BMCR 2005.07.11

Philostratus’ Heroikos: Religion and Cultural Identity in the Third Century C.E

, , Philostratus's Heroikos : religion and cultural identity in the third century C.E.. Writings from the Greco-Roman world ; no. 6. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004. 1 online resource (xxxiv, 408 pages).. $49.95.

The Heroikos of Philostratus, written between about 220 and 250 AD, is the great surprise to those who may complacently feel it has all been done in Classics (not the kind of person who reads BMCR I guess — but we all know one!).1 Not available in a Loeb, never translated into English till the valiant efforts of the editors of this collection in 2001,2 superlatively complex in its literary texture, and fascinating in its cultural implications for religious identity in the pre-Christian Roman empire, the Heroikos had amazingly been largely passed by until the twenty-first century. This observation may be extended beyond the text to its author whose immense sophistication and astonishing range of accomplishment across genres (from biography and history to dialogues, letters, ekphrastic descriptions and apologetics) have nevertheless merited only two monographs (both within the last twenty years)3 and no collection of essays discussing the entirety of a frankly brilliant corpus.4

So how can one greet a book like this with anything but a fanfare? It is terrific, learned, wide-ranging. The contents are divided into three sections, named after the dialogue’s principal protagonists — the hero Protesilaos, whose worship and cultivation the text discusses, and its two speakers, a vine-grower tending the cult site of Protesilaos in the Thracian Chersonnese and a Phoenician stranger: 1. ‘Protesilaos: The Witness of the Heroes’; 2. ‘The Vinedresser: Strategies for the Construction of Culture’; 3. ‘The Phoenician: Hellenes and Foreigners’. Frankly these titles are a touch misleading for they promise a close textual take on the Heroikos, whereas the essays encompassed within them range much more broadly. I am not going to waste space with a list of all 18 papers, their titles and inadequate two-sentence synopses. Instead I shall comment on the collection as a whole and on some individual papers as they struck me.

First, the relevance question. It is always difficult to tie a heterogeneous and varied group of pieces by different hands into a coherent whole. In fact, that is the intellectual challenge facing any editorial venture. Aitken and Maclean go for an inclusivist strategy in which anything remotely to do with the Heroikos (and sometimes not at all obviously to do with it) is allowed space. This makes for what the blurb calls a ‘multidimensional collection’, but the varied (and variable) mass of Wissenschaft carries a price in losing focus — especially focus on what the editors might want us to understand as the key questions arising from a contemporary interrogation of the Heroikos. One essay adopts the apologetic mode so mastered by Philostratus himself (both in Heroikos and even more so in the Life of Apollonius)5 to ‘make the case for adopting Philostratus’ Heroikos as an introductory course-text’.6 Several are quite simply not about the text which is the subject of the book: C.P. Jones, who has written a significant recent paper on the Heroikos,7 contributes an interesting summary piece on Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius (of which he is the new Loeb editor and translator — his edition is awaited with eager anticipation); Alain Blomart writes a good piece on ‘Transferring the Cults of Heroes in Ancient Greece’, but with no mention whatsoever of the Heroikos; one of the editors, Maclean, indulges her editorial privilege to put in two pieces of which the first on ‘Jesus as Cult Hero in the Fourth Gospel’ is relevant only to Philostratus in that it borrows some references from the Heroikos to talk about John; the final paper, by Sidney H. Griffith, is a valuable summary of the world ‘Beyond the Euphrates in Severan Times’, but it has nothing to do with Philostratus or his work at all. Maybe I am being dim, but why are these papers here? There is a difference between adducing comparanda and context to make a text understandable and just chucking in anything vaguely connected. There is a methodological difference between using Christian material to compare with Philostratus, in order to throw light on the Heroikos, for instance, and citing a few passages of the Heroikos to initiate a discussion of St John. One entailment of that difference is that the latter cannot be justified in a volume like this. Which is not to say that it is necessarily invalid in its own right. A related issue: Why include two previously published papers in a volume already over full? The justification for Hans Dieter Betz’s ‘Hero Worship and Christian Beliefs’ (1996) is that it existed only in German and that it is relevant; but Walter Burkert’s ‘Jason, Hypsipyle and New Fire at Lemnos’ (1970), first published in CQ and reissued in a collection in 2000, has long been available in English and is only concerned with using a brief passage from Heroikos to discuss something else. It has no place here.

