BMCR 2003.03.14

Greek Literature and the Roman Empire. The Politics of Imitation

, Greek literature and the Roman empire : the politics of imitation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. xiv, 377 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 0199240353. $74.00.

Tim Whitmarsh (W.) is possibly the most interesting and sophisticated critic writing on Greek Imperial literature these days, and this important, groundbreaking new book should solidify this reputation. The breadth, subtlety, and richness of writing on display is remarkable; if you want to understand why the Second Sophistic is undergoing such a resurgence in Classics, to grasp what is at stake in the literature and why it is so exciting, and can only read one book on the topic, this should be it.1

To be sure, sophisticated literary studies of individual works, authors, and genres of the Imperial period have been appearing at an increasing rate (and W. has benefited from them, as he acknowledges) — one thinks of, among others, Goldhill on the novel, Branham on Lucian, Duff on Plutarch’s Lives, Porter on Pausanias, and the articles in the recent Being Greek Under Rome collection.2 But no study has tackled and made sense of the central features of Second Sophistic literary writing as a whole in a theoretically informed fashion: its sense of belatedness, its sophistication, and its notion of Hellenic identity, both in relation to the Greek past and to the Roman present.3 How should we think about and read these texts? What was at stake in their production? W.’s answers to these questions and his careful and complex thinking about the issues involved are some of the reasons that, for once, the expansive title of a book actually matches the scope of its contents.

What are these contents? In the first part of the book (“The Politics of Imitation”), he examines two of the fundamental concepts constituting ‘Greekness’ in the period — mimesis and paideia, while in the second (“Greece and Rome”) he focuses on particular types of discourse that dramatized Greek-Roman relations via the manipulation of these concepts: that of the exile, the philosophic advisor to emperors, and the satirist. In the important Introduction (1-38), moreover, W. outlines, with admirable clarity and insistence, precisely how his approach to the interpretative issues differs from that of previous scholars (e.g., Maud Gleason, Thomas Schmitz, and especially Simon Swain), and in doing so puts the whole study of the Second Sophistic on new theoretical footing.4 The section entitled “The Politics of Imitation” (29-38) in particular, is essential reading for anyone attempting to grapple with the issues involved in reading or interpreting Greek Imperial literature. It’s worth summarizing (selectively, of course) his main points before moving on.

W. sets out to explore “how ‘the literary’ is employed to construct Greek identity in relationship to the Greek past and the Roman present.” (1-2) Rather than reflecting a pre-existing identity, however, literature itself, in W.’s view, is the means by which that identity (‘Greekness’, for example) is constructed: “Literature is an ever incomplete, ever unstable process of self-making.” (2) The concept that ties literary production and identity together is paideia, of which literary writing was the chief manifestation.5 Because the notion of paideia both was rooted in the prestigious, canonical past and constituted the central factor in defining what it meant to be ‘Greek’ (for both ‘Greeks’ and ‘Romans’), to write literature was a primary means of asserting one’s Hellenic identity and of taking a position vis-a-vis the classical Greek past. Literary texts themselves are thus the sites in which the ideas of paideia, mimesis, and ultimately Hellenic identity are worked through and ultimately defined. Second Sophistic texts, rather than functioning as the reflections (evidence) of underlying opinions, ideologies, or social forces (a still all too common methodological assumption in the field), are in fact ‘active participants’ in their construction. Thus, W. neatly ties together the vexed notion of Greek identity under Rome with literary production itself: “The Hellenism of Greek literature is neither natural nor self-evident — it is rather artfully created.” (22)

W.’s approach is particularly appealing because it taps into some of the most salient characteristics of Second Sophistic texts. While it is common nowadays to hear that Greek Imperial writers were clever and inventive, W. takes this one step further: to be hyper-sophisticated, flamboyant, allusive was precisely how one demonstrated that one was pepaideumenos, and by extension that one was Greek. To understand Greek identity, then, requires reading these texts closely, because grasping their nuances is the preliminary step toward understanding how those texts are performing, processing, and manipulating the problems of ‘Greekness’, belatedness, and paideia. In a culture where detailed reading practices were the norm, one would expect that its texts would invite sophisticated literary criticism, and W. takes up this challenge. The sheer number and variety of W.’s complex and original readings of Second Sophistic texts is one of the remarkable aspects of the book.

