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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy / biography

Lives of the Sophists


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To purchase Lives of the Sophists

Title: Lives of the Sophists
Author: Philostratus
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: early 3rd century (Eng. 2023)
Length: 365 pages
Original in: ancient Greek
Availability: in Lives of the Sophists - US
in Lives of the Sophists - UK
in Lives of the Sophists - Canada
Vies des sophistes - France
Leben der Sophisten - Deutschland
Vite dei sofisti - Italia
Vidas de los sofistas - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Harvard University Press
  • Greek title: Βίοι Σοφιστῶν
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Graeme Miles
  • Previously translated in The Lives of the Sophists by Wilmer C. Wright (1921)
  • The Loeb Classical Library volume also includes Han Baltussen's translation of Lives of Philosophers and Sophists
  • This is a bilingual edition that includes the original Greek text

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Our Assessment:

B : wide-ranging (both in subject and treatment) and quite appealing biographical tour

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Classical Review* . (38:3/4) 5-6/1924 J.S.Phillimore
Sunday Times* . 18/6/1922 Edmund Gosse

(* review of an earlier translation)

  From the Reviews:
  • "Philostratus' gallery of little sketches of those marvellous verbal executants makes the liveliest reading in the Greek, but this translation is flat and colour less; the nuances are frequently missed, the wit disappears; and the writer seems to grope about in the Philostratean Greek without ease or security. (...) The language is sadly raceless. (...) There is hardly a page where one is not annoyed by this blunting workmanship; and often it is more than a nuance that is missed" - J.S.Phillimore, The Classical Review

  • "He makes a forgotten world of intellectual activity rise out of oblivion for an instant and move before us. His book has the same relation to a serious biography that a "film" has to a novel. There is a procession of figures, and each one is in the flesh-light for a few moments. (...) (W)hat really makes his gossip valuable is what he is able to relate out of his personal memory (.....) Philostratus gives us as good an account as he can of the style of Herodes, which he considered to reach the very summit of oratory." - Edmund Gosse, Sunday Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Philostratus' Lives of the Sophists offers biographical sketches of fifty-nine figures: "who practiced philosophy and had a reputation for sophistry and those who were properly designated sophists". Philostratus describes: "the Ancient Sophistic to be rhetoric doing philosophy", but also identifies a 'Second Sophistic' -- "which we must not call new, for it is ancient, but rather second" --, and it is the latter that he focuses his attention on. In both cases, rhetoric, and the command of it, features prominently -- with Philostratus amusingly noting early in his overview that:

     The Athenians, seeing the power associated with sophists, debarred them from the law courts, on the grounds that they made the unjust argument more powerful than the just and were stronger than direct expression.
       Herodes the Athenian (Herodes Atticus; ca. 101-177) is the centerpiece of these lives, both as leading light and reference point, but already the description of Herodes' mentor, Favorinus, suggests just how compelling the greatest sophist-practitioners could be, as:
     When he engaged in dialogue in Rome, the whole city was full of enthusiasm, so much so that even those who did not understand the Greek language heard him with pleasure, and he charmed them with the sound of his voice, the expression of his gaze and the rhythm of his tongue.
       Philostratus goes back far, offering such titbits as that Protagoras: "was the first to discover charging fees for discourses". Covering so many figures, many get only a brief summary-mention, highlighting one or another feature; a few are practically dismissed out of hand as, for example, Philostratus explains:
     We will pass over Ariobarzanes of Cilicia and Xenophron of Sicily and Peithagoras who came from Cyrene, who seemed without skill in invention and in expressing their ideas, but were taken seriously by the Greeks of their time due to the lack of first-rate sophists, much as people eat bitter vetch when they lack other food.
       Some are dismissed more emphatically -- and at greater length, notably Varus of Laodicea -- "trivial and slack-jawed and simple-minded" --, Philostratus going so far as to judge:
     Those who deem Varus of Laodicea worth mentioning should themselves be deemed unworthy of mention.
       (He really has it in for this guy -- and his followers --, hammering how worthless he was.)
       The sophists Philostratus discusses range from Hermogenes of Tarsus, a teen-prodigy whom even Marcus Aurelius sought out (and was: "especially astonished by his improvisation"), but who burned out young, as: "when Hermogenes came to manhood, he lost his skill through no obvious illness" -- and then had the bad luck to live to an: "extreme old age". Meanwhile, Hippias of Elias, had such a good memory that even when he was old: "if he once heard fifty names he could remember them in the order in which he heard them". And then there is Hadrian the Phoenician (Hadrian of Tyre), who:
was so outspoken that when he ascended to the chair of rhetoric at Athens, the proem of his introductory speech was dedicated not to the wisdom of the Athenians but to his own.
       He, too, was one of those mellifluous sophists who: "inspired a desire to hear him even in those who were ignorant of the Greek language" .....
       Philostratus gives some short examples of some of the sophists' rhetorical abilities -- explaining, as he does re. Lucius, that only brief quotes suffice, as: "these examples are enough to reveal the man, just as a sip reveals the bouquet of wine". One gets some sense of what Philostratus saw as their strengths and weaknesses, but the majority of those discussed get only a rather cursory look; only with a few do we really get more biography, or a sense of their contributions -- notably Herodes, and Hadrian. Still, there is also some sense of continuity, despite the enormous time-range covered -- so, for example, also, as translator Miles mentions in a footnote: "Direct or indirect sniping at Plato and Platonic attitudes to sophists is common in Philostratus".
       Many of the names are familiar, but relatively little of the work of most of them has come down to us, beyond the fragmentary. Philostratus generally succinct summings-up and a sprinkling of anecdotes and examples do give some impression, but the biographical detail is limited.
       While many are familiar, and context (and some footnotes) help place then, a timeline or alphabetical listing of names with dates would have been helpful; with fifty-nine figures spanning several centuries, it can be hard keeping track. Miles' Introduction serves well as such but is also only a fairly short overview -- though certainly observations (or warnings) such as that: "Philostratus plays freely with fiction and fact, with the details of traditional myths, and with the tropes of contemporary rhetorical practice" are welcome going into the text.
       If sometimes only limitedly informative, Philostratus' brief biographies and discussions are quite lively and sharp, and often quite nicely put. It makes a welcome secondary resource to Greek philosophy and the practice of rhetoric and, fairly neatly divided up into individual portraits, also makes for fine piecemeal reading.
       As always with the Loeb editions, having the original Greek facing the English translation is welcome. And, as Miles notes, while Wilmer C. Wright's 1921 translation may have been: "groundbreaking in its time", a hundred years on it had become quite dated, and so this new translation is also welcome -- not least also because Miles could take advantage of: "a much better critical edition, Stefec's Oxford Classical Text" [OUP, 2016]

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 August 2023

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Lives of the Sophists: Reviews (* review of a different translation): Other books by Philostratus under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       The sophist Philostratus (Φιλόστρατος) lived ca.170 to 250.

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© 2023 the complete review

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