BMCR 2021.06.05

Greek “paideia” and local tradition in the Graeco-Roman East

, , , Greek "paideia" and local tradition in the Graeco-Roman East. Colloquia antiqua, 29. Leuven: Peeters, 2020. Pp. xxi, 270. ISBN 9789042940048 €87,00.

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

Every student of Ancient Greek learns to think more expansively of the word παιδεία than the simple translation, “education.” LSJ notifies us that terms like “culture” and “body of learning” must also be kept in mind as either alternative or accompanying meanings. To this my Greek instructors added the connotation of specifically “Greek” culture. What exactly this culture entailed seemed self-evident to my undergraduate mind, thanks to modernity’s own form of paideia and its successful engraining of nationalistic notions of culture as natural and objective categories of reality. Anything that “Greeks” did or produced that bore some similarity to modern conceptions of culture counted as paideia, from symposia to art and architecture to, of course, literature and philosophy, never mind that few “Greeks” engaged with all or even most of these things, and plenty of non-Greeks engaged with some of them, often in equally significant ways.

A skepticism engendered by this last consideration sat firmly in my mind as I traversed Greek “paideia” and local tradition in the Graeco-Roman East, which studies the impact of the spread of Greek language, education, and literature as key elements of paideia into the regions of Asia Minor, Egypt and, to a much lesser extent, Syria. As the editors explain in the Foreword, which stands in the place of an introduction, the goal of the volume is to trace the “Hellenisation” of the “East” during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, exploring how these the cultural elements mentioned above were adopted and converted into new hybridized, but still local, expressions of identity. The book is an outcome of the University of Salamanca-based project, “Hellenisation in the Graeco-Roman East: Processes of Perception and Assimilation of Local Cultures,” and also includes contributions from scholars working in France, Italy, and Germany.

The volume seems to be organized into four distinct parts, although only the first two are identified as such in the Foreword. The first three contributions speak to the impact of Greek educational institutions, especially gymnasia, in the kingdoms of Pontus, Cappadocia, and Bithynia, emphasizing the interplay of Hellenic and local elements in the literary, epigraphic, and sculptural evidence. The next two chapters explore language change that resulted from interaction between Egyptian and Phrygian, respectively, and Greek. The third “section” attends to the influence of the Greek literary tradition, in particular epic poetry, that can be detected in personal and religious inscriptions and papyri, and encompasses all but the last contribution. The conclusions here are varied, with literary forms serving for some as an encoding of Greek cultural identity (Guichard Romero, Agosti) and for others as merely a mechanism for expressing local identity (de Hoz, Arroyo-Quirce) or attracting a broader clientele (Bortolani). In the final chapter, Garulli and Santin bring us back to language, but with a focus on the cultural significance of language choice and presentation in Greek-Latin bilingual inscriptions, rather than on language development as in the second section.

The aim of this volume, then, is not so much to clarify our understanding of paideia’s synonymity with Greek culture as to assume their equivalence in the service of assimilation and acculturation theory. For those who are invested in this approach, the contributions will be a welcome addition to what is now a copious scholarly literature on cultural interaction and development in the Hellenistic and Roman East. By contrast, for those of us who find the criticisms of the concept of Hellenization persuasive, this undefended assumption diminishes the value of the contributions.[1] Most of the authors traffic in an essentialized understanding of Greek culture that presumes an inherent difference between Greek and “Eastern” (or “indigenous”) culture as background for the hybridization that is said to occur after Alexander. The terms of analysis thus commit many of them to an orientalizing discourse that imagines a coherent and at times exotic unity among the quite culturally distinct regions and cultures of Egypt, Asia Minor and Syria, while also ignoring or underplaying the important ways that all of these regions, and especially Asia Minor, were enmeshed with Greek history long before the Hellenistic Period.

