherche mériterait donc d'être comparé, dans un cadre plus large, avec des travaux analogues menés dans d'autres aires géographiques,6 mais aussi avec différentes catégories d'objets peints produits en Étrurie, parfois étonnamment bien conservés, en particulier la grande peinture,7 mais aussi les urnes cinéraires dont certaines sont à peu près contemporaines des tombes de Sovana.8 Tel quel, en mettant en évidence le potentiel d'une collaboration effective entre scientifiques et archéologues, qui pourrait renouveler complètement, à terme, notre vision classique de ces monuments, cet ouvrage constitue cependant, bien au-delà de l'archéologie étrusque, une contribution importante à un secteur trop négligé de l'architecture antique.


Andrea Pessina, Maria Angela Turchetti, Foreword.
Gabriella Barbieri, Introduction.
1. Gabriella Barbieri, The Conservation of Polychromy in the Past and in the Present.
2. Pasquino Pallecchi, The Geomorphological Context of the Sovana Necropolis.
3. Gianna Giachi, Pasquino Pallecchi, Analytic Investigation to Define the Painting Technique of the Sovana Tombs.
4. Gabriella Barbieri, Gianna Giachi, Pasquino Pallecchi, The Painted Monuments. Catalogue.
5. Francesca Modugno, Erika Ribechini, Ugo Bartolucci, Ilaria Degano, Maria Perla Colombini, The Characterisation of Organic Binder.
6. Gianna Giachi, Pasquino Pallecchi, The Painting Technique.
7. Gabriella Barbieri, Colour and Architecture.
8. Gabriella Barbieri, Colour and Plastic Decoration.
9. Gabriella Barbieri, The Meaning of Colour.
10. Gabriella Barbieri, Gianna Giachi, Pasquino Pallecchi, Conclusions.


1.   M. Preite (dir.), Il patrimonio archeologico di Pitigliano e Sorano. Censimento, monitoraggio, valorizzazione, Pise, 2005.
2.   La restitution de cette tombe avec trois frontons, proposée par G. Colonna en 1986, reprise depuis notamment par A. Maggiani, et ici p. 25, me semble sujette à caution : hormis la singularité architecturale qu'elle représenterait, le site ne semble pas avoir livré de fragments susceptibles de corroborer l'hypothèse d'un deuxième, voire d'un troisième fronton surmontant les façades latérales de la tombe.
3.   La question de la présence de peinture verte semble plus complexe : R. Bianchi Bandinelli affirme en avoir vu dans les fragments de la frise végétale de la tombe Ildebranda, observation reprise ici p. 103 (G. Barbieri), mais révoquée en doute p. 95 (G. Giachi et P. Pallecchi).
4.   Cf. p. ex. p. 18 (P. Pallecchi) et 97 (G. Barbieri).
5.   Pour la première, la description la plus détaillée des enduits, aujourd'hui presque totalement perdus, figure dans A. Gargana, « Note per lo studio architettonico della tomba Lattanzi di Norchia » Bollettino Municipale. Comune di Viterbo 8 (1935), 3-9 ; pour la seconde, voir en particulier V. Jolivet et E. Lovergne, « La tombe monumentale de Grotte Scalina », dans Chronique des activités archéologiques de l'École française de Rome, 2011-2014, ainsi que /860, /1042 et /1333.
6.   Voir p. ex., pour le monde macédonien hellénistique, M. Lilibaki-Akamati, Κιβωτιόσχημος τάφος με ζωγραφική διακόσμηση από την Πέλλα, Thessalonique, 2007, avec une étude détaillée des pigments aux p. 133-175
7.   En dernier lieu, A. Cecchini, Le tombe dipinte di Tarquinia. Vicenda conservativa, restauri, tecnica di esecuzione, Florence, 2012.
8.   Pour la polychromie, voir en particulier les exemplaires extraordinairement bien conservés publiés dans L. Cenciaioli (dir.), I colori dell'addio. Il restauro delle urne di Strozzacaponi, Pérouse, 2010.

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Sunday, June 28, 2015


Karin Metzler (ed.), Prokop von Gaza. Eclogarum in libros historicos Veteris Testamenti epitome, Teil 1: Der Genesiskommentar. Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten Jahrhunderte, NF, Bd. 22. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2015. Pp. clxv, 490. ISBN 9783110408720. €129,95.

