FW: BMCR 2003.11.30, Gregor Staub, Pythagoras in der Spa+tantike.
- BMCR 2003.11.30
Gregor Staub, Pythagoras in der Spa+tantike. Studien zu De Vita
Pythagorica des Iamblichos von Chalkis, Beitra+ge zur Altertumskunde
165. Mu+nchen/Leipzig: K. G. Saur, 2002. Pp. 543. ISBN
3-598-77714-0. EUR 98.00.
Reviewed by Jorgen Mejer, The Danish Institute at Athens
Word count: 918 words
2002 was a good year for the study of Iamblichus and his writings on
Pythagoras. Not only did we get the volume under review, but also the
Greek text of Iamblichus' De vita pythagorica, a reissue of von
Albrecht's German translation from 1963, accompanied by various
interpretive essays by Michael von Albrecht, John Dillon, Martin
Gerorg, Michael Lurje and David S du Toit.[] In the latter volume is
also a reissue of von Albrecht's paper "Das Menschenbild in Jamblichos'
Darstellung der pythagorischen Lebensform",[] the paper which was
the first to emphasize that Iamblichus' work was not just a collection
of testimonies on the life and thought of Pythagoras but also a
testimony on the concept of human life in late antiquity -- in many
ways the main inspiration for Staub's comprehensive and important 2001
dissertation at Jena University. 543 pages, including 1134 footnotes,
are not exactly easy reading, but a book no scholar of late antiquity
can afford to overlook it. Nor for that matter, any historian of
This is not, however, a book about Pythagoras and Pythagorean
philosophy, though it may be even more difficult in the future to find
valuable information about the early Pythagoreanism in Iamblichus'
treatise. The introduction (12-48) deals with some of the questions
traditionally discussed by scholarship and outlines the different
streams of Pythagoreanism in the Roman Empire. In two admirable short
sections Staub places the De Vita Pythagorica in the context of
Iamblichus' other works and philosophy and outlines the plan of his
long book: his main contribution is a structural analysis in the shape
of detailed commentaries on important sections of Iamblichus' work.
Prior to this analysis we are offered (49-143) summaries of the
Pythagorean tradition before Aristotle, the pseudo-Pythagorean
literature, the three Pythagorean philosophers of the Roman Empire:
Moderatus, Nicomachus and Numenius, and brief analyses of the two other
Pythagorean biographies of the roughly same period, Diogenes Laertius'
(8. 1-50) and Porphyry. Staub points out that it is difficult to
discern any ideological purpose in Diogenes, while it is obvious that
Porphyry's account of the life of Pythagoras is an idealizing biography
that makes Pythagoras and his thinking the origin of the (Neo)Platonic
school of philosophy.
Part II (144-237) deals with Iamblichus and his oeuvre: We see
Iamblichus as a teacher of philosophy while his ethical theory in
particular manifests itself in the shape of a series of virtues on the
basis of Plotinus' doctrine, in particular Enn. 1.2. The significance
of the Alcibiades Maior in the Neoplatonic school is demonstrated. Then
follows, along the lines of O'Meara's book Pythagoras Revived, a brief
overview of all of Iamblichus' Pythagorean compendium, including the
newly published Arabic version of a commentary on the Carmen
Aureum.[] Staub then shows how the somewhat overlooked prooemium to
the De vita Pythagorica in fact is the preface to the whole compendium
and how it contributes to the right understanding of Iamblichus'
purpose. Finally in this part of his book, Staub turns against
traditional Quellenforschung and proves that Iamblichus has contributed
much more to his Pythagorean life than is usually assumed. Iamblichus'
more extensive information about Pythagoras has nothing to do with his
use of sources but with his intention to illustrate the right
philosophical life with the paradigm of Pythagoras.
The major part of this book (Part III = 238-440) is a analysis of the
structure of the De vita Pythagorica, with extensive commentaries on
the content and form of the Greek text. Staub quotes liberally from
Iamblichus' and other Greek texts but the Greek texts are always
accompanied by his clear German translations. The main discussion deals
with the structure of the text and the intentions of its author, the
textual relations to other parts of Iamblichus' books, and to other
sources, and in the footnotes one finds a wealth of information about
the details of interpretation, both in Iamblichus' text and in other
In the last part IV (441-77) Staub sums up the results of his
investigation. The De vita Pythagorica consists of three parts: the
biography proper of Pythagoras (sections 2-57) which puts emphasis on
how wonderful and famous Pythagoras was, the Pythagorean paideia
(sections 58-133) and finally Pythagoras as the ideal philosopher and
the embodiment of the Pythagorean/Neoplatonic virtues (sections
134-240). The whole treatise is deeply influenced by topoi that belong
to ancient encomia. No wonder then that Iamblichus not only manages to
attribute many different philosophical themes to Pythagoras, but also
manipulates his sources to support his own image of Pythagoras.
Pythagoras is presented as the real sources for Iamblichus' own ethical
teachings. When Iamblichus' book ends with a section on Pythagorean
friendship, is it because it is philia that makes it possible for human
beings to become as similar to god as possible and hence as happy as a
human being can be.
Despite its length, this book is tightly argued. In addition to its
main argument it offers a wealth of observations on many other ancient
Greek texts, e.g. on the many unfounded assumptions of source
attributions (e.g. note 290), on the supposed Eastern origin of
Pythagoras' philosophy (note 630, accepting the emendation Mochos as
against Marcovich's new Teubner edition of Diogenes Laertius), or on
the usage of Greek terms (e.g. notes 762 and 1040). Staub has used all
the available scholarship and his Auseinandersetzung with it is always
to the point. The book is very well produced and has very few
misprints. In short, this is a specimen of the German
Habilitationsschrift at its best.
1. Pythagoras: Legende-Lehre-Lebengestaltung, SAPERE 4, Darmstadt
2. Pp. 255-74, originally in Antike und Abendland 12 (1966) 51-63.
3. H. Daiber (ed.) Neuplatonische Pythagorica in Arabischem Gewande.
Der Kommentar des Iamblichus zu den Carmina aurea. Ein verlorener
griechischer Text in arabischer u+berlieferung, Amsterdam 1995.
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