Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.03.06


Graham Anderson, Sage, Saint and Sophist: Holy Men and Their Associates in the Early Roman Empire. London/New York: Routledge, 1994. Pp. 289. $59.95. ISBN 0-415-02372-6.


Reviewed by Maud W. Gleason, Stanford University.

In the words of the author, this is "a necessarily eclectic book about a variety of figures themselves eclectic enough to be different from most of their fellow men" (p. x). The reader is lulled by anaphora into thinking that there is more analysis going on in this programmatic sentence than perhaps is actually there. Was it really their eclecticism that made holy men stand out from the rest of their fellow-men? Getting to the root of what was different about holy men would seem to require some sustained grappling with difficult concepts like charisma and how people conceived of access to the supernatural. What interests A. the most, however, are the personal peculiarities and diverse modi operandi of anyone who could be called "a virtuoso religious activist" in the first three centuries C.E.

Peculiar and diverse they were, indeed, and A. has assembled a fascinating rogues' gallery of examples, from a Jewish rustic howling prophecies of doom in the alleyways of Jerusalem to a well-heeled college student seeking supernatural short-cuts to medical skill through visions arranged by an Egyptian priest (according to A. the student is a "readymade dupe"; the incident is more sympathetically treated by Fowden and Festugiere). A. discusses holy men's travels, biographical patterns, forms of display and intervention, followers, clients, opponents, and many other matters in a series of short chapters. Brief examples follow one another, by turns fascinating and fatiguing, without much comparison or discussion of what they mean on the abstract or symbolic level.

On our sources, A. makes the useful observation that "no source favorable to a holy man is likely to stress or even countenance such factors as personal ambition and prestige, and detractors are unlikely to countenance any other" (p. 53). But the problem goes deeper than partisanship. A. observes that his formulation of the "virtuoso religious activist ... will embrace self-seeking villains as well as those who are perceived as sincerely and divinely motivated, and there is likely to be no consensus ancient or modern as to how to separate them in a historically conclusive way" (p. 4). This comment assumes that there "really" is a difference between the genuine and the fake in religious matters, and that the difference boils down to the intentionality of the practitioner. I submit that both of these assumptions are unproductive.

A.'s goal is "an initial skepticism, a kind of Celsus-eye view of much of our evidence" (p. 220). But Celsus himself had deep-seated beliefs about the proper order of things in the divine and human world, and singles out for ridicule precisely those excesses that violate his sense of cosmic decorum. A.'s twentieth-century skepticism leaves little room for the sacred and often degenerates into flat-footed rationalizations for holy men's miraculous works (the talisman by which Apollonius vanquished a plague of gnats may have contained an insect repellent or required the deployment of ritual fly-swatters [pp. 107-8]). In order to say that such-and-such a miracle is the "kind of display for which no single satisfactory explanation exists" (p. 96), one has to be able to imagine what such an explanation would look like if it did exist. Perhaps it would be more useful to focus on "the framework of assumptions his [the holy man's] public would have already been conditioned to accept" (p. 112). By analogy, what are various sectors of the American public prepared to believe or not believe about Elvis?

A. is right to be skeptical of claims that there was a quantitative growth of irrationalism over the first three centuries of the common era (p. 33). He prefers to look at constants in the longue durée. He challenges Peter Brown's characterization of the classical holy men as exclusively elitist intellectuals and rightly suspects that mediating holy men of low-brow culture may have existed before the village saints of Byzantium (p. 205, cf. pp. 26-7). A.'s synoptic approach does have the advantage of treating Jesus on all fours with other holy men and flattening out the distorting effect of his disproportionate posthumous success on our perspective. In general, however, questions of historical development, methodological models, and cross-cultural comparisons do not inform the book itself, but are relegated in appendix-fashion to the last two chapters. "In tracing the history of holy men in the first three centuries it is important to resist any over-schematic approach" (p. 196). But does this require us to navigate without any theoretical framework other than the rationalizing positivism that seems so "natural" to so many of us classicists that it functions as an invisible polarizing filter on the lens through which we view the ancient world?

It is refreshing to find so many Jewish holy men in a classics book, and A.'s virtues as a collector of examples are impressive. I myself would find them most useful in a cross-referenced prosopography. Perhaps in the twenty-first century we will be fortunate enough to see a university press commission a data-base from the same hand.