[A PDF version of this paper is available for download here]

The Philosopher as Tourist: an Identifiable Tradition?

John Dillon,

Trinity College Dublin


The philosopher Philo of Alexandria, in the course of his Life of Abraham (§65), finds occasion, in connection with Abraham’s voluntary exiling of himself from his native land in obedience to the command of God, to discourse on the reasons why a philosopher might be prompted to leave his native place and engage in travel:

“Some men go voyaging for business reasons through desire for gain, or on an embassy, or for the purpose of viewing the features of foreign lands through love of learning (di’ erôta paideias), possessing as forces drawing them towards remaining abroad, in the one case, the prospect of profit, in another, the chance of benefiting one’s city in a time of emergency in respect of the most pressing and essential issues, in yet another, the process of enquiring into those things of which they were previously ignorant, bestowing as it does both pleasure and profit upon the soul—for blind indeed, as compared with the sharp-sighted, are those who have not traveled abroad, by comparison with those who have.”

Now this might not seem to be a specific commendation of travel for philosophical purposes, but, coming from such a man as Philo, it must at least include that. The odd thing is that we have very little information as to any such travels undertaken by the man himself – though a visit at some stage of his life to Jerusalem and the rest of the ancestral homeland would seem highly probable. Otherwise, though, there are just his periodic excursions into the desert to consort with the Therapeutae, and his participation, towards the end of his life, in the highly-fraught embassy to Rome, to counter, at the court of the lunatic Emperor Caligula, the sinister Jew-baiting activities of the Prefect Flaccus in Alexandria – this latter journey hardly to be reckoned as tourism, admittedly, though he doubtless took the opportunity to make the acquaintance of leading intellectuals in Rome at the time!

However, Philo does give voice to the topic of philosophical tourism, even if he does not much practice it himself. What I wish to enquire into on this occasion, and in these most delightful surroundings, is how much a part of the Greek philosophical tradition the idea of tourism really is, and what its contribution may be to that tradition.


The story, it seems to me, may reasonably be said to start with Pythagoras [1]. For a study of the activities of this largely legendary figure, I turn to the account given by the late Platonist philosopher Iamblichus, in his book On the Pythagorean Way of Life, which incorporates a ‘life’ of Pythagoras himself.

Iamblichus, we may note, while presenting Pythagoras as the ‘father’ of Greek philosophy, is also able to present him as the father of academic tourism, of the type that so many philosophers of his own day, and of previous generations, had indulged in – including, not only himself (though he returned triumphantly in due course to his native land of Syria), but also his teacher, Porphyry (who had journeyed from Tyre to Athens, and then to Rome, and even to Lilybaeum in Western Sicily [2], in search of enlightenment), and Porphyry’s revered teacher Plotinus, who had come from Lycopolis in Egypt, via an abortive expedition to visit the Magi of Persia and the ‘Naked Philosophers’ of India, to Rome – though by the time he got there, he is plainly in the position of being teacher rather than student, having learned all his philosophy from the mysterious Ammonius Saccas in Alexandria.

At any rate, let us consider the presentation of Pythagoras’ academic tourism in the Bios Pythagorikos. As Iamblichus tells the story (VP ch. 2), Pythagoras’ philosophical journeying began when he was only eighteen, in face of the increasing oppressiveness of Polycrates’ tyranny in Samos[3], he decided to head off, first to the island of Syros, to visit the ‘wise man’ Pherecydes, and then to Miletus, on the mainland of Asia Minor, to call on the philosophers Anaximander and Thales.

What he learned from any of them is not clear, but they were all greatly struck with his intellectual prowess, and Thales, in particular, urged him to go on to Egypt to further his education by consorting with the priests in Memphis and Diospolis (the other name for the Egyptian Thebes).

On the way to Egypt, however, he stopped off at Sidon in Phoenicia, where he fell in with what Iamblichus describes (VPyth. 14) as ‘the descendants (apogonoi) of Môchos’, who is in turn characterised as ‘a prophet and natural philosopher’ (physiologos prophêtês) [4], and he spends some time studying with them on Mt. Carmel [5], “and was initiated into all the sacred rites of the mysteries (teletai) celebrated especially in Byblos and in Tyre, and in many parts of Syria.” Iamblichus is at pains to specify that he did not do this out of superstition (deisidaimonia), “but much more with a desire and yearning for theoretical knowledge (theôria), and a reverent concern that nothing worthy of learning kept in the secrets or mystic rites of the god escape his notice.”

