Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.04.57 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.57

Therese Fuhrer, Almut-Barbara Renger (ed.), Performanz von Wissen: Strategien der Wissensvermittlung in der Vormoderne. Bibliothek der klassischen Altertumswissenschaften, nF, 134.   Heidelberg:  Universitätsverlag Winter, 2012.  Pp. vi, 230.  ISBN 9783825358327.  € 35.00.  

Reviewed by Jakob Fink, University of Copenhagen (

Table of Contents

This volume places itself in a fine German tradition of studies of the transmission of knowledge in Greek and Roman culture.1 The volume attempts a sociologically inspired approach to texts and other source material (works of art, mainly), the focus being on ‘performance’ of knowledge. Under this heading the editors understand any act that intends communication in some way and implies learning of some sort.

Susanne Bickel, ‘Sichtbar und geheim: Aspekte altägyptischer Performanz von Wissen’, offers an account of the transfer of knowledge among Egyptian scribes, who are identified as a distinct social group exactly through their mastery of literacy. She points out that the vast majority of texts which deal with issues relevant for transferring knowledge concern themselves with transmitting the ‘professional identity’ of the scribes themselves rather than with transmitting professional knowledge as such. Grave inscriptions, for example, address themselves to members of the same social group, i.e. other scribes. Mastery of writing, then, is a social marker. Within the group of scribes, however, secrecy in the form of restricted access to certain pieces of information, to certain important locations, and to socially important activities acted as a way of establishing a social order among the scribes themselves.

In ‘Die Erfindung des Experten: Über Sophisten und ihr Auftreten’, Martin Hose treats the following question: ‘how did the sophists succeed in being conceived of as “sophists”?' (29: ‘wie konnte es den Sophisten gelingen, als “Sophisten” wahrgenommen zu werden?’). In spite of the quotation marks around sophists, this question seems to me to presuppose that the sophists of the first generation already had a conception of themselves as “sophists”, which seems doubtful. Hose investigates how experts such as Gorgias, Protagoras, Prodicus and others made themselves known to a wider Greek audience as teachers of potentially valuable knowledge. He points out that these men skilfully used political and Pan-Hellenic events, such as embassies or the games at Olympia, to promote themselves. Gorgias’ spectacular appearance at Olympia, and the erection of statues of him at this site and elsewhere, are evidence for this clever use of branding. Apart from these ways of making themselves known, the “sophists” dressed in a peculiar fashion, charged fees, so as to stress the value of their teaching, and surrounded themselves with numerous pupils.

John T. Hamilton, ‘Der pythagoreische Kult und die akousmatische Mitteilung von Wissen’. This short contribution takes on a difficult task. Hamilton wants to focus on the ‘acousmatics’ among the Pythagoreans, those followers of Pythagoras who, having listened to their master, kept silent about what they had heard in contrast to the ‘mathematicians’, men like Hippasus, who wanted to advance and develop Pythagoras’ doctrines (and so gave them away). Hamilton fully appreciates the methodical difficulties connected to the study of Pythagoras and his disciples, and proposes, reasonably enough, not to prove the historical reality of the divide between acousmatics and mathematicians, but rather to take it as a challenge and approach it as a provocation. He points out that the acousmatics might have supported their insistence on listening and keeping silent by philosophical considerations (training in attending to the pure, incorporate voice of reason). Thus, historians of philosophy should not dismiss the acousmatics as naive or fanatic followers of Pythagoras.

Antje Wessels’ ‘Gescheit(ert)e Strategien der Vermittlung von Wissen? Zur Arztszene in Plautus’ Menaechmi (876–965)’ deals with the conditions under which knowledge is transmitted and received in a scene from Plautus’ comedy Menaechmi (in which a pair of twin brothers are mistaken for each other). The scene to which Wessels turns her attention involves a physician who has been summoned to cure one of the brothers, whom the physician and the father in law assume to suffer temporarily from madness. Predictably enough, though, the physician attends to the other brother who is perfectly well. This literary design makes it quite clear that the physician performs as an expert not only on the basis of his own expectations and beliefs—he assumes that the brother is ill and so interprets anything the brother does or says as a sign of his illness—, but also on the basis of the expectations of his client, the father in law, who perceives the physician and his trade with some suspicion. In this amusing paper, Wessels points out that the scene from Plautus is not simply a matter of scolding doctors and their suspected charlatanry. The physician fails not because he is a quack, but precisely because of his competence; a point that will only be obvious to the audience with its knowledge concerning the true identities of the characters of the play.

Fabian Goldbeck, ‘Strategien der Wissensvermittlung in Rom: Zum sog. tirocinium fori in der späten Republik und der frühen Kaiserzeit’. This fascinating contribution describes the gradual changes in the training of young Roman men for participation in political life, the tirocinium fori, from the last days of the Republic well into the Imperial period. This is, broadly speaking, a story about the Senatorial class’s gradual loss of educational power to professional teachers of rhetoric, both Greek and, more problematically, Latin, and to professional law experts. The maiores appear to have had no explicit strategies for transferring skills and knowledge to the young during their apprenticeship, but were expected to know how to deal with political institutions – apparently they ‘taught’ through their example – and to keep an eye on the conduct and associations of the young. With the emergence of professional teachers of rhetoric and law their hold on introducing new generations into political life gradually gave way.

