A Speaker of Words and Doer of Deeds: The Reception of Phoenix’ Educational Ideal

In: Homer and the Good Ruler in Antiquity and Beyond
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Introduction: Iliad 9.438–443

In Iliad Book 9, the episode of the embassy, Achilles’ old tutor Phoenix emotionally addresses his one-time pupil, who has just announced that he will no longer stay at Troy where he is not treated with the honour that he deserves. If Achilles goes so will he, Phoenix says, because:

[…] σοὶ δέ μ’ ἔπεμπε γέρων ἱππηλάτα Πηλεὺς
ἤματι τῷ ὅτε σ’ ἐκ Φθίης Ἀγαμέμνονι πέμπε
νήπιον, οὔ πω εἰδόθ’ ὁμοιΐου πολέμοιο,
οὐδ’ ἀγορέων, ἵνα τ’ ἄνδρες ἀριπρεπέες τελέθουσι.
τοὔνεκά με προέηκε διδασκέμεναι τάδε πάντα,
μύθων τε ῥητῆρ’ ἔμεναι πρηκτῆρά τε ἔργων.
Il. 9.438–443

With you the old horseman Peleus sent me on the day when he sent you out from Phthia to Agamemnon, a mere child knowing nothing as yet of evil war, nor of gatherings in which men become preeminent. For this reason he sent me to instruct you in all these things, to be both a speaker of words and a doer of deeds.

trans. Murray-Wyatt

Besides highlighting the intimate bond of tutor and pupil and underlining the irony of the fact that Achilles is currently anything but a doer of deeds, the speech has largely been taken to express the composite ideal of Homeric male virtue: to be a speaker of words and a doer of deeds. Because of this, Phoenix’ speech and the ideal it expresses have in fact been read as a Princes’ Mirror of sorts, both in antiquity and in modern scholarship: the ideal often turns up in contexts of advice on how to rule, and features prominently in both ancient and modern discussions of Homer as the educator of the Greeks.1 In this chapter, I trace the fortune of this ideal by looking at the way in which Phoenix’ phrase is quoted in particular ancient contexts, or referenced by later authors. Besides reflecting the enduring authority of Homer as educator of the Greeks and general compendium of values,2 this itinerary allows us to follow the development of important discourses in Greek thought. Examples are the relation between words and deeds in the ideal education of princes, but also the casting of Alexander the Great as a model ruler, through the link of his well-documented admiration for Achilles.

The theme of ‘words and deeds’, or even ‘words versus deeds’, in the context of good rule is potentially very broad. It might be said to include, on the one hand, the entire philosophical debate about the relative merits of the public vita activa (bios politikos) versus the philosophical and private vita contemplativa (bios theōrētikos), which finds its first systematic discussion in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.3 That Phoenix’ words were sometimes taken to epitomize a conciliation of these two ways of life can be seen in Cicero’s De oratore 3.15.57:

That ancient learning, indeed, appears to have been at the same time the preceptress of living rightly [recte faciendi] and of speaking well [bene dicendi]; nor were there separate masters for those subjects, but the same teachers formed the morals and the language; as Phoenix in Homer, who says that he was appointed a companion in war to the young Achilles by his father Peleus, to make him an orator in words, and a hero in deeds [ut efficeret oratorem verborum actoremque rerum].

trans. Watson

On the other hand, through its highlighting of eloquence in the life of the heroic king, the topic is crucial to the tradition of using Homeric epic as a model text for orators and the debate this entails on whether or not Homer was aware of rhetoric—and whether this meant it was a technē (art) or rather an aretē (inborn talent). This rich and well-studied theme is beautifully exemplified in Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria 2.17, also with a reference to our passage.4

Some would have it that rhetoric is a natural gift [naturalem esse] though they admit that it can be developed by practice [exercitatione]. So Antonius in the De oratore [2.57.232] of Cicero styles it a knack derived from experience, but denies that it is an art [obseruationem quandam esse, non artem]. […] For my part I am not concerned with the date when oratory began to be taught. Even in Homer we find Phoenix as an instructor not only of conduct but of speaking [cum agendi tum etiam loquendi]. […] It is sufficient to call attention to the fact that everything which art has brought to perfection originated in nature.

trans. Butler

Words and Deeds in the Iliad

Before looking at the various ways Phoenix’ words are received in the later tradition, I address the Homeric context itself. Does the ideal posited by Phoenix reflect the reality of the relation between words and deeds in the value system represented in the Iliad? It is certainly true that throughout we find a notable emphasis on the idea that a hero, who is by definition a basileus or anax andrōn (a king/lord/prince or ruler of men), should conform to a model that combines command over words with command over actions: in the Iliad, both machē (battle) and agora (the council) receive the epithet kudianeiros (fame bringing), and ‘speaking well’ and ‘doing valorous deeds’ are often named in one breath.5 Indeed, as for instance the etymology proposed in Plato’s Cratylus 398a (to derive ‘hero’ from the verb eirein, ‘to speak’) shows, the ancient Greeks themselves were aware of the eloquence of Homer’s valiant protagonists. In modern times, Solmsen, Schofield, and Martin have paid generous attention to this striking importance of eloquence to the Homeric heroes.6 Schofield remarks:

The greatest and most tragic displays of prowess in the Iliad are unquestionably the deeds of Diomedes, Patroclus, Hector and Achilles on the battlefield. But a good two thirds of the Iliad is direct discourse; and Homer surely expects us to revel, as the Achaeans do, in the splendid style of the counsels, pleas, threats and taunts of the chief heroes—much of what is glorious about them is crystallised in the guile, or arrogance, or nobility of their talk.