In Chapter 1 (“Repetition: The Crisis of Posterity”) W. interrogates the notion of mimesis as a way of thinking about the relation of the Second Sophistic to the past. W.’s central question is: how did Greeks of the time characterize the relation between the great authors of the past and their own efforts? As we should expect, the answer will not be a simple one. W. notes that mimesis, while central to the Greek conception of their relation to the literary past, was marked by a fundamental and irresolvable tension. On the one hand, literary imitation is an attempt to assert continuity through the repetition of tradition, but at the same time this “necessarily enforces an awareness of difference and discontinuity.” (47) W. explores how this tension was variously resolved or exploited in a sort of ascending tricolon of texts: Plutarch’s How the Young Man Should Listen to Poetry, Longinus’ On the Sublime, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ fragmentary On Mimesis. For W., Plutarch tries to recoup mimesis from Plato’s damning treatment in the Republic and reasserts it as a socially useful practice for a culture of sophisticated readers and practitioners of literature. Mimesis in Plutarch’s hands becomes the ethically proper mode in which a ‘secondary society’ maintains ties with tradition. W.’s brilliant (and summary-defying) reading of Longinus’ “oscillation between subversion and regulated order” (65) in his definitions of sublime writing, demonstrates how inconsistent, ambivalent and impossible to pin down this text is. There is no doubt, however, that Longinus “dramatizes a much more problematic, embattled terrain,” (71) between present and past than does Plutarch. Finally W. sees in Dionysius’ text the formulation of ‘imitation’ that he will focus on for the rest of the book — the conscious theorization of mimesis conceived of as τέχνη in opposition to nature: “the notion that the artful, artificial, and secondary is, in fact, superior to the natural.” (74) This emphasis on mimesis as rupture with tradition is exemplified by two generic innovations of the period that flaunted their artificiality — Lucian’s satirical dialogue and the Greek novel. W. elegantly discusses Lucian’s metaphorical use of the hippocentaur to describe the novelty and hybridity of his dialogue-form, and shows how the novel’s preoccupations with nature and artifice point to its “self-conscious modernity” (78) via brief but insightful analyses of the nature-culture tensions in Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe and the commentary on identity formation implicit in Heliodorus’ Aethiopica.6

Chapter 2 (“Education: Strategies of Self-Making”) turns the discussion to paideia’s construction of identity, and circulates around another fundamental mimetic paradox — paideia, or education, is a means of replicating and reinforcing the hierarchical boundaries between social categories (mass and elite, Greek and non-Greek, man and woman), but it is also, in its identity-forming aspect, the means by which these boundaries can be crossed. W. examines this central tension (social-consolidation vs. social-transformation) as it plays out in status, gender, and Hellenism. Here, by emphasizing paideia’s inherent de-stabilizing potential, W. is explicitly complicating the Bourdieu-influenced model of paideia as solely a legitimation for elite power, adopted, to varying degrees, by Gleason, Swain, and Schmitz (cf. 129-130).

Ps.-Plutarch’s On the Education of Children provides a paradigmatic example of paideia’s internal conflict. On the one hand, the author continuously asserts the role of paideia in maintaining and reflecting the social hierarchy as ‘natural’. But if paideia is necessary, then it is not ‘natural’ to the elite, and anyone could become educated, no matter what his birth or origin. W. shows how several texts “think through” this issue of natural vs. cultural education via the polarity of rustic vs. educated: Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, perhaps the best and most sophisticated treatment of the theme, Philostratus’ Heroicus, and the fascinating story of the Heracles of Herodes Atticus told by Philostratus in his Lives of the Sophists. Here W. is at his best — demonstrating with brief, insightful readings the complexity, relevance, and richness of his chosen texts, which by no means adhere to a unitary viewpoint. In contrast, I felt that the next section, (“Paideia and Gender,”) was the weakest in the chapter. W. looks at how both Plutarch and Musonius Rufus construct paideia as masculine in their treatises recommending the education of women; while Plutarch reinforces the “normative balance of power in the household” (112), Musonius allows for the possibility for women to be educated by ‘becoming men’. Again W.’s emphasis is on the clash between the need to declare paideia as ‘natural’ and ‘masculine’ and the acknowledgment that women can also become educated, but here his supporting material is rather thin and his conclusions seem a bit forced. “Paideia and Hellenism”, on the other hand, is an exemplary treatment of the transformative power of paideia as displayed by Favorinus and Lucian — both most likely non-native Greek speakers from the opposite ends of the Roman Empire (Arles, Samosata) who became ‘Greek’ through acculturation. In Favorinus’ Corinthian Oration (= Dio Chrysostom, Or. 37) W. notes an intense self-consciousness and celebration of the orator’s self-fashioning, while Lucian (esp. in The Dream, and the so-called Scythian works — Anacharsis, Toxaris, The Scythian) seems more ambivalent; while he often draws attention to the performative aspects of education, it is never seen as utterly transfigurative as in Favorinus. W. sees this as a result of Lucian’s constantly shifting self-positioning — sometimes being ‘Greek’, sometimes refusing to relinquish his outsider’s status — a fitting role for a satirist, and a fitting figure with which to conclude a chapter devoted to showing “just how provisional is paideia’s construction of identity.” (128)

