three pairs of lovers with space

THE EPIGRAMS ATTRIBUTED TO PLATO

 

Twenty-two epigrams in The Greek Anthology are attributed to “Plato” (in addition to six ascribed to “Plato the younger”, who wrote in the 1st century AD). Five of these are presented here as being pederastic. Four of them were stated to be by the great Athenian philosopher of that name (ca. 426-348/7 BC) in around the 2nd century BC by the writer Aristippos, and the other is so similar in spirit that he was clearly intended to be regarded as its composer.

Modern opinion has been divided on whether the philosopher was really their author, a question of great importance not only for understanding Plato, whose ideas are supremely important in the evolution of ideas about Greek love, but because his being the author would have made him inventor of the erotic epigram, a literary form that did not otherwise exist before its Hellenistic heyday.

Walther Ludwig, in his essay “Plato’s Love Epigrams” set out to show that by their style and substance all of them except the one about Dion (VII 99) “were originally composed without reference to Plato-probably in the first half of the third century. Later, occasionally in slightly altered form, they were attributed to Plato by Aristippos.” Ludwig demonstrates that Aristippos did this knowing it not to be true, his habit being to defame people of the past famous for their moral integrity, in Plato’s case by claiming he was promiscuous with both women and boys. He could do this because “his public cared little for accurate biographical data. They preferred scandal and sensationalism.”[1]

On either side of Ludwig have stood Sir Maurice Bowra, who accepted Plato’s authorship of all the epigrams in question, [2] and Sir Denys Page who denied Plato was the author of any epigrams in the Anthology in his briefer study of the question.[3] The main points of all three writers are given in brown for each individual epigram.

The translations are by W. R. Paton in The Greek Anthology, Volumes I and II: Loeb Classical Library Vols. LXVII and LXVIII (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1916-17). The only amendments are to undo his Latinisation of names in favour of more literal transliteration of the Greek.

The School of Plato by Jean Delville, 1898

 

V.  Erotic Epigrams by Various Poets

78

On his student Agathon

When I kissed Agathon, I held my soul at my lips. Poor soul! She came hoping to cross over to him.

ες γθωνα τν μαθητν ατο

Τὴν ψυχὴν, Ἀγάθωνα φιλῶν, ἐπὶ χείλεσιν ἔσχον·
     ἦλθε γὰρ ἡ τλήμων ὡς διαβησομένη.

Explanation

“The idea is that the lover's soul may rise up and pass together with his kiss into the body of the beloved.” (D. L. Page, p. 163, where he gives copious references to this idea in other Greek literature).

 

Authenticity of attribution

“See Walther Ludwig, “Plato’s Love Epigrams” in Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 4 (1963) 68-72. The author assumed that his readers would identify 'Agathon' with the well-known Athenian tragedian, who makes a speech about Eros in Plato's Symposium; the context in Aulus Gellius refers the epigram to a time when Plato himself was writing tragedies. The ascription to Plato is plainly false. The tragedian Agathon was about twenty years older than Plato; 'and as it was always the older ἐραστής and not the younger ἐρώμενος who composed love-poems, Plato cannot have composed a love-poem for the tragedian Agathon' (Ludwig 71). For adequate refutation of the far-fetched alternatives, that Plato, though the author of the epigram, is not the lover in it, or that Agathon is not the tragedian, see Ludwig 71-2.” (D. L. Page, p. 162, well summarising Walther Ludwig’s views)

Sir Maurice Bowra answered the objection raised here by saying “To this doubt there is a good answer. It is surely not surprising or improbable that Plato, who spent much of his life writing Dialogues with characters drawn from an older generation than his own, should early have written poetry about the men who belonged to it. He was fascinated by the circle of Socrates and spent his artistic life in recreating it; it is perfectly likely that the impulse which made him put it into his Dialogues asserted itself earlier in making him write poetry about its real or imaginary loves.” (p. 128).

 

VII.  Sepulchral Epigrams

All four of the pederastic epigrams attributed to Plato in this book were quoted by Diogenes Laertios in his 3rd-century AD work Lives of Eminent Philosophers III 29-31 (the second only of them in a very slightly different form). Diogenes says that

“Aristippos in his fourth book On the Luxury of the Ancients says that he [Plato] was attached to a youth named Aster, who joined him in the study of astronomy, as also to Dion who has been mentioned above, and, as some aver, to Phaidros too. His passionate affection is revealed in the following epigrams which he is said to have written upon them.”

