BMCR 2019.08.24

Intellectual and Empire in Greco-Roman Antiquity

, Intellectual and Empire in Greco-Roman Antiquity. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018. xx, 221. ISBN 9781138505094. £115.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

During a visit to Athens, the Emperor Hadrian summoned a philosopher named Secundus. This philosopher had taken a vow of silence after his mother’s death, for which he held himself responsible. Hadrian sought out this man and asked him to break his vow. But Secundus persisted in his silence, even when he was threatened with death. Once Secundus proved to Hadrian that he would die before speaking, the emperor relented in his demand and accepted from the philosopher written responses to a set of basic philosophical questions. A text of the late second century tells the story of Hadrian’s meeting with Secundus and preserves what it presents as the philosopher’s answers to the emperor’s questions.1 Though the story is likely fictional, this encounter between Hadrian and Secundus illustrates the fascination that surrounded the relationship between emperors and intellectuals in the Roman Empire, especially during the first and second centuries CE.2

The collection of papers edited by Philip Bosman explores aspects of this relationship, focusing most of its attention on the periods around when Hadrian and Secundus were supposed to have met. Nearly all of the papers in the volume are about Greek literature of the imperial period. Even one of the two papers treating the Hellenistic world, this by Clive Chandler on the Epicurean philosopher Diogenes of Seleucia, spends most of its time discussing evidence from Athenaeus and Diogenes Laertius.

As this focus suggests, the collection offers no synthesis or overview of the relationship between intellectual and empire in Greco-Roman antiquity. The introductory preface, authored by the editor, is modest in its goals, providing summaries of the volume’s papers without offering sustained reflection or analysis of why an emperor might seek out the company of a particular intellectual, or of the norms of behavior that would govern their interaction. The preface does contain a list of different types of intellectuals in Greco-Roman antiquity, but there is no definition offered of the word “intellectual,” or consideration of how contemporary perspectives on intellectuals relate to an ancient concept like pepaideumenos. Readers seeking more coverage of these topics should turn to other recent publications, including a monograph written by one of the contributors to this volume, Livia Capponi.3

In keeping with the volume’s selective coverage of Greco-Roman antiquity, the twelve papers all stand on their own, with no explicit dialogue or cross references between them. There are points of contact between the papers and general thematic unity to the volume. But even this is strained in the case of a few papers that offer more incidental coverage of the relationship between intellectual and empire. Richard Evans’ contribution on the Syracusan tyrant Dion, for instance, has little to say about this figure’s relationship with Plato. Instead, the paper is mostly an exercise in source criticism, suggesting that Plutarch’s depiction of Dion as a competent general and dedicated philosopher is unlikely to be true. This is a plausible argument, but one that sits uneasily in a volume that ostensibly examines questions of intellectual history.

Overall, the volume’s papers are of high quality, though they tend to follow the example of the preface and offer little by way of sustained theoretical reflection on the broader topic of intellectual and empire. Rather, the papers provide focused discussions of narrower topics, approaching them with methods that would not be out of place in earlier generations of classical scholarship. As such, the papers demonstrate philological rigor and solid attention to the historical context of the texts they discuss. The best contributions to the volume are also impressively thorough in their treatments.

I would only offer two minor notes of criticism about presentation and method. First, details in the philological arguments of some of the papers become hard to follow because passages in the original languages are only given in the endnotes. Second, a few of the papers venture into the territory of Quellenforschung while offering limited engagement with recent scholarship on the study of fragmentary authors. Surely the presentation of testimonia and fragments in Brill’s New Jacoby should now be an obligatory citation in all discussions of fragmentary Greek historical authors, but the only substantial engagement with BNJ in the volume comes in the paper by Livia Capponi on Timagenes.

Limitations of space prevent me from discussing all twelve papers, so I will offer commentary on those that especially caught my attention.

Francesca Schironi’s paper is the longest and most ambitious in the volume, investigating the relationship of intellectuals to the royal courts of the Hellenistic period. The paper argues that the Ptolemies stood out for their support of intellectuals and that this support was in large part the result of competition between different courts in the third and second centuries. This argument is supported with a mass of detail, drawing on all genres of Hellenistic literature, along with epigraphical and papyrological evidence. Anyone with interests in the scholarship and intellectual culture of the Hellenistic period will benefit from reading this paper. But future work on this topic will need to devote more attention to defining key terms and concepts, rather than simply placing them in inverted commas, as this paper often does (e.g. “The Hellenistic kings also fostered ‘scientific research’” [8]). It would also be worthwhile to grant late-Republican Rome the status of a Hellenistic court, and consider the interactions of Pompey and other elite Romans with intellectuals alongside those of the Attalids, Seleucids, and Ptolemies. This would provide some additional evidence and context for the paper’s treatment of the second and first centuries and potentially raise some challenges to the paper’s argument that Greekness became less of a concern for Hellenistic courts in this period.

Sanjaya Thakur’s paper is one of only two in the volume to focus on Latin literature, taking as its subject Ovid’s portrayal of the emperor Tiberius. The paper especially considers Ovid’s perspective on Tiberius’ accession, contextualizing the poet’s scattered references to it with the contemporary account of Velleius Paterculus and the language used in Tiberian senatorial decrees. This contextualization is effective and significant, arguing that Ovid was more engaged with current events in Rome than many of his readers have suspected. Thakur also suggests that the references to Tiberius’ accession in Velleius and Ovid should be preferred to the more famous and influential account of it by Tacitus. This is all convincing, though I question whether the evidence of Ovid and Velleius can really allow us to know what Tiberius’ intentions were following Augustus’ death, as the paper’s conclusion suggests.