Schofield 1986: 15, my emphasis

But how exactly do eloquence and physical courage interact with the other qualities or attributes that characterize the heroes in the Iliad? To begin with, ‘age’ is clearly a relevant factor. Throughout we note a general, and unsurprising, notion that prowess is the province of youth, but that this age may also entail a certain lack of judgment or experience, whereas old age, with its many physical drawbacks, usually has the positive side effect of accumulated wisdom, which finds its expression in excellent counsel and speech, and turns old men into exemplary advisors.7 Diomedes, for instance, is the youngest of the Greek warriors, and certainly not the least. Yet, although he may be ‘the best of his generation in council’ (βουλῇ μετὰ πάντας ὁμήλικας ἔπλευ ἄριστος, Il. 9.54), and though his words deserve praise, he does not reach his goal in speaking, or so Nestor asserts (οὐ τέλος ἵκεο μύθων, Il. 9.56), because of his youth. The oldest of the heroes, Nestor himself, on the other hand, is among the Iliad’s most impressive speakers because of his age, and indeed recognized as such,8 but his great deeds all lie in the past. In fact, it seems that he also indulges at times, to quote Kirk, in ‘garrulous reminiscences’ about these deeds.9 To return to Achilles, he thinks of himself and is thought of by others as the greatest warrior,10 but judges his own abilities as a speaker to be deficient: ‘in the public meeting there are others who are better’ (ἀγορῇ δέ τ’ ἀμείνονές εἰσι καὶ ἄλλοι, Il. 18.106).11 This too may be a symptom of his youth, as Odysseus implies in Il. 19.218–219: ‘However, in counsel I would surpass you by far, since I am the elder-born and know the more’ (ἐγὼ δέ κε σεῖο νοήματί γε προβαλοίμην / πολλόν, ἐπεὶ πρότερος γενόμην καὶ πλείονα οἶδα).

Age is not the sole determinant of eloquence; individual talent is perhaps even more important, as is acknowledged time and again.12 Thus, Odysseus is generally considered to be the best speaker of the Iliad, but he is not the oldest.13 Another instance is found in the Trojan princes Hector and Polydamas, who were born on the same night. The former is superior in war and the latter in wisdom and balanced judgement, as Polydamas himself points out (Il. 18.249–253). Polydamas here seems to imply that, although Hector sees himself as the champion of his city because of his courage and prowess on the battlefield, it is really the wise counsellor who can save the day. In the event, Hector refuses to listen to the advice of Polydamas to withdraw rather than remain camped outside the walls, with disastrous results, and thus indirectly proves him right. This crucial moment for the course of the Iliad shows ex negativo the importance of good counsel in the Iliad’s worldview.

As Solmsen has argued, the only quasi-absolute correlation that we find is between wisdom/intelligence on the one and eloquence on the other hand.14 To be more accurate, in the Iliad at least, it is practically an automatic assumption that those who speak in a convincing way must also speak wisely and vice versa. Eloquence is a direct expression of an intellectual, and de facto also moral, quality.15 This is called euboulia, ‘good counsel’, a term that subsumes wise, virtuous, and profitable thoughts, beautifully phrased, which ideally lead to successful action.16 The idea of a character who is unwise, yet a truly good speaker, or very wise but unable to express himself accordingly is simply unimaginable in Homer’s world. One might see in this a very early forerunner of Quintilian’s (Catonian) ideal of the vir bonus dicendi peritus since it implies that in order to speak well one must be both virtuous and wise.17 Indeed, this specific identification of virtue and wisdom with eloquence may explain some of the attraction of Homeric epic as recommended reading for political orators, as we shall explore below. The ideal Homeric king is thus a heroic fighter as well as a wise speaker. This ideal is also echoed in the Odyssey, for instance by that other Homeric tutor of princes, Mentor-Athena, when she admonishes Telemachus to become like his father:

Τηλέμαχ’, οὐδ’ ὄπιθεν κακὸς ἔσσεαι οὐδ’ ἀνοήμων,
εἰ δή τοι σοῦ πατρὸς ἐνέστακται μένος ἠΰ,
οἷος κεῖνος ἔην τελέσαι ἔργον τε ἔπος τε.
Od. 2.270–272

Telemachus, nor hereafter will you be a base man or witless, if anything of your father’s excellent spirit has been instilled in you; such a man was he to fulfil both deed and word.18

trans. Murray-Dimock, adapted

Reception: Some Preliminary Remarks

I now turn to the reception of Phoenix’ words, but not without some preliminary methodological remarks about the contexts of the receptions of Homer’s phrase. For reasons of scope, I focus on the Greek rather than the Roman side of the story. Despite the rich Byzantine afterlife of the passage, I put my endpoint in the fourth century AD. Moreover, what I present is what is found by searching for direct quotations or variants of the phrase Phoenix speaks in the Iliad, and for contexts where Phoenix occurs in his specific quality of Achilles’ tutor. I attempt to establish a rationale behind these instances of reception and discuss the most salient examples. The genres in which Phoenix’ dictum is quoted are in the first place exegetical texts on Homer, such as are preserved in the ancient scholia and the Pseudo-Plutarchan Life and Poetry of Homer;19 secondly we find varieties of the Princes’ Mirror-genre20 (Plutarch’s Whether an Old Man Should Engage in Public Affairs and Precepts of Statecraft, Dio Chrysostom’s second oration, several orations by Themistius) and rhetorical treatises (Cicero’s De Oratore, Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, Aelius Aristides’ Against Plato in Defense of Rhetoric and Against Plato about the Four). Finally, an interesting subcategory, overlapping with the Princes’ Mirrors, consists of texts about Alexander the Great, who famously was a great admirer of the Homeric Achilles (Plutarch’s On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander and Life of Alexander, Dio Chrysostom, and Themistius). A connection is often established between Alexander as model-king on the one hand and reader of Homer/admirer of Achilles on the other, which explains why he features in combination with a reference to Phoenix’ phrase in contexts of Princes’ Mirrors.