While Chapters 1 and 2 explore further the concepts brought up in the Introduction, meditating on secondariness, identity-formation, and education in Second Sophistic culture (via a selection of exemplary texts), Chapters 3-5 narrow the focus to individual articulations of Rome.

Chapter 3 (“Rome Uncivilized: Exile and the Kingdom”) centers on narratives of opposition to Rome as figured in Musonius’ That Exile is not an Evil, Dio Chrysostom’s 13th Oration, and Favorinus’ On Exile (translated for the first time into English in Appendix I). Rather than focus on the much-discussed questions of the historical circumstances (or even reality) of the exiles, W. sees these narratives as attempts at using exile to construct a philosophical persona. Musonius, despite his position as a Roman writing in Greek, seeks to define himself as part of the Greek philosophical tradition, as a new, yet recognizable paradigm to be imitated (accomplished through an interesting engagement with the discourse of Athenian democracy and the figure of Socrates). Dio, however, is more self-conscious about his place in a tradition which was “already knee-deep in exiles.” W. maps how Dio subtly negotiates this problem — how to assume the authoritative stance of the exile yet acknowledge the worn out nature of the topos — by managing to present his “self-dramatization as a Greek philosopher opposing Roman power” as the result of “a mixture of apparent accident and delightful sophistical ingenuity.” (164) Finally Favorinus, in a fascinating speech that has not received much attention previously, takes the exilic model to its logical extreme. Favorinus’ remarkable critique of traditional Greek nostalgia and patriotism leads to his conclusion that everyone is an exile, everyone was originally a ‘foreigner; the ideal of autochthony, so central to much of Greek identity, is simply a myth. Favorinus’ construction of himself as “a generalizable emblem of all literary and social identity” (178) goes against every well-known platitude about the Second Sophistic — its unthinking reverence of the past, its lack of originality, its political quietism — and shows us, as W. reads Favorinus, “that the past does not determine the present, that the present writes the past, that one’s identity is created, rhetorically and strategically, in the here and now.” (177)

Chapter 4 (“Civilizing Rome: Greek Pedagogy”) is the book’s longest and seems to have been at the heart of its original conception.7 W. examines the figure of the Greek philosophic advisor to Roman emperors — a conciliatory role as opposed to the oppositional one of the exile. W. discusses Plutarch and Marcus Aurelius, but the center of attention is really Dio: his self-representation in the Kingship Orations and Philostratus’ depictions of Dio in the Life of Apollonius of Tyana and the Lives of the Sophists. Again, Dio emerges as an intricately self-conscious manipulator of traditions and topoi, managing to have it both ways, both being a pedagogue to emperors and asserting his independence from their control. The Kingships have always been the orations of Dio most interesting to scholars (because of their obvious political aspects) and John Moles in particular has written extensively on them, ascertaining their tone, their purpose, and their performance context.8 W.’s reading shifts the parameters of the discussion considerably, focusing on the “representation of the interaction between Greek and Roman” rather than the ‘reality’ of Dio’s relationship to Trajan. W. also makes the interesting move of looking at the reception and reworking of Dio’s own self-construction, particularly in the Apollonius, where Dio is used as a counterpoint to the title character in their encounters before Vespasian. Nevertheless, for all the legitimate interest of these texts and the skill with which W. reads them, the chapter felt overlong and a bit unwieldy — a striking contrast with the rest of the book.

