Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.09.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.09.16

Graeme Miles, Philostratus: Interpreters and Interpretation. Image, Text and Culture in Classical Antiquity.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2018.  Pp. 186.  ISBN 9781138219458.  $115.96.  

Reviewed by Simon Goldhill, University of Cambridge (


There are two surprising elements of Philostratus: Interpreters and Interpretation, a first book, based on his PhD, by Graeme Miles. One is the ambition of the project. There are few PhD students or early career scholars these days who would be encouraged to deal with the whole corpus of Philostratus, granted not just the number and length of the works, but also the range of genres—from love letters to biographical fiction, from the history of sophists to the descriptions of paintings. The other is that the book is largely a success. It is the first single authored volume on Philostratus since Graham Anderson’s very different sort of work, Philostratus: Biography and Belles Lettres in the Third Century AD, now more than thirty years old. Miles has the advantage that Philostratus has seen some sophisticated critical work in recent years: the volume edited in 2009 by Ewen Bowie and Jaś Elsner called simply Philostratus brought together a fine roster of scholars to look at individual works (full disclosure, I both wrote for that volume and co-edit the series in which it appeared); Jason König has changed our perception of the Gymmnasticus in Athletics and Literature in the Roman Empire (2005); Flintermann’s Power, Paideia and Pythagoreanism (1995) started a long list of scholars working on the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, and the Imagines has proved a key text in the burgeoning art and text studies—which is the driving force behind the new series in which Miles’s book appears, Image, Text and Culture, edited by Michael Squire, whose own contributions to this field have been particularly instrumental. But, nonetheless, this is the first book to offer a single, unified study of this hugely important writer of the third century, and the benefit of such a single vision is clear. It is a distinctive and impressively articulate contribution to the field.

The book is divided into eight short chapters framed by an introduction and a conclusion. The introduction shows its genesis as a PhD with a standard survey of the field, but since Philostratus’ oeuvre as a consolidated corpus is still rarely discussed, this is a justified gesture. It is also where Miles discusses very briefly the issue of which works are by which Philostratus: he deals with what have often been regarded as thorny problems with brusque conviction. Each chapter then looks at a specific work of Philostratus. In each case, Miles offers short, focused readings that concentrate on the figure of the interpreter and the practise of interpretation. By this, he means how the narrative voice in Philostratus is constructed as someone who looks at the world with the eye of an interpreter, who is trained in Greek culture and tradition and who views the world through the combination of rhetorical training, philosophical panache, and sophisticated self-awareness: the phenomenology of paideia. This leads in the case of the Heroicus, for example, to a heady brew that Miles nicely describes as ‘the deliberate mixing of the cultic and the quasi-fictional, the numinous and the intellectually dodgy’ (32). Along with the narrative persona, comes the practice of interpretation, which is where the coherent view of Philostratus pays off. There are few studies that have seen the need to link the figure of Apollonius, interpreter extraordinaire, with the figure of the narrator of the Imagines, the sophist in Naples discoursing in an art gallery. But the similarities and differences here reveal the projection of paideia in an especially rich light, which ‘present[s] the ideal of an active interpreter, whose hermeneutic process is a second mimêsis’(59). The ‘active interpreter’ is a key figure for Miles. In this he resembles, though does not cite or engage with, Joseph Pucci and, later, Aaron Pelttari, who have looked at the Latin writers roughly contemporary with Philostratus and emphasized the role of the reader as interpreter in writings that straddle the boundaries between Christian and non-Christian authors. What Miles’ image of Philostratus adds to their work is his insistence that the space created for interpretation is not neutral or open but strongly articulated by the ideals of educated and cultivated response—a socialized and institutionalized positionality that is fully normative.

This area is also where the work is less satisfying and in two main respects. First of all, Miles’ discussion of the Imagines in particular slides away from this construction of a normative positionality as it gets lost in the details of the process of interpretation that this long, complicated and fragmented work displays. Miles chooses a few pairs of images to look at, often separated by many pages in Philostratus’ text. It is unclear why and how Miles is imposing these pairings (for they are impositions, for sure). It is not that the pairings do not signify—they do, often interestingly. But why should we address only a bare handful of examples from a large collection, without fully treating the arbitrariness, selectivity and distortion of the critic’s own interpretative process? We need more care here to see how Philostratus’ text demands a really complex stance towards what is seen—in a work that is all about instructing a student about looking. Is the gaze coherent? Is there a system to this work? Or is it closer to the world of the ecphrastic epigram where a flash of insight is enough to ground an interpretation and complete the glance of observation? The second issue is a consequence of the focus on Philostratus. There is little space given to the surrounding world, and what is offered is insufficient. The treatment of Lucian’s Imagines and Pro Imaginibus is highlighted as important texts with which Philostratus engages. But the treatment of Lucian’s dialogic diptych is oversimplified in most of its aspects, including its dynamics of power—focused, as it is, not just on a girl called Pantheia but on the emperor’s concubine—and, above all, its slippery games of dialogue between the two pieces. It is harsh of course to complain that an ambitious first book could have been more ambitious, but to frame some of Philostratus’ concerns in the broader culture of display and self-presentation, interpretation and grammar, integral to the literary culture of this period, in Christianizing as well as in ‘pagan’ texts, would have deepened the book’s purchase on the cultural force of interpretation. Philostratus stands, as Miles notes, at a specific juncture. The fascination with interpretation will fuel the Christian writing of Jerome and Augustine, say, and dominate the cultural life of the fourth century. How the Greek culture of Philostratus will have an impact on the growing Christian intellectual project—with its different Greek and Latin trajectories—requires a broader contextualization, if its purchase is to be adequately recognized.

Despite these demurrals—or engagements—Philostratus: Interpreters and Interpetation is a stimulating, focused and coherent first book and first contribution to a new series. It should, as the author hopes with a traditional envoi in his last paragraph, happily encourage further research in an important area of understanding the Greek culture of the Roman Empire.

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