Scholia Reviews ns 9 (2000) 29.

Simon Swain, Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism and Power in the Greek World A.D. 50-250. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. Pp. xii + 499. ISBN 0-19-814772-4. UKú50.00.

John Atkinson
University of Cape Town

In Part One Swain focuses on language purism as the defining characteristic of the Second Sophistic movement. In one sense koine Greek was what we might term an international language, which facilitated trade, travel and legal business, and was open to anyone who cared to use it.[[1]] It was not culture specific. In another sense koine Greek represented 'vulgar' Greek or the local dialect. Then there was the Greek inflicted upon their eastern subjects by those Roman emperors and officials who, wittingly or unwittingly, conveyed in their pronunciation, if not writing, of Greek a patronizing attitude.[[2]] The situation invited action by the Greek elite to reclaim their language and to determine its development. Thus Swain sees importance in the development towards the end of the first century of a 'linguistic and stylistic purism' (p. 409) that marked a return to Attic Greek. He sees in this a political motive, to establish a 'recognizable identity for the Greek elite' (p. 410). At the same time the exponents of language purism set themselves to revive and promote the culture and traditions of the Greek elite. The link between language purism and the label 'elite' is significant, as the purists would not have thought of visiting isolated communities to recover and record forgotten dialectic forms and vocabulary.[[3]]

While Roman emperors encouraged Greeks to stay Greek by using their language in addressing Greek-speakers, Swain notes that they also 'encouraged Greeks to identify with their past' (p. 71). Again, it was a policy that would, whether intentionally so or not, strengthen imperial power at the expense of those who were 'tribalized'--a situation readily intelligible to those familiar with the history of the manufacture of tribal traditions for the indigenous peoples of southern Africa. Swain cites as an example of a recreation of an Athenian tradition, Hadrian's enhancement of the powers of the council of the Areopagus (p. 75), but we might style it rather the revival of a tradition that never was. Spawforth has shown how in the Early Empire emperors used the tradition of the Persian wars to promote a common purpose against the Parthians, and how this worked against Greek cities that played a less glorious part in the wars against the Persians in the fifth century.[[4]] But there is an easy progression from the creation of ethnic history by a compliant provincial elite blessed by an imperial power to revisionism and resistance.

Swain gives as an example of what we should call the promotion of public history the physical relocation of temples from parts of Attica into the city (p. 74). The process is attested in the time of Augustus, and might therefore reflect imperial approval, but, as Swain notes, in at least one case the resiting of a temple 'had a politico-religious dimension aimed at Rome.' Thus what Greeks started in search of acceptance by the emperor in Rome became a means of subversion. Therefore, if we accept Swain's definition of the Second Sophistic movement, we might expect to find in the non-literary manifestations of public history in the first three centuries AD reflections of the texts of the sophists.

The combination of the assertion of Greekness and the insistence on language purism in Swain's definition of the Second Sophistic movement provides a convenient set of parameters, but if we were to leave aside the language issue, where should we set the beginning of this Greek revival? Swain counts Arrian in, but has to leave out the writers of the era of Caesar and Augustus, such as Philodemus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Timagenes and Diodorus; Lucian is in, but Strabo is out, though, as Swain notes (p. 313) both were sufficiently assimilated to count themselves among the 'we' who were united against Rome's remote but bellicose neighbours. Cassius Dio belongs to the period of the Second Sophistic and is therefore included in Swain's survey. Dio would have seen himself as Greek culturally and spiritually (p. 405), but he had bought so much into the Roman system as a senator and then consul that it is difficult to think of him as a senator with a Greek agenda rather than as a Roman senator who happened to be Greek and proud of it.

This raises the question about the nature of resistance to Rome at the cultural level. In the Early Empire Romanization was a matter of policy, though Greece was largely treated as a special case and left alone (the ghastly house which Nero built for himself at Olympia shows the potential to intrude),[[5]] but with the passage of time cultural patterns in the Empire were changing not so much because of a deliberate policy of Romanization, but more because of what we might style globalization. Therefore within the period of the Second Sophistic perhaps we should expect to find that intellectuals came to promote pure Attic Greek and to recreate idealized traditions, not because they were symbols of resistance to Rome, but because they helped to demarcate their class. The reality of the class divide is borne out, for instance, by speeches of Dio of Prusa, where in encouraging a pragmatic policy towards Rome he had to be careful to assure his audience that he was not a collaborator, but one of them, a friend of the demos (pp. 216 and 234f. ).[[6]]

Swain chooses not to engage in the narrow debate over the definition of the term sophist in the Roman period, and thus broadens the scope of the study of this chapter in Greek intellectual history. But he keeps the familiar time frame from AD 50 to the approximate date of death of Philostratus in 250. The latter half of the first century is when the move towards language purism became noticeable. It may be that by the mid-first century the centripetal political and economic forces that bore on Rome generated centrifugal cultural forces. Indeed one has to explain why writers of the late Republic and Augustan period were concentrated in Rome, while Greek writers of the Second Sophistic period found the Greek East more congenial. That geographical shift justifies a periodization that breaks what might otherwise be presented as a continuum. It would also justify treating the Greek phenomenon as a movement distinct from the 'classical' trend in Roman intellectual life. The turmoil that followed upon the demise of the Severan dynasty provides a ready explanation for the decline in Greek economic and cultural activity in the latter half of the third century.

