Stobaeus, custodian of the Greek tradition

Author: Italian original by Emanuele Vimercati

My son, one day you will have to know all of this.

From March 5th through the 8th of this year an important international conference was held at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (The Catholic University of the Sacred Heart), in collaboration with the University of Notre Dame in the United States, and dedicated to the figure of Stobaeus, a 5th century (A.D) doxographer and anthologist who was native to the Macedonian city of Stobi.His story is one of a rather unknown author, but in truth he is extremely important for the understanding of significant aspects of Greek literature and philosophy.

The importance of the event is due both to itsextraordinarycharacter – it was, in fact, the first meeting of its kind – and to the presence of great scholars from diverse disciplines in a national and international setting (among others present were David Konstan, Carlos Lévy, Gretchen Reydams-Schils, Roberto Radice, and Serge Mouraviev).The colloquium sought to shed light on Stobaeus as an author frequently cited by scholars of ancient, medieval and Byzantine history, but not always studied for his methodology and content.

The figure of Stobaeus belongs in a very rich cultural context – that of Late Antiquity – previously too often considered to be a mere intermission, if not actually a period of decline and decadence, straddling between the great masters of the classical period (Plato, Aristotle, and the Hellenistic philosophers) and the most notable figures from Medieval philosophy.In recent decades, however, there has been a real revival in the interest and study of this period, even though Stobaeus, as an unknown entity, has not yet received adequate attention.

One of the greatest difficulties with the study of doxographers such as Stobaeus is due to the fact that, more than illustrating their own thoughts, they tend to refer to the opinions of preceding authors, often synthesizing content or evenrecopyingpassages; in practice, authors such as Stobaeus would engage in the practice oftranscription,as the technical term has it. This method might not seem very interesting, or even intelligible – what would be the logic in copying or summarizing the work of others?In reality, however, it was a method that responded to the need to preserve culture, to prevent it from becoming lost, and to pass it on to future generations.A need to have a small library at ones disposal for personal use, or for use by a small group of students (ones family or disciples).Stobaeus actually dedicated his Anthology of Greek authors to his son, Septimius, to whom he may have wanted to give a wide-rangingstudy manual, but his work also has a broader didactic purpose.The dual goal of completeness and availability explains both why there are hundreds of different authors cited in the collection and its wide-ranging themes (as Denis Searby has revealed).For this reason it can be said that without Stobaeus, we would be in the dark about many aspects of ancient philosophy.

The practice of compiling was common in the Greek world since the classical age, but became accentuated with the passage from an oral to a written tradition (David Konstan).It would have been common, in fact, to transcribe or learn texts for recitals in symposiums, or to debate philosophical questions in more narrow circles of scholars in which the freedom of expression was guaranteed by the search for truth (Julie Giovacchini).

But this practice raises the problem of the sources and texts which Stobaeus used, and which were not necessarily the authorsoriginal versions, but could bemediatedversions from previous compilations (on this point, many scholars lingered: Michele Curnis discussedwhichPlato Stobaeus read; Mauro Bonazzi talked about the presence and the role of the Platonic tradition in the anthology; Luigi Ferreri studied the figure of Theognis, and Jean-Baptiste Gourinat Stobaeusdependence on the doxographies of the Hellenistic age).

The section of the work on ethics received particular attention, both in its structure and function (Sophie Van der Meeren), and in terms of its Stoic content – Ilaria Ramelli focused on the philosopher Hierocles, Sophie Aubert on the relationships between the shrewdness of the Homeric Odyssey and Stoic wisdom, Valéry Laurand on the treatises dedicated to marriage, Graziano Ranocchia on the philosopher Aristotle of Chios, and Emanuele Vimercati on the ideal of the Stoic sage – and the Cynics (Pedro Pablo Fuentes González).In conclusion, Elena Gritti has investigated the particular philosophical lexicon used by Stobaeus.

From these two lines of inquiry – both the philological-literary and the historical-philosophical – an author has emerged who has a broad cultural perspective, and who, by recalling the vast preceding tradition, has preserved an immense patrimony of knowledge that otherwise would have been lost. The conference was therefore very rich in content and lively in discussion.It gave his dues to an author who is destined to become even more prominent in future research.

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