Now that is not a very promising paragraph in a fanfare. But unfortunately it highlights the problems — and they are problems of editorial command — in the editors not deciding what this book is about. The Heroikos is a supremely interesting text, not least because it is extremely difficult to read — its general avoidance with rare exceptions by scholarship until very recently arises in my judgement out of this difficulty. The job of this book is to throw light on those problems, not to obfuscate them with ill chosen parallels. But the difficulty extends beyond the Heroikos itself. Philostratus’ text does not stand alone as a witty, elegantly conceived apology for traditional religion touched by an element of inspired epiphany in the appearance of Protesilaos and other Homeric heroes in the present.8 On the contrary, it belongs with a group of second and third century pagan religious texts (e.g. Plutarch’s Delphic dialogues and the De Iside et Osiride; Lucian’s Syrian Goddess, Alexander and Peregrinus; Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius; not to speak of ‘fictional’ narratives like The Golden Ass) which combine subtle and sophisticated literary method with concerns that belong to the same cultural and potentially the same experiential religious ‘encyclopaedia’ as early Christian writings but from a traditional and polytheist angle. We need not a self-standing article on Apollonius as holy man but the first comparative steps towards a full assessment of this religious corpus within the Second Sophistic and then a comparison of this with the Christian corpus. Modest moves are perceptible in both these areas but never so sufficiently controlled by a central editorial authority as to clinch any points. Indeed (despite its apparent structure) the volume might be said to be divided between pieces broadly on ancient religion, pieces broadly on Christianity within its polytheist contexts, pieces on the Heroikos as literature and some more generally contextualising papers on material culture and history. If I had to decide what mattered, it would above all be the question of Philostratus’ voice: whether the text is serious or a spoof, whether its religion is real or idealised or wholly fantastical … Without a clear sense of this or at least a clear position, we cannot reasonably use the Heroikos for any larger historical or cultural argument; not that this has ever stopped anyone!

On this key question — the text’s voice or tone (a question key to other religious texts of the Second Sophistic, as Jane Lightfoot’s monumental recent commentary on Lucian’s De Dea Syria has made amply clear)9 — the papers are divided and there is no editorial guidance as to how we might move. Simone Follet’s excellent piece on Philostratus’ treatment of landscapes in the north Aegean concludes with a plea for him to be trusted as an eye-witness, to be seen as an ethnographic companion to Pausanias (who is now seen as a sound source, at least since Christian Habicht rescued him from the charge of telling tall tales).10 Sue Alcock’s superb paper on archaeological context, by contrast, begins with the notion of Philostratus ‘fibbing’. Alcock finds potent parallels between the ‘commemorative manipulations’ of monumentalising the landscape in the Second Sophistic and certain aspects of Philostratus’ presentist idealism in confecting a sacred nostalgia in the living present. I have no doubt that there is more valuable work to be done in this vein, and that the interpretation of material culture in the Second Sophistic light of the ways texts of the period play with the past is a theme with much more to yield. Both Aitken and Maclean contribute valuable papers on the complexities and ambivalences of the text — Aitken on the problematics of using a Phoenician traveller as the dialogue’s interrogator and Maclean on the difficulties of the apparent character transformation of the Phoenician from scepticism to belief (as Betz puts it) or ‘from sophisticated hypercritic to drooling mythomaniac’ (Whitmarsh). The question of the Phoenician’s movement in faith is indeed a key issue — central to the sincerity question of the text’s writing, central to one’s worries about the genre in which it is cast, central to all questions of religion and identity. But I am not sure that the use of E.M. Forster’s notion of ‘flat’ and ’round’ characters (or indeed the notion of character at all) throws much light on it. Indeed it seems well over a decade since the notion of character fell out of the critical terminology for ancient writing altogether. Tim Whitmarsh, in a characteristically brilliant paper overtly on the relations of the Heroikos to travel-writing, comes closest to assessing how the text’s ‘hyperhellenic space’ ‘parades an ongoing self-consciousness about its own textuality’: ‘is this text a pious homage, or a sophistic joke? An unanswerable question, but this unanswerability is meaningful’ (quotes from pp. 239, 249 and 244).

