Monday, January 5, 2009


Simon Swain, Stephen Harrison and Jas Elsner (edds.), Severan Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. 569. ISBN 9780521859820. $160.00.
Reviewed by Tom Hawkins, Ohio State University,

Table of Contents

This volume honors the career of Ewen Bowie, and it succeeds mightily in this goal. The twenty-six contributions composed by members of what Simon Swain terms "the Bowie clan" (p. 1) are of uniformly high quality, and I have already recommended several chapters to graduate students and colleagues. I will offer a few overarching comments before briefly treating each chapter in turn.

My only major frustration with Severan Culture is that, as a whole, it offers little sense of its motivations or intentions and thus leaves one to wonder what to make of Severan culture. Imperial dynasties make easy mileage markers for our interests in periodization, but not all dynasties cause equally deep tectonic shifts. Alexander and Caesar gave us wholly new worlds to digest, but can we say the same of the Severan dynasty? Were the cultural changes equally profound at the appearance and the disappearance of the Severans? Does the use of dynastic periodization gloss over important stories of continuity between dynasties or change within a single dynasty? And is "culture" adequately represented in the volume's three section headings (the first of which is obviously problematic as a subdivision of culture): "Literature and Culture," "Art and Architecture," and "Religion and Philosophy"? We get no clear answers to such questions or explanations of the volume's contours in the introduction. In the last two pages of that section Swain does touch on several critical points, such as the Severans as the first non-Italic dynasty to rule the empire, the importance of Caracalla's citizenship policy, the continued growth of Christianity, etc., but some readers might feel that the twenty-five preceding pages, in which Swain summarizes and discusses the papers to come, could have been compressed in order to provide space for a more general and theoretical foundation for this collection.

Moving to the positive, it may well be that the greatest honor Severan Culture pays to Bowie is the way in which his students and colleagues have built upon his seminal work on the Second Sophistic (though we should not forget that he has also made important contributions to many other areas of classical scholarship). The bulk of Bowie's bibliography does not consist of studies of art, architecture and religion, and yet this volume includes ample testimony to the ways in which his teaching, mentorship, and research have influenced students of these fields. This influence is also demonstrated in impressive fashion in the preface, in which Stephen Harrison teams with Swain to provide a narrative overview of Bowie's career, a list of his students (a task that requires eight pages!), and a virtually complete bibliography.

In addition to the preface and introduction (already mentioned) and the individual chapters (discussed below), Severan Culture also features two enjoyable curiosities. The first is the cover, which seems to depict a hunter aiming his bow at two copulating wild boars. Some readers will recognize this as part of a larger hunting scene which decorates a manuscript of ps.-Oppian's Cynegetica (the Codex Marcianus Graecus 479), but others might be unsure what to make of this image. I do hope that whoever cropped the scene in this way is not surprised at our enjoyment of it. (I surveyed several colleagues' responses to the cover to ensure that I was not simply being sophomoric with all this, but everyone immediately saw the same basic narrative, though an extremely close look will reveal that the rear boar is, in reality, keeping his hooves to himself.) The second item, found on page xix, is a letter from Philostratus to Longinus in praise of Bowie. The letter appears in Greek without preface or explanation, but the Table of Contents hints that this previously unknown sophistic text may have been "discovered" by Donald Russell.

Aside from these two pleasant oddities, the volume is a well-produced collection, though its high price will certainly discourage many from purchasing it. There are copious images in the second section of the book, a comprehensive bibliography, and a full index. Only twice was I distracted by editing errors (once on p. 413 where "and" ought to be something like "as a" and again on p. 457 where an extraneous "not" undermines the author's point.)

I will now move to brief overviews of the book's twenty-six chapters, which are all innovative, informative, and deserving of individual comment, though my sketches here must remain extremely brief.