Finally, Chapter 5 (“Lucian: Satirizing Rome”) returns to more familiar shifting ground. For W., Lucian’s satire becomes another means of figuring the relation between Greeks and Romans. But W. is quick to remind us that here also identity, whether Greek, Syrian, or Roman, is “not the motivating force for composing, but part of the literary game” so characteristic of Lucianic discourse (250). Rather than scour Lucian’s texts for ‘opinions’ concerning Rome, and then pass judgment upon whether they are ‘genuine’ or not, W. chooses to focus on Lucian’s exploration of “the paradigmatic relationship between Greek paideia and Roman social-economic domination”. In Sale of Lives, for instance, Lucian derides the superficialization and commodification of philosophy, while Nigrinus is a meditation on Athens and Rome as opposite poles in the power and paideia relationship: Rome, the city of spectacle, wealth, commercialism has outstripped its teacher, Athens. On Salaried Posts deals with the issue of patronage and artistic independence within “the coercive structure of Roman domination.” While W., as usual, offers up insightful, original readings of these texts (working through the complicated framing devices of the Nigrinus, identifying the “spectacularization” of paideia as one of Lucian’s primary satiric targets, analyzing the “network of gazes” that disempower the pepaideumenos in On Salaried Posts (286)), the ostensible point of the chapter — Lucian’s relation to Rome — often gets lost in the shuffle. In one sense, this doesn’t matter much, since witnessing W.’s skill in teasing out Lucian’s subtleties in each text is reward enough. But in an attempt to locate a conclusion or synthesis, W. risks banalizing the complexity, the multi-vocality, of his own interpretations. What ties these texts together, in his eyes, is how Lucian continuously undermines his own satirical high ground — managing to criticize Greek co-optation into the dominant Roman socio-economic hegemony, while pointing up the uselessness and vanity of advocating a pure ‘Greek’ positionality. To see Lucian as a good post-modernist who understands that there is no meta-language, that we are all caught up in an inescapable dialectic, is undoubtedly true, and perhaps this is W.’s point: in the multivalent, constantly shifting game of identity played in the Second Sophistic, this is the best conclusion we can hope for.

In some sense, this is symptomatic of the entire book: W.’s readings are not geared toward making specific points as much as showing how each text thinks through and complicates the tensions and paradoxes involved in the relation of Greece to Rome. To come up with an overarching conclusion neatly summarizing it all necessarily strikes the reader as reductive and unsatisfactory. W. attaches a conclusion to the end of every chapter, and reading them can clarify the salient issues that are sometimes lost track of in the dense readings of texts. On occasion, W.’s readings of texts do go well beyond the actual point he was trying to make (e.g., on the depiction of Musonius in Philostratus’ Nero 9), and the signposting is helpful. But there is a somewhat heavy-handed repetitiveness in the conclusions — every text is a site of contestation, every author renewing and reworking tradition, offering shifting and unstable identities, etc. — which is not the feeling one gets while actually reading the relevant chapters. Perhaps this is a quibble, but should serve to emphasize that the real value of this book lies as much in the depth and range of W.’s readings as in its innovative theoretical foundation — and not in any easily quoted ‘conclusions’ about, for instance, the exile.

Of course, W.’s interest in tension and self-consciousness works much better for certain authors than for others: Dio Chrysostom, Lucian, and Favorinus are clearly the privileged subjects of this book, and when the discussion turns to them, the book is at its best. In contrast, I couldn’t help feeling my attention lagging when Musonius, Plutarch, or Marcus Aurelius entered the picture; for all W.’s careful reading practices, his theoretical apparatus simply works better for the more flamboyant, self-conscious texts. W.’s structuring of certain chapters by starting with a ‘straight’ author and concluding with a ‘self-conscious’ one only draws attention to this contrast. Now this is understandable since W.’s expressed goal is to concentrate on “the ludic and elusive temper of Greek self-representation” in this period, and he admirably gives us a sense of why these texts are so much fun to read. One wonders though how W.’s model of Greek Imperial Literature would fare if extended to less popular (for us) authors (e.g., Maximus of Tyre, Aelian, Aelius Aristides), or less ludic ones (say, Sextus Empiricus).

