Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.03.03

Thomas Schmidt, Pascale Fleury (ed.), Perceptions of the Second Sophistic and Its Times / Regards sur la Seconde Sophistique et son époque. Phoenix supplementary volumes, 49.   Toronto; Buffalo:  University of Toronto Press, 2011.  Pp. xx, 273.  ISBN 9781442642164.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by Alexander V. Makhlayuk, Nizhny Novgorod State University (


This volume brings together fourteen essays1—eight in French and six in English - from a workshop held at Université Laval (Québec) in September 2007. Among the authors there are both well-recognized scholars and excellent younger researchers. The book is organized into five thematic sections (‘The essence and the presence of the Second Sophistic’, ‘Orator and his image’, ‘The past and Greek identity’, ‘Text, tradition and performance’, ‘Heritage and influence of the Second Sophistic’) and covers important topics which are now attracting increasing scholarly attention. The introduction, co-authored by Thomas Schmidt and Pascale Fleury, places the volume well in its scholarly context and supplies a full summary of all essays. As the editors note, the main goal of the book is to examine how the intellectual elites of the first centuries p.C. perceived themselves, how they were regarded by the following generations, and what judgments we can make about them from our modern view. The editors, acknowledging the absence of clear, generally accepted definition of the Second Sophistic, emphasize their intention to treat it as a wide intellectual movement that can be characterized not only as literary and cultural phenomenon of which the rhetoric is an essential component, but also as the field pervaded by other values: paideia, mimesis, the glorification of the past, the centrality of Athens, and Hellenic identity.

The first section concerns questions connected with the Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists. Adam Kemezis, exploring the geographical space this work creates for its action, reads it, in contrast with most of modern critics, not as a ‘magma flow’2 of multiple facts and anecdotes, but as unified literary artifact in which the author implements certain historiographical intentions and approximates what can be called literary or cultural history. Philostratus creates historical perspective based on the central role of Athens as an ideal site for sophistic activity, and incarnates this role in the figure of Herodes Atticus. Philostratus, while consciously minimizing the role of other centers of sophistic activity, makes Rome an intellectual colony of Athens and produces a new grand narrative for the larger Greco-Roman world. He takes what previous generations had seen as a static phenomenon and places it within a process of change over time. Ian Henderson’s paper, ‘The Second Sophistic and Non-Elite Speakers’, aims to show that the norms defined by Philostratus are the norms of social and intellectual elite and that they determined its social prestige and impact. It is in this context that the valorization of epideictic rhetoric takes place. But, from the postcolonial point of view, as Henderson argues, one should expect that other levels and kinds of public speech were more or less consciously related to the activity of outstanding sophistic professionals. As the examples of Lucian, Epictetus and early Christian writers show, there were highly mobile, semi-public speakers who rather consciously utilized some of the resources of the sophistic in an anti-sophistic cause. This rhetoric mimics the behaviour of professional sophists while subordinating it to other values. Dominique Côté, in her essay ‘L’Héracles d’Hérode : héroïsme et philosophie dans la sophistique de Philostrate’, gives a penetrating analysis of the Philostratean model of the relationships between the sophistic and philosophy by elucidating the central position of Herodes in the Lives of the Sophists and the significance of his acquaintance with the ‘bon sauvage’ Agathion. This episode demonstrates the intense opposition between culture and nature, between paideia and natural wisdom, which was at core of the Second Sophistic, since the sophists valued both academic knowledge and the spontaneity of ex tempore speeches. But this tension is relieved because Agathion personifies Attic and philosophical ideals by virtue of his linguistic purity and simple life; as a hero-founder he legitimizes Philostratus’ values, gives to the art of eloquence a supernatural dimension and embodies that divine sophia, from which the sophistic itself emanates.

Section two begins with Pascale Fleury’s contribution, ‘L’orateur oracle: une image sophistique’. By using Fronto’s remarks concerning literary genres and a comparison with the opinions of Dio Chrysostomus, Aristides and Philostratus, Fleury proves that the age of the Second Sophistic saw a sacralisation of rhetoric, and treats the parallel between rhetoric and religion, orator and oracle as an ideological construct characteristic for the period. These rapprochements of rhetoric and religion are most apparent in Aristides, who often sees an orator as an initiate into mysteries, and eloquence as a gift of the gods. In a very interesting paper, Janet Downie continues the theme of the religious dimension of rhetoric and shows how it is revealed in the Sacred Speeches of Aelius Aristides, who frequently compared an orator with an athlete and an initiate into the mysteries, thus emphasizing the physical performance of rhetorical declamation and its ritual character in order to connect his public life with the history of his divine healing and to elevate the orator’s professional prestige. This heroic virtue and mysticism both directly correspond with the portrait of Agathion in the Lives of the Sophists. The subject of Anne Pasquier’s essay is thevisual culture inherent in the Second Sophistic. A comparative analysis of the Protreptic of Clemens of Alexandria and Philostratus’ Imagines leads to the conclusion that both for the Christian author and for the devotee of classical culture a description of images served to provoke in readers a divine possession, and orations, through the use of images, are involved in creating a model to which they seek to give life. But, if in Philostratus the description aims to reanimate readers’ cultural memory of pre-existing images, Clemens tries to transform the readers’ imagination and elaborate another mental structure, giving to images a new emotional color.