Scholia and Exegetical Texts

I start with the scholia, because though perhaps not chronologically closest, they nevertheless conveniently single out a set of issues that recur in the reception of Phoenix’ words.21 In the first place, we here find eloquence simply pointed out as a distinctive talent (aretē) of men. Secondly, we encounter the much-debated question of whether Homer himself knew about rhetoric.22 This feeds into the discussion of what exactly rhetoric, or eloquence, is, an art (technē) or an inborn talent (aretē); and hence, whether it can be taught or not. The scholia evidently reflect and synthesize the long-standing and complex debate between (predominantly peripatetic and academic) philosophers on the one hand, who held that rhetoric is a natural ability, and rhetoricians in the wake of figures like Hermagoras of Temnos (first c. BC) on the other, who conversely held that rhetoric is an art and can (or indeed, must) be taught.23 I provide two examples from the scholia.24 The first passage is a comment on Achilles’ refusal of Agamemnon’s hypothetical offer of a bride:

οὐδ’ εἰ χρυσείῃ Ἀφροδίτῃ κάλλος ἐρίζοι, / ἔργαδ’ Ἀθηναίῃ: ὑπερβολῇ χρῆται. δύο δὲ οἶδεν ἀρετὰς γυναικός, κάλλος τε καὶ ‘ἀγλαὰ ἔργ’ εἰδυῖα’, ἀνδρὸς δὲ ‘μύθων τε †ῥητῆρα ἔμμεναι† πρηκτῆρά τε ἔργων’.

Schol. bT Il. 9.389–390 ed. Erbse

Not even if she were to rival golden Aphrodite in beauty and in handicraft Athena: He makes use of hyperbole. [Homer] knows two qualities of a woman, beauty and ‘to know splendid handicraft’ [Od. 15.418], and of a man ‘to be a speaker of words and a doer of deeds’ [Il. 9.443].

My translation

In a second more elaborate composite lemma on the passage itself (Il. 9.443), we find a brief discussion of several issues:

μύθων τε ῥητῆρ’ ἔμεναι πρηκτῆρά τε ἔργων: ὅτι διδακτὸν ἡ ἀρετή. εἵπετο δὲ αὐτῷ Φοῖνιξ ὑποδείξων ἅ τε λεκτέον καὶ ἃ χρὴ πράττειν. φαίνεται οὖν καὶ τὸ τῆς ῥητορικῆς ὄνομα εἰδώς· φησὶ γοῦν ‘ὅτε κοῦροι ἐρίσ⟨σ⟩ειαν περὶ μύθων’, ἀλλὰ καὶ ‘βουλῇ καὶ μύθοισι’ καὶ ‘δικαζόμενος παρὰ νηυσίν’. οἱ περὶ Κόρακα δὲ καὶ Τισίαν ὕστερον ἐξεκόσμησαν τὴν ῥητορικήν. εἰ ὑπὸ Φοίνικος οὖν πεπαίδευται, τί παρὰ Χείρωνος ἐδιδάχθη; δηλονότι δικαιοσύνην καὶ ἰατρικήν.

Schol. bT Il. 9.443a ed. Erbse

To be a speaker of words and a doer of deeds: Aretē can be taught. Phoenix accompanied him, to teach him what to say and what to do. It seems that Homer knows the name of ‘rhetoric’. Indeed, he says ‘when boys fight over words’ [Il. 15.284] but also ‘in counsel and words’ [Il. 4.323], and ‘speaking judgments beside the ships’ [Od. 11.545]. The followers of Corax and Tisias later elaborated the art of rhetoric. If he was educated by Phoenix, what was he taught by Chiron? Justice and Medicine, of course.

My translation

The questions discussed in this scholion are the following: (1) Can aretē be taught?25 Yes, this is demonstrated by the fact that Phoenix accompanied Achilles to teach him several aretai. (2) Did Homer know what rhetoric was? Yes, it appears he both knew the term (since he uses the word ῥητῆρα), and the specific practical uses of this aretē, since he shows us the three typical contexts for, and hence genres of, oratory, epideiktikon/epideictic (Il. 15.284), bouleutikon/deliberative (Il. 4.323), and dikanikon/judicial (Od. 11.545).26 This ‘natural’ rhetoric as found in Homer was later systematized into a technē by Corax and Tisias. (3) What did Chiron teach Achilles, if Phoenix taught him to be a speaker of words and a doer of deeds? The answer is Justice and Medicine, which perhaps implies that these further two skills (technai) were held to complete the ideal of what a ruler should master to benefit his community.

Leaving out the finer issues of the debate about whether aretē can be taught, we note that the conclusions presented in the scholia about the way rhetoric functions are superficially in accordance with the situation as described in Homeric epic: eloquence is, like active heroism, a manly aretē, and as such an aretē that can be taught or trained—to some extent. The Pseudo-Plutarchan treatise Life and Poetry of Homer, traditionally dated to the late second century AD, also discusses the phrase three times in contexts which are very similar (or even verbally identical) to what we find in these scholia, viz. that eloquence is a virtue that can be taught (διδακτὸν ἡ ἀρετή 144 KL = 1735 Kindstrand) and that Homer was knowledgeable of rhetoric (170 KL = 2147 Kindstrand). In 142KL (= 1709 Kindstrand) we moreover find the thought that ‘aretē is useless if it is not practised’, illustrated by contrasting Achilles in Il. 1.490–492 and Od.11.489–491 (where he is miserable and ‘useless’) with Il. 9.433, the description of ‘the complete hero’.

Rhetorical Treatises and Political Treatises: Reactions to Plato

The two debates, about whether or not Homer knew what rhetoric was, and whether or not it was possible to teach eloquence, are related to another fundamental debate, the so-called ‘quarrel between rhetoric and philosophy’ (Pl. R. 607b5–6). The main problem with rhetoric, according to Plato (e.g. Phaedrus, Gorgias, Republic), is in fact precisely that it is not an aretē, nor an art (technē), but a mere knack (tribē), and therefore not even something that can be taught in the true sense.27 Indeed, rhetoric itself is neither bearer nor result of epistēmē (knowledge), just an instrument of persuasion which can be learned from experience (empeiria).28 In Plato’s representation it is philosophical knowledge, reached by dialectic reasoning, in particular knowledge about justice (what is right and what is wrong, what is owing to each) that should be regarded as the single most important requirement for good statesmanship.29 Where this is lacking, we may expect to encounter either tyranny or mob rule, swayed by rhetorically successful demagogues. Whereas, as we have seen, ethical quality (aretē) and eloquence were firmly, and indeed, attractively, united in Homer in the concept of euboulia, Plato not only separates these two categories drastically, but moreover problematizes the authority of Homer as the educator of the Greeks, as is well known.30

