- Aristoteles: Physiognomonica
Physiognomists—the folks who claimed the ability to divine one's character or even fate from physical features—seem wholly to escape commemoration as such in the Greek and Latin epigraphic record. In that respect the practitioners of this dodgy discipline fare worse than even astrologers. Why the low status? After all, the physiognomical approach had a respectable enough pedigree. There is some basic descriptive physiognomy already in Homer (think of Thersites in Iliad 2), not to mention the Hippocratic corpus (especially the ethnological Airs, Waters, Places) and Plato (e.g., Phd. 81F). Aristotle famously argued that physiognomics had a logical foundation (see Pr. Anal. 70b7–14, taking the interrelation of changes in body and soul as a given) and used physiognomical inferences extensively in (especially) zoological works such as the Historia Animalium (books 1 and 9). The biographical works of Suetonius and Plutarch are full of them, as are stretches of, say, the Paedagogus of Clement of Alexandria.
But one persistent problem for the profession was its reputation for seemingly arbitrary attributions of character based on appearance. Such is the gist of Cicero's story of Zopyrus, a physiognomist said to have examined Socrates' collarbones and pronounced him to be a dunce—and a womanizer to boot, which Alcibiades thought tremendously funny (De Fato 10; see Tusc. 4.80, where Socrates charitably helps the physiognomist save face). [End Page 202] Another difficulty surely was the emergence of physiognomists who moved beyond personality tests and into the even more risky business of prediction—though here it must be said that Sulla did not complain when such an examination in his earlier career yielded the conclusion that he had to be the greatest man in the world (Plut. Sull. 5.5–6).
It is a pity that only a few technical treatises have come down to us to tell the practitioners' side of the story. R. Foerster's (1893, and still standard) Teubner edition of Scriptores Physiognomonici gathers a total of just eight, most quite late. Only three of these have real importance: a Physiognomonica preserved in the Aristotelian corpus, and the efforts of the sophist Polemo (mid-second century A.D., well treated in Maud Gleason's Making Men [Princeton 1995]) and Adamantius "Iudaeus" (early fifth century A.D.).
Sabine Vogt's project ostensibly is to translate and comment on the first of these tracts, a serious production that in essence takes up physiognomy where Aristotle left off. Strikingly, the first sentence of the Physiognomonica alludes to Aristotle's demonstration in the Prior Analytics of a body/soul correlation; and throughout it heavily exploits physiognomical inferences specifically found in the Historia Animalium. Vogt convincingly shows that this work is a unified treatise in two parts, devoted in turn to theory (805a1–808b10) and method (808b11–814b9), to be dated on textual and cultural-historical grounds to somewhere in the area of 300 B.C. (187–97). By and large Vogt's text is that of Bekker (Berlin 1831); Foerster's is too full of square brackets, interpolations, conjectures, and lacunae to use for a translation (230).
I say this book "ostensibly" sets out to be a translation and commentary, for what the reader gets is a lavishly detailed introduction to the whole topic of ancient physiognomy. It is impressive that here most of the testimonia that Foerster collected in his Scriptores Physiognomonici receive at least some discussion. Vogt's central views on the development of the techne are set out with admirable clarity in two central narrative chapters, one on physiognomical thought in Greek art and literature (45–107), and a dazzling exposition on the theory, praxis, and method of it all (108–66). When it comes to the treatise itself, Vogt's comments and commentary show excellent treatment especially of 805b10–806a18 (necessary conditions for valid comparisons with animals), 806a19–22 (physiognomy defined), 808a12 (distinguishing marks of the kinaidos), 809a13 (the much-discussed physiognomical conception of epiprepeia, which Vogt takes as "Gesamteindruck"="overall impression"), and 814a9–b9 (the...