 

99

On this epigram, Diogenes Laertios adds that it “was actually inscribed upon his [Dion’s] tomb at Syracuse.” Dion (ca. 406-354/3 BC) was a late teen disciple of Plato, whose ideas he tried unsuccessfully to introduce into Syracusan government, first through prolonged but bitterly disappointed attempts to persuade two successive tyrants, his close kinsmen, to accept Plato’s guidance, then through seizing power there himself.[4]

Its first two lines were also quoted in The Souda and by Apuleius, Apologia X.

On Dion

The Fates decreed tears for Hekuba and the Trojan women even at the hour of their birth;[5] and after thou, Dion, hadst triumphed in the accomplishment of noble deeds, the gods spilt all thy far-reaching hopes. But thou liest in thy spacious city, honoured by thy countrymen, Dion, who didst madden my soul with love. Δάκρυα μὲν Ἑκάβῃ τε καὶ Ἰλιάδεσσι γυναιξὶ
     Μοῖραι ἐπέκλωσαν δή ποτε γεινομέναις·
σοὶ δέ, Δίων, ῥέξαντι καλῶν ἐπινίκιον ἔργων
     δαίμονες εὐρείας ἐλπίδας ἐξέχεαν.
κεῖσαι δ᾿ εὐρυχόρῳ ἐν πατρίδι τίμιος ἀστοῖς,
     ὦ ἐμὸν ἐκμήνας θυμὸν ἔρωτι Δίων.
Hemidrachm of Syracuse when under the rule of Dion 354/7 BC. The laureate head is of Zeus Eleutherios

Authenticity of attribution

This epigram stands alone amongst those attributed to Plato in having the weight of modern scholarship in favour of that attribution, the implications of which are profound in deducing how strongly he, towards the end of his life when he had taken a definitely unsympathetic view of sexually-expressed pederasty, felt himself to have been drawn by eros to at least one youth.

“Among all the epigrams which Aristippos ascribed to Plato, with all probability only the Dion epigram was composed by Plato himself. This one is also the only one which, if Plato is not its real author, because of its matter must have been written with intent to deceive.” (Walther Ludwig, p. 81)

Denys Page says “the mediocrity of this composition is not a serious argument against its ascription to Plato”, but still takes a hostile view of its attribution to Plato. However, unlike in the other cases, this time he does do on ideological grounds only: he is outraged by the idea of Plato expressing such amorous ardour.[6]

Much the most thorough study of just this epigram was by Sir Maurice Bowra, who devoted a whole chapter of his book to it. Answering the objection that the poem is not good enough to be Plato’s, he said: “In its general form it seems to represent the Pelopponesian type of elegiac lament in so far as the dead man is addressed in the second person and the cause of his death is specified. Poems of this type are rare in the fourth or any other century, and the rarity of the form is in itself an argument for Plato's authorship. The form would presumably be used in a society where Dorian customs and manners predominated and would hardly occur to a forger. But in Syracuse in Dion's time it would be thoroughly in place. Syracuse prided itself on its Dorian affinities and kept up the spirit which Pindar had praised to Hieron in Pythian I, 61-66 in connection with Etna. Nor was this spirit unknown to Plato.  In Epistle VII, 336c he tells the friends of Dion to make no use of those men who cannot Δωριστὶ ζῆν κατὰ τὰ πάτρια, and the words show that he admired the Dorian traditions of the Syracusans. For such a Dorian society, with its ideals in his memory, Plato himself may well have chosen to write lines on the dead friend who was its champion.”
     Bowra then shows several further coincidences in outlook between the epigram and Plato’s Epistle VII, which, like it was written just after Dion’s death, as well as his other writings.
     Finally, he argued that Plato’s amorous ardour as expressed in the poem’s last line, can be “explained through Plato’s own special view of ἔρως,” even in his later years, for which his Laws VIII 837c is evidence. “The poem is hardly intelligible unless we interpret it in the light of Plato's philosophy. […] The poem is most easily understood if we assume that Plato wrote it in the onslaught of sorrow and disappointment which assailed him at the news of Dion's death, that it gives the first personal and emotional expression of the feelings which he elaborated a little later in Epistle VII. It is of course just conceivable that it was not written by Plato himself but by someone else deeply versed in the Platonic literature. But surely this is unlikely [reasoning follows …] The poem is certainly less polished and less direct than such poems as those on Aster and Agathon. But that is after all to be expected from a man of seventy whose life has been spent on philosophy and who has long ago turned away from the false lures of poetry. It looks as if the poem were written in haste under the stress of a strong emotion, and that would account for such lack of skill as it may show. But it may surmised that what is claimed as a lack of skill is due simply to Plato following an old literary tradition.

