Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.04.27 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.04.27

Claudia Horst, Marc Aurel: Philosophie und politische Macht zur Zeit der Zweiten Sophistik. Historia - Einzelschriften, Bd 225.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2013.  Pp. 232.  ISBN 9783515102803.  €56.00.  

Reviewed by David J. DeVore, University of California, Berkeley (

Table of Contents

Since the 1980s a number of German- and English-speaking scholars have become interested in the social implications of philosophical practice during the Roman imperial period.1 Since the massive corpus of texts by and about philosophers offers much fodder for this interest—although surviving philosophical treatises, lectures, commentaries, and orations, and even biographies, letters, and inscriptions rarely supply straightforward answers to social-historical questions—historians have debated such questions as the status of philosophers, the boundaries between philosophers and other professions, philosophy's contribution to Roman education, and the cultural consequences of philosophical indoctrination.2 Only recently, however, have historians begun to exploit this emerging sociology of philosophy to explain Roman imperial policy, and this primarily in studies of the later Empire rather than the first and second centuries.3

In addressing the relevance of philosophical activity for Marcus Aurelius' governance of the Empire, Claudia Horst's new monograph picks a ripe target for establishing that philosophy did shape imperial policy. Criticizing both political historians' underestimation of philosophical factors and intellectual historians' hesitation to consider relations of power (pp. 12-13, 40-45),4 she aims to use Ideengeschichte to explain Marcus Aurelius' policies (37). Specifically, Horst situates Marcus within the so-called Second Sophistic, arguing (following Tim Whitmarsh) that the discourses of the Second Sophistic represented a negotiation between ruling Romans and ruled Greeks, and so structured the horizon of elite expectations that Marcus Aurelius attempted to meet (40-49, 139-142).5 Marcus' internalization of Second-Sophistic discourses, therefore, facilitated his harmonious relations with Senators and other Roman elites that were necessary to govern Rome's Empire effectively.

Horst develops her argument over six chapters. The first, an extended review of scholarship, adopts the model of Aloys Winterling (who himself modified Mommsen's "dyarchy" between emperor and Senate) for relations between the emperor and Senate.6 Here Horst emphasizes that emperors depended on the Senate to legitimate their rule (18-33). The need for senatorial legitimation constrained emperors to conform to senatorial expectations of emperors. These expectations structured Marcus' attitude toward ruling.

Horst's second, longest, and most philosophical chapter, treats the Stoic principle of oikeiōsis, which, she argues at length, meant identifying with external phenomena that normally seem alien to the individual, particularly other participants in human society (56-83). Following Pierre Hadot,7 Horst reads Marcus' Meditations persuasively as an exercise in oikeiōsis. The text includes self-admonitions to view the entire cosmos, to fulfill the speaker-hearer's role dutifully in it, and to benefit others (83-98). And by their formal traits, such as dialogue, imperatives, and exampla, the Meditations construct their author/hearer as an active agent who internalizes and actualizes Stoic principles (98-108).

In her fourth chapter Horst contends that, among the Roman elite, paideia was an honorable attainment and a reliable vehicle for upward social mobility, particularly in Marcus’ regime. 8 Horst's prosopographical research then shows that under Marcus highly educated elites, such as Junius Rusticus, Claudius Maximus, and Sextus of Chaeroneia, gained influence at the emperor's court and drew higher offices than the educationally advanced had previously (124-138; also 190-192).

The fifth chapter surveys the four Second Sophistic authors on kingship. Dio Chrysostom, Plutarch, Aelius Aristides, and Philostratus produced two discourses that are in tension with one another. One advocated harmonious, reciprocal relations between monarch and subjects, often under the buzzword of "democracy," which in practice during the imperial period signified a reciprocal relationship of exchange between the emperor and autonomous local elites. The other discourse criticized "tyranny," often as a veiled warning against revocation of aristocratic prerogatives (esp. 142-149).

Horst's sixth chapter attempts to confirm that such Second-Sophistic discourses informed Marcus' policies as emperor. Among the policies Horst sees as influenced by philosophy were Marcus' refusal of traditional imperial pomp (174, 195-196), his interventions in Athenian governance to "democratize" (i.e. empower the aristocracy of) the city (175-180, 193-194, following the Second-Sophistic prescriptions discussed in Chapter 5), and Marcus' never executing a Senator, which underlay his desire for amicable reconciliation with the rebel Avidius Cassius (186-189).