Plato’s attacks made many teachers of rhetoric as well as political thinkers feel compelled to respond to the charges, or tempted to find some kind of synthesis between Plato and Homer, the twin champions of Hellenic paideia. This is a particularly frequent phenomenon in the literature of the Second Sophistic, with different strategies used by different authors.31 Thus in Plutarch’s Precepts of Statecraft, a treatise addressed to the young Menemachus of Sardis who aspires to become a local politician, Phoenix’ phrase is cited practically in the opening lines to circumscribe the tasks of the statesman as Plutarch sees them (798B).32 A substantial part of the essay is in fact devoted to explaining the importance of combining good ethics and reputation (800B–801C) with persuasive rhetoric (801C–804D). Interestingly, Plutarch never once mentions Plato’s objections to rhetoric, a fact that may profitably be linked to the programmatic opening of the treatise, which states that those philosophers who have restricted themselves to formulating abstract and impracticable ideas on statecraft ‘have not reached their aim’.33 In other words, a real statesman will, like a Homeric prince, need to know about rhetoric, even if an ideal philosopher king in an ideal state may not need to.

An especially intriguing instance of the turns the quarrel between philosophy and rhetoric might take is found in Aelius Aristides, the second-century sophist and hypochondriac, who in his lengthy Against Plato in Defense of Rhetoric (ca. 145–147 AD) cites Phoenix’ words several times. I treat one instance, where Aristides cleverly takes Plato’s charge that rhetoric is not a technē and turns it around: indeed, eloquence is not an art to be learnt, but rather a god given talent under the patronage of Hermes,34 like poetry or divination. Since it is divine, it must inherently be good. In the second part of the oration, Aristides makes the following point about the kingly art of oratory:

καὶ μὴν ὅστις γε ἃ προσήκει λέγειν οἶδεν οἶδεν ἃ πράττειν προσήκει. […] Ταῦτ’ ἄρα καὶ οἱ παλαιοὶ συνῆπτον τὰς δυνάμεις καὶ οὐ διέκρινον. ἀλλ’ Ὅμηρος μὲν ἔφη τὸν Φοίνικα ὑπὸ τοῦ Πηλέως πεμφθῆναι τῷ Ἀχιλλεῖ

μύθων τε ῥητῆρ’ ἔμεναι πρηκτῆρά τε ἔργων,

ὡς τὸν αὐτὸν εἰδότα ἅτε δεῖ λέγειν καὶ ἃ πράττειν ἄμεινον. καὶ πρό γε τούτου πρότερον αὐτὸς συνῆψεν εἰπὼν

οὔπω εἰδόθ’ ὁμοιίου πολέμοιο,

οὐδ’ ἀγορέων, ἵνα τ’ ἄνδρες ἀριπρεπέες τελέθουσιν,

τὸ μὲν πρακτικὸν ἐξ ἑνὸς εἴδους τοῦ κατὰ τὸν πόλεμον ἐμφανίζων, τὸ δ’ αὖ λογικὸν ἐκ τοῦ κατὰ τὰς ἀγορὰς, μνησθεὶς δὲ ὅμως ἀμφοτέρων τὸ ‘ἵνα τ’ ἄνδρες ἀριπρεπέες τελέθουσι’ ταῖς ἀγοραῖς προσέθηκεν, οὐ τῷ πολέμῳ, ὡς ἀμείνω τὸν ῥήτορα ὄντα ὅταν λέγῃ περὶ τῶν πρακτέων, ἢ ὅταν αὐτὸς πράττῃ τὴν πρᾶξιν

Aristid. In Defense of Rhetoric ed. Dindorf, Jebb p. 97.6; 97.15–28

And indeed, whoever knows what it is proper to say, knows what is proper to do. […] Therefore the ancients also joined these faculties together and did not discriminate between them. Homer said that Phoenix had been sent by Peleus to Achilles ‘to be a speaker of words and a doer of deeds’ since the same man knew what ought to be said and what had to be done. And before this verse he first joined these qualities together in saying ‘unknowing of fair-matched war and of the council places where men are famous’ [Il. 9.440]. He stresses action from one of its forms, war, and reason from council places, and nonetheless having mentioned both, he attributed ‘where men are famous’ to the council places, not to war, as if the orator were a better man when he speaks about what must be done than when he himself performs the action.

trans. Behr

This last argument is subsequently elaborated at length, with further references to Odyssey 8.171–172 and Hesiod’s Theogony 80–90 to prove that rhetoric is indeed the kingly (basilikon) art par excellence (391), because it is better to stand alone and speak wise words and direct others than to act amid hundreds of others, warriors for example, and go unnoticed (388–392). Thus, by twisting Plato’s argument and turning the tables on Homeric heroism, in Aristides’ world deeds become subordinated to divinely inspired words. Homer and Plato are both saved, but they also seem to lose something in the process of this virtuoso argumentation in favour of Hellenism and rhetoric. It is attractive to interpret these and similar feats of reasoning in Aristides’ works as ways of simultaneously showing off his deep knowledge of the Hellenic literary tradition (paideia) and defending his abilities as orator/teacher of rhetoric in the competitive field of Second Sophistic rhetoricians.35

Plutarch and Dio Chrysostom: Alexander

If rhetoric was thus argued to be the kingly art par excellence, there was in this same period in fact one real, if by that time already heavily mythicized, king in particular who became bound up with Achilles and the heroic ideal, and that is Alexander the Great. This is not unexpected, in view of the great admiration of the Iliad Alexander allegedly exhibited during his lifetime, particularly visible in his attempts to establish a genealogical connection between Achilles and himself. Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, for instance, starts out by noting the commonly agreed upon genealogical connection between Alexander and Achilles (Alex. 1.8). In this context, I will be looking at three texts, two by Plutarch (the Life of Alexander and the twofold epideictic oration On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander) and one by Dio Chrysostom (the Second Kingship Oration). Plutarch and Dio were near contemporaries, and it is likely that the fact that both wrote under (and for) emperor Trajan played some role in the prominence of the Alexander theme in their writings since Trajan was known to be a great admirer of Alexander.36 Thematically, the three pieces are related in complicated ways. In Plutarch, Alexander’s connection with Homer as Princes’ Mirror is treated. In the (probably chronologically later) Life, the traditional reading that Alexander used Homer’s works as a compendium for his deeds of conquest is cited as true (Alex. 8.2), while in On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander, this story is rejected, or at least modified (327–328A). In the Alexander-related orations (i.e. Plutarch’s On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander and Dio’s Second Kingship Oration) the recurrent theme is the relation between poetry, rhetoric, and philosophy in the education of the prince, a constellation that is configured quite differently in each of them.37

