Monday, April 29, 2019


Patricia Cox Miller, In the Eye of the Animal: Zoological Imagination in Ancient Christianity. Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. Pp. 280. ISBN 9780812250350. $79.95.

Reviewed by Jessica Wright, The University of Texas at San Antonio (

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Early Christianity is held to be a central source of anthropocentrism in Western culture. In her balanced critique of this view, Miller argues that the common dismissal of animals as unreasoning, short-lived brutes in early Christian discourse was disrupted by strategies of anthropomorphism and zoomorphism that indicate the value of, and appreciation for, animals as models, collaborators, and participants in the fulfilment of the divine purpose for the created world. Miller acknowledges that early Christian discourse established a theological foundation for the hierarchy that positioned human beings over other animals, but argues that we might nonetheless look to moments of connectedness between humans and animals in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, the desert fathers, and their contemporaries for pathways to a non-anthropocentric account of the world, and our place and responsibilities within it.

Miller draws together three main disciplinary approaches: animal studies, with its ethical and political focus on the subordinated status of animals within Western culture; modern zoological writings, such as accounts of the feeding patterns of mosquitoes (177–178), or the dancing of bees (47–49), which Miller uses as a tool for digging deeper into early Christian sources; and the microscopic and imaginative philological analysis that is distinctive across Miller's corpus. She also gestures at times to poems and anecdotal accounts that reflect the universal points that she wants to make, and in her concluding chapter introduces the new materialist concept of "vibrant materiality" in order to capture ancient Christian rhetorical and artistic strategies that sought "the very substance of God… through the earth's creatures" (193). Interweaving these approaches throughout the book, Miller powerfully demonstrates the usefulness of animal studies as a lens for ancient and late ancient discourse about animals, and presses at the edges of conventional analysis, arguing for the usefulness of early Christian texts in contemporary constructive philosophical work regarding the status of animals, and for the relevance of contemporary zoological writings in contextualizing and analyzing early Christian texts. The result is a thoughtful and provocative book, rich in intellectual resources, and tightly structured around the key tension that Miller sees between the "rhetoric of domination" prominent in early Christian references to animals, and the ancient "zoological imagination" (4).

The introduction provides a substantive theoretical framework for the monograph, and repays close reading on its own account. Miller situates her analysis within a "turn to the animal" (5), highlighting especially the emphasis in philosophical writings, such as the works of Bailly and Derrida, on the "animal gaze" (5–9), a concept that "entails a shift in perspective and approach" (6, 9), hence its echo in Miller's title. By probing beyond early Christian "rhetoric of domination and superiority—[the] rhetoric of human exceptionalism" (4), Miller argues, we can find a "shared ground of bodily, emotional, and ethical life" that promises paradigmatic transformation ("a shift in perspective and approach as well as an unsettling of disciplinarity" 9). Coining the term "zoological imagination" to capture the diverse "images, exegeses, and stories of the ancient Christian tradition" that incorporate or make reference to animals (10), Miller arranges her analysis thematically, focusing each chapter on a different aspect of zoological imagining that turns, in the middle, around the complementary concepts of zoomorphism and anthromorphism.

Chapter One focuses on birds and their various significations. Animal figuration, Miller shows, shapes human self-understanding. Ranging from Origen to Ted Hughes, and from Rainer Maria Rilke to Ambrose and Gaston Bachelard, Miller puts forward her case that when Origen dismisses the signifying power of birds, he "sweep[s] away an entire cultural system of meaning" (40)—not only the signification of augural birds, but the capacity of birds to signify human beings, and in particular human thoughts and human souls. Woven through this analysis is a broader theoretical argument: Miller raises the question of whether figural animals threaten to "lose the animal altogether" (18), by "harness[ing] cosmic meaning [including the meaning of animals themselves] for solely human purposes" (41). If birds signify only as representations of humans, then do birds themselves disappear? Miller argues, to the contrary, that "allegorical interpretation," which constitutes much of early Christian engagement with animals, "can be read as relational rather than destructively hierarchical" (18). The ensuing chapters develop and illustrate this claim.

Chapters Two and Three are labelled "The Pensivity of Animals," parts I and II, with Chapter Two given the subtitle "Zoomorphism," and Chapter Three the subtitle "Anthropomorphism." Accordingly, Chapter Two explores the comparison of human beings to animals (for example, bees), while Chapter Three examines the attribution of logos to animals in early Christian texts. Through this unfolding parallel, Miller evokes the symmetry between humans and animals that she seeks to draw out from under the surface of early Christian texts.

At the center of Chapter Two is Miller's rejection of the argument that Christianity, being the central source of anthropocentrism in Western thought, is disproportionately responsible for ecological devastation (the "Lynn White thesis," 51). Through analysis of zoomorphism in early Christian texts, she demonstrates that early Christian texts "offer ways of imagining human/animal relationships" beyond anthropocentrism, and perhaps "just as effectively as modern ethology" (51). As she concludes, "zoomorphism connects human and animal to the point of identity, a fact that is surely a surprise in the face of the contempt shown toward animals by the rhetoric of superiority and domination. In my view, there is much in ancient Christian zoomorphism that anticipates contemporary ethologists' call for finding continuity in behavior with other animals" (74).

Yet, Miller does not reject the idea that early Christianity was a source—perhaps even an important source—of anthropocentric thinking. She is concerned, rather, to nuance this argument, through recognition of the internal contradictions and dissonances that mark human–animal relationships in early Christian (as in modern) thought: "My argument," she writes, "is that the anxiety that arose at the thought of comparing human beings and bees (as well as other animals) and the concomitant possibility of finding humans wanting, together with trumpeted assertions of human superiority, constitute an early Christian version of 'anthropocentrism and its discontents'" (43). Early Christian discourse did seek to naturalize the animal/human binary, with human beings in the superior position; yet, that binary "has always been and remains unstable, disputed, and negotiated" (43, quoting Aaron Gross).1 Ancient Christian texts asserted and also challenged the conceptual and ontological binary between animals and human beings.

Chapter Three, examining the ascription of logos to animals in early Christian texts, is framed around Derrida's question: "The animal that I am (following), does it speak?" She offers two responses to this question out of early Christian texts: both yes and no. In some contexts, animals appear endowed with logos, or associated ethical behavior; in other contexts, animals are defined by their lack of logos, or their transformation into quasi-human beings through the gift of speech. Rational animals, Miller argues, pose a direct challenge to anthropocentrism—except, ironically, for when they do not, when the leopard's prayer to gain human form pushes "anthropomorphism…uncomfortably close to anthropocentrism. Kinship is about to give way to ontological sameness" (95).

Chapter Four introduces affect theory into the analysis. Focusing in particular on the relationships between desert ascetics and their animal companions, Miller argues that these relationships were transacted through a 'circuit of intensities' (125), or a 'living flow of transactional energies' across species" (131, quoting Mark Payne) that involved desire, touch, the gaze (as Miller points out, a form of touch in ancient thought), and shame.2 Through her analysis of these narratives, Miller draws to light the "ancient Christian zoological imagination" (138), and its role in "meditating on morality" (149) or serving as "a meditative sounding board for powerful human emotions" (152).

Chapter Five turns from affect theory to the new materialist concept of "vibrant matter." Drawing on the feminist philosopher of science, Jane Bennett, Miller argues that Christian attention to "small things" (worms, flies, mosquitoes, frogs) reveals a view of matter as active, rather than as passive (155). By this, Miller means in particular that small animals are upheld as vessels of divine substance in early Christian texts: vibrant materiality becomes manifest "when the very substance of God can be sought through the earth's creatures" (193).