Here, then, we have the intellectual tourist in his pristine manifestation. Even the wisdom acquired on the refreshing heights of Mt. Carmel, however, does not satisfy our hero, and he resolves to head for Egypt, “having learned that the wisdom there (sc. in Syria) was somehow derived and descended from the sacred rites in Egypt.” [6] In furtherance of this aim, he was able to hitch a lift from some Egyptian seamen who had pulled into shore somewhere below Mt. Carmel.

They gladly took him on, it seems, as they liked the look of him, and hoped to sell him profitably as a slave when they reached their destination. During the voyage, however, they became impressed by his almost supernatural impassivity, and by the time they reached the shore of Egypt, they were prepared to worship him as a daimon, putting him ashore with a supply of food, and sailing on.

In Iamblichus’ account (VP  ch. 4), Pythagoras here ceases for some time to be a philosophical tourist in the strict sense, since, after being received most warmly by the Egyptian priestly class, he then spent fully twenty-two years with them, “studying astronomy and geometry, and being initiated in all the mystic rites of the gods.”

This research stay comes to an end when he is arrested by the troops of Cambyses, the Persian monarch who has conquered Egypt, and brought by him to Babylon [7]. This does not strictly count as tourism, either, I suppose, but once there, Pythagoras is able to consort with the Magi, studying their rites, learning the perfect worship of the gods, and “reaching the highest point in knowledge of numbers, music, and other mathematical sciences.”

Once again, he takes his time, staying in Babylon for a further twelve years, before returning finally to Samos, at least for a brief while. He was now, says Iamblichus, 56 years of age – but strict chronology has long since gone out the window. He is portrayed as now staying home for a number of years, gradually building up a group of followers, and running an informal school, but in due course he becomes dissatisfied, because of the low regard exhibited by the people of Samos for his kind of learning [8], and takes himself off to Croton in Southern Italy, where he is received ecstatically by the inhabitants, and sets up a formal school, and indeed a quasi-monastic community.

There, however, we may leave him, as he is no longer a searcher after wisdom, travelling to improve his mind, but already an accomplished sage, and so no longer an intellectual ‘tourist’ within the ambit of the present discourse.


Instead, let us turn to consider the case of Plato, somewhat over a century later, which exhibits a number of significant parallels with that of Pythagoras. First of all, his life as a ‘philosophic tourist’ is provoked at least partly by an unfavourable political situation at home. Even as Pythagoras was driven to travel partly by his hostility to the tyranny of Polycrates, so Plato, and indeed various other companions of Socrates, after his execution by the Athenian people in 399, felt constrained by the general atmosphere of hostility to all connected with Socrates, as well as his own antipathy to a regime which could do that to the mentor that he revered, retired down the road to Megara, to study with the philosopher Euclides, who seems to have practised Socratic dialectic in an extreme, aporetic form.

At any rate, whether he became bored with Euclides and/or his other companions, Diogenes Laertius, in his Life of Plato (Vit. Philos. III 6) tells us that he soon pressed on to further travels, all driven by the desire for knowledge; first, across the Mediterranean to Cyrene in Libya, to visit the noted mathematician Theodorus (whom he later celebrates in the Theaetetus), then somewhat further on, to Italy, to visit the Pythagorean philosopher Philolaus, and his pupil Eurytus, in Croton [9] – where, of course, Pythagoras had first settled and founded his school. Having thus attained some proficiency in the principles of Pythagoreanism, it is said that he next journeyed to Egypt, in the footsteps of Pythagoras, to acquaint himself with the wisdom of the priests. He is reported to have fallen ill while there (a touch of Tutankhamun’s revenge, perhaps?), and to have been cured by the priests with seawater – an unlikely story, which may yet conceal some significant truth.

He then – once again seeking to follow in the footsteps of Pythagoras – proposed to go on to Persia, to consort with the Magi, but gave up on this “because of the wars in Asia”, and returned to Athens, some time in the mid to late 390s. We can see from this itinerary that, unlike Pythagoras – at least according to the rather fanciful chronology followed by Iamblichus — he spent only relatively short periods, to be measured in months rather than years, in each venue, but he undoubtedly learned a good deal in the process of his travels. He must by this time have acquired a certain notoriety as a ‘seeker after truth’, if we can draw this conclusion from the stories to be considered below, which assume his reputation being known in such places as Syracuse and Cyrene, but he had not yet, it would seem, moved to set up any sort of a school.