Thus there is justification for treating those two centuries as a chapter in Greek intellectual history, whether or not one applies the Second Sophistic label to it. Swain does not include the label in the title of his book, but consistently applies it in the text, and so refers to all the writers whom he covers in the second half of the book as 'the leading Greek intellectuals of the Second Sophistic' (p. 1). When Philostratus coined the label he had in mind a specific group of public intellectuals, characterized by their skill in epideictic oratory, but Swain offers a broader coverage of the writers of the period, including chapters on Arrian and Appian, Pausanias, Galen and Cassius Dio (but not Herodian), as well as chapters on Plutarch, Dio of Prusa, Aristides, Lucian and, of course, Philostratus himself.

In promoting this picture of a Greek renaissance with the label Second Sophistic, Swain follows the lead of Bowersock,[[7]] and is thus pitted against P. A. Brunt, who insists on a tight definition of the term sophist, with largely pejorative connotations. For Brunt the Greek renaissance is an illusion.[[8]] Technically Brunt is probably right, for sophists were a legally defined status or occupational group (Digest 27.1.6), and Philostratus seems to have used the term in roughly the same way. Writers covered by Swain, including Aristides (33.29), distanced themselves from the sophists: in Aristides' case because he could disclaim the tag, but enjoy similar financial benefits, as a rhetor.[[9]] Thus it seems awkward to apply the expression the Second Sophistic against the evidence of its usage. When the expression is used in the extended sense, it becomes difficult to set parameters: for some purposes Swain's delimitation works. As has been noted, the periodization has its merits, but he leaves out writers and genres that might provide no less significant links with the cases which he takes as examples.

The sophists themselves could be an unedifying bunch: the academic sons and daughters of toil will find amusement in Aristides' dogged dedication to self-interest as he defended his immunity from civic responsibilities, and the freedom to study with minimal teaching responsibilities (pp. 268-71).[[10]]

As Swain is crucially concerned with the Greek writers' self-image and their representation of Rome, he does not explore other groupings which have points of contact with writers in his list. For instance, with Plutarch's theosophic texts, such as On God's Slowness to Punish and On the Decline of Oracles (mentioned at pp. 151 and 158), one might link Gnostic, apocalyptic and other theosophic texts,[[11]] and if one takes a broad definition of the Second Sophistic, Philo and Paul may come into consideration.[[12]]

The book is quite encyclopaedic in the range of topics which it covers, but as each chapter on the major authors would merit a monograph on its own, Swain has necessarily had to be selective. A full content analysis of each writer's work would no doubt throw up additional evidence and new patterns of significance. But as it stands Swain's Hellenism and Empire offers a well-focused survey of an extraordinarily rich array of texts and provides a very valuable introduction to an important chapter in Greek intellectual history--an introduction that is the product of profound scholarship.


[[1]] The subject of three conferences, whose papers have been published by Claude Brixhe as the editor of La Koine grecque antique I, II and III (Nancy 1993, 1996 and 1999); the first two volumes reviewed by G. Horrocks in JHS 119 (1999) 176f.

[[2]] Claudius' letter to the citizens of Alexandria of AD 41/2 in E. M. Smallwood, Documents Illustrating the Principates of Gaius, Claudius and Nero (Cambridge 1967) no. 370, is cited as an example of a text that could have been improved had it been edited by a first language Greek speaker.

[[3]] The parallel with Xhosa, for example, is suggestive, where arguably the purest form is spoken in the remotest settlements, which differs from the Xhosa of urbanised speakers, and again from the elevated style of academic writers.

[[4]] A. Spawforth, The Persian-wars Tradition and Rome in Greek Historiography, in S. Hornblower (ed.), Greek Historiography (Oxford 1994) 233-47.

[[5]] Nero is taken as the exemplum of offensive imperialism in the Pseudo-Lucianic Nero or on the digging of the Isthmus, on which see T. Whitmarsh, 'Greek and Roman in Dialogue', JHS 119 (1999) 142-60.

[[6]] Swain refers to the Tarsian Oration (34) and the Speech in his Fatherland (43).

[[7]] G. W. Bowersock, Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (Oxford 1969) and, as editor, Approaches to the Second Sophistic (Pennsylvania 1974).

[[8]] The title tells all: 'The Bubble of the Second Sophistic', BICS (1994) 25-52.

[[9]] The story is told in Oration 50, Sacred Tales 4.

[[10]] A practice knowingly satirized by David Lodge, Small World (London 1984) esp. 154f.

[[11]] Perhaps including the Shepherd of Hermas and Hermes Trismegistus. One might include Aristides' Sacred Tales in this collection of related genres.

[[12]] So B. W. Winter, Philo and Paul among the Sophists (Cambridge 1997), reviewed by J. R. C. Cousland, BMCR 99.2.13.