Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Jan Stenger, Hellenische Identität in der Spätantike: pagane Autoren und ihr Unbehagen an der eigenen Zeit. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, Bd. 97. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2009. Pp. x, 424. ISBN 9783110213287. $140.00.
Reviewed by Fabian Sieber, KU Leuven


In Hellenische Identität in der Spätantike, Jan Stenger analyses the characteristics of Greek pagan literature of the 4th century. His aim is to show how much of this literature forms a recognizable literary corpus, held together by common themes, problems, figures of thought, and discursive practices. This literary corpus, he contends, was developed as a result of a shared and common "Unbehagen" of the authors involved, caused by a shared feeling of crisis and cultural decadence. The theory of discourse developed by Michel Foucault serves as an important point of reference in this effort, and the work of the emperor Julian functions as the primary focal point around which are gathered the many other authors Stenger's book considers (among them Libanius, Himerius, Oribasius, Sallustius and Themistius).

The main question Stenger considers is this: how did Greek-speaking, pagan authors understand their situation, and upon what literary forms did they draw in addressing the crisis of their time? Stenger argues for the autonomy of late antique literature in relation to its predecessors, i.e. in relation both to the Latin literature of the Western Empire and the writings of the second sophistic (Dio Chrysostomus, Herodes Atticus, Aelius Aristides, Polemon of Laodikea). By such an approach, Stenger suggests, one is enabled to reinterpret the relationship between pagan and Christian authors, and even between pagan and Christian discourse more generally.

Some groundbreaking work has been done in this area in the past several decades, notably the publication of two short monographs on the issue by Bowersock in 1978 and 1994.1 More recently, the relation between religion and politics has been the focus of much scholarly work (see for example Wiemer 1995,2 Thome 2004,3 and Schäfer 20084) Stengers book delivers an original and stimulating contribution to this field of research, though it is not free from methodological difficulties.

One of these is apparent in his heavy reliance on the terms of Foucault's discourse analysis. The consequences of this approach for Stenger's project are problematic, since Foucault provides more a general perspective than a developed methodology, leaving Stenger the task of developing a methodology suited more specifically to his task.

To do so, Stenger has to enter into the dialogical structures of language and thus rely on certain polar oppositions (most centrally here, pagan versus Christian) which, from the point of view of postmodern theory, would themselves need to be thrown into question. Both pagans and Christians may, after all, have taken part in the same discursive formations and thus cannot be opposed in the manner Stenger's analysis requires. Yet Stenger's approach makes such a comparison impossible.

But let us take a closer look at the book itself. Having delineated his field of research and presented the basic thesis of the book in the introductory chapter (pp. 1-20), the argumentation proceeds in five substantial chapters.

In the second chapter (pp.21-111) rewarding insights result from the analysis of Himerius' work. Stenger considers how, from the extant periegetic literature under Himerius' name, we can create as it were a map of the Greek psyche. Through these texts, the urban topography of the ancient city gained a new importance in the mind of Himerius' readers, as places, buildings, and structures came to be connected with the values and achievements characteristic of Greek identity. As one's spatial awareness alters, the spatial order changes as well and gains symbolic value in the construction of identity. A similar conclusion emerges from an analysis of the works of Oribasius, who identifies the field of medicine taken as a whole as characteristically Greek and thus common to every educated, religious, and ethical adult -– in short, to every Hellene.

The third chapter (pp. 112-192) deals with the struggles of the late Roman empire in which many sought to transform the ideal of sovereign power by going back to early pagan roots. Of course it is the works of Julian himself which have to be examined in this connection, and Stenger dedicates his third chapter to this exercise. By means of a chronological survey of Julian's works connected thematically with sovereignty, Stenger shows the inner coherence of Julian's theory of imperial power. From his beginnings as Caesar in the province of Gaul, Julian was interested in portraying himself as the ideal emperor. That is to say: as a sovereign who is led by virtue and wisdom, and who worships the old gods. This final point cannot be overstated, since Julian considered it necessary that he should first attain such a vision of the gods before he could reign as emperor for the true benefit of his people. Thus, for Julian, imperial power is derived from a direct contact with the divine.

In his fourth chapter (pp. 193-246) Stenger describes how Libanius revisited this concept of sovereignty, as developed by Julian, and connected it to the term theios aner, which seemed a suitable vehicle to situate the institution of the emperor in the more general hagiographic discourse of the time. This rhetorical maneuver functioned to devalue the repertoire of Christian signs and symbols, a process speeded by the efforts of Themistius, Libanius, Himerius and Eunapius to propagate a concept of the Intellectual that was equipped, like Julian's sovereignty, with sacral terms.

In his fifth chapter (pp. 247-316) Stenger examines how this discursive situation changed after Julian's sudden death. Not only did the absence of a central figure of Hellenic discourse leave a space that could not be filled but also, more than this, imperial support of pagan beliefs and favor of classical culture likewise came to an abrupt and unexpected end . While Christian commentators were able to integrate this event into their conception of the history of salvation, non-Christian commentators had difficulties doing so. But when the dust had settled the intermezzo of Julian's imperial reign was interpreted as a crisis which challenged the cultural identity of pagans. Libanius' provocative statement that Julian was murdered by a Christian assassin, started a war of words in which remembrance became the competitive remembrance of different parties, and so took on a political dimension.