His final adventure as a philosophical tourist, however, leads him back [10] to Italy and Sicily, it would seem in late 387 and early 386, “to see the island and view the craters of the volcano (presumably Mt. Etna)” [11] at the invitation of the Syracusan noble Dion, brother-in-law of the tyrant Dionysius I. How exactly Plato and Dion were initially brought together remains a mystery — perhaps Archytas of Tarentum, on whom Plato originally called on this trip, served as an intermediary, or perhaps Dion, who was a bit of a philosophical tourist himself, had met Plato on a previous visit to Athens [12] – but there is no question that they hit it off very strongly from the start; indeed, Dion might be characterised as the one true love of Plato’s life!

The story of Plato’s return from Syracuse to Athens, as told by Diogenes Laertius (III 18-20), is certainly a bizarre one, but I think that a somewhat rationalized version of it can actually be made to yield useful evidence. [13] Diogenes tells us that Dionysius was so enraged by Plato’s reprimanding of him that he handed him over to the Spartan admiral Pollis, who happened to be visiting Syracuse on business at the time, to be taken away and sold into slavery; and this Pollis duly did, when he reached the island of Aegina, on his way home – the Aeginetans were at war with Athens at the time, and had declared that any Athenian they captured would either be put to death, or sold into slavery [14]. However, fortunately, a rich gentleman of Cyrene, one Anniceris, was visiting Aegina at the time, on his way to the Olympic Games, to compete in the chariot race [15], and he ransomed Plato, for either 20, ‘or, some say, 30’ minae, and sent him home to Athens. When Plato’s friends had a whip-round and offered to pay him back, Anniceris gallantly turned down the offer, ‘declaring that the Athenians were not the only people worthy of providing for Plato’; so Plato’s friends instead used the money collected to purchase a small estate (kêpos) in the vicinity of the Academy park, and thus set up the Platonic Academy.

This is, as I say, in many ways a bizarre tale, but I think that perhaps something can be made of it.  Let us suppose that Dionysius, instead of behaving like an enraged tyrant, was actually concerned simply to fix up a suitable lift home for Plato, and asked Admiral Pollis to oblige in this. Plato, after all, though Athenian, was distinctly pro-Spartan in his sympathies, so the choice of transport was not so unsuitable as it might otherwise have been. Pollis, in turn, might well have been somewhat out of touch with developments on the home front, while pursuing an alliance with Syracuse in the West. He would have known, presumably, that peace with Athens had been established through the so-called ‘King’s Peace’ of that year, handed down by King Artaxerxes of Persia, through the agency of the Spartan general Antalcidas, but he may not have known that Athens was still at odds with Aegina, and could have chosen to deliver Plato there, as being the nearest he could decently come, as a Spartan admiral, to sailing into the Piraeus, and a place from which Plato could easily obtain a further short lift.

But, alas, neither he nor Plato was aware of the punitive measures against captured Athenians recently passed into law by the Aeginetans! The rescue by Anniceris is also a bizarre tale, but its historicity is secured, if anything, by its oddity. How could one make something like that up, one might ask? [16] I think that we may take it, then, that Plato’s last effort at philosophical tourism had some such remarkable ending as this!

The tale of Plato’s later visits to Sicily, particularly to Syracuse, at the invitation of his friend Dion, with the purpose of converting the young and dissolute Dionysius II into a philosopher-king, to be placed at the head of a Platonist ideal state, is a fascinating one, but hardly falls within our remit on the present occasion, since Plato is not at this stage a tourist in search of gaining wisdom, but rather is hoping to impart it, so they may be passed over here; and indeed, apart from his Sicilian ventures, Plato, after the founding of his school in late 386, does not seem to have indulged in any further philosophical tourism throughout the rest of his life. His two later trips to Sicily would fall rather into the category of ‘business’ – if ‘business’ can be deemed to include trying to convert a dissolute playboy tyrant into a philosopher king, and establish an ideal state!