Ch. 1: Tim Whitmarsh's chapter, "Prose literature and the Severan dynasty," surveys some large trends in Severan prose literature. For example, Whitmarsh argues against a strong imperial influence on literary production; he demonstrates how the notion of Hellenism was greatly contested because of the growing role of Christianity, through thinking about cultures outside the empire (as with Philostratus' account of Apollonius' trip to India), and as a result of debates within the Hellenic world; and he notes the Severan penchant for "large-scale, synthetic works that attempt to capture and define intellectual traditions" (p. 50). As always, his comments are acute, and into what could have been a dry overview he intersperses such gems as a succinct warning about certain interpretive pitfalls (pp. 37-8) and comments on "the aesthetics of disorder" in texts such as Aelian's Varied History and Clement's Stromateis (p. 46).

Ch. 2: Harry Sidebottom offers a guided tour of literary representations of the past in "Severan historiography: evidence, patterns, and arguments." On the Latin side of things there is not much to be said (though Sidebottom does address some of the underlying reasons for the non-existence of Latin historiography), but Greek historiography was flourishing, especially in Sidebottom's flexible understanding of historiography, which allows him to include in his discussion a wide range of texts, many of which eschew the tone and style of their classical historiographical predecessors. Indeed, Sidebottom lists no fewer than ten sub-genres (e.g. various forms of biography, ethnography, and historical fiction) that all approach and re-present the past in significantly different modes. As with so many of the best arguments in this volume, Sidebottom shows that the story of Severan historiography is one of creative re-configurations of received traditions.

Ch. 3: John Ma's "The worlds of Nestor the poet" takes us on an amazing journey in search of Nestor, a poet who wrote a lipogrammatic Iliad (i.e. each book was composed without a single instance of the book's letter-number -- thus, no alphas in Book 1, no betas in Book 2, etc.). This fascinating chapter combines a marshalling of scattered fragmentary evidence, savvy analysis of this evidence, and a rare example of the role of scholarly intuition in crafting an argument. The silhouette of Nestor that emerges is of a Hellenistic-style poet in the vein of Nicander and Parthenius whose career reminds us not to forget the role of poetry even in this prose-dominated era (a point that Bowie himself has forcefully made).

Ch. 4: Severan poetry is again the focus in Gideon Nisbet's "Sex lives of the sophists: epigrams by Philostratus and Fronto," which unwinds a delightful string of puns and allusions in epigrams by these two authors more famous from work in other genres. Although Severan epigrams are less plentiful than their Antonine predecessors, Nisbet shows that the genre had lost none of its elegance, complexity, and wit. More than this, he demonstrates how these two sophists reinvented epigram "as an important tool of sophistic self-fashioning" (123).

Ch. 5: A final contribution to our view of Severan poetry in Greek comes in Mary Whitby's "The Cynegetica attributed to Oppian." As with Ma's work on Nestor, Whitby alerts us to the Alexandrian aspects of ps.-Oppian's poetry (e.g. his four-book poem may be "more pointedly parallel to the four books of Callimachus' Aetia than are the five of Oppian's Halieutica" (p. 126)), and it is from this perspective that she liberates ps.-Oppian somewhat from the shadow of Oppian himself. Her reappraisal works well (including such stylistic matters as the influence of the Hellenistic epyllion and contextual points, such as her suggestion that the poem may have been linked to Julia Domna's visit to the East in 215), and the Cynegetica emerges as a much more interesting text thanks to Whitby's analysis.

Ch. 6: Jason König starts from a paradox in his "Greek athletics in the Severan period: literary views": Philostratus claims to have written his Gymnasticus in response to a decline in athletic standards, but athletics was a boom industry under the Severan emperors. König plausibly suggests that the real issue was what Philostratus saw as a decline in the specifically Hellenic quality of the athletes, training regimens, and competitions. Athletics had gotten away from its roots. In building his case, König moves beyond the Gymnasticus and shows how the world of sport had changed in taste and style from the Antonine era.

Ch. 7: Judith Mossman follows Whitby in focusing on an allegedly pseudonymous text in her "Heracles, Prometheus, and the play of genres in [Lucian]'s Amores." Fans of Mossman's work on Greek tragedy and Plutarch will not be disappointed here. She opens up the text by excavating a network of allusions to a huge range of traditional genres (as well as the not-so-traditional novel). She places particular emphasis on characters, such as the two in her title, who are familiar from a variety of genres, and it is the resulting ambiguity of generic allusions that propels the text and Mossman's argument well above any mechanistic rut of one-to-one associations. Of particular importance is her demonstration of the way in which allusions to Greek comedy force us to re-evaluate the serious tone of the text's central debate between champions of homosexual and heterosexual expressions of eros.

