Who was the real Diotima?

Roughly half the characters in my books were real people. Socrates and Pericles were real, obviously, and so too was Diotima, though she's not nearly so well known.

The real Diotima only appears in one place in recorded history, but if you can only make your mark once, you couldn't pick a better place to do it than the most famous book of philosophy ever written: the Symposium, by Plato.

The Symposium is full of interesting stuff, but at core it's a vehicle to let Socrates talk about what is love. Socrates says right away that everything he knows, he learned from Diotima, and he proceeds to relate what Diotima taught him. The Symposium therefore is actually Plato's translation of Socrates' interpretation of Diotima's philosophy. It's interesting too that Socrates recounts the whole thing as a Socratic dialogue in which he's on the receiving end, just for a change.

Socrates introduces Diotima in a way that in the Greek implies there's something salacious in her background, in a nudge nudge wink wink sort of way, which has led some people to think she must have been a courtesan. It's not impossible, but Diotima is definitely not a hetaera name. Courtesans (hetaerae) always adopted a stage name that went with the job description. Diotima is not even close, in fact it's a divine name that means honoured by God. That in turn has led most people to think she was a priestess. Quite a few translations describe her as a priestess, a prophetess or a seer. I covered every base in my books by making her a priestess with something salacious in her background, but not in the way you might expect.

This makes her part of history's most powerful student-teacher chain. Diotima taught Socrates. Socrates taught Plato. Plato taught Aristotle. Aristotle taught Alexander the Great.

The Symposium puts Diotima of Mantinea amongst the top three women intellects of her century, the other two being Gorgo of Sparta and Aspasia of Miletus. (You'll probably get wildly different views from others, but that's the way I see it.) All three women are typically referred to by their place name, as men would be, whereas most women in that age were referenced with respect to the name of their husband or father. Sappho gets the same level of respect.

When Socrates says he was taught by this woman, no one in the room stops Socrates to ask who is this Diotima? It seems everyone knows of her. I get this mental image of the combined intellectual elite of Athens nodding their heads in unison and saying to themselves, "Yep, that Diotima is one smart chick."

Plato only used real people in his books, with only a few minor exceptions, and when there was any doubt to whom he was referring, he'd pop in two lines of explanation. So in another book for example, when Socrates says Aspasia had taught him rhetoric, Plato stops to explain she's the wife of Pericles and the author of his famous Oration for the Fallen. Likewise, with Diotima, he stops to say Diotima was skilled in more than just the philosophy of love, because by instructing the Athenians ten years before the plague, she managed to delay its coming for a decade.

Whoa! The Great Plague of Athens was the single most destructive event in the lives of every man in that room. Every one of them lost close family to the plague, probably every one of them had survived it themselves, possibly a few men present were missing fingers or toes because of it. Yet when Socrates says Diotima held back the plague for ten years, not a single person in the room is surprised, or asks what is this amazing thing she did. They accept Socrates' statement without question. Apparently, it was common knowledge.

Right away, this makes the Diotima-as-courtesan theory look very bad, and the Diotima-as-priestess theory look very good. We don't know what Diotima did, but whatever it was, it must have been spectacular. Probably she performed some sort of ritual, and the Athenians believed she'd been responsible for what was a natural phenomenon. But the mere fact that they thought she was capable of such a thing tells us a lot about her reputation. Another possibility is she instructed the Athenians to perform a regular ritual such as, for example, washing their hands. (This is very much my own speculation, and if true, would require her to have a knowledge of disease vectors far ahead of her time.)

Since she's described as coming from Mantinea, which is a minor city down the road from Athens, that means she must have been a metic. Metics were permanent residents but not citizens. One wonders what goddess she was a priestess of. Aphrodite would be the obvious choice given her subject in the Symposium, but Aphrodite didn't get much airplay in Athens. Athena would be another obvious choice, but Athens of all places didn't need to import a priestess of Athena. We'll never know, so I decided she was a priestess of Artemis. Artemis was surprisingly well served at Athens with three temples, and it seemed so appropriate that a detectrix should be devoted to the Goddess of the Hunt.


L. T. Host said...

As usual, fascinating! And how exciting, too. I had no idea Diotima was real, let alone such an influential woman!

I would love to know what she did to avert the plague.

Gary Corby said...

Hi LT! I probably should have added that there's a school of thought that holds Plato invented Diotima. I think their basic problem is that she doesn't appear anywhere else.

But that wouldn't be consistent with the way Plato wrote his other books, and there are plenty of important people of the time who only get mentioned once or twice. Also, why would Plato invent a weird detail like her holding back the plague? It doesn't make sense, so I'm quite sure she's real.

Sarah W said...

Thank you for following up your last post with even more information on this fascinating woman!

I love the idea of Diotima holding back a plague by encouraging the washing of hands. I'm not sure she would have had to know about disease vectors to believe in ritual cleansing . . . didn't Artemis bathe an awful lot?

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for the post! She was one of my favorite characters in the book, so it's cool to read more about her. :)

And by the way, I love the cover for book 2. Can't wait to read it!

Trisha Leigh said...

I agree with Elizabeth, I LOVED Diotima in the book and am thrilled to learn more about her! Thanks for doing this.

Queen Berenice (of the Jews) is a main character in my currently novel and very little solid historical fact remains of her life, either. I've loved being able to bring her to live and give her a story, whether it's the truth or not.

Gary Corby said...

Sarah, yes, I'm sort of keen on that too. Hippocrates lived at the same time. Clearly he knew more medicine than anyone else, and he knew about infectious diseases though he certainly had no idea how they spread, except that proximity had something to do with it.

The best you could hope for is that the real Diotima observed some relationship between plague victims that caused her to guess some way of avoiding it, and even that's a stretch to the border of credibility. It was already the custom to ritually wash your hands after touching the dead, or maybe she might have called for a giant bonfire of rubbish.

It doesn't help that today we have no idea what disease the Great Plague of Athens actually was!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Elizabeth, yep, everyone involved seems keen on the Ionia cover. I like them tiptoeing across the landscape. I originally thought each book would have them hiding behind something, but this works better.

I find it incredibly frustrating that no more is known about her.

Gary Corby said...

Trisha, it's interesting, isn't it, writing a real person of whom little is known? You get to make things up quite a bit, but you have to stay true to the character. I don't know about you, but I found myself spending a lot of time trying to imagine what they were really like.

Rebecca Kiel said...

Thanks for this post. There is so much research, so much detail that might never may it into a book but forms a layer of texture. As a writer, I like this kind of underlying texture. As a reader, it's just plain old fun to learn more about characters you meet. Thanks!

Tina said...

My aunt told me about your blog after I started mine two weeks ago, "Diotima's Ladder". I'm also working on a novel, based on Plato's philosophy, so it's exciting to see others are working with the classics!