Athens honoring Aristotle with proxenia

While Aristotle spent decades studying, teaching, and writing in Athens, Aristotle was not an Athenian citizen and had close relations with powers that threatened Athens.  Aristotle was born in Stageira.  Stageira left the Athens-led Delian League in 424 BGC.  Athens responded with an ill-fated seige of Stageira in 422 BGC. During the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BGC), Stageira sided with Sparta against the Athenians. At the invitation of Philip II of Macedon, Aristotle became the tutor to Philip II’s son, Alexander the Great, in 343 BGC.  The armies of Philip II defeated Athens in 338 BGC at the Battle of Chaeronea.  Macedonian rulers, whom Aristotle advised, subsequently dominated Athenian politics.  When Alexander the Great died, Aristotle fled Athens, fearing for his life upon an outburst of anti-Macedonian sentiment.

Despite these tensions between Aristotle and the Athenians, an ancient Aristotelian biography states that the Athenians erected on the Acropolis a stela honoring Aristotle.  The stela honored Aristotle for fostering good relations with foreign rulers (proxenia).  The sole surviving source of this biographic detail, Ibn Abi Usiabia’s History of Physicians, apparently transmits different versions in different manuscripts.  Lothar Kopf’s English translation of History of Physicians presents the inscription thus:

the inscription included, inter alia, the words “Aristotle the son of Nicomachus, from the town of Stageira, earned this honor by his good deeds and many favors and services, especially to the people of Athens, as well as by his mediation with King Philip, which helped to improve their situation. His generosity toward the people of Athens was so great that he undertook to see to their affairs and accomplished this to perfection. As a result, the people of Athens undertake, on their part, to honor his virtues and leadership, to obey his guardianship and protection, to fulfill all his commands concerning their affairs and needs, as well as the commands of his descendants, their future leaders.”[1]

Ingemar Düring’s English translation, based on Müller’s published Arabic text (Königsberg, 1884), indicates a different underlying Arabic manuscript:

In the inscription on this column {stela} they mentioned that Aristotle of Stagira {Stageira}, son of Nicomachus, had served the city well by doing good and by the great number of his own acts of assistance and beneficence, and by all his services to the people of Athens, especially by intervening with King Philip for the purpose of promoting their interests and securing that they were well treated; that the people of Athens therefore wanted it to be quite clear that they appreciated the good that had come out of this; that they bestowed distinction and praise upon him, and would keep him in faithful and honoured remembrance.  Those of the men in high position who hold him unworthy of this honour, may they after his death try to do what he did, taking share in all affairs where they in their own interest would like to make an intervention. [2]

Ibn Abi Usaibia seems to attribute this story to Ptolemy, a figure that scholars identify as Ptolemy al-Gharīb (Ptolemy-el-Garib).  Commentary on the second text agrees that it is closely related to genuine Greek inscriptions.  Whether Athens actually honored Aristotle with it is, however, a matter of dispute.  Anton-Hermann Chroust argues:

the indisputable fact remains that a significant part of Usaibia’s account undoubtedly and unmistakably retains some of the standard or formulaic characteristics common to Athenian honorific decrees of proxenia. Conversely, it is well-nigh unthinkable that he (or his source) should outright have invented or concocted the story of Aristotle’s being honored by the grateful Athenians with an official decree of proxenia; and even more incredible that, when inventing this whole story, he should have resorted to, and made use of, a fairly authentic stylistic and technical imitation of the legalistic wording of such a decree. Since all Athenian decrees of proxenia always recorded the name, the place of birth and the descent of the recipient of such an honor, the passage, “Aristotle of Stagira, the son of Nicomachus” — a passage faithfully reproduced by Usaibia — should make it amply clear that Usaibia uses a reliable source and that, at one time, such an honorific award actually was conferred upon Aristotle. [3]

Although emphatic, that’s not a convincing argument.  Ingemar Düring suggests that the text is a Hellenistic biographical fabrication.  Düring notes that, after the Battle of Chaeronea, the Athenians erected on the Acropolis a statue honoring Philip II and voted decrees of proxenia in honor of Alexander and Antipater.  Antipater was a Macedonian general who, like Alexander, was one of Aristotle’s students.  Biographers promoting Aristotle may have shifted those decrees of proxenia, issued in defeat, to Aristotle and to more praiseworthy circumstances.[4]  Kopf’s manuscript/translation seems more consistent with the honorary Athenian inscription originally concerning Philip II, Alexander, and/or Antipater.

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[1] HP pp. 109-10.

[2] Düring (1957) pp. 215-6.

[3] Chroust (1973) pp. 190-1.  Ibn Abi Usaibia transmits his sources accurately, but usually doesn’t critically evaluate their veracity.

[4] Düring (1957) p. 236.


Düring, Ingemar. 1957.  Aristotle in the ancient biographical tradition.  Göteborg: Almqvist och Wiksell.

HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

Chroust, Anton-Hermann. 1973. “Athens Bestow the Decree of Proxenia on Aristotle.” Hermes, 101. Bd., H. 2, pp. 187-194.

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