Tuesday, September 20, 2016


Peter Scholz, Dirk Wiegandt (ed.), Das kaiserzeitliche Gymnasion. Wissenskultur und gesellschaftlicher Wandel, 34. Berlin; Boston: de Gruyter, 2015. Pp. 288. ISBN 9783050046419. €99,95.

Reviewed by Benedikt Eckhardt, Universität Bremen (benedikt.eckhardt@uni-bremen.de)

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and Titles are listed below.]

In 2004, Das hellenistische Gymnasion was published, an extensive volume on all aspects of Hellenistic gymnasia that quickly became standard reading in the field.1 In 2007, the same research project, based at the University of Frankfurt, organized a follow-up conference on the gymnasium in the Roman imperial period. With its eleven contributions, the book emerging from that conference does not cover its subject as exhaustively as did the volume on the Hellenistic period. However, it is still a significant contribution focusing on key problems connected to the history of the gymnasium, the Greek city under Rome, and the more general problem of Graeco-Roman cultural exchange.

The first two contributions deal with the seemingly contradictory Roman perspectives on Greek athletic culture and the gymnasium. Wolfgang Orth chooses a rather traditional approach (11-24): After a discussion of the well-known passages in authors such as Lucan and Pliny that associate the gymnasium with moral vices and decadence, he stresses the positive use of gymnasium-language in other texts, the general popularity of the institution and its possible uses for governing the empire. The obvious conclusion is that the critical views represent a circle of writers somewhat detached from reality (18). It is precisely this traditional explanation that is seen as insufficient by Christian Mann (25-46). After a discussion of the relationship between the terminology of the sources and the archaeological reality (a problem not discussed by Orth), he concludes that while the designation of baths as gymnasia by Cassius Dio and others should be taken seriously, the Roman "gymnasia" did not threaten any basic consensus of the Roman social order. Neither did they become institutions for educating citizens, nor did athletic success affect the social status of people. The literary discourse about gymnasia was therefore neither unrepresentative nor concerned with an actual threat. Gymnasia instead served as a focus where discourses on Roman identity vis-à-vis the Greek world could be bundled. While the problem of representativeness still looms large in the background, Mann is certainly correct in giving more attention than Orth to the reality behind familiar terms, and to the discursive use of highly symbolic institutions such as the gymnasium.

Two articles then discuss – from very different perspectives – the relationship between intellectual training and the gymnasium in the imperial era. Martin Hose notes that while authors from the Second Sophistic occasionally use metaphorical language taken from the sphere of athletics and the gymnasium, the institution as such hardly figures in their writings (47-62). Given the likelihood of philosophers speaking in the gymnasia, he takes this as reflecting a general way of thinking: Philosophers constructed their personality around images of sickness, not health, and therefore had little use for an institution that promoted physical prowess. This interesting perspective is supported by the observation that in the few instances where actual gymnasia are mentioned, the texts focus either on negative or on unusual, philosophically acceptable aspects. Dennis Kehoe then gives a sketch of how the gymnasium as an elitist institution could have fostered education more generally and thereby contributed to the Roman economy (63-78). It is true that basic education would be important even in a pre-modern economy, and Kehoe's point that the imitation of elite habitus by middle classes could turn the gymnasium into an indirect mediator of paideia deserves further exploration. However, due to the lack of engagement with the actual evidence for gymnasia and their activities, the argument remains completely theoretical. Paideia is also at the center of Lucia d'Amore's investigation of references to musical contests and education (97-110). Based on epigraphic evidence for such contests from Asia Minor and Greece (especially Sparta), she argues for continuity in this sphere of gymnasial activity from the Hellenistic to the imperial era. However, the title is somewhat misleading, as there is hardly any mention of cults for the Muses; in addition, the continuity of agones does not necessarily mean that the gymnasium as an institution functioned in the same way as in Hellenistic times.

Placed between these discussions of paideia is Peter Scholz's own contribution on gymnasiarchs (79-96). This is a systematic study of the transformation of the office into an institution that often resembles a liturgy more than an office conveyed on his holders by vote; Scholz duly notes how this transformation fits the emergence of a "Honoratiorenregime", but does not discuss recent criticism voiced against this model.2 The postulate of a strong dichotomy between elite and populace leads to interesting ideas about how civic virtues were used by the latter to discursively integrate gymnasiarchs into a common moral orbit. This argument could have been developed further, not least because it offers a different perspective on the continuity of terms and concepts in a changed political environment and ultimately raises the question (rarely considered in other contributions) if such discursive continuity might not occasionally conceal fundamental changes.

The next three papers could be said to put these more general observations to the test, for they offer local or regional epigraphic studies of gymnasia in Asia Minor and the Near East. Angelos Chaniotis presents a thorough discussion of the gymnasia of Aphrodisias (111-131). Drawing on published and a number of unpublished inscriptions (some of which are presented here for the first time), he develops a systematic case study that brings together many of the volume's subjects. Apart from insights into the values associated with the gymnasium and institutions like the gymnasiarch or the neoi, his final point about potential conflicts between the gymnasium as an elitist institution and the populace, invisible behind the epigraphic discourse, adds an interesting aspect not tackled by the other contributions. Boris Dreyer then presents inscriptions from Ionian Metropolis (133-148). Although the amount of available data clearly falls behind Aphrodisias, he shows how Metropolis, far from being a backwater village, adapted the general trend of bath-gymnasium complexes at an early date. He also deals with the local corporations of neoi and presbyteroi/geraioi, an aspect that is somewhat underrepresented in the volume. Finally, Frank Daubner discusses the evidence for gymnasia and gymnasiarchs in Syria and Arabia (149-166). Apart from a useful presentation of data, Daubner offers two main insights: First, gymnasiarchs were regularly natives and not Greeks, an observation that casts doubts on the idea that gymnasia could have served as exclusive clubs of Greeks preserving their culture. Second, most gymnasia in the Near East were of Roman origin, and they fulfilled an integrative function: Far from being mere bathing facilities, gymnasia still trained people for their role as citizens – of both their city and the empire. This is an intriguing perspective not least in light of other discussions offered in the volume, but caution seems advisable: The chronological distribution of the epigraphic evidence needs to be taken into account, and there does not seem to be much information on the actual functions of the Syrian and Arabian gymnasia apart from the imperial cult.

