Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.06.41

Nicolas Wiater, The Ideology of Classicism: Language, History, and Identity in Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, Bd 105.   Berlin; New York:  De Gruyter, 2011.  Pp. xi, 395.  ISBN 9783110256581.  $165.00.  

Reviewed by Casper C. de Jonge, Leiden University (


Dionysius of Halicarnassus was a productive historian and literary critic who worked in Rome at the end of the first century BC. A contemporary of Virgil, Horace and Livy, Dionysius is the main representative of Greek classicism, which regarded classical Athens as the model for Augustan Rome. Wiater has written an important book on Dionysius and his ideology, which forms a very welcome contribution to the revival of scholarship on this fascinating critic. The central question of this book (based on a Ph.D. dissertation submitted to the University of Bonn) is why Dionysius and his readers are such ardent supporters of classical Greek literature. From the perspective of cultural identity, Wiater presents an innovative and largely convincing answer to this question. If this reviewer disagrees with some of his interpretations, this is an indication that his study encourages debate on an important Greek author.

Wiater claims that most other scholars have adopted a "linguistic approach," whereas he is the first one to examine Dionysius' classicism as a social-cultural phenomenon (pp. 2-3). Although it is true that this study is innovative in many ways, both sides of this claim are somewhat overstated. On the one hand, many studies of Dionysius' works deal with his views on literature, politics and history and with his intellectual context: summarizing these various studies as "the linguistic approach" does not do justice to existing scholarship. On the other hand, Wiater may be the first to explore the classicism of Dionysius in English, but the Dutch scholar Koen Goudriaan preceded him: Wiater does not mention Goudriaan's dissertation Over classicisme. Dionysius van Halicarnassus en zijn program van welsprekendheid, cultuur en politiek, 2 volumes, 769 pp., Diss. Free University of Amsterdam 1989 (On Classicism. Dionysius of Halicarnassus and his program of eloquence, culture and politics). Perhaps one cannot blame Wiater for not knowing this unpublished dissertation, which was composed in a rather exotic language. But Goudriaan's work, which anticipates some of Wiater's results, has been cited with approval in German, Italian and American scholarship.1

Chapter 1 (pp. 1-59) presents the aims and methods of this book. One innovative aspect of Wiater's book is its use of theoretical models. References to such authors as Clifford Geertz, Max Weber, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and Hayden White give Dionysius an unusually modern appearance. Borrowing his terminology from cultural anthropology, Wiater wants to provide a "thick description" of Augustan classicism, i.e. to reconstruct how active engagement with classical literature fits into the worldview of Dionysius and his ancient readers.

A traditional topic in scholarship on Dionysius is his role in a 'circle' or 'network' of Greek and Roman intellectuals in Rome. Drawing on Social Identity Theory, Wiater takes a fresh look at this theme. He argues that Dionysius and his addressees form a "social sub-group," the members of which shared one worldview. More particularly, he believes "that Dionysius' conception of Classicism influenced that of his addressees and that his addressees willingly accepted this influence" (p. 27). Here one might feel that the use of a specific theory makes too much of the ancient evidence: we simply cannot say whether such addressees as Ammaeus (On the Ancient Orators), Demetrius (On Imitation) and Zeno (mentioned in the Letter to Pompeius) shared Dionysius' views or accepted his authority, for we do not even know who they were. In the case of Pompeius (the addressee of the Letter to Pompeius) we know for sure that he strongly disagreed with Dionysius on his evaluation of Plato: the debate between Dionysius and Pompeius rather suggests that not everybody willingly accepted Dionysius' leading role or influence.

Chapter 2 (pp. 60-119) focuses on Dionysius' conception of the present as a revival of the classical past. In the prologue to his work On the Ancient Orators, Dionysius divides the history of rhetoric in three periods: the classical period of the Attic muse, the Asianic period of decline, which starts after the death of Alexander, and the literary renaissance under Augustus.2 Wiater defends the critic against scholars who complain that his periodization mixes literature and politics. Dionysius composed his works for those readers who devote themselves to writing politikoi logoi. This terminology betrays that Isocrates plays a central role in Dionysius' classicism. Wiater's reading of Dionysius' essay On Isocrates as a "handbook of Classical identity" shows that for Dionysius rhetorical, political and moral qualities are closely connected.

