Alcibiades Punches his Teacher Over Homer (Plutarch, Alc. 7.1)

Last year, a fine correspondent on twitter posted the following comment:

Of course,  I had to check it out. It turns out that it is just spot on and there’s a coda:

“As Alcibiades passed from childhood he visited a teacher and asked for a book of Homer. When that teacher said that he didn’t have any Homer, Alcibiades set upon him with his fist and left. When another teacher said that he had a copy of Homer which he had corrected himself, Alcibiades said, “Why do you teach the alphabet when you’re good enough to correct Homer,–why don’t you teach young men?”

Τὴν δὲ παιδικὴν ἡλικίαν παραλλάσσων ἐπέστη γραμματοδιδασκαλείῳ καὶ βιβλίον ᾔτησεν ῾Ομηρικόν. εἰπόντος δὲ τοῦ διδασκάλου μηδὲν ἔχειν ῾Ομήρου, κονδύλῳ καθικόμενος αὐτοῦ παρῆλθεν. ἑτέρου δὲ φήσαντος ἔχειν ῞Ομηρον ὑφ’ ἑαυτοῦ διωρθωμένον, „εἶτα” ἔφη „γράμματα διδάσκεις ῞Ομηρον ἐπανορθοῦν ἱκανὸς ὤν, οὐχὶ τοὺς νέους παιδεύεις;”

In Plutarch, these anecdotes serve to characterize the brash character of Alcibiades, one that combines daring and intelligence in a way that anticipates his later deeds. (Because, as we know, Plutarch thinks anecdotes are more telling than great deeds).

In Plato’s spurious Alcibiades 1, Socrates asks his younger interlocutor if he has heard about justice and injustice from Homer (112b2) and in Alcibiades 2 he focuses on the riddle of Homer in the Margites:

Alcibiades II 147 D

“For surely you don’t seem to be ignorant that Homer, the most divine and wisest poet, is not able to know badly—for he says in the Margites that he knows many things but he knows them all badly—but instead I think that he riddles by using the adverb badly instead of the noun “base”, and using “he knew” instead of “knowing”….

οὐ γὰρ δήπου ῞Ομηρόν γε τὸν θειότατόν τε καὶ σοφώτατον ποιητὴν ἀγνοεῖν δοκεῖς ὡς οὐχ οἷόν τε ἦν ἐπίστασθαι κακῶς—ἐκεῖνος γάρ ἐστιν ὁ λέγων τὸν Μαργίτην πολλὰ μὲν ἐπίστασθαι, κακῶς δέ, φησί, πάντα ἠπίστατο—ἀλλ’ αἰνίττεται οἶμαι παράγων τὸ κακῶς μὲν ἀντὶ τοῦ κακοῦ, τὸ δὲ ἠπίστατο ἀντὶ τοῦ ἐπίστασθαι·

So it may be that Alcibiades was expecting a philosopher and just got a school teacher.  But what do I know? I teach γράμματα, but sometimes τοὺς νέους.

According to Aelian (Varia Historia, 3.28), Socrates attempted to deal with Alcibiades’ ego by invoking geography:

“When Socrates noticed that Alkibiades was all puffed up because of his wealth and proud thanks to his property especially because of his lands, he led him to some part of the city where a tablet stood marked with an outline of the earth. He requested for Alkibiades to find Attica. When he found it, he asked him to find his own properties. When he responded “but they are not marked on here,” Socrates said “You think so highly of these things which don’t even amount to a fragment of the earth?”

῾Ορῶν ὁ Σωκράτης τὸν ᾿Αλκιβιάδην τετυφωμένον ἐπὶ τῷ πλούτῳ καὶ μέγα φρονοῦντα ἐπὶ τῇ περιουσίᾳ καὶ ἔτι πλέον ἐπὶ τοῖς ἀγροῖς, ἤγαγεν αὐτὸν ἔς τινα τῆς πόλεως τόπον ἔνθα ἀνέκειτο πινάκιον ἔχον γῆς περίοδον, καὶ προσέταξε τῷ ᾿Αλκιβιάδῃ τὴν ᾿Αττικὴν ἐνταῦθ’ ἀναζητεῖν. ὡς δ’ εὗρε, προσέταξεν αὐτῷ τοὺς ἀγροὺς τοὺς ἰδίους διαθρῆσαι. τοῦ δὲ εἰπόντος ‘ἀλλ’ οὐδαμοῦ γεγραμμένοι εἰσίν’ ‘ἐπὶ τούτοις οὖν’ εἶπε ‘μέγα φρονεῖς, οἵπερ οὐδὲν μέρος τῆς γῆς εἰσιν;’

Others in Athens were less constructive in remonstrating with the dashing young man. We have a line mocking him from the comedian Pherecrates (fr. 164):

 

“Even though Alcibiades isn’t a man, as it seems, he’s already husband to all the ladies.”
οὐκ ὤν ἀνὴρ γὰρ Ἀλκιβιάδης, ὡς δοκεῖ,
ἀνὴρ ἁπασῶν τῶν γυναικῶν ἐστι νῦν…

This plays on the dual connotations of ἀνὴρ as sexually mature man and husband. In the modern world, such a line might not be considered insulting. But in certain circles in Athens, manly men were mainly interested in men.

6 thoughts on “Alcibiades Punches his Teacher Over Homer (Plutarch, Alc. 7.1)

  1. These days, a student would be more likely to punch you for having the gall to bring a copy of Homer to the classroom.

    1. Ha! You’re probably right. Obviously there is something fake about the anecdote (I don’t think they referred to Homeric biblia until the Hellenistic period) but it does do its job. What a swell bastard Alcibiades must have been.

      From now on I too will be punching people who have no Homer. See you in jail…

      1. I know that the formal division into 24 books each was not made until the Hellenistic period, but I wonder whether there could have been copies of Homer before that. I know that the Peisitratean recension was not undertaken for the purpose of fattening booksellers’ wallets, but Socrates mentions something about buying a copy of Anaxagoras in the Agora; wouldn’t audiences be far more eager for a copy of Homer?

        Actually, I would think that the impetus for the sort of Homeric scholarship initiated by Zenodotus would only come about in a world populated by Homeric books which were of a somewhat dubious textual authenticity and suggested to a critical mind the need for textual restoration.

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