Wednesday, August 29, 2018


Marek Winiarczyk, Diagoras of Melos: A Contribution to the History of Ancient Atheism. Translated from Polish by Witold Zbirohowski-Kościa. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, 350. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2016. Pp. xviii, 224. ISBN 9783110443776. $126.00.

Reviewed by Tim Whitmarsh, University of Cambridge (

Version at BMCR home site


Marek Winiarczyk is a pioneer of the philological study of ancient atheism. Among his many publications on the subject are book-length studies of Euhemerus of Messene and Hellenistic utopias; Teubner editions of the fragments of and testimonia to Diagoras of Melos and Theodorus of Cyrene and the testimonia to Euhemerus; and fundamental articles on the definitional range of atheism in antiquity, and on Clitomachus' atheist catalogue.1 His endeavours have single-handedly established ancient atheism as a subject of serious scholarship.2

In 1979–80, Winiarczyk published a two-part article 'Diagoras von Melos: Wahrheit und Legende', based on his Wroclaw PhD thesis of 1976. This article sought to show that Diagoras himself was not an atheist in any modern sense, and that the ἀποπυργίζοντες λόγοι (probably 'arguments that knock down towers' or 'barricading arguments') attributed to him in the later tradition were the result of a false ascription during the fourth century.3 Winiarczyk's intervention undermined the earlier consensus established by Felix Jacoby that Diagoras was a radical atheist who was exiled from Athens in the 430s; it has been accepted by a number of scholars.4 The present book seeks to buttress and expand upon that position.

Diagoras is the earliest ancient figure who is consistently associated in the sources with atheism. The evidence base is, however, extremely thin. In fact, the fullest and most suggestive testimonium comes in the 10th-century lexicon, the Suda (δ 524):

Diagoras of Melos: he belongs to the atheists and disbelievers and impious. After the capture of Melos he resided in Athens. He disparaged the mysteries to the extent that he discouraged many from getting initiated. The Athenians therefore passed a decree against him, and inscribed on a bronze pillar a promise that anyone who killed him would receive a talent, and anyone who captured him two. This decree came about because of his impiety, since he revealed the mysteries to all, making them common property and belittling them, and putting off people who wanted to participate in them.

In a separate entry (δ 523) the Suda claims that he wrote the ἀποπυργίζοντες λόγοι 'as a retreat from and denial of belief in the gods', after a plagiarist had gone unpunished by the gods.

Prior to the Suda we have scattered sources, of which the most important are the following. From the fifth century there is only Aristophanes. In our surviving Clouds, Socrates is referred to as 'the Melian' (826–31), in connection with the claim that he does not believe in Zeus: this may (as a scholiast asserts) refer to Diagoras. This passage is thought to have originated in Clouds I, performed in 423 BCE. Birds 1072–4 (414 BCE) mentions a stele inscribed with a promise of rewards for killing Diagoras or bringing him to Athens; this is the source of the Suda's story mentioned above (there are also testimonies to the real existence of this decree in the now-fragmentary works of Melanthius (FGrH 326 F3) and Craterus (FGrH 342 F15)).5 From a little later we have (?ps.-)Lysias 6.17, where the prosecutor says that Andocides behaved more impiously than Diagoras of Melos, because whereas the latter 'committed verbal impiety against the sacred things and the festivals of another city (ἐκεῖνος μὲν γὰρ λόγῳ περὶ τὰ ἀλλότρια ἱερὰ καὶ ἑορτὰς ἠσέβει)', Andocides (who had been involved in the mutilation of the herms) had committed physical (ἔργῳ) impiety towards his own city. A little later we have two testimonia preserved in Philodemus' On Piety (first century BCE). Aristoxenus (fr. 45a Wehrli, fourth century BCE) defends Diagoras against an accusation of impiety, arguing that his words had been spoken in jest (ἔπαιξεν), and that his poetry demonstrates a conventional theism. Aristoxenus—or Philodemus—also suggests that Diagoras's 'playful' impiety may have been falsely attributed to him. Epicurus' On Nature (fourth or early third century BCE) includes Diagoras, along with Prodicus and Critias, among 'those who eliminate the divine from reality' (τοῖς τὸ θεῖον ἐκ τῶν ὄντων ἀναιροῦσιν: fr. 27.2 Arrighetti). In the first century BCE Diodorus Siculus comments that Diagoras was driven out of the city for impiety in 415/4 BCE (13.6.7).

