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Robert W. Wallace, Reconstructing Damon: Music, Wisdom Teaching, and Politics in Perikles’ Athens

Aldo Brancacci
p. 246-249
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Robert W. Wallace, Reconstructing Damon: Music, Wisdom Teaching, and Politics in Perikles’ Athens, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, 223 p., 64 livres / isbn 9780199685738

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1This volume provides a systematic and accurately commented collection of Damon’s fragments and testimonia, but, as a whole (as we will see), it is more than a simple collection. Damon of Oa was a musician, most likely versed not only in music in the strict sense of the word, but also in the wide range of interests and skills contained in the Greek concept of μουσική (an updated overview on this concept can be found now in P. Destrée-P. Murray [eds.], A Companion to Ancient Aesthetics, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2015). He had a sound theoretical knowledge of music and, in some way, can be considered a ‘philosopher of music.’ As a matter of fact, he theorized the ethical influences of music, considering it capable of shaping the soul’s virtues, thereby launching a philosophical tendency fated to endure for some centuries. Damon was the music teacher of Perikles; he played an active role in Perikles’ cultural politics and for this reason, he was also ostracized from Athens. Therefore, in short, Damon was a leading figure in the cultural and, to a certain extent, political life of the Athens of the 5th century, even if his thought was destined to have a major impact on the field of music (for an updated analysis of the intellectual figure of Damon, I would like to refer to my contribution: Music and Philosophy in Damon of Oa, in: Ch. Vassallo [ed.], Presocratics and Papyrological Tradition, Proceedings of the International Workshop held at the University of Trier, 22-24 September 2016 [= Studia Praesocratica], Berlin-Boston: De Gruyter, 2018, forthcoming). His fame in antiquity was determined by a series of factors, most importantly by the authoritative judgement of Plato. As a matter of fact, in his dialogues (especially in the Republic) Plato often mentions Damon, showing the highest admiration for his musicological theories. In turn, the Stoic philosopher Diogenes of Babylon as well, who was deeply interested in music and particularly in its relationship with philosophy, agreed with (and developed) the core of Damon’s theories on musical ethics. Since Diogenes of Babylon was the target of Philodemus’ vicious attacks, especially (but not exclusively) in his treatise On Music, the Epicurean philosopher largely quoted Damon in his work. This is the reason why such an important part of the testimonia concerning Damon derives from the Herculanean papyrological tradition. Plato’s favourable opinion of Damon is the main reason for his popularity in the Neoplatonic tradition, in particular in Proclus (on this point cf. E. Moutsopoulos, La philosophie de la musique dans le système de Proclus, Athens: Academy of Athens, 2004). But Damon was also long remembered in the musicological and scholiastic traditions, and we can find many references to him in the classical texts of historical and philosophical literature (the case of Plutarch is paradigmatic), in addition to the erudite tradition. His name still appears as an undisputed auctoritas in the field of music within the late antique ‘encyclopedy’ by Martianus Capella: the De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii.

2The first group of fragments and wit­nesses on Damon was collected by Hermann Diels in his renowned Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, but various scholars have progressively enriched this first collection. In this respect, one cannot forget to mention the capital studies of U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (Griechische Verskunst, Berlin: Weidmann, 1921) and F. Lasserre (Plutarque, De la musique: Texte, traduction, commentaire, précédés d’une étude sur l’éducation musicale dans la Grèce antique, Lausanne & Olten: Urs Graf, 1954). Lasserre also took a series of Platonic texts into account, in which no direct reference to Damon appears, in his collection. Other scholars have published a selection of the most important texts, providing them with useful commentaries, as in the collection of the Pythagoric testimonia by M. Timpanaro Cardini (Pitagorici: Testimonianze e frammenti, vol. III, Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1958).

3Robert W. Wallace has now carried out a new collection of the documentary material concerning Damon. In this praiseworthing collection, only one Herculanean testi­monium seems to have been left out: Philod., Rhet. IV, P.Herc. 1104 (olim 1114), fr. 7 Vassallo (= II, p. 299 Sudhaus = deest in DK et in Lasserre). The new reconstruction of this testimonium, in which Perikles is mentioned as a pupil of both Anaxagoras and Damon, will appear in the Corpus of the Herculanean testimonia to Presocratic philosophers edited by Ch. Vassallo (CPH [= Corpus Praesocraticorum Herculanense] X 40, in: Ch. Vassallo, The Presocratics in the Herculaneum Papyri: Texts, Translations, and Commentary [= Studia Praesocratica], Berlin-Boston, De Gruyter, in preparation). This passage does not appear even in the Index Praesocraticorum Philosophorum Herculanensis (IPPH) edited and recently published by Vassallo as well (A Catalogue of the Evidence for Presocratics in the Herculaneum Papyri, in: “Archiv für Papy­rusforschung”, 62/1 [2016], p. 78-108). It is an addendum which the young Italian scholar brought to my attention and that, for obvious chronological reasons, Wallace could not have known from current secondary literature.