Miller concludes, in the Afterword, with a compromise: she has examined whether there was room in ancient Christianity for animals and humans to live in community with one another, and she finds the answer to be "yes"; but this is not a radical yes that "attempts to 'save' Christianity for the animal rights movement" (192); instead, Miller acknowledges that Christianity was characterized predominantly by an anthropocentric rhetoric that "sanctions human violence against other life-forms." She seeks to show that Christianity has the resources to imagine human-animal relationships differently. In keeping with the currents of late antique studies, Miller finds ambiguity, not closure, in early Christian discourse.


1.   Aaron Gross, "Introduction and Overview: Animal Others and Animal Studies," in Animals and the Human Imagination: A Companion to Animal Studies, eds. Aaron Gross and Anne Vallely (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 2.
2.   Mark Payne, The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2010), 8.

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Anne Kolb (ed.), Literacy in Ancient Everyday Life. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2018. Pp. ix, 427. ISBN 9783110591880. €79,95.

Reviewed by Minna Skafte Jensen, University of Southern Denmark & Copenhagen University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This exciting volume builds on a conference held at the University of Zürich on November 10-12 2016, with participants from universities in Germany, Great Britain, Poland, Spain, Switzerland and the United States. The languages used are English and German, and each paper is introduced by an abstract in both languages. There is every reason to praise the editor and publisher for the efficiency with which contributions from a conference held in late 2016 have been transformed into a book published in 2018.

In her introduction the editor describes the overall theme of the volume as "ancient literacy in its day to day practice" and asks the question "to what degree ancient societies were literate and which groups possessed the ability to read and write" (p. 1). A common point of departure is William Harris' fundamental discussion of ancient literacy from 1989.1

The majority of the articles are concerned with literacy in the Roman Empire. They present to the reader a huge amount of material from papyri, ostraca, stone, bronze and wooden tablets, used for public and private messages, from clumsy graffiti to elegant inscriptions, found in many parts of the huge expanse, and over a timespan of many centuries. Some of the papers are overviews while others concentrate on special areas, periods or types of text. Together they draw a fascinating picture of an empire consisting of a multitude of cultures, religions, languages and scripts.

The two first papers, on China and India, are concerned not only with questions of literacy, but also very much with the emergence of writing. Feng identifies two different approaches, the "Gradual Developmental School" and the "Overnight School," considering the latter most likely in the Chinese case. He treats the whole timespan c. 3000 BC-AD 220, concentrating mainly on two periods, Western Zhou (1045-771 BC) and Qin Han (221 BC-AD 220). In Western Zhou a large group of inscriptions on bronze vessels suggests that the use of writing had spread from professional scribes to the social elite. During Qin Han literacy seems to have reached many other groups of society such as public officials, military officers, members of the aristocracy, merchants and landowners.

Falk describes a beginning of writing in which the system is not indigenous, but deliberately formed on the basis of other scripts. His protagonist is King Asoka, the third Maurya king, who ruled a large area of India with his capital in Pataliputra (modern Patna) c. 268-32. He had an Indian alphabet created with Greek and Kharoshti as models, called Brahmi, which he introduced into a society with old and potent oral traditions, where Aramaic scribes had taken care of matters in which writing was needed. How widely Asoka's new Brahmi script spread is difficult to ascertain. Since the huge stone pillars on which he published his Brahmi-written edicts are often found in border areas, he may especially have had foreign travellers in mind as his readers.

Ancient Iran in the Achaemenid period is Madreiter's topic, with a focus on women's literacy. Referring back to Harris's distinction between mass, scribal and craftsman's literacy (Harris 1989, p. 7), she speaks of elite, functional, technical, and cultural literacy, as well as of sectoral literacy (e.g. a use of writing only for administrative purposes) or signature-literacy (when an otherwise illiterate person is able to sign a document) (pp. 117-19). While in some of the border provinces of the huge state – Babylonia, Egypt, Asia Minor – literacy was widespread, she considers orality to have prevailed in the central area. Here Old Persian cuneiform was used for display and a simplified version of Elamitic cuneiform and Aramaic in the administration. The degree of literacy of a given community does not depend on script or writing materials, she states, but on social factors (p. 129). In Akkadia there had been high status women who could read and write and even professional female scribes, but positive conditions for women's literacy seem to have been missing in Achaemenid Persia.

The twelve papers of part II are all concerned with the Roman Empire, and even though they differ widely in material and approach they throw light on each other.

For the study of everyday life, Egypt is the great treasure trove because of its papyri: more than 60.000 from the period 332 BC-AD 642 have been published, according to Schubert (p. 336). No wonder, therefore, that half the papers concentrate on the situation in that province. The reader is invited into a world peopled with individuals involved in many kinds of affairs. An especially intriguing acquaintance is the village scribe Petaus from Fayum in the 2nd century BC (pp. 166, 171, 342-3), who struggled with the problem that he could not write.

Hübner investigates Greek writing among the Romans in Egypt, pointing out that they themselves distinguished between the illiterate, the slow writers, and the literate. She mentions quite a few literate women and even female scribes, but considers them exceptions. Two ladies from the second century AD known through private letters offer a glimpse of the role of writing in individual lives, the literate Eudaimonis and the illiterate Saturnila. In both cases most of their correspondence is written by scribes, but Saturnila's illiteracy is clear because parts of a letter written to her by one of her sons (via another son) are not meant for the mother's ears.

Speidel and Tomlin show the high level of literacy in the Roman army, on the basis of papyri from Nubia and wooden tablets from Britain. Speidel's material is exceptional in its clearly defined origin in an isolated garrison which existed only 25/4- 21/0.

Kropp studies the darker side of writing in her analysis of curse-tablets. Normally of lead, they are found in many different places, but her material is mainly from Mainz, Sousse and Bath (2nd-3rd centuries AD). She combines methods from communication theory and religious studies, explaining how the ritual establishes two axes of communication, a human and a divine. In the ritual, writing is not simply a medium; its materiality is important and is heavily loaded metaphorically. The written curse offers the illiterate access to the ritual by means of ready-made formulas and the assistance of professional scribes.

Rufino's subject is bronze tablets, mostly fragments of legal inscriptions. They are remnants of laws displayed in public; a fact that does not necessarily imply that people were able to read them. Their function was ideological rather than functional: their presence was a grandiloquent reminder of the ubiquity of Roman power.

Horster investigates what literate commoners actually read and looks especially for an interest in history. She checks graffiti, papyri, private inscriptions, compendia, Byzantine lexica etc., but even in the case of an archive from the 2nd century BC which allows for detailed knowledge of the owner, the few literary texts that occur may have been used simply as writing material. Except for the popularity of Homer and Attic drama it is difficult to draw conclusions. History reading seems not to have been widespread in antiquity, but Horster admits that the existing sources are inconclusive.

The book presents to the reader a rich and multifaceted collection of material throwing light on the history of literacy as a key to a wide variety of cultural themes. Most of the authors concentrate on the wonders they present; methodologically I found most to learn from Madreiter, Kropp and Horster.

The power of the book derives from its detailed information about various functions of writing in very different societies rather than from clear-cut results. There were important differences between town and countryside, social layers, genders, professions etc. However, the authors who examine literacy in the Roman Empire converge in a cautious criticism of Harris as having underestimated the degree of literacy. Even though they agree in considering the great majority of the populations to have been illiterate, writing was omnipresent and influenced everyday life for illiterates as well as literates.

The collection suffers from some weaknesses, of which the most important is to be found in the selection of topics for treatment.

