Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.10

Eugenio Amato (ed.), Rose di Gaza: gli scritti retorico-sofistici e le Epistole di Procopio di Gaza. Hellenica 35.   Alessandria:  Edizioni dell'Orso, 2010.  Pp. x, 697.  ISBN 9788862742337.  €80.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Alberto J. Quiroga Puertas, University of Granada (

Modern scrutiny of the works of Procopius of Gaza highlights the methodological concerns which permeate studies on late antique literature: the study of the intellectual and religious life of important urban centres such as Gaza; the labelling of a prolonged succession of teachers and educational centres as “schools”; and the prevalence of pagan cultural elements in a Christianizing society. Such topics are addressed in this volume, which contains a series of essays on Procopius' works accompanying a translation of his letters and rhetorical works.

In the first two chapters (“Dati biografici e cronologia di Procopio di Gaza”, and “La produzione letteraria di Procopio”) Eugenio Amato delineates the figure and works of the sophist to the degree possible given the scarcity of available biographical data. (Choricius' epitaph, Photius' Bibliotheca and Procopius own letters are the main sources.) He is believed to have lived from 465-470 to 526-530, and studied in Alexandria under Olympiodorus the Elder. The doctrinal and exegetical information provided by his epitomes on biblical writings (Pentateuch, Prophets, Proverbs, etc.) suggests to Amato that in old age he abandoned his monophysite convictions in favor of the Chalcedonian Creed.The survey of his rhetorical-sophistical works that follows is noteworthy for the detailed analysis of two of Procopius' ekphraseis, namely the meticulous description of a monumental water clock full of mythological motifs (an appendix of plates and figures at the end of the book provides reconstructions of this clock), and the dissection of a pictorial composition in which the myth of Phaedra and Hippolytus is fused with scenes from the third book of Homer's Iliad.

In chapters three (“Discorso figurato ed allegoria cristiana negli scritti retorico-sofistici di Procopio”) and four (“Procopio e il dies rosarum: eros platonico, agape cristiana e rappresentazioni pantomimiche nella Gaza tardoantica”), Amato explores the eclectic nature of Procopius’ works. Procopius had recourse to pagan mythology in order to help elucidate Christian concepts, as is the case in his “Dialexis of the Rose”, in which the myth of Aphrodite and Adonis, coupled with the symbolic allusion to Dionysus (that is, the liturgical wine), are both used to support a Christian allegory of the sufferings and resurrection of Christ. The highly rhetorical nature of such works seems to complement the religious and festive context within which they were composed: the dies rosarum, a festival held in honour of Aphrodite and Adonis, also played host to a number of pantomime performances within the context of the Maiouma festival.

In “Procopio ἠθοποιητικός”, Gianluca Ventrella pins his detailed analysis of Procopius' four extant ethopeia on the rhetorical theory established by Aphthonius and Hermogenes. Despite the obvious differences among the main characters in these works (a shepherd, a sea merchant, the goddess Aphrodite, and the myrmidon Phoenix), Ventrella's analysis reveals how Procopius' style was consonant with precepts (σαφήνεια, γοργότης, γλυκύτης, ἀφέλεια) incorporated by both Aphthonius and Hermogenes in relation to certain exercises. He goes on to acknowledge how a dynamic and adept approach enabled Procopius to switch effortlessly from one tone to another when necessary (that is, narrating the worries of a shepherd whilst detailing Aphrodite's inner complexity).In the following essay, “Procopio panegirista: struttura e topoi del Panegirico per l'imperatore Anastasio”, Ventrella notes how Procopius' prose style forms part of a strongly standardized panegyric written for the emperor Anastasius, much of which is dependent on the βασιλικὸς λόγος as prescribed by Menander Rhetor.Unoriginal as the panegyric may seem, Ventrella is able to discover an intriguing socio-political significance in the panegyric in ch. 7, “L'ideologia imperiale in Procopio”. The pagan pedigree of the emperor's virtues (εὐσέβια, φιλανθρωπία, σωφροσύνη, δικαιοσύνη) seems to bring Procopius closer to the Stoic and Neoplatonic tradition rather than to that of the Christian conception as implemented by Eusebius. Ventrella also argues that Procopius’ idea of emperor Anastasius as βασιλεύς and ἱερεύς directly anticipated Byzantine Caesaropapism.

In “Le Epistole”, Federica Ciccolella reflects on the content and nature of Procopius' letters. Although letter writing was more of a subsidiary occupation and part of a sophist’s duties rather than an autonomous art, Procopius' epistolary corpus contributed towards defining and defending his status as σοφιστής of Gaza. In addition, the development of a “decisa difesa della propria identità professionale e del suo fondamento morale” (p. 125) compelled him to equilibrate the pyrotechnic rhetoric required to attract students and gain an advantageous position within society with his self-identification as a philosopher. (Letter 18 for example testifies to such a strategy when he digresses on the relationship between sophistry and ἀλαζονεία.) These letters helped Procopius build up a network of contacts among the cultural elite and reveal how his image as a Christian teacher was compatible with the sophist-philosopher paradigm – a common theme shared among authors of the Second Sophistic. His strong literary dependence on classical models did not prevent him from developing his own idiom and structure. The translation of Procopius’ corpus is preceded by remarks concerning its complexity; both Eugenio Amato and Federica Ciccolella point out the difficulty of compiling a corpus of letters as the manuscript tradition is extremely variable in the number and order of the epistles. Amato himself is the author of the first and only complete edition of Procopius' rhetorical works which resumes (and improves) upon previous efforts using the Byzantine textual tradition.

