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The historical reader of Plato's Protagoras1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2009

D. Wolfsdorf
University of Chicago


The popular question why Plato wrote dramatic dialogues, which is motivated by a just fascination and perplexity for contemporary scholars about the unique form of the Platonic texts, is confused and anachronistic; for it judges the Platonic texts qua philosophical texts in terms of post–Platonic texts not written in dramatic dialogic form. In comparison with these, the form of Platos early aporetic dialogues is highly unusual. Yet, in its contemporary milieu, the form of Platonic literature is relatively normal. Dramatic dialogue was the most popular form of Attic literature in the late fifth and fourth centuries. This explains why Plato wrote dramatic dialogues.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 1998

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2 In a recent article on the origins of the σωκρατικο⋯ λ⋯γοι Diskin Clay discusses the influence of Attic comedy and tragedy on the form of Platos dramatic dialogues (The Origins of the Socratic Dialogue, The Socratic Movement, ed. Paul A. Vander Waerdt [Cornell, 1994], pp. 23–47). But Clay equivocates about the validity of the ancient tradition that claims the mimes of Sophron provided a model for the Platonic dialogues.

That Sophrons mimes are in significant respects similar to Platos dialogues is not in doubt, but that Sophrons mimes provided a model upon which Plato developed the philosophical dialogue seems to me highly suspect. External and internal evidence for Platos acquaintance with Sophron is collected and evaluated by J. M. S. MacDonald, Character–Portraiture in Epicharmus, Sophron, and Plato (University of the South, 1931), pp. 129f. Only two sources survive before the first century A.D.: one, Duris of Samos (c. 240–70 B.C.), who is cited by Athenaeus (11.504b), the other, Timon of Phlius (c 320–230 B.C.) is cited by John Tzetzes of the twelfth century A.D. (Chiliades, 10.806–10). The citation from Duris does not mention that Plato modelled the dialogues on the Sophronic mimes, only that Plato read them fondly. The citation from Timon specifically does say that Plato developed the dialogues on the model of the mimes, but Tzetzes as well as Timons reliability are suspect (MacDonald discusses the problems of Timon, p. 131). The internal evidence for Platos acquaintance with the Sophronic mimes is extremely slight (MacDonald, pp. 134–41). Plato never mentions Sophron. In fact the only plausible allusion to Sophron is that of Rep. 451c, where Socrates says: Perhaps it might be well, after the completion of the men–drama, to go through the women–drama. In antiquity, the mimes of Sophron were categorized according to men– and women–dramas, according to the gender of the characters so, Diogenes Laertius and Choricius of Gaza, and cf. MacDonalds remark: Interestingly, a CTiAAujSoy intended to be attached to a book–roll, bearing the title "Solons Women–Mimes" and dating from the late first century or early second century A.D. has been found (Grenfell and Hunt, Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. 2 [1899], p. 303, no. ccci; cited by MacDonald, p. 80). However, MacDonald also notes the remark of a scholiast on Aristophanes Thesmophoriazusae, 148–55, explaining: Those dramas in which the chorus consists of women are called women–dramas; those in which it consists of men are called men–dramas (p. 135, n. 33). Just as it is unclear whether Sophrons mimes were in the classical period viewed as men– and women–dramas, it is unclear whether this choric terminology was used in the classical period. The evidence seems too slight to make a determination. A further problem is that Platos first trip to Syracuse was not until 388/7. If Sophrons mimes did influence his use of the dramatic dialogic form, he would have had to have access to these mimes in Athens in the late fifth century and early fourth centuries. There is no evidence that Sophrons mimes were known in Athens at this time.

3 PL Prot. 318ef.

4 At the Olympic games in 564 Callias great–great–grandfather was victorious in the horse–race (Hdt. 6.122.1; 2. Ar. Aves 283). He is also known to have purchased the confiscated property of Peisistratus (Hdt. 6.121.2). Both events suggest pentakosiomedimnal status for the family at this early period. Callias grandfather is the first member of the family for whom we have definite evidence of political prominence. He held the official religious office of torch–bearer for the Eleusinian mysteries (cf. J. K. Davies, Athenian Propertied Families [Oxford, 1975], p. 254); and he served as ambassador to Susa in 449 and to Sparta in 446 (Diod. 12.7). His relationship to Cimon through his marriage to Cimons sister Elpinice testifies to his political significance (Plut. Cimon 4.8). Pericles and he also became related when Cimon married Isodice. (There is controversy over Cimons marriage(s) and offspring. The problems are neatly summarized in RE Kimon 2, pp. 452–3, and Davies, p. 304–5.) He increased the family fortune through his involvement in the Laureion silver mines (Nepos, Cimon 1.3; Xen. Vect. 4.15). Consequently, he was perceived as the richest Athenian of his day (Andoc. 1.130; Isoc. 16.31; Nepos, Alcib. 2.1). Callias father, Hipponicus, married Pericles ex–wife (cf. Davies, pp. 262–3), and Callias became half–brother to Pericles sons, Xanthippus and Paralus. Hipponicus inherited his fathers property and the office of torch–bearer (Andoc. 1.115), and he continued the massive capital accumulation begun by his father (Xen. Vect. 4.15). His other known significant magistracy is the generalship with Eurymedon in an incursion into Tanagra in 426 (Thuc. 3.91; Diod. 12.9).