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht (pwvdh@xs4all.nl)

Version at BMCR home site

When one looks at present-day Gaza, it is hard to imagine that in the early Byzantine period (esp. in the fifth and sixth century) Gaza was a flourishing center of Christian culture.1 There were not only monasteries but also schools of rhetoric and other educational institutions in which a synthesis of the pagan past and the Christian presence was created. Among the best known figures are Procopius, Choricius, Barsanuphius and John of Gaza. Procopius – not to be confused with Procopius the historian at the court of Justinian – lived from ca. 465/470 – 525/530 and is traditionally designated as a 'Christian sophist.' He was the foremost figure of the so-called School of Gaza, a prolific author who wrote, inter alia, speeches or declamations (among them the Panegyricus in Anastasium imperatorem), letters, descriptions of works of art, and commentaries on several biblical books. Of the latter, probably the most important one is his commentary on Genesis, here edited for the first time in its complete form by Karin Metzler. Earlier editions (e.g., in Migne's Patrologia Graeca) did not present the full text and were, moreover, based upon inferior manuscripts or on only part of the textual evidence. On these counts this new edition is vastly superior to the previous ones.

The book has a very long introduction (some 165 pages). In it Metzler discusses first of all the genre of the work: Is it a catena or is it a commentary? A catena is a format dating from the fifth century onwards in which the successive verses of a biblical book were elucidated by 'chains' of passages derived from previous commentators. Usually these commentators are mentioned by name. Not so in Procopius, although his commentary, too, lists the exegetical opinions of many predecessors, but anonymously. Occasionally he adds his own opinion on exegetical problems, but does that make it a commentary? Not really, because Procopius deals only with a selection of verses from Genesis, not the whole book. His work is a curious hybrid, mostly deriving material from a now lost 'Urkatene'; partly it is also his own work. Anyway, this work is a veritable Fundgrube of patristic exegesis of the book of Genesis from the third to fifth century. One of the great merits of Metzler's work is that she has been able to identify most of the authors quoted (or paraphrased) by Procopius, and they are duly listed in the apparatus fontium at the bottom of the pages of the edition of the Greek text (the unidentified pieces of exegesis either derive from sources now lost or are Procopius' own contributions). Further, she deals with the purpose of the work, the history of research on its text, and its title (perhaps not the exact original one): Eclogarum in libros historicos Veteris Testamenti epitome, which one could render as 'Excerpt of the (exegetical) catenae on the historical books of the Old Testament.' In a very long chapter (some 50 pages) all extant manuscripts are described in detail and their relations to each other are discussed, all of this leading up to a stemma codicum; this chapter is a fine demonstration of scholarly akribeia. Then follow chapters on Procopius' use of his sources (with an extensive list of all the many works of church fathers excerpted by him); a chapter on his 'biblische Lesarten' with special attention being paid to the important fact that Procopius also quotes many hexaplaric readings (esp. from the post-Septuagint Jewish Bible translators Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion), some of which are not found in Field's classical edition of Origen's Hexapla; a chapter on the principles upon which the critical edition is based ('Grundsätze der Textgestaltung'); a long list of abbreviations and sigla; and finally an exhaustive bibliography of the primary sources (editions of the authors excerpted by Procopius) and the secondary literature. Even though the present reviewer sometimes had the impression that things could have been formulated in a more concise way, this Introduction is an exemplary work of scholarship.

The same applies to the pièce de résistance, the edition of Procopius' text (460 pages). As far as I could judge on the basis of the critical apparatus, Metzler's textual decisions testify to sound judgment and keen insight into problems of textual transmission. The text is clearly laid out, with the names of the excerpted church fathers on the inner margin and the detailed references to the excerpted works in the apparatus fontium. The apparatus criticus is not exhaustive but offers all that is needed to see what the important variants are (in the Introduction the reader is told in detail what kind of information is included and what is omitted in this apparatus). An 'Anhang' offers a list of biblical passages dealt with or referred to, including the hexaplaric readings, and a list of biblical names and their etymological explanations (including the sources where these explanations are drawn from). The editor promises that her German translation of Procopius' commentary will be published soon; that would be a great boon. The present work is a monument of meticulous scholarship.


