Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.07.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.07.09

Daniel S. Richter, William A. Johnson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Second Sophistic.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xii, 758.  ISBN 9780199837472.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Martin Korenjak, University of Innsbruck (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

[Editor's note: Richter and Johnson's Oxford Handbook of the Second Sophistic attracted a great deal of interest when it was published, and so BMCR decided to commission two reviews, in the hope that providing contrasting perspectives would enable richer conversation in the field at large. The other review is written by Jean Alvares, BMCR 2018.07.10.]

In view of the exponential increase of interest in the Second Sophistic over the last few decades, the first companion or handbook on the subject was overdue. Now we have it. Comprising seven sections (I. Introduction, II. Language and Identity, III. Paideia and Performance, IV. Rhetoric and Rhetoricians, V. Literature and Culture, VI. Philosophy and Philosophers, and VII. Religion and Religious Literature), 43 chapters, and over 750 pages, this volume constitutes an impressive testimony to the breadth, depth, and vivacity of contemporary research in the field. As is only natural, the quality of the single contributions varies considerably, but most of them are competent summaries of the state of the question, and many present some original research as well. For example, in ch. 4, Lawrence Kim carefully analyses the many levels of κοινή and Atticism and paints a nuanced image of the linguistic landscape in the Greek part of the Empire. His distinction between “positive” and “negative” Atticism—that is, between the use of catchwords and phrases perceived as quintessentially Attic, on the one hand, and the much more difficult avoidance of un-Attic features, on the other (p. 49)—is a valuable conceptual tool. In less than twenty pages, Susan P. Mattern provides an astonishingly complete and coherent portrait of the towering and multi-faceted figure of Galen in ch. 24. Pamela Gordon’s presentation of the most expansive and perhaps most fascinating ancient inscription, set up by the Epicurean Diogenes in the Lycian city of Oenoanda in the early second century CE as a testimony to his philosophical allegiance, does full justice to its subject and includes the most recent findings on site (ch. 34). Han Baltussen’s exposition of the Aristotelian tradition (ch. 37) concludes with a helpful list of late Hellenistic and early imperial Peripatetics. The book’s concluding chapter on Christian apocrypha by Scott Fitzgerald Johnson provides a deftly structured overview of this tremendously extensive and complex field, whose exploration is presently just beginning in earnest.

There is one critical problem with the Oxford Handbook of the Second Sophistic, however: What is this Second Sophistic that it purports to be about? Philostratus, who coined the term δευτέρα σοφιστική in his Lives of the Sophists, intended it to refer to a group of Greek rhetorical teachers and showmen between the late first and early third centuries CE. More than a century ago, Wilamowitz pointed out that the notion has little to recommend it as the designation of a period in the history of Greek rhetoric (“Asianismus und Atticismus”, Hermes 35, 1900, 1–52, esp. 9–15), a view recently underscored by Paweł Janiszewski, Krystyna Stebnicka and Elżbieta Szabat’s Prosopography of Greek Rhetors and Sophists of the Roman Empire (Oxford 2015). The nearly 1200 entries in their book stretch without interruption from the first century BCE to the seventh century CE. This dubious terminology, however, did not deter Graham Anderson from writing The Second Sophistic (London 1993), the first book to feature the expression so prominently as its main title. Moreover, by declaring the Second Sophistic “a cultural phenomenon in the Roman Empire” in his subtitle, Anderson elevated a notion of doubtful value, even in the restricted field of rhetoric, to a much more far-reaching literary and cultural movement. This is, by and large, the meanting that the term Second Sophistic continues to carry until today, surrounded by a halo of associations, such as playfulness, irony, παιδεία, cultural capital, self-display, classicism, and identity—notions sufficiently vague to be ascribed with equal justification to all periods of Greek or any other culture.

