Tag Archives: Ancient biographies

Why the “Biographies” of Socrates Differ

Remains of the site of Socrates’ trial

A historical study of Socrates echoes numerous points of interest in biblical studies, both in the Old and New Testaments. Following on from my reference to a point in Robin Waterfield’s Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths I want to note here Waterfield’s explanation for why we have quite divergent accounts of Socrates’ apology (or defence speech) at his trial, one by Plato and the other by Xenophon.

Neither Plato nor Xenophon wrote as disinterested biographers of Socrates. Each had his own agenda and used the figure of Socrates as a representative and advocate for his own interests and values.

Both accounts are fiction, Waterfield believes. How did he arrive at that judgment?

Plato is “too clever”, he says. The apology he sets out is evidently Plato’s own.

The differences between the two versions are enormous; they cannot both be right. So whom does one trust?

It is tempting to rely on Plato’s version, because it is brilliant – funny, philosophically profound, essential reading – whereas Xenophon’s is far more humdrum, and is in any case an unpolished work. But this is the nub of the whole ‘Socratic Problem’, as scholars call it: we want to trust Plato, but his very brilliance is precisely what should incline us not to trust him, in the sense that geniuses are more likely than lesser mortals to have their own agendas. And in fact no one doubts that Plato had his own agenda, and came to use Socrates as a spokesman for his own ideas; the only question is when this process started and how developed it is in any given dialogue. (p. 9, my formatting and bolding in all quotations)

Waterfield opts for the Goldilocks answer to his question:

The most sensible position is that no dialogue, however early, is sheer biography and no dialogue, however late, is entirely free from the influence of the historical Socrates. Plato, Xenophon and all the other Socratics were writing a kind of fiction – what, in their various views, Socrates might have said had he been in such-and-such a situation, talking with this person and that person on such-and-such a topic. For one thing that is common to all the Socratic writers is that they portray their mentor talking, endlessly talking – either delivering homilies, or engaging others in sharp, dialectical conversation and argument.

I suspect Goldilocks solutions are founded more on aesthetic preference than carefully evaluated options — and here Bayesian analysis offers to help out — but, let’s move on.

We saw in the previous post that another reason for believing the accounts of Socrates are fiction is the sheer fact that there are so many variations of them. Each writer has his own opinion; if genuine reports of Socrates’ speech were documented then they would have been sufficient and there would have been no need for ongoing variations.

Further, Socrates was said to have entered the court as an innocent, without any in depth preparation for what he was about to say. Plato’s version of Socrates’ speech does not portray someone who was unprepared:

If there is any truth to the stories that Socrates came to court unprepared, a rhetorical innocent, Plato’s Apology certainly begins to look fictitious: it has long been admired as polished oratory. (p. 10)

But can’t historians somehow find a way to peel back the fictional layer of the narrative and expose nuggets of historical fact (at least strong probability of historical fact) behind some of the sayings? Not to Waterfield’s knowledge:

Given the unlikelihood of our ever having objective grounds for proving the fictional nature of either or both of these two versions of the defence speeches, it is gratifying, and significant, that we can easily create a plausible case for their fictionality. (p. 10)

And a little later we learn that, unlike biblical scholars of the gospels, the historian does not have any “criteria of authenticity” to bring into the fray:

There may be nuggets of historical truth within either or both of the two works, but we lack the criteria for recognizing them. We will never know for sure what was said on that spring day of 399 BCE. (p. 12)

So we can prove their fictionality but not their historicity. read more »

Ad Hoc explanations for all those different biographies of Jesus …. (or Socrates)

Here’s an interesting twist to the standard argument explaining why we have so many gospels all with different accounts of Jesus.

Different eyewitnesses report different details about the same event, it is said, and that explains the multiple “reports” of Jesus’ arrest, trial, death, resurrection, etc. But check the following by a scholar of Socrates:

The trial rapidly became so notorious that a number of Apologies of Socrates were written soon afterwards, and at least one prosecution speech purporting to be that of Anytus. If the object had been to report the actual speech or speeches Socrates himself gave in the course of the trial, there would have been no need for more than one or two such publications, and all the rest would have been redundant. The fact that so many versions of Socrates’ defence speeches were written strongly suggests that the authors were not reporters of historical truth, but were concerned to write what, in their opinion, Socrates could or should have said – which is what characterizes the whole genre of Socratic writings that sprang up in the decades following Socrates’ trial and death. (Waterfield, Robin. 2009. Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths. New York: W. W. Norton. pp 9-10 — my bolding)


Did Demonax Exist? The Historicity Debate ‘Rages’

“Rages” in the title is a bit of poetic licence. I don’t really think either of the two chapters by classicists discussing the arguments for and against the historicity of an ancient philosopher can be considered “rages”.

