Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.10.39

Jason König, Tim Whitmarsh (ed.), Ordering Knowledge in the Roman Empire.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2007.  Pp. xiii, 304.  ISBN 978-0-521859-69-1.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Daniel Harris-McCoy, University of Southern California (
Word count: 2421 words

Table of Contents

König and Whitmarsh's collection of eleven essays, whose origins can be traced to a 2001 conference held at St. John's College, Cambridge, is a welcome edition for what might be called the emerging field of the history of information science; that is, scholarship that investigates how data is collected, organized, and packaged for its consumers and the cultural forces--philosophical, literary, political, etc.--that underlie these activities.

This field is relatively new to classical studies and owes its existence largely to Foucault's work on the relationship between knowledge and power, which in turn inspired landmarks in Greco-Roman scholarship such as Claude Nicolet's Space, Geography, and Politics in the Early Roman Empire and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill's now classic article "Mutatio Morum: The Idea of a Cultural Revolution." A flood of monographs on the relationship between mainly Roman technical and encyclopedic literature and their imperial contexts followed. Pliny's Natural History has received the most attention (Isager, Murphy, Carey) though other authors have also been examined using a political lens including Vitruvius (McEwen), Frontinus (Peachin), and others.

König and Whitmarsh's volume is similarly interested in the intertwined relationship between the ordering of data and its Imperial context but excels its predecessors insofar as it takes pains to highlight the complexity of this relationship. This is partly the result of the range of authors and analytical tools that appear in the volume, bringing the markedly varied landscape of Imperial-era compilatory texts, their construction, and their motivations into sharp focus.

An additional plus: the authors in this collection are frequently under-studied. Well-known figures such as Pliny, Galen, and Gellius appear, but relatively obscure or unexpected authors such as Frontinus, Manilius, Volusius Maecianus, Scribonius Largus, and Petronius receive equal status.

The volume is divided into three sections: Introduction (Part I), Knowledge and Textual Order (Part II), and Knowledge and Social Order (Part III). As the editors themselves acknowledge, however, the essays do not sit quietly in their assigned categories. Many are concerned with specific details of internal order, and all relate that order to their larger cultural contexts. With this in mind, in the summary of essays that follows, I will examine the contents of the book out of order, tracing out some of the noteworthy themes.

The introductory essay, co-authored by König and Whitmarsh, begins by setting out the aims of the volume: to study the relationship between particular conceptions of knowledge and its composition, and the social and political practices and ideals of the Roman Imperial Period. The editors recognize that this relationship is complex. Power and, by extension, control over forms of knowledge, is acted out and reshaped not exclusively by the 'powerful,' but also within "the smallest interactions of everyday life" (6).

The remainder of the essay explores some of the forces that acted upon the composition of knowledge during the period: the Hellenistic/Republican compilatory tradition; the allure of local knowledge within the globalist, melting-pot ideology of Roman rule; the more specific response(s) of Greeks under Rome; and the influence of social class (and negotiating the all-important relationship with the emperor) on how information is arranged and presented. A small section is also dedicated to developments in book technologies (the appearance of the codex, tables of contents).

The helpful message that emerges is that, while compilatory texts are certainly bound up in issues of power, the forces that influence their composition are diverse. For this reason, these texts should not be regarded as crudely pro- or anti-imperial. This outlook is representative of the papers that follow.

Alice König, for example, provides nuance to the common view that, in spite of the change and uncertainty of the period, Frontinus' On Aqueducts unflinchingly promotes the policies and ideals of Nerva-Trajan. According to her reading, the text is exploratory, used by Frontinus to consider the relationship of senators, newly appointed to positions of real authority under Nerva, to the emperor. Indeed, Frontinus' demonstration of his mastery over the discipline; authority over his subordinates; ability to reduce fraud and deliver an abundant water supply to Rome; and the presence of verbal parallels drawn between the emperor and author (diligent. loving) raise a number of uncomfortable questions noted by König: if power lies in knowledge, where does this leave the emperor? Must the emperor apply the same principles as Frontinus to his own position? If not, does this diminish the authority of the princeps?

