Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.07.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.07.10

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 Jean Alvares, Montclair State University (


[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 Martin Korenjak, BMCR 2018.07.09.]

One might almost call this valuable volume Forty Three Ways of Thinking about the So-called "Second Sophistic". All chapters evidence solid scholarship; some give substantial overviews of designated subject matter, others are more argumentative. The authors are admittedly inconsistent in their perspectives (5 ff.). Particularly impressive is the exploration of perspectives and practices associated with the Second Sophistic in non-literary forms. The editors declare their volume signals a new approach that more closely ties Greek literature to the wider range of culture productions in the later Empire. It fills a true need, since many of its authors are outside graduate school reading lists. Even then some authors, such as Pseudo-Longinus, have been omitted. The book is divided into sections and each essay chapter provides a substantial bibliography. Here I can only provide thumbnail sketches, which cannot capture the detailed information and argumentation of many chapters, but hints at the volume’s substantial scope and variety.

Johnson’s and Richter ("Periodicity and Scope") assert a chronologically demarcated literary period invites errors of emphasis and interpretation in respect to connected elements of artistic production and socio-cultural-political events. "Second Sophistic" more generally designates "an era centered on the second century with defining characteristics that go well beyond Greek sophists or even Greek literature" (4). The usual checklist of ‘Second Sophistic’ tendencies appear, often in complex, ambivalent ways. It artists reuse the iconic past in quite anti-classical ways, and their relationship to the Roman present was varied. This awareness of constructedness engages many issues regarding fictionality, imitation and competition with reality itself. There is an exploration of the ‘modalities of Hellenism.’

Whitmarsh’s "Hellenistic and Early Imperial Continuities" implies that the Second Sophistic, like a photon in quantum physics, exhibit particle like properties, being located at a set time and space, but also exhibit wave like aspects, a cloud of properties that, spilling over various frames of space and time, are interconnected. This view unites varied works, not all literary, as a series of tendencies, such as the focus on culture, archaism, fictionality, rhetoric and self-presentation. Further, the ‘wavelike function’ includes Egyptian and Hebrew works such as Joseph and Aseneth, the Exagoge of Ezekiel, or the stories of Setne Khaemwas, which exhibit interest in the past and problems of self-definition, trends in a dialectical relationship with various non-Greco-Roman literary cultural traditions. The focus on a particulate ‘Greek identity’ is likewise problematical, its elements shared with other cultures, hybridized forms are as common as ‘purer’ ones.

To the question, "Was there a Latin Second Sophistic?", Habinek’s answer is: “Yes, but not the one most Latin authors would care to admit to” (35). A proper Roman orator speaks as part of political and judicial action rooted in a concrete reality, not as a form of entertainment, nor does he cultivate such self-display. Second Sophistic writers like Gellius could display encyclopedic knowledge, especially about language and antiquarian matters. Fronto emphasizes practical usage, not exhibitionism, being keen to social concerns. Apuleius comports himself as a genuine Latin sophist, a pose restricted to North Africa, being linked to, but not an integral part of, the Roman web of power. The Greek Second Sophist ends when the "royal court consisted of Greek speaking intellectuals of African and Syrian descent” (32). Later authors tried to recover Latin’s lost glories through erudition and refinement of language.

In the second section, "Language and Identity," Kim ("Atticism and Asianism") notes how Wilamowitz transformed a debate over Atticism vs. Asianism to how Roman era authors became focused on using archaic forms of Attic Greek. Atticism is connected to varied classicisms, and develops a strict linguistic variety, a higher register of Atticism added to a high register which marked out the users’ cultural status. ‘Asianism’ is not necessarily opposed to Atticism in vocabulary; it is an anti-classical style, glorying in less restrained forms of word-music, often connected depictions of the paradoxical or shocking.

Bloomer ("Latinitas") shows how specialized Latin usage becomes a marker for elite society, linked to antiquarianism, good taste and cultural authority, and exhibits varied forms of purism but avoids slavish imitation. Eventually, as with Greek, the cultivated object becomes an hypothesized literary Latin that corresponds to no living practice, yet is claimed as a mirror of reality.

Richter’s "Cosmopolitanism" considers philosophers, political thinkers, Aristides’ Panathenaicus, and philosopher-exiles. The Stoic notions of universal rationality and oikeiosis were particularly influential. Central is striking a balance between claims of culture and blood, more easily accomplished for Rome than Athens. For the Stoic philosopher, exile could force an awareness of a common humanity and citizenship.