Let us begin with Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. One example he gives of the identification that Alexander and his entourage sought with Achilles, is especially interesting in the present context, viz. the anecdote about the education of Alexander by one Lysimachus. Plutarch remarks that this man ‘had nothing to recommend himself, but his lucky fancy (ἄλλο μὲν οὐδὲν ἔχων ἀστεῖον) of calling himself Phoenix, Alexander Achilles, and Philip Peleus.’38 Besides focusing attention on the importance of Achilles for Alexander, the anecdote also implies that the true educator of Alexander was the philosopher Aristotle, in whom we might see (although Plutarch does not make this point) almost a combination of Chiron and Phoenix, in that he taught Alexander medicine as well as his ‘doctrines of Morals and of Politics’ (Alex. 7.1). It is in fact the Iliad that forges an important link between Aristotle and his royal pupil, in the form of the diorthōsis or critical edition of this poem, which Aristotle had prepared for Alexander especially and given to him to take with him on his campaigns. Plutarch records that Alexander

ἦν δὲ καὶ φύσει φιλόλογος καὶ φιλομαθὴς καὶ φιλαναγνώστης, καὶ τὴν μὲν Ἰλιάδα τῆς πολεμικῆς ἀρετῆς ἐφόδιον καὶ νομίζων καὶ ὀνομάζων, ἔλαβε μὲν Ἀριστοτέλους διορθώσαντος ἣν ἐκ τοῦ νάρθηκος καλοῦσιν, εἶχε δ’ ἀεὶ μετὰ τοῦ ἐγχειριδίου κειμένην ὑπὸ τὸ προσκεφάλαιον, ὡς Ὀνησίκριτος ἱστόρηκε.

Plu. Alex. 8.2

was also by nature a great lover of all kinds of learning and reading, and calling and considering the Iliad his guide for warlike valour, he constantly laid it, according to the copy corrected by Aristotle, called the ‘casket copy’, with his dagger under his pillow, declaring that he esteemed it a perfect portable treasure of all military virtue and knowledge, as Onesicritus informs us.

trans. based on Perrin

The placing of both a dagger and a book edited by a philosopher under the pillow of the young king seems especially suggestive in the context of the ‘words and deeds’ complex I am looking into, and underlines the function of Princes’ Mirror that Homer is held to have had for Alexander, under Aristotle’s influence.

Intriguingly enough, Plutarch complicates Homer’s function for Alexander in the epideictic orations On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander, generally considered to have been a youthful work, probably earlier than the Life. In On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander, the question to be answered is whether Alexander was so great because he was merely fortunate, or whether it was his virtue that enabled him to conquer the world. The final answer in the second part is ‘virtue’ (aretē), but this is specifically defined as the kind that can only be obtained by a philosophical education, in which poetry has no place. Plutarch does not hesitate to sacrifice the alleged positive influence of Homer on Alexander for this argument:

ἀλλὰ τοῖς μὲν γράφουσιν, ὡς Ἀλέξανδρος ἔφη ποτὲ τὴν Ἰλιάδα καὶ τὴν Ὀδύσσειαν ἀκολουθεῖν αὐτῷ τῆς στρατείας ἐφόδιον, πιστεύομεν, Ὅμηρον σεμνύνοντες· ἂν δέ τις φῇ τὴν Ἰλιάδα καὶ τὴν Ὀδύσσειαν παραμύθια. πόνου καὶ διατριβὴν ἕπεσθαι σχολῆς γλυκείας, ἐφόδιον δ’ ἀληθῶς γεγονέναι τὸν ἐκ φιλοσοφίας λόγον καὶ τοὺς περὶ ἀφοβίας καὶ ἀνδρείας ἔτι δὲ σωφροσύνης καὶ μεγαλοψυχίας ὑπομνηματισμούς, καταφρονοῦμεν.

Plu. Alex. fort. 327–328A

But although we believe those who record that Alexander once said that the Iliad and the Odyssey accompanied him as equipment for his campaigns, since we hold Homer in reverence, yet are we to contemn anyone who asserts that the works of Homer accompanied him as a consolation after toil and as a pastime for sweet hours of leisure, but that his true equipment was philosophic teaching, and treatises on Fearlessness and Courage, and Self-restraint also, and Greatness of Soul?

trans. Babbitt

In this philosophical Alexander, then, the quintessential Homeric virtues, fearlessness, courage, and greatness of soul are denied their Homeric genealogy, and are instead said to flow from philosophical teaching and the study of ethical treatises, which is probably why they are enriched with self-restraint (sōphrosynē), a virtue the Homeric Achilles is notoriously lacking. Note also that eloquence is conspicuously absent from the picture Plutarch here draws. Aristotelian philosophy rather than Homeric poetry or rhetoric has enabled Alexander to conquer the world.

In Dio’s Second Kingship Oration we find discussion, in the format of a Platonic dialogue between Alexander and his father Philip, of Alexander’s view that Homer is ‘a most excellent disciplinarian […] and he who tries to give heed to him will be a highly successful and exemplary king’.39 Young Alexander, a rash puppy dog (2.1), will read nothing but Homer, despite his father’s scolding, because Homer is the sole author worthy to be read by a king.40 He is moreover characterized by a somewhat childish jealousy of Achilles (2.15, 32), and thus perhaps not to be taken entirely seriously.

The coupling of rhetoric, poetry, and philosophy in this dialogue is unobtrusive, but pointed. Near the opening of the oration, Philip remarks that it is strange that Alexander admires the poetry of Homer but does not want to become a poet himself. Alexander denies this, in a variation on the theme of the opposition between vita activa and contemplativa, and remarks that it is far superior to be the actual performer of great deeds than to merely herald the victories of another, taking his metaphor from the herald at the Olympic games.41 He continues:

οὐδὲν μὲν οὖν ἄτοπον, εἶπεν, ὦ πάτερ, εἰ καὶ ποιητὴς ἀγαθὸς εἴην παρεχούσης τῆς φύσεως· ἐπεί τοι καὶ ῥητορικῆς δέοι ἂν τῷ βασιλεῖ.

