Sunday, December 18, 2016


Alan Cameron, Wandering Poets and Other Essays on Late Greek Literature and Philosophy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xi, 359. ISBN 9780190268947. $74.00.

Reviewed by Lawrence Kowerski, Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center (

Version at BMCR home site


At the close of the final essay in this collection, Alan Cameron poses the question What Sort of Pagans?. Broadly, the articles and essays of this collection provide various answers and approaches to this question. The resulting whole, however, is much more expansive than a response to any single question. As Cameron suggests, "[m]ost of the chapters [in this collection] form a fairly coherent group, united by being concerned less with poetry and philosophy than with poets and philosophers"(xi). This self-assessment is somewhat modest. What, in fact, emerges is a wide-ranging, interconnected collection that presents, both in broad strokes and specific details, a cohesive image of the literary and cultural history from the fourth through the sixth centuries CE. Cameron displays his great command of historical detail and nuanced appreciation of cultural environments to create specific images of poets and philosophers within their context. And yet, in the merging of this command and appreciation with his careful reading of literature, Cameron's superb sensitivity as a literary reader shines through. As a whole, then, this volume stands as a historical, cultural and literary overview that is consistent in the themes addressed and rather unified.

The following review is descriptive rather than a point-by-point assessment of arguments and evidence. Most readers will be familiar with many of these pieces; most will not be disappointed in the richness and breadth of these chapters, even those who find room for disagreement.

Specifically, this book contains twelve articles and essays that represent half a century of scholarly output by one of the most distinguished scholars of late antiquity. Ten of these articles have appeared previously; many have become important hallmarks in the study of the literary and cultural history of late antiquity (e.g., Chapter 1, "Wandering Poets: A Literary Movement in Byzantine Egypt"; Chapter 2, "The Empress and the Poet"; Chapter 3, "The Last Days of the Academy at Athens"). Each of the previously published articles has been revised to some extent. Throughout, the line between original material and revision is difficult to discern. Some may find this difficulty problematic, especially in the more extensively revised and influential pieces. Two new essays are also included: "Chapter 4, Palladas: New Poems, New Date?" and Chapter 12, "Paganism in Sixth-Century Byzantium".

A brief summary highlights the great range of this collection and the unified picture it presents. Chapter 1, "Wandering Poets: A Literary Movement in Byzantine Egypt", the earliest and perhaps most famous piece republished here, argues for a school of Greek poets from Egypt who wandered through important cultural centers of the late Roman Empire. The chapter contains substantial revisions and additions; most are easily identifiable, but no systematic highlighting of changes has been made. Chapter 2,"The Empress and the Poet", re-evaluates the position of the poets Cyrus and Eudocia within the fifth century and concludes that both are representatives of educated individuals of their time who "valued their Classical culture – but not above their Christianity" (80). As throughout the collection, Cameron questions long-held assumptions to reconsider how such figures fit into a period in which classicism and Christianity appear to be struggling to fit together.

Chapter 3, "The Poet, the Bishop, and the Harlot", proposes that the poet Nonnus composed his Paraphrases of St. John's Gospel after his Dionysiaca; it then argues against E. Livrea that the poet is not to be identified as Nonnus, the bishop of Edessa in the mid-fifth century, nor with the Nonnus mentioned in the Life of Pelasgia the Harlot, a work presumably of the fifth or sixth century.1 Although a more recent piece (2000), it is also described in the preface as having been substantially changed. The debate with Livrea is enhanced (85-90), but the citations throughout are unclear and the many points to which Cameron is responding are obscured at times.

Chapter 4, "Palladas: New Poems, New Dates", is a new piece. It reviews how the evidence in the Yale codex containing the poetry of Palladas pertains to our dating of this poet either to the beginning or the end of the fourth century. Chapters 5, "Claudian", and 6, "Claudian Revisited", are a pair of papers that reflect the development of Cameron's view over time. The first, an early effort (presented in 1963, but published in 1974 (x)), shows the seeds that led to his book Claudian (Oxford, 1970) and its emphasis on poetry as propaganda. The second revisits the topic at a distance of thirty years. Cameron recounts his early steps toward his topic before reassessing, with more nuance, his understanding of the relation between Claudian's poetry and Stilicho.

In Chapters 7, "Poets and Pagans in Byzantine Egypt", and 8, "Poetry and Literary Culture in Late Antiquity", the focus returns to a broader consideration of cultural and historical backdrops. The first examines broadly the scholarly orthodoxy that categorizes literary figures in late antiquity as pagan or Christian. Cameron highlights that the reality need not be understood in such absolutes. The second argues that Greek and Latin literature in late antiquity emerge from a culture highly connected to past literature and should be viewed as a development of these earlier literary and cultural trends. Both are more recent entries in the collection.

