BMCR 2022.09.22

Apocalypse and golden age: the end of the world in Greek and Roman thought

, Apocalypse and golden age: the end of the world in Greek and Roman thought. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021. Pp. 320. ISBN 9781421441634 $54.95.

“Apocalypse” is a word that comes to us from the last book of the New Testament and is now used by scholars to denote a literary genre associated with late Judaism and early Christianity but rooted in traditions from the ancient Near East and Egypt. This genre typically involves visions of historical and cosmic cataclysm and is concerned with a teleological end of history, divine judgment, revelation of otherworldly realities, and personal and collective salvation. “Apocalypse” also designates, in the ordinary speech and popular culture of our times, the end of the world in a non-religious sense, often informed by scientific and sociological insights—we think of large-scale natural disaster, nuclear war, civilizational devastation, or the “post-apocalyptic” time afterwards. Also, among 20th century critics and philosophers (T.S Eliot, Karl Jaspers, Frank Kermode, for example) “apocalypse” has been considered as an important feature of human psychology, a projection of existential anxiety onto history or the world as a whole, and a means for finite beings to define their place in mediis rebus. The aim of Christopher Star’s book is to show that there is an “underappreciated tradition” of apocalyptic thought among the pagans of Greco-Roman antiquity too (p. 5). The book’s ambition, being both interdisciplinary and indeed timely, is exciting and worthwhile. However, I do not think the book accomplishes all that it sets out to do.

Essentially, the book is a series of discussions of apocalyptic-seeming passages in major classical texts. Chapter One is devoted to the various figurations of historical and/or cosmic cataclysm in Greek thought, from Hesiod’s Works and Days to the Pre-Socratics (Empedocles, Heroclitus, Democritus, Xenophanes, Anaximander), Plato’s late dialogues (Statesman, Timaeus-Critias, Laws), Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics. Chapter Two brings us from Greece to Rome, discussing the propaedeutic meditations on cosmic and historical finitude in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis. Chapter Three proceeds from the late Roman Republic to the Augustan Age, focusing on how Vergil, Horace, and Ovid connect the Augustan promise of a renewed Golden Age with the idea of the end of the world. The second part of the book takes up the connection to this theme, with a Neronian twist, in several of Seneca’s works (Chapter Four), then in Seneca’s Thyestes together with Lucan’s Civil War (Chapter Five), and finally in some Senecan texts considered spurious (Chapter Six). These discussions bring together much interesting material. They are at their best when they practice close reading and make intertextual observations. However, there is not much in these readings and observations that will surprise those who are familiar with these texts; thus the value of these discussions depends on their attempts to show that the Greco-Roman texts are in some way apocalyptic and together constitute a tradition of thought about apocalypse. But these attempts are not fully persuasive.

In the first place, the book is not as clear as it should be in defining its topic: the book draws freely from the various senses of the word “apocalypse” mentioned above (biblical, modern, philosophical). However, in truth, the book is unified by a more general—or literal—idea: the temporal end of a civilization or the cosmos. To designate this idea “the end of the world”, which the author does frequently use, is better suited than “apocalypse”, which is too specific. As the book shows, the various Greek and Roman authors imagine “the end of the world” in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes (to speculate about nature, to contemplate the human condition, to declare one’s own poetic immortality, to criticize political actuality—these are only a few of the many uses of the idea identified in the book). But if the author’s subject matter really is just “the end of the world”, then the frequent references to “apocalypse” and apocalyptic concepts are misleading in respect to the book’s significance.

Yet, the book seems to want to have this significance. As the book progresses, the end of the world begins to look more biblical: with Lucretius and Cicero, philosophical doctrine and literary representation become “visions” and “revelations”; Vergil and Horace prophesy a coming utopian “Golden Age”; Seneca’s Nero resembles the Beast of the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. Perhaps the author wants to tell the familiar story about the zeitgeist of pagan antiquity becoming increasingly ripe for the emergence of Christianity but not making the leap of faith beyond natural reason. There are suggestions of this story here and there (e.g. pages 50–51)—however, the author nowhere states it explicitly. Also, the book occasionally suggests that the ancient pagan tradition has contemporary value, but these suggestions are not developed sufficiently. For example, the author points out that many of the ancient pagan authors imagined the end of the world to be a matter of natural necessity and that they sought to reckon with this only on an individual psychological level; yet, he also suggests that today we must imagine the end of the world to be the result of alterable collective human action (e.g. p. 12, 226–27). I would have liked the author to elaborate on whether he thinks these apparently opposed attitudes can or should be reconciled. Without this sort of question, the takeaway turns out to be simply that the ancients thought about the end of the world, not what they thought. But more should—and certainly can—be said.