The keen insights in this study are many. Horst's interpretation of the background and content of the Meditations proves admirably that philosophical teachings motivated Marcus to maintain strong relations with the Senate and other elites. Her discussion of Marcus' policies shows sufficiently that Marcus maintained concord between emperor and Senate. The link she draws between Second-Sophistic prescriptions about "democracy" and Marcus' reorganization of Athens seems quite plausible.

Some causal relationships that Horst draws seem more questionable—particularly between Marcus' philosophical practice and his relations with the Roman Senate. Some readers may be left wondering whether Marcus' surrounding himself with philosophers, his "democratization" of Athenian governance, and his mildness toward Avidius Cassius as emperor were distinctive enough to confirm that Marcus consciously conformed his rule to Second-Sophistic principles.

The hypothesis of Second-Sophistic underpinnings of Marcus' policies could be confirmed by further research. One method would be analysis of Marcus' visual self-representation: the numerous portraits of Marcus on coins and in sculpture may have signaled to Senators and other Roman elites that Marcus was one of them.9 Another would be a more systematic study of Marcus' legislation. Another would be a systematic comparison between Marcus' policies and those of his Vorbilder as emperor. A preliminary comparison with the policies of Antoninus Pius, who was not so immersed in philosophy, calls into question the exceptionality of Marcus' policies. Pius was no less mild toward senators than Marcus: where Marcus executed none, Pius executed just one (an open usurper, Atilius Titianus; SHA Pius 7.3-4; cf. 8.10, Epitome de Caesaribus 15.6); and Pius allowed the Senate to conduct the trial of this usurper: compare perhaps Marcus’ giving the Athenian aristocracy an outlet for self-governance. Like Marcus, Pius shunned many of the princeps' traditional trappings and gained thereby gained the esteem of the Senate (SHA Pius 6.4-5, 6.12, 11.1). Like Marcus, Pius rewarded philosophers’ service, albeit with lesser honors than seats in the emperor’s consilium (SHA Pius 10.3, Digest Was Marcus ruling as a philosopher-emperor ought, or extending Pius' policies? Further comparison between Marcus and other emperors might yet reveal some "philosophical" nuances in Marcus' policies.

Indeed, it is not entirely clear how deeply the Second-Sophistic writers probed by Horst informed the expectations that surrounded Marcus' governance. Although it is plausible that senatorial expectations shaped emperors' policies, Horst all but admits that during Marcus' reign the Senate still included few Greek elites whose worldviews were formed by the Second Sophistic (pp. 49, 157). Between 160 and 180 'the vast majority of Senators still hailed from Italy or other Latin-speaking provinces. Was philosophy as respectable among contemporary Latin-speaking Roman elites as Horst assumes? Latin authors criticized philosophy and philosophers more consistently and earnestly than Greek writers; and as the criticisms of philosophy in the letters of Marcus’ tutor Fronto show, such critiques remained viable.11 Confirmation that Second-Sophistic discourses shaped senatorial expectations of the emperor's role could come in Latin discourses. While no senatorial texts about the emperor survive from Marcus’ reign or just before, the surviving senatorial texts on emperorship nearest in time to Marcus—Pliny's Panegyric and the historiographical works of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio—could reveal how salient the prescriptions of Dio, Plutarch, Aelius Aristides, and Philostratus were among senatorial elites.12 A systematic comparison between these senatorial discourses and Horst's Second-Sophistic texts, with evidence that Marcus deviated from senatorial recommendations to fulfill Second-Sophistic prescriptions, would substantiate Horst's thesis more securely.

In all, Horst's monograph raises significant questions about the interplay between philosophical activity and political power and offers some plausible answers. Her work deserves attention from scholars interested in the Second Sophistic, in the cultural history of Roman governance, and in one of the few Roman emperors to warrant the appellation philosophos. The book is well edited, containing few typos or errors.