Wiater pays due attention to the concept of mimesis, a key term in Dionysius' classicism. His discussion of the treatise On Imitation concentrates on the two anecdotes of the ugly farmer, who shows beautiful pictures to his wife in order to get beautiful children, and the painter Zeuxis, who painted a portrait of Helen by combining the best parts of all the naked virgins of Croton. Where Richard Hunter has recently emphasized the Platonic background of these stories and the prominent notions of pregnancy and birth, Wiater focuses on the metaphors of visual perception: reading classical literature is an act of "close observation," by which the beauty of classical literature is absorbed in the reader's soul.3

Chapter 3 (pp. 120-225) is devoted to the presentation of the past in criticism and history. Wiater examines Dionysius' evaluation of Thucydides in his Letter to Pompeius and On Thucydides, concentrating on his negative criticism of the Melian Dialogue (On Thucydides 37-41). Wiater convincingly argues that Dionysius rejects Thucydides' presentation of the past because it is at odds with his own Isocratean approach to classical Athens: useful and pleasurable historiography would present the Athenians as representatives of the classical virtues that Isocrates attributes to them. In his Roman Antiquities Dionysius brings his own ideal of Isocratean historiography into practice, by presenting "a Greek past for the Roman present": the first Romans were really Greeks, and the dominant position of Augustan Rome is legitimized by a long, continuous tradition of Greek classical virtues.

Dionysius mentions Augustus only once (Roman Antiquities 1.7.2), but scholars have interpreted passages from his history of Rome as either supporting or rejecting Augustus' political program. Wiater rejects a reading of the Roman Antiquities in terms of pro- and anti-Augustan: "Authors under Augustus did not have to face the decision whether to conform to or to oppose any official directives for literary production, and therefore it does not make sense to read Dionysius' Antiquitates as an either pro- or anti-Augustan work" (p. 213, my italics). I fail to understand this argument. Even if it is true that authors were not forced to be supporters of Augustus' program, why could they not express their (dis)agreement with his policy? If Dionysius emphasizes the continuity between Romulus' 'Greek' constitution and the Principate, is that not already a clear sign that this historian presents a generally positive view of Augustus' reign? Such a positive evaluation of Augustus' program would closely correspond to Dionysius' enthusiasm for Augustan Rome in the preface to his On the Ancient Orators, where he claims that "Rome's leaders are chosen on merit, and administer the state according to the highest principles" (On the Ancient Orators 3).

Against recent interpretations, Wiater argues that Dionysius does not propagate a united "Graeco-Roman" world: Dionysius' history of Rome does not integrate Greeks and Romans, but rather "creates a distance between Greek and Roman readers" (p. 222), by presenting the Romans as dependent on the superior culture of classical Greece.4 But if Dionysius presents Rome as the new Athens, if he addresses his critical essays to both Roman and Greek intellectuals, if he believes that Rome "from the very beginning, immediately after its founding, produced infinite examples of virtue in men whose superiors (...) no city, either Greek or barbarian, has ever produced" (Roman Antiquities 1.5.3), does all this not suggest integration of Rome and Greece rather than separation?

In chapter 4 (pp. 226-278) Wiater explains that proper reading plays an essential role in Dionysian criticism: reading grants access to the classical past and it distinguishes Dionysius and his audience as belonging to an exclusive "elitist" community. Wiater illustrates the importance of reading with an interesting discussion of Dionysius' work On Literary Composition: technical training in the effective combination of words helps readers both to experience the classical texts as they were originally intended and to compose their own texts in the tradition of the classical Greek authors. In the opening sections of this treatise, Dionysius complains that the art of composition (synthesis) declined in the post-classical period: Hellenistic historians and philosophers (including Chrysippus, who wrote on syntax) were bad composers. In his interpretation of this passage, Wiater (p. 241) disagrees with my own interpretation:5

"Hence, when blaming Chrysippus for his failure in synthesis, Dionysius does not mean, as de Jonge has it, that 'even those people who studied the syntax (σύνταξις) of the parts of speech did not compose (συντιθέναι) satisfactory texts themselves.' From Dionysius' point of view, Chrysippus failed precisely because he wrote on syntaxis, Stoic logic, instead of synthesis, the art of composing an aesthetically satisfactory (ἡδεῖα καὶ καλή) text." (my italics)