Dench ("Ethnicity, Identity and Culture") notes elite individuals preformed different identities; Figuring out Roman identity was often more important than determining Greek identity. Robust notions of identity based on ethnic descent co-existed with Favorinus’ conception of Greekness as paideia and praxis. Philostratus’ idiosyncratic assemblage of Sophists provides no consensus on identity, but genealogical relationships are constantly evoked.

Richlin’s "Retrosexuality" suggests in our texts we are observe evocations of valued past practices (retrosexuality) rather than current praxis. Literature depicted living elite women mostly as embodying ancient values; the sex lives of fictional women provide endless prurient examples. We see similar concerns in medical writing (Galen) and philosophy (Plutarch, Dio). In the Greek novels young women are endlessly subject to sexual threats. The era’s considerable amount of pederastic literature also has its ‘retrosexual’ side. Eunuchs appear at the margins. Between teachers and pupils there are notable erotic and misogynistic overtones with classical antecedents.

The third section, ‘Paideia and Performance’, opens with Webb’s “Schools and Paideia.” The evidence stresses ‘sociability’ between Sophists and pupils rather than teaching (139). There was a broad uniformity throughout the Empire in rhetorical instruction which differed little from what occurred before. There was a hierarchy of the educated, and only the richest could travel to the needed teachers; this need for mobility raised tensions and helps explain the stress on sociability.

König (“Athletes and Trainers”) notes the expansion of athletic events, corresponding to increased opportunities for rhetorical performance; sophists and athletic trainers moved in similar circles. Athletic games and festivals, like literature, were linked to the mythical, glorified Hellenic past. But, as Galen shows, there was resentment of such trainers as interlopers on the fields of medicine and philosophy.

In "Professionals of Paideia. The Sophists as Performers," Schmitz considers sophists as professionals. Clearly elegant clothing was expected. Declamations could be held in a wide variety of public places, but the audience dimension is critical. Serious constant reading, practice and training were required. The highest-level sophists had independent means, and repute was their chief goal. But just training was insufficient; the greatest sophists must have an innate force of character.

Thomas ("Performance Space”) explores how “the teachers of the Second Sophistic were not just aware of their architectural surroundings; they positively fed off them” (182). The orator’s music, costume and gestures must prove as worthy and dramatic as the architectural setting. The orator’s own genius could create virtual spaces. Some famous orators paid for impressive venues, and made other benefactions adding to their city’s repute. Lucian’s De Domo may describe a performance space in a private villa.

The fourth section, "Rhetoric and Rhetoricians," opens with Pernot’s “Greek and Latin Rhetorical Culture,” who surveys the vast bulk of rhetorical production, which remained useful in public life. The standard rhetorical curriculum cultivated skills in critical thinking, prepared for public life and provided varied forms of cultural formation. Epidetic rhetoric was the greatest innovation, serving an important cultural function, especially in expressing collective desires. There was a ‘Third Sophistic' in the fourth century, and a sort of ‘pre-second Sophistic’ in the time of the Elder Seneca.

Jackson’s ("Dio Chrysostom") places Dio and his self-representation within the Second Sophistic. His supposed exile is an important, if problematical, heuristic. Dio’s Euboicus shows the impossibility of separating Dio’ speeches from his biography (221-2). Dio, like many of the Greek elite, used various attitudes to Rome as part of a play of identity and power. Much of Dio’s orations like Oration 11, the Trojan Oration with its rejection of the canonical Homeric story, and Oration 5, The Libyan Myth, display myths as mutable cultural markers.

Holdford-Strevens ("Favorinus and Herodes Atticus") considers how Favorinus combines in unique ways the roles of philosopher and high-end performing rhetor. His crowd-pleasing rhetorical style was Asiatic, although he kept a high standard of Atticism. Herodes Atticus, whom Philostratus makes the Second Sophistic’s godfather, has left virtually nothing behind, and Holdfold-Strevens focuses on details of his sordid political biography.

Fleury ("Fronto and his circle"), shows Fronto shares more with the movement than he would have admitted. His references to the other sophists are social and moral, and he appears often among them in Gellius. His correspondence reveals Fronto’s circle is a fluid mix of Greeks and Romans. Most interestingly, although Fronto styles himself a barbarian, a tertium quid, still shares with the Greek sophists the assertion that cultural power tops political power.

Oudot ("Aelius Aristides") notes Aristides rejected the term ‘sophist’, and many aspects of the Sophists’ career. Oratory organized and disciplined his world (257), with a kind of divine logos, and his divine mission was to promote it. His presentation of Asclepius as his master is part of his process of self-construction. Particularly creative was Aristides’ mimesis of ancient orators; he waged a war with Plato as if with a contemporary. His triumphant Hellenism was a set of eternal cultural values, and Rome’s function is to ‘historicize the perfection of Greece’ (265).