D. Chr. 2.18

Still, it would not be at all strange, father, if I were to be a good poet as well, did nature but favor me; for you know that a king might find that also rhetoric was valuable to him.

trans. Cohoon, adapted, my emphasis

By its casual identification of poetry and rhetoric, this passage refers to the idea of Homer as the ‘inventor of rhetoric’ we have already encountered, and leads to the traditional question of what Homer thought about rhetoric. In this context we encounter our quotation of Phoenix again, cited as proof of the fact that rhetoric was known to Homer, and indeed judged by him a necessary tool in the capture of Troy, besides the military action.42 Somewhat later on, on the authority of Homer and Hesiod, poetry/rhetoric is moreover coupled to philosophy by Alexander, both of them being disciplines that should by rights belong to the kingly sphere of interest.43 A king should not exaggerate in this field, however, but should especially make poetry his delight and read it attentively—preferably Homer’s of course, in Alexander’s view (2.26–27).

Throughout, the general tone of the oration veers between a gentle irony with regard to Alexander’s extreme and sometimes ill-advised enthusiasm for every single aspect of Homer’s depiction of the lifestyle of kings (diet, dress, dancing, music, home decoration) on the one hand, and a genuine belief that the more philosophical readings of Homeric epic, attributed by Philip to Alexander’s mentor Aristotle (2.79), can actually teach one how to be a good king on the other. It is noteworthy that the shift towards the latter view also entails a change on Alexander’s part from the wish to excel the warrior Achilles to the wish to become more like the kingly Agamemnon.44 The underlying message appears to be that every kingly reader of Homer (Trajan?) needs his philosophical mentor (Dio?) to point him to the right passages about kingship in Homer and explain; in that case, Homer will turn out to be a true and highly philosophical Princes’ Mirror.45 Thus, in this elegant piece, Homer’s poetry, the art of rhetoric, and philosophy are happily united as the hallmarks of successful kingly education, if administered in the right proportions and by the right mentor.

We might say that we find three different Alexanders in these writings, which all exemplify in their own way the different outcomes of the debates on the relative merits of poetry and rhetoric as opposed to philosophy, and in particular on the possibility of using Homer as a Princes’ Mirror for the philosophically inclined but active king. Plutarch’s traditional, biographical Alexander is deeply inspired by the Homeric Achilles, and consequently sees the importance both of deeds and of words—and philosophy—, as is symbolized by the dagger (symbolizing deeds) and the Homeric text provided by the philosopher Aristotle, which he keeps under his pillow as his military textbook and Princes’ Mirror. In Plutarch’s philosophical Alexander, both words and deeds flow forth from philosophical virtue, fostered by Aristotle. He reads Homer as a mere pastime, not as a Princes’ Mirror. Dio’s Alexander is more like Plutarch’s biographical one: he is perhaps overly enthusiastic about the value of Homeric epic for the instruction of kings, yet ultimately demonstrates that deep ethical lessons as well as practical ones (about rhetoric) can be culled from this text by the king who is guided by the right philosophical teacher (Aristotle). The difference between the two Alexanders as represented in Plutarch may be explained by pointing out that in the Life Plutarch was bound to the traditional image of Alexander as he found it in his sources, whereas in the essays, which in all likelihood represent a youthful rhetorical exercise, a kind of ‘special pleading’ is going on, as the author wants to make the rather novel case for regarding Alexander as a philosopher king according to the Platonic scheme.

Themistius: The Culmination of Achilles and Alexander

What we have seen so far is the great success of the topos that the complete man, and certainly the ruler, needs to combine eloquence (reinterpreted as euboulia, and thence identified with sophia or even philosophia) with the active and warlike life. This topos has received a specific link with Alexander the Great, who in the accounts of Plutarch and Dio has become a second Achilles, sometimes in the hardly recognizable garb of a philosopher king whose education receives particular attention.

This construct of loci communes finds avid reception and adaptation in the last author I discuss, Themistius of Constantinople. This thoroughly Hellenist orator and philosopher was active at the courts of many of the Christian emperors and the single pagan ruler of the fourth century AD, from Constantius to Theodosius.46 In several of his late orations (13, 16, and 18, all datable to the reign of Theodosius, 380s onwards) Themistius poses as a Phoenix to the little Achilles he identifies in the six-year-old Arcadius, the son and heir apparent of Theodosius (e.g. Or. 16.213a). His discourses are rife with Homeric citations as well as traditional historical examples, with frequent reference in particular to earlier emperors and other wise rulers, and the function philosophers fulfilled as their advisers.

A passage from the eighteenth oration speaks abundantly clearly on this score, where Themistius proposes to offer the young Arcadius no food and wine (as Phoenix in Il. 9 remembers he did with the unruly toddler Achilles). Indeed, he will be far better than the Homeric Phoenix since he will offer philosophy as the nourishment for this future emperor. His co-educators will be Plato and Aristotle, and thus Arcadius will not only be better than Achilles, but even become a second Alexander, a true philosopher king, who, so Themistius hopes, will follow in the footsteps of his father, and will therefore put Dikē (Justice) at his right hand.

