Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.07.24 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.07.24

Adam M. Kemezis, Greek Narratives of the Roman Empire under the Severans: Cassius Dio, Philostratus and Herodian. Greek culture in the Roman world.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2014.  Pp. xii, 340.  ISBN 9781107062726.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by Alexander V. Makhlaiuk, Lobachevsky State University of Nizhni Novgorod (


Adam M. Kemezis’ book, which originates in his PhD dissertation1 but goes much further in depth of analysis and conceptual coherence, continues the Cambridge series “Greek Culture in the Roman World,” which has provided readers with a number of stimulating investigations of cultural identities, collective memory, and literary and ideological evolutions under the Empire. Proposing a narratological approach, so fashionable now,2 to the works of three Severan writers, Kemezis goes beyond formal literary analysis. He also pursues a more ambitious goal: to illuminate the historical reality that was reflected in four works of profoundly different genres and styles (that have, nonetheless, much in common, above all their belonging to the Severan age and Greek literary tradition) and in the narrative personalities of the authors, each with his own relationship to the social and cultural milieu. Kemezis aims to demonstrate that these Severan authors were aware of historical developments, having been led to re-imagine not only the recent but the entire past, and their works can be seen as responses on the part of Greek culture to its changing imperial setting. This book is not solely about texts and narrative techniques, but also about political realities outside literature, in particular about the Severan era and its urban cultural elites’ world-views as affected by the dynastic change from Antonines to Severans.

The book consists of seven chapters (including an introduction and conclusion), three appendices concerning dates, scope and authorship of the works under examination (these are intended, in the author’s words, “less to add new material to existing controversies than to lay out various positions and state [his] own preferred view” [281]), a valuable and almost exhaustive bibliography, and index.

Kemezis raises crucial questions about how these texts, by means of their rhetoric and through ideological assumptions, construct the Roman empire, its cultural landscape and the relationships of past to present. An extensive introductive chapter sets out the purpose and subject-matter of the book, outlines its methodological tools and approaches (first of all, that of modern narrative theories connected with Richard Koselleck and Hayden White), including such concepts as a narrative world—a construct “influenced but not determined by external reality as perceived by readers” (11) and cultural geography. The second chapter (“From Antonines to Severans”), sketching the general Severan background, focuses on the watershed between two dynasties and on the historical circumstances that determined the new emperors to have a different relationship to the past. It was those emperors’ efforts to find an ideological basis for promoting dynastic legitimacy that served as a starting point for a general reassessment of narratives about the past created by literate elites. One of the principle points here is the emphasis on the obvious contrast between the second- and third-century, i.e. Antonine and Severan, authors’ views of the past: if the former tended to exclude the present and post-Augustan past from their narratives,3 the latter were much more interested in contemporary or recent history and, at the same time, re-imagined the entire Roman history. Kemezis discusses in detail how the specific features of each narrative and authorial persona emerge from the general Severan context.

In chapter three (“Cassius Dio: the last annalist”) Kemezis analyzes the whole corpus of the “Roman History” in its particular cultural context, as a commentary on the Severan period. To understand Dio’s narrative world and overall rhetorical objective, Kemezis distinguishes and thoroughly describes four “narrative modes” discernable in his work: that of the Republic, the dynasteiai (this is a critical construct of Kemezis’ own, based on the sharp differences between Dio’s mid-Republican and late-Republican narratives), the Principate and the contemporary period (or “eyewitness” mode), each with its own functions, literary technique and rules for picking out and representing certain sorts of events and human motivation. Kemezis is right to stress that in all these modes Dio’s story remains one of himself and of the senatorial order as the locus of true historical continuity and Romanness. Among interesting innovative ideas developed within this chapter one should note the author’s use of the Agrippa–Maecenas debate in Book 52 and of the excursus of Book 53 as interpretive keys to the Dio’s annalistic history as a whole, also how Dio assessed Roman rulers not as men in absolute terms, but as performers in the role of emperor, a habit that tends to obscure differences of personalities between various holders of the throne, and the idea that Dio’s views of continuity and transformation within Roman political life are very different from the scripts Severan emperors wrote for themselves. In his portrait of the monarchical world established by Augustus the historian locates continuity and change not in a set of “Good Emperor” attributes, but within institutions, above all magisterial offices, putting forth his own story of how older senatorial traditions were appropriated and adapted by new generations of provincial elites.

In two chapters on Philostratus’ “Life of Apollonius” and “Lives of Sophists,” Kemezis proposes an insightful reading of these texts as a diptych, a rare and innovative sort of historical narrative – a history without political events that was a product of particular moment in the later years of the Severan period. In his methodological remarks, he notes that Philostratus has a double affinity with history, both as narrator of the events of the relatively recent past and as participant in the larger discourse of his time about how the present relates to the more distant past. Unlike Cassius Dio and Herodian, Philostratus does not locate Roman rulers at the center of his narrative worlds, but bases his stories around various forms of Greek cultural excellence that could, however, be incorporated into the larger discourse of imperial power. Treating the first composition as basically a work of fiction situated in Roman historical time, Kemezis argues that Philostratus’ main rhetorical aim is to transform the marginally Greek figure of Apollonius into a fully accredited Hellene and a truly exceptional representative of Greek culture, and to present him as a key causal factor in Roman dynastic history at a specific moment “when the shared experience of tyranny has put traditional cultural dichotomies in the background” (190). Kemezis is most successful in his analysis of “Apollonian geography,” that is Philostratus’ portrait of three different geographical zones through which his hero passes: the far periphery, the Hellenic center, and the imperial center.