Serafina Cuomo's essay on Volusius Maecianus' Distributio, a monetary treatise on the division of the as probably written in 146 CE, provides a different take on knowledge and imperial power. Cuomo offers a useful overview of this relatively unknown work before placing it within a broader context based on its status as a metrological document; that is, a technology such as a graph or map that provides a representation of reality more manageable than reality itself and thus replace the object of representation (207). As a document interested in equivalencies between the divisions of the coin, their number, name and sign, as well as their relationship to the world of weights and measures, the text can be related to, for example, discussions of currency and the linguistic (Varro) and moral (Pliny the Elder) realities they signify, as well as contemporary legal debates regarding the ontological status of money. How does this relate to the emperor? The monetary system described by Maecianus is not the external, physical reality of Frontinus' aqueducts, which must be mastered to achieve control. Rather, as Maecianus observes, the system is complex but ultimately arbitrary. Marcus Aurelius must understand Rome's monetary system, but it is his authority alone that ultimately guarantees it and, in turn, is guaranteed by it.

Thomas Habinek explores the relative ability of texts and physical things to act as stable foundations for knowledge and, in turn, imperial power. He observes how Manilius, in his astrological treatise, the Astronomica, grounds the occurrence of events and, by extension, the reigns and successions of emperors in the relative solidity of the body. Astrological knowledge (nosse) and understanding (scire) are differentiated. Understanding is associated with the physical process of handling and inspecting "the entrails of the great universe" in a manner that recalls the activities of the haruspex (Astr. 1.16-17). And references to the corporeal nature of the universe abound in the text. Habinek points out that this is no mere Stoic gesture; if anything, the idea is Pythagorean and more generally recalls the manipulation of an orderly and willing cosmos by the figure of the Augustan-era vates. Body-images are used to redeploy past poetic figures: Lucretius is called to mind, but the rationality of the universe is maintained. Within this scheme, the preeminent position of Rome, its leaders, history, and empire, are celebrated. So why bodies? Habinek observes that, with the dissemination of new disciplines in the late Republic and early Empire, opportunities to critique these practices and, perhaps more critically, their political outlooks, arose due to their textual nature. By equating his object of inquiry with the immutability of the body, Manilius resists potential criticism and is thus relatively well-positioned to help "reproduce the social order over time" (240).

So far, we have looked at essays about Roman authors in relation to Roman politics. The volume also includes essays on the relationship of Greece to Rome that, to their credit, do not simply assume an attitude of revolutionary resistance or complacency.

In this clearly written and useful article (I could imagine it being used in a course on the Second Sophistic), James Warren examines how Diogenes Laertius creates a distinctly Greek intellectual and cultural space in writing his Lives of Eminent Philosophers. He begins by looking at the various options available to Diogenes for writing about the philosophical past. The Lives is a hybrid of these forms, used to achieve Diogenes' philhellenic aims. Philosophy is a Greek concept; it cannot, for example, be translated into any other language (1.4). The discipline can be traced historically to two Greek founding fathers: Anaximander and Pythagoras (1.13). Additionally, the philosopher is defined as one who has been converted to the pursuit of wisdom through the brilliance and charisma (sometimes erotic in nature) of his teacher. Thus the genetic, and necessarily Greek, purity of the philosophical family tree remains intact. What of Rome? Warren notes that it is possible that the absence of Roman philosophers is ethnically motivated (akin to Pausanias' 'oversight' of Rome in his Periegesis) but not certain; it is possible that Diogenes simply was not interested in Rome's contribution to the field.

The relationship between a Greek author to Rome is somewhat more complex in Rebecca Flemming's essay on the concept of order (taxis) in several works of Galen's corpus. As she notes, order, or lack thereof, provides a framework for Galen to prove the quality of his own work and distinguish it from the failures of his rivals, past and present. However, as the size of Galen's own corpus increases, it becomes necessary for Galen to assert control over his own texts. Despite Galen's Pergamene and more generally Greek cultural background, his desire to exploit but also and by necessity assert control over abundance mirrors the requirement of empire, which must give structure and direction to the fecundity of its colonies. Empire and Galen's texts are both vast compilatory exercises in the sense that both accumulate and order territory and information, respectively. Thus, at the figurative level, tantalizing parallels exist between Galen's vision of bodily control and the organization of his texts and the hegemonic control of the emperor, and he certainly appreciates the amount of knowledge made available by Roman expansion and exploration. At a different level, however, Galen is interested in Greek knowledge and Greek modes of ordering knowledge in order to compete with his distinguished predecessors.