The sixth chapter (pp. 317-390) aims to contextualize this interpretation, by showing, that it was not the first time that remembrance was situated in the general struggle for cultural hegemony: controversies over the interpretation of history have always been present in debates between pagans and Christians. Such was precisely the tactic adopted by Julian in his attempt to prove the priority of Greek philosophy in terms of both its age and its truth.

All in all the value of these insights is more than enough to recommend Stenger's book. Unfortunately, however, Stenger does not indicate how he reinterprets the cultural discourse of eastern Roman 4th century society (this is true of the summary offered in the seventh chapter—pp. 391-396—as well). This leaves the reader unsatisfied.

Stenger's navigation of his various methodological challenges is likewise not entirely satisfactory. It seems as though Stenger has imposed his thesis so strictly that he fails to respect the main intention of the texts he considers, an odd half-blindness which leads to some strange conclusions. Two examples may clarify what I mean.

The first example: Stenger tries to support his hypothesis about Julian's theory of sovereignty by referring to Julian's oration "To the Cynic Heracleios" (pp. 153-158), and especially to the paradigmatic myth presented there (see Oration 7, 227c-234c).

The text (Julian: Heracleios, 233d-234a) is short and catchy: a rich but impious man has divided his wealth among his impious descendants. When he dies, things seem close to falling into chaos. But Zeus, moved by compassion, decides to elect a poor boy to become a reformer of the estates of his father. The boy is raised to heaven, Helios and Athena take him in hand, and he is educated in the principles of good rulership. He is then sent back to earth to become administrator of the manor, protected by Hermes and Athena.

On Stenger's reading, the central point in this text is the identification of Julian with the poor boy elected by the gods to become steward of his father's estates. Thus Julian is presented as the ideal sovereign under a doctrine of divine right, and the myth may best be read as his own political statement. For Stenger, it is clearly the myth's deep respect for the pagan gods that is of central interest. Of course such a reading is possible, but it clouds the issue in at least one important respect. In the development of the oration it is after all not Julian's main focus to develop a theory of sovereignty, but rather to pick at the Cynic Heracleios for his veiled criticism of Julian in a lost text, a tale concerning Pan ( identified with Julian) and Zeus ( identified with Heracleios). Julian's conclusion of this critical piece with a myth of his own, in which he is raised to heaven, educated by gods and sent back to earth as a messenger should perhaps be read more as a polemic against Heracleios than as an attempt to formulate a program in support of Julian's own divine right.

The second example of Stenger's overstressing of his sources is apparent in his treatment of Julian's satire The Caesars (pp. 158-164). Of course this text can be read as Stenger reads it, i.e. as an expression of the search for the ideal sovereign and a critique of Julian's predecessors, but such a reading neglects the concrete historical background of the text. For besides the Roman emperors in the piece, from Trajan to Constantine, Alexander the Great also plays a prominent role. At the time of its composition, probably around 362, Rome stood on the threshold of war with the Sasanids, one of the largest military campaigns of the late antique world. One of Julian's central aims would be to recapture the Mesopotamian provinces lost to the Persian expansion under Sapor I and Sapor II. By referring in his satire to Alexander as to a Roman emperor who has invaded Mesopotamia, just as Trajan, Verus, Severus, and Gordian had done, Julian situates himself in a line of emperors with whom he wants to be compared in future ages. First and foremost then, The Caesars should be read as an imitatio Alexandri and as a manifesto of war, not as a theoretical examination of the question of sovereignty. (cf. see: Hunt, Julian5 especially pp. 73ff.). Of course it is possible to read the satire, with Stenger, as a text about theoretical questions of good governance and as a critique of former emperors. This, however, risks distorting the main aim of the text and reducing its message to fit the Procrustean bed of Stenger's thesis.

In sum, Stenger's book can motivate a critical re-reading of its sources through the new lens of its ambitious approach. It is a thought-provoking contribution that certainly merits careful study and no doubt will incite further critical consideration and discussion.


1.   Bowersock, Glen Warren: Julian the Apostate. London: Duckworth, 1978. (Classical life and letters); Bowersock, Glen Warren: Fiction as History: Nero to Julian. Berkeley (Calif.): University of California press, 1994. (Sather Classical Lectures, 58)
2.   Wiemer, Hans-Ulrich: Libanios und Julian: Studien zum Verhältnis von Rhetorik und Politik im vierten Jahrhundert n.Chr. München: Beck, 1995. (Vestigia : Beiträge zur alten Geschichte; 46)
3.   Thome, Felix: Historia contra Mythos: die Schriftauslegung Diodors von Tarsus und Theodors von Mopsuestia im Widerstreit zu Kaiser Julians und Sallustius' allegorischen Mythenverständnis. Bonn: Borengässer, 2004. (Hereditas: Studien zur alten Kirchengeschichte; 24)
4.   Schäfer, Christian: Kaiser Julian "Apostata" und die philosophische Reaktion gegen das Christentum. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008. ( Millennium-Studien; 21)
5.   Hunt, David: Julian. in: Cameron, Averil (Ed.); Garnsey, Peter (Ed.): The Cambridge Ancient History: The Late Empire, A.D. 337-425. Volume 13. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. pp. 44-77.

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