He and his foundation, however, do seem have constituted a considerable focus for philosophical tourism over the following forty years until his death in 347– and indeed beyond, into the next century. Idealistic young men came to study with him from all over the Greek world, most staying for the rest of their careers, or at least for long periods, but some returning to their native lands to put Platonic principles into practice.

In the first category, we may list such luminaries as Xenocrates of Chalcedon, on the Hellespont, the third head of the Academy (after Plato’s nephew, Speusippus), who did return on occasion to visit his native place, but made Athens his spiritual home. And then of course there was Aristotle, originally from Stagira, in Chalcidice (his father. Nicomachus, was physician to the Macedonian royal house), who came to study with Plato while still a teenager (presumably sent by his father), and made the rest of his career in Athens (with some brief excursions), ultimately setting up his own school across town (having failed to get elected head of the Academy after the death of Speusippus); this school, the Peripatos, in turn attracted many young men from various parts of Greece – not least his successor Theophrastus, from Eresos, on the island of Lesbos.

But in the community of the Academy there were many others, of somewhat lesser note, though by no means insignificant: Heraclides of Heracleia Pontica, on the Black Sea, whose family was among the most prominent in that city, contributed much to the Academy while he was there, but ultimately returned to his native city, and enjoyed a prominent role there; the distinguished mathematician and astronomer Eudoxus of Cnidos spent a number of years in the Academy, but also ultimately returned to Cnidos, and was greatly honoured there; Philip of Opus, also a noted mathematician, coming from either Opuntian Locri, on the Greek mainland, or, more probably, from the city of Medma, a colony of the Epizephyrian Locrians, on the west side of the toe of Italy, acted as Plato’s secretary in his latter years, helping him to edit the Laws – and also, I am persuaded, authoring the rather odd ‘appendix’ to the Laws, known as the Epinomis; and quite a number of others, listed by Diogenes (VPhil. III 46), including two enterprising ladies, Lastheneia of Mantinea and Axiothea of Phlius – both from the northern Peloponnese (they may have known each other before heading for Athens!) – who are reputed to have worn men’s clothing. Others joined the Academy under Xenocrates and Polemon, such as Crantor of Soli in Cilicia, or indeed Arcesilaus of Pitane, who stayed on to become head, and turn the Academy in a new, skeptical (but, as he would claim, authentic and Socratic) direction.

Arising out of all this, the question occurs to me, particularly in connection with the ladies, but also with the others, from Aristotle on down, as to how they all came initially to hear of Plato’s interesting initiative in founding a school. After all, there is no question, really, I think, of his publishing a brochure, and sending copies round to the cities of the Greek world, from Magna Graecia to the shores of the Black Sea and the coast of Asia Minor, announcing his intention of opening a philosophical school. And yet the word must have circulated, on the grapevine of intellectual gossip, carried by travellers on the flood of ships constantly fanning out from the Piraeus over the whole Greek world, that this fellow Plato had opened a quite new sort of institution (though with some affinities to previous Pythagorean communities), and that he welcomed visits, or longer stays, from serious seekers after truth. This is not a topic that I have seen at all discussed in accounts of Plato’s Academy (though I may well have missed something); and yet this constitutes the most significant boost to philosophical tourism that had yet been provided.

Previously, after all, philosophers – such as, for example, Thales, or Anaximander, or Heraclitus, or Parmenides, or Empedocles — seem simply to have roosted in their native places as individuals, with small groups of local disciples round them, and their fame and works later spread around the Greek world; while the great Sophists, on the other hand, such as Gorgias, or Hippias, or Protagoras (all duly celebrated satirically by Plato), travelled all over the Greek world, bringing their wisdom to adoring crowds — though they do indeed seem to have had small bodies of disciples who followed them about; but nobody else seems to have done quite what Plato did, before he did it.

After he did it, on the other hand, it becomes a sort of philosophic norm. First Aristotle, then Zeno (of Citium in Cyprus), then Epicurus (a native Athenian, it must be said), set up schools modeled at least loosely upon that of Plato, and attracted students from all over the Greek world. It is primarily, if not exclusively, in Athens that these schools were established, and continued in existence for centuries, though in the new dispensation created by the Roman Empire philosophers established themselves at various points in the Empire, particularly in Alexandria and in Asia Minor, and students travelled to study with them. By the time we reach the first century BCE, we find such a figure as Antiochus, a native of Ascalon in Palestine, coming, first to Athens, to study with the then head of the (New) Academy, Philon of Larissa, but then having to decamp to Rome to escape the assault of King Mithridates of Pontus, where he joined the household of the Roman aristocrat Lucius Lucullus, and travelled on his staff to Alexandria in 87 BCE, only returning to Athens towards the end of the decade, in time for Cicero, himself taking on the role of philosophical tourist, like many another young well-to-do Roman, to attend his lectures in 79-8.


