BMCR 2021.03.11

Literature and culture in the Roman Empire, 96-235: cross-cultural interactions

, , , Literature and culture in the Roman Empire, 96-235: cross-cultural interactions. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xviii, 408. ISBN 9781108493932 £90.00.

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

The surge of interest in the so-called ‘Second Sophistic’ over the last fifty or so years has doubtless been (in the Anglophone world, at least) one of the most productive revisionist movements in the history of classical scholarship. The veritable tidal wave of work that has appeared since the publication of Glen Bowersock’s Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (1969) has upended our conceptions of the literary culture of the Roman Empire and given rise to a renaissance of scholarship on a body of texts long consigned to the barren wasteland of gauche postclassical frippery. This paradigm shift has also seen a slow but steady swell of interest in the other ‘literary cultures’ that cohabited the geographical and political space of the Roman Empire (for example, Christians—Brent (2006); Nasrallah (2010); Eshlemann (2012)).

This volume, the second to emerge from the Literary Interactions Project after Alice König and Chris Whitton’s Roman Literature Under Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian: Literary Interactions 96-138 (2018), aims to complicate elements of this new wave of thinking. It identifies one of the most substantial shortfalls of the Second Sophistic phenomenon as the ‘atomised’ model of imperial literary culture that it has fomented: i.e., one in which Latin-speaking Romans, Greek Pepaideumenoi, Christians, Jews, etc., are thought to have operated within fixed cultural and intellectual parameters in dialogue chiefly (and often exclusively) with people belonging to the same group. The editors rightly observe that this dearth of interest in interaction is a problem yet to be adequately addressed: “there is currently no work that attempts to unite the diverse cultural strands of the empire during this period, and none that explores different methodologies for tracking interaction between distinct linguistic and cultural groups.”[1] They set out to rectify this omission: to show that “the literatures of the second and third centuries are more varied than ever before in the linguistic, geographic, and cultural origins of texts—and yet also more dynamically interconnected in the shared discourses to which they respond.”[2]

The volume opens with an expansive introduction co-authored by all three editors. It first sets the scene by tracing a brief history of the scholarship on both imperial literary culture(s) and the idea of literary interactivity more broadly. By far its most helpful feature is “Cross-Cultural Interactions: A Guide,” which gives a detailed precis of each individual contribution that (somewhat metatextually) stresses the ‘interactions’ with other pieces in the volume. This is a very welcome preface to a work that deals with such an expansive and varied body of material.

Part I (“Refiguring Roman and Greek Interactions”) complicates and reshapes our conception of the relationship between the two historically focalised group identities of the imperial period: Greeks and Romans. Myles Lavan calls into question the universality of the term ‘Roman’ and, in doing so, “destabilize[s] our assumptions about ‘the Romans’ as a self-evident category that denotes a clearly defined dominant group.”[3] James Uden zeroes in on the idea of sound in Tatian (a Syrian Christian writing in Greek) and Fronto (a Roman rhetorician writing in Latin) and uncovers a common self-consciousness about speech that transcends cultural, religious, and linguistic boundaries. Rebecca Langlands looks at the way in which Plutarch’s experience of Roman exemplary ethics refigured his thinking about foundationally Greek concepts like mimesis and zelos. Dana Fields (in a piece that nicely dovetails with her own recent work on ‘frankness’) explores the representation of patronage by Plutarch and Pliny and the way in which the distinct literary traditions to which they belonged shaped their navigation of the realities of the patronal system. Adam Kemezis creatively interrogates the crossover between Florus and Appian (both historians) and Chariton (a novelist) by suggesting that the former borrowed certain narrative techniques from the world of the romance novel and retooled them for the context of ‘Antonine’ historiography. Alice König closes Part I with a comparative reading of two manuals of military strategy (Aelianus Tacticus’ Tactical Theory and Arrian’s Tactics) which focusses on the distinct ways that each author interacts with the ‘authority’ of Latin strategic texts.