The Oxford Handbook picks up this development and drives it to new extremes. Now, every literary and cultural phenomenon from the Greek (and occasionally Roman) part of the early empire (and a few centuries before and after) featuring some (or none, as Pyrrhonism, pp. 554–60) of the above-mentioned characteristics finds shelter under the umbrella of the Second Sophistic: from cosmopolitanism (ch. 6) to (retro-)sexuality (ch. 8) and athletics (ch. 10), from Plutarch’s Lives (ch. 20) to the so-called anti-sophistic novel (ch. 27; the term apparently refers to prose narrative other than the “big five” of the ancient novel) and to mythography (ch. 29), and from Aristotelianism (ch. 37) to pilgrimage (ch. 39) and Christian culture in Syria (ch. 42). The teaching and practice of eloquence, the only field covered by Philostratus’ original notion, are, by contrast, conspicuously underrepresented. Section IV, “Rhetoric and Rhetoricians”, contains just five chapters (“Greek and Latin Rhetorical Culture”, “Dio Chrysostom”, “Favorinus and Herodes Atticus”, “Fronto and His Circle”, and “Aelius Aristides”) and covers a bare 65 pages (pp. 205–69), less than one tenth of the whole book. Totally absent is the technical core of the matter, viz., rhetorical theory, even though this evolved dramatically under the empire, and its understanding has been revolutionized over the last few decades by scholars like Michel Patillon and Malcolm Heath. Hermogenes of Tarsus, on whose works rhetorical teaching was based under the later empire, in Byzantium, and to a considerable degree even in early modern Europe, is afforded a scant two entries in the index and no chapter. In this way, the notion of “Second Sophistic” is definitely severed from its roots and becomes a shorthand for “interesting aspects of imperial literature and culture”.

This redefinition and inflation of the term have not escaped the attention of the editors and contributors—quite the contrary: “As will already be clear from the discussion above, our purview for the Second Sophistic is unusually broad reaching,” the editors state in their introduction (p. 7). In a chapter suggestively subtitled, “Greek and Early Imperial Continuities,” Tim Whitmarsh speaks at length about the universally acknowledged “haziness of the term and the arbitrariness of chronological limits” (p. 12) and concludes that “Second Sophistic” should be used as a generic term rather than in reference to a specific historical period (pp. 20–21). Emma Dench questions “the exceptionalism of certain traits, such as a preoccupation with the past, and the performance of complex identities associated with the Second Sophistic” (p. 99). Some contributors also admit that there is little sophistic about their specific topic. Stephen M. Trzaskoma, for one, confesses, “We seem prima facie to be a long way from the heart of the Second Sophistic when dealing with mythographic texts” (p. 469), and there is nothing in the rest of his chapter to refute this prima facie impression. In her treatment of imperial historiography, Sulochana R. Asirvatham sounds doubtful regarding whether to enlarge the meaning of “Second Sophistic” to a degree that it can include authors as diverse as Arrian, Appian, Cassius Dio, and Herodian, or to abolish it altogether: “But their differences inevitably encourage more inclusivity, rather than more restrictiveness, in the Second Sophistic label (if we are going to use it at all)” (p. 478). Not surprisingly, the period is also considerably expanded chronologically. While the editors intend the book for “the student curious about the literary remains of the second century,” Daniel L. Selden explicitly extends this time span to stretch “from the mid-first to the mid-fourth century CE” (p. 421). More often, such extensions take place tacitly through the inclusion of earlier or later material. For instance, the apocryphal Acts of Apostles, discussed by Scott Fitzgerald Johnson (p. 672), cover the period from the third to the ninth century CE. Occasional attempts to sort out the conceptual mess remain halfhearted and ultimately fail. A phrase like “the Hellenic, urban, masculine, intellectual, and aristocratic values of the Second Sophistic” (Susan P. Mattern, p. 372) does little to give the period a clear profile, since “Second Sophistic” could easily be replaced by “Greek antiquity.” Johnson calls “the combination of entertainment and didacticism […] a hallmark of many types of Second Sophistic literature” (p. 680). Was Horace, who recommended the same mix of prodesse and delectare, a Second Sophist, too? In most cases, however, contributors just nod at the problem in passing and then quickly get back to business. In doing so, they can invoke the example of the editors, who do not bother to explain the reasons behind their “unusually broad- reaching” approach, but simply conclude their reflections on the book’s scope as follows: “With that said, our aim has been to offer a rich and varied exploration of social, literary, and intellectual history from the period” (p. 8). Apparently, ποικιλία is understood to provide a satisfying surrogate for coherence.

