Review of Philip R. Bosman, ed., Intellectual and Empire in Greco-Roman Antiquity, Routledge 2019 ©James Jope
Editor Philip Bosman states in his preface, “The collection of articles in this volume results from a conference with the same title, held in October 2014 in Pretoria, South Africa. The conference’s aim was to explore the interactions, literary and real, between the broad categories of wisdom and power in antiquity.” Bosman’s introduction provides useful summaries of the respective papers, and acknowledges that in the published volume, the focus is mainly on the Hellenistic and Roman periods. This restriction is unfortunate, as it excludes some of the most familiar ancient examples of power vs. intellect: e.g., poets and tyrants in Archaic Greece, the judicial murder of Socrates, or Aristotle’s challenging relations with his pupil Alexander as well as the Athenian democratic regime. The democratic instances in particular might have been more promising for reflecting on modern analogies.
Actually, there are conspicuous omissions even within the declared scope: There is nothing about the activities of the Scipionic Circle and Panaetius’ sanitation of Stoic ethics, nothing about Seneca and Nero, nothing about the periodic expulsions of philosophers from Rome or Stoic opposition to the emperors. What we do find is an interesting series of papers on sidelines or supplements to studying the famous cases.
Some of these ‘alternative’ papers (the term is my own) investigate interesting cases, but there is no coherent overall survey of the Roman period, so that the reader who desires a continuous framework will find it only for the Hellenistic period, in Francesca Schironi’s study. With only very reasonable bits of speculation, she deftly extracts from scanty evidence a survey of the intellectual patronage of Hellenistic kings in order compare the Ptolemies’ museum and library with the patronage of other dynasties. Schironi differentiates pure research (mathematics, astronomy) from useful arts (physicians, tutors). While other dynasties emphasized the useful, the Ptolemies cultivated a broader range, striving to establish their Greekness as successors of Alexander.
Clive Chandler defends the Epicurean Diogenes of Seleucia under Alexander Balas as a good Epicurean slandered by Stoic sources. This is not the famed Diogenes who asked Alexander the Great to step out of the sun, but a less known ‘alternative’. Philodemus, who would have been the obvious choice to represent the Epicureans, is mentioned only in passing.
As an ‘alternative’ to discussing Plato’s misadventures with Dion of Syracuse, Evans compares Plutarch with earlier sources to trace the origins of the mythical aura gracing Plutarch’s Dion. Dion, he finds, was actually a mediocre individual who was exalted because of his association with Plato.
Augustus’ management of intellectuals is another obvious area of interest. For this, we have Livia Capponi’s study of the historian Timagenes of Alexandria. Timagenes was banned from the house of Augustus after offending the latter, then burned the books which he had written about Augustus. Capponi offers a detailed study of Timagenes’ life, which was not uninteresting. But his offence and his punishment were both trivial compared to other victims of Augustus, Ovid in particular. And of course, the Augustan government’s positive exploitation of cooperative poets, too, would have been of interest.
An innovative alternative to spilling more ink on Ovid’s ambivalence concerning the emperors is Sanjaya Thakur’s thorough assessment of the historical accuracy of the poet’s trumpeting of Tiberian propaganda to ingratiate himself with the emperor. Comparison with senatus consulta etc. reveals that Ovid’s efforts are not just superficial panegyric, but a carefully crafted reflection of contemporary events and ideology-- so much so that they offer useful evidence on the actual history of the period.
Plutarch is a likely source of subjects for this book’s theme. Mallory Monaco Caterine’s paper on his Life of Aratus shows how Plutarch, while narrating Aratus’ ill-fated relationship with Philip of Macedon, offers advice and examples of how to mentor kings and advocate local interests. Caterine argues plausibly that it must have been written for the benefit of Greeks dealing with Roman authorities. Her findings correspond nicely with those of Katarzyna Jazdzewska, who finds certain patterns of ruler relations in Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists: While philosophers might advise rulers with frankness (parrhesia), sophists should ‘enchant’ them with rhetorical persuasion, advocating for local interests and criticizing only with ‘figured speech’, if at all.
Two papers relate to Marcus Aurelius.
Noelle Zeiner-Carmichael analyses the correspondence between Aurelius and Fronto, his teacher of Latin rhetoric, showing that in the competitive intellectual environment of the Second Sophistic, and throughout the changes in their relationship as Marcus came to value philosophy rather than rhetoric, Fronto always defended the importance of Latin rhetoric and his own supremacy in it. Her rhetorical analysis of the letters is persuasive, but she evades the controversy over whether the letters were intended for publication, by simply assuming that they were. She also evades, as irrelevant, the dispute over whether theirs was an erotic relationship, although if it was, that should surely affect interpretation of the letters.
Ewen Bowie writes on Aurelius’ attitude toward Greek poets and sophists-- again avoiding the most notable case, namely Herodes Atticus. Although the Meditations suggests a generally dim view of sophists, Philostratus’ anecdotes reveal the emperor’s likes and dislikes. He responded quickly when an earthquake struck Smyrna, probably because he was moved (‘enchanted’) by Aelius Aristides’ advocacy. He may also have favoured two young men, Hermogenes and Theodotus, because he found them erotically attractive.
Also Lucian of Samosata is the subject of two essays.
One contribution that does not shy from a disputed issue is Heinz-Guenther Nesselrath’s on Lucian’s attitude toward Romans. Nesselrath wisely limits his paper to examining Lucian’s portrayal of Roman imperial officials, which he presents as balanced; some officials are reasonable, some foolish, but the imperial system itself seems to be accepted as an unalterable fact of life. However, in my opinion, this need not be inconsistent with the contempt for social and cultural aspects of Roman society exhibited in works like the Nigrinus. Lucian would have had to be more tactful when writing about imperial officials.
Balbina Baebler’s contribution on Lucian’s Imagines is a brief, but cogent argument that this verbal construction of an ideal image by selecting body parts from different statues is not serious art criticism (ekphrasis) but a parody of the method: The final product would not produce any coherent image at all. For example, in the statue from which some parts are supposedly taken, they are hidden beneath clothing.
John Hilton’s essay on Julian and the Cynics compares their relationship and Hydaspes’ with the gymnosophists in the Aethiopica, but it seems to be more concerned with dating and interpreting the romance than with the non-fictional side of the comparison.
Several of these articles can stand alone as worthy contributions, however specialized. Whether the shift to “alternatives” is a constructive innovation or a shortcoming, I shall leave for the reader to decide. However, this book will be of greater interest to experienced readers already acquainted with the outlines of encounters between wisdom and power in the ancient world than to those desiring an introduction to the subject.