BMCR 2002.02.22

Being Greek under Rome. Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic and the Development of Empire

, Being Greek under Rome : cultural identity, the second sophistic and the development of empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. viii, 395 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0521663172

Imperial Greek literature continues to be a growth industry, and exciting new approaches to this once neglected field crop up in many places. An edited volume seems an ideal medium for giving an overview of what is going on in this area. Simon Goldhill has brought together an impressive group of mostly young scholars. The collection offers a representative view of recent scholarship on questions of cultural identity in the Roman Empire, and it will undoubtedly be valuable to students of this period. It is particularly welcome that two contributions (Gleason, Schwartz) concern an area that has hitherto not been prominent in scholarship on imperial Greek literature.

Simon Goldhill’s “Introduction” (1-25) outlines the questions and puts them into perspective. He admits that the volume’s subtitle is problematic: both “culture” and “identity” have become so popular in recent academic discourse that they are battlegrounds for ideological in-fighting rather than clearly defined conceptual tools. Yet, for Goldhill, this is actually one of the volume’s advantages because it will put classical studies on the map of this debate which has all too often been restricted to contemporary material:1 “It is our hazard that there is still much to be learnt about cultural identity from the writing of the Mother of Empires” (25). Goldhill is candid in acknowledging that the collection will offer mere glimpses of the enormous field of Greek culture under the Roman Empire, yet he claims that these “snapshots” are “paradigmatic” (20).

John Henderson’s paper “From Megalopolis to Cosmopolis: Polybius, or there and back again” (29-49) examines “the many lives of Polybius,” his wanderings, both physical and intellectual, between the old world of Greek city-states and the new world order of the Roman Empire, which for him constituted the end of history. If I understand him correctly, Henderson argues that Polybius is indeed a case in which individual identity and cultural context were most closely intertwined. The numerous twists in his biography made him change his outlook on politics and especially on the historical role of Rome many times, and he decided to leave the traces of these changes in his work: “[…] the aged author decided to leave what he had written, against the full knowledge of whatever he came to think, in his final incarnation, was the correct record of it and its right interpretation” (43). I see little that is new here. Henderson’s style has always been a matter of contention. Readers must see for themselves if they find it refreshing or irritating (“In Latin, ‘Megalopolis’ was just the bus stop before Sparta. Now, Polybius had landed in the real‘Big Apple.'”). My impression was that this once rebellious mode of writing looks definitely dated in the 21st century.

Maud Gleason’s “Mutilated Messengers: Body Language in Josephus” (50-85) explores the ways in which Romans and Jews communicated via gestures or physical violence against their enemies or themselves. This is an excellent contribution, very readable and convincing in its interpretations of Josephus’s gruesome narratives. However, the thread by which Gleason’s paper is connected to the volume’s overall purpose seems thin at times. More importantly, she is not quite clear on whether “body language” is “a culturally specific gestural repertoire” (55) or “a crude lingua franca” (83) and “universal language” (85). If the former, we would need more sustained analysis of the historical antecedents of the gestures described by Josephus—in societies so far removed from our own culture, it is only through parallels that we can attempt to gauge the meaning of gestures.

Rebecca Preston’s “Roman Questions, Greek Answers: Plutarch and the Construction of Identity” (86-119) contains a number of interesting observations, yet, as a whole, it is too wordy and rambling. Preston argues that, for Plutarch, “Greek culture is not […] cultural at all, […] it is simply the natural order of things” (106). Plutarch fails to perceive the specificity of Roman culture because he uses “Greek cultural authority to decide on questions of Roman culture” (116). All of this is certainly valid, if hardly surprising. The article smacks of the dissertation; one gets the impression that, with more careful editing, this could have been a valuable contribution.