Δεῦρ’ ἴθι οὖν, ὦ φίλε παῖ, ἐπὶ τῶν ἐμῶν καθίζου γονάτων, ὅπως ἄν σε ἐκείνων γεύσαιμι τῶν παιδευμάτων καὶ ἀναθρέψαιμι, οὐχ ὥσπερ ὁ Φοίνιξ τὸν Ἀχιλλέα, σῖτα καὶ ὄψα ἐπάγων, ἀλλὰ τροφεῖα παρέχων ἃ μόνη σκευάζει φιλοσοφία τοῖς νέοις βασιλεῦσι καὶ εἴσω τῆς αὐτοκρατοῦς ἡλικίας, λόγους ἐγκάρπους καὶ ὑψηλοὺς καὶ ὠφελίμους καὶ παλαιῶν κλέα αὐτοκρατόρων, οἷς Κῦρος ὁ μέγας ἐτράφη καὶ Νουμᾶς ὁ Ῥωμαῖος καὶ Μάρκος ὁ κλεινὸς καὶ Τίτος ὁ γενναῖος, οὗ τὸ λαμπρὸν καὶ μέγα ἐκεῖνο ῥῆμα, ὅτι τήμερον οὐκ ἐβασίλευσα· οὐδένα γὰρ εὖ ἐποίησα. συμπαιδαγωγήσουσι δέ σε καὶ Πλάτων ὁ κλεινὸς καὶ ὁ θεσπέσιος Ἀριστοτέλης, οἳ καὶ τὸν μέγαν Ἀλέξανδρον ἐπαιδαγώγουν καὶ ἐξ ἀδήλου χωρίου κύριον ἐποίησαν ὅλης τῆς γῆς. ἐὰν οὗτοί σε ἐκθρέψωνται καὶ τιθηνήσωνται, ἐπώνυμε τοῦ λογίου θεοῦ, ταχέως ἔσται ἐπιτελὴς ἡ τῶν σῶν γονέων εὐχή, ‘Πατρὸς δ’ ὅ γε πολλὸν ἀρείων,’ ἢ ἥ γε μετριωτέρα καὶ δυνατωτέρα, ‘Πατρὸς δ’ εἰς ἴχνια βαίνοι.’ καὶ τότε σοι ἐπιχαιρήσει ἡ μήτηρ οὐ μόνον ἐκ πολέμου ἐπανιόντι μετὰ σκύλων, ἀλλὰ καὶ δημηγοροῦντι καὶ θεμιστεύοντι καὶ τὴν δίκην πάρεδρον ποιουμένῳ, ἧς πρώτη αὕτη ἐμπίπλησι τὰ βασίλεια.

Them. Or. 18, Harduin 224d3, ed. Downey & Schenkl

Come here then, sweet boy, and sit upon my knees, so that I may let you taste of those lessons and may rear you, not as Phoenix reared Achilles, feeding him bread and meat, but providing you with food such as only philosophy provides for young kings, and within the youth of emperorship, fruitful, elevated, and beneficial words, and the famed exploits of emperors of old, with which the Great Cyrus was reared and Numa the Roman and the famous Marcus [sc. Aurelius] and the noble Titus, who spoke the splendid and great words ‘Today I did not rule; for I have not done good to anyone.’ And my co-educators will be the famous Plato and the divine Aristotle, who in their turn educated Alexander the Great and turned him, coming from his obscure hometown, into the lord over the whole world. If these will rear and feed you—you, who bear the eponym of the god of the word,47 then soon the prayer of your parents shall be fulfilled: ‘May he be far better than his father’ or, what is more moderate and more likely: ‘May he follow in his father’s footsteps.’ For then your mother shall not only rejoice when you come back from war carrying the spoil, but also when you speak to the people, and declare law and right and make Justice sit at your side, of which she herself first filled the empire.

My translation

Again, we find the culmination of Achilles and Alexander in the addressee, the six-year-old Arcadius, but moreover also the culmination of their educators Phoenix and Aristotle (and even Plato, for good measure) in the old Themistius, the would-be educator of the little boy. The child is predestined to become a speaker of words, doer of deeds, and virtuous thinker of great and wise thoughts, or so Themistius would have his audience hope.


I have traced the reception of a Homeric ideal from the Iliad to the fourth century AD. Mostly we find the actual positive ‘reception’, i.e. acceptance and approval of the basic ruler-ideal expressed in Phoenix’ words, and hence its quotation for corroboration of one’s own views. A prime example is formed by the repeated references to the passage in Plutarch’s Precepts; and we also find affirmation of this in the scholia and other exegetical texts. But some contexts are more complex and it seems that not so much the genuine ideal as expressed in the Iliad, but rather Homer’s authority as livre de culture is the reason for the quotation, while the literal text is disingenuously interpreted in such a way as to suit the needs of the later author, sometimes even going against the grain of the actual meaning of the original wording. This happens most obviously in Aelius Aristides.48 Aristides is also exemplary in illustrating how the debates about the values of philosophy versus poetry/rhetoric could enlist Homer. Both Plutarch (Life of Alexander) and Dio (Second Kingship Oration) attempt to salvage both Plato (philosophy) and Homer (poetry/rhetoric) by emphasizing that every kingly reader of Homer needs a philosophical mentor to interpret him. This procedure is of course very similar to what we find in treatises like Plutarch’s How the Young Man Should Study Poetry. Indeed, it is much more remarkable that Plutarch’s youthful set of epideictic orations On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander does not attempt to reconcile Homer and philosophy, but insists on philosophy as Alexander’s sole leading light. This would appear to represent a specifically Platonic take on matters, but it simultaneously demonstrates that the connection between Homer and Alexander was there and needed addressing in any case, even if one wished to privilege Alexander’s philosophical side; in the Life this is solved by giving especial relief to Aristotle’s role as Alexander’s mentor and the Iliad’s editor.

Speaking of these examples, we may note that there is a remarkable surge of quotations in the era of the Second Sophistic. On the one hand this may plausibly be explained with reference to the enduring, and indeed revived, cultural capital that intimate knowledge of Homeric epic represented in this particular period of archaizing, intellectual, rhetoric-focused writing for the elite, while on the other hand the political situation under the monarchy of the Roman empire was excellently suited for musings about ideal leadership and models of good or heroic rule, such as Achilles and Alexander the Great represented.

The fact that, in the tradition, the topos is so bound up with Achilles and hence with his descendant Alexander, leads to the result that to use it in panegyric is eventually to activate a double compliment. The laudandus who is a second Achilles is also a second Alexander: a heroic philosopher king, predestined for greatness in words, deeds, and thoughts. The giver of the compliment implicitly and effortlessly styles himself a second Phoenix and Aristotle in one.


See the contribution of De Jong in this volume.