Ch. 8: The shortest chapter of the volume begins from a scene in Heliodorus and quickly explodes into an argument of very general application. Glen Most's "Allegory and narrative in Heliodorus" shows how a given allegorical mode can drive the contour of the narrative. His comments on the difference between allegory, which "tells a story of restoration," and metaphor, which is "in fact the language of exile" (p. 164) and his brief discussion of the similar narrative trajectories of Neoplatonic allegory and the Greek novels make this a richly rewarding essay.

Ch. 9: Philip Hardie kicks off a series of three Latin-centered papers with his "Polyphony or Babel? Hosidius Geta's Medea and the poetics of the cento." Geta's poem takes lines of Virgilian epic and weaves them into a tragedy that tells the story of Medea. Hardie focuses on Geta's poem as an extreme test case for intertextual theory, since "the cento is an epiphenomenon of a canonicity that defines itself as the very opposite of the carnivalesque dialogicity of Bakhtin, or the anti-authoritarian intertextuality of Kristeva" (p. 170). In every line we hear Virgil's words and Geta's reorganization of them, fragments of the story of Aeneas re-orchestrated to tell the story of Medea. Hardie's insightful arguments conclude with the delicious possibility (which Hardie himself cautions against accepting too hastily) that this Medea is actually by Ovidius Geta, i.e. that Ovid, in exile at Getan Tomis, constructed a new Medea from a dismembered Virgilian text in the very location where he claims (in Tristia 1.3) she had dismembered her brother.

Ch. 10: Jonathon Powell's "Unfair to Caecilius? Ciceronian dialogue techniques in Minucius Felix" parallels Hardie's chapter in examining classical influences on a Severan text. In this case, Powell sees two fragmentary Ciceronian dialogues, the Hortensius and book 3 of De re publica as key to understanding Minucius' intentionally bland (according to Powell) dialogue Octavius. An appreciation of these models suggests that Minucius' literary form was "deliberately adopted to give an impression of civilized and impartial debate and to divert attention from the author's parti pris while archly acknowledging it" (p. 187).

Ch. 11: "Cyprian's Ad Donatum" by Michael Winterbottom also addresses certain Ciceronian influences, but this is closer to the beginning than the end of his argument. He goes on to discuss the role of Calpurnius' first eclogue, which, like Cyprian's piece, moves from "intimations of the consolations of religion" (p. 193) and Cyprian's careful strategy of rhetorical dissimulation. Cyprian rejects overly artful eloquence in place of a strong and lucid case for Christianity, but his declamation "at times mounts to the rostra he rejects" (p. 197). Winterbottom shows that even when it appears that Cyprian is breaking his own stylistic rule this is never actually the case, because for Cyprian the Christian message is by definition always strong, simple and clear.

Ch. 12: Zahra Newby introduces the second section of the volume (Art and Architecture) with her "Art at the crossroads? Themes and styles in Severan art," and like the papers by Whitmarsh and Edwards which lead off their respective sections, Newby's contribution does an excellent job of broadly orienting the reader to major issues and themes in preparation for the more narrowly-focused essays to come. Her examinations of state reliefs, portraits and funerary art lead to the conclusion that we might expect from her title: "Whether one sees Severan art as the last great expression of classical art or as the herald of Late Antiquity depends primarily on where one looks" (p. 249).

Ch. 13: Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis' "Landscape, transformation, and divine epiphany" argues that the mixture of perspectives in the portrayal of landscapes in Severan art "imitates both the experience of movement and travel...and epiphany..." (p. 254). Her thesis elegantly combines an appreciation of mystic modes of viewing and sensitivity to the prominent role of travel and pilgrimage in this period. In her final case study, dealing with a mosaic from Cos depicting the arrival of Asclepius, she shows the flexibility of her model in incorporating a divine figure as the dynamic mover in something of a reverse pilgrimage narrative.