Part V, Literature and Culture, opens up with Miles, "Philostratus." The Philostratean corpus belongs largely to one individual, and the testimonia present knotty problems. Herodes Atticus is central to a (biased) representation of Philostratus’ own circle. Philostratus provides interpretative tools, guides for the would-be pepaideumenos. In the Life, "Philostratus sent [Apollonius] to India to be told how important true Greek culture was" (277, quoting Swain). The Heroicus displays sophistic games which also allow considerable seriousness. A focus on the past and issues of interpretation are central to the Icones, as are questions of emotive absorption.

Brenk ("Plutarch") notes Plutarch’s exceptionally broad cultural sweep and cosmopolitanism embodies many Second Sophistic qualities. A Middle-Platonist, he fought with Academic, Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, making significant contributions. The Table Talks are important performances of cultural memory, constructed so that the reader must weigh the various opinions, a type of training for the pepaideumenoi. Plutarch was a great scholar of comparative mythology like Philo earlier. About twenty-one essays deal with practical ethics, such as seen in On Anger.

Desideri ("Plutarch’s Lives") shows that in Plutarch’s era much historical interest is found in display rhetoric, local historiography, in antiquarian interests, and the figurative arts. The Parallel Lives connected to a real need, but the paired biographies were a later evolution. Plutarch is aware of the breakdown of traditional structures and anxious about his place in the universe. Past lives offered inspiration for self-regulation, which helps explain the biographical focus. Two parallel patterns of rise and fall are implied, that of Classical Greece and the Roman Republic, and Plutarch’s Lives showed how men with similar abilities and orientation dealt with their different political reality.

Richter ("Lucian of Samosata") notes how Lucian was dismissed by modern scholars’ prejudices about his supposed ‘oriental character”, but now embodies the ‘ethno-cultural hybrid.” (327). Richter refuses to imagine various Lucian-masks. Being a Syrian and a barbarian are authorial strategies. When accused of subverting or hybridizing Greek genres, Lucian insists that he has preserved the soul of the Greek genre though a mimesis making him internally Greek. Works like Zeus the Tragedian satirize how non-Greek styles have infiltrated Greece and he attacks savagely fakes like a Trimalchio-like Syrian bookbuyer.

For Harrison ("Apuleius") Apuleius shares much with Second Sophistic writers, while remaining in the mainstream of Roman culture. His varied output is increasingly encyclopedic. The Apologia, theoretically a defense speech, resembles epidictic performance with evocations of Cicero, and its learned digression aimed at established a bond with the proconsul Maximus. Self-presentation was a major focus. The Metamorphoses (which Harrison considers late) is likewise a ‘sophist’s novel’. In its destabilizing opening, displays of learning, reflections of classical texts, ekphrases, Platonic overtones as well as the Metamorphoses reflects many Second Sophistic concerns.

Hutton ("Pausanias") notes Pausanias’ insight to literary and cultural movements have been neglected, although offering mythological and historical information (358). Pausanias offers no clear goals for his project, but shares many Second Sophistic attitudes, such as a concentration on the past and disregard of the present. He focuses more on moral lessons than historical truth. Pausanias does not idealize that past, but finds something deeply evocative in the fragments, tangible points of contact between the contemporary physical world and remote history and myth He is particularly interested in pre-Roman sites of Classical religion, less interested in amalgamations of Greek and Roman culture. Like other Second Sophistic authors, Pausanias presents a creative mimesis of canonical authors.

Mattern ("Galen") show how Galen, a landowner, viewed the proper healthy body as male, urban, aristocratic, able to enjoy urban amenities. The Sophists’ non-empirical rhetoric was generally scorned by Galen, but in praise of their broad learning shares their values. As one could be a rhetor and philosopher, so Galen thought a physician should be a philosopher too and he wrote philosophical texts. As among Sophists, there were great rivalries, public demonstrations of anatomical skill and public debates. Galen had strong ties to the Roman aristocracy, but, ambivalent toward Roman power, avoided the inner imperial circle.

Morgan ("Chariton and Xenophon of Ephesus") shows these ‘presophistic’ novels engage many Second Sophistic issues. Chariton (imaginatively) uses the past (the Persian Empire) to reflect on the present (the Roman empire.) He also contrasts Greeks with barbaroi and paideia and elite vs. non-elite status is a major concern. While the Ephesiaka’s plot recalls that of Chariton, Morgan believes that “we do not have the text as it was meant to be” (398). Xenophon likewise reflects the Second Sophistic values that Chariton did, but there is more stress on elite vs. non-elite status.