5 Davies interestingly indicates that Callias personal characteristics need not have had the permanently crippling effect which [they] did on the family fortunes but for a second factor, ignored by the ancient tradition and undervalued even now, namely the collapse of the mining revenues from Laureion after 413 ([n. 4], p. 261).

6 Maidment translates books with the note, Lit. "his table, with a play on a meaning “bank.” The pun cannot be rendered exactly in English (Minor Attic Orators [Harvard, 1982], vol. I, p. 437). See also Cox, C. A., CQ 46 (1996), 572–5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

7 §130–1.

8 Ath. 5.169a.

9 Ael. Var. Hist. 4.16.

10 Ath. 12.536a.

11 Eupolis fr. 161.

12 Z. Luc. 181R; Z. At. Aves 283a; Xen. Symp. 1.2 f.; Z. Ar. Pac 803; Z. PI. Apol. 20a; Suid. s. v. On one occasion, when he was caught committing adultery, he paid a hefty three–talent fine to escape a lawsuit (Z. Luc. 83R).

13 Callias married twice. His second wife was the daughter of Isomachus and Chrysilla. In the course of this marriage, Callias began having an affair with his wifes daughter. The mother eventually drove the daughter out; but then Callias drove the mother out as well. Later the daughter claimed she was pregnant with Callias child, but at the Apaturia Callias denied the child. Only later was he reconciled with the mother, that is to say his former wifes daughter, and gained legitimacy for the boy (Andoc. 1.126 ff.).

14 Arg. Ar. Pac.

15 Eupolis fr. 146a, b, 158; Diog. Laert. 9.50.

16 Ath. 5.218b.

17 2. Ar. Aves, 283; Max. Tyr. 20.7; Philostr. Vit. Soph. 266.10

18 Ath. 11.506. Athenaeus statement suggests a real nexus between the texts. No single citation serves as definitive evidence, but it is possible that Eupolis comedy influenced Plato to set the scene of his Protagoras at Callias house.

19 PI. Prot. 337d.

20 PI. Apol. 20c

21 In fact, Callias would have been Protagoras if Protagoras ever did reside at his house.

22 Athen. 5.218b; Diog. Laert. 9.50; Plut. Stoic Repugn. 1047d.

23 PI. Theat. 65a.

24 Xen. Hell. 2.3.2, 15–16, 4.1–19; Mem. 1.2.12–38; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 38.1, 39.6; Diod. 14.4, 33.2.3; Plut. Lys. 15.5, Ale 33; Lys. 22.124; Cic. Tusc Disp. 1.40.

25 See n. 24.

26 Dem. 22.33, 56, 68; 24.125.

27 Ar. Ran. 1513.

28 Plut. Alc. 36.

29 Xen. Hell. 2.1.30, 32; Lys. 14.38; Dem. 19.191; Paus. 4.17.3,10.9.11.

30 Andoc. 1.16.

31 Ibid. 1.15. The property of those condemned in the cases of the Mysteries and the Hermai was confiscated and sold by the official sellers of state property. Records of sales were inscribed on stone and set up in the Eleusinion as permanent reminders of the punishment of the guilty. Some fragments of these stelai were published as IG i2 325–34, but since then other fragments have been found. All have been re–edited by Prichett, W. Kendrick, The Attic Stelai i (in Hesperia 22, 1953) 255–99 (Macdowell, Andokides on the Mysteries [Oxford, 1960], p. 71). These stelae confirm that the mentioned in Andoc. 1.15 is in fact the Phaedrus who appears in the Protagoras and Phaedrus.Google Scholar

32 Andoc. 1.35.

33 The personae of the Phaedo include: Apollodorus of Phaleron; Critobolus, son of Crito; Crito of the deme Alopece; Hermogenes (probably Callias brother); Epigenes, son of Antiphon; Antisthenes, son of Antisthenes; Ctesippus of the deme Paianias; Menexenus, son of Demophon; Phaedo; Simmias and Cebes, brothers from Thebes; Euclides of Megara; Terpsion of Megara; and Phaedonidas.

34 See Xen. Mem. 1.2.48, 3.11.17, 3.12 f.; Suidas s.v. Diog. Laert. 2.60, 105 f., 106; Cic. Acad 2.42; Plut. de Fratr. Am. 18.

35 PI. Prot. 325b.

36 Ibid..