Rome, however, does not really become a focus for philosophical tourism for quite some time yet, though a few philosophers – mainly Stoics, such as the Spaniard L. Annaeus Seneca, did make it their home. Athens remains the home of philosophy for many centuries yet. If we may jump abruptly to the first half of the third century CE, however, we find, in the person of the most distinguished philosopher of late antiquity, Plotinus, a most interesting shift to Rome.

Plotinus is in many respects a mysterious figure, since, as his pupil and biographer, Porphyry, tells us (VPlot. ch. 1), he declined to give details of his home place, parents, or early years. We do think we know, however, that he was born in the Egyptian city of Lycopolis in 204 CE, we may presume in very comfortable circumstances – though we do  not know if his parents were by origin Roman or Greek – and only at the rather advanced age of 28 did he decide to leave his ancestral estate inland and journey to Alexandria, in search of philosophical enlightenment.

He must have had a definite idea of what he wanted, since he found that the more ‘mainline’ teachers of philosophy were not giving it to him. “He came away from their lectures,” Porphyry tells us (ch. 3), “so depressed and full of sadness that he told his trouble to one of his friends.” The friend, “understanding the desire of his heart”, sent him down a side-street to a rather off-beat guru called Ammonius Saccas, and there he found his inspiration. “This is the man I was looking for,” he told the friend; and he remained with Ammonius for fully eleven years.

At this point, before going on to recount his further adventures, I want to draw attention to an aspect of this philosophical tourism that is all too easily swept under the carpet, simply because we know nothing about it, by reason of the discreet veil that is drawn over it by our sources. What I am referring to is the financial aspect of all this activity. How on earth was all this paid for? On this intriguing subject no one ever drops a hint. Money matters are simply beneath the notice of our sources – perhaps mainly because we are expected to understand these things, though also at least partly because money matters are too vulgar to discuss. We may presume however, I think, that all was ultimately financed by the profits from the family estates, and conveyed throughout the Empire by a network of financial, or banking, houses, of the workings of which we know all too little, but which plainly kept the trade and commerce of the Roman Empire – and indeed of the Athenian Empire long before! – ticking over efficiently. We have no idea, of course, of the resources of Plotinus’ ancestral estates, but we may assume that they were fairly considerable, amply sufficient to finance eleven years of philosophical study in Alexandria, followed by a rather wild jaunt through the Empire, ending up in Rome.

For when Plotinus finally decided to leave Ammonius, Porphyry tells us (ch. 3), “he became eager to make acquaintance with the Persian philosophical tradition, and that prevailing among the Indians” – and in furtherance of that ambition he attached himself to the staff of the Emperor Gordian, who was gathering an army to attack Persia. Now I have been guilty, on other occasions, of comparing this project, rather irreverently, in terms of practicability, to, let us say, that of an idealistic young German, who had developed an enthusiasm for existentialism, joining the SS in 1940 to take part in the assault on Paris, in the hope of meeting up with Jean-Paul Sartre. But that is by the way; what interests me here is, rather, the circumstance that Plotinus was able to join the Emperor’s staff – he did not join up just as a foot-soldier! We can deduce this from the fact that, when Gordian was assassinated by one of his lieutenants, Philip the Arab, Plotinus felt it necessary to flee for his life! — escaping back to Antioch, and thence, ultimately, to Rome.

What we have to see here, I think, lurking in the background, is a comprehensive network of social connections and patronage, as between Plotinus’ household, as prominent members of the provincial aristocracy, and the local representatives of the imperial administration, which leads to introductions being provided, when required, at the very highest echelons of the Empire. And this would not by any means be peculiar to Plotinus; we can see such connections working, for example, in a rather different way, in the case of Plutarch of Chaeronea, in the late first and early second century, who was on good terms with a selection of Roman administrators, and travelled to Rome on a number of occasions, as a high-class philosophical tourist – but also a social one! We may probably assume similar financial and social arrangements behind the philosophical journeyings of Porphyry, and of Iamblichus, as I have suggested earlier.