In part I, which professes "to offer an analysis of ancient literacy from a larger, historical vantage point" (p. 3), the omission of Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform is astonishing. This script is one of the world's oldest; its history is unusually well documented by means of the sturdy writing material in use; and modern research has been treating literacy questions carefully.2

Another strange omission is Greece. The title speaks of ancient literacy, not just literacy of the Roman Empire, but except for a few remarks in Harris' paper, Greece plays no part. This is all the more strange considering that questions of orality vs. literacy have been central in Greek research for decades. Especially interesting have been questions of prestige: when and why did people begin to evaluate written discourse as more important than oral? In modern times illiteracy is invariably considered a sign of backwardness, and scholars tend to transfer this etic point of view to the emic sphere.3 In the present volume only a couple of the authors (Madreiter and Wiesehöfer) do not take for granted that introduction of literacy was considered to be a progressive step by the people involved.

Even for the Roman Empire, the overall image is somewhat unbalanced, especially the impression given of the status of scribes. In the province of Egypt professional scribes seem to have been respected members of society, often attached to grapheia as described by Claytor, and the important role of scribae in the state administration is described in detail by Hartmann. But the humble scribes (librarii, notarii), who did most of the professional writing for private authors, and to whom we as readers are endlessly indebted, are not even mentioned.4

A subject index would have been helpful.

These criticisms should not overshadow the wonders of this rich collection, the high quality of the scholarship involved, and the fabulous world of written sources unrolled for us, be it the archives of Persepolis, the walls of a merchant's shop at Dura-Europos, or private households in the Fayum.

Authors and titles

Anne Kolb, Literacy in Ancient Everyday Life – Problems and Results (Introduction)

I A Global Perspective
Li Feng, The Development of Literacy in Early China: With the Nature and Uses of Bronze Inscriptions in Context, and More
Harry Falk, The Creation and Spread of Scripts in Ancient India
Katharina Zinn, Literacy in Pharaonic Egypt: Orality and Literacy between Agency and Memory
Josef Wiesehöfer, Anmerkungen zu Literalität und Oralität in teispidisch-achaimenidischen Iran
Irene Madreiter, Der Raum alltäglicher weiblicher Literalität im Achaimeniden-Reich
William V. Harris, Literacy in Everyday Ancient Life: From Gabii to Gloucestershire

II Roman Empire
Social Groups
Sabine R. Hübner, Frauen und Schriftlichkeit im römischen Ägypten
Michael A. Speidel, Soldiers and Documents: Insights from Nubia. The Significance of Written Documents in Roman Soldiers' Everyday Lives
Roger Tomlin, Literacy in Roman Britain
Kai Ruffing, Schriftlichkeit und Wirtschaft im Römischen Reich

Religious Practice
Wolfgang Spickermann, Als die Götter lesen lernten: Keltisch-germanische Götternamen und lateinische Schriftlichkeit in Gallien und Germanien
Amina Kropp, Schriftlichkeit in der Schadenzauberpraxis am Beispiel der vulgärlateinischen defixionum tabellae

A. Caballos Rufino, Monumenta fatiscunt. Meaning and Fate of Legal Inscriptions on Bronze: the Baetica
W. Graham Claytor, The Municipalization of Writing in Roman Egypt
Paul Schubert, Who Needed Writing in Graeco-Roman Egypt, and for What Purpose? Document Layout as a Tool of Literacy
Benjamin Hartmann, Schreiben im Dienste des Staates. Prolegomena zu einer Kulturgeschichte der römischen scribae

Marietta Horster, Geschichte und Geschichten im Alltag
Winfried Schmitz, Bedrohte Latinitas. Sprachliche Veränderungen auf spätantik-frühmittelalterlichen Grabinschriften aus dem Rhein-Mosel-Gebiet
Index (Locorum)


1.   William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy, Cambridge, Mass. 1989.
2.   See, e.g., Mogens Trolle Larsen, Ancient Kanesh, Cambridge 2015.
3.   Rosalind Thomas opened this debate with her two monographs, Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens, Cambridge 1989, and Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece, Cambridge 1992.
4.   See, e.g., Steve Reece, Paul's Large Letters: Paul's Autographic Subscriptions in the Light of Ancient Epistolary Conventions, London 2017, especially pp. 14-16, 28-30.

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Lucio Coco, Michele Psello. Encomio del vino: Laus Vini. Firenze: Leo S. Olschki, 2018. Pp. 24. ISBN 9788822266101. €5,00.

Reviewed by Michael Fontaine, Cornell University (

Version at BMCR home site

Laudibus arguitur vini vinosus Homerus, quipped Horace: You can tell Homer was a wino—his praise of wine proves it.1

That line sprang to mind when I shook this charming little book from the envelope it arrived in. The size of my hand, it offers an Italian translation of a short Greek encomium "In Praise of Wine" that I'd never heard of before.2 In his first sentence, Lucio Coco, a Florence-based Byzantinist, calls it "a little pearl snuggling on the seabed" of Byzantine literature. I would say the very same about Coco's booklet. It is as delightful as a mini bottle of champagne, as rich and assured as a Barolo, and it give us yet another reason to envy Italian literary culture. For five euros, you get ten pages of introduction, 33 explanatory notes, and the eight-page translation, all printed on good paper and bound in a pretty purple cover. You can read the whole thing in twenty minutes.

The encomium's author is the medieval East Roman professor and court intriguer Michael Psellus (1018–1078/1096).3 Coco introduces him, explains how the text fits into his huge literary output, its probable date of composition (between 1042-1054), and ends by summarizing its contents.

Psellus writes a baroque form of Attic Greek4 that classicists can read (with difficulty, in my own case), and Coco translates it closely. Witness §4,5 with my mechanical translation of the Italian:

῾Ο οἶνος πάντοτε καὶ πᾶσι καλόν, εὐθυμοῦσι συνεργὸν εἰς εὐφροσύνης ἐπίτασιν, εὐεκτοῦσιν ἀγαθὸν εἰς ὑγείας συντήρησιν, ἀθυμοῦσι παράκλησις, ἀρρωστοῦσιν ἴασις. οὐ γὰρ ἂν ὁ σοφὸς ἐκκλησιαστὴς οἶνον διδόναι τοῖς ἐν ἀλύπαις ἐκέλευσεν, ἵνα μὴ λέγω τὸν ῾Ηρακλέα τὸν τοῖς ἥρωσι θαυμαστὸν τὴν ἀνδρείαν ἢ τὴν σοφίαν, ὃς ἀχθομένοις παρῄνει τοῖς ἑαυτοῦ πίνειν φίλοις πάσης αὐτοὺς λύπης λέγων μεθορμιεῖν τοῦ σκύφου τὸν πίτυλον.

Il vino è una cosa buona in ogni occasione e per tutti: per chi è di buon umore è un ausilio all'intensificazione dell'allegria; è buono per chi è sano per la conservazione della salute; è una consolazione per chi è depresso ed è una cura per chi è malato. D'altronde il saggio Ecclesiaste non avrebbe ordinato di dare del vino a chi si trovava nella tristezza8, per non dire di Eracle ammirato dagli eroi per il valore non meno che per la sapienza il quale esortava i suoi amici addolorati a bere, affermando che l'alzarsi e l'abbassarsi del bicchiere li avrebbe pilotati fuori da ogni tristezza.9

8Per i consigli su consumo del vino cfr. Sir 31, 25-31.
9Euripide, Alcesti, 794-798 (ed. D. Kovacs).

Wine is a good thing on every occasion and for everyone: for those in a good mood, it's an aid for intensifying happiness; for those who are healthy, it's good for conserving health; it's a consolation for those who are depressed, and a cure for those who are sick. However, the wise Ecclesiastes would not have advised giving wine to those who are sad8, to say nothing of Heracles, [who was] admired by the heroes for his valor no less than wisdom, who urged his grieving friends to drink, stating that the lifting and lowering of the wineglass would deliver them out of all sadness.9

8For advice on consuming wine, see Sirach 31:25-31.
9Euripides, Alcestis 794-798.