Standards of production are as high as one expects from OUP. The erroneous repetition of a whole line in a citation (p. 409) remains an exception. Foreign-language citations are, however, liable to distortion (“Kuretenstresse,” p. 194; “lieux de memoire,” p. 360; “ Das antike Jundentum,” p. 438). The use of endnotes instead of footnotes is inconvenient. Given the inclusion of chapters such as “Performance Space” (ch. 12) and the strong visual aspect of imperial culture in general, the total lack of illustrations (apart from the gorgeous Library of Celsus on the cover) is regrettable.

In sum, I warmly recommend the Oxford Handbook of the Second Sophistic to anyone looking for up-to-date information on a broad range of aspects of imperial literature and culture. However, the reader should be on guard against its tendency to lump all of these issues together under a heading that explains nothing and, worse, highlights certain fashionable facets in a way that detracts attention from the great amount of fundamental research that remains to be done in the field. As yet, we do not even have a real commentary on Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists itself. More talk on cultural capital, identity, and retrosexuality is no substitute for that.

Authors and Titles

1. William A. Johnson and Daniel S. Richter: Periodicity and Scope
2. Tim Whitmarsh: Greece: Hellenistic and Early Imperial Continuities
3. Thomas Habinek: Was There a Latin Second Sophistic?

4. Lawrence Kim: Atticism and Asianism
5. W. Martin Bloomer: Latinitas
6. Daniel S. Richter: Cosmopolitanism
7. Emma Dench: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity
8. Amy Richlin: Retrosexuality: Sex in the Second Sophistic

9. Ruth Webb: Schools and Paideia
10. Jason König: Athletes and Trainers
11. Thomas A. Schmitz: Professionals of Paideia? The Sophists as Performers
12. Edmund Thomas: Performance Space

13. Laurent Pernot: Greek and Latin Rhetorical Culture
14. Claire Rachel Jackson: Dio Chrysostom
15. Leofranc Holford-Strevens: Favorinus and Herodes Atticus
16. Pascale Fleury: Fronto and His Circle
17. Estelle Oudot: Aelius Aristides

18. Graeme Miles: Philostratus
19. Frederick E. Brenk: Plutarch: Philosophy, Religion, and Ethics
20. Paolo Desideri: Plutarch’s Lives
21. Daniel S. Richter: Lucian of Samosata
22. Stephen J. Harrison: Apuleius
23. William Hutton: Pausanias
24. Susan P. Mattern: Galen
25. J. R. Morgan: Chariton and Xenophon of Ephesus
26. Froma Zeitlin: Longus and Achilles Tatius
27. Daniel L. Selden: The Anti-Sophistic Novel
28. Katerina Oikonomopoulou: Miscellanies
29. Stephen M. Trzaskoma: Mythography
30. Sulochana R. Asirvatham: Historiography
31. Manuel Baumbach: Poets and Poetry
32. Owen Hodkinson: Epistolography

33. Gretchen Reydams-Schils: The Stoics
34. Pamela Gordon: Epicureanism Writ Large: Diogenes of Oenoanda
35. Richard Bett: Skepticism
36. Ryan C. Fowler: Platonism
37. Han Baltussen: The Aristotelian Tradition

38. Marietta Horster: Cult
39. Ian C. Rutherford: Pilgrimage
40. Aaron P. Johnson: Early Christianity and the Classical Tradition
41. Eric S. Gruen: Jewish Literature
42. William Adler: The Creation of Christian Elite Culture in Roman Syria and the Near East
43. Scott Fitzgerald Johnson: Christian Apocrypha
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