The authors in this volume are not exclusively concerned with issues of political power or ethnic identity but also draw connections between issues of editorship, reading, technologies of the book, and control in interesting ways.

Jason König's solo essay provides both a brief outline of approaches to reading that most dis-orderly mode of writing--the miscellany--followed by an analysis of a test case: Plutarch's Sympotic Questions. To his credit, König does not try to explain "the Miscellany" writ large, but rather interprets the text based on Plutarch's corpus. König argues that the Sympotic Questions provides both a model of and opportunity for active reading, listening, and discussing that leads, according to Plutarch's On Listening, the philosophical life.

Just as texts can encourage their readers to pursue knowledge actively and independently, they can also cloak hidden ideological agendas, as John Henderson shows in his reading of Isidore of Seville's Etymologies. Henderson encourages us to avoid prematurely diagnosing the Etymologies as "authorial patchwork, autopilot somnambulation, or mindless compilation" and instead look for continuity, proportion, and direction by READING the text. He accordingly starts from the beginning, examining the various prefatory letters in relation to Isidore's conflicting authorial and religious aims. In his reading of the main body of the Etymologies, Henderson demonstrates that the author's etymological project is tied to a project of "cultural mnemonics" whereby the all phenomena and events are linked to a Christian worldview (cf. the religious underpinnings of Roget's Thesaurus). This article is not easy reading; it is discursive and suggestive and avoids easy answers or summary. Its greatest value is perhaps its repeated demonstrations of creative and revealing ways of reading a text that might appear to lend itself only to relatively dry methods of interpretation.

A more subversive view of writing, reading, and knowing is found in Victoria Rimell's essay on Petronius' Satyricon. Rimell observes that reading the Satyricon requires a comprehensive knowledge of literature. The text is densely packed with allusions intended for a highly literate audience and as such it has much in common with compilatory texts of a more technical variety. Rather than display its information in a systematic and commanding fashion, however, the Satyricon is a cut and paste mishmash of a wide variety of fields of knowledge (literary, medical, zodiacal, culinary, physiognomical, etc., 109). The Satyricon also comments directly on knowledge as a problem of personal identity, and of physical and psychological, as well as intellectual, management. The reader, in attempting to make sense of the text, learns the difficulties of learning along with the characters themselves in what amounts to a critique of the Roman educational system and Neronian-era excesses.

Andrew Riggsby provides a useful overview of the surprisingly limited appearances of tables of contents in ancient literature. He observes only four examples in antiquity: Scribonius Largus' Compounds, Pliny's Natural History, Columella's On Agriculture, and Gellius' Attic Nights. This offers a relatively rare treatment of a particular technology of the book (cf. Doody's article on Pliny's summarium or table of contents; Grafton's famous treatment of the footnote). Riggsby does not attempt to craft a narrative or synthesis of the form; rather, he considers each table on a case by case basis, examining its structure and language; relationship to contents of the actual work; and its function in the text. At the end of the piece, he draws some circumspect observations about the relationship of these tables to ideology.

A comparative approach is also found in John Wilkins' essay, which looks at the methods of organizing nutritional and pharmacological data in Athenaeus' Deipnosophistae and several works by Galen. Factors he considers are intended audience, geography, and cultural identity.

In sum, this volume comes highly recommended on account of the wide range of authors it considers; the variety of analytical methods it employs; and its nuanced understanding of the relationship between compilations of knowledge and their contexts.

Works Cited:

Carey, Sorcha. Pliny's Catalogue of Culture: Art and Empire in the Natural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Doody, Aude. "Finding Facts in Pliny's Encyclopaedia." Ramus 30.1 (2001): 1-22.

Grafton, Anthony. The Footnote: A History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Isager, Jacob. Pliny on Art and Society: The Elder Pliny's Chapters on the History of Art. Odense, Denmark: Odense University Press, 1991.

McEwen, Indra K. Vitruvius: Writing the Body of Architecture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.

Murphy, Trevor. Pliny the Elder's Natural History: the Empire in the Encyclopedia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Nicolet, Claude. Space, Geography, and Politics in the Early Roman Empire. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.

Peachin, Michael. Frontinus and the Curae of the Curator Aquarum. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2004.

Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. "Mutatio morum: The Idea of a Cultural Revolution." In The Roman Cultural Revolution. Thomas Habinek and Alessandro Schiesaro, edd., pp. 3-22. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

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