Coco drops the mannered jingles of the first sentence (εὐθυμοῦσι ~ ἀθυμοῦσι; παράκλησις ~ ἴασις) but nicely captures the nautical metaphor of μεθορμιεῖν with pilotare. I am puzzled by his choice of d'altronde (on the other hand, however) for οὐ γὰρ ἂν, for Psellus is saying that Ecclesiastes would not have recommended wine if he did not think it was a good thing.

At any rate, the translation is fluid, natural, and makes for an easy read. I consider it a great success.

Why does Psellus praise wine? Beyond its powers to improve mood and health, wine was God's first gift to humans after the Flood; after getting out of the Ark, Noah went into the winemaking business (Genesis 9:20). Special occasions are not special without wine; it is festive, it gladdens the heart, makes us kind, moves us to song, releases inhibitions, and promotes courage. Hector was wrong to forego wine before going out to fight (Iliad 6.258-65); Nestor drank wine and was better for it (Iliad14.1 (§5). If water drinkers ("madmen") say life without wine is possible, they're living like animals (§6). Humans used to kill our children to honor God, but now we sacrifice bread and wine, so wine must be of first-rate dignity (§8). The encomium concludes with Psellus thanking a friend who'd given him a bottle of the finest wine he'd ever had (§§10-14).

As Coco's footnotes make clear, Psellus supports many of these contentions by alluding to classical Greek literature and the Bible. (In §2 Psellus distinguishes "the Greeks" who worshipped Dionysus from "us" Christians, but otherwise treates the Hellenic tradition as unbroken.)

Why did Psellus write the encomium? Following a hint from Leo Allatius (1586-1669), the Vatican librarian who gave it its Latin title Laus Vini, Coco places it in the tradition of mock encomia on trivial or unworthy things, most of them drawn from nature: Lucian on the fly, Synesius on baldness, Polycrates on mice, and so on.6 True enough, and though some may disagree, let me suggest that that framing underestimates Psellus' achievement and the courage it took him to write it.

As Horace implies, it's risky to praise wine because everyone will assume you are an alcoholic.7 From that point of view, Psellus appears to be the first in a line of encomiasts of psychoactive substances that stretches through the Reformation (famous for its "drink literature") and on to De Quincey on opium and Freud on cocaine.8 Perhaps that risk explains some curious (to my mind) absences in the encomium. Psellus never mentions Anacreon, Archilochus, Theognis, or other poets whose lighthearted praise of wine might have tarred him with a bad reputation, but whose sentiments come close to his own. For example, Aristophanes' rival Cratinus claimed that "wine's a fast horse for a pleasing poet, whereas a water drinker wouldn't produce anything clever."9 Panyassis maintained that "for mortals, wine is a blessing equal to fire" and Eratosthenes, that "wine has strength equal to fire."10 These thoughts come uncomfortably close to Psellus' advice that we no more blame wine for drunkenness than we'd blame fire for disasters (§6).

Psellus was no dummy; here be dragons, he realized. Ignoring those poets, he states that in both cases—fire and wine—we must avoid intemperance and practice moderation. As with the enjoyment of any technology or pleasurable activity, it's familiar advice and seems to have served Psellus well. That is quite an achievement, and ought not pass unregistered.


1.   Epistles 1.19.6.
2.   Namely oration 30.3 in A. R. Littlewood's 1985 Teubner (Michaelis Pselli Oratoria Minora, Leipzig 1985), pp. 111-116. It has also been translated into Spanish by J. C. Costello (M. Pselo, Opúsculos, Madrid 1991) and Polish by Magdalena Jaworska-Wołoszyn ("Michała Psellosa Enkomion wina. Filozoficzna zaduma," Filo-Sofija 33 (2016), 99-115, available online here)). Coco mentions neither.
3.   I'm persuaded to avoid calling him "Byzantine" by Anthony Kaldellis' Romanland: Ethnicity and empire in Byzantium (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press, 2019).
4.   Geoffrey Horrocks, Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers, 2nd edition (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 233-6.
5.   Coco's 14 sections do not match the 20 sections of Littlewood's Greek text.
6.   Diatribe de Psellis, Internet Archive.
7.   Compare the protest Vincent Obsopoeus makes in his Reformation-era poem De Arte Bibendi (The Art of Drinking [Wine]): nec me vinoso madidum de carmine cense: / ebria Musa mea est, sobria vita mihi (3.931-2).
8.   On "drink literature," see B. Ann Tlusty, Bacchus and civic order: The culture of drink in early modern Germany (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001). Christoph Hegendorff (1500-1540) published an Encomium ebrietatis in 1519 and in 1526, a rather different Declamatio in laudem Ebrietatis. In 1532, Joannes Dantiscus published Encomium vini et encomium cervisiae.
9.   Cratinus fr. 199, οἶνός τοι χαρίεντι πέλει ταχὺς ἵππος ἀοιδῷ, / ὕδωρ δὲ πίνων οὐδὲν ἂν τέκοι σοφόν. Friedrich Taubmann (1565-1613) turned Cratinus' sentiment into a nice epigram (Melodaesia sive Epulum Musaeum, Leipzig: Schurerius, 1597, 118 google books: Dulcia potabant animosi vina Poetae: / Inde Poetarum vina Caballus erant. / Nunc gelidae potantur aquae. mirabimur ergo / Frigida si scribit carmina potor aquae?).
10.   Panyassis fr. 19.12 West, οἶνος…πυρὶ ἶσον ἐπιχθονίοισιν ὄνειαρ; Eratosthenes fr. 36 Powell, οἴνος…ἶσον πυρὶ ἔχει μένος.

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Sunday, April 28, 2019


Kristina Sessa, Daily Life in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. x, 250. ISBN 9780511819360. £21.78.

Reviewed by Geoffrey Nathan, University of New South Wales; San Diego State University (;

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

As Kristina Sessa notes in her introduction, Daily Life in Late Antiquity presumes no prior knowledge of the period, nor in fact much of ancient history at all. It is written with the undergraduate and the general reader in mind, introducing the late Roman world in a practical and thoughtful way. In addition to the standard literary, legal and epigraphic sources, Sessa draws widely on the growing archaeological material to flesh out the realities of everyday life. While this book occasionally depends a bit too much on the classical Empire and there are a few desiderata, as a whole the author has produced one of the best overviews of daily life in Late Antiquity to date.1

After an introduction explaining the concept of the period and setting out the conceptual parameters and intended use of the book, each of the six following chapters are introduced by example, focusing on individuals whose lives and activities exemplify the subject matter in question.

Chapters One and Two look at rural and urban life in the late Roman world respectively. In the case of the former, Sessa stresses the tenuous nature of existence even amongst the relatively prosperous farmers of the Empire. In addition to discussing the practical matters of existence and survival, Sessa also speaks to the rhythms of life, whether daily, seasonally, annually or otherwise. The cities as points of administration, economic activity and cultural diffusion, in contrast, presented a host of activities, opportunities and dangers mostly not present in the countryside. Despite the generalized quality of these descriptions, Sessa still manages to consider the changing world of late Rome, including important divisions that emerged not only between east and west, but also with regards to developments more regional and even local in character.

The third chapter takes as its subject the household, both in a literal and sociological sense. The first part treats the late antique family in fairly straightforward terms, covering marriage (both legal and unofficial), children, domestic slaves, etc. Sessa also correctly notes the minimal impacts of Christianity on the family. Her description might have included a bit more about the lifecycle—how families and households evolve over the years—but that is a relatively minor point. The second part of the chapter examines the physical aspects of housing—rich and poor—and the activities occurring within. Quite apart from the practical matters of living (eating, sleeping, bathing, etc.), Sessa also notes the importance of the household as a center of domestic industry, tying her discussion back well to the first two chapters.