Ch. 14: In "Urban development in the Severan empire" Andrew Wilson adds two elements to his enlightening survey of urban building programs across the empire that make his chapter stand out. First, he is virtually alone in looking in any detail at how issues of Severan culture would play out in the later third century. For example, he shows how Lepcis Magna's annual donation of olive oil in gratitude for Severus' benefactions became a dire burden after the imperial treasury took over land once owned by the local elite (pp. 306-07). Second (and here he has somewhat more company), he is alert to moments when our evidence may conceal what we might today call an abuse of power, as in his suggestion that some North African building projects may be the result of coerced euergetism.

Ch. 15: In "Metaphor and identity in Severan architecture: the Septizodium at Rome between 'reality' and 'fantasy'" Edmund Thomas presents a thorough re-reading of the Septizodium and a re-contextualization of it in terms of its regionalist symbolism. Working through all available evidence (including post-antique sketches of the building, which was demolished only in 1588), Thomas argues that this monument must have been quite a bit longer than most scholars have supposed. This elongation, in turn, spurs a reconsideration of the building's function and its relationship to its immediate surroundings. Thomas moves quite effectively from architectural minutiae to much broader matters as he notes that the septizodium was a specifically North African form introduced into Rome by a North African emperor.

Ch. 16: After receiving mention in the preceding chapters, the Severan Marble Plan takes center stage in Jennifer Trimble's "Visibility and viewing on the Severan Marble Plan." This 1:240 scale map of Rome, which featured an amazing level of detail down to the level of noting the location of individual doorways, was placed 4 m. above the floor on an inner wall of the Templum Pacis and stretched up to a height of 17 m. How could a viewer see any of it!? Trimble answers this question and more in assessing the map's impact on a viewer. The map boasts a vast amount of knowledge and, because of its placement, also impedes even a well-informed viewer from accessing any but a tiny portion of that knowledge. The emperor, with his unequaled resources, is the sole "ideal viewer" of this map and the rest of us are left to feel over-awed. One chilling implication of Trimble's thesis suggests that Roman viewers found themselves in a symbolic panopticon with the emperor's omniscient gaze bearing down on them and reaching into the seemingly inaccessible recesses of their private lives.

Ch. 17: Alison Cooley discusses the "creative emulation" of Rome's first emperor in "Septimius Severus: the Augustan emperor." Her overall argument can be summed up in her statement that Severus "strengthened his own legitimacy as ruler by calling to mind the first princeps, who, like him, had emerged from civil wars as founder of a new dynasty" (p. 385). She gathers support for this thesis from a broad range of evidence including such issues as the manner in which both new rulers related to their predecessors, Severus' use of Augustus' timetable (rather than that of Claudius and Domitian) for celebrating the ludi saeculares, his sponsorship of urban building projects in Rome, his claim to have restored the Republic, and even various points of overlap between the careers of Julia Domna and Livia.

Ch. 18: With the first contribution to the volume's final section (Religion and Philosophy), Mark Edwards has put together an outstanding overview of Severan Christianity (also the two-word title for his chapter). In addition to being so clear and readable that it could be assigned to advanced undergraduates, it offers succinct distillations and commentary on many of the recent debates in the field. For example, he highlights some of the problems with recent sociological approaches to the dynamics of conversion to Christianity (pp. 402-03) and gives three tenets that were endorsed by all Gnostic sects, a category which has proven increasingly difficult to delimit (p. 412).

Ch. 19: The relationship between charity and piety is treated by Richard Finn, who uses literary analysis to make a doctrinal point in "Almsgiving for the pure of heart: continuity and change in early Christian teaching." Finn shows that Origen, in his treatment of these topics, is clearly engaging with the Shepherd of Hermas and the Book of James (the former receiving more attention in Finn's paper). Yet even as Origen recuperates language and themes from these earlier works he provides a new balance point for the old "faith vs. works" debate. For the author of the Shepherd, purity of heart is within our grasp and almsgiving marks our attainment of that goal; for Origen, purity is more distant and almsgiving is neither the primary marker of nor vehicle toward purity.