What the catholicism of the editorial policy does allow is a richness of issues to be aired. I liked Corinne Pache’s examination of the place of the Heroikos in the poetics of hero cult (and in particular in relation to laments), even though she fails to come clean on the key question at p. 6 about whether the hero cult in the Heroikos is ‘real’ or purely literary. In particular she makes some useful comparisons with the intertext in Philostratus’ Imagines 2.16. Two papers make strong points on the strategies of allusion in the Heroikos : Francesca Mestre on its refutations of Homer and Jeff Rusten on the apparent uses of Pausanias. Rusten lists rather a convincing set of parallels in relation to hero-sized bones, then panics following Christian Habicht’s dictum that Pausanias was never read (which he believes with some hesitations, cf. his n.31)11 and is thus forced into those last refuges of the scholar: common sources or even independent autopsy. But it is high time we accepted that even Habicht can nod: recent papers by Ewen Bowie and Anthony Snodgrass, as well as some observations by Jane Lightfoot, have extended the list of likely testimonia of Pausanias, and to this mill Rusten’s paper is grist.12 That this review should find itself discussing the casting of light not on Philostratus’ Heroikos but on the work of Pausanias is entirely in the spirit of the collection under review: rich, disorganised, unable to distinguish whether a paper is about the Heroikos or just discusses some aspect of the Heroikos for another purpose, but rarely wholly without value.


1. In this review I follow the transliterative choices of the volume’s editors: so ‘ Heroikos‘ but ‘Philostratus’.

2. J. Maclean and E. Aitken, Flavius Philostratus: Heroikos, Atlanta, 2001.

3. G. Anderson, Philostratus: Biography and Belles Lettres in the Third Century A.D., London, 1986; A. Billault, L’Univers de Philostrate, Brussels, 2000.

4. But see E. Bowie and J. Elsner (eds.), Philostratus, Cambridge, forthcoming for an attempt to begin to remedy this.

5. E.g. S. Swain, ‘Defending Hellenism: Philostratus, In Honour of Apollonius‘ in M. Edwards, M. Goodman and S. Price (eds.), Apologetics in the Roman Empire, Oxford, 1999, 157-96.

6. C. Dué and G. Nagy, ‘Illuminating the Classics with the Heroes of Philostratus’ (pp. 49-73). I guess I have not spent long enough teaching in the USA to understand WHY this kind of pragmatic question can have any place in a substantive academic argument. The paper, by the way, has much of interest to offer in relation to issues of initiation.

7. C.P. Jones, ‘Time and Place in Philostratus’ Heroicus,’ JHS 121 (2001) 141-9.

8. Likewise, one might have thought that at least one paper or some part of a discussion would have been devoted to the place of Heroikos in the context of its author’s own corpus of work. Again one paper on the Life of Apollonius is not even the beginning of such a necessary process of critical embedding.

9. J. Lightfoot, Lucian, On the Syrian Goddess, Oxford 2003, 161-221.

10. C. Habicht, Pausanias’ Guide to Ancient Greece, Berkeley, 1985, 165-75.

11. Habicht (1985) 1, 8, 22, 24, 26.

12. E. Bowie, ‘Inspiration and Aspiration: Date, Genre and Readership,’ in S. Alcock, J. Cherry and J. Elsner (eds.), Pausanias: Travel and Memory in Roman Greece, Oxford, 2001, 21-32, esp. 29-32; A. Snodgrass, ‘Another Early Reader of Pausanias?’ JHS 123 (2003) 187-9; Lightfoot (2003) 218, 338.