Friday, December 20, 2019


Federica Nicolardi, Filodemo. Il primo libro della retorica. Scuola di Epicuro, volume diciannovesimo. Napoli: Bibliopolis, 2018. Pp. 462. ISBN 9788870886580. €70,00.

Reviewed by Michael McOsker, Ohio Wesleyan University (

Version at BMCR home site

Philodemus' On Rhetoric was a large work, consisting originally of eight or possibly as many as twenty books, depending on who is reading the subscriptions, and despite a good deal of past editorial work, it can still surprise. Like all the Herculaneum papyri, the surviving books present various difficulties: the beginnings are heavily damaged or totally missing; the bookrolls must be reconstructed both from surviving fragments of papyri and eighteenth- and nineteenth- century drawings (disegni) of now destroyed pieces of papyrus; all this material is catalogued under a variety of inventory numbers because the inventory was developed after the rolls were dismembered. Every text is damaged to some extent, and their state of carbonization makes them fragile and difficult to read.

The On Rhetoric (or rather, all the parts of it known then to belong to it) was edited by Sigfried Sudhaus in two Teubner volumes in 1892 and 1896, followed by a supplementum containing a heavily restored but still only partial text of Books 1 and 2, printed for easier reading without papyrological layout or apparatus. Though he included most of the papyri now known to belong to the treatise, they are badly out of order. Many parts of the treatise have been edited by a variety of scholars since, usually short snatches of text in articles or longer ones in dissertations. The last edition of Book 1 was published in 1977 by Francesca Longo Auricchio, together with Book 2. This work was exemplary for its day, but new identifications of pertinent material, discovery of a method for reorganizing the earlier fragments of books into their correct order, a better understanding of the anatomy of the books rolls, better microscopes, and infrared photography permit more extensive reconstructions and more detailed and secure readings of the text.

Nicolardi has produced a high quality edition (with Italian translation in a parallel column and commentary) of the extremely badly damaged first book of this ensemble.1 Only the final nine of the 238 columns are continuous, so her text necessarily proceeds by fits and starts. Even this is quite an accomplishment, given that huge stretches of the text are missing: between column 40 and column 116, a seventy-five column lacuna gapes. In other places, fragments whose exact location cannot be determined are placed approximately by reasonable conjecture.2 Nicolardi's text is sparing with conjectures, especially before the beginnings and after the ends of fragments, but there is much new text, and text that we already had now makes more sense. Nonetheless, the massive damage means that frustratingly little can be said with certainty about the content. Only the end yields continuous prose and argument, but at least we have a firm sequence of topics and a bit to work with. As the other books of the treatise are better understood, this one too will yield more of its secrets, and Nicolardi's edition has put this book, at least, on a solid foundation for further study.

Much of what you would expect in the introduction—philosophical meat—is in the commentary. In fact, the introduzione treating the content is, at 19 pages, dwarfed by the premessa all'edizione at 131 (including detailed description of the papyri and sketches, the paleography and "rotolology" of the book-roll, the reconstruction of the roll, and concordances). Much of this material will be of interest only to specialists. The commentary is wide-ranging: papyrological and philological where the text does not permit analysis of argumentation (as it usually does not); papyrological, philological, and philosophical where it can be. It could have stood further editing, but is thorough and detailed. The reproduction of the Neapolitan disegno at col. 184 to show a few lines in eisthesis was a nice touch, and we should look forward to more illustrations of this sort, especially since print books can be supplemented with digital publications. The book comes with a maquette laying out the evidence for each column in order in a way that is easy to take in at a glance.

As Nicolardi's edition reveals, the first book of the On Rhetoric seems to have served as an introduction to the rest of the treatise. The final columns, the best preserved, treat the definition (or, rather, prolēpsis) of rhetoric and introduce Epicurean heterodoxy on this point. Philodemus holds the view, which he claims was Epicurus', that only sophistikē—the art of writing and delivering good speeches—is a technē, and that courtroom and political oratory do not qualify as such. Philodemus' infamous statement, that those who claim to be Epicureans but deviate from views of the Founders are nearly guilty of being patraloiai, patricides, survives reedition. These will be the topics of Books II and III in the ensemble. (There was quite some dispute about Epicurus' exact view among later Epicureans.) The topics under discussion fit into this general framework. Persuasion and the tools of persuasion also seem to play a large role, almost certainly because of their association with rhetoric understood as a method of verbal persuasion (a view Philodemus does not share). Then the teachability of rhetoric and the behavior of people educated in rhetorical schools are treated. The question of the utility of rhetoric (of the technai in general?) seems to be an issue as well, and the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy is mentioned, which will be discussed at length in the book of the On Rhetoric preserved in PHerc. 1669 (the sixth, as I and some others think). Then there is a brief methodological discussion about philosophical inquiry and word meanings. The book concludes, in the connected text, with a discussion of grounds for classifying technai on the basis of the varying proportions of talent, instruction, and practice required for competence.

