Bryn Mawr Classical Review 01.01.01


G.W. Bowersock, Hellenism in Late Antiquity. Thomas Spencer Jerome Lectures. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990. Pp. 105; (82 of text), with 16 pls. ISBN 0-472-09418-1.


Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

These lectures must have been a pleasure to listen to and the pleasure is carried over into the printed form. The style remains heavily adjectival and adverbial, as much late antique work in English does these days in the wake of Peter Brown, but so conveys the enthusiasm and the discretion of the author. It makes a good beginning, and gets notably better as it goes along. The content of the lectures may fairly be described as aspects of Greek-influenced culture over a fairly broad chronological period: mainly post-Constantine, though with some flashes from earlier moments, and mainly fifth and sixth century. The first two lectures are introductory (with less novelty and pressing interest than comes later) and are followed by four focused studies: on the mutual transformations of Greek and Syriac cultures, on the polymorphous and protean figure of late antique Dionysus (a very different fellow from the tame and predictable Bacchus of eld), on the flowering and idiosyncrasy of Greek literature in Egypt, and a final chapter on Islam as Hellenism's somewhat truculent heir. The discussion often begins by following earlier explorers (notably Garth Fowden and Alan Cameron), then boldly moves on to fresh ground, literally, as very recent archaeological material is brought to light -- in one case a textile hanging now in a Swiss museum and so far 'published' only in a pamphlet accompanying a set of postcards! That Bowersock has plates (and color plates! the Press deserves loud praise) and two pages of tantalizing description is itself a pearl of great price.

Bowersock's view is that it is unwise to talk of 'Hellenization', that is, of a consistent attempt to turn Syrians or Arabs or Egyptians into little replicas of good Greeks, but necessary and fruitful to talk of 'Hellenism' as a culture that embraced and tolerated much variety and by so doing offered the native cultures of the east a common language and point of reference. Rather than argue whether Palmyra was truly Hellenized or not, Bowersock's approach is to show how the indigenous culture found a way of expressing itself that was enriched by Hellenic motifs and themes, while at the same time remained true to its roots. The last chapter's plates from deepest Arabia, far beyond the caravan routes or even modern pavement, show fragments of a culture that was undoubtedly Islamic, but that could not have expressed itself for us to read as Islamic without images and techniques and forms of cultural self-presentation that are undoubtedly Greek. Readers will want to think carefully about the conceptual framework within which Bowersock works -- he is attempting a little fancy footwork with words that is probably unnecessary and is not necessarily convincing, but few will be uninstructed by what he has to say.