Tuesday, March 13, 2012


Daniel S. Richter, Cosmopolis: Imagining Community in Late Classical Athens and the Early Roman Empire. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. ix, 278. ISBN 9780199772681. $74.00.

Reviewed by Paul Dilley, Penn State; University of Iowa (pcd10@psu.edu; paul-dilley@uiowa.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


In this important study, Richter places the ancient ideal of the cosmopolis, which has been most frequently addressed in scholarship on postclassical philosophy,1 within the broader literary and cultural context of the ancient Mediterranean world. The scope of the work is sweeping, as the title suggests: from late Classical Athens to the early Roman Empire, although the Hellenistic period is largely absent, beyond the chapter on Zeno and the later Stoa. In the Introduction, Richter eschews "grand narratives," which might trace the development of ecumenical/universalist thinking through the ancient world, or identify the emergence of a notion resembling modern "cosmopolitanism." Indeed, apart from a few footnotes in the introduction and conclusion, he does not draw connections between his study and contemporary discussions of the idea. Instead, Richter focuses on the reception history of cosmopolitanism, understood broadly as "a set of ideas clustered around the principle that the human community is, biologically speaking, an undifferentiated whole" (18).

In Chapter One, "Nature, Culture, and the Boundaries of the Human Community," Richter explores the reflections of Plato and Aristotle on political community, namely the proper arrangement of the polis. He analyzes Plato's critique of aristocratic claims to hereditary virtue in the Meno, while also noting his refusal to endorse the democratic claim that virtue is the property of all native-born (autochthonous) citizens. He follows with an intriguing analysis of how Plato maps his proposed natural (psychic) distinctions among humans onto arguments for natural political structures in the Republic , especially the guardian class; Richter contrasts the "inward" view of this argument to Aristotle's concern with establishing the boundaries of polis membership among Greek men, whom he argued were the sole possessors of reason, in contrast to women, slaves, and metics.

Chapter Two, "After Ethnicity: Zeno as Citizen" examines this philosopher's role in the development of ideas about the unity of humanity in the early Hellenistic period, with brief discussions of the later Stoic traditions. Richter posits a basic continuity between Zeno's Republic and late Classical philosophical discussions, shifting Plato and Aristotle's critique of aristocratic exclusivity to a critique of democratic ideology. In his view, Zeno was concerned with "contemporary Athenian debates over the status of 'outsiders' within the polis" (61), rejecting autochthony as a criterion of citizenship in favor of virtue. He ends the chapter by outlining a stronger form of cosmopolitanism found in the Roman Empire, including Cicero's understanding of the concept and Epictetus' notion of the "cosmian," based on divine rather than human kinship. Richter justifiably points to the concept of oikeiosis as the most important contribution of Stoicism to the cosmopolitan discussion, and once again reads it in the context of late Classical philosophy, arguing that it "enabled Stoic thinkers to adopt Aristotle's logic for cosmopolitan ends: given the fact that the nature of the human soul is everywhere and always the same, the human race forms a natural whole" (87).

Chapter Three, "The Rhetoric of Unity," is a lengthy chapter that begins with Herodotus; then explores Plato's Menexenus and Isocrates' Panathenaicus and Panegyricus; and ends with the Second Sophistic, in particular Dio Chrysostom and Aelius Aristides. The chapter thus moves beyond purely philosophical discourse to cover what Richter calls "political performance" (87), in particular how authors mold traditional binary categories (e.g. Greek/Barbarian; Athenian/non-Athenian) in response to "the multiplicity and variability of an ever- expanding and diversifying world" (90). He offers the original and compelling argument that Isocrates "constituted a model of Greekness that depends on its own particular set of cultural criteria while, at the same time, preserving an ethnic notion of Athenianness" (106). Richter then examines the afterlife of this position in the work of Greek intellectuals in the Roman Empire, who continue to assert ethnic identity despite their various appeals to belonging in a cultural oikoumenĂȘ.

Chapters Four through Six explore how "the same cultural practices and political institutions that integrated and unified the diversity of empire simultaneously fragmented it," (135) namely languages, travelers, and Gods. In Chapter Four, "'A Pure World of Signs': Language and Empire," Richter analyzes the popularity of Atticism among Greek intellectuals of the Roman Empire, all too often taken for granted. Inspired by Bourdieu, he argues that "the literary elite used language and in particular literary Atticism to create a model of the unity of the oikoumenĂȘ" (138). The chapter focuses on how various authors apparently on the periphery – such as the Gaul Favorinus and the Syrian Lucian – used the centrifugal forces of Athenian literary culture to configure their own positions within the Roman Empire. Consistent with his attention to reception studies, Richter considers the portraits of the Scythian sage Anacharsis as the ""ideal type" of the ethnically non-Greek Hellene" (160).2 He demonstrates how the rejection of Atticism as a form of parochialism in the Hellenistic epistles attributed to the sage is replaced in the Second Sophistic by an Anacharsis whose Atticism demonstrates his identity as a Hellene.

