BMCR 2024.05.10

Fashioning the future in Roman Greece: memory, monuments, texts

, Fashioning the future in Roman Greece: memory, monuments, texts. Oxford studies in ancient culture & representation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023. Pp. xx, 368. ISBN 9780192866103.



If Roman Greece was once an unfashionable backwater of Classical studies that is not because of any lack of evidence. Literary sources are rich and plentiful, the peak of the epigraphic habit has given us thousands of inscriptions, and there are impressive archaeological remains of cities and sanctuaries that reached new heights of monumentality under the Empire. Negative attitudes to the period arose largely from the assumption that Greek culture lost its vitality, trapped under the oppressive weight of its own Classical legacy as the coming of Rome signalled the death knell for freedom and democracy. The last decades have witnessed a dramatic reappraisal of the period. The ways that imperial Greek culture—which often seems obsessed with its past—related to its own history is a subject that has deservedly received considerable attention. Creative engagement with the past, through literature, through building new monuments and repurposing old ones, has been recognised as an important strategy for shaping identity and negotiating power in the Imperial present. In spite of this attention for the past and the present, the future has been little discussed. This remarkable book, which builds on and expands the author’s PhD thesis, brings together literary, epigraphic and archaeological material to make the case that the Greeks living under the Empire—or at least the elite who produced the literature and set up the monuments—were profoundly concerned with posterity and went to considerable effort to shape the reception of their cultural legacy by future generations.

The methodological premise underpinning the book is ‘intermediality’. Strazdins stresses that texts and monuments were produced by the same class of people and cited, referenced and alluded to one another. As such, she argues, we needed to look for interplays of meaning across the divides of medium and genre. Writers such as Arrian, Aelius Aristeides and Philostratus are particularly fruitful sources and are dealt with at length, but many other authors are also discussed. Most of these authors come from outside mainland Greece and many useful passages concern the Greek world at large. The archaeological and epigraphic focus, by contrast, is largely on the province of Achaea. A figure who looms particularly large throughout and is the subject of the last chapter is Herodes Atticus, who serves as a case study that draws the various threads of the argument together. In light of the attention Strazdins pays him, Herodes will also feature prominently in this review. Strazdins’ employs her method of intermediality with precision and a judicious balance of attention for both the written word and physical monuments. Rich and rewarding readings of countless texts, statues and buildings weave together knowledge of history, myth and Greek topography with an erudition to match that of the sophists who constitute the book’s heroes and supporting cast. The theoretical approach is sophisticated and the analysis of evidence—particularly the literary material—highly proficient. Strazdins, however, writes with flair that makes the book an enjoyable read. The book casts in sharp relief the ways in which the elite sought to exert influence over their posthumous reputation, their acute awareness of the limitations of these strategies, and their struggles to overcome these limits.

The book opens with a useful introductory chapter that surveys past scholarship of the so-called ‘Second Sophistic’, the key interpretative framework by which the period is traditionally explained. Here Strazdins convincingly argues that for Greek authors of the Roman period, the cultural heroes of the Classical past served not merely as the source of inspiration and admiration as modern scholarship typically assumes, but rather provided a model for how to achieve lasting fame and a standard to be surpassed. The spirit in which Roman period authors engaged with the output of their Classical forebears was not merely emulative but competitive to a degree that has previously been overlooked. The two chapters of Part One set out Strazdins’ case that the Roman period Greek elite were indeed greatly preoccupied with their posthumous reception. Chapter 2 examines key literary works by Dio Chrysostom, Longinus and Arrian in which that concern is to the fore. Chapter 3 takes a more concrete turn and the argument gains momentum as Strazdins pursues ways in which physical monuments (portraits, arches, artworks) and discourses about them worked to create memory.

Part Two pushes the investigation of monuments further in chapters focussing on specific types of commemorative structure. Chapter 4 explores monuments with funerary connotations: tombs naturally, but also altars and Herodes Atticus’ portrait herms for his adopted pupils, inscribed with curse inscriptions to safeguard against future tampering. Strazdins makes a convincing case that funereal connotations did indeed extend to these other types of monuments given their aim of perpetuating the memory or even the presence of the deceased. A particular highlight of this chapter are Strazdins’ reflections on the tensions inherent between epitaphs thought of as having power to give voice to the dead vs. tombs being seen as prisons that forever silenced their inhabitant. She argues this through a close reading of Philostratus’ description of Polemo’s self-interment, eschewing an epitaph yet carrying on declaiming from within the tomb. Strazdins’ discussion of Alexander’s restoration of the tomb of Cyrus, which appears in several Roman period sources, is also fascinating. Strazdins shows how these descriptions worked not only to keep Alexander’s memory alive but also competed with that memory through moulding the story to assert the superior power of texts—and thus the reputation of the author—over monuments as a strategy for preserving memory.

