Thursday, May 20, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Jason König, Greek Literature in the Roman Empire. Classical World Series. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2009. Pp. 119. ISBN 9781853997136. £11.99 / $23.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Patrick Paul Hogan, Hope College

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

That the authors and works of the Second Sophistic or--depending on your preference and politics--the Greek Renaissance of the 2nd and 3rd c. C.E., have become popular subjects of study in the field of Classics should surprise no reader of this review. But the renewed scholarly interest in Lucian and Philostratus still seems a long way from infiltrating the popular conception of Classics. Jason König may remedy this gulf somewhat with his new book, a recent addition to Bristol's growing Classical World Series.

In keeping with the stated purpose of the series, König sees a broad audience for his introduction to this literary epoch: "This volume offers a broad introduction to Imperial Greek literature not only for those who are studying these texts at school or undergraduate level but also for those who are coming to this body of material for the first time" (p. 9). Scholars who devote themselves to more traditional topics in our field would do well to consider themselves as belonging to the latter group, for they will find some profit in this little book. But I would hasten to add that even professed old hands in the Second Sophistic will come away from this book with new insights, especially in the points of contact between Greek literature and Christian literature that König notes from time to time.

König divides his book by genre and devotes relatively equal space to each. In chapter 1 he opens with a description of the arresting opening of Heliodorus' Ethiopika and proceeds to give an overview of the major surviving ancient Greek novels, citing their main distinguishing characteristics, sources, and themes. In shorter sections he briefly treats the pertinent topics of readership, elitism, Greek identity, and the role of women. These topics are no doubt already familiar to some, but at the end of the chapter König refutes the traditional division between "the idealizing texture of the Greek texts and their more bawdy, grotesque Latin equivalents" and shows how early Christian texts and Greek novels influenced each other. König ends with a precis of the surprisingly novelistic and (to this reader) little known Acts of Andrew and Matthias, wherein the apostles struggle to convert a city of cannibals, who employ machinery to exsanguinate their human prey. As König concludes, "But it is hard to avoid the feeling that the text is also flirting with a much less virtuous kind of appeal, imitating the Greek novels in their tendency to offer sensationalistic narrative disguised beneath a thin veneer of respectability." (p. 25)

Although König strives to draw on an array of authors for each chapter, he allows Lucian, justifiably, to dominate the discussion of satire in chapter 2. After explaining the problems that accompany transferring the idea of satire to ancient works, he chooses to focus on three short works from Lucian's vast oeuvre as examples (Icaromenippus, Symposium, and On Salaried Posts)--works that could easily fit into the syllabus of an undergraduate Greek Literature course, I might add. Through these works König shows how Lucian plays with Greek traditions, lambastes the pretensions and inconsistencies of intellectuals and philosophers of the period, and stretches the many literary genres he dabbles in. At the end of the chapter he examines on the topic of unreliable narration Lucian's True Stories, a work that he looked at in the previous chapter for its relationship with the Greek novels. This is another aspect of Greek literature of the period that the reader begins to understand as the same authors and works reappear throughout König's book: the interrelationship and interdependence between genres is a natural consequence of the paideia with which all the authors were indelibly, if not comfortably in some cases, imbued.

Unsurprisingly, the role of paideia forms the core of the discussion of oratory in chapter 3. The background and major works of Aelius Aristides, Dio of Prusa, and Favorinus each receive due place in the discussion, and König brings in Menander Rhetor as an example of the kind of rhetorical handbook these authors absorbed during their education, but he also shows how even illustrious sophists strove to identify themselves as something more than or other than sophists, e.g. Aelius Aristides in his Sacred Tales and Dio in his Euboean Oration. Dio himself provides a nice segue to the next chapter on philosophy, where König demonstrates the "cross-fertilisation between the different schools" (p. 56) that led to the rise of eclectics like Maximus of Tyre and Epictetus. Diogenes of Oenoanda, who showed his enthusiasm for Epicurean principles with an impressive public inscription in his hometown, and Marcus Aurelius, the era's example of a real philosopher-king, also receive notice, as does the extensive use of Greek philosophy made by Christian writers like Clement of Alexandria.