1.   See, e.g., B. Bitton-Ashkeloni and A. Kofsky (eds.), Christian Gaza in Late Antiquity (Leiden: Brill, 2004).

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Vojtěch Hladký, The Philosophy of Gemistos Plethon: Platonism in Late Byzantium, between Hellenism and Orthodoxy. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. Pp. xii, 390. ISBN 9781409452942. $144.95.

Reviewed by Niketas Siniossoglou, National Hellenic Research Foundation (sinios@cantab.net)

Version at BMCR home site


When it comes to philosophy, Byzantium can hardly claim a prize for distinction. The enigmatic Gemistos Plethon is one glaring exception and interest in his work has never been greater.1 Hladký's book is a valuable contribution to the study of Plethon that also daringly proposes a re-evaluation of what is commonly seen as Plethon's trademark: his paganism. Hladký believes that Plethon was "an unorthodox Christian with a strong inclination to ancient thought" (blurb), rather than a pagan.

In Part 1, Hladký summarizes Plethon's social and political reformism as contained in the Address to Theodore (ca. 1415) and Address to Manuel (1418). He notes that there is no reference to the role of the Christian religion here but only to a vague theion that is never qualified. Yet he is quick to downplay the significance of this oddity on the grounds that Plethon was not "a professional theologian" (29). Even if there was such a thing in Byzantium, it should be noted that the established convention for Byzantine "mirrors for princes" was to include explicit references to emperors as proponents of the Christian faith.

Part 2 presents a detailed discussion of the core ideas of Plethon's Platonism based on his work on the Chaldean Oracles, the Differences between Plato and Aristotle, the notorious Laws and smaller treatises. It is the most extensive, well-organized and useful part of the book, and it will remain a standard point of reference to anyone interested in Plethon. One disagreement here concerns Hladký's objections to Brigitte Tambrun's reconstruction of Plethon's positive theology.2 Hladký believes that the super-essentiality of Plethon's first principle ("Zeus"/Being qua Being) in relation to lower ontological strata implies some sort of "insurmountable difference" (74) that makes concessions to negative theology. However,, apophaticism commonly implies the god's radical ontological alterity, whereas the difference between Zeus (the One) and the gods/Forms (the Many) in Plethon concerns Zeus's causal priority and superiority in purity, strength and splendor. Exairetos does not mean "transcendent", but "excellent": it's not as if Zeus was imparticipable, some single-malt whisky that is forever out of reach, while other gods are habitual pub ales, but rather as if only Zeus was an absolutely top class ale. Hierarchies of gods/forms variously exemplify and communicate gradations of Being in a process that Plethon calls ἀνάπτυξις, i.e., unfolding (aptly described by Fritz Schultze, a pioneer scholar of Plethon, as "Selbstbesonderung": "self-specification," or, according to Dimitrios Dedes' reverse translation into Greek, "αὐτοκαθεκάστωσις, αὐτειδίκευσις," or "αὐτεπιμερίκευσις τοῦ Εἶναι").3 This monistic reading is fully consistent with Plethon's insistence on the biological kinship between Zeus and all divinities directly or indirectly emanating from Being/One, i.e., himself: the ontological system (σύστημα) is also a unified organism in a perpetual state of creation and evolution. Zeus is not really beyond Being.

In Part 3, Hladký questions the communis opinio regarding Plethon's paganism. After approximately 150 pages containing an almost exhaustive presentation of Plethon's Zeus, gods, Titans, daemons and their philosophical correspondences, Hladký has stacked the deck against the conclusion he wants to draw at the end. The reader can hardly now conclude that Plethon was anything but pagan.

