BMCR 1997.04.14

1997.4.14, Swain, Hellenism and Empire

, Hellenism and empire : language, classicism, and power in the Greek world, AD 50-250. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. xii, 499 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 9780198147725. $90.00.

Diogenes Laertius begins his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers with censure of those who claim that philosophy has its roots among Persians, Babylonians, Egyptians, or other barbaroi. Diogenes’ counterclaim is simple: the honor belongs exclusively to the Greeks, with whom “not just philosophy, but the human race itself began” (1.3). Diogenes’ was an era of Greek revival, and it should come as no surprise that this renaissance brought with it a revival of the traditional Greek vs. barbarian polarity. Focusing upon the years of the second sophistic (roughly 50-250 CE) when the revival of Hellenism was at its strongest, Swain’s book examines Greek attitudes not toward barbarians per se, but toward the Romans, whom the Greeks saw as a sort of “tertium quid” (p. 68), an uneasy middle ground between Greek and barbaros.

Part One, “Greeks,” sets out in detail the central issues: ch. 1 “Language and Identity,” ch. 2 “The Practice of Purism,” and ch. 3 “Past and Present.” The first two chapters describe how classicizing and atticizing Greek functioned broadly as “a badge of elite identity” (p. 64). Significantly, this linguistic purism involved not just cultivation of classical Athenian texts, but also resistance to the use of Latin, which was tolerated only in non-educated Greeks. Ch. 3 outlines how constant reference to the classical past complemented this purism in language, contributing further to the construction and maintenance of cultured “Greekness.” Although much of this will be familiar territory to those familiar with the past twenty or thirty years of scholarship on the second sophistic, Swain’s treatment is learned, carefully documented, and well worth reading. Early on in Part One Swain identifies the question of “whether Greek classicism was an assertion of Greekness against Rome” as one of the most difficult to answer (p. 40). This is a question that much of the book addresses (sometimes directly and often obliquely), and from the beginning it emerges that Swain’s answer is a qualified yes.

Part One concludes with a chapter on “The Greek Novel and Greek Identity,” in which the novels of Chariton, Longus, Xenophon of Ephesus, and others are described as another articulation of the “cultural hegemony” of the Greek elite (p. 109). Although these novels all take place in a “composite Greek world of the past” (p. 101), they present a “new conjugality,” a “new sexual ethics” (p. 122). Married love triumphs in this “world without Rome” (p. 130), and Swain suggests that this betokens an interest in procreation that has everything to do with a longing to perpetuate the elite clan and a desire for this Greek “past” to live on forever. Except for this suggestion, this chapter seems to skirt the Rome problem. Swain briefly considers whether Stoicism or imperial marriage legislation helped foster the new attitudes toward love and marriage presented in the novel, but the discussion as a whole seems to waver between acknowledging the influence of Romanitas and describing the novel as a discourse of resistance. These possibilities are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but here Swain’s discussion does not integrate the two poles.

The bulk of the book, Part Two, “Greeks and Rome,” examines ten authors individually: Plutarch, Dio of Prusa, Arrian, Appian, Aristides, Lucian, Pausanias, Galen, Philostratus, and Cassius Dio. Ch. 5 describes Plutarch (“perhaps the most important author of the second sophistic period,” p. 135) as a man who admires Rome, but from a careful distance and with reservations. A section titled “Two Peoples—One Culture” focuses on the Parallel Lives, which contain the most obvious expression of “the notion of comparability between Greece and Rome” (p. 137). Significantly, Swain finds that while Plutarch never assigns moral failing in a Greek to the failings of his education, Plutarch does relate the moral weaknesses of Romans to their training. Swain ascribes this difference to the notions (common among Plutarch’s peers) that Greek culture was the only culture “worth pursuing” (p. 143), and that Romans were not likely to acquire Greek culture with total success. Another work that receives detailed discussion is Political Advice, which Swain calls “perhaps the most important single expression of Greek elite views of living with Rome” (p. 162). In Swain’s analysis, Plutarch respected Roman order and even believed that Rome’s rise was an act of divine providence. And yet Plutarch suspected that Romans had an innate “potential for barbarism” (p. 143, a phrase Swain borrows from D. A. Russell).

