Aristotelian Skepticism: Is It Really His Tomb?

One of the things you get used to when you’re blogging things about the ancient world is that whenever there is some significant date for some significant ancient figure coming up, you can pretty much be sure that there will be some major — and usually ill-supported — discovery tied somehow to that event. Most commonly, e.g., the Easter season will bring claims about the discovery of ossuaries with Jesus or Mary’s name on them, or nails from the crucifixion being found, or the Shroud of Turin being proven authentic, yadda yadda yadda. In this case, 2016 marks the 2400th anniversary of the birth of Aristotle and there currently is the annual Aristotle World Congress going on at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. So if there’s going to be a major discovery announced about Aristotle, the smart money would suggest this year at this conference would be the best bet.

And so it was only moderately surprising when yesterday afternoon, my Greek press newsfeed started a trickle of news about the purported discovery of Aristotle’s tomb at Stagira. The first Greek coverage that popped in my box actually was pretty informative:

Culling (via google Translate) the information, we were told:

  • a Hellenistic structure was found in Stagira back in 1996 which had been incorporated into a later Byzantine structure
  • archaeologist Kostas Sismanidis presented a paper at the above-mentioned conference, citing a ‘convergence’ of archaeological and literary evidence
  • then again, he’s quoted as saying “Δεν έχουμε αποδείξεις αλλά ισχυρότατες ενδείξεις – φθάνουν σχεδόν στη βεβαιότητα.” (no definite proof … hmmm)
  • coins dating from the time of Alexander helped to date the structure
  • there is also mention of ‘royal pottery’ roof tiles
  • literary sources include “manuscript 257 of the Bibliotheca Marciana and an Arabic biography of Aristotle”
  • according to the literary sources:
    • after his death at Chalcis (322), the people of Stagira brought his ashes back in a bronze urn
    • they were placed in an above-ground tomb in the city, and an altar was placed next to it
    • the place was called the Aristoteleion
    • an annual festival/competition was established called Aristoteleia

Interestingly, subsequent Greek press coverage scaled back the coverage markedly, but did repeat the mention of the lack of convincing evidence. See, e.g., the Skai coverage, which includes:

Αν και δεν υπάρχουν αδιάσειστες αποδείξεις ότι πρόκειται για τον τάφο του Αριστοτέλη, πολυετείς έρευνες έχουν δώσει πληθώρα ισχυρών ενδείξεων ότι το μνημείο ταυτίζεται πλέον με τον σταγειρίτη φιλόσοφο.

AP was first with the English coverage and clearly they didn’t think much of the story. They came out with a very brief item with very sparse information about the actual find. As seen in the Stamford Advocate, there were only two paragraphs of interest, really:

Konstantinos Sismanidis concedes that he has “no proof but just strong indications” to back up his theory, presented Thursday at a conference marking the 2,400th anniversary of the philosopher’s birth.

[…] Sismanidis said the structure unearthed in the ruins of Stageira, 70 kilometers (43 miles) east of Thessaloniki, was once a public monument where Aristotle was honored after his death. No human remains were found there.

… there was also mention of “medieval references” about Aristotle’s remains being transferred to Stagira.

Then Greek Reporter was on the case, and their written report includes this useful video with a reconstruction of the ‘tomb’, which looks nothing at all like a tomb and for most of us I suspect the initial reaction is that is a Byzantine structure:

More photos can be found in the accompanying news article:

As coverage continued to pour in over the course of the day yesterday, I found it very interesting that nothing had appeared on the Greek Ministry of Culture site yet. All of the press coverage included the line about Sismanidis saying he had ‘no definite proof’ but the story was spreading. The Guardian’s coverage added a titillating bit of detail:

The claim was welcomed by Greece’s culture ministry; a senior aide to the minister, Aristides Baltas, said the academic community was awaiting further details.

“A team of independent archaeologists with no connection to a particular school or department have been working at the site,” the official told the Guardian. “What we know is that their excavation has been meticulous and we await further details with great anticipation.”