The translations of Procopius' works remind us of Russell's sophistopolis. His dialexeis on the spring have recourse to mythological stories (Narcissus; Apollo and Daphne; Pan and Pitys); his dialexis on the rose celebrates Aphrodite; and Phoenix's ethopoeia reminds us of Homeric times. Procopius' philhellenism, however, was not démodé. His water clock ekphrasis and his ekphrasis eikonos prove that in sixth century AD Gaza, architectonical and decorative elements bore a mythological significance with an allegorical worth revered in a Christian context, as is the case with another Christian author, Nonnus of Panopolis, whose use of pagan mythology was “blamelessly classical”.1 Procopius' references to pagan deities in fact stems from a combination of his subordination to literary models (Libanius, Themistius) and Menander Rhetor's prescriptions, leaving little room for Christian interpretation (e.g., Pan. Anast., 5: δὲ τῶν πραγμάτων ἀχλὺς διελύετο, for which Amato and Ventrella provide literary parallels from Christian authors).F. Ciccolella (assisted by Amato in translating and commenting on Procopius' letters 166, 169-174) produces a revealing analysis of the socio-cultural milieu within which Procopius flourished, alongside a linguistic study of his literary style. Procopius' main concerns are reflected in these epistles – letters of recommendation, consolation letters and letters of apology – all of which give us a clearer insight into his social network; yet there is one topic that remains ubiquitous: silence. This is not a new concept since letters reproaching the silent treatment can be found among many late antique authors (Symmachus' letters abound in this regard), yet it is interesting to note that in a period in which rhetoric and public recitations proliferated all over the Empire, silence was still feared in such a way that it could potentially endanger Procopius' social network. This tendency to horror silentii, it should be added, afflicted (ep. 31: σιγήσας λυπεῖς), irritated (ep. 38: τί τοίνυν ἔτι σιγᾷς), or amused him (ep. 126: Δέδεγμαί σου τὴν φίλην καὶ γέμουσαν ὄντως ἀφροδίτης ἐπιστολήν, τῆς μὲν μακρᾶς σιωπῆς σωκρατικῶς αἰτιωμένην μῖν τὸ δαιμόνιον). Ciccolella's punctilious comments contain remnants of the prose style adopted by Procopius himself: the use of pluralis sociativus (e.g., πρὸς μᾶς), the frequent aposiopesis (ep. 1, 34, 133), the non-sexual use of terms such as ἒρως and πόθος, post-classical forms (the use of the adverb πολλάκις with aorist; the repetition of expressions as τὸ δὴ μέγιστον; καθέστηκα used as the present tense of εἰμί), were all linguistic peculiarities which created an unoriginal yet competently achieved style.

The volume also includes an appendix with three more contributions. Aldo Corcella translates Choricius' funerary speech in honour of Procopius, a rhetorical work which heralds its subject as the ideal rhetor who managed to blend Christian virtues, social righteousness and the ability to docere et delectare all at the same time. The speech breathes the spirit of the School of Gaza, that is, an obvious inclination toward Classicism (Choricius compares Procopius with Pericles, Alcibiades, and Demosthenes as part of his perception “Gaza è come Atene”, p. 509) intertwined with the Christian faith (see for instance paragraphs 51-54 on the figure of the bishop taking over the sophist's duties.In “Prokop: Die Kunstuhr in Gaza”, B. Bäbler and A. Schomberg aim to reconstruct the mechanism of the clock as described by Procopius. Though admitting that “Die Technik antiker Uhren ist so kompliziert” (p. 531), Bäbler and Schomberg build upon H. Diels' previous attempts to reconstruct the mechanism, and indeed it is a refreshing idea to think of Procopius not only as a school teacher and sophist but also a scientific commentator whose remarks on the clock allow us to reconstruct the methodological and mechanical principles behind its construction (in this case, a blend of the science of Greek horologists that impressed the Arab polymath Al-Jazari in the XIIIth century). Bäbler and Schomberg go on to further point out that “Die Verteilung der übrigen Figuren korrespondiert mit der Anordnung an der "Uhr des Archimedes und der arabischen Uhren, was im Hinblick auf die ausgefeilte Technik” (p. 557).

In “Prokop von Gaza: Der Gemäldezyklus”, B. Bäbler discusses the paintings described by Procopius and agrees with the assertions of Amato, Ventrella and Ciccolella when explaining the choice of pagan motifs incorporated in a Christian environment: “Die berühmte Rhetorenschule von Gaza (...) vermochte die Traditionen der hellenischen Bildung mit dem Christentum in eigenständiger Weise zu verschmelzen” (p. 562). Indeed, Procopius' ekphraseis illustrate how the mythological elements of the painting cycle were allegorized, thus facilitating the audience's “mehrschichtige Rezeption” (p. 616) of the main characters in the painting (Ariadne, Theseus, Hippolytos, Daphne), all of whom were mythological figures whose endurance to overcome sins earned them respect throughout late antiquity and in the Byzantine era.

In light of this, Eugenio Amato’s work seems on course to become a vital study reference with a commendable level of profound investigation into both late antique literature and art. This is substantiated by detailed archaeological and artistic reconstructions and a well-crafted philological approach, complete with a helpful supplementary appendix, all of which contribute towards helping aid our visual impression of Procopius' cultural milieu. Moreover, the volume has the potential to open exciting new paths through which late antique scholars can continue to explore aspects of the transition from the classical world into the early Middle Ages. Multiple methodological angles are examined to supplement an exhaustive philological examination of his works. Different lectiones of manuscripts and editions are supplied to clarify dubious passages, and modern scholars' opinions are offered when unclear passages vary in their interpretation. In essence, Amato's volume fleshes out a number of important, thought-provoking aspects of a city in the sixth century AD.


1.   Laura Miguélez Cavero, “The Appearance of the Gods in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus”, GRBS 49 (2009), 557-583

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