BMCR 2014.02.48

Beyond the Second Sophistic: Adventures in Greek Postclassicism

, Beyond the Second Sophistic: Adventures in Greek Postclassicism. Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2013. xiii, 278. ISBN 9780520276819 $49.95.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Twelve years on from publishing his path-breaking monograph Greek Literature and the Roman Empire: the Politics of Imitation (Oxford and New York, OUP: 2001), with a few bestsellers on the ancient novel and the organization of knowledge in the imperial period under his belt in the intervening decade, Tim Whitmarsh now treats lovers of late antique Greek literature to a glittering collection of provocative essays. I use the term ‘late antique Greek literature’ apprehensively, because one of Whitmarsh’s fortes is explaining what’s wrong with conventionally accepted literary categories and labels, beginning with ‘The Second Sophistic’ itself. First known to have been used in the 3 rd century CE by Philostratus, to mean a certain kind of rhetorical style, it swiftly became classical scholars’ collective term of choice for the cultural phenomenon constituted by Greek literature produced between about 50 CE and 300 CE. Whitmarsh himself prefers the term ‘postclassical,’ which he intends ‘to mark an aspiration to rethink classicist categories inherited from the nineteenth century.’ Since the term postclassical was itself often used in the nineteenth century to designate Greek literature and language when they were thought to be locked into a process of permanent decline from the ‘purity’ of the classical period through ‘contamination’ by non-Greek ethnic groups including Jews and Arabs, its adoption by progressive contemporary scholars functions as an ironic, even subversive, re appropriation of one of the very ‘classicist’ concepts which ‘postclassicism’ sets out to resist.

The book contains fifteen essays, ten of which are updated versions of previously published articles, and five of which (the Introduction and chapters 2, 3, 11, and 14) are completely new. The careful revision of the older material, combined with the intellectual bravura of the Introduction, ensure that the book establishes and sustains throughout a lucid over-arching argument, or rather a set of interlocking propositions which cumulatively establish a new way of thinking about late ancient Greek literature. Whitmarsh proposes that there is a great deal more interesting literature from the period than has been appreciated by the academy. He shows that early imperial Greek poetry and poetics offer rich crops to the careful harvester; that our understanding of Hellenistic Judaism is in need of substantial revision; and that literature of this era reveals a new sophistication in the dialogues it conducted between literary criticism and cultural production. He ultimately reveals that investigating authors who have disappeared from the canon and whose works lie beyond hope of more than tentative reconstruction can nevertheless offer new prisms through which to refract the beams of light cast across the centuries by a poem, a dialogue, or a travelogue.

The single most important factor unifying the essays is the evaluative, or rather non-evaluative, approach. Whitmarsh’s stated aim ‘is to do away entirely with the idea of the culturally central, the paradigmatic, to dispense with hierarchies of cultural value.’ A fragmentary epic in Greek by a Jewish poet is just as potentially interesting to him as the Aeneid of Vergil. Hierarchies of value, he argues persuasively, are of little use in understanding the supposed ‘genre’ of the ancient novel, which was a much more heterogeneous and plural phenomenon than is often appreciated. Whitmarsh amply demonstrates its diversity in his bravura chapters on the Lucianic Ass, the (profoundly influential) Alexander Romance, and Philostratus’ cunning Heroicus. The second major point Whitmarsh makes is that poetry gives us a very different avenue into the minds of this era than prose—an argument which is impossible to dispute. It is also (although this point is not developed) highly suggestive for the ways in which we might begin to think about the relationship between ‘literature’ and imperial performance media (especially mime and pantomime).

Every reader will have their own favourites amongst the essays. ‘The Invention of Fiction’ is an authoritative, succinct assessment of the various streams of discourse which flowed into the meandering river constituted by ancient fiction— epic, invention, drama, rhetoric, historiography, local history, erotic prose, Semitic and Egyptian narratives, alternative geographies. ‘The Romance of Genre’ and ‘Metamorphoses of the Ass’ present us with Whitmarsh fast-bowling gracefully at the wicket of the ancient novel, and knocking for six the lazy stereotypes about its contents that often dominate criticism. The relationship between epistolography and fiction in terms of their treatment of time, status and power comes under intense scrutiny in ‘Addressing Power’; landscape, topography, and the aesthetics of agriculture, visual art and eros are at the centre of his discussions of the Heroicus (with interesting sideways glances at Dio Chrysostom’s delicious Euboean Oration) and Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon in chapters 7 and 8. The first two chapters of the section on poetry look at Greek epigrammatic poets’ relationships with Roman patrons and with the Hadrianic context of Mesomedes’ varied output respectively. The fruitful dissonance between imperial Greek poetry and prose provides the focus of the chapters on Lucianic paratragedy and the several prose authors discussed in ‘Quickening the Classics’, where it is especially pleasurable to find Strabo taken seriously as a literary artist.