Hladký invokes Plethon's support of orthodoxy at the Synod of Ferrara-Florence (1438/9) and his other "public" writings. Specifically, unwilling to accept Plethon as an agent provocateur in the Reply to Scholarios, or concede the limitations of genre in his monody On Helen, Hladký concludes that Plethon "was a firm Christian" (280). As for the magnum opus, the Laws, he awkwardly sweeps it under the rug on the grounds that it "must have been created for some personal purposes only" (271), and that its arguments "are developed in a special kind of discourse of a self-stylization as the second Plato, in which the author does not respect scholarly distance from someone else's philosophy, but, on the contrary, attempts to develop it further in a creative way" (279). Hladký believes that this is "a special kind of discourse, in which Gemistos identified with his more classical alter ego, Plethon, a second Plato or his reincarnation" (278). Oddly, this presumed identification does not extend to the actual ideas of pagan Platonism. On the contrary, Hladký's excursion into the literary paranormal is meant to preclude Plethon's genuine and sincere commitment to the ideas contained in the Laws, so that he makes the latter into "a kind of exercise book," "workbook" (263), or "game" (278). Eventually Plethon is reduced to a literary straw man, yet another Byzantine conformist who meant no offense.

I would like to comment on a few aspects of Hladký's contention that Plethon was either Christian in some generic and unqualified sense of the word, or even "firmly" Christian.4

Sooner or later any discussion of Plethon's religious affiliations will boil down to how one evaluates his purported support for Greek Orthodoxy at the Synod of Ferrara-Florence. Hladký closes the book with a reminder that "[w]hen he [Plethon] was forced to choose, he declared himself publicly an Orthodox Christian, and we should accept and respect this as the most plausible statement about his faith" (285). But people "publicly" say and do all sort of things to support their community, keep others happy, pursue their own projects through the best means available, or save themselves from trouble, and Plethon was hard pressed by circumstance. In opposing union between the Latin and Byzantine Churches, he was not only siding with Mark Eugenikos of Ephesos; he was siding with the majority of the Byzantines back home who felt severely threatened by the religious inflexibility of the Catholics, and were inclining toward the more religiously tolerant Ottomans. Opposition to union is hardly proof of sincere or rigid Orthodoxy – Byzantines had resented the Catholics for a long time and for many reasons, a tradition that from time to time is still observable throughout the Orthodox world. The Laws were obviously addressed to a Greek-speaking audience, and Plethon could imagine that his radical project would not fare well under Latin rule.

A helpful way to advance the discussion is to distinguish between social identity and intellectual identity. This distinction would help us better to interpret Plethon's support for the majority of Greeks against Latin religious and cultural imperialism, while maintaining the philosophical integrity of the Laws. Hladký assumes that Plethon's social and intellectual identities overlapped always and in all cases, so that any appearance of pagan sentiment or allegiance that could not have been actualized socially should not be taken seriously on the intellectual level, either. He also repeatedly stresses the "personal" nature of the Laws project. But personal does not equal insincere; quite the contrary, given the understandable risks involved in secretly writing about pagan divinities in Byzantium.

Hladký's project, in a nutshell, is to show that Plethon was "heterodox" without exiting "the limits of Christianity" (270). These limits, however, must have been more loose and flexible than any Christian authority had ever been willing to allow: the Laws advocate positions that directly contradict the Christian worldview, including determinism and the eternity of the world. If neither pagan hymnography and symbolism, nor their corresponding conceptual apparatus suffice to conclusively make Plethon a non-Christian Platonist, it is hard to see what would. Was Byzantine Orthodoxy so fluid, relative and all-inclusive, or is this a convenient misconception? Can all Byzantines be defined a priori as Christians in some unqualified sense of the word?

From the viewpoint of Palamite Orthodoxy (that is, in Plethon's context, Orthodoxy par excellence), Hladký's idea that the author of the Laws is "rather an unorthodox Christian with a strong inclination to ancient thought" seems to be both a euphemism and a contradiction in terms: for it was impossible to be Christian in an unorthodox way. This is not a question of assuming a "rigid and conservative Christian perspective" (285); it is in fact the robust existential self-definition upheld by the Byzantines against both Latin theology and pagan Platonism. Plethon is not "pagan" according to modern criteria subject to revision and rebuttal – he is pagan according to firm theological criteria upheld by Scholarios, Matthew Kamariotes, and their contemporaries. To elide these is an anachronism.

Perhaps Hladký's Plethon is better suited to our post-modern, de-sacralised world. Formerly religious linguistic signs now flood our everyday lives without our necessarily committing ourselves to their potentially deeper meaning and significance. Hladký treats paganism as a mere literary game and, to make Plethon a Christian, he allows for any intellectual activity to be Christian, provided appearances are kept up in public. There can ultimately be no commitment, existential or authorial.