In Chapter 9, "Hypatia: Life, Death and Work", Cameron seeks to reclaim Hypatia from the modern interpretation of her as martyr and feminist icon by arguing against the characterization of her as a deliberate provocateur, trouble-maker, and antagonist to Cyril of Alexandria. Rather, Cameron suggests that Hypatia is a serious scholar, in line with her cultural setting, an author, for whom we may actually have access to a great deal of her work, and a teacher. Her death, it is argued, arose not from provoking Cyril but from being active in public life as both pagan and female.

Chapter 10, " The Last Days of the Academy at Athens", the longest entry in this collection, argues, with astounding breadth and exacting detail, that the so-called antipagan edicts of Justinian of 529 did not immediately nor necessarily close the Academy at Athens. The argument is anchored in a careful consideration of Agathias's account of the seven philosophers who left Athens in 532 for the court of the Persian King, Chosroes. The chapter is a polemical reworking of an article from 1969 that engages at length with the scholarship that has since appeared. It is also a problematic addition because it has not simply undergone revisions but is "an entirely new version of a paper published under the same title" (331).

Chapter 11, "Oracles and Earthquakes: A Note on the Theodosian Sibyl", argues that an earthquake around Constantinople in 395/6 is linked to a prediction, composed sometime between 378 and 390, in the Tiburtine Sybil that foresees the destruction of Constantinople in 390. It is a short piece that perhaps does not fit into the larger whole except that it, once again, displays Cameron's approach to literature and culture.

Chapter 12, "Paganism in Sixth-Century Byzantium", is the second new piece in this collection and a fitting wrap-up for the preceding chapters. In it, Cameron argues, systematically and polemically against the views of Anthony Kaldellis from numerous publications, that paganism thrived under the Christian empire of Justinian. In a wide-ranging analysis of prominent figures of the sixth century, Cameron reiterates his view that absolute categorization as pagan or Christian in this period must be rethought and that declarations of such absolute categorizations may be anachronistic. For Cameron, the reality is a much more complex one in which classicism "has nothing to do with paganism" (286) and a Christian empire is slowly coming to terms with its past.

The reader will confront difficulties in using these detailed chapters. First, there is no collected bibliography, table of abbreviations, or list of changes between the original articles and the new chapters. While this formatting may be usual for collections, in this work, given the level of polemic and the number of revisions, it is problematic. The lack of a bibliography, especially, will hinder future scholars who will need to do much hunting through endnotes in order to find the first full citation for a later abbreviated one within a chapter. At times, this task may be almost impossible because not all the revised material appears to be cited carefully (the example of Cameron's the engagement with E. Livrea in Chapter 3 was cited above). Those familiar with the scholarship on late antiquity should, perhaps, have little difficulty; those new to this area of study will not be helped.

More problematic, however, is Cameron's eschewal of reprinting previously published articles without changes, a tradition he describes as having "no obvious reason" (ix). Rather, he has changed all of the older pieces depending on their "date", "new discoveries and scholarly advances in the various fields," and a change in his own views over time (ix). More specifically, he has revised what he now considers "mistaken or misleading in the earliest papers" and has focused on additions that "have a bearing on the original arguments" (xi). While Cameron admits that this approach is not a satisfactory compromise, it may also not be an accurate reflection of the changes found in this collection. It is difficult to see how the wholesale rewriting of Chapter 10 simply adds material that bears on an argument or removes what is mistaken or misleading. Moreover, the updating of bibliographic references, found throughout, is both highly selective and polemical, often drawing in new scholarship that has addressed Cameron's originally published piece. This selective process will seem odd. Furthermore, by introducing these often-polemical changes into established articles that often started the debates to which they are now responding, simply muddies the scholarly bibliography for future generations. One might wish that much of the revisions that engage in scholarly debates had appeared in wholly new pieces, especially since Cameron, in Chapters 5 and 6 of this very volume ("Claudian and "Claudian Revisited"), follows this alternative model. These revisions, made in this manner, will, I suspect, cause many students, scholars and readers difficulty in tracing the lineages of scholarly debates. This practice of revising previously published material for collected essays is a practice this reviewer hopes will not be followed. To be sure, Cameron clearly indicates that he is revising these pieces. Being up-front about this practice, however, does not alleviate the problems.

These concerns need serve only as a caveat. They need not detract too significantly from the larger achievement represented in this collection. As a whole, these chapters work well together and ultimately offer a dense, richly documented, and accessible literary and cultural history of late antiquity, filled with nuanced and sophisticated arguments from a half-century of scholarly devotion to the period. As such, the collection presents the strengths and excellence of Alan Cameron's scholarly contributions to the study of late antiquity, specifically, and Greek and Latin literature and culture, in general. In many respects, the lines of inquiry and methodologies exhibited in this collection provide a model for future scholars and the larger picture that emerges will be a boon, such as was not available before Cameron began to publish in this field in 1965.


1.   E. Livrea. 1987. "Il poeta ed il vescovo: la questione nonniana e la historia." Prometheus 13: 97-123 = Studia Hellenistica. 1991. Florence.

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