Chapters Four and Six focus on the impacts of the state and religion on the daily lives of Romans. In the former, which is probably the least satisfying of all the subjects examined in the book, Sessa concentrates on soldiers and the military, the administration of law and the collection of taxes. In some ways, the treatment of military affairs might have been better incorporated into other chapters; her discussion on soldier marriages and families, for example (pp. 131-2), might just as easily fell into the previous chapter. One must wonder, too, to what degree and it what manner did warfare affect many people's lives, a question worthy of exploring in greater depth given the events of Late Antiquity. The following sections seemed more "on point," especially on the topic of taxation and the ways in which the Roman state collected as much income from its citizens as possible. While it describes the technical realities of taxation as well as how the state used that revenue, more of its impact on the lives of people would have been welcome. There is, for example, no mention at all of the tax refugees of late antique Egypt or Salvian's reports of dispossessed landowners still liable for property taxes—both unpleasant realities of daily life.

The chapter on religion, on the other hand, is carefully, almost lovingly reconstructed. For the length of the chapter, it is one of the best reconstructions of the complexity of late antique religion, both in its nuanced description of spiritual belief and in its practices. Sessa also unsurprisingly emphasizes the rise of a new Christian elite and how the new religious paradigm in practical terms affected the visible expression of that belief.

Chapter Five takes as its subject matter "Body and Mind". In the case of the body, it not only treats the subject of physical wellbeing, but the body as a form of social demarcation and statement of status. Among a broad array of topics, Sessa not only delves into medical theories of health and illness, but also addresses the very current and important issue of disability (pp. 174-6). The chapter also considers how certain Christian mores and practices impacted notions of mental and physical care, and helped to shift attitudes about such things as the effects of sexual intercourse.

Like all works that focus on the factual, there are a few questions dealing with what and how much to emphasize, and the occasional need for greater clarification. For example, the statement that the Colosseum in Late Antiquity could hold upwards of 90,000 spectators (p. 69), even after its reconstruction in the fourth century, is fairly debatable. Sessa's discussion on the role of nutrices and Gregory I's criticism of mothers who used wet-nurses (p. 99) implies something new, overlooking Christian condemnation of the employment of such women going back at least three centuries before. And Sessa's discussion about where Rome got its slaves (p. 104) missed making a major historiographical point: that we are not entirely sure how the Roman world replenished its slave population over time. But these are minor criticisms, and to her considerable credit, there was nothing that seems to be technically incorrect. In a book such as this, where accuracy is absolutely essential, this makes it all the more praiseworthy.

Taken as a whole, Daily Life in Late Antiquity is something of a minor miracle: it brings together an enormous amount of material to offer a thoroughly up-to-date and eminently readable synthesis. Given its price point, it is this reviewer's hope that, along with Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity, this book will become standard required reading in any introductory course covering this marvellously complex era.


1.   It is perhaps worth mentioning Douglas Boin's A Social and Cultural History in Late Antiquity (Wiley-Blackwell 2018), published in the same year as the current work being reviewed. While Boin's is a work with a similar audience in mind and with a similar coverage, it is more properly a textbook.

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Philipp Pilhofer, Das frühe Christentum im kilikisch-isaurischen Bergland: die Christen der Kalykad-nos-Region in den ersten fünf Jahrhunderten. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchrist-lichen Literatur, Band 184. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018. Pp. xvii, 345. ISBN 9783110573817. €119,95.

Reviewed by Ulrich Huttner, Universität Siegen (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Berlin is a good place to explore the regional development of early Christianity. Adolf von Harnack did this at the beginning of the twentieth century, presenting the results in the second volume (fourth book) of his magisterial Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums (Leipzig 1902, fourth edition 1924). Philipp Pilhofer has just done something similar at the beginning of the twenty-first, focusing on a modest region in the south of Asia Minor, while von Harnack covered all the coasts of the Mediterranean from Palestine to Spain. Harnack's volume has about 470 pages, Pilhofer's not so many less. The wealth of details, but also the wealth of discussion in Pilhofer's book make the difference. Moreover, von Harnack sets a limit with the year of Nicaea (325), and Pilhofer extends his analysis an additional two centuries.

The region explored by Pilhofer, in many regards corresponding to the province of Isauria at the beginning of the fourth century, is complex for several reasons. The Valley of Kalykadnos is a marginal district with fuzzy borders between the landscapes of Cilicia, Isauria, and Lycaonia. There is not much evidence that we can use for reconstructing the history of this region. The routes leading there are rather exhausting, still today, as Pilhofer can report from his survey-tours. Often it is difficult to identify place-names in ancient texts with modern sites. But Pilhofer knows the region well, having seen the landscape and the monuments with his own eyes, and his photos give a clear picture of the region. Occasionally he is able to include new discoveries, made together with his wife during their journeys. For example, until now Alahan had yielded two Conon-graffiti, but a third was seen by the Pilhofers in spring 2014 (255 n. 253).

It is a difficult task to reconstruct the pre-Constantinian history of Christianity in the Kalykadnos region. Paul's home town, Cilician Tarsus, lies to the east, and Gal.1:21 shows that he stayed in Cilicia for some time rather early on (around 40 CE). Although clear evidence is lacking, Pilhofer supposes with good reason that the apostle used those so-called 'silent years' for missionary activities also in Rough Cilicia: Seleucia or the Roman colony of Ninica may have been promising aims for such activities. Christian inscriptions belonging to the centuries before Constantine have not yet been found in the Kalykadnos district. As a consequence, the sources allow many fewer conclusions here than in the regions of Lycaonia to the north, where there is much more epigraphic evidence. Pilhofer suggests a promising way out of the methodological problem caused by the lack of evidence. He presupposes that in towns, where the veneration of local saints can be proved for the time after Constantine, a Christian community must have existed already before (137, 151, 272). In some instances, this idea is convincing. But bearing in mind that the primary place of a martyr's veneration is normally the town where the governor pronounced his sentence, there may emerge inconsistencies. For example, Zenonopolis, where a monumental inscription testifies to the sanctuary of the martyr Socrates, did not have the court of a governor.

For the time after Constantine, Pilhofer presents a Christian landscape subdivided into many bishoprics and local cults. But hardly any bishop was prominent enough to find his way into the traditions of Church history and patristics. An exception was Basil of Seleucia, who left not only a series of homilies but also played an important role in coining the Chalcedonian formula of one Christ in two natures.

One of the great merits of Pilhofer's book is the wary evaluation of hagiographic texts both to reconstruct the development of Christianity during the first centuries and to illustrate the local self-assertion of Christians during late antiquity. There is an astonishing amount of evidence for the veneration of saints in the region of Kalykadnos, more than in most other parts of Asia Minor. Above all, one owes to Pilhofer illuminating ideas and considerations on the stories about Thecla and Conon. For example, he can show that the traditions of civic rivalry, a form of competition that found expression in so many honorific titles and documents, was still mirrored in the Miracles of Thecla, written down in the fifth century. The author of this text lays out a sort of competition between Thecla's town of Seleucia and Paul's town of Tarsus (215-217). The Vita of Conon, developped during the fourth and fifth centuries, yields surprising insights into the liturgies honoring the martyr, as the Isaurians were assembling in a torchlight procession and acclaiming him with a monotheistic formula: 'Conon's god is the only one, Conon's god has been victorious' (237-239 on MKon 54). Basing his considerations on Conon's Vita, Pilhofer even succeeds in solving the old question of the toponyms Isaura, Isauropolis, and Leontopolis: Isaura and Isauropolis are one and the same town, while Leontopolis is the former Bidana, the sanctuary of Conon that obtained the status of a polis after belonging to Isauropolis until the fifth century (264-265). The elevation of Bidana could be compared with that of Didyma, which slightly later received an emperor's name as well: Ioustinianopolis.