4The form adopted by Wallace for his volume is not that of a classical Sammlung der Fragmente, but more similar to Lasserre’s choice, although the positions of the two scholars are quite different. In fact, the first part of the volume is a kind of monograph (p. 3-104), followed by the second part, the collection of testimonia and fragments (p. 107-181); at the end we find four Appendices (p. 183-205) that mainly refer back to the first monographical part. This peculiar structure provides, on the one hand, the reader with a large treatment of the topic in which Wallace is mainly interested: the reconstruction of Damon’s personality within an inquiry on music, cultural teaching, and politics in the Athens of Perikles. But on the other hand, it has its limits: the collection of fragments seems to be, to a certain extent, a confirmation of the theses expounded in the first part, whereas an autonomous and accurate analysis of the texts should be the starting point for any historical and cultural reconstruction.

5Among the various theses, there is one in particular that Wallace cares about: the inexistence of the Damon’s work known by some traditions with the title of Areopagiticus. Now, it is well known that Wilamowitz considered the Areopagiticus the first example of Attic prose. According to H. Ryffel (Eukosmia: Ein Beitrag zur Wiederherstellung des Areopagitikos des Damon, in: “Museum Helveticum”, 4 [1947], p. 23-38), this work would have influenced, to some extent, the Areopagiticus of Isocrates as well. Wallace’s thesis overturns a fairly consolidated trend in the scholarship. In defense of his view, the American scholar uses significant argumentative variations. Sometimes Wallace seems to intend to demonstrate that Damon’s Areopagiticus never existed; in other cases, he tries to show that no work of Damon ever existed, or he wonders whether he ever wrote something: cf. Appendix 1 (p. 183-185), where Wallace concludes: “in publishing nothing Damon was by no means unique among even his younger contemporaries” (p. 185). All in all, I think that the attempt to demonstrate this thesis has failed. In its support, Wallace uses a hypothesis already held by H. Bücheler (Οἱ περὶ Δάμωνα, in: “Rheinisches Museum”, 40 [1885], p. 309-312), but at the same time he deeply misconstrues it. According to Bücheler, Philodemus’ source in Mus. IV, P. Herc. 1497, coll. 147, 34-148, 5 Delattre, II, p. 309-310 (= 37 B 2 DK = fr. 5 Lasserre = B 13 Wallace = IPPH IX 30) was neither a work by Damon nor the Περὶ μουσικῆς of Diogenes of Babylon (who, however, surely quoted Damon in his treatise, remembering his doctrines: cf. Diog. Bab., SVF III, fr. 56), but a supposed dialogue of Heraclides Ponticus, whose main character would have been Damon. But Wallace’s conclusion does not agree with that of Bücheler, who admitted the existence of a Damon’s work (along with the alleged dialogue by Heraclides Ponticus). At the same time, Wallace is also in disagreement with Philippson, who, on the one hand, hypothesized that the only source for Damon in Philodemus’ On Music was Heraclides, but, on the other, never questioned the existence of Damon’s Areopagiticus. In contrast, Wallace main­tains that all we know on Damon via Philodemus would derive from a supposed writing by Heraclides (whose existence remains totally hypothetical) and that Damon’s Areopagiticus never existed.

6So that begs the question: if – as Wallace claims – this writing never existed, what source did Heraclides use to write his dialogue (of course, assuming that this dialogue existed), in which Damon figures as a character and his theories were exposed? Wallace’s hypothesis detroys itself along with the entire Damonian tradition: but a hypothesis that ends up destroying the same tradition it should explain seems to be methodologically unacceptable. Not to mention, Heraclides Ponticus never mentions Damon in his extant fragments. This being the case, the supposition that he wrote a dialogue devoted to Damon and referred in it his doctrines is totally groundless. Furthermore, thanks to Diogenes Laërtius (V 86-88), we have a catalogue of Heraclides’ works. This list includes a section of μουσικά (among which a treatise On Music in two books is also taken into account), but none of these titles refers to Damon.