Chapter Five, "The Origins of Human Wisdom," explores how the prestige of the Greek (and especially Athenian) cultural heritage, simply assumed by members of the Second Sophistic, was in fact contested by the claims of rival cultures, especially Egypt, Judea, and India, in the context of Roman Imperialism. Competing claims on ancient wisdom have received steady attention in recent years, for example in Boys-Stones' work, "Post-Hellenistic Philosophy."3 This chapter covers similar ground, but its originality lies in its focus on how Plutarch rewrites the long tradition of Greek writing on Egypt: while writers such as Herodotus and Plato had emphasized the intellectual debt of Greek thinkers to an older Egyptian tradition, "Plutarch allows for the wisdom of the Egyptians, but always reminds his readers that real wisdom, real philosophy, is the gift of the Greeks" (198).4 He does this by rewriting travel stories, in which itinerant Greeks become bearers of wisdom rather than receivers. Richter observes a similar dynamic in Philostratus' Life of Apollonius, in which the travelling sage instructs other cultures, before engaging with the Indian gymnosophists on somewhat equal terms.

In Chapter Six, "The Unity of the Divine," Richter explores several aspects of religious interchange in the Roman Empire, focusing on the now familiar authors Plutarch and Lucian. Beginning with Herodotus, he explores the equivalences proposed between the divinities of different cultures, especially "the relationship between translation, syncretism, and allegory. Richter argues that "The act of translation—calling "Isis" "Demeter"" derives from Plutarch's seemingly cosmopolitan conviction that the divine, though uniform, is manifested differently in various cultures, in terms of both ritual and language (211). At the same time, Plutarch's selective references to, and analysis of, Egyptian myth and ritual related to Isis foregrounds the priority of Hellenic philosophical and religious norms in his analysis. Although defining the contested term "syncretism" might have clarified his argument here, Richter's analysis of Plutarch's well-known De Iside breaks new ground, and expands on his discussion in Chapter Five of Plutarch's Hellenocentric revisionist arguments.

In the brief Conclusion, Richter gives an interesting ekphrasis of Robert Frank's 1955 photograph of a segregated New Orleans trolley car, revisiting some of the basic questions about unity, diversity, and citizenship in the human community which he raises in the study. Alluding to recent theories of cosmopolitanism, he notes that "the ambiguous status of the nation-state in the age of globalization has forced us to again reevaluate the meaning of the nation—the kin group—itself and to question its claim to the outermost ring of the individual's ethical and moral universe" (246).

This is a sophisticated study that engages a considerable number of difficult texts with intellectual vigor and depth of argumentation, proposing new readings and drawing innovative connections. Richter has also succeeded in placing the study of cosmopolitanism within the cultural context of two periods, the late Classical and the early Roman; while demonstrating that authors in the latter period (like their Hellenistic predecessors) grapple with this complex of ideas as close readers of texts from the former period. He convincingly argues (among other things) that in both periods, cosmopolitan ideals develop in response to models of human society based on the kin group. The frequent shift of focus between multiple and diverse sources from the late Classical and early imperial periods is vital to this study of reception history, but at times takes away from the clarity of the argument. Conversely, despite the many texts Richter analyzes, there is a lack of sustained attention to Hellenistic sources and Latin literature (beyond Zeno and the Roman Stoa); Dionysius of Halicarnassus's Roman Antiquities, for instance, receives but a page, though universalizing histories were arguably as significant for cosmopolitan ideas as the intellectuals covered in the book. These are quibbles, however, and do not challenge the validity of the conclusions. Indeed, Richter has intentionally limited the scope of the work, for example in his omission of Paul and other early Christian authors, on the grounds that "the sources of Paul's universalism differ from the philosophical commitments of late Stoic cosmopolitanism in ways that would demand a separate book" (10); they certainly do constitute a byway different from his chosen path of reception history, although there are certainly many potential intersections.5 Another area for future research would be the place of Persia in any of its manifestations (Achaemenid, Parthian, Sasanian) in theories of cosmopolitanism, from the late Classical period to the early empire. In conclusion, this book will be of great interest to a wide range of scholars working on the intellectual and cultural history of the ancient world, from the Classical period to the Roman Empire.


1.   E.g. Katja Maria Vogt, Law, Reason and the Cosmic City: Political Philosophy in the Early Stoa (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Malcolm Schofield, The Stoic Idea of the City (2nd ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
2.   In his analysis, Richter overlooks the important introductory volume of Abraham Malherbe, ed., The Cynic Epistles: A Study Edition (Missoula, MT: Society of Biblical Literature, 1977).
3.   G.R. Boys-Stones, Post-Hellenistic Philosophy: A Study in Its Development from the Stoics to Origen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
4.   I would point to another striking example of this tendency in Plutarch: his story of the discovery of a strange writing system in Alcmene's tomb by the Spartan king Agesilaus, who sends envoys to Egypt seeking priests to read it. Although the priest Chnouphis is able to identify the script, he implies that it is not Egyptian, but Greek, or at least used during the time of Proteus (associated of course with Pharos), when Hercules learned them (On The Daemon of Socrates 5-7).
5.   A highly influential study missing from Richter's bibliography is Denise Buell, Why This New Race? Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), which explores competing claims to universalism and ethnic identity in early Christianity.

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