Part II (“Imperial Infrastructure: Documents and Monuments”) shows that the themes identified in Part I are not restricted to the high-brow context of ‘literature’ by turning its attention to (broadly defined) ‘documentary’ texts. Kelly Shannon-Henderson typifies this capacious understanding of the ‘document’ by looking at Phlegon of Tralles’ infamously obscure On Marvels which, though ostensibly positioned within the Greek paradoxographical tradition, evinces a plainly Roman interest in human rather than (super)natural paradoxa. Laura Nasrallah gets us closer to an actual ‘document’ by tackling the imperial rescript attached to Justin Martyr’s First Apology, moving beyond humdrum questions of authorship and authenticity towards teasing out what it might tell us about Christian engagement with the bureaucratic machinery of empire. Tom Geue offers a different perspective on similar ground by comparing the distinct ways that documentary evidence is handled by Justin and Suetonius, revealing in the process a second century ‘crisis of faith’ in the reliability of the document as a form of proof. James Harrill—in a bold break with tradition for a secular classical publication—takes on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians by exploring the way in which motifs picked up from contemporary architectural literature might have informed the metaphor of the church as the ‘body of Christ’. Christopher Siwicki carries on with the theme of the built environment and attempts to explain the paucity of Latin architectural criticism as the product of deliberate Roman avoidance of an ‘alien’ practice. Caillan Davenport rounds off Part II by investigating the various narrative incarnations of the courtroom trial which both draw from a ‘universal’ feature of imperial existence (i.e., real-world legal trials) and are simultaneously influenced by culturally specific story-traditions (e.g., Jewish martyr narratives).

Part III (“Cultural Translation and Transformation”) massively expands the geographical scope of the exploration, taking us away from the centre of Roman power to the far-flung corners of the imperial frontier. Nathanael Andrade explores the way in which Greco-Roman ethnographic (‘orientalising’) tropes were reflected and refracted in contemporary Mesopotamian literature by looking at the two fragments of Bardaisan (both nominally ‘autoptic’ accounts of India and the Brahmans) preserved by Porphyry. Johannes Haubold interrogates the world of Chaldaean literature with a particular focus on its engagement with and adaptation of Platonism as a way of making itself palatable for the philosophical tastes of the Antonine empire. Steven Smith ends Part III (and with it, the body of the collection) by thinking about the way in which Aelian retools the Gilgamos (i.e., Gilgamesh) story in On the Nature of Animals as an ‘Eastern’ incarnation of the myth of Perseus.

The volume ends with an epilogue by Natalie Dohrmann (“Not There: Empire, Intertextuality, and Absence”).  This is the only focussed treatment of Jewish material in the volume and explores the range of thorny issues associated with studying the relationship between rabbinic literature and the broader literary context of the second century empire. Though there are indeed several roadblocks to this endeavour (the anonymity of the authors, the conscious recusal of the rabbis from imperial ‘book culture’, etc.), Dohrmann stresses the value of persevering with it, emphasising especially the fruitful comparative analysis of ideas of authorship.

One of the perennial problems with edited volumes is cohesion (or, more to the point, lack thereof). The editors of this collection navigate that hazard expertly—and impressively, given the enormous chronological, geographical, linguistic, cultural, and generic scope of their material. The introduction clearly sets out the organisational rationale and provides a helpful roadmap for engaging with the diverse texts and topics covered by the contributions. The approach taken by the editors therein should serve as a model for others weaving together such ostensibly miscellaneous collections. One minor criticism, however, is the placement of Dohrmann’s epilogue. While this is a clever and considered treatment of Rabbinic literature that blends neatly with the theme(s) of the other chapters, it is an oddly specific way to round off such a broad assemblage and leaves the whole project feeling a touch ‘unfinished’. Moreover, it is not clear to this reader—neither as it is explained in the introduction nor on the basis of the piece itself—precisely why the rabbinic material has been levered out of the main text like this rather than given a canonical place somewhere in the core of the discussion (either Part II or III).