I believe that Wiater here creates a false opposition between his and my interpretation. I completely agree with him that Dionysius contrasts his synthesis with Stoic syntaxis, thereby distinguishing himself from an important rival school. But the sentence that Wiater cites from my book is really a direct paraphrase of what Dionysius says himself:

"Why should we be surprised at these [Hellenistic historians], when even those who claim to be philosophers (καὶ οἱ φιλοσοφίαν ἐπαγγελλόμενοι) and publish handbooks on logic are so inept in the arrangement of their words that I shrink even from mentioning their names? It is sufficient to point to Chrysippus the Stoic (...): no one has published discourses that are worse specimens of composition. And yet (καίτοι) some of these writers claimed to make a serious study of this department (τοῦτο τὸ μέρος) also, as being indispensable to good writing, and even wrote some handbooks on the syntax of the parts of speech" (On Composition 4.16-18).

In other words, Dionysius states that although one might naturally expect a work on "syntax" to be "put together" effectively, the Stoic treatises will be disappointing in this respect.

Chapter 5 (pp. 279-348) further investigates Dionysius' strategies of creating a distinguished "community of elite critics" (p. 348). I found this chapter the most fascinating part of Wiater's book, because it casts light on the "dialogic" character of Dionysius' works. His literary essays present criticism as an interactive activity that is performed in dialogue with colleagues, pupils and readers.

This "polyphony" is indeed characteristic of Dionysius' critical works, although I would hesitate to call them "unique" in this respect (p. 284). Longinus, who frequently addresses his readers, gives his treatise On Sublimity a similar form of engaging dialogue. Wiater interestingly suggests that the term ὑπομνηματισμοί, by which Dionysius refers to his own essays, expresses precisely this interactive design. I would add that Longinus (1.2) likewise promises that he will "prepare some notes" (ὑπομνηματίσασθαι) for his addressee Terentianus: here we find the same informal tone of dialogue that characterizes' Dionysius' letters.

From this study, Augustan classicism emerges as a model of Greek cultural identity, which separates Greek and Roman audiences, perhaps even provoking some Roman intellectuals (see esp. p. 118). Above, I have suggested that it would be possible to present Dionysius' program in a different way, by emphasizing the bridges that Dionysius builds between Greeks and Romans. I wonder whether the results of this study would have been different if it had included more systematic comparisons between Dionysius and Roman authors. I am thinking especially of (1) the connection between Roman Atticism and Greek classicism, (2) the parallels between two historiographical accounts of early Rome (Dionysius and Livy) and (3) the mimesis of archaic Greek poetry in Augustan poetry and criticism: Pindar and Sappho, for example, are important models for both Dionysius and Horace. Wiater has done a great job in interpreting Dionysius' classicism in terms of Greek cultural identity. The connections between Greek Augustan classicism and Roman forms of classicism, such as one might associate with Horace, Virgil, Livy, and the Roman debate on Atticism, remain to be explored further in the coming years. Wiater's careful analysis paves the way for such studies and forms an important step forward in Dionysian scholarship.


1.   See e.g. Th. Hidber, Das klassizistische Manifest des Dionys von Halikarnass, Leipzig 1996; S. Fornaro, Dionisio di Alicarnasso, Epistola a Pompeo Gemino, Stuttgart / Leipzig 1997; J.I. Porter, 'Feeling Classical: Classicism and Ancient Literary Criticism', in id. (ed.), Classical Pasts. The Classical Traditions of Greece and Rome. Princeton 2006, 301-352.
2.   The complex relationship between Roman Atticism and Greek classicism is only briefly mentioned in this book (p. 114 n. 328). On this topic, see J. Wisse, 'Greeks, Romans and the Rise of Atticism', in J.G.J. Abbenes, S.R. Slings and I. Sluiter (eds.), Greek Literary Theory after Aristotle. A Collection of Papers in Honour of D.M. Schenkeveld, Amsterdam 1995, 65-82.
3.   See R. Hunter, Critical Moments in Classical Literature. Studies in the Ancient View of Literature and its Uses, Cambridge 2009, 107-127.
4.   For Dionysius as supporter of a 'Graeco-Roman world', see e.g. A. Delcourt, Lecture des Antiquités romaines de Denys d'Halicarnasse. Un historien entre deux mondes, Bruxelles 2005, 38.
5.   Cf. C.C. de Jonge, Between Grammar and Rhetoric. Dionysius of Halicarnassus on Language, Linguistics and Literature, Leiden / Boston 2008, 274.

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