Dion Presents Plato to Dionysios. Dion was the tyrant's young brother-in-law and this was the first of his and Plato's unsuccessful attempts to introduce good government to Syracuse

If we view the poem in this light and assume that Plato wrote it, it becomes a document of some relevance for his biography […]. It shows what Plato felt as a man when he saw the final ruin of his hopes for the political life. Before the crisis of Dion's death he had suffered considerable disillusionment about the possibility of establishing a philosophers' state at Syracuse, but, so long as Dion lived, there was still hope. With his murder hope seemed to disappear, and naturally the disappointment was bitter to Plato. He did not live to see the triumph of Timoleon, and he must have died in the conviction that so far as an active political life was concerned, he had failed. Small wonder if he paid a tribute to the man on whom his hopes had rested and saw him as a tragic figure, struck down by implacable supernatural powers in the crisis of success. Poetry was, after all, the simplest and best way to honour Dion's memory, and this epigram, short and strange though it is, well qualifies to be one of those ἐγκώμια τοῖς ἀγαθοῖς which Plato himself admitted even into his ideal state.”[7]

 

100

Diogenes Laertios adds that Plato composed this epigram “being enamoured of Alexis and Phaidros”.

On Alexis and Phaidros (not an epitaph)

Now when I said nothing except just that Alexis is fair, he is looked at everywhere and by everyone when he appears. Why, my heart, dost thou point out bones to dogs and have to sorrow for it afterwards? Was it not thus that I lost Phaidros?  Νῦν ὅτε μηδέν, Ἄλεξις, ὅσον μόνον εἶφ᾿, ὅτι καλός,
     ὦπται, καὶ πάντη πᾶσι περιβλέπεται.
θυμέ, τί μηνύεις κυσὶν ὀστέον, εἶτ᾿ ἀνιήσει
     ὕστερον; οὐχ οὕτω Φαῖδρον ἀπωλέσαμεν;
 

Authenticity of attribution

“Diogenes Laertius, in the paragraph preceding his quotation of the pseudo-Platonic epigrams which he found in 'Aristippus', gives the text of two passages concerning Plato from the Comic poet Alexis, and it is highly probable that Diogenes identified 'Alexis' in this epigram with that poet; it is certain that he identified ‘Phaedrus' with the pupil of Socrates who appears as a young man in the Symposium and in the dialogue named after him. He was surely right; and, if so, it follows that the epigram is a deliberate forgery. Phaedrus was at least twenty years older than Plato, and cannot possibly have been his 'boy'; when Alexis was eighteen, Plato was seventy-three. The author has chosen names connected with Plato in one way or another, without considering whether those names are appropriate to his subject. The epigram is a lively composition from the Hellenistic period. It was taken into A.P. from Diogenes, and there is no way of telling whether it was included in the collection of pseudo-Platonic epigrams used by Meleager. It is misplaced among the sepulchral epigrams of A.P. 7; presumably somebody thought (as the Bude editor still thinks) that νῦν ὅτε μηδέν Ἄλεξις means 'now that Alexis is no more'.” (D. L. Page,  p. 164)

Bowra answered the objection raised as quoted above with respect to V 78, ie. that Plato was not writing about his own loves, to which he added: “There seems, then, no good reason for denying the epigrams of ‘Aristippus’ to Plato. There are indeed positive reasons for ascribing them to him. The Symposium and Phaedrus show that the mature Plato had something of the erotic temperament, and the youthful Plato may have been even more interested in erotic subjects. […] Nor would the case of ‘Aristippus’ against Plato have been convincing if the evidence which he marshalled were not known in some degree to be genuinely Platonic. He seems to have drawn on an oral tradition, perhaps that of the Academy, and in that case his source was good.” (pp. 128-9)

 

669

Thou lookest on the stars, my Star. Would I were heaven, to look on thee with many eyes. Ἀστέρας εἰσαθρεῖς ἀστὴρ ἐμός. εἴθε γενοίμην
     Οὐρανός, ὡς πολλοῖς ὄμμασιν εἰς σὲ βλέπω.
 
Phosphoros, Eos, Helios, Hesperos. Drawing by Stanisław Wyspiański, 1897

Authenticity of attribution of both 669 and 670

“On these epigrams, among the most beautiful in the Anthology, see especially Walther Ludwig, “Plato’s Love Epigrams” in Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 4 (1963) 77-80. 670 is plainly a pseudo-epitaph, an artistic form which, as Ludwig says, 'clearly belongs to the Hellenistic age'. Ludwig is probably right also in associating [the two epigrams] closely as a pair of the type illustrated [elsewhere …]. They are 'a Hellenistic combination of an erotic and a funeral epigram... easily explicable not from a biographical background, but by the common technique of varying a certain theme... The two epigrams seem to be variations of the theme "the star as a metaphor for the beloved".' “(D. L. Page, p. 161)

Sir Maurice Bowra argued for Plato’s authorship as quoted with respect to VII 100 above, adding: “There seems to be no serious objection to the view that in his youth Plato wrote the two epigrams on Aster. […] The identification of the Morning and Evening Star … finds a remarkable parallel in Epinomis 987 b, which must at least be based on Platonic teaching and uses the same star as a symbol of Aphrodite. But better than such arguments is the point made by Reitzenstein that the poems quoted are so good that they cannot be the work of a forger. They are the work of a notable poet, and if they were written by somebody else than Plato, it is hard to see why they were not ascribed to him under his proper name.” (pp. 127 and 129)

Was the “Aster” of 669 and 670 a real boy?