A subject so complex can hardly be treated without errors or mistakes. In Pilhofer's book, they never touch the core of his arguments but always relate to details at the margins, especially in the discussion of inscriptions (dedications as proof of the existence of temples of the imperial cult at Kestros and Lamos, 31 n. 101), of onomastics (Zoilos as a theophoric name deriving from Zeus, 77), or problems of dating (74 n. 56: the name "Aurelius" as dating inscriptions to after 212; 135-136: crosses erroneously assumed as symbols to be dated not before Constantine, but compare epigraphic material from northern Phrygia). Pilhofer wonders why soldiers in Isauria used Latin acclamations to honor the emperor still in the year 488 (261 n. 285), but in late antiquity such Latin acclamations are not so rare in the Greek east (vincas = βίνκας; cf. Ch. Begass, Rheinisches Museum 157, 2014, 363-367, on John of Antioch, fr. 306, discussed by Pilhofer).

All in all, Pilhofer has published an excellent book, setting a milestone for further work on early Christianity in Asia Minor. He shows how to write history on a region that does not offer a leading narrative. He has an ability to elicit historical information from evidence that does not, at first sight, seem to have a voice, and this in a region so difficult to survey. Reviewing such a book is real pleasure. We look forward to the new edition of Conon's Vita, which Pilhofer announces will appear subsequently.

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Bronwen Neil, Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides (ed.), Dreams, Memory, and Imagination in Byzantium. Byzantina Australiensia, 24. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2018. Pp. xiv, 350. ISBN 9789004366862. €163,00.

Reviewed by David Woods, University College Cork (

Version at BMCR home site

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

This volume has its origin in papers offered at the 19th Biennial Conference of the Australian Association for Byzantine Studies in February 2017, and its editors are to be commended for their work in effecting its publication so swiftly. Of the 15 contributors, 10 are based in Australia, and 1 each in France, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and the United States of America. It is clear that Byzantine Studies are flourishing in Australia thanks to the dynamic leadership of several of the contributors to this very volume, and long may this continue. All the papers are in English with an average length of 22 pages each, where the shortest paper runs to 14 pages, and the longest to 28 pages. The papers investigate a number of topics or authors within the broader theme of dreams from as early as the second century AD (Clement of Alexandria) until as late as the twelfth century AD (Matthew of Edessa), although there is probably a slight bias towards events or authors of the sixth-seventh centuries AD. There is one map, without which Lau's paper on Matthew of Edessa would have been less intelligible, and two illustrations demonstrating medieval belief about the localisation of various mental faculties, helpful but not essential to the understanding of Parry's paper on early Byzantine belief about the biological location of these faculties.

While the title of the volume contains three distinct elements – dreams, memory, and imagination – touching upon three very different subjects, the volume itself is actually divided into four parts. The editors seem to have realised that they could not group their papers according to the three subjects in the title for the good reason that most of the papers relate to dreams rather than to memory or imagination. So they seem then to have decided to group the papers according to broad literary genre instead, with one group on dreams in philosophical texts ('Dreams, Memory and Imagination in the Byzantine Philosophical Tradition'), another on dreams in historical texts, and another on dreams in hagiographical texts ('Remembering the Saints in Hymns and Hagiography'). However, they seem then to have realised that the middle group, that dealing with the treatment of dreams in historical texts, was far too large, so they subdivided it, awarding the heading 'Prophetic Dreams and Visions in Imperial Contexts' to one half, and the heading 'Dreams and Memory in Byzantine Chronicles and Encomia' to the other half. Yet this is not entirely satisfactory because most of the dreams or visions described in Byzantine chronicles and encomia have an 'imperial context'. The result was a volume of 15 chapters (not including the introduction) divided almost equally between 4 different groups or parts As one surveys the resulting structure, two observations spring to mind. The first concerns the absence of the term 'vision' from the title of the volume. Based on the actual contents of the volume, it would arguably have made much more sense to include this in the title rather than either 'memory' or 'imagination'. The second concerns the fact that a significant group of papers (chapters 1, 3, 7, 15) touch upon the theme of the erotic imagination or dream, and it is a pity that the structure could not have been re-organized so as to draw more attention to this important theme.

This is not a volume of cutting-edge research. Space was always going to be limited, but many authors quote extensively from their primary sources, first in the original language, normally Greek, sometimes Latin, Armenian, or even Hebrew, and then in English translation, and each paper has its own separate bibliography. The result is that the authors do not always have sufficient space to engage in the sort of detailed analysis of their sources necessary to develop substantial new ideas or insights. This problem is exacerbated when the author seems deliberately to aim at a sort of survey article right from the start, as many do. For example, Parry attempts to survey ideas about the localisation of the faculties of memory and imagination in the brain from the time of Nemesius of Emesa (late fourth century AD) until the time of John of Damascus (eighth century AD), so that when one strips out the extensive quotation very little is left. Similarly, even though Buckley seems much more focussed and limited in her intentions as she analyses the use of dreams by one author alone, Michael Psellus, very little would remain if one were to remove the extensive quotation. This being said, these chapters and others like them usually serve as excellent introductions to the subjects that they are discussing. Indeed, the beauty of this volume is that most of the papers are sufficiently constrained in length and written at such an accessible level that they may be recommended to advanced undergraduate students. Finally, one should add that the titles of the individual papers are all admirably clear and accurate reflections of their actual contents, so that one immediately knows what to expect within each, and that expectation is never disappointed.

There is insufficient space to comment individually on each of the papers, so I will restrict myself to commenting upon two papers that focus most clearly on the discussion of particular dreams or visions. McEvoy discusses two dreams relating, first, to the succession of the emperor Anastasius by Justin I as recorded by the Anonymous Valesianus Pars Posterior, and then to the succession of Justinian by Justin II as recorded by Corippus. However, she wanders off topic somewhat in analysing this first dream, tending to discuss the general political situation at the time rather than the dream itself, so that certain key issues are not actually addressed at all. For example, who or what was the apparent man who addressed Anastasius in his dream or vision? Was he an angel? If not, who or what else might he have been? She rightly concludes her paper with an effort to set Byzantine dreams concerning succession in the context of Roman traditions concerning the same type of dreams, but this section of her paper is far too disjointed from what went beforehand and does not attempt to draw out the Roman precedents for, or parallels to, the specific dreams already discussed, such as, for example, the alleged appearances of Fortuna to earlier emperors that seem to act as precedents for the appearance of the Virgin Mary to Justin II in his dream.

Strickler actually discusses the same subject as McEvoy, dreams of succession, but on the basis of seventh-century, rather than sixth-century sources or examples, although a deliberate effort seems to have been made to obscure this fact. Unfortunately, he dedicates far too much space to his introduction, after which, despite his title suggesting a focus on portentous dreams in particular, he discusses a number of other portentous phenomena in his first source, Theophylact Simocatta, leaving very little space left for the consideration of dreams in his other sources, the Sefer Zerubabbel and the record of the trial of Maximus the Confessor at Constantinople in 655. The consequence is that his discussion of the dream attributed to Maximus that seemed to prophesy the victory of Gregory Exarch of Africa against Constans II is weak. For example, he fails to discuss the implications of the fact that, if there really was a dream, it was clearly wrong because Gregory did not defeat Constans II. So who sends, or what is the cause of, false prophetic dreams? Clearly, some discussion of the alleged role of demons in trying to deceive humanity by provoking false prophecies would have been appropriate here.