When it comes to exploring cultural identity and questions of self and other, Lucian’s Syrian Goddess is certainly one of the most fascinating texts of antiquity. In a brilliant paper, Jas Elsner teases out the implications of this ethnographic description of a foreign cult in Herodotean manner and language (“Describing the Self in the Language of Other: Pseudo (?) Lucian at the Temple of Hierapolis,” 123-53). Many scholars have tried to decide whether this treatise is ironical or serious. Elsner demonstrates convincingly that the ambiguity should not be ascribed to the readers’ poor judgment but is a specific strategy of the authorial voice: “we can never safely read the text through the eyes of a Hellenocentric sceptic or an eastern believer. […] It speaks with both voices at once.” (144). I particularly enjoyed his interpretation of the story of Stratonice and Combabus as a mise en abyme of the ways in which author and reader interact. In the end, Elsner cautiously suggests that Lucian may have been the author of this essay.

Goldhill’s “The Erotic Eye: Visual Stimulation and Cultural Conflict” (154-94) gives a penetrating analysis of the role of the gaze in a number of second-century texts. He demonstrates that seeing and being seen are important aspects of cultural identity in such diverse writers as Lucian, Achilles Tatius, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian. I found his interpretation of the use of similar Stoic terminology in Achilles Tatius and Clement of Alexandria especially rewarding: “How you look […] is integral to who you are and to the narrating of the self” (179). In his argument about Lucian’s Images and For the Images, Goldhill is less successful in showing why the fact that Panthea is the Greek mistress of a Roman Emperor should be significant for our reading of the text. Otherwise, this is a fine contribution that constantly makes good use of sophisticated theoretical approaches. Unfortunately, it is marred by numerous misprints in the Greek quotations and some slipshod references.2

Froma I. Zeitlin’s “Visions and Revisions of Homer” (195-266) is by far the longest paper in the volume; given that there is a lot of plot summary and repetition, it could easily have been shortened. Zeitlin “seeks to situate [Homer] and his work in the context of the expanding visual culture that is the hallmark of the post-classical era” (205). In particular, she is interested in theatrical elements, the visual arts and ecphraseis, and “direct encounters with the past.” She offers insightful remarks on Dio’s Olympian Oration, Lucian’s Images and For the Images, and Philostratus’s Heroicus. The main thread of Zeitlin’s arguments should have been made clearer: there is a quite perceptive outline of the categories she proposes (207-8), but this is never followed through. Her interpretation of Lucian’s pieces covers much common ground with Goldhill’s treatment, an overlap which would be pardonable in independent articles within a journal, yet is regrettable within an edited volume.

The following two papers, by Whitmarsh and van Nijf, are the most rewarding in the entire collection; they are also the ones that engage most directly with general questions about culture and identity. Tim Whitmarsh’s “‘Greece Is the World’: Exile and Identity in the Second Sophistic” (269-305) offers a thought-provoking analysis of the ways in which three philosophers presented their exile. Musonius Rufus cast himself in the role of a Roman Socrates, but he was clearly adapting his model to his own political and historical circumstances, not merely imitating a classical predecessor. Dio Chrysostom was at the same time a Greek intellectual and a Roman citizen and politician; narrations of his wanderings and exile helped mitigate tensions between these poles. Favorinus turns the experience of exile into an argument for cosmopolitanism. Whitmarsh makes a particularly strong argument for reconsidering our understanding of second-century mimesis : these writers are not merely quoting and imitating classical material; rather, their adaptations create an entirely novel version of the past. I found his emphasis on “the aims and ambitions” (305) of every single actor somewhat exaggerated: tradition manipulates the individual writer just as much as it is manipulated by him, and aims and ambitions are always determined by social and intellectual contexts. But this is a minor point; overall this seminal essay should be required reading for anyone studying imperial Greek literature.

Onno van Nijf’s “Local Heroes: Athletics, Festivals and Elite Self-fashioning in the Roman East” (306-34) offers a penetrating analysis of the function of athletics in the Eastern provinces. While athletic festivals were part of Greek paideia, they have to be understood within the framework of the Roman Empire. Van Nijf convincingly demonstrates the social function of athletics in Greek cities: they “provided […] a stylized and structured context in which individual aristocrats could compete with their peers for status in a socially acceptable manner” (327). Moreover, the festivals at which athletic contests took place reinforced political hierarchies within the cities and provinces. Van Nijf’s insistence that athletics should be considered an integral part of Greek culture is useful and important, but we have to admit that, if the “intellectual” aspects of paideia have been more prominent in recent studies, this is not due to some kind of prejudice, but because the ancient sources are more outspoken about language and philosophy: because of the nature of his documents, van Nijf’s interpretations must at times remain rather speculative.