For this reason and others, the book would benefit from a more careful engagement with previous scholarship. There are scholars who have written insightfully about the apocalyptic (in the biblical sense) dimension of Greco-Roman thought.[1] Ancient thought has been used to respond to the current environmental crisis.[2] It has also been considered in light of contemporary ecocriticism.[3] What is needed is a critical synthesis of these discourses. Unfortunately, this book misses out on this opportunity, either not engaging with or not acknowledging relevant literature. Relatedly, references to existing literature at crucial points are sometimes more misleading than illuminating. In the Introduction, the author claims that the Greco-Roman pagan apocalyptic tradition has been “underappreciated” but does not provide any support for this claim (p. 5). In Chapter Four, Star makes the twofold point that Seneca’s use of the image of the end of the world suggests both an aspiration to a cosmic viewpoint and an aesthetic fascination with catastrophe. To address the former point, he rightly cites Williams 2012 (a standard reference on Senecan natural philosophy); but in making the latter he cites only Horn 2018 (a book on contemporary post-apocalyptic literature), thereby leaving the reader with the false impression that this aspect of Seneca’s natural philosophy is not discussed by scholars of Seneca (such as Williams) but is a novel insight made possible by considering the text in light of contemporary post-apocalyptic studies. Finally, the book’s application of modern theories to the classical texts is not always successful in its own right. The book’s presentation of Agamben’s concept of biopolitics, which the book uses to describe Ovid’s account of the Great Flood (p. 107–108, 110–11, 114–15), is unhelpful and not clearly related to the idea of apocalypse.[4] The book’s invocation of Nietzsche’s concept of the “eternal return” to draw ethical import from the Stoic palingenesis (p.46) is a surprisingly brief and uncritical engagement with a concept that a study of the apocalyptic dimension of pagan thought should be interested in challenging.[5]

Also, it is not clear why the book does not discuss certain authors, texts, and traditions that seem to have—and, in some cases, have been shown by other writers on the subject to have—apocalyptic aspects (e.g. Homer, Hesiod’s Theogony, Varro, Pliny the Elder, Manilius, Plato’s Republic, the Orphic and Eleusianian traditions). The book also does not discuss those such as Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus who complicate conventional assumptions about the distinction between Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions (to deal with these authors the book would have to address more explicitly than it does the relationship between these traditions). Also, the book seems to limit its study of Greek and Roman “thought” to philosophy and poetry, even though there are things to be said about apocalyptic themes in, for example, historical literature too. Sometimes these omissions weaken the author’s claims. For instance, the author repeatedly asserts that Hesiod is the first Greek prophet of civilizational destruction without mentioning Homer in any substantial way—but is Homer’s Iliad not haunted, from start to finish, by the prophesied destruction of Trojan civilization?

Finally, I would note that the quality of the chapters is uneven. The later chapters that involve Seneca provide ample space for the author to interpret passages of text and to showcase his detailed knowledge of Seneca’s milieu. However, the book’s treatment of the Greek philosophers is often cursory. The section on Epicurus includes only one reference to a secondary source (a 1966 article called “Lucretius and the Stoics”). The section on the Pre-Socratics concludes that, for the early Greek philosophers, the end of the world is merely a “mechanistic process” (p. 25), without taking sufficient time to interpret the statements of the Pre-Socratics that would provide precision and nuance to that conclusion (beginning, for example, with the statement of Anaximander, traditionally held to be the earliest in Greek philosophy, in which destruction is imagined to be a kind of “justice”).

I found this book to be stimulating and frustrating. Its shortcomings do not diminish the value of its project, which brings classical antiquity into conversation with other intellectual and religious traditions, and with matters of great concern for many in the present, the past, and perhaps—si qua fata sinant—the future.

Notes

[1] For example: Glasson, T. 1961. Greek Influence in Jewish Eschatology. London: Talbot Press; Burkert, W. 1983. “Apokalyptik im frühen Griechentum: Impulse und Transformationen” in Hellholm, D. (ed.) Apocalypticism in the Mediterranean World and the Near East. Tübingen: Mohr, 235-254; Cancik, H. 1998. “The End of the World, of History, and of the Individual in Greek and Roman Antiquity” in Collins, J. (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. New York: Continuum, 84-128.

[2] E.g. Scranton, R. 2015. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. San Francisco, CA: City Lights.

[3] E.g. Schliephake, C. (ed.) 2017. Ecocriticism, Ecology, and the Cultures of Antiquity. Lanham, MA: Lexington.

[4] A pity, since Agamben’s thought does have an explicitly apocalyptic (or, at least, messianic) aspect.

[5] As in Cancik 1998: 89-90.