“It is remarkable that some modern scholars have been caught in the web woven by the irresponsible' Aristippus' (see pp. 126f. above), for whom the background of [669] was the class-room during a lesson on astronomy, and the word ἀστὴρ a pun; ‘Plato was in love with a youth named "Aster", who studied astronomy under him'. The idea that ἀστὴρ in [669] 1 stands for both 'star' and 'Aster' (a common enough proper-name) is unwanted and disagreeable but cannot be absolutely disproved. If it is accepted, it becomes necessary to suppose that the author assumed in his readers the knowledge of a tradition of which there is no earlier trace - that a pupil of Plato was so named. It must have been generally known, for there is nothing in the epigram to suggest it. If the subject's name was Aster, ἀστὴρ in [669] 1 nevertheless means 'star' not 'Aster', as the addition of ἐμός shows; the meaning is plainly 'you are looking at the stars; to me it is you who are the star to be looked at'. The metaphor is immediately intelligible, whatever the subject's name was; and the epigram is the better if it has nothing to do with a very obvious pun on a proper-name. A pretty child or a handsome young person is called a 'star' from Homer onwards [four supporting quotations from Greek literature are given].” (D. L. Page, p. 161)

 

670

Of old among the living thou didst shine the Star of morn; now shinest thou in death the Star of eve.   Ἀστὴρ πρὶν μὲν ἔλαμπες ἐνὶ ζωοῖσιν Ἑῷος·
     νῦν δὲ θανὼν λάμπεις Ἕσπερος ἐν φθιμενοις.
Hesperos (the Evening Star personified) by Anton Raphael Mengs, 1765 (Palacete de la Moncloa, Madrid)

Explanation

“[This] needs little comment. It is only necessary to remember, as Ludwig observes, (a) that the morning-star and the evening-star were believed to be one and the same (Ibycus PMG 331; Pfeiffer on Call.fr. 291.3), so that their identification with one and the same person is immediately intelligible; (b) that the morning-star typifies supreme beauty (Pindar Isthmian Ode 4.24 Ἀοσφόρος θαητὸς ὣς ἄστροις ἐν ἄλλοις); and (c) that the soul of the dead might inhabit a star (Aristophanes, Pax 832).” (D. L. Page, p. 161)

 

[1] Walther Ludwig, “Plato’s Love Epigrams” in Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 4 (1963) pp. 59-82. Peter Jay thought the exact opposite, having doubts about Plato’s authorship of the epigram about Dion, but none about the other four (The Greek Anthology and Other Ancient Greek Epigrams, edited by Peter Jay, London, 1973, pp. 44-46).

[2] Sir Maurice Bowra, Chapter VIII “Plato’s Epigram on Dion’s Death” in his  Problems in Greek Poetry, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953) pp. 126-137.

[3] D. L. Page, Further Greek Epigrams, Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 161-181.

[4] The enduring bond between Plato and Dion, whom she depicts as having once been lovers, presumably on the basis of this epigram, is a main theme of Mary Renault’s excellent novel, The Mask of Apollo (London: Longmans, 1966).

[5] The reader is referred to D. L. Page, Further Greek Epigrams, (Cambridge University Press, 1981) p. 170 for a long and thorough explanation of why the comparison between the tragic fates of the Trojan women on the fall of their city and that of Dion is ill-considered.

[6] D. L. Page, Further Greek Epigrams, (Cambridge University Press, 1981) p. 169. It is all very well for Page to make assertions about the authenticity of certain epigrams based on his knowledge of how writing styles varied over the several centuries of epigram-writing that he has minutely studied, making him quite credibly better able to estimate their dates than the Greeks who put together the earliest anthologies, but it is surely a very different matter for him to claim to understand Plato’s mind much better than the ancients did. It is particularly worrying that he should be doing so with the personal preference as to how Plato should have behaved that is manifest in his saying the idea Plato loved a real youth called Aster is "unwanted and disagreeable" (p. 161).

[7] Plato, Republic X, 607a.

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