Graham Anderson, The Second Sophistic: A Cultural Phenomenon in the Roman Empire. London and New York: Routledge, 1993. Pp. xiii + 303. ISBN 0-415-09988-9. UK£37.50.
University of Auckland
Radical denial of the past seems a less convincing stance today than it seemed in the 1950s and 60s. Then, decolonization and the aftermath of two world wars brought an atmosphere of determination that things must never again be as they were. To look back was to invite the fate of Lot's wife. They were the years of the pop music charts—no trivial part of life, and the more definitive a feature because generated by the young. Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind argued that music made more difference than television. Perhaps he was right. Presley, Dylan, the Beatles, Woodstock: these distilled their short era, its strengths and its weaknesses. Successful oldies format radio now plays that music to a huge audience. We have created a classical age.
Those same 1950s and 60s are pointed out in The Second Sophistic: A Cultural Phenomenon in the Roman Empire as a low ebb in the evaluation of the work of the Imperial sophists. Graham Anderson (p. 241) quotes B.A. van Groningen: 'No effort was demanded of the audience; neither originality of thought nor sincerity of feeling were pursued or expected . . . There was no longer a link with life as it is; people let themselves be roused up into a state of insincere pathos, in which the roar of strong words had to drown the deficiencies and falsehoods of the contests.'(1) Directness and authenticity of the kind those post-war days responded to are almost never in evidence in the literature of the Second Sophistic. Few then read much of it; many of those who did found its conceits annoying.
Anderson in his book challenges the habits of thought which shaped these negative responses. The sophistic repertoire, he argues, represented a vital link with the past (p. 242); he asks for modification of the view of the Greeks of the early empire looking back 'with nostalgic self-awareness to the classical era' (p. 101) as a reaction against the political impotence of the present. So he insists early on (p. 8) that politics represented a real concern, whether or not we take local politics in Roman Greece seriously: the long economic boom of the second century combining with 'a resurgent sense of the past' (p. 4) to give Greekness a sheen which could fairly be thought impressive, even if its finer points would not all have seemed quite authentic to a visitor brought in from half a millennium before. A good, though brief, section in chapter 3 ('Communing with the Classics') defines the imaginary fifth-century location of the sophistic imagination, a fifth century 'relocated somewhere in the vicinity of the Trojan War' (p. 83): 'If we look at the broad peripheries of this world, we still find Herodotus' Scythians on one side and his Egyptians on the other; Alexander's Babylon and some sort of Indian wonderland enclose it to the east, the Pillars of Heracles to the west. The Homeric Olympus is above, the Homeric Underworld below; but the Phaedrus charioteer can take the soul at will from one to the other.'
Sympathetic response to texts combines with determination to keep the world in view; Anderson's manifesto (p. 11) is integrative: a via media between G.W. Bowersock,(2) who emphasised 'the tracing of career connexions in the widest sense', and B.P. Reardon,(3) who cast the Second Sophistic as 'primarily a literary phenomenon.' Hence a thematic progression, moving chapter by chapter from training and rhetorical exercises via Attic correctness, sophistic history, philosophy and description to the novel, paradoxography, humour, piety. A chapter of summary treats Dio Chrysostom's Borystheniticus, Lucian's Navigium, Apuleius' Apologia and Libanius' First Oration, drawing out contrasts and parallels: 'We do not have to look far for characteristic self-display, rhetorical over-indulgence and a measure of sheer conceit; but there is also conviction, real skill and not a little wit as well' (p. 233).
Anderson's Second Sophistic represents a step forward. A few emphases are open to question: the novel gets a slice of the attention which seems more in proportion to modern interests than to ancient priorities, and some readers will pause over the statement (p. 238) that 'it is perhaps on fiction that the Sophistic could be said to have left its most permanent mark'. Yet the book's achievement is its effective reassertion, contra van Groningen and the spirit of the postwar generation, of the link between rhetoric and real life in the Roman empire. Fronto's letter to Marcus Aurelius on the Parthian War, to take one of Anderson's examples, is (contrary to first impression) about real life. 'Within the cultural parameters available, there is no need to assume that Marcus would have found such advice useless . . . Marcus might have been as reassured by this specious farrago as we should be depressed' (p. 119). People who spoke in those terms were the people who were listened to. The Roman empire lived actively with a selection from its past and drew vigour from it over several centuries.
(1) B.A. van Groningen, 'General literary tendencies in the second century A.D.' Mnemosyne 4th series 18 (1965) p. 47.
(2) G.W. Bowersock, Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (Oxford 1969).
(3) B.P. Reardon, Courants littéraires grecs des IIe et IIIe siècles après J.-C. (Paris 1971).