Menedemos, philosopher and statesman

Menedemos is the most famous Eretrian citizen in all antiquity, in particular because of the chapter devoted to him by Diogenes Laertios in his Lives of the Famous Philosophers (3rd century AD) on the basis of a lively, accurate biography written by a contemporary of the philosopher, the writer Antigonos of Karystos. Menedemos was born into a distinguished but impoverished family (the genos of Theopropides), on a date that can now be fixed ca. 345-340 BC. His father, Kleisthenes, was an architect and skenographos ("painter of stage sets"), a profession that was also learned -if not practised- by the young Menedemos.

The philosopher

Menedemos philosophical vocation seems to have declared itself in 323, when, at the age of about twenty, he was sent with an Eretrian contingent to help the city of Megara during the Lamian War (which was provoked by the uprising of many cities of Greece against Macedonian power, shortly after the death of Alexander the Great -but, with the exception of Karystos, without the involvement of the cities of Euboea). In Megara, our Eretrian was able to listen to the teaching of a distant disciple of Socrates, the philosopher Stilpon, the leader of the so-called "Megarian" school. Overwhelmed by this specialist in formal logic, Menedemos forgot to go home! He later made long journeys, notably in the Peloponnese and in Cyprus, before settling for a time in Athens, which he probably left in 307 when a law (abrogated shortly afterward) obliged all philosophers to close their schools. Along with his fellow disciple Asklepiades of Phlious (a city in the northern Peloponnese) he then settled definitively in Eretria, where his friend was to die a short time before Menedemos himself did (by a rather exceptional stroke of luck, the former's epitaph was discovered there a few years ago).

A multifaceted man

Menedemos was certainly not one of the greatest thinkers in Greece -in any case, no philosophical treatise by him is extant, for like Socrates he was averse to putting his opinions into writing. He was nonetheless a complex and attractive figure, playing a leading political role in his city, delighting in cultivating poetry and the theater, taking an interest -while serving as an ambassador in Egyptian Alexandria- in the Greek translation of the first books of the Hebrew Bible (the translation known as the Septuagint), and even showing aptitude in the technical domain. The Delphic inscriptions report that he not only acted as a delegate (hieromnemon) to the Amphictyonic Council in 274, but that he was also, as it seems, the inventor of a process of tachygraphic transcription (that is, one involving special characters, making it possible to write with a reduced number of signs) as well as of a system for raising the large blocks of the Temple of Apollo that was then being renovated.

For all that, he did not neglect the physical side of culture -showing as much endurance in the gymnasium as he did pugnacity in philosophical debates. Far from devoting himself exclusively to the life of the mind, he also had a rather agitated family life. He married twice (while at the same time cohabiting with his alter ego Asklepiades!), and with his second wife, a woman from a reasonably well-off family of Oropos, he had three daughters, for whom he managed - not without difficulty- to provide dowries.

Menedemos's hospitality was legendary, and his frugal banquets were so famous that the poet Lykophron of Chalkis, his contemporary, made them the subject of a satirical drama entitled precisely Menedemos. In addition, the description we have of these symposia where people indulged in moderate drinking allows us to form a fairly precise idea of the way the large Eretrian houses discovered by excavations functioned, with their reception halls of varying sizes.

The patriot

Finally, one of Menedemos's most attractive facets is his absolute devotion to his little homeland, which did not, however, put him beyond the reach of mockery, or even of calumny. Ca. 268, in the difficult circumstances related above, he had to make a clandestine exit from Eretria in order to settle on the other side of the strait, at the Amphiaraion of Oropos -where he was also at home, because of his marriage. He eventually left for Pella and it was in the latter city, the capital of the kingdom of Macedonia, that he finally starved himself to death, at the age of 83 (and not 73, as was believed until recently), because he was unable to convince his "pupil," the King Antigonos Gonatas, to restore democracy to his compatriots at the end of the Chremonidean War (ca. 263).

Menedemos legacy

The school Menedemos founded, known as the "Eretrian school," hardly survived him, but it left its mark on several philosophers of the Early Hellenistic Period. According to Diogenes Laertios, a statue of him (not discovered) stood in the "former" stadium of Eretria, which was probably situated southwest of the Agora. It has sometimes been suggested that Menedemos is the "old philosopher" represented by a marble statue in the Museum of Delphi, and recently, that he is the old man represented in a famous "Macedonian" fresco in the villa of Publius Fannius Sinistor at Boscoreale near Pompei.

Menedemos, the philosopher from Eretria. Boscoreale, fresco. Detail

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