If Apollonius represents a projection of a timeless and unindividuated Greek world into Roman narrative history, the Sophists fill the recent past with individual figures belonging to successive generations of teachers and students. Neither work explicitly defines its temporality in dynastic terms. As Kemezis points out, the world of the Philostratean sophists has emperors, but not dynasties; it is also marked by a distinctive sense of cultural geography with its key locations in classical Greece from which sophistic activities move to the imperial center. By drawing a direct narrative link between present-day sophists and the beginning of their movement in the fourth century BC, Philostratus transcends his era’s conventional divisions of ancient and modern. The narrative scheme used by Philostratus also allows him to erase the distinction between sophists and their objects of mimesis, wherein their mimetic abilities spread beyond the stage into less ephemeral areas of civic life. In Kemezis’ view, the Philostratean texts can be read as quite different depictions of how Greek cultural activity might have a transformative effect in an imperial context and provide one of the elements of continuity in the changing empire. The most Severan aspect of Philostratus, as Kemezis sees it, is the way he offers multiple versions of his culture and its past. In general, Philostratus offers a very singular version of how Greekness interacts with geography, narrative history and elite identity.

Kemezis’ discussion of Herodian in chapter six gives us another fresh view on the correlation between narrative style and cultural implications of the Severan age. Herodian does not create a new literary paradigm, but uses the static and orderly forms of historical writing typical of the Antonine age, with the result that his heavily fictionalized historiography is constantly at odds with the chaotic events after the death of Marcus Aurelius. Herodian is a story-teller who, unlike Dio and Philostratus, has no grand schemes for re-imagining chronology and geography. Nevertheless, his narrative style is the result of his literary tactics rather than the consequence of mediocre literary gifts. Herodian seeks to give his audience pleasure by describing the dysfunction of contemporary life in polished literary forms characteristic of the Antonine age. In his treatment of Herodian’s narrative Kemezis underlines the key role of geographical contrast between center and periphery (especially p. 245 ff.). But this approach yields conclusions that seem to be somewhat exaggerated. He claims that the success or failure of principle characters and even the general fate of the empire are determined by geographical and cultural differences between imperial center and periphery. So, for example, Alexander Severus’ failure is said to be mainly the result of his movement from his natural environment in Rome to the uncongenial atmosphere of the frontier (248–9); and even in the cases of Pertinax and Julian, who never left Rome, there is still a geographical aspect to their careers (251). The breakdown of Roman unity finds expression also in social and rhetorical interactions, because when different groups of people within the empire start to speak different languages, rhetoric loses its power to describe and influence reality, and there arises fatal miscommunication as a common characteristic of the post-Marcus world. It is difficult to get rid of the impression that Kemezis here is importing his own interpretive constructs and scheme into the ancient historian’s text, rather than revealing the genuine intentions of its author. He sometimes ascribes to Herodian certain desires that are likely his own suggestions (e.g., p. 264: “Herodian has no desire to make either the narrative or the external world seem coherent”). Particular cases and features are generalized and given universal meaning. Similar ascriptions one can find in other passages of the book. For example, it is said that for Commodus “Marcus was not so much a link to the past Antonine tradition as a necessary precondition of the new order…” (48); “Philostratus wants his readers to contemplate the idea of a narrative history of Greek culture independent of political circumstances…” (203). Some of this is perhaps the result of the narratological approach or of Kemezis’ manner of writing, but in some cases the author seems to be pressing his case too hard.

These shortcomings, however, do not undermine the general conclusion that whereas Herodian tried to remain an Antonine author while describing the dysfunctional Severan world, Dio and Philostratus deliberately violated second- century literary canons and created new kinds of grand narratives to express their life experience; all of the works under examination, however, “posit an unified elite identity as inherently desirable” (278) This very readable volume, which is well-produced (with a very few insignificant typos) is based on the successful use of novel approaches and original questions. It will surely be essential reading for students and specialists in Classics and Roman imperial history.4


1.   Adam M. Kemezis, The Roman Past in the Age of the Severans. PhD Dissertation (University of Michigan 2006).
2.   See, e.g.: Douglas Cairns, Ruth Scodel (edd.), Defining Greek Narrative, Edinburgh Leventis studies, 7 (Edinburgh 2014); Anna Marmodoro, Jonathan Hill (ed.), The Author’s Voice in Classical and Late Antiquity (Oxford; New York 2013); Miltsios Nikos, The Shaping of Narrative in Polybius (Berlin 2013).
3.   Here Kemezis relies on his excellent article “Lucian, Fronto and the Absense of Contemporary Historiography under the Antonines,” AJP 131 (2010), 285–325.
4.   The work is supported by Russian Foundation for Humanities, project 13-01-00088.

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