My point was to alert potential readers that this post is not a repeat of my post of less than a week ago about the historicity of Demonax : Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist? That post addressed the views of Tomas Hagg as published in 2012 in The Art of Biography in Antiquity. I was really playing catch-up with that one since one year and two months ago I posted a more recent (published 2016) discussion of another classicist, Mark Beck, addressing the same thorny question: If Biblical Scholars Were Classicists. I was sharing my reading of “Lucian’s Life of Demonax”, a chapter in Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization, edited by Koen De Temmerman and Kristoffel Demoen.

Would we have to deny the historicity of most other ancient persons if we reject Demonax?

It is interesting to compare the two different discussions of the question of Demonax’s historicity. How do non-biblical scholars, those dedicated to the study of ancient times, address questions of historicity in those cases where we lack the testimony of monuments, public inscriptions, coins, etc.? The question is of some interest, I suspect, to those who follow what biblical scholars might have to say about certain arguments of the historicity of, let’s say at random, Adam, or Abraham, or Moses, or Jesus.

Do independent contemporary sources decide the question?

In both discussions a primary and very weighty consideration is the absence of contemporary notices. If the person really was so influential as the biography claims, then how do we account for the absence of contemporary witnesses? Why do we have to wait for a person claiming to be a student and eyewitness of the famous person writing something long after the teacher was dead?

Does fictional storytelling decide the question?

It is also interesting that in both discussions the above question is of considerable import, while the fact that it is clearly evident that the extant biography of Demonax contains much fiction is not so important. If someone tells tall tales about a famous teacher, so what? That seems to be the approach. It’s to be expected. Fictional details do not mean the subject did not exist.

Does an eyewitness claim decide the question?

But we have a writing by one who clearly says he was an eyewitness and a student of Demonax! No dice, apparently. That does not count as decisive in either discussion. Anyone could say that about the person they were writing about.

Do independent references decide the question?

In both discussions, the one by Hãgg and the one by Beck, the independent testimony of sayings by Demonax is a significant point. The biographer of Demonax did not make use of what we know of an independent collection of sayings by Demonax. Beck considers these independent sayings attributed to Demonax as enough to tilt the scales in favour of the historicity of Demonax. Hägg is not convinced; for Hägg, such a collection only raises more questions than it answers with respect to the historicity question. Those independent sayings are just a little “too” independent and appear to have no real relevance to the person of Lucian’s biography, according to Hägg. So scholarly opinions differ — interestingly without any apparent need for abusive language and all sorts of ad hominem attacks.

Does a namesake at the right time and place decide the question?

But Hägg does concede that there was a historical Demonax in Athens at the right time. He just does not think that Demonax had much in common with Lucian’s portrait. Beck agrees with the problematic nature of Lucian’s portrait by adding that it is evident that a source for that portrait was Lucian’s own life. Lucian was writing about himself!

Does the function of the biography decide the question?

Both classicists acknowledge that the fact that Lucian’s biography had a clear purpose of teaching readers virtuous principles is itself a point against the historicity of any of the biography’s anecdotes. The author, they agree, wrote with the purpose of teaching virtue and creating a moral exemplar for readers, not with any specific intent to preserve genuine historical memories for posterity.

Back to that question about independent contemporary sources

So the bottom line is that the question of historicity stands or falls on the point of testimony independent of the biography and contemporaneous with the person of interest.

Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist?

If the Life of Aesop is riddled with obvious fiction yet it is concluded that Aesop really existed, what does Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) do with the question of the historicity of Demonax, a figure whose biography contains only sober and believable accounts and is said to have been written by an eyewitness? Ironically, Hägg is far less confident that Demonax is historical than he is about Aesop!

You can read the Life of Demonax by Lucian at the sacred-texts site. (It is fewer than 4000 words.)

To begin Hägg addresses doubts among some scholars that Lucian was the real biographer. Life of Demonax does not have the same cutting, satirical tone as his other biographies, but actually approaches Demonax reverentially and creates an idealized portrait. However, on the strength of the attestation Hägg accepts Lucian as the genuine author.

Lucian states that he has two reasons for writing about Demonax:

This time I am to write of Demonax, with two sufficient ends in view:

  • first, to keep his memory green among good men, as far as in me lies;
  • and secondly, to provide the most earnest of our rising generation, who aspire to philosophy, with a contemporary pattern, that they may not be forced back upon the ancients for worthy models, but imitate this best–if I am any judge–of all philosophers.