1.   The seminal works were Barbara Maier, Philosophie und römisches Kaisertum. Studien zu ihren wechselseitigen Beziehungen in der Zeit von Caesar bis Marc Aurel (Vienna, 1985), Miriam Griffin and Jonathan Barnes (eds.), Philosophia Togata. Essays on Philosophy and Roman Society (Oxford, 1989), and especially Johannes Hahn, Der Philosoph und die Gesellschaft. Selbstverständnis, öffentliches Auftreten und populäre Erwartungen in der hohen Kaiserzeit (Wiesbaden, 1989).
2.   See e.g. Gillian Clark and Tessa Rajak (eds.), Philosophy and Power in the Graeco-Roman World. Essays in Honour of Miriam Griffin (Oxford, 2002), Philip Stadter and Luc Van der Stockt (eds.), Sage and Emperor: Plutarch, Greek Intellectuals, and Roman Power in the Time of Trajan (98-117 A.D.) (Leuven, 2002), and Michael Trapp, Philosophy in the Roman Empire: Ethics, Politics and Society (Aldershot, 2007). Much of the last two decades of literature on the so-called Second Sophistic, e.g. by Maud Gleason, Simon Swain, Thomas Schmitz, Tim Whitmarsh, has also scrutinized philosophers' social roles along with those of other intellectuals; see most recently Kendra Eshleman, The Social World of Intellectuals in the Roman Empire: Sophists, Philosophers, and Christians (Cambridge, 2012).
3.   On the intersection of philosophy and politics under the later Empire, see Peter Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity (Madison, 1992), Elizebeth DePalma Digeser, A threat to public piety: Christians, Platonists, and the great persecution (Ithaca, 2012), and Susanna Elm, Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church: Emperor Julian, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Vision of Rome (Berkeley, 2012).
4.   Not all scholars accept that Marcus' philosophical practice shaped his rule as emperor. "The influence of philosophy on [Marcus'] practical politics is not traceable," writes Lukas de Blois ("Politics and Philosophy under Marcus Aurelius," in Marcel van Ackeren (ed.), A Companion to Marcus Aurelius [Malden, MA, 2012], 179).
5.  Whitmarsh, Greek Literature and the Roman Empire: the Politics of Imitation (Oxford, 2001). Recent research has confirmed that the so-called Second Sophistic was a cooperative project between Greeks and Romans: see A.J.S. Spawforth, Greece and the Augustan Cultural Revolution (Cambridge, 2012) and Jared Secord, Elites and Outsiders: The Greek-Speaking Scholars of Rome 100 BCE-200 CE (Ph.D. Diss., University of Michigan, 2012).
6.   Particularly in Winterling, "Dyarchie in der römischen Kaiserzeit," in W. Nippel and B. Seidensticker (eds.), Theodor Mommsens langer Schatten (Hildesheim, 2005), and "'Staat', 'Gesellschaft' und politische Integration in der römischen Kaiserzeit," Klio 83 (2001), 93-112.
7.   Hadot, Philosophie als Lebensform. Geistige Übungen in der Antike (Berlin, 1991); English translation: Philosophy as a Way of Life. Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (Malden, MA, 1995).
8.   Here Horst conflates philosophical activity with sophistic oratory and other pursuits that manifested paideia, though she acknowledges debate over the distinctiveness of philosophers (109 n. 1, 116, 152).
9.   See the relevant chapters in M. van Ackeren (ed.), A Companion to Marcus Aurelius (Malden, MA, 2012). Horst (pp. 112-113) does cite artistic evidence as evidence of the prestige of paideia (following Paul Zanker, Die Maske des Sokrates: das Bild des Intellektuellen in der antiken Kunst, Munich, 1995), but does not assess Marcus' own portraiture or coins.
10.   On Pius' relations with the Senate, see Sabine Walentkowski, Kommentar zur Vita Antoninus Pius der Historia Augusta (Bonn, 1998), 67-68., 70-73, 94-96, 100-102, 202-203, 209-212, 234. I thank Kathryn Langenfeld for help in evaluating the evidence of the Historia Augusta.
11.   Horst explains away Fronto's criticisms of philosophical pursuits in a footnote (p. 133 n. 122) "als Bestandteil der innerhalb der zweiten Sophistik zentralen Konkurrenzsituationen sowie nicht zuletzt als Ausdruck existentieller Sorgen Frontos."
12.   In particular, several discourses that Horst attributes to Second-Sophistic influence, such as invective against "tyrannical" monarchs (pp. 143-146, 152), Plutarch's emphasis on concord (156), and Aelius Aristides' praise of Roman philanthrōpia (160), were also quite at home in the elite Latin-language discourse of most Roman senators, so no appeal to the Second Sophistic is needed to explain Marcus' concern with them.

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