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I thought it might help (since we missed Monday’s class due to snow) to give a bit of background information on the characters of the Republic.  We won’t talk too much about the context in class, as I don’t want the context to detract from the text.  The text always has to speak for itself, ultimately.  But I have tried to include a few contextual things that may be helpful in terms of interpreting the Republic in particular (as opposed to another dialogue or Plato’s works in general).  As usual, I will be cryptic to the point of being obscurantist.

The general background of the Republic is the Peloponnesian War; in my opinion, the best estimate for the dramatic date of the dialogue is probably around 429 BC.  The plague, which eventually would claim Pericles, has recently hit Athens.  For the first time, at least since the Persian Wars, Athens is introducing a new god to the city.

The cast of characters may be seen as a peculiar anticipation of the reign of the Thirty Tyrants–the pro-Spartan, oligarchic junta which took over Athens and was eventually overthrown by a democratic resistance (which was located in the Piraeus).  All of the characters are either supporters or victims of the Thirty in some way.

Note that Polemarchus has a slave who actually speaks near the beginning (1.327b) and “some others” in Polemarchus’ gang are mentioned (1.327c).  None of these are named, however.

Below is a brief account of each of the named characters.  I will use Bloom’s ordering for the sake of clarity:

1.  Socrates–Socrates wrote nothing.  He was married and had three sons.  He fought at the battles of Potidaea, Amphipolis, and Delium.  His conduct during the retreat at Delium is praised by Laches, an Athenian general (Laches 181b).  Alcibiades tells the story of how his life was saved by Socrates in the same battle and how Socrates’ conduct in the retreat was superior to that of Laches (Symposium 219e-221b).  Socrates was executed in 404 by the democratic resistance which had overthrown the Thirty–despite the fact that Socrates had refused to assist the Thirty.  His name means something like “sure strength.”

2.  Glaucon–Son of Ariston and brother of Plato and Adeimantus.  He fought at the battle of Megara, like Adeimantus (Republic 2.368a).  Xenophon speaks of Glaucon’s early interest in attempting to become an orator (Memorabilia III, 6, I) and the result: he was a laughing-stock, after which Socrates took an interest in him “for the sake of Plato…and was alone able to check him.”  Xenophon also has Socrates speak of Glaucon as being possessed by “the desire for fame” (III, 6, I6).  It is not clear whether or to what extent this ambition remains dominant in the Glaucon of the Republic, although it is likely an important consideration.  His name means something like “gleaming.”

3.  Polemarchus–Son of Cephalus, paternal half-brother of Lysias, and (half?) brother of Euthydemus.  Actual owner of the house in which the conversation takes place.  Probably born in Syracuse about the time his parents immigrated.  His family was the wealthiest family of metics (foreign residents) in Attica.  He is said to have turned to philosophy (Phaedrus 257b) before he was executed by the Thirty in 404 (Lysias 12.17).  He was forced to drink hemlock without trial and without being informed of any charges.  His funeral could not be held at any of the family’s three houses.  His name means “warlord” or “war ruler.”

4.  Adeimantus–Son of Ariston and brother of Plato and Glaucon.  He fought at the battle of Megara, like Glaucon (Republic 2.368a).  His name means something like “dauntless.”

5.  Cephalus–Father of Polemarchus, Lysias, and Euthydemus.  Pericles persuaded Cephalus to settle in Athens, probably in the 450s.  Cephalus lived there for 30 years and had established a successful shield factory that had over a hundred slaves by 404.  He is the head of the family (his name actually means “head”) but not the owner of the house in which the Republic takes place.

6.  Thrasymachus–Famous orator from Chalcedon, an important trading port at the mouth of the Black Sea (modern-day Turkey).  He was a friend of Lysias.  He probably visited Athens for negotiations in 407, after Chalcedon had mounted an unsuccessful revolt against imperial Athens.  At Phaedrus 267c-d, Socrates describes Thrasymachus’ particular skill at rhetoric–but at 269d, Socrates lumps him with Lysias as the wrong models for Phaedrus to study.  Thrasymachus is portrayed as being eager to make money (Republic 1.337d, Phaedrus 266c).  Though he is largely known in the Republic for his appearance in Book 1, it is important to remember that he remains in view throughout the entire work (e.g., 5.450a-b, 6.498c-d, 9.590d).  His name means “bold in battle.”

7.  Cleitophon–He was associated with Lysias (Cleitophon 406a) and Thrasymachus (Cleitophon 406a, 410d).  See also Phaedrus 266c and 269e.

8.  Charmantides–Silent observer in the Republic.  He would have been about the same age as Cephalus.

9.  Euthydemus–Son of Cephalus, (half?) brother of Polemarchus and Lysias.

10. Lysias–Son of Cephalus, paternal half-brother of Polemarchus, and (half?) brother of Euthydemus.  He was known as a famous orator.  Was marked for death by the Thirty with Polemarchus but was able to (allowed to?) escape.

11.  Niceratus–Son of Nicias, the famous general.  Nicias wanted Socrates to take Niceratus under his wing, though Socrates always suggested other teachers:  Damon, Prodicus, and others.  Xenophon relates that Nicias had Niceratus memorize both the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Niceratus was executed by the Thirty; Xenophon in the Hellenica uses this as an example of a regime’s having gone too far.  His name is related to the word for victory (nike).

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