Ewen Bowie’s paper provides a valuable review of Marcus Aurelius’ relationship with Greek poets and sophists. The paper suggests that the emperor was more interested in sophists than some key passages in his Meditations might suggest, but less enamored of them than some stories in Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists imply. In the process, the paper offers helpful insights on Marcus’ relationship with individual sophists. The paper includes the notable and original suggestion that the Theodotus mentioned in Meditations 1.17.13, whose charms Marcus claims he was able to resist, may have been the sophist Iulius Theodotus. Bowie notes that Marcus and Theodotus both attended the lectures of Herodes Atticus when they were young men, and that the future emperor may well have become infatuated with the budding sophist then. This attraction, in turn, may have played a factor in Theodotus’ appointment by Marcus as the inaugural imperial chair of rhetoric at Athens in the 170s. The paper also provides a concise and helpful discussion of poets who may have been known to Marcus, a group that is likely to be unfamiliar to many readers.

Heinz-Günther Nesselrath’s paper reassesses the attitude towards Rome displayed in the Lucianic corpus by focusing on its depictions of Roman officials. The paper thereby engages with old questions about Lucian’s social and political outlook. Nesselrath is careful to note that the portrayal of Roman officials in Lucian’s works provides us with no insight about the author’s own views and personality, contrary to the assumptions of older scholarship on Lucian. But the paper nonetheless demonstrates the existence of some noticeable patterns in how Roman officials appear in Lucian’s works. Like the governor of Syria who sensibly refused to grant the charlatan Peregrinus Proteus the martyrdom he wanted during his time as a Christian ( Peregrinus 14),4 Roman officials are often depicted in a positive light. The argument is convincing, though the paper does run into some of the basic issues that scholarship on Lucian often encounters when his works are interpreted in light of uncertain points about the author’s biography. Can we really assume that Lucian’s Pro lapsu inter salutandum was written in Alexandria, rather than Rome, because it cites a group of obscure authors more often than in any of his other works? Conversely, might it have been relevant to discuss the one likely reference to Lucian by a contemporary author, this in a work by Galen,5 to consider how much the various personae in the Lucianic corpus may match the life and personality of the author?

The volume’s other papers all offer helpful points of insight about their respective topics. Editing and production are solid. I noticed only a small collection of typos.6 Overall, the volume will be of greatest interest to scholars of Greek Imperial Literature. The papers help to illustrate important aspects of the relationship between empire and intellectual, even if they do not provide a full account of the complexities surrounding the famous encounters between emperors and intellectuals in the Greco-Roman world.

Table of Contents

Philip R. Bosman, Preface (xv-xx)
1. Francesca Schironi, Enlightened King or Pragmatic Rulers? Ptolemaic Patronage of Scholarship and Sciences in Context (1-29)
2. Clive Chandler, How (not?) to Talk to Monarchs: The Case of the Epicurean Diogenes of Seleucia (30-42)
3. Livia Capponi, A Disillusioned Intellectual: Timagenes of Alexandria (43-62)
4. Sanjaya Thakur, Reassessing Ovid’s Image of Tiberius and his Principate (63-88)
5. Mallory Monaco Caterine, Entangled Imperial Identities: Citizen, Subject, and Mentor in Plutarch’s Aratus (89-101)
6. Richard Evans, The Misleading Representations of Dion as Philosopher-General in Plutarch’s Life (102-15)
7. Noelle Zeiner-Carmichael, Magister Domino : Intellectual and Pedagogical Power in Fronto’s Correspondence (116-41)
8. Ewen Bowie, Marcus Aurelius, Greek Poets, and Greek Sophists: Friends or Foes? (142-59)
9. Katarzyna Jażdżewska, Entertainers, Persuaders, Adversaries: Interactions of Sophists and Rulers in Philostratus’ Lives of Sophists (160-77)
10. Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, Lucian on Roman Officials (178-88)
11. Balbina Bäbler, How to Flatter an Imperial Mistress: The Image of Panthea in Lucian’s Imagines (189-201)
12. John Hilton, Speaking Truth to Power: Julian, the Cynics, and the Ethiopian Gymnosophists of Heliodorus (202-15)


1. See Ben Edwin Perry, Secundus the Silent Philosopher, Philological Monographs 22 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1964).

2. See Ari Z. Bryen “Martyrdom, Rhetoric, and the Politics of Procedure,” Classical Antiquity 33.2 (2014), 243-80, at 243-5.

3. See Jerry Toner, “The Intellectual Life of the Roman Non-Elite,” in Popular Culture in the Ancient World, ed. Lucy Grig (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 167-88; Livia Capponi, Il ritorno della fenica: Intellettuali e potere nell’Egitto romano, Studi e testi di storia antica 23 (Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2017).

4. This governor is likely to be identified with Sergius Paullus, later the city prefect in Rome, and a student of Aristotelian philosophy. See Werner Eck, “Sergius Paullus, der Liebhaber der Philosophie in Lucians Peregrinus Proteus,” Rheinisches Museum 137 (2014), 221-4.

5. See Galen, Commentary on Hippocrates’ Epidemics Book II, Parts I-VI, Corpus Medicorum Graecorum Supplementum Orientale V.2, ed. Uwe Vagelphol with Simon Swain (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 2016), 6.41 (940-2).

6. E.g. The names Erasistratus (8 and 23 n. 57) and Orosius (9) are misspelled. There is also a cross-reference to “p. 000” at 154 n. 9, which should read “p. 153.”