The last two articles come from archaeologists and clearly form a section of their own. Both discuss the development of gymnasia under Rome in selected cities of Asia Minor: Monika Trümper chooses Pergamon, Miletus and Priene; Martin Steskal focuses on Ephesos and again Miletus. Through a comparison between the Hellenistic and the Roman periods of use, Trümper forcefully argues against any generalizing conclusions about the transformation of gymnasia under Rome (167-221). In their modernization efforts, each of the three cities dealt with its Hellenistic gymnasium in a different way, either adding new functions to the existing complex (Pergamon), adding a new complex next to the old one that was therefore not modernized (Miletus), or radically disrupting continuity by erecting a completely new complex (Priene). Trümper is careful not to overstate her case, as much of the relevant data is in fact insecure (including the very identification of the Hellenistic gymnasium in Miletus). On a more general note, variation is to be expected in view of the respective local building contexts; to reach reliable conclusions, one would have to develop a model of all building activity in the respective cities and then situate their approach to gymnasia within it, a task that may well be impossible. Steskal's article (223-244) is more interested in common ground, as he treats the bath-gymnasia of Ephesus and Miletus as paradigmatic examples of a fusion of Greek and Roman culture. After Trümper's critique of generalizing tendencies, this almost reads like a counter-reaction; the identity of the Hellenistic gymnasium at Miletus seems completely secure here (227-228), and there is no serious doubt that Ephesus and Miletus do indeed represent the general attitude towards gymnasia in the East. But Steskal challenges other models when he argues for the continued importance of bath-gymnasia up to the fifth century.

While the contributions thus cover a wide range of topics, none of them is completely isolated, and some main lines are clearly visible. A number of articles argue for continuity in function from the Hellenistic to the Roman period, notwithstanding the changed political circumstances. Into this general picture of stability, the introduction of Roman-style bathing establishments can be integrated in different ways: As profound change, as a merging of Greek and Roman culture, or as a mere addition to the prevailing functions which remained intact. Another overarching concern is the gymnasium's symbolic meaning, not least as a visual manifestation of civic ideals that belonged to an earlier epoch. How continuity of discourse here relates to continuity of practice and function is a problem that could have received more attention.

None of the articles interact with each other, which is unfortunate in cases where common ground is tackled (Orth/Mann and Trümper/Steskal) or where a case study might support or challenge a more general hypothesis (e.g. Chaniotis/Scholz). In this regard, the volume falls behind the high standard of Das hellenistische Gymnasion with its integration of responses. The Hellenistic volume had been published within three years, while the new volume, as the editors duly note (p. 1), comes with a considerable delay, eight years after the conference. Most articles nevertheless include a bibliography updated to 2014 and comments by the authors on how they were (or were not) able to engage with the relevant literature. Some gaps nevertheless remain. Daubner's discussion of the "gymnasiarch of the four eparchies" from Tyre and its implication for the organization of the Syrian koinon (159-162) would certainly have profited from interaction with Vitale's 2013 work,3 but all in all, not much is missing (and in that particular case, Daubner's own explanation of the fourth eparchy – that Commagene might have been given to Antiochus IV only after 43/44 – is still new). In their brief introduction, the editors have also included an updated general bibliography on the gymnasium (6-10). The book contains indices of names and places, but not of sources or subjects.

In sum, while this volume falls behind its predecessor on several counts, most contributions are of high quality and tackle important subjects; lack of comprehensiveness will not keep it from stimulating further debates.

List of Contributions

P. Scholz/D. Wiegandt, Zur Einführung
W. Orth, Das griechische Gymnasion im römischen Urteil
C. Mann, Gymnasien und Gymnastikdiskurs im kaiserzeitlichen Rom
M. Hose, Die Sophisten und das Gymnasion – Überlegungen zu einer Nicht-Begegnung
D. P. Kehoe, Das kaiserzeitliche Gymnasion, Bildung und Wirtschaft im Römischen Reich
P. Scholz, Städtische Honoratiorenherrschaft und Gymnasiarchie in der Kaiserzeit
L. D'Amore, Culto delle Muse e agoni musicali in età imperiale
A. Chaniotis, Das kaiserzeitliche Gymnasion in Aphrodisias
B. Dreyer, Eine Landstadt am Puls der Zeit – Neue Inschriften zum Gymnasion und zum Bad aus Metropolis in Ionien
F. Daubner, Gymnasien und Gymnasiarchen in den syrischen Provinzen und in Arabien
M. Trümper, Modernization and change of function of Hellenistic gymnasia in the Imperial period: Case-studies Pergamon, Miletus, and Priene
M. Steskal, Römische Thermen und griechische Gymnasien: Ephesos und Milet im Spiegel ihrer Bad-Gymnasien


1.   D. Kah and P. Scholz (eds.), Das hellenistische Gymnasion, Berlin 2004.
2.   E.g. A. Kuhn, La cité grecque d'époque impériale: vers une société d'ordres?, Annales HSS 2009, p. 341-373.
3.   M. Vitale, Koinon Syrias. Priester, Gymnasiarchen und Metropoleis der Eparchien im kaiserzeitlichen Syrien, Berlin 2013, p. 43-110.

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