Generally speaking, the volume is handsomely produced and contains very few typographical errors (certainly none of any consequence). My only substantial criticism on this front—which rests squarely with the press, not the editors—is the colour and resolution of the images. All are printed in black-and-white and their quality leaves much to be desired. One particularly irritating offender is the photograph of the inscribed archive wall at Aphrodisias in Nasrallah’s chapter (Fig. 8.2, pg. 191) in which this reader could scarcely discern the presence of an inscription on the blocks, let alone the sense of its scope and organisation that ought to complement the accompanying discussion. This unfortunate sloppiness with visual material is much to the detriment of the otherwise high production standards of CUP and ought to be rectified with due haste.[4]

All in all, this is an innovative and challenging offering that far expands the horizons (intellectual, geographical, cultural, etc.) of an already vast and dynamic area of scholarship. It should now be standard reading for students and scholars of imperial literature – Greek, Latin, and beyond!

Authors and Titles

Introduction. Alice König, Rebecca Langlands, and James Uden.

Part I: Refiguring Roman and Greek Interactions
1. Beyond Romans and Others: Identities in the Long Second Century. Myles Lavan.
2. The Noise-Lovers: Cultures of Speech and Sound in Second-Century Rome. James Uden.
3. Plutarch and Roman Exemplary Ethics: Cultural Interactions. Rebecca Langlands.
4. Patronage, Cultural Difference, and Literary Interactivity: The Case of Pliny and Plutarch. Dana Fields.
5. The Romance of Republican History: Narrative Tension and Resolution in Florus, Appian, and Chariton. Adam M. Kemezis.
6. Tactical Interactions: Dialogues Between Greece and Rome in the Military Manuals of Aelian and Arrian. Alice König.

Part II: Imperial Infrastructure: Documents and Monuments
7. Constructing a New Imperial Paradoxography: Phlegon of Tralles and His Sources. Kelly E. Shannon-Henderson.
8. A Formation of a Christian Archive? The Case of Justin Martyr and an Imperial Rescript. Laura Salah Nasrallah.
9. Keeping/Losing Records, Keeping/Losing Faith: Suetonius and Justin Do the Document. Tom Geue.
10. Shaping Buildings into Stories: Architectural Ekphrasis and the Epistle to the Ephesians in Roman Literary Culture. J. Albert Harrill.
11. Architectural Criticism in the Roman World and the Limits of Literary Interaction. Christopher Siwicki.
12. Dying for Justice: Narratives of Roman Judicial Authority in the High Empire. Caillan Davenport.

Part III: Cultural Translation and Transformation
13. Bardaisan’s Disciples and Ethnographic Knowledge in the Roman Empire. Nathanael Andrade.
14. Chaldaean Interactions. Johannes Haubold.
15. Gilgamos in Rome: Aelian NA 12.21. Steven D. Smith.

Afterword. Not There: Empire, Intertextuality, and Absence. Natalie B. Dohrmann.

Additional Bibliography

Bowersock, G. 1969. Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brent, A. 2006. Ignatius of Antioch and the Second Sophistic. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Eshlemann, K. 2012. The Social World of Intellectuals in the Roman Empire: Sophists, Philosophers, and Christians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nasrallah, L. 2010. Christian Responses to Roman Art and Architecture: The Second Century Church Amid the Spaces of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swain, S., Elsner, J., and Harrison, T. Severan Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


[1] König, Langlands, and Uden 2020, 5. Although – and this is flagged by the editors – Swain et al. 2007 is a notable exception.

[2] König, Langlands, and Uden 2020, 4.

[3] König, Langlands, and Uden 2020, 9.

[4] I echo here the concerns of Richard Green is his recent review (2020) of Braund, Hall, and Wyles (2019) in this publication: “I am surprised that scholars concerned with material evidence continue to entrust their work to C.U.P. when it persists in producing images of such poor quality.”