In my view, however, the three most outstanding chapters—outstanding on the criteria of originality, lucidity, and potential influence—are 3, 4 and 13. Chapter 3, which is new, discusses the Sacred Inscription of Euhemerus of Messene (or alternatively of Akragas or Cos), supposedly a friend of King Cassander of Macedon. His name is today more commonly associated with a certain kind of rationalizing interpretation of supernatural elements in ancient mythology. Whitmarsh uses a discussion of this enigmatic text, at one level an account of a fictional voyage which clearly played against the wanderings of the Homeric Odyssey, to explore the relationship between fiction and philosophical experiment, especially philosophical consideration of the fictionality of the gods. It will be interesting to see whether Euhemerus figures in Whitmarsh’s forthcoming study of disbelief in antiquity.

In chapter 4, Whitmarsh confronts head-on the ‘problem’ supposedly posed by ancient critics’ alleged inability to distinguish between authors of fiction and the first-person narrators who speak in their fictions—more particularly, the problem supposedly presented by Augustine’s apparent conflation of the author Apuleius with Lucius, the narrator of his Golden Ass. In a deft and amusing dissection of modern critical practice, Whitmarsh shows how the all-pervasive influence of Narratology and its analytical toolkit threatens to create a situation in which ‘moderns start lording it over their benighted pre-Enlightenment predecessors’. Worse, it ‘risks inattention to the reading instincts and habits of the ancients themselves.’ This needs saying loudly and often. There are many ancient prose authors whose achievements are being misunderstood or diminished by forgetting about ancient critics’ criteria of literary assessment in favour of Genette’s.

But Whitmarsh saves his best until almost the last, in chapter 13. This elegant study of politics and identity in Ezekiel’s Exagoge begins from the premise that scholars of all political hues have exaggerated the emphasis in Greek cultural production of the imperial era on defining the boundaries of Hellenism. The world of the Hellenized ancient Mediterranean, as Whitmarsh gently reminds us, ‘was not one of passports.’ In particular, literary scholars have tended to neglect the function performed in Jewish identity of the era by the Temple, at least until Vespasian destroyed it in 70 CE. Whitmarsh sees that scholars seeking ‘a coherent articulation of subaltern resistance through literature’ would do much better to look at Hellenistic Judaism than at the ‘Greek’ literature of the period, since Hellenistic Jews were composing literature in the language and genres of the colonizer, ‘trying to dismantle the master’s house by using his own tools.’ This insight allows him to breathe exciting new interpretive life into what is actually by far the longest surviving chunk of Hellenistic tragedy. He reads this drama about Moses as commenting allegorically on the Alexandria in existence at the time the text was produced. The representation of Pharaonic Egypt ‘can be seen as a coded political critique of Ptolemaic Alexandria.’ This essay is a dazzling piece of work and will be impossible to ignore in any future account either of tragedy in antiquity or indeed of cultural politics under the Ptolemies.

Beyond the Second Sophistic is a quietly passionate and intellectually complex book. It is not an easy read—but then neither are many of the luxuriant and highly wrought works of literature its author exerts himself so consistently to help us to understand better. The world of late ancient Greek literature is a profoundly exciting and deceptive one, and there is no better guide to it working today than Tim Whitmarsh.

Table of Contents

Preface pp. vii-viii
Acknowledgments pp. ix-x
Abbreviations pp. xi-xiii.
Introduction: Beyond the Second Sophistic and into the Postclassical pp. 1-7

Part 1 Fiction Beyond the Canon
1 The “Invention of Fiction” pp. 11-34
2 The Romance of Genre pp. 35-48
3 Belief in Fiction: Euhemerus of Messene and the Sacred Inscription pp. 49-62
4 An I for an I: Reading Fictional Autobiography pp. 63-74
5 Metamorphoses of the Ass pp. 75-85
6 Addressing Power: Fictional Letters between Alexander and Darius pp. 86-100
7 Philostratus’s Heroicus: Fictions of Hellenism pp. 101-122
8 Mimesis and the Gendered Icon in Greek Theory and Fiction pp. 123-134

Part 2 Poetry and Prose
9 Greek Poets and Roman Patrons in the Late Republic and Early Empire pp. 137-53
10 The Cretan Lyre Paradox: Mesomedes, Hadrian, and the Poetics of Patronage pp. 154-75
11 Lucianic Paratragedy pp. 176-85
12 Quickening the Classics: The Politics of Prose in Roman Greece pp. 186-208

Part 3 Beyond the Greek Sophistic
13 Politics and Identity in Ezekiel’s Exagoge pp. 211-227
14 Adventures of the Solymoi pp. 228-247
References pp. 249-273
Index pp. 275-278