Ch. 20: Catherine Conybeare's outstanding reading of Tertullian's Ad uxorem in "Tertullian on flesh, spirit, and wives" brings to light a subtle doctrinal point with potentially major social ramifications. She interrogates the relationship between spirit and flesh in this text and comes to the surprising but compelling conclusion that Ad uxorem has more to do with control than it does with marriage. The spirit's need to control the flesh is paralleled by the husband's need to control the wife. Many of Conybeare's excellent points can be summed up in her hypothetical rethinking of Tertullian's letter to his wife: "For the conserva to write back to her husband, to advise him on how to comport himself in her absence, is simply unimaginable: from where would she derive the authority? How could the flesh lead the spirit?" (pp. 437-38).

Ch. 21: Be sure to make it to the end of Joseph Geiger's "Sophists and Rabbis: Jews and their past in the Severan age," which highlights many parallels between these two categories of wise men. It is in the last paragraph that his most challenging point emerges: that the Jewish tradition for primarily literary (rather than, say, political) reasons was obsessively focused on the historical era covered by the Bible to the virtual exclusion of other epochs. The Bible provided the perfect and complete canon, and therefore the focus of Rabbinic scholarship had no reason to dwell on post-Biblical eras. (Edwards makes a similar point on p. 417 about Origen: he engaged with pagan philosophy in order to refute it, after which "all books but the Bible may be closed again.") Geiger sets up the parallel with the sophists, but leaves us to sort out for ourselves whether or not the same argument could apply. Did sophists spend so much energy looking at issues from classical Athens as a result of a heavily Athenocentric literary canon?

Ch. 22: In "Trouble in Snake Town" (the catchiest title of the bunch) Ian Rutherford reads an oracle from Phrygian Hierapolis dealing with plague. The snake of his title turns out to be a Hierapolitan dragon killed by Apollo, perhaps recalled in a regularized ritual. He teases out a religious relationship between Hierapolis and Claros, "a manifesto setting out a sort of blueprint for how to achieve a reconciliation between Clarian and local traditions" (p. 457). Many of Rutherford's suggestions are necessarily speculative, but his interpretive decisions are always well reasoned and sensible.

Ch. 23: Because few magical papyri can confidently be dated to the Severan era, Daniel Ogden is forced to treat the discussions and conceptions of magic (rather than its actual practice) in "Magic in the Severan period." In addition to demonstrating how varied opinions about magic could be, Ogden looks closely at Philostratus' portrayal of Apollonius of Tyana, whose powers typically derived from supportive gods, but who also exhibited enough supernatural power to keep his audience guessing.

Ch. 24: Michael Trapp turns to the state of intellectual pursuits in "Philosophy, scholarship, and the world of learning in the Severan period." He shows that there was a significant amount of continuity with the pre-Severan era in terms of the availability of financial support for such activities. After fleshing out what was going on in the most prominent and traditional intellectual disciplines, Trapp concludes his chapter by briefly sketching the role of Christianity, which was just coming onto the intellectual radar of the Mediterranean world, noting that pagan intellectuals of this period show few signs of concern about this new movement's "appropriation of Greek scholarly tradition" (p. 487).

Ch. 25: George Boys-Stones presents a savvy and important argument in "Human autonomy and divine revelation in Origen." This piece is complex (a virtual necessity when dealing with Origen) and richly rewarding in showing that for Origen 1) history proves the Bible to be the true font of revelation, 2) revelation reveals the world to be God's contingency plan for dealing with creation's fallen state, and 3) reason allows us to put this all together and to recognize that our limited rational capacity needs supplementing via revelation.

Ch. 26: The volume concludes with Christopher Taylor's "Socrates under the Severans," which effectively shows that Christian and pagan writers responded differently to the figure of Socrates. The former tended to be concerned with doctrinal/metaphysical issues, such as the meaning of Socrates' daimonion as either a proof of his proto-Christian status or his deep idolatry. For pagan writers, however, Socrates appears as paradigmatic of all philosophers and is lauded or teased according to a given author's take on the social location of philosophy, rather than for any particular dogmatic position.

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