Chapter 5 looks at the most prolific type of monument in Roman Greece: statues, both real and literary. The contest between physical monuments and literary works as more effective for securing immortality, touched on above, and most famously voiced by Horace in Ode 3.30, was one that troubled the Roman period elite a good deal. Strazdins demonstrates how some individuals, like Aristides or Apuleius, placed more faith in the written word to secure their commemoration, regarding statues as problematic because they fossilised their subject in a single guise and could ultimately all too easily be taken down. Yet even in these authors statues serve as a touchstone for discussing broader memorial practices. Even those who did desire and set up statues recognised the inadequacy of the medium, as shown by the various strategies discussed by Strazdins, which they deployed to enhance their message, including setting up multiple statues in different locations, poses and costumes, setting up group monuments and even, on occasion, developing recognisable portrait types to rival those of emperors. All of these strategies were used by Herodes Atticus with his own portrait type that referenced Demosthenes and Aischines, his many statues of himself, his wife Regina and his adopted pupils at multiple locations throughout Achaia and his grandiose nymphaeum at Olympia with its rows of statues representing his own family and the imperial family of the 2nd century.

Herodes returns as the central focus of the final chapter, arguably the most rewarding of the entire book. Herodes is a fantastic case study for Strazdins’ purpose for several reasons. Firstly we have the wealth of detail provided by Philostratus. In his Lives of the Sophists the biography of Herodes far exceeds those of any of its other subjects in length, with only that of Polemo coming close. This text provides fertile ground for Strazdins to consider both Herodes’ own strategies to control his posthumous reputation and Philostratus’ strategies for shaping Herodes’ reception to enhance his own reputation as an author. At the same time Herodes, as both a wordsmith and a builder, encapsulates both of the strategies of remembrance that Strazdins is interested in. Somewhat ironically in light of Herodes’ pre-eminence as an orator —at least according to Philostratus—none of his speeches survive. Yet there is abundant archaeological evidence for his public benefactions at Athens, Olympia, Delphi and elsewhere, and for private buildings and monuments at his own estates at Marathon and Loukou. Weaving this material together Strazdins presents a convincing portrait of Herodes as a man who took the concerns of his peers for posterity to their extreme. In weighing up the merits of words vs. monuments for securing his remembrance Herodes was convinced—wisely it seems in light of the disappearance of his speeches—of the superiority the latter, hence his prolific building activities. Philostratus explicitly emphasises this attitude in discussing Herodes’ ambition to fulfil Nero’s abandoned plan to cut a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth. Herodes’ obsession with building, however, and the curse inscriptions mentioned above, show that he was all too aware of the limits of his powers to control what happened to his monuments after he was gone.

Strazdins intertwines her reconstruction of Herodes’ strategy for securing his future memory with an insightful reading of Philostratus’ portrayal of him. Herodes has often been seen one-sidedly as Philostratus’ hero, but Strazdins shows that his interpretation of the sophist is deeply layered and full of ambiguity. Philostratus’ admiration for Herodes’ cultural pre-eminence in the city of Athens exists in tension with critique of his political career. Culturally Herodes might have been ‘king of Athens’, as Strazdins titles her chapter, but his ‘rule’ carried undertones of tyranny hinted at in the vocabulary Philostratus uses to describe him and in the pointed comparison to Nero noted above. The chapter builds to an examination of Herodes’ funeral and burial in the Panathenaic stadium which is a tour de force of Strazdins’ method of intermediality. Far from being the grand public honour it seems at face value Strazdins argues that the burial signified the demos reasserting its control over the man and his memory, subverting the epigraphically attested procession by which he was welcomed back to Attica following his trial for maiestas before Marcus Aurelius at Smirnium, and overturning his own wish to be buried at Marathon. Throughout the chapter the richly layered significance of Herodes’ connections to Marathon is a recurring theme—Strazdins is able to tease out connections to Theseus, Miltiades and Kimon, and to the cult of Nemesis at Rhamnous, all with implications for how Herodes positioned himself in relation to the Classical past, to notions of kingship and tyranny, and to the contemporary realities of imperial rule. Strazdins also convincingly discerns a subtle, tragic comparison in Philostratus between Herodes and Sokrates as benefactors that the city of Athens failed to appreciate until they were dead.

This reviewer found Strazdins’ reading of Herodes’ commemorative strategies and those of Philostratus in portraying him wholly convincing. It might be possible to quibble about some of her other interpretations. For instance, whatever the resonances with Alexander and Xenophon in Arrian’s broader work, I was not completely persuaded that his letter to Hadrian about replacing a statue of the emperor that was a poor likeness (discussed in Chapter 2) needs to be read in those terms. Arrian was, after all, dealing with a real statue that had been set up where it was for reasons that had nothing to do with his literary project. Strazdins is so finely tuned to salient detail that there is a danger of overreading the evidence and seeing significance where there is none. It would, however, be churlish to provide further examples and such quibbles are only possible because Strazdins offers so many readings of so much evidence—far too many to do justice to here. Individually all of her interpretations, even where critique is possible, are eminently plausible. Τogether they combine to create a powerful, cohesive and convincing picture of a Roman period Greek elite that was deeply concerned that they should not be forgotten. Strazdins’ book keeps their memory alive for modern students of antiquity, helping us to see them, and the culture of Greece under Rome, in a new light.

Production values are high, as is to be expected from its inclusion in the Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Representation series. The book is lavishly illustrated with crisp black and white photos and plans and equipped with a useful general index and an index locorum.