In ‘Wissensinszenierung bei emotionaler Nähe: Senecas ad Helviam de consolatione’ Henriette Harich- Schwarzbauer interprets an exceptional text in Roman consolatory literature, Seneca’s consolation to his mother, which is the only example in this genre of a son instructing his mother. Seneca’s job is a delicate one since he has to strike a balance between his own authority as a man of knowledge and the natural authority and superior experience of his mother. Harich-Schwarzbauer brings out how Seneca manages to cast himself both in the role of the humble son hesitating to instruct his mother directly and in the role of the exiled son, with integrity and authority concerning matters of grief and how to overcome it. This versatile use of his own role as a son leads Seneca to abandon some conventions of consolatory literature.

Elke Hartmann, ‘Die Kunst der edlen Selbstdarstellung: Plinius der jüngere als Kunstkenner und Euerget’. This well- written contribution offers an analysis of Pliny the younger’s Ep. 3.6 in which Pliny describes a newly purchased Corinthian bronze sculpture that he orders to be erected in a public space. Pliny has to balance between a show of good taste, which involves some expertise in Greek art, and the suspicion of being too Greek in his cultural inclinations. He manages this by a manoeuvre corresponding, in some sense, to the rhetorical locus classicus “I’m no great speaker, but…” in as much as he assures the reader that he is really just an amateur when it comes to art. By exposing the sculpture publicly, he conveys an image of himself as the public benefactor placing the common good before his private interests. By way of conclusion, Hartmann suggests that Ep. 3.6 should be read as an attempt by Pliny to distinguish himself as an individual from the Senatorial aristocracy rather than as evidence for the shared values of this social group.

In ‘Autor-Figurationen: Literatur als Ort der Inszenierung von Kompetenz’ one of the editors, Therese Fuhrer, describes a number of ways in which authors, primarily Latin (she adduces Cicero, Seneca, and Augustine), represent themselves as knowledgeable or competent in their respective fields. The means by which an author fashions himself as competent are highly interesting and still very much in use among present day scholars. The author may position himself socially by dedicating his text to a prominent person. He may point out that he has been asked to write on the subject and that this was a demanding task so as to indicate his competence. Further, he may relate facts about what led him to write the text, how it differs, positively we are to assume, from other texts in the field and he may discuss the correct use of technical terms so as to show his mastery of the subject in question. Fuhrer points out how these, and other, strategies of self-fashioning are put to use in a variety of ways by her three authors according to the agenda of the respective author and his social context.

Christoph Markschies, ‘Wie vermitteln apokryph gewordene christliche Schriften Wissen? – ein Prospekt’. This contribution describes two texts from a corpus that can only be defined with difficulty: Christian texts that, for some reason or other, became apocryphal. Markschies offers a fine description of the two texts, the Interrogatio Bartholemaei and the Passio Andreae, both of which contain pieces of knowledge (concerning winds and childbirth respectively). He has, however, almost nothing to say about the performative aspect of how this knowledge is conveyed (the bound Devil is questioned by Bartholomew, but we are not quite told what this means).

Guy G. Stroumsa, ‘Bibel und paideia – “Textgemeinschaften” in der Spätantike’. As was the case with the previous chapter, this contribution is impeccable in the treatment of its subject matter but only marginally addresses the theme of the volume under review. Stroumsa offers a brief account of early Christian responses to pagan paideia with an emphasis on the concept of authority. The role of textual communities, especially monastic ones, in establishing a text or an author as an authority is stressed, as is the role of this social condition for the canonization and interpretation of canonical texts.

Almut-Barbara Renger and Andrea Stellmacher, ‘Die Modellierung des Styliten Simeon (d.Ä) im Zusammenspiel von text, Bild und Performance’. This chapter investigates the ascetic practises of Simeon Stylites, who presumably spend most of his life on top of a pillar in Syria. It is not quite clear to me what the authors mean when they claim that Simeon’s body is represented as a highly conventionalized ‘knowledge-body’ (173: ‘Der körper dieses Asketen erscheint in den Texten und Bildern als hochstilisierter Wissenskörper ...’). What, one wonders, is a knowledge-body? But this aside, the two authors offer a clear account of Simeon’s ascetic practices as ways in which this man cast a role for himself as a noticeably pious person.

Isabel Toral-Niehoff, ‘Warum geheimes Wissen nicht vermittelt werden soll – oder doch? Die Einführungsdialog der “Nabatäischen Landwirtschaft”’. In an esoteric text called the Nabataean Agriculture the probably fictive translator of the text into Arabic, Ibn Wahsiyya, offers a first rate example of self-fashioning in Arabic scientific prose. Toral-Niehoff focuses on the foreword in which Ibn Wahsiyya narrates how he came upon the rare work, how he had to persuade an old man of the Nabataean people (Chaldeans, i.e. old Babylonians) to hand over the work for translation, and how his expertise made it possible to manage the translation at all. Ibn Wahsiyya casts himself as the ‘heroic scholar’ who goes to any lengths to find valuable knowledge and persists in persuading the keeper of this knowledge to pass it on.

The contributions yield some interesting results although it is not entirely clear that these results follow from the focus on ‘performance’ (many articles, in fact, approach their material with the aid of rhetorical analysis). That being said, the reader will learn a lot from this collection of essays, beautifully edited with only minor and insignificant misprints.2


1.   See the works by, e.g., Manfred Fuhrmann, Wolfgang Kullmann, Jochen Althoff, Markus Asper, Sabine Föllinger, Ralf Lengen, Thorsten Fögen.
2.   I found only two: page 31, line 28: ‘Ἀθηαίοις’ = Ἀθηναίοις; page 179, line 8: ‘gen’ = den.

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