Especially intriguing are the several references to Plato's Gorgias, which seems to have served as a touchstone rather than a target throughout the treatise. Epicureans sharing Philodemus' view might have found Plato's hostility to rhetoric in that treatise amenable to their own position. There are also several citations of fourth-century orators (Apollophanes, Aeschines, Antiphanes, as well as Anaximenes—why all names beginning with alpha?) and, apparently, Anacharsis, Solon, Eupolis, and "the Sicilians" (Corax and Tisias?). Mentions of Nausiphanes, one of Epicurus' teachers, and of Metrodorus and Idomeneus are interesting as well. Throughout, there is a distinction between philosophers and lay persons (ἰδιῶται), and Philodemus proffers or quotes alternative definitions of rhetoric at four places at least (coll. 24, 40, 157, and PHerc. 1606 fr. 1—how many more were there when the text was complete?). The one at col. 40 is actually Gorgias' from Plato's dialogue. At two points (coll. 117 and 140), Philodemus mentions or alludes to the "Sophists," his insulting way of referring to heterodox Epicureans. All this sets up the debate of the next book or two of the treatise, and must have formed a very interesting (and probably idiosyncratic) survey of opinions about rhetoric and whether it qualified as a technē when complete. A possible reconstruction: a number of opinions are being canvased, perhaps both those of philosophers and lay persons (= non-philosophers), with special focus on important theorists of the past, especially Plato, and on the heterodox Epicureans that Philodemus will focus on in the next book. Some questions, such as whether rhetoric is useful or not and what its rules or defining features are, were clearly mentioned, though perhaps not treated at length here. There is still a lot to sort out here, but it is a credit to Nicolardi that we are in a position to do so.

The book was well-produced, though I hope future volumes can include running headers to help readers find their places (especially in the commentary). Towards the end of the Greek text, the Greek and Italian became unsynchronized, making it difficult to look back and forth between the two.

A few thoughts about the Greek text:

col. 16: l.26: ὡϲ before ἔλεγεν, then ϲυμφέρει after l. 36.
col. 24.31: εἰκ]ῇ is not very convincing. I thought about τὴν ῥητορικήν γε,] ἧ διάθεϲιν [π]ονεῖϲ|[θαι δημ]ι̣ουργόν… "others do not accept that it is rhetoric, qua disposition, that labors as craftsman of its successes…
col. 24.33: ὅϲον ἐφ' ἧι for the unintelligible οϲονεφεϲι?
col. 28.28: I suspect a word has fallen out after διὰ τὴν, perhaps διαλεκτικήν (cf. Nicolardi ad loc.). The term should fit with beauty and music, mentioned later in the sentence. What about καταϲκευήν "ornamentation" (cf. 24.26)?
col. 40 τεχνῶν or πραγμάτων after the end of the column?
col. 122.12: a mention of the ἐξω[τερικ- works of Aristotle, especially if ὡϲ Περ<ι>πατ[ητικοί is read in l.8?
col. 135.4: Possibly ἀρρ[ωϲτίαϲ, especially with Longo Auricchio's ἐπί]|πληξιν preceeding. In ll. 27-8, I wonder about οἱ δὲ λο|[γίοι διε]τέθηϲαν (fort. brevius).
col. 164.11: Philodemus does not usually admit the hiatus in π̣[οιεῖ ὑμᾶϲ. In l. 18. perhaps δι[άθεϲιν?
col. 166.8: Perhaps τὸ πιθανὸν] αὐτὸ and then, if πανηγυρικοῖϲ is too long in l. 11, ϲοφιϲτικοῖϲ?


1.   This is the 19th volume in the La scuola di Epicuro series, founded by the late Marcello Gigante, which is the home for many editions of Herculaneum papyri. The last to appear was Giulianna Leone's edition of Epicurus' On Nature II in 2012.
2.   This leads, almost inevitably, to an annoying interruption in the numbering, but it has the benefits of clarity and honesty. (Some older editions are downright misleading about the size of lacunae within or between columns.) David Armstrong and I had to do the same thing in our forthcoming edition of Philodemus' On Anger, and many editors of Herculaneum papyri have ended up with fragments whose placement cannot be determined certainly or even approximately. ​

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