Pausanias’s Description of Greece has been the focus of increased scholarly scrutiny over recent decades, and this interest has produced a growing list of articles, collections, commentaries, dissertations and monographs. One thing for which an increasing need has arisen, however, is an up-to-date work that can serve as an accessible introduction to the text and its author for non-specialists as well as specialists. Christian Habicht’s 1985 monograph,1 based on his Sather lectures, has served that purpose ably for over two decades, but was always somewhat limited in its scope and has been overtaken in many respects by the progress of scholarship on Pausanias that it did no small part to inspire. A new synthesis of the state of Pausanias studies has long been needed, and Maria Pretzler has filled that lack admirably with the volume under review.
Like the Description of Greece itself, Pretzler’s work is divided into ten parts, but Pretzler’s divisions deal not with different parts of Pausanias’s Greece but with the different aspects of Pausanias’s authorial effort: Chapter 1 introduces the reader to the basic facts about the Description of Greece, and Chapter 2 deals with what we know about Pausanias himself, always a difficult topic to address since we know nothing about Pausanias aside from the tiny scraps of information that he lets slip in his own work. Pretzler avoids the pitfalls of biographical criticism that plague many previous efforts at this topic and paints for us a Pausanias who, far from being an idiosyncratic loner, purveys antiquarian information to the antiquarian elite society of the Second Sophistic at a time when “details about history and cults were valuable commodities” (p. 30).
Chapters 3 and 4 situate Pausanias in the context of travel and travel literature in ancient the Greek world, and in the Greek East of Pausanias’s day in particular. Here Pretzler deftly balances a comparative overview of travel and travel writing outside of Pausanias with an appreciation of Pausanias’s unique place in that milieu. In contrast to the facile characterizations of Pausanias’s work as a “travel guide” that one finds in earlier scholarship, Pretzler judiciously asserts that “the ancients had neither a clearly defined genre of travel writing, nor a notion of books specifically written for travelers,” and that “nothing suggests that [Pausanias] considers his work as a part of a specific genre of travel literature” (p. 45). Chapter 5 assesses Pausanias’s position in the broader realm of ancient conceptualizations and expressions of space, drawing on the work of geographers and periploi as well as the Tabula Peutingeriana for comparison.
Chapters 6, 7 and 8 deal with Pausanias as historian, topographer and connoisseur of art. While these are separate chapters, one theme that pervades them is that Pausanias’s efforts in these areas cannot be understood in isolation from one another. Pausanias’s desire to produce a treatment of each Greek locality that does justice to its unique character affects his selection and presentation of historical and artistic data. A sensitivity to local concerns may help explain Pausanias’s historiographical idiosyncrasies and his focus on certain aspects of artwork, such as historical and mythical connections, rather than others, such as style and affective response.
Up to the end of Chapter 8, there is little in Pretzler’s work that could be considered a radical departure from previous scholarship, yet along the way one constantly comes across fresh insights that make the reading worthwhile even for the most experienced of Pausaniacs (such as Pretzler’s comments on what Pausanias’s persona reveals about himself 8.33.2, where he states that formerly wealthy places like Delos and Egyptian Thebes had fewer resources in his day than a “private man of modest means” (p. 25)). In Chapter’s 9 and 10, however, Pretzler really breaks new ground by tackling the issue of Pausanias’s reception in the early modern period. The fortune of Pausanias’s text in late antiquity and the middle ages was covered by a still-fundamental series of articles by Aubrey Diller in the 1950’s,2 and numerous studies have emerged in recent years concerning the use of Pausanias by scholarly giants from around the turn of the 1900s, such as Farnell and Wilamowitz, but there is a large gap of time in between, from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, that has received relatively little scholarly scrutiny. Pretzler takes a solid step toward filling that gap in these chapters, examining the use of Pausanias by the likes of Caylus and Winckelmann and by early travelers to Greece such as Dodwell and Leake. In these chapters Pretzler underlines the importance of Pausanias in the formative days of the disciplines of art history and archaeology, and illustrates the ways in which Pausanias’s selective portrayal of Greek landscapes has shaped and sometimes straitjacketed modern views. Of course in the span of two chapters in a short book the amount of ground that Pretzler can cover is limited. An indication of how fertile a field of inquiry this remains is that in a work that was published independently and nearly simultaneously with Pretzler’s a team of scholars addressed Pausanias’s reception in the same general period, and ended up dealing, by and large, with a very different set of Pausanias’s readers.3
Overall, Pretzler gives us a Pausanias who exercises authorial control of his work, rather than a passive recorder of information, one whose aims and methods must be taken into account in the interpretation of the information (archaeological, historical, religious, and topographical) he provides. His work is accordingly one that cannot be understood piecemeal — each part of Pausanias’s testimony must be read an organic part of a carefully constructed context that weaves together the various strands of tradition and history that preoccupied the educated classes of the time with the realities that Pausanias found on-site in his travels. The ideal interpreter of Pausanias, therefore, is a scholar equally at home reading sophistic declamations and reports of archaeological surveys — the sort of interpreter Pretzler amply demonstrates herself to be. Pretzler’s Pausanias is not the trustworthy dingbat that too many of today’s scholars still wish he were — one whose intellectual and literary pretentions can safely be ignored in the process of extracting information from the text — but neither is he a springboard for deracinated pontifications about identity, memory, gaze and other currently popular abstractions. The observations Pretzler makes are solidly grounded in Pausanias’s own words and in the archaeological record, and copiously documented with citations.