The majority of the papers deserve to be in this volume in that they are obviously relevant to the title and closely connected to the general subject matter of some of the other papers. Perhaps the two most problematic from this point of view are Neil's own paper, which repeats too much that has already been said about Byzantine sources earlier in the volume and contains too much about Islamic sources that is of dubious relevance in a volume devoted to dreams in Byzantium, and the paper by Mayer, whose treatment of the reception of the Johannite schism, while convincing and scholarly, seems totally out of place here.

In summary, this is an interesting and strongly cohesive volume that serves as a good introduction to the role of dreams in Byzantine literature and culture. It has also been produced to a high standard with remarkably few typographical or other errors.1 Many of the papers will tend to pique interest and serve to provoke questions rather than to answer them, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. For my part, I leave this volume pondering why the apparent man, probably an angel, who appeared in a dream to the emperor Anastasius, chose to erase the number 14 from the book that he was carrying rather than any other number.2 It seems too specific a figure to be chance. As in many other cases, the author of this story assumed that his readers would share certain cultural assumptions or information, without which the full significance of the story cannot be understood. However, it is precisely the challenge offered by such problems that makes the study of ancient dreams so interesting.

Authors and Titles

Bronwen Neil, An Introduction to Dreams, Memory and Imagination in Byzantium

Part 1: Dreams, Memory and Imagination in the Byzantine Philosophical Tradition
1. Inbar Graiver, The Dangers of Purity: Monastic Reactions to Erotic Dreams
2. Ken Parry, Locating Memory and Imagination: From Nemesius of Emesa to John of Damascus.
3. Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides, Daydreaming and Lusting after the Divine: Clement of Alexandria and the Platonic Tradition.
4. Francesco Monticini, The Inner Source of Dreams: Synesius of Cyrene's Reception in the Palaiologan Era.

Part 2: Prophetic Dreams and Visions in Imperial Contexts
5. Meaghan McEvoy, Dynastic Dreams and Visions of Early Byzantine Emperors (ca. 518–565 AD).
6. Ryan W. Strickler, Dreaming of Treason: Portentous Dreams and Imperial Coups in Seventh-Century Byzantine Apocalyptic Discourse.
7. Mark Masterson, Desire, Dreams, and Visions in the Letters of Emperor Konstantinos VII Porphyrogennetos and Theodoros of Kyzikos.
8. Maximilian Lau, The Dream Come True? Matthew of Edessa and the Return of the Roman Emperor.

Part 3: Dreams and Memory in Byzantine Chronicles and Encomia
9. Roger Scott, Dreams and Imaginative Memory in Select Byzantine Chronicles.
10. Bronwen Neil, Dream Portents in Early Byzantine and Early Islamic Chronicles.
11. Penelope Buckley, Psellos' Use and Counter-Use of Dreams, Visions and Prophecies in His Chronographia and His Encomium for His Mother.

Part 4: Remembering the Saints in Hymns and Hagiography
12. Wendy Mayer, Loyalty and Betrayal: Villains, Imagination and Memory in the Reception of the Johannite Schism.
13. Alan H. Cadwallader, "As if in a Vision of the Night…": Authorising the Healing Spring of Chonai.
14. Andrew Mellas, Dreaming Liturgically: Andrew of Crete's Great Kanon as a Mystical Vision
15. Derek Krueger, Divine Fantasy and the Erotic Imagination in the Hymns of Symeon the New Theologian


1.   I noticed only 1 minor slip when Neil, p. 6, dates Theophylact Simocatta to the tenth rather than the seventh century.
2.   McEvoy, p. 102. In n. 14, she thanks Roger Scott for the suggestion that the 14 refers to the number of years between the death of Anastasius in 518 and the Nika riots in 532, but I fail to understand how this solves the problem.

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Friday, April 26, 2019


Peter Van Nuffelen, Penser la tolérance durant l'Antiquité tardive. Les conférences de l'Ecole pratique des hautes études. Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2018. Pp. 192. ISBN 9782204126489. €16,00 (pb).

Reviewed by Evgenia Moiseeva, Boston (

Version at BMCR home site

Religious violence and intolerance in various periods and geographic zones occupy a central place in the contemporary discourse in humanities. This vast and thought-provoking topic increasingly attracts attention of religious historians. Violence triggered by Christian believes, or at least presented as such, has been discussed by such influential scholars as G. Stroumsa, 1 C. Kimbal,2 and W. T. Cavanaugh.3 The conversion of Constantine into Christianity is often considered a watershed, following which Christians, formerly victims of persecution, turned on their opponents. Numerous scholars emphasized the gap between the tolerant attitude of pagans in Antiquity and the intolerant and oppressive stance of Christians in Late Antiquity. For example, S. Goldhill4 and R. Lim5 blamed Christianity for the termination of public disputations practiced so ubiquitously in ancient Greece and Rome, whereas B.D. Shaw went as far as to compare the attitude of Catholic bishops vis-à-vis Donatists with political trials (followed by executions) in Soviet Union in 1930s.6

A new book by the Belgian historian of religion Peter van Nuffelen, Penser la tolérance durant l'Antiquité Tardive (Paris: Cerf 2018), can be considered a response to the radicalism of the authors asserting the violent rise of Christianity. Nuffelen argues that the view of Christianity in Late Antiquity as an unprecedentedly violent and intolerant religious movement has been formed largely under the influence of the modern concept of tolerance. Failing to take into account what tolerance means for us as the heritors of the Age of Enlightenment and what tolerance, tolerantia, meant for Christians in the III- VIIth centuries, many studies unavoidably end up with biased conclusions. Nuffelen raises the question of methodology that should be employed by scholars studying the intellectual history of Late Antiquity in general and early Christianity in particular. He argues that the modern discourse in humanities should involve not only historical facts such as the destruction of temples or burning of books, but also evaluative judgements made by ancient authors about their own time. For example, if ancient Christian historians were concerned with the justification of violence accompanying the destruction of temples, this means that they saw the use of violence as exceptional and requiring justification. Likewise, in the case of the persecution of Donatists, Nuffelen employs St. Augustine's letters as evidence that the use of the imperial power in religious disputes was seen by Christian bishops as exceptional and problematic.

Nuffelen's book is based on four lectures given at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in 2013. Each of the four chapters can be read independently as an excursus in a certain concept related to the theme of religious violence. Tolerance, persuasion, constraint, violence, and their perception in Late Antiquity are discussed successively by the author.

In the first chapter Nuffelen discusses the concept of tolerance, or, rather, three different concepts encountered in three groups of sources. Christian apologists of III-IVth centuries argued that Christianity should be tolerated by the Roman state as a religion of the true God. Imperial edicts on "religious tolerance" of 311 and 313 considered monarchic monotheism a necessary condition for a religion to be tolerated. Finally, pagan authors in the IVth century Roman Empire suggested that tolerance should be extended to the religions useful for the stability of the Empire. The author concludes that unlike the modern concept of tolerance which is connected to ethics and law, tolerance in antiquity is based on the ideas of truth and utility for the state. Nuffelen also argues that the conversion of Constantine in Christianity was not a watershed in the ancient thought on tolerance because it did not significantly change the discourse we encounter in either Christian or pagan authors.

The second chapter aims to show that the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the Empire did not immediately result in the rise of violent religious intolerance. In order to prove his point, Nuffelen analyzes public debates in the IV- Vth centuries. According to the author, these debates were an essential characteristic of Antiquity, which saw a victory in a public disputation as a matter of the highest prestige. A large number of hagiographic and historiographic treatises describing public disputations (real or alleged), letters, and dialogues written by pagan, Christian and Jewish authors of the IV- Vth centuries demonstrate that rational argumentation was considered superior to the use of force in religious polemics.