Ch. 6 on Dio of Prusa describes Dio not as a scholar like Plutarch, but as a public personality who performed as sophist, philosopher, politician, or bellettrist as the occasion demanded. But like Plutarch, Dio was a promoter of Greek culture who also had “a considered relationship with Rome” (p. 187). Occasionally, however, Dio’s attitude is one of outright hostility toward Rome (p. 234). Ch. 7 presents Arrian as a contrast to both Dio and Plutarch, for in Arrian we have perfect “integration of the Greek elite into the highest levels of Roman government” (p. 242). In Swain’s view, Arrian finds it unproblematic to be politically Roman and culturally Greek. The rest of ch. 7 treats Appian, whose attitude toward Rome Swain finds more difficult to assess.

Ch. 8 treats the orator Aristides (Swain declines to label him a sophist), who recorded that he met in his dreams not just Sophocles, Plato, and Demosthenes, but also the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Swain devotes ten pages to To Rome, an oration that praises Rome but that unlike the Panathenaic Oration evinces no great sympathy or loyalty. Swain ends this section by remarking that Alexandria is the only other city praised in To Rome, an interesting fact given Alexandria’s “habitual rebelliousness” against Rome (p. 284). Swain concludes that Aristides “wanted no part in the system he praised” in his Roman oration and that “his real loyalties, his cognitive and spiritual identity, lay firmly in Greece” (p. 297). Next, ch. 9 turns to Lucian, a Syrian “outsider” who adopted an Hellenic identity. For Swain, Lucian’s outsider status is crucial to understanding not just his “paranoia” (p. 46) about his control of Greek, but also his favorable attitude toward Rome. For unlike any other representative of the Greek second sophistic, Lucian writes “we” when speaking of Rome (p. 313). Although Swain is right to draw attention to Lucian’s self-presentation as a non-Greek, he seems not to know what to do with a figure whose “cultural-religious identity was probably a Semitic one of some sort,” but who “cognitively … had no real choice at this time but to be a Hellene,” and who was “naturally drawn towards a Roman [political] identity” (p. 314).

Ch. 10 treats Pausanias, “a hierophant of all things Greek” (p. 356). Swain finds Pausanias “spiritually and culturally” Hellenic but difficult to pin down politically (p. 332). The resentment and indignation Pausanias expresses against Rome, whether focused on Roman thefts from Greek temples, on Roman colonization of Greek territory, or on Roman military intervention, seems to be restricted to the past deeds of the Romans, while the current Roman emperors receive Pausanias’ praise.

In Ch. 11 we return to an author that Swain privileges and seems to admire almost as much as he does Plutarch. This is Galen, whose “whole medical output is a celebration of Hellenic philosophy and learning” (p. 378). This chapter includes a lengthy discussion of De Praecognitione (“one of the most exciting texts written in the period,” p. 359), which contains a denunciation of Rome (in the voice of one of Galen’s patients). Although Galen spent over thirty years in Rome his heart remained in the Greek East. He accords Rome scant praise—he admires the quality of its water, the abundance of its medical supplies, and (a back-handed compliment this) admits that it serves as an excellent medical training ground. What Swain finds most striking is Galen’s “insulation from the Roman world” (p. 377) and his lack of attachment to or political identification with the Antonine regime. While Galen’s attitude seems generally to be one of indifference, disrespect for Rome occasionally surfaces. Galen even reveals “a significant contempt” (p. 378) in his commentary on Hippocrates’Airs, Waters, Places when he recounts his conversation with some “educated” Romans who (in addition to not understanding the math) were not even aware that the equinox could be calculated.

Chapters 12 and 13 present Philostratus and Cassius Dio, the last two authors to be given individual attention. Here Philostratus emerges as a figure who (like some of the performers he describes in the Lives of the Sophists) used the Greek past simply as a way to establish his personal power in the present. Although Philostratus’ world had become “necessarily Roman in political-administrative terms,” in cultural and spiritual terms it was “as Greek as Plutarch’s or Galen’s” (p. 380). By the time we reach Cassius Dio it is clear that Swain sees these third-century authors as no more committed to Rome than the others. Despite his Roman career, Cassius Dio is “Roman” in political terms only and remains fundamentally “Greek”.