7In reality, the existence of a work of Damon belonging to a Preplatonic era (I consider here a secondary point whether this work was written in the form of an Areopagiticus or not), is shown by the most important of the sources on Damon at our disposal: viz. Plato. One should remember above all the following passage: εἶδος γὰρ καινὸν μουσικῆς μεταβάλλειν εὐλαβητέον ὡς ἐν ὅλῳ κινδυνεύοντα· οὐδαμοῦ γὰρ κινοῦνται μουσικῆς τρόποι ἄνευ πολιτικῶν νόμων τῶν μεγίστων, ὥς φησί τε Δάμων καὶ ἐγὼ πείθομαι (Plat., Resp. IV 424c = 37 B 10 DK = B 2 Wallace). This is a clear and emphasized quotation of Damon’s work. It should be added that in the famous section on rhythm Plato also mentions Damon with regard to his opinions on the topic with great approval (Plat., Resp. III 400a = 37 B 9 DK = B 1 Wallace). Many scholars maintain that in the section on the ἁρμονίαι Plato also took Damon’s work into account: see, in particular, chapter III (entitled Damone e i sofisti) of A. Barker’s book Psicomusicologia nella Grecia antica (ed. by A. Meriani), Naples: Guida, 2005, p. 57-74, who considers it highly likely that Damon was the source of the Platonic treatment of harmonies in the Republic (p. 67). In any case, I think I have already demonstrated that Plato does not blindly follow or uncritically accept Damon’s theories, but he introduces instead own significant innovations: cf. A. Brancacci, Musique et philosophie en République II-IV, in: M. Dixsaut (ed.), Études sur la République de Platon, vol. 1 : De la justice, Paris: Vrin, 2005, p. 89-106.

8Another important element for recon­structing the intellectual figure of Damon is the explanation of his relationship with Perikles. To this biographical event the question of ostracism is closely connected. According to Wallace, Damon was really banished from Athens: i.e. the ostracism was a historical fact and should not be doubted as some scholars have done on the basis of arguments and testimonia that he correctly reports and discusses (p. 53-55). Wallace pays due attention to all these problems, along with the thorny question of Damon’s chronology. On this last point, two different theories are in competition: as a matter of fact, some scholars maintain that Damon was born “in the early fifth century, perhaps c. 500”; others instead postdate his birth “a generation after 500” (p. 186), extending his activity untill the last years of the 5th century. Wallace devotes the large and well-documented Appendix 2 (p. 186-193) to this problematic question. He presents all the elements that could support the early chronology, towards which he leans. As for his ostracism, it is unfortunately impossible to determine a definite date, grounded on objective factors: therefore, Wallace rightly limits himself in concluding that “sometime between 445 and 441 – most probably in 442 – Damon was ostracized” (p. 193). On the cultural level, Wallace tries to associate as much as possible Damon with the Sophists (p. 19-21). Now, in regard to this problem, in my view we must definitively settle that Damon was not a sophist in the proper sense, but only a member of ‘Perikles’ Circle’: that is to say, a movement historically (and theoretically) earlier than the birth of the Sophistic movement and far removed from the development of the sharp distinction between ‘sophist’ and ‘philosopher.’ This distinction, as we know, established itself after the harsh antisophistic polemics of Plato, probably already held by Socrates and than variously adopted by other Socratics like Antisthenes. The ‘Perikles’ Circle’ represents a capital event for the cultural history of Athens of 5th century. In this circle, not only different philosophical stances (for instance, Anaxagoras, as the representative of physical research; Socrates, who probably assumed an independent and critical position; Protagoras, who would launch the Sophistic movement; Phidias and Damon, as the representatives of the τέχναι), but also various political orientations (Socrates, for example, surely did not share the pro-democracy tendencies of this circle) lived miraculously together.

9In conclusion, Wallace’s book provides a lot of material and food for thought. Although not all his theories seem to be acceptable, the accuracy of the volume is commendable. The secondary literature quoted and discussed is wide; his new collection of Damon’s fragments and witnesses was a desideratum, and it is really welcomed in the scholarship on Damon; finally, in spite of the lack of clear and abundant testimonia, his attempt to demonstrate the great relevance of Damon’s figure in his historical period seems to have been successfully realized.

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Aldo Brancacci, « Robert W. Wallace, Reconstructing Damon: Music, Wisdom Teaching, and Politics in Perikles’ Athens », Anabases, 27 | 2018, 246-249.

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Aldo Brancacci, « Robert W. Wallace, Reconstructing Damon: Music, Wisdom Teaching, and Politics in Perikles’ Athens », Anabases [En ligne], 27 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2018, consulté le 20 juillet 2018. URL :

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Aldo Brancacci

Università degli Studi di Roma Tor Vergata

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