Zeitlin ("Longus and Achilles Tatius") shows how these romances use similar novelistic tropes for different purposes, becoming a "a sort of test site for approaching theoretical questions about perception and cognition through the focalizing lens of eros" (407). Both are visually oriented, concerned about how one learns about the origins and nature of love, inspired by Plato, and flirt with the possibility of spiritual heights, but also suggest pornography. In Longus the emergence of Eros is both utterly natural, and yet evokes abundant references to prior literature; mimesis of nature must be augmented by art, and urban techne is useful in the countryside. Leucippe and Clitophon have no lack of knowledge, but must, though trials atone for their premature actions until there is the necessary spiritual transformation.

Selden ("The Anti-Sophistic Novel") provocatively dealing with non-Greco-Roman texts and languages, employs Arabic, Biblical Hebrew, Egyptian Hieroglyphics and sixteen other languages. Second Sophistic practice, having rejected the pluralist polyhellenism of Hellenistic literature, promotes archaizing Attic as the linguist expression of the insular fantasy of Hellenic greatness, and evokes its traumatizing loss, often through implied comparisons of Greece and Rome. The Alexander Romance, a hybrid, dialogic text that evokes different responses from different readers. rejects this Hellenocentric focus, making Alexander the son of Pharaoh Nectanebo, a master of magic, not Greek philosophy. The ‘rhetoric of anti-rhetoric’ appears in the Life of the Silent Philosopher Secundus, whose personal silence and Eastern-tinged writings impressed Hadrian. The Story of Aseneth, about the marriage of a Hebrew Patriarch with an Egyptian woman, aggressively attacks the cultural goals of the Second Sophistic, as well as post-second Temple Hebrew exclusivity.

Oikonomopoulou ("Miscellanies") notes “no other type of Second Sophistic writing yields more fruitful ground for appreciating the dynamics of literary experimentation in this period.” (447) Many miscellanies were produced, some by major figures of the Second Sophistic. Oikonomopoulou might have mentioned the Anatomy, where a near encyclopedic mass of information is brought to bear on a topic. One best defines miscellanies based on the interrelations between the author’s agenda, the reader’s expectations, and overall cultural milieu. Their authors take the paradoxical position that knowledge, presented somewhat randomly, is more useful and more entertaining. And, as in modern pedagogy, this variation can be tied to different cognitive facilities, or ‘learning styles.’

Trzaskoma ("Mythography") notes the bulk of our major mythographic texts come from the Second Sophistic; mythographical writings, most lost, provide the context for much of the era’s literature and oratory. Due to the vast, scattered bulk of mythological data, without summarizing, systematizing works like that of Pseudo-Apollodorus, ancient readers would have struggled. (464) . In these handbooks, many made for students, there is usually little attempt to interpret, rationalize or allegorize the myths. Attempts to interpret myth often have a moral purpose. Many literary and artistic references to myths come from these handbooks.

In "Historiography", Asirvatham notes history is found in nearly all genres of Greek literature, often for making ethical arguments. Asirvatham, focusing on Herodian, Arrian, Appian, and Cassius Dio, argues that historiography sets itself apart from rhetoric in its truth values while being aware of rhetoric’s power. It is harder to maintain a Greek vs. Roman distinction due to the combination a Roman historical focus and Greek perspectives. The subject matter of these Greek language historians is more Rome than Greece. Unlike most other Second Sophistic writers, they are not determinedly showing Rome as subject to Greek cultural dominance, but capable of a more Roman-values perspective.

Baumbach ("Poets and Poetry") notes all forms of poetry continued to be produced. The pepaideumenoi's education and practice displayed impressive knowledge of arcane poets and near contemporaries. Second Sophistic Greek epic is characterized by close engagement with Hellenistic poetry and Homer, as well as with Latin epic. Didactic poetry both formal (Oppian) and practical (Dionysius of Alexandria) flourished. Melic poetry was part of the imperial’s courts self-presentation. Epigrams, usually anonymous, preserved the memories of an individual or the collective memory of a city. The satirical epigram formed a new subgenre.

Hodkinson ("Epistolography") notes epistolography was an ‘important business’ for the Second Sophistic. Most surviving texts are anonymous, purportedly written by famous historical or literary figures, and recall exercises in prosopopoiia and ethopoiia. There was much literary experimentation. Aelian’s subtle works ‘provide a metacommentary on sophistic declamations” (512). The epistolary novel presents a new literary genre. Shorter epistolagraphic works offer a kind of ‘short story’. Embedded letters present another important innovation.

