BMCR 2014.09.07

The Social World of Intellectuals in the Roman Empire: Sophists, Philosophers, and Christians. Greek culture in the Roman world

, The Social World of Intellectuals in the Roman Empire: Sophists, Philosophers, and Christians. Greek culture in the Roman world. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. ix, 293. ISBN 9781107026384. $99.00.


Kendra Eshleman’s monograph, The Social World of Intellectuals in the Roman Empire: Sophists, Philosophers, and Christians constitutes a lucid and particularly stimulating treatment of the way in which the intellectuals of the Imperial age—in the “‘long’ century from the Flavians to the Severans” (to cite Thomas Schmitz)—would construct their identity, individually as well as collectively. We have here the two most prominent tenants of a very respectable, semi-detached house, who rarely meet, each occupying his own half, cut off from the other by the walls of a scholarship whose output increasingly tends to assume the magnitude of an international industry; on one side of the house, the world of pagan pepaideumenoi —sophists and philosophers—and on the other, the world of educated Christian leaders, whom the author treats “within the world of the Second Sophistic” (7).1 One ought to say straight away that Eshleman’s work constitutes one of the most strident refutations of Robin Lane Fox’s opening statement in his Pagans and Christians : “those who try to cover two different areas of scholarship tend to satisfy experts in neither.”2 Eshleman not only succeeds in satisfying experts in both areas of scholarship, but also directs them into a renewed encounter, pointing out the way in which each of these two areas could become the mirror-image of the other.

In her long introduction (“‘Who are you?’ The social formation of identity”, 1-20), Eshleman shows her theoretical and methodological hand and maps out a conceptual understanding of “identity,” which she favours, and which has a radically anti-essentialist slant. The kernel of the author’s argument is that the “identity” of the intellectual is constructed and not given: it is manufactured on the basis of criteria variously set up, which have to do with “belonging,” or not, to a certain group and with the system of values established by that group, through tacit identification with or exclusion from it. One might recall, at this point, the famous adage of Paul Klee, which of course belongs to a different context: “becoming is superior to being”. Eshleman’s book is clearly the offspring of the postmodern intellectual sensibility on which her generation was brought up, a sensibility which provided an unrelenting critique of the Subject and its unity. Having said this, she resists any totalitarian tendencies that this model might exhibit, by means of a strong dosage of historiographical and, particularly, sociological pragmatism.

In her vivid introductory remarks, the author is cautious and does not propose a “direct interchange” between Christians and pepaideumenoi. She does insist, however, that the behaviour of the “intellectual” of the age reveals “a set of culturally available technologies of identity formation, authorisation, and institutionalisation” (7), echoing Foucauldian concepts, despite the absence of Foucault (and also Bourdieu) from her theoretical arsenal.

In the first chapter (“Inclusion and identity”, 21-66), Eshleman focuses on the way of accession into the circles of sophists or Christians, as well as on the struggle to maintain the status of “insider”; in addition, she devotes some excellent pages to the tension that existed between “private” and “public” teaching, both in the sophistic and the Christian environment (25-34), and to the psychological climate inside Christian circles when ostensibly sensing the threat of an invasion (49-54). In the second chapter (“Contesting competence: the ideal of self-determination”, 67-90), Eshleman introduces the important distinction between pepaideumenos /insider and idiotes /outsider through a close reading of well-known texts by Aelius Aristides and Dio of Prusa, amongst others (73-75). In the third chapter (“Expertise and authority in the early church”, 91-124) the author explores, by analogy, the Christian discourse on idiotai (the unsophisticated, non-specialist, even foolish believers), examining the use of this term not only as an instrument of exclusion but also as a lever for the establishment of an internal hierarchy.