For this role of Homer in antiquity, cf. Pl. R. 10.606e, X. Smp. 4.6, D. Chr. Or. 18.8; see e.g. Jaeger (1933) 3–56, Verdenius (1970), Pontani (2016). See also the contribution of De Jong in this volume, with further references.


Arist. EN 1.4.


Kennedy (1957 and 1980: 89–90) discusses the ancient debate on whether Homer was aware of an actual technē of rhetoric or whether this only came into existence with Tisias and Corax in the fourth century BC. See recently also Pontani (2016), with ample reference to the theme. Ancient discussions about this topic can be traced from Plato via Aristotle, Aelius Aristides, Hermogenes, Ps.-Plutarch’s Life and Poetry of Homer, and Menander Rhetor, through to the Roman world, in Cicero and Quintilian.


Cf. Il. 2.273, 4.400, 9.53, 18.106, which also put speaking and acts of valour on a par. See Martin (1989) 22–26; for another early expression of this ideal, see Archilochus fr. 1W.


Solmsen (1954) 1–15, Schofield (1986) 6–31, Martin (1989) passim.


This is also the way Plutarch in his An seni (788B, 789DF, 795AB) reads Homer’s description of experienced, old men such as Nestor (with reference to Il. 2.53 and 2.372).


Il. 2.53, 2.372, 3.312–324.


Kirk (1985) 79. For the evident contradictions in the depiction of Nestor as both a sage counsellor and a garrulous old man with anachronistic and inefficient battle advice, see Roisman (2005) 17–38 and De Jong in this volume.


‘Best of the Achaeans’: Il.1.244, 412; 16.271, 274.


On the eloquence of Achilles, see Parry (1956), Janko (1991) 316, Martin (1989) passim, Friedrich & Redfield (1978) 236–288. They all note Achilles’ exceptional, poetic style. Friedrich & Redfield remark, however, that Achilles’ own judgment (and that of his peers) seems contrary to that of most readers of the Iliad, who do admire Achilles’ poetic language. In this context, it may also be noted that ‘while the speech that Achilles has delivered [preceding Phoenix’ words in Book 9] makes his powers as an orator very clear, Phoenix’ hopes that he would excel at the agora are unfulfilled throughout the Iliad.’ (Wilson [1996] ad loc.) See further Desmond in this volume.


Cf. Il. 12.210, 22.99. For the specific antithesis between valour and wisdom, see Il.1.258, 4.322, 18.105.


See e.g. the description of the speech styles of Menelaus, Nestor, and Odysseus by the Trojan Antenor in Il. 3.312–324.


Solmsen (1954) 5.


Of course the many ‘lying tales’ of the Odyssey constitute a different paradigm. See e.g. De Jong (2001) 327–330, Scodel (1998) 171–194.


Although this is not always the actual effect: see De Jong’s contribution to this volume.


IO 10.1.1.


See on this passage also De Jong’s contribution.


We might count the quote in Strabo 9.5.5 also under this heading; it seeks to argue that Phoenix accompanied Achilles also as a commander of troops, not merely as a counsellor.


See the introduction to this volume (esp. 1–8) on the question of whether an actual ‘genre’ of this kind existed.


On the inclusion in the scholia of much early (Hellenistic) material, specifically on the debate about Homer as the inventor of rhetoric, see Pontani (2016).


See above, n. 4.


See above, n. 5.


There are four more comparable instances: schol. bT Il.9.374–379, schol. A Il. 9.443b, schol. A bT Il. 9.443c, schol. T Il. 18.252.


That virtue can be taught is a Stoic tenet, which is ascribed by Diogenes Laertius (7.91) to Chrysippus, Cleanthes, and Posidonius.


Cf. Arist. Rh. 1.3.


Cf. Pl. Grg. 463a–465c. See on this passage e.g. Vickers (1989) 90.


Pl. Grg. 260d, 454e, 455a.


Cf. e.g. Pl. R. book 1 passim.


See the contribution of Lake in this volume.


See e.g. Anderson (1993) 69–85.


In An seni 795E9 the phrase is used for exactly the same purpose.


An seni 798B: οὐ τέλος ἵκεο μύθων, Nestor’s words to Diomedes in Il. 9.56.


See e.g. In Defense of Rhetoric 56.


Cf. Against Plato About the Four Jebb 151.21 where the Homeric phrase reoccurs. In general on Aristides’ aims, see e.g. Boulanger (1923), Anderson (1993) 140, Pernot (1993) 330–331.


On Trajan’s admiration for Alexander, see e.g. Gangloff (2006) 260–262.


On Dio’s treatment of Homer in this discourse, see Gangloff (2006) 260–268; for his general treatment of Homer, see Kim (2010). Murray (1965: 161–182) argues for the influence of Philodemus’ treatise On the Good King According to Homer on Dio in this oration.


Plu. Alex. 1.8 (trans. Perrin).


D. Chr. 2.54.


D. Chr. 2.6.


D. Chr. 2.18–19.


D. Chr. 2.19–21.


D. Chr. 2.24.


The spoudaiogeloion element of the text seems to be marked out by such expressions of the ‘narrator’ as ταῦτα μὲν οὖν ἐπὶ τοσοῦτον ἅμα σπουδῇ ἐπαιξάτην (‘So far did they both go in mingling jest with earnest’, D. Chr. 2.17). The final paragraphs (2.65–79), in which Alexander draws many wise lessons from Homer’s example of Agamemnon about the justice of kings, seem to be more serious, as indicated by Philip’s remark that Aristotle deserves praise, ‘if such are the lessons which he gives you in government and the duties of a king, be it as interpreter of Homer or in any other way’ (2.79). On the shift from Achilles to Agamemnon, see Gangloff (2006) 263.


Cf. D. Chr. 2.26–27, where Alexander states that a ruler should lend a willing ear to philosophy and read poetry; 2.79, where Philip praises Aristotle for the lessons he taught Alexander with regard to Homer.


On Themistius, see Vanderspoel (1995), Stertz (1976), Heather & Moncur (2001).


Arcadius refers to the traditional birthplace of the god Hermes who is often associated with the art of rhetoric.


In Defense of Rhetoric Jebb 97.18; About the Four Jebb 151.21.


All translations are taken from the most recent Loeb editions, unless otherwise noted.

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