From these scattered tesserae Winiarczyk reconstructs the following mosaic. Diagoras arrived in Athens in the 430s; failing to achieve any significant literary success, he nevertheless become known for criticism of the Eleusinian Mysteries. He left in the 420s and spent time in Mantinea, before returning to Athens in around 418. In the aftermath of the mutilation of the Herms and the parody of the Mysteries in 415/4 he fled the city, fearful that (given his reputation) he would be associated with the impiety of Alcibiades and company. The Athenians then charged him in absentia. This reputation for impiety paved the way for the false ascription to him of the ἀποπυργίζοντες λόγοι in the fourth century.

There is great wisdom and learning in Winiarczyk's book, which builds upon scholarship in eight languages published over three centuries and a comprehensive sweep of the sources. He is almost certainly correct in his reconstruction of the broad outline of Diagoras' curriculum vitae (including, importantly, the circumstances around his expulsion in 415/4). I agree that much of the late biographical information (e.g. anecdotes about him throwing wooden statues on the fire) is no more historically trustworthy than any of the comparable factoids we find in biographies of other ancient authors. Winiarczyk is probably right that the mysterious 'Phrygian logoi' were not Diagoran. Like him, I am yet to be convinced by Richard Janko's ingenious theory that Diagoras was the author of the Derveni papyrus.6

But I remain agnostic about atheism. So much turns on the particular construction and weight one chooses to place on what are, ultimately, a few exiguous comments supplied in passing by ancient authors whose real interest lies elsewhere. Winiarczyk claims at one point, 'I have shown that the atheistic book is apocryphal' (112); but in fact what he has shown is merely that triumphant arguments in favour of Diagoran authorship crumble when pressed hard. His only positive argument for non-atheism is the claim that since Diagoras was a poet, not a philosopher, we should not expect philosophical ideas from him (85)—a claim that seems to me both to underestimate ancient poets and to make too many assumptions about the contents of a work that is entirely lost.

Can the tesserae be rearranged so as to produce a different pattern? Aristophanes in 423 called Socrates 'Melian' in the context of a denial of the existence of Zeus. If we accept—as Winiarczyk does—that this is a reference to Diagoras, then that evidence is compatible with Epicurus' identification of Diagoras as one of 'those who eliminate the divine from reality'. By the time that Epicurus was writing, the atheistic book was (on any account, and on Aristoxenus' testimony) circulating under Diagoras' name. The Diagoran position that Aristophanes parodied in the 420s, then, looks to have been consistent with that articulated in the book. Is there any strong reason to doubt that Diagoras wrote it? Given that (on Winiarczyk's account, which is probably correct) Diagoras was not in Athens in 423, there must have been some reason for the currency of his ideas, and the existence of a book is a plausible explanation. There were certainly other 'atheistic' books in Athens in the 420s (e.g. Protagoras' On the gods), and the influence of atheistic ideas on popular culture (e.g. Aristophanes' Knights and Euripides' Bellerophon) is evident.7 The full truth is no doubt lost forever; but the evidence such as it is, it seems to me, can certainly be squared with the hypothesis of Diagoran atheism.