Part VI, "Philosophy and Philosophers," opens with Reydams-Schils' "Stoics." Anecdotes about the unsuccessful Musonius Rufus vs. the successful Dio of Prusa highlight differences between serious Stoics, who wanted to motivate though a deeper philosophical understanding, as opposed to Sophists like Dio, who wanted simply to persuade, Stoics tended to avoid the Sophist’s self- promotion and status-seeking, although engagement with life was not forbidden. Stoic philosophers preferred more individual, intimate settings for teaching.

Gordon, "Epicureanism Writ Large. Diogenes of Oenoanda," describes the considerable anti-Epicurean tradition. For Diogenes Laertius, Greek culture is produces human civilization, and Epicureanism is the pinnacle of Greek philosophy. Diogenes of Oenoanda, known for the vast inscription in Lycia, provides a revised version of Epicurean principles, essays on physics, a collection of letters, a will and much else. Diogenes presents his work as an act of civic philanthropy, and dreams of a Epicurean Golden Age.

Bett ("Skepticism") notes how some treated the long-dead skeptical Academy as still living. Favorinus was targeted as a skeptic, perhaps because an ability to extemporize and argue either side of a case suited his project. The Pyrrhonists do not appear as public figures. Not only is Sextus Empiricus nearly impossible to date, he seems willingly cut off from the intellectual currents of his time.

Fowler ("Platonism") deals with texts evoked uncounted times by participants in the Second Sophistic. Plutarch forms a bridge with the past and appreciated Plato’s aporetic and doctrinal aspects. The period’s Platonic writings all aim to explain, expose or clarify some issue, often borrowing from other philosophies. Commentaries provided exegesis of particular dialogues and polemical works attacked other schools.

Baltussen ("The Aristotelian Tradition") notes Peripatetics also looked back to better understand to their Classical forebears in what became a scholarly, bookish enterprise. Little is known of these philosophers save Alexander of Aphrodisias. The commentary was a major feature, and Alexander’s exegetical abilities were outstanding. In the Roman era, distinction should be made between committed Peripatetics and more eclectic thinkers, some not fully philosophers, such as Strabo.

The last section, "Religion and Religious Literature," begins with Horster ("Cult"). Festivals and various cultic practices expanded markedly, modifying religious practice across the empire, being a part of the ideological superstructure, a source of competition between cities, and a way of asserting identity. Of course practicing sophists contributed greatly.

Rutherford ("Pilgrimage") notes how religious travel (including intellectual tourism) was widespread in the era. Oracles flourish as never before. Initiations continued. Healing cults were likewise popular destinations, as were games and festivals, which asserted of Greek historical identity. There were forms of intellectual tourism, which sometimes involved seeking local historia.

Johnson ("Early Christianity and the Classical Tradition") notes that, while Christians saw themselves as belonging to an all- encompassing culture. Christian intellectuals engaged in complex negotiations with Classical, non-Christian culture. They imitated the intellectual, cultural and political practices of the Second sophistic, with some, (not all) using Greek learning against the Greeks, and claimed priority for the Jewish-Christian heritage.

In "Jewish Literature," Gruen notes Jews saw themselves as an exceptional people but since numerous Dispora Jews had lived for centuries across the empire, lived reality was quite different. Jewish intellectuals produced Jewish versions of various Greek genres, including the novel, adopting Greek structure to Jewish content, not without considerable tension. Gruen considers Philo, 4 Maccabees, Pseudo-Phocylides and Joseph and Aseneth.

Adler (“The Creation of Christian Elite Culture in Roman Syria and the Near East”) notes how Syrian Christianity produced cultural warriors like Titian, yet several, such as Africanus, functioned within the court of Abgar VIII and were ambassadors to Elegabalus. Some like Tatian saw barbarism an alternative paideia while others like Africanus, guided outsiders to eastern relics and recall earlier Sophists in their Classical learning and high end rhetoric.

In "Christian Apocrypha," Johnson considers the multifarious corpus of Christian apocryphal literature as the ‘dark matter’ of the Second Sophistic, being ‘dark’ since generally not included in surveys. Its many hundreds of works with complex histories of transmission, in a wide variety of languages, is another factor. Johnson necessarily limits himself to considering the many similarities to other Second Sophistic literature, especially in the Greek novel.

This is a truly valuable and complex volume that give a detailed overview of the ‘state of the question’ regarding the Second Sophistic and its penumbra. It certainly expanded my understanding of the movement. Alas, this volume is marred with formatting errors, some egregious, including what looks like proofreading marks.

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