But does it matter whether Plethon was pagan or Christian? Some would argue that it is enough to comment on what he wrote about this argument of Plato or that line by Aristotle, without going into issues as ambiguous and sensitive as personal religious affiliation. The issue, however, matters immensely to anyone who wants to go past the level of Schulphilosophie. First, because the relation of Hellenism to Christianity mattered to Plethon's contemporaries and influenced their self-definition; and second, because Hladký's approach disregards the specific characteristics of Byzantine Orthodoxy as a worldview and way of being, thus construing the hegemony of a presumably undifferentiated and malleable Christian discourse in Byzantium – a move that would be offensive to the actual Byzantine defenders of Orthodox identity who were at odds with Latin theology and Greek philosophy. To adapt the terminology of Slavoj Zizek, we are now being presented with a de-caffeinated Byzantium. As with alcohol-free beer and decaffeinated coffee, the problem is ontological: the final product conveniently smoothes out the rough edges of Byzantine intellectual history, while retaining the illustrious brand name Byzantium.5

Hladký also downplays testimonies to Plethon's paganism (e.g., by George of Trebizond, pp. 227-9) while overstating the evidence for his social identity as an Orthodox layman. The reader is struck by the disproportionate significance of that evidence: Plethon's paganism is attested by both Christians acquainted with the man or his works and fellow Hellenists in Mistra (Kabakes, Apostoles). Hladký discredits the former as "enemies" who "exaggerated, if not created" Plethon's paganism and the latter as "eccentric admirers" who "zealously accepted" an exaggerated story (270). Discrediting their testimonies is part of a circular argument that relies on the premise that Plethon was not adhering to a pagan worldview. What we have from the Laws reads more like a treatise than a scrap-book or literary game; and there is evidence that the pagan philosophical doctrines in that treatise correspond to Plethon's understanding of Platonism in some of his "public" works, most significantly in On the Differences Between Plato and Aristotle. Hence, Gennadios Scholarios and Matthew Kamariotes, who diagnosed the essential incompatibility between Plethon's ideas and their own, deserve serious attention. There is a danger that we might project into the past a form of cultural and religious relativism unknown to either Plethon or Scholarios.

Hladký's English prose is generally clear. The bibliography is extensive – one conspicuous absence is the important book on Plethon and Byzantine humanism by I. Medvedev, which incidentally documents the need for contextualizing Plethon's intellectual endeavor.6 In sum: anyone interested in Plethon and the history of Platonism will profit from this book. 7

[For a response to this review by Vojtěch Hladký​, please see BMCR 2015.08.23.]


1.   The proceedings of the latest conference on Plethon were recently published; cf. J. Matula and P. R. Blum (eds.) Georgios Gemistos Plethon: The Byzantine and the Latin Renaissance, Olomouc: Palacky University Press 2014.
2.   B. Tambrun, Pléthon. Le retour de Platon, Paris: Vrin 2006, 67-93.
3.   Δ. Δέδες, Ο βίος και το έργο του Γεωργίου Πλήθωνος Γεμιστού: Φιλόσοφος και Μυσταγωγός, Athens 2011, unpublished monograph, 38.
4.   I would have expected Hladký to offer replies to the arguments against Plethon as a Christian that I have presented elsewhere and which, I believe, make his thesis untenable: see N. Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism in Byzantium: Illumination and Utopia in Gemistos Plethon, Cambridge: CUP 2011, 155-9). In a recent blog post on his book Hladký says that he could not "make many changes" to his text, as the book was "already sent to the publisher" (mon_kassia переписка с Хладки); so I am not going to repeat these arguments here, in the expectation that Hladký will address them in the future.
5.   For a recent example see A. Cameron, Byzantine Matters, Princeton University Press, 2014.
6.   I. Medvedev, Vizantijskij gumanism XIV-XV vv., Leningrad 1976.
7.   Those interested in the deeper significance of intellectual and religious affinities in the history of ideas should consult François Masai's still masterful study: Fr. Masai, Plιthon et Le Platonisme de Mistra, Paris 1956.

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