Aristoxenus (as mediated by Philodemus) is a centrally important witness, indeed ally, for Winiarczyk: it is his (Aristoxenus') apparent suspicion about the attribution of the atheistic book to Diagoras that underlies his (Winiarczyk's) entire theory. But there are also reasons to treat Philodemus/Aristoxenus with circumspection. Aristoxenus had strong links to Mantinea, where he resided for a while, and his comments on Diagoras come in the context of his Customs of the Mantineans. The Diagoran theist poetry that Aristoxenus cites has a Mantinean flavour: one poem is addressed to Nicodorus of that city, and reference is also made to an Encomium of Mantinea. It is far from improbable, then, that Aristoxenus was motivated by a desire to rescue the reputation of the most famous poet who honoured Mantinea by distancing him from atheistic opprobrium. Philodemus too has an agenda: his primary objective is to attack the Stoics, whom he presents as even worse than the notorious atheist Diagoras. Softening Diagoras' atheism was for Philodemus a rhetorical ploy, designed to paint the Stoics by contrast in a worse light (this is, in fact, exactly the same strategy adopted against Andocides by (ps.-)Lysias). Nor should we forget that Aristoxenus's suspiciousness is not necessarily well-founded: jobbing poets may be required to adopt certain forms of language to please patrons and cities, but these may not reflect their considered philosophical beliefs (cf. 75 n. 64).

But let me reiterate that nothing is remotely certain here. Ultimately, any reconstruction of Diagoras' thought is going to be, as Winiarczyk frankly admits, 'hypothetical' (vii). I greatly admire Winiarczyk's erudition and scholarship: this book is a masterful, indeed brilliant philological epideixis, and will be the foundation for all future research on Diagoras. But philology is not alchemy, and there is only so much that one can do with base evidentiary metals. Perhaps a different route for future research will be into the dynamics of the fashioning of the Diagoran legend in later centuries.

Winiarczyk is a lucid and careful writer, and a pleasure to read. Only once, on p. 25, did I find the argument over- compressed: the discussion of Philodemus and Aristoxenus and the value of Henrichs's reading τουθ᾽ ὑ[γι]ές ἐστ[ι]ν will be baffling to those who do not have the original text in front of them. The translation is fluent, though there are some slips and infelicities (e.g. 'The correlation between the two versions of Clouds was discussed in modern times', 10; 'Socrates is presented as s philosopher', 11; 'Athenian hostility against the Pellene', 16; 'lesson' (for philological 'reading'), 21 n. 69; 'A similar conclusion was made by …', 91; 'the rivalry … was well testified', 121; 'an atheistic book who had criticised', 129 etc).


1.   M. Winiarczyk, 'Der erste Atheistenkatalog des Kleitomachus', Philologus 120 (1976): 32-46; Diagorae Melii et Theodori Cyrenaei reliquiae (Leipzig: Teubner, 1981); 'Wer galt im Altertum als Atheist?', Philologus 128 (1984): 157–83 and 136 (1992): 306–10; Euhemerus Messenius, Reliquiae (Stuttgart and Leipzig: Teubner, 1991); Die hellenistischen Utopien (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011); The Sacred History of Euhemerus of Messene (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013).
2.   Earlier studies such as those of A. Drachmann, Atheism in Pagan Antiquity (London: Gyldendal, 1922) and H. Ley, Geschichte der Aufklärung und des Atheismus, Band 1 (Berlin: Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1966) were vitiated by ideological agendas.
3.   'Diagoras von Melos: Wahrheit und Legende (Fortsetzung)', Eos 67 (1979): 191–213, 68 (1980): 51–75.
4.   See the scholars cited on p. 3; F. Jacoby, Diagoras ὁ ἄθεος (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1959).
5.   F. E. Romer additionally interprets the 'Melian famine' at Birds 186 as a reference to Diagoras' atheistic ideas: see 'Atheism, Impiety and the Limos Melios in Aristophanes' Birds', American Journal of Philology 115 (1994): 351–65.
6.   R. Janko, 'The Derveni Papyrus ("Diagoras of Melos, Apopyrgizontes Logoi?"): A New Translation', Classical Philology 96 (2001): 1–32.
7.   T. Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (New York: Knopf, 2015): 97–114. Elsewhere I explore the possibility that Bellerophon may preserve traces of Diagoras ('Diagoras, Bellerophon and the siege of Olympus', Journal of Hellenic Studies 136 (2016): 182–6).

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