This may suffice, perhaps, as a sketch of the ancient phenomenon of philosophical tourism, which is such a salient feature of the Greco-Roman philosophical scene. I ask myself, in conclusion, whether I myself have engaged in this genre of travel, and I think that to a certain extent I have – as no doubt, have many of the present audience. When I was young student in Dublin in the mid-1960’s, my professor, John O’Meara, declared to me that I would never get anywhere in the field of Neoplatonism if I remained in Dublin, and urged me strongly to head for America, helping me significantly to do this, by suggesting suitable places, and writing letters of recommendation. And so I headed off to the University of California in Berkeley – not, of course, with support from the income of my ancestral estates, but rather, in the modern mode, on foot of a generous scholarship from the Berkeley Department of Classics; and I have been benefiting from that, and from a series of similar grants and awards, ever since, at irregular intervals.

This is, then, an important distinction between the ancient and modern modes of philosophical tourism: ancestral sources of income have largely dried up, and even if they were available, one would not generally be admitted to an academic programme, or visiting fellowship, just because one was rich; one must show some evidence of philosophical competence in advance. However, mutatis mutandis, much the same scenario prevails in modern academia as in the ancient world: most people study and teach in some institution far removed from their home place; and relatively few return to it. I was fortunate enough to do so, after some time, rather like my earliest enthusiasm, Iamblichus, who at least returned to Syria, if not to his native city of Chalcis – as was indeed fitting for one who was himself related to the royal line of the priest-kings of Emesa. But for an important segment of one’s academic life, one must be reconciled to remaining a tourist!


Shortly after the final submission of this essay for our volume on The Philosophy of Tourism, my friend Andrei Lebedev, to whom I shown a copy, reproved me for omitting from my account (no doubt because of my Platonizing prejudices) the philosopher Democritus, who actually constitutes another good example of the philosopher as tourist, to go with Pythagoras and Plato. One distinctive feature of the account of his adventures relayed by Diogenes Laertius, indeed, is that it addresses a question that I had raised in the body of the essay, namely, how was all this philosophical tourism paid for? I feel therefore that he should be added to the account, even if it is too late for the volume.

 Democritus, as Diogenes relates (Book 9, 34ff.), was the son of a distinguished citizen of Abdera in Thrace, Athenocritus, who had actually entertained the Persian King Xerxes, when he passed through Abdera in 480 B.C., on his way to attack Greece. Xerxes, it seems, left a number of his Magi with Athenocritus to help with the education of his son, who learned about theology and astronomy from them, and this stimulated in him a desire to learn more – the Magi having presumably departed with Xerxes after his defeat. At any rate, Diogenes (drawing on two authorities, Demetrius in his Men of the Same Name, and Antisthenes of Rhodes, in his Successions) tells us that, in due course, Democritus headed off to Egypt, “to study geometry with the priests, and to Persia and to the Red Sea; and some say that he associated with the Naked Sages (Gymnosophistai) in India, and went to Ethiopia” — in fact, more or less the usual circuit, apart, perhaps, from Ethiopia!

But now we come to a detail of great interest, since it concerns the above-mentioned conundrum, to wit: what financial arrangements underpinned the wanderings of the philosophers we have surveyed, in their search for wisdom? No hints on this topic, as I say, are given in our other sources, but here, in the case of Democritus, we have a significant revelation, such as, I feel, may well shed some light on the financial backing of such figures as Plato or Plotinus:

“[On his father’s death], he, being the youngest of three brothers, divided the family property. And most say that he chose the smaller portion, which was in money, because he needed it for his travels, a choice that his brothers had shrewdly anticipated. Demetrius says that Democritus’ portion amounted to more than one hundred talents, all of which he spent.”

The sum mentioned here as being bequeathed, and being spent, seems quite preposterous, constituting as it does an enormous total, but we need not therefore doubt the essential accuracy of the report, that Democritus was able to use his inheritance in this way. There is still no light shed, it must be said, on the actual mechanics of shifting large sums of money round the Mediterranean world, and beyond – one hardly just takes one’s hundred talents with one in a large bag, and stores it under one’s bed – but at least in the case of Democritus some little light is thrown on the financial realities behind our philosophers’ peregrinations.