In the third chapter Nuffelen focuses on the limits of tolerance as perceived in Late Antiquity, especially on the attitudes towards the use of constraints and coercion. For ancient authors, coercion was justified as long as it helped strengthen the cohesion of a religious community. The humiliation of the public penance, practiced in the Christian Church, as well as the behavioral standards and rules required by philosophical schools from their adepts involved exerting pressure on members of the community but were considered normal by the standards of the time. In contrast, the use of civil authority in disputes between Catholic bishops and Donatists was considered problematic because it involved an outside entity (i.e., the state) in the resolution of problems within the community. Augustine, who led the polemics with Donatists, insisted in his letters that the use of civil authority should be exceptional and limited. According to Nuffelen, Augustine's position shows that resorting to force was not generally welcomed by his contemporaries.

In the last chapter Nuffelen studies ancient representations and typology of violence on the example of two texts: the Church History of Rufinus of Aquileia and the Letter on the Conversion of the Jews of Severus of Minorca. Rufinus, whose opinion would become a paradigm for the later Christian authors, distinguished conventional violence (e.g., imprisonment of Christians), religious violence (forcing Christians to make sacrifices) and symbolic violence (the destruction of the statue of Serapis by Christians). Rufinus condemns the first two kinds, but approves the last one despite of its illegality from the point of view of the Roman state. The Letter of Severus unequivocally condemns any kind of religious violence. It aims to prove that the use of force by Christians was limited and that Jews accepted Christianity willingly. On the basis of these examples, Nuffelen argues that Christian authors were less tolerant to the use of violence in religious disputes than represented by modern scholars.

Nuffelen concludes his book asserting that the discourse on tolerance in Late Antiquity was built up around the question whether the society was virtuous and how the virtue could be achieved. Coercion and persuasion were both seen as legitimate ways to virtue. It means neither that Late Antiquity was intolerant nor that our modern concept is totally irrelevant. In contrast, the author finds similarities between the concept of tolerance in Antiquity and the modern view that considers certain uses of coercion beneficial, for example, in education or in the public health system.

An obvious weakness of Nuffelen's book is acknowledged by the author himself: since only a few texts are analyzed, the opinions of their authors are taken as representative for the whole Late Antiquity. The book lacks diachronic analysis: Nuffelen admits that there are differences in the vision of tolerance and violence between the IVth and VIIth centuries but does not discuss these differences. Indeed the format of this small book (180 duodecimo pages) would not be suitable for a thorough analysis of the questions raised by the author. Rather, the aim of the book is to attract attention to the methodological aspects of studying tolerance in Late Antiquity and to challenge the paradigm that presents post-Constantine Christianity as severely intolerant. I would welcome a more detailed study on the latter topic—perhaps a good thesis subject for an aspiring historian of religion. In the meantime, Penser la tolérance durant l'Antiquité Tardive is a great stimulating read that will be of interest to students discovering the theme of religious tolerance and intolerance as well as to scholars interested in the religious history of Late Antiquity.


1.   "Open Religion and Its Enemies," Confronting Religious Violence. A Counternarrative, ed. R. A. Burridge, J. Sacks, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2018, 59-73.
2.   When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs, New York: Harper San Francisco, 2002.
3.   The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
4.   The End of Dialogue in Antiquity? (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
5.   Public Disputation, Power, and Social Order in Late Antiquity, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
6.   Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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Stavros A. Frangoulidis, S. J. Harrison (ed.), Life, Love and Death in Latin Poetry: Studies in Honor of Theodore D. Papanghelis. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, 61. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2018. Pp. xvi, 329. ISBN 9783110587760. €119,95.

Reviewed by Christopher V. Trinacty, Oberlin College (

Version at BMCR home site

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

A strong lineup of heavy-hitting Latinists makes this impressive Festschrift in honor of Theodore D. Papanghelis a must-read for those broadly interested in the themes of love, life, and death in Latin literature (from Plautus to Petronius and beyond). Papanghelis' own career features books and articles on a variety of subjects (Vergil, ancient pastoral, Propertius, modern Greek poetry by Cavafy, Elytis, and more), and this collection reflects his broad interests and philological rigor. As in any collection, some essays shine more brightly than others, but I certainly found something to ponder in each of the contributions. In the interest of space, I will not discuss all the essays, but focus on those that I found most persuasive or provocative.

Befitting a volume dedicated to Papanghelis, the first section focuses on elegy. Gibson's essay begins by investigating Propertius' elegiac persona through the lens of Christopher Gill's work on the "structured self" in Greek thought. In doing so, he has recourse to a creative rewriting of Propertian elegy to make it fit a chronological biography à la Plutarch's Life of Antony. This restructuring of the Propertian corpus reveals how Propertius fits the Stoic-Epicurean framework of the self better than the Platonic-Aristotelian mode that Plutarch follows. The very creative method through which Gibson analyzes the material (by reordering Propertius' works into a five book "counterfactual" biography) may not convince everyone,1 but few would argue that the emotional chaos and passionate highs-and-lows of the Propertian lover do not smack strongly of "Stoic-Epicurean depictions of error and passion" (34).

Fabre-Serris utilizes an observation Papanghelis made about possible links between Propertius and Lucretius to launch into her paper on the intertextual connections between Propertius, Gallus, Lucretius, and Vergil. Lucretius' descriptions of love (especially in book 4) provide background for the (lost) Gallan material, and Fabre-Serris writes convincingly of how Propertius 1.10, 1.13, and 1.15 respond to the philosophical and elegiac predilections of Lucretius and Gallus as well as later authors, especially Vergil.

Williams' strong piece evaluates Propertius 4.7 and 4.8 "as a form of commentary not so much on the affair per se as portrayed in Books 1 to 3, but on the problem of discerning, decoding, and deciding between the levels of 'reality', fiction, and twilight possibility that so complicate the Cynthia-centered narrative of those books" (52). His reading of Cynthia's ghost in 4.7 is especially convincing, with the interpretations of Janan, Wyke, Butrica, and Papanghelis offering various claims for what is "true" or "false" in this narrative. Cynthia herself becomes a "narratological mystery" (65) that the reader must decipher not only by following the most important clues but also by deciding if Cynthia can ever truly be found out or fully defined.

Batstone's piece on Sulpicia should be read by anyone who is interested in feminist readings of Sulpicia, in questions of gender and language, and in how fama is problematized in Sulpicia's poetry. His reading of 3.13 shows how slippages in Sulpicia's dense language mark her fierce "struggle for subjectivity…it is the way this subaltern speaks" (94). The remainder of the Sulpicia sequence (3.14-3.18) reveals first Sulpicia's ability to manipulate and explore the discourse that defines her, and then how the Garland (3.8-3.12) responds to that self-representation, i.e. "the values, language, and desires of the Sulpician epigrams" (102). This essay will certainly make my syllabus the next time I teach Sulpicia's poetry.

Harrison explores the way that Ovid's early poetry may have influenced Propertius' final book and Horace's fourth book of Carmina. Ovid marks his early Heroides as revolutionary (Ars 3.341-46), probably for both their form and content, and Harrison traces the way women are given more of a voice in Propertius 4, as well as the epistolary form of 4.3. Ovid's Amores was also available, and Ovid had probably recited a number of these poems in Rome, and Harrison traces Horace's response to Am. 1.1 in C. 4.1. The cogent connections that Harrison finds indicate how these older poets reacted to the splash that Ovid's poetry made.

Ovid's Metamorphoses often blurs the line between death and life through metamorphosis, and Sharrock looks at two familiar love stories, Orpheus and Eurydice and Narcissus and himself (and Echo), to question the bifurcation of possible post-mortem scenarios. Is Orpheus the head that washes up on Lesbos or the silent shade in the Underworld? Is Narcissus the fragile flower or the ghost looking eternally at his ghost-image in a Stygian pool? Sharrock usefully explores the duality of these stories that draws upon intertextual play as well as the thematic irony of these stories.

Additional