The section three is devoted to problems of Greek identity. Thomas Schmidt provides a very useful survey of a depiction of barbarians in Dio Chrysostomus’ writings. He demonstrates that, although we find here the traditional antithesis of the Greeks and barbarians and clichés inherited from the classical period, Dio’s image of barbarians is rather conventional, without any emphasis on their inferiority. Some passages reveal a kind of solidarity with the barbarians and a critical attitude toward Trajan’s imperialistic views. Such a spiritual openness of Dio puts him aside the sophistic movement. Reflections on Hellenism and Greek identity in the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus are examined by Marie-Hélène Mainguy, who proposes an analysis of author’s use of the terms Hellenikos and barbarikos. She argues that, for the participants of the feast, the problem of identity is not reduced to the antithesis between Greeks and barbarians, but manifests itself in their care for the purity of the Greek language. This linguistic purism is all the more interesting inasmuch as the banquet takes place in Rome and the participants deal with the introduction of Latin terms in the Greek language, something that may be indicative of a confrontation between Greek and Roman cultures. The Greek past as identity-forming factor is a subject of Janick Auberger’s paper, which convincingly demonstrates the complexity of Pausanias’ position toward the Second Sophistic through nuances of his understanding of the past. In the author’s view, Pausanias does not share the sophistic idealization of classical Athens, or of the figure of Demosthenes; he is inclined to imitate Herodotus, and beholds a past more vast and elastic than that of the sophists. So he is not a Greek nostalgic for the classical greatness, and his ‘Greekness’ is not reduced to Greco-Athenian identity but appears to be more inclusive and, in Auberger’s words, ‘plus englobante (plus romaine?).’

Section four deals with the authors who are on the sidelines of the Second Sophistic, but clearly display sophistic themes and practices. Karin Schlapbach discusses the correlation between dance and discourse in Plutarch’s Table Talks 9.15, putting this passage in the context of the sophistic conception of the relationship between language and bodily performance. Schlapbach’s readings of the passage and other chapters of Plutarch’s work suggests that the unity of poetry and dance is presented as an ideal that irrevocably belongs to the past; contemporary enactments of dance were perceived as problematic and deficient. Plutarch, responding to contemporary issues, ascribes to dance a purely figurative role. Nevertheless the setting of the symposion grants some continuity with that regretted past, in which dance was the inseparable companion of heavenly poetry. In his essay ‘Galen on ἔκδοσις’, Sean Gurd concentrates on publishing practices of the period, namely on Galen’s views on writing ‘for publication’ (πρὸς ἔκδοσιν) and ‘not for publication’ (οὐ πρὸς ἔκδοσιν). Galen uses this distinction as an ideological control intended to produce a hierarchy of readers, differentiating them on the basis of their state of knowledge, their access to ‘good’ texts corrected by the author, and their proximity to circle of Galen’s friends. Galen’s distinction brings him close to the culture of performance characteristic to the Second Sophistic. Like the sophists, whose sense of importance of technical paideia Galen shared, he did not rework his once uttered speeches considering an ex tempore oration a product of that paideia. Applying this principle to his writings he sought to represent himself as a true pepaideumenos.

The last section centers on perceptions of the Second Sophistic traditions in fourth-century authors. John Vanderspoel offers a nuanced answer to the question “Were the Speeches of Aelius Aristides ‘Rediscovered’ in the 350s p.C.?” (this is the title of his contribution). According to Vanderspoel, the works of Aristides were known to Libanius and Themistius before the 350s, but from 356 onwards his speeches gained a greater currency, and this revival should be connected with the opening of the new library at Constantinople. Vanderspoel (189 and 196, n.12) agrees with C.P. Jones’ opinion that oration On Kingship (XXXV Keil) is authentic and composed by Aristides during his visit to Rome in 144. However, the arguments of other scholars in favor of dating this speech within the third century p.C. seem more persuasive.3 In the next contribution, Diane Johnson traces the influence of the Eleusinios Logos of Aristides on Libanius’s Monody for Daphne through comparison of their conceptions, style and themes. She convincingly argues that Libanius, though putting himself under a clear obligation to Aristides, did not imitate him slavishly, but adapted his model to his own times, in hope to revive the sophistic concept of logos. Christian Raschle investigates the evolutions of traditional theme of tyrant in Themistius’ speech VII composed in 366. He defines this speech as a mixture of panegyric and λόγος πρεσβευτικός and finds in it innovative elements that reflect the political realities of the Late Empire (references to imperial regalia and adventus, a citation of a biblical passage, and sacralization of the emperor). Themistius appeals to an old tradition of Peri basileias orations, primarily to Dio Chrysostomus, and seeks to represent himself as a successor to the classical heritage.

The book concludes with an useful bibliography4 and three indices, but lacks lists of contributors and abbreviations. Typos are very few, and the general standard of production is high. Most of the papers have predominantly literary emphasis, but some authors put the sophistic movement in its more global anthropological perspective and in the political context that determined the Greco-Roman synthesis of the epoch. In general, the volume raises really important questions, and presents a good number of clarifications and stimulating in-depth studies. It will undoubtedly be valuable reading for students of the cultural history of the Roman Empire.5


1.   On the book jacket we are erroneously promised fifteen essays. There is also a sad typo here: peideia instead of paideia.
2.   Quotation from Civiletti, M. Filostrato: Vite dei sofisti. Milano, 2002, 15.
3.   Summary of opinions in Chr. Körner, Die Rede ‘Εἰς βασιλέα’ des Pseudo-Aelius Aristides, Museum Helveticum, 59, 2002, 211–228. [4]] One may add, e.g.: Ian Worthington (ed.) Blackwell Companion to Greek Rhetoric, 2007; William Dominik and Jon Hall (edd.) Blackwell Companion to Roman Rhetoric, 2007; Erick Gunderson (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ancient rhetoric, 2009; Ruth Webb, Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice. Ashgate, 2009; Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis, ‘Truly Beyond Wonder’. Aelius Aristides and the Cult of Asklepios. Oxford, 2010.
5.   The work is supported by The Russian Foundation for Humanities, project 11-31-00218a.

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