Swain’s focus in much of Part Two on texts in which Greek intellectuals make explicit reference to Rome seems sensible but perhaps a less literal approach would have been more productive. My own opinion is that the same authors’ comments on (e.g.) food, clothes, sex, sexuality, gender, pleasure, the baths, the theater, divination, religion, suicide, or the philosophical schools can be even more revealing of their cultural identity. Swain’s narrow focus in some of these chapters is quite deliberate, however, to judge from his comments about gladiatorial games. While many scholars have assumed that anti-Roman sentiment “lurks behind criticism of gladiation” Swain states that there is “no evidence” for this position (p. 174, n118). What he means (as becomes clear on p. 419) is that the Greek sources do not explicitly call “gladiation” Roman. Then in support of his notion that Greeks did not associate the games with Rome, Swain cites Plutarch’s reference to certain gladiators “who are not altogether bestial but are Hellenes” ( Non Posse 1099b, quoted on p. 419). To my ear that passage (which asserts that even gladiators can be more noble that the despicable Epicureans) sounds more like a testimony to the bestiality of the (implicitly Roman) games. And surely the fact that Plutarch knew that the arena contained gladiators who were Greek (many of them captives) has nothing to do with whether or not the Greeks considered the spectacle to be Roman.

Swain’s intentional exclusion of material that would be essential to a more nuanced approach also seems to lie behind his declaration that the book will focus on “the male Greek elite, that is, the restricted group in control of economy, culture, and government whose activities and beliefs are reasonably well known to us” (p.1), which I take as a rhetorical occupatio directed at anyone who might think that a book about culture and identity should involve an examination of discourse about women—or about masculinity. As for ancient authors not included in Swain’s field of vision, Diogenes Laertius, with whom I began this review, is the figure I most missed. Swain himself laments that he could not include the Christian novelists (p. 131, note 93), and defends his omission of Athenaeus, Epictetus, and Maximus of Tyre on the grounds that they do not explicitly discuss the relationship between Greece and Rome.

I am intrigued (but not entirely convinced) by Swain’s decision to write throughout the book of “race” rather than “ethnicity,” and I wonder what ideological values Swain attaches to these terms and whether he means to adopt the attitudes of his ancient sources. Labeling Galen’s disparagement of Egyptians as “a regular Hellenocentric racism” (p. 118 n.59) seems appropriate though many scholars would assert its irregularity. More surprising is the use of the language of race to refer to Greek/Roman tensions. We read of Plutarch’s “racial identity” (161), and learn that regarding Rome he was “at heart a non-integrationist” (185). We read that the word graecus is at times “a racial slur” (p. 405), that Greeks and Romans are two different “races” (e.g. pp. 138 and 139), and that “‘race’ was not as problematic as it is for us” (p. 69). It is unclear whether Swain understands “race” as construct or as biological fact, but since he argues that Greek cultural identity was so heavily based on language, one might expect him to lean toward the constructivist side. And yet Swain seems to believe that Lucian, despite his acquisition of “perfect” Greek (p. 44), could never succeed at passing. The index is singularly unhelpful here. “Ethnicity, problems of definition” and “ethnos” each receive a single entry (and lead the reader to partial enlightenment), and there are a few entries under “nationalism,” but neither “race” nor “patriotism” is indexed. There is elaborate indexing of “Greek elite identity,” but “race” does not appear as an subentry.

The book includes four appendices: “The Dating of the Greek Novels,” “Sosius Senecio’s Alleged Eastern Origin,” “The Dating of Dio of Prusa’s Rhodian and Alexandrian Orations,” and “Galen’s On Theriac to Piso.

A few items conspicuous for their absence from the forty-page bibliography are: Jacques Boulogne, Plutarque: un aristocrate grec sous l’occupation romaine (Presses Universitaires de Lille, 1994); Alain Gowing, The Triumviral Narratives of Appian and Cassius Dio (University of Michigan Press, 1993); and D. S. Potter, Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Roman Empire: A Historical Commentary on the Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle (Oxford University Press, 1990). Presumably the book was completed too early to benefit from Maud Gleason, Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome (Princeton University Press, 1995).

To sum up: this book presents thought-provoking treatments of many of the major Greek authors of the second sophistic. Although some readers may be annoyed by Swain’s ex cathedra style, and many will disagree with some of his assertions and conclusions, this book is certainly important reading for anyone working on any of the sophists, rhetors, philosophers, intellectuals, novelists, or litterati of the first centuries, or more generally on Greek culture under Roman domination. It should also be required reading for anyone who still indulges in that problematic hyphenization, “Graeco-Roman.”