Continuing with Hägg:

Demonax’ background is rapidly sketched . . . His ‘urge to noble things and innate love for philosophy from early childhood’ is stated, but there is no actual account of that childhood; nor is his physical appearance described here or elsewhere in the Life. His blameless life and exemplary honesty are lauded, as is his excellent education in literature, philosophy, and rhetoric. As a philosopher, he is a professed eclectic. He has most in common with Socrates and Diogenes of Sinope . . . but is described as an unchangingly polite and social person who lacks both Socrates’ irony and Diogenes’ exhibitionism — in short, we are made to understand, a godlike (isotheos) man. . . . (p. 295)

Certainly an idealized portrait. And short on specifics to demonstrate the idealized qualities.

The first description of a specific event in Demonax’s life comes three pages in, with his trial:

It starts in the same mode: ‘So it was that all the Athenians, from the populace to the magistrates, admired him tremendously and never ceased regarding him as a superior being (tina tōn kreittonōn)’; but then some critical words are unexpectedly heard. Like a second Socrates, Demonax is brought to court because he has caused offence to and incurred hatred from the common people . . . through his Cynic . . . ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘licence’, and his . . . ‘independence’. Men similar to Anytus and Meletus (the accusers in Socrates’ trial) charge him with not taking part in the sacrifices or letting himself be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. He manages, however, to refute the accusations by using his habitual outspokenness and wit . . . and the Athenians, who had first been prepared to stone him, ‘from that time showed him honour, respect, and eventually admiration’. (pp. 295f)

One sees in the above account several features that may well justify our asking questions about the genuineness of the narrative: the evident influence of the trial of Socrates, again the idealizing portrait and the most remarkable turnabout of the Athenians from being ready to execute him to admiring him.

The literary structure of the Life is also addressed: read more »

What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography?


Because so many NT scholars desperately want the gospels to be both Greco-Roman biographies and reliable histories, we could almost forget that these two forms of literature are not the same. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s what Plutarch said:

It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and of Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed, the multitude of their great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives.

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.

Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others. (Plutarch’s Alexander [emphasis and reformatting mine])

We could boil these comments down into the following points. A biography: read more »

Signs of Fiction in Ancient Biographies — & the Gospels

writingLet’s be sure we apply the same critical standard to the Gospels as we do to other ancient literature of the day. And let’s be sure we have a fair grasp of the wider Greco-Roman literature of the first and second centuries so we can improve our chances of making informed interpretations of the Gospels. And let’s do away with these apologetic arguments that the colorful and minute details in gospel narratives are sure signs of eyewitness testimony and therefore of historical reliability!

Professor Rhiannon Ash is the author of one of the many gems in the newly published Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization, edited by Koen De Temmerman and Kristoffel Demoen. Her chapter, “Never say die! Assassinating emperors in Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, examines the range of techniques the Roman biographer Suetonius employed to add verisimilitude to create “the illusion of historical accuracy.”

Suetonius in the early second century wrote biographies of a dozen Roman emperors. Sometimes he would narrate details that apparently occurred behind closed doors (and that would consequently be unknown to anybody else), sometimes he wrote about a person’s private dreams foretelling the future, often he included supernatural prodigies and sensational personal details worthy of any tabloid press today. But at the same time he did want to be taken seriously and impress readers with the diligence of his research. Thus. . . .

he generally takes some trouble to deploy devices which invest each account with verisimilitude and contribute significantly to our sense of his own auctoritas as a researcher. (p. 205)

Accordingly Suetonius rarely passed up “a chance to enhance the credibility of his account” by means of:

  • the weighty presence of numbers, times and dates“:
    • more than sixty men conspire against Caesar
    • three slaves carry Caesar’s body
    • two men initiate the conspiracy against Caligula
    • there were twenty-three, thirty, and seven wounds administered to three targets of assassination
    • Caesar sets out almost at the end of the fifth hour
    • Caesar made his will on 13th September 45 BCE
    • Caligula is undecided about adjourning for lunch on 24 January just before midday
    • Caligula left the games at midday
    • Domitian has a premonition of the last year, day and hour of his life
    • lightning strikes occur eight successive months
    • Domitian jumped from bed at midnight on the night before his assassination
    • conspirators falsely tell Domitian the time is the sixth hour when it was really the fifth — to lull him into a false sense of security
    • Caligula ruled for three years, ten months and eight days
    • Domitian was murdered in his forty-fifth year and fifteenth year of his office

read more »