Latin authors make occasional appearances in König's book, especially in chapter 5 on science and miscellanism. He rightly recognizes that the reprocessing of the past through compilation and anthologization was just as prominent among polymathic Roman authors, such as Aulus Gellius and Pliny the Edler, as among Greek authors, most prominently Plutarch, Athenaeus, and Aelian, in this era because both sides increasingly shared a common literary culture. "The wide spread of the knowledge-ordering obsessions of this period" (p. 79) also forms a major theme of his sixth chapter on history and geography, especially in the case of Pausanias' search for significant objects in the Greek landscape. König also stresses how authors as diverse as Arrian and Pausanias mediated between the pre-Roman past and the Roman present and came to terms with the opportunities and limitations that the expansion of the empire afforded them.

In chapter 7, on biography, König discusses Plutarch's Parallel Lives as one would expect, as well as Diogenius Laertius and Philostratus' Lives of the Sophists, but Lucian makes another appearance with his trio of unusual and provocative biographies Alexander, Death of Peregrinus, and Demonax. The latter further highlight for the reader the permeable boundaries of genre in the period, a characteristic that König cites as the defining one for Imperial Greek literature in the final chapter. There König, describing the reasons for the prominence of prose over poetry in the first three centuries C.E., concludes frankly: "None of the chapter headings I have chosen really works: each one threatens to spill out beyond its own boundaries." I should note here that König's survey of biography fails to mention Cornelius Nepos at all; he is a Latin author, but recent research has shown that Nepos had a major effect on the development of biography as a genre and that he was a important influence on Plutarch himself.1

After the last chapter, as is consistent with the other entries in the Classical World Series, König includes a list of "Suggestions for Further Reading," in which he chooses a handful of English-language secondary works for each chapter that collegiate students could approach with some guidance, and "Questions for Further Study and Discussion," from which the enterprising lecturer may take elements for his syllabus and lesson plans. The timeline at the end of the work includes authors and emperors listed in two columns in chronological order from the 1st c. B.C.E. to the 4th c. C.E. König also subdivides the authors by Greek (regular type), Latin (italics), and Christian (asterisked) identity in each age for easy reference.

Every lecturer or professor who has drawn up a syllabus for a Classical Civilization or Literature course has felt a tinge of consternation at trying to cover in a mere 15 weeks, or fewer, the wide expanse of Roman and Greek literature. Certainly Plato and Cicero, Thucydides and Livy, must receive their due oblations of time and attention, and König, I think, would hardly argue otherwise. But at 104 pages of main text, his book could easily be inserted at the end of a Greek Civilization course, and offers, at a modest price, a good overview of a period only now receiving its due from modern scholarship, and perhaps with the aid of this book, soon to sow seeds of interest in young minds. Students, having become familiar with such figures as Lucian and Aristides, who carved out places and identities for themselves through re-examination and re-arrangement of their cultural past, will leave the semester primed to do the same with their own Classical inheritance.

Corrections: Chapter 2 actually begins on page 26, not 27 as the table of contents indicates.

Table of Contents 5
Preface 6
Map 7
Introduction 7
1. Novels 11
2. Satire 27
3. Oratory 41
4. Philosophy 54
5. Science and Miscellanism 66
6. History and Geography 77
7. Biography 86
8. Conclusion: Poetry and Prose 99
Suggestions for Further Reading 105
Questions for Further Study and Discussion 111
Timeline 114
Index 117


1.   See especially Joseph Geiger Cornelius Nepos and Ancient Political Biography (Historia Einzelschriften, 47). Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1985. Also, more recently Frances Titchener, "Cornelius Nepos and the Biographical Tradition." Greece and Rome 50.1 (April 2003) 85-99.

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