The Description of Greece is such a complex text that no scholar can hope to cover every aspect of it in a work of less than 200 pages, and different Pausanias enthusiasts will doubtlessly miss different things in Pretzler’s selection of topics. One important area that seems to me to receive short shrift is the literary nature of Pausanias’s account. On several occasions, for instance, Pretzler will discuss some feature in Pausanias’s text that is reminiscent of Herodotus (e.g. pp. 18-19) in a manner that may leave readers thinking that such similarities are incidental or accidental, rather than fundamental elements of a pervasive program of Herodotean mimesis. Although Pretzler acknowledges Pausanias’s literary sophistication, she sometimes lapses into an interpretation of his decision-making that harkens back to old notions of Pausanias as a subliterary scribbler. For instance, in considering the question of why Pausanias presents his pocket biography of Philopoimen (8.49.2 – 52.6) in his treatment of Tegea (rather than in Philopoimen’s hometown of Megalopolis, or in Messene where he died) Pretzler’s answer is that it gave Pausanias the opportunity to show off an interesting inscription that he found on a statue base for Philopoimen at Tegea (p. 80). Pretzler is possibly correct about this, but it is at least worth considering that Pausanias had more involved motives for saving his account of the life of independent Greece’s “last good man” until he comes to an empty statue base in the last city he describes in the last book of his intricately structured account of the Peloponnesos.
As is appropriate for a work of this sort, Pretzler avoids devoting much space to controversy and polemic, though there are times when this reader feels that she might have done a bit less glossing over of points of scholarly contention. For instance, in discussing a notorious sentence in 8.27.1 Pretzler states Pausanias refers to Roman rule (or at least certain effects of it) as a “disaster.” I happen to think that Pretzler is right about this, but she should at least acknowledge the fact that an impressive number of scholars, including the editors of the most recent scholarly editions of the text, favor emending this apparent ‘anti-Roman’ reference out of existence. Finally, in a work that tackles so many topics in such a constrained space, there are inevitably a number of places where even a non-scholarly reader might long for a few examples or citations to illustrate generalizing statements, as, for example, when Pretzler states that some of Pausanias’s demonstrable historical errors “can be understood in the context of his aims, his use of local sources and his willingness to include details that differed from what could be found in well-known literary works” (p. 80). In nearly all such cases numerous examples and citations are provided, but they are buried in the endnotes. Though presumably the author herself is not to blame for the decision to use endnotes rather than footnotes, the decision was, in my view, a regrettable one. The utility of some books might not be hindered by the use of endnotes, but in the case of this one, the need to flip pages to find citations and examples was a continual annoyance.
Apart from these minor complaints, the work is thoroughly solid from beginning to end. The bibliography is remarkably complete and current. Maps and diagrams, though few in number, are clear and helpful. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a concise and reliable introduction to the issues involved in studying Pausanias. With its overall high quality and its affordable price we have good reason to hope that it will reach a wide audience and provide a solid foundation for the next generation of Pausanian studies.
1. C. Habicht (1985), Pausanias’s Guide to Ancient Greece [2nd edition: 1998]. Berkeley: University of California Press.
2. C. Diller (1955), “The Authors Named Pausanias,” TAPA 86: 268-279; (1956) “Pausanias in the Middle Ages,” TAPA 87: 84-97; (1957) “The Manuscripts of Pausanias,” TAPA 88: 169-188.
3. C. Guilmet, K. Staikos, G. Tolias, A. Malliaris and A. Asvesta (2007), “Pausanias in Modern Times (1418-1820).” Chapter 3 of M. Georgopoulou et al. (eds.) Following Pausanias: The Quest for Greek Antiquity. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press.