As a result, the reader encounters the conflation of Iranian (or even just “Eastern”) and indigenous in Anatolia (Ballesteros Pastor, Michels, de Hoz) or of multiple Anatolian ethnic groups (Dana), as if simply being “not-Greek” could serve as an identity, rather than an identification externally imposed by ancient and modern observers.[2] The authors of the third section paint Homeric epic as an essentially foreign import appropriated by Egyptians, Pisidians, and others, but this assumes “Greek” ownership over what had clearly become an international (or, if one prefers, cosmopolitan) body of literature. Why don’t we speak also speak of an Aitolian appropriation of Homer, or of the gymnasion for that matter, when evidence for these cultural elements there and elsewhere in Greece also post-dates Alexander? Indeed, Garulli and Santin’s suggestion that Greek language and literary tradition had become a means for expressing local identity and social status in Roman Syria and Asia Minor should also be considered for many Hellenistic contexts addressed by other contributors.

This is not to deny that each contribution adds valuable insight to our understanding of Anatolian, Egyptian, and Syrian history during this time period. I learned a great deal about the expansive education of Anatolian dynasts and court elites, about how Egyptian may have influenced vowel sound change in Greek and how Greek motivated developments in Phrygian, and about the poetic repertoire of funerary and religious self-expression, especially under the Roman Empire. But I wonder what is gained from viewing education, literature, and even language (we do call it koine, after all) through the lens of a Greek/East binary, even where (and especially because) the authors emphasize the crossing and merging of boundaries. What presentist interest is informing our prioritization of origins and the instinct to view these origins in terms of national and Western categories? The strongest papers in this volume were those that paid less attention to broader ethnic categories and identities, focusing instead either on local versus imperial identities (Garulli and Santin) or the marketing function of literary devices (Bortolani).

In the end, Greek “paideia” and the local tradition in the Graeco-Roman East represents an important collection of studies whose value will appeal to those working on the specific issues or texts addressed by each chapter. Errors are minor and do not detract from comprehension, while navigation is aided by indices of sources, proper names, and words in Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, Latin, and Phrygian. Even where one may disagree with the conclusions, the helpful synthesis of evidence in first two sections and the close readings of specific inscriptions and papyri in the final seven chapters advance our understanding of the issues addressed. I just recommend omitting the word “Greek” in many places as you read.

Authors and titles

Gocha R. Tsetskhladze, Series Editor’s Preface, vii
María-Paz de Hoz, Juan Luis García Alonso, and Luis Arturo Guichard, Foreword, ix-xi
Luis Ballesteros Pastor, Between Magian lore and Greek paideia: royal education in the kingdom of Pontus, 1-18
Christoph Michels, Pepaideumenoi and paideia at the court of Hellenstic Cappadocia and the impact on cultural change, 19-38
Madalina Dana, Local culture and regional cultures in the Propontis and Bithynia, 39-71
Juan Luis García Alonso, Graeco-Egyptian bilingualism: co-existence (and interference?) of two vowel systems, 73-87
Bartomeu Obrador-Cursach, Phrygian in contact with Greek: an overview, 89-121
Luis Arturo Guichard Romero, The interplay of text and image as a form of cultural contact in Greek inscriptions from Egypt, 123-38
Ljuba Merlina Bortolani, Traces of Greek literary tradition in the magical papyri from Roman Egypt: borrowing, adaptation, appropriation, 139-60
María-Paz de Hoz, Greek literary tradition and local religion in metrical cult dedications from Asia Minor, 161-82
Héctor Arroyo-Quirce, Greek epic in Pisidia: the Solymi at Termessus, 183-98
Juan Pablo Sánchez Hernández, Greek literary topoi and local traditions in the etiology of the ‘Antonine plague,’ 199-216
Gianfranco Agosti, Greek metrical inscriptions, classical paideia and identity in Late Antiquity, 217-31
Valentina Garulli and Eleonora Santin, Greek-Latin bilingualism and cultural identity in the Graeco-Roman East: Carmina Epigraphica Graeca et Latina (CEGL) from the Middle East, 233-57


[1] E.g., T. Hodos, Local Responses to Colonization in the Iron Age Mediterranean (London, 2006), 11-16; M. Dietler, Archaeologies of Colonialism: Consumption, Entanglement, and Violence in Ancient Mediterranean France (Berkeley, 2010), 43-53.

[2] Michels highlights Diodoros’ statement that Ariarathes V received a specifically Greek education (31.19.7), but does not consider to what extent we can detach the colonizing tendency of the Greek historiographical and Roman imperial traditions that together inform Diodoros’ work from an attempt to use this passage as a reflection of an Ariarathid perspective.