So Sismanidis is not actually affiliated with a university. That’s usually an alarm bell for me but it does appear he is somehow associated with the 16th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, so maybe that alarm bell should be silenced.

At this point, I was wondering about the tales of the people of Stagira bringing Aristotle’s remains back after his death. This clearly came from some literary source and I was — and continue to be — unclear about the ‘medieval biography’. Some discussion on the Classics International facebook group didn’t really clear it up for me and my brain continued to have issues trying to process the archaeologist’s claims of no certain proof along with claims that the people of Stagira not only brought Aristotle’s ashes back, but established a festival (which festival I couldn’t find any record of). But the coverage continued to build, and some of the more reputable press outlets were adding credibility to the claim:

And so it was with great interest that this morning’s feed from the Greek press brought a very interesting article from To Bema (To Vima?):

Paraphrasing via Google translate again:

  • the item (which seems to be an oped piece on the politics page) shows how the find has already been politicized (and in competition somehow with Amphipolis)
    • perhaps connected with gold mining activities nearby (maybe not)
    • probably connected with competition between Macedonian archaeologists
    • announcement made at a conference where it could not be really questioned as it would if published in a journal (I think that’s the gist)
  • in regards to the interpretation, it all hinges on the claim that the people of Stagira brought Aristotle’s ashes back
  • other archaeologists are looking for a dedicatory inscription of some sort

So … if we’re hanging the identification on claims of a return of ashes, one thing I’d really like to know when this return of ashes is supposed to have happened. I tried to track down assorted biographies of Aristotle and came up empty (which means they’re not readily available on the web, near as I can tell). What also bothers me is the actual claim that he was cremated, which doesn’t strike me as being what he expected to happen after his death. In his will, e.g., which is in Diogenes Laertius, we read provisions for the remains of his wife Pythias:

ὅπου δ᾽ἂν ποιῶνται τὴν ταφήν, ἐνταῦθα καὶ τὰ Πυθιάδος ὀστᾶ ἀνελόνταςθεῖναι, ὥσπερ αὐτὴ προσέταξεν: ἀναθεῖναι δὲ καὶ Νικάνορασωθέντα, ἣν εὐχὴν ὑπὲρ αὐτοῦ ηὐξάμην, ζῷα λίθινα τετραπήχη Διὶσωτῆρι καὶ Ἀθηνᾷ σωτείρᾳ ἐν Σταγείροις.”

And wherever they bury me, there the bones of Pythias shall be laid, in accordance with her own instructions. And to commemorate Nicanor’s safe return, as I vowed on his behalf, they shall set up in Stagira stone statues of life size to Zeus and Athena the Saviours.

Not sure if ‘the bones of’ is just an expression, but this sounds more like he expected a an interment situation for Pythias (and by implication, perhaps for himself) rather than cremation — but I might be reading too much into that.

What also continues to bother me is an item in Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine from May-October of 1892, specifically an article by entitled The Finding of the Tomb of Aristotle by Charles Waldstein. It’s an incredibly chatty piece and will probably remind many of those grad student situations where you were invited to a prof’s house for dinner and he/she regaled you with long (but interesting) tales of their adventures digging somewhere.

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 10.23.18 AM

In any event, Waldstein has a good Classical academic pedigree (and, incidentally, was one of the early advocates for excavating Herculaneum) so his claims — which don’t appear to have been accepted — should be taken into account if nothing else. I’ll leave it to you to follow the link above to read the actual article, but just as a tease, here are a couple of the images included in the article:

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 10.24.13 AM.png

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 10.25.02 AM

Also interesting, was this statue find — which Waldstein actually downplays in the piece:

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 10.25.32 AM.png

Most interesting is mention of an inscription:

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 10.44.11 AM

Of course, we do not know of any daughter of Aristotle named Biote, which is probably why this was not accepted as being his tomb. Even so, the final lines of the article are interesting from a nihil novum point of view:

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 10.30.53 AM

So whatever has been found at Stagira, there is a long tradition of claiming lack of definite proof, but still making the claim anyway. I suspect the claim made by Sismanidis will be similarly met with skepticism by the scholarly community, unless a rather more tangible connection to Aristotle can be made.