[1] We may note, however, that, as part of the process of the allegorization of Homer, Odysseus, in the Odyssey, as an aspect of his portrayal as Everyman, struggling through the toils of human life, was portrayed also as someone travelling in search of new knowledge, and therefore as the archetype of the philosophical tourist — this notion being based in particular on an exegesis of his encounter with the Sirens, in Book 12, 184-91. We find this set out in Cicero’s De Finibus (V 49), expounded by M Pupius Piso, the spokesman for the philosophical position of Antiochus of Ascalon. This portrayal of Odysseus, however, was certainly not original to Cicero, or even Antiochus, and was very probably known to Philo, well schooled as he was in all aspects of Greek paideia.

[2] Though this last, it must be said, was undertaken rather for mental health purposes, at the prompting of his teacher, Plotinus (Porph. VP ch. 11).

[3] This should have been around 532 B.C., but as we shall see shortly, Iamblichus has little concern to maintain an accurate chronology in listing Pythagoras’ voyages, and indeed his career in general, so this must be taken with more than a grain of salt.

[4] All translations from the Bios Pythagorikos are from the Dillon-Hershbell edition (Scholars Press: Atlanta, 1991).

[5] I must say that I persist in regarding Môchos as a garbled version of Moses (‘Moshe’/’Moche’)), made into a Phoenician because of a general Greek aversion to crediting ancient wisdom to the Jews, but it is undeniable that he takes on something of a life of his own in the tradition. He seems to be earliest attested in Posidonius (cf. Strabo, Geog. XIV 757), who presents him as a Phoenician sage from Sidon, living before the Trojan War, and the founder of Atomism! Even Josephus (Ant. Jud. 1. 107), it must be said, regards him as an authority distinct from Moses, but he could well be reflecting earlier Hellenistic distortions.

[6] This, we may note, may be related to a standard gibe in Greek anti-Jewish polemic that the Jews were merely a deviant group of Egyptians, who had left their homeland (some said because they were leprous, or otherwise diseased), and settled in Palestine – though we need not attribute any such imputation to Iamblichus here.

[7] Since Cambyses conquered Egypt in 525 B.C., and presumably Pythagoras was arrested not long after this, Iamblichus’ chronology is already considerably out of kilter.

[8] We may note that Iamblichus, unlike Porphyry in his Life of Pythagoras (16), makes no further mention of the tyranny of Polycrates, probably realising that his chronology of events would render such mention absurdly anachronistic; instead, he merely makes a vague reference to ‘political distractions’ (politikai askholiai) which Pythagoras wished to avoid.

[9] If one can accept the historicity of this brief account; it seems to conflict with Diogenes’ other statement a little later on (III 18) that Plato’s first visit to Sicily was his somewhat later (early 380’s) journey, at the invitation of Dion of Syracuse, during which he had an unpleasant encounter with Dion’s formidable brother-in-law, the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius I. However, strictly speaking, this is only a visit to Southern Italy, not Sicily.

[10] ‘Back’, at least if one accepts the historicity of his earlier visit to Croton; see above, n. 7.

[11] Diog. Laert., VPhil. III 18.

[12] Plutarch, in his Life of Dion (ch. 3, 2), rather fatuously, attributes Plato’s journey from Italy –not Athens, we may note – to Syracuse to divine providence; but we may suspect rather the intermediacy of Archytas, who could well have known that Dion had an interest in matters philosophical.

[13] Diogenes tells us that he derives this story from the Pantodapê Historia of Favorinus of Arles, which is something, but does not really get us much further along the rocky road to the truth.

[14] Actually, death seems to have been the original sentence, but, we are told (DL III 19) that the Aeginetan leader, Charmandrus, son of Charmandrides, when he heard that Plato was a philosopher, opted to sell him as a slave instead. This sort of detail, I would maintain, actually adds plausibility to such a narrative!

[15] One might ask, indeed, why he was in Aegina at all, as it is not on the most obvious route from Cyrene to Olympia – but let us not make difficulties!

[16] Anniceris, by the way, on his way back from Olympia, is reported to have called into Athens, where he gave a demonstration of chariot-racing in the grounds of the Academy. He is also reported (by Favorinus) to have remarked that ‘freeing Plato was a greater honour than winning the chariot-race at Olympia’, which would seem to imply that he actually won!