Seth Schwartz’s “The Rabbi in Aphrodite’s Bath: Palestinian Society and Jewish Identity in the High Roman Empire” (335-61) is also directly relevant to questions of cultural identity. His starting point is the astonishing record of coinage and archeological remains in the Jewish cities of Palestine. How can their almost completely pagan nature be reconciled with the contemporaneous development of rabbinic authority? Schwartz argues that the rabbis should be viewed as negotiating between their adherence to a Pentateuchal ideal banning any form of pagan icon, and the reality of the period after the destruction of the temple when the life of most Jewish citizens had become more and more assimilated to the general mores of urban life in the Roman Empire. Had the rabbis tried to cling to rigoristic standards, “they would have reduced themselves to sectarian irrelevance” (361). I must confess my incompetence in the field treated by Schwartz, but my impression was that some of his interpretations are not bolstered by enough evidence.

The volume closes with a bibliography of works cited to which more care should have been applied. Readers should also have been warned that the book was somewhat long in the making: most contributions seem to have been written in 1996 or 1997, and there are some lacunae in the bibliographical references.3 Laudably, there is an “Index of major passages discussed” and a “General Index” (edited volumes without indexes should be outlawed); both are somewhat sketchy (so you will find the one reference to “Butler, J.” but not the numerous references to “Bowie, E.”). Despite some minor shortcomings, the general standard of production is high. The ugly habit of having transliterated Greek in the text seems now too firmly established to eradicate, yet it should be noted that some contributions (especially Zeitlin’s) have a number of interesting Greek verb forms that would raise eyebrows in my department’s Greek composition classes.

Do these essays make a convincing book? I am not quite certain. For one thing, the focus is not clear enough. I suspect that the term “Second Sophistic” made it into the subtitle because it is fashionable and will make the book more marketable. Even if we admit that Josephus and Jewish rabbis somehow belong to the world of the Second Sophistic, Polybius clearly does not fit. In volumes of this sort, it is perhaps inevitable that the quality of contributions varies— aliter non fit liber. What is less pardonable is the unevenness in the level of theoretical awareness. While Elsner, Whitmarsh and van Nijf tackle difficult questions of what is special about imperial Greek culture, the ahistorical nature of Zeitlin’s argument is really troubling (cf. the vague use of the term “post-classical” in the sentence quoted above). This should have been cleaned up in the process of editing. Nevertheless, the volume should be welcomed; the outstanding quality of some contributions could really establish classical scholarship as an important part of the study of cultural identities.


1. For a similar attempt in Germany, see M. Hose, “Von der Bedeutung der griechischen Literatur für Rom. Einige Betrachtungen aus der Sicht der postkolonialistischen Literaturtheorie,” in: P. Neukam (ed.), Antike Literatur—Mensch, Sprache, Welt, Munich 2000, 38-58.

2. One example, p. 175 n. 47: I doubt whether “Phil. VA 6.19 and Dionysus of Halicarnassus De Im. fr. 3″ can be labeled “well-known discussions” of the concept of mimesis; but, what is worse, both references are wrong. If “Phil.” is Philostratus, the passage referred to is not a technical discussion at all; if “Dionysus” is Dionysius, Goldhill should have noted that the word is not in the fragment he is quoting, but in a parallel passage from the pseudo-Dionysian ars (p. 373.21 Usener/Radermacher).

3. This is especially true of publications in languages other than English. Surprising omissions include A. Nikolaidis, WS 20 (1986) 229-44; M. Sartre, L’Orient Romain, Paris 1991; T. S. Scheer, Mythische Vorväter, Munich 1993. And, yes, scholars have thought about the questions raised on p. 90 n. 25; see T. Schmitz, Bildung und Macht, Munich 1997.