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4 thoughts on “Aristotelian Skepticism: Is It Really His Tomb?

  1. I don’t see a problem with the ashes statement, cremation and bones. Homer describes how the remaining bones after cremation were washed with wine and wrapped up in cloth (think it was the burial of patroculus in the Illiad from memory) and the same happened in the Verginia tombs and the burial site of Mithridates. So it would appear the term ‘ashes’ and ‘bones’ would be interchangeable for the results of cremation. However the rest appears dubious as you say.

  2. The Waldstein find was officially published later on, I think (try JSTOR) — which of course does not make it any more credible.
    The relevant ancient sources are Arab translations of Roman/Late Roman biographical texts; not exactly reliable, but also not necessarily nonsense. The urn in the story does not contain cremation remains, but bones collected from an imhumation. Of course, there is nothing indicating the structure that has been found is the one indicated in these texts.

  3. I notice that you were puzzled (as I was) about the source for the claim that Aristotle’s remains were returned to Stagira. That claim is not in Diogenes Laertius or Dionysius of Halicarnassus, whose biographies are probably the most reliable. But it does appear in some later biographies, most or all of which are thought to be dependent on the Aristotelis Vita of a certain Ptolemy, though the identity of this Ptolemy and his date are uncertain (most likely somewhere between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD). Many of these sources are not quite ‘medieval’ but late antique. The most accessible scholarly treatment of this material is probably still Anton-Hermann Chroust’s Aristotle: New Light on His Life and On Some of His Lost Works, (2 vols., English translation 1973 University of Notre Dame Press), though Chroust is there mainly interested in constructing a general view from the sources. Perhaps a more helpful treatment of the biographical tradition itself is Chroust’s 1964 article ‘A Brief Account of the Traditional Vitae Aristotelis‘, available here. If Chroust is right that these later sources all depend on Ptolemy’s Vita and that Ptolemy wrote in the 4th century AD, then it seems that the earliest evidence we have for Aristotle’s remains being returned to Stagira comes from over half a millennium after the event. Diogenes and Dionysius do not contradict this tradition; they simply say nothing about Aristotle’s remains (though Aristotle’s will, as related by Diogenes, shows that he himself did not specify where he was to be buried).

    I hope this helps answer your some of your questions about the biographies. I don’t think it should give us much less reason for skepticism, though.

  4. The evidence for the ancient Lives of Aristotle is collected by Ingmar Düring in his book Aristotle in the Ancient Biographical Tradition, Göteborg 1957.
    The Vita Aristotelis Marciana, which is easily found, for instance in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, talks about the transfer of his remains, the place, and the festival, in sections 17-18: τήν τε γὰρ ἑαυτοῦ πατρίδα Στάγειρα κατασκαφεῖσαν ὑπὸ Φιλίππου πείθει τὸν ᾿Αλέξανδρον δεύτερον κτίσαι καὶ χώρας ἑτέρας αὐτῇ καταδιδόναι, ἀνθ’ ὧν οἱ Σταγειρῖται μῆνα προσηγόρευσαν Σταγειρίτην καὶ ἑορτὴν ἦγον ᾿Αριστοτέλεια· καὶ ἐν Χαλκίδι τελευτήσαντος μετεπέμψαντο τὸ σῶμα καὶ βωμὸν ἐπέστησαν τῷ τάφῳ καὶ ᾿Αριστοτέλειον τὸν τόπον ἐκάλεσαν καὶ ἐκεὶ τὴν βουλὴν ἤθροιζον.
    Whether this is *right* is another question, but it’s not an obscure source.

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