I should add, however, that this book functions as one of the best introductions available to those Second Sophistic figures on whom W. lavishes attention. Chapter 5 on Lucian (along with other sections scattered throughout the book) is, I think, the most penetratingly informative treatment of Lucianic discourse since Branham’s Unruly Eloquence, and his analyses of Dio (especially in Chapter 3) convey a far better understanding of that author’s technique, literary persona, and general slipperiness than any book-length study currently available. His Favorinus is a worthy complement to Gleason’s account in Making Men, and from a literary-critical standpoint, surpasses it.

Over the past forty years or so, the Second Sophistic has been recognized as an interesting and important historical and cultural phenomenon, and certain genres, like the novel, have established themselves as ‘literature’, but the study of Greek Imperial literature is currently struggling (as that of other ‘secondary’ literatures have done in the past such as Hellenistic poetry, Silver Latin) for recognition as being serious, worthy, and canonical.10 If this book reaches the audience it so richly deserves, it will go a long way toward achieving that goal.11


1. Much of Whitmarsh’s previous work appears, in one form or another, in this book. In particular, as he notes, his article “Reading power in Roman Greece: the paideia of Dio Chrysostom” (in Y.L. Too & N. Livingstone (eds.) (1998) Pedagogy and Power, 192-213. Cambridge) makes up part of Chapter 3, and “‘Greece is the world’: exile and identity in the Second Sophistic” (in S. Goldhill (ed.) (2001) Being Greek Under Rome, 269-305. Cambridge) a substantial part of Chapter 4.

2. S. Goldhill (1994) Foucault’s Virginity; R. Branham (1989) Unruly Eloquence. Harvard; T. Duff (1999) Plutarch’s Lives. Exploring Virtue and Vice. Oxford; J. Porter (2001) “Ideals and Ruins. Pausanias, Longinus, and the Second Sophistic,” in S. Alcock, J. Cherry, and J. Elsner (eds.) Pausanias, 63-92. Oxford; S. Goldhill (ed.) (2001) Being Greek Under Rome. Cambridge.

3. G. Anderson (1995) The Second Sophistic. Routledge, is a serviceable survey, and B. Reardon (1971) Au courants littéraires grecs des IIe et IIIe siècles après J.-C. Paris, remains valuable, despite the omission of authors such as Dio and Plutarch.

4. M. Gleason (1995) Making Men. Princeton; T. Schmitz (1997) Bildung und Macht. C.H. Beck; S. Swain (1996) Hellenism and Empire. Oxford.

5. W. provides a nice overview of the concept of paideia in Greek culture and its changing ideological charges over time, especially with reference to Rome’s own appropriation of Greek paideia.

6. W. provides a more extended reading of the Aethiopica along these lines in R. Hunter (ed.) (1998) Studies in Heliodorus, 93-124. Cambridge. Cf. the BMCR review of this volume by M. Anderson: (1999.06.04)

7. W.’s 1998 Cambridge D.Phil. thesis was titled Symboulos: philosophy, power and culture in the literature of Roman Greece, and focused on the Greek philosophical advisor. Initial notices of the book under review went under a similar name.

8. E.g., J.L. Moles (1990) “The Kingship Orations of Dio Chrysostom,” PLLS 6, 297-375. W. argues that the ostensible performative scenario of the Kingships (before the Emperor Trajan) was likely to have been fictitious and plausibly imagines them as delivered in a civic context in Asia Minor. Appendix 2 (325-7) argues this in more detail.

9. Possibly due to the fact that W. has treated the dialogue at length previously in JHS 119 (1999), 142-60.

10. Note the citations of Latinists such as Stephen Hinds, Duncan Kennedy, and David Quint in W.’s Introduction.

11. The book is extremely well-produced; very few typographical errors popped up. One sentence, however, puzzled me: on p. 273, W. speaks of a “feline narrative involution” in Lucian’s Nigrinus. Extremely suggestive, but opaque, I think.