The fourth chapter (“Defining the circle of sophists: Philostratus and the construction of the Second Sophistic”, 125-148)—which incorporates one early contribution in Classical Philology 103 (2008)—delves deeper into the Philostratean corpus, comparing its strategy to that of other sophistic circles in light of the unattainability of a consolidated Canon of the Second Sophistic (see the excellent treatment on pages 139-148). Ιn the fifth chapter (“Becoming orthodox: heresiology as self-fashioning”, 149-176), the networks and “discourses” of the guardians of ecclesiastical orthodoxy are found to be similar to those of their “heretic” colleagues. Of particular interest is the sixth chapter (“Successions and self-definition”, 177-212), where the emphasis is on the way that a genealogy (and identity) is constructed through a “succession list”. Εshleman stresses the fact that such lists constituted an ideal tool for authorising discourse as a result of their apparent “neutrality”: “simplicity and traditionality give the appearance of objective facticity” (179). From this point on, starting with the “Successions of Philosophers” genre, the author examines the logic of succession in Quintilian (183-187) and the Roman jurist Pomponius (187-191) and proceeds with an extensive and illuminating discussion of the strategies found in Diogenes Laërtius (191-199) and his contemporary Clement of Alexandria (199-202), the latter two disagreeing on the question of diadochai and the origins of philosophy and about the extent to which the study of philosophy originated among barbarians. Eshleman very convincingly shows the manner in which succession narratives construct a community’s history and also establish boundaries. However, I find the subtitle, “Successions in the Second Sophistic”, in the introductory synopsis of pages 180-183, less successful, since the term “Second Sophistic” is being used here in a most vague sense. Succession narratives are also discussed in the seventh and last chapter (“‘From such mothers and fathers’: succession narratives in early Christian discourse”, 213-258), where emphasis is placed on the context of early Christian literature and especially on genealogies of “heresy” and the struggle to maintain the pure and undisturbed “orthodoxy” of the early apostolic church. Εshleman unfolds the panorama of different “heretic” genealogies. Also of interest here is her discussion of episcopal succession and the links between apostles and bishops (246-256).

Eshleman’s work is structured as a series of successive studies rather than as a coherent historical narrative. She follows a comparative method and skilfully avoids the traps of structuralism—which seldom fulfils its promise—as well as the facility of a purely phenomenological approach, which would limit itself to a simple description of the strategies commonly used in the construction of an intellectual identity. Even though the book originated in a PhD dissertation, the “childhood diseases” of the budding scholar have been overcome: primary sources are not used in order to lend support to a pre-selected theory and the secondary literature is not used obsessively but, rather, selectively. Of particular merit is the combination of clarity and skill in the use of sources of differing origins and functions.

Any criticism of Eshleman’s “kaleidoscopic” study would deal, in fact, with it only indirectly and would be useful solely as possible counterpoint to the convincing points that her book makes. A first suggestion concerns the fact that the determination of who is, or is not, a sophist or who is more or less of a sophist did not depend solely on the struggle between “discourses”. As is well known from imperial edicts ( Dig. 27.1.6; 50.40.18), sophists, orators, philosophers and physicians received a number of exemptions, particularly from taxes; therefore, one’s inclusion in one of these categories had important legal, financial and tax repercussions. One should also note that in Diocletian’s Edict on Maximum Prices of 301 a clear distinction is made between dikologoi and sophists in respect of their fees. Thus, the “construction” of the “sophist’s” or the “philosopher’s” identity also involved the participation of institutions such as the city council (as clearly stated in Dig. and even of the emperor himself ( Dig.; cf. also Dig.—a perspective which Eshleman introduces only tangentially in her analysis (see pp. 77-88). As regards the Christian milieu, another dimension worth noting is that even the construction of “genealogies” by the third or fourth apostolic generations was at least partially based on “hard” historical facts, as is evident, for example, in the special position reserved for descendants of Jesus’ family in the hierarchy of the Palestine churches. Thus, the very fluid field that Christian intellectuals were trying to give structure to, by consolidating a “proper”/orthodox Christian identity, was also meeting with some “real” resistance coming from a past they would rather, in due course, consign to oblivion or attempt to manipulate.

In conclusion, one is left with the certainty that Kendra Eshleman has given us a particularly significant work, by virtue of her measured use of traditional and more modern methodological tools, but also by her manifesting a strong sense of “empathy” towards her sources. This is much more than a “first” book, however highly one may rank it;4 it is a book which masterly reveals the “common set of culturally available strategies of self-definition” (261) in use by both pagan pepaideumenoi and Christian intellectuals of the Imperial age.


1. Of course, Εshleman is not the first to attempt such a correlation. To limit oneself to works not mentioned in her rich and meticulously crafted bibliography, one may recall the “natural” manner in which G. Bowersock has demonstrated how deeply the Christian teachers of the second century CE were rooted in the world of the Second Sophistic: Martyrdom and Rome (Cambridge, 1995), 41-57 (esp. 44-48 on Christian teachers and the leading sophists in Asia Minor).

2. R. Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (London, 1986; Penguin reissue: 2006), 7.

3. Οn the subject, see R. Bauchman, Jude and the relatives of Jesus in the Early Church (London/New York, 1990). On the Jerusalem bishops’ list, see 70-79, with 127-130; on genealogies, 315-373.

4. See C. P. Jones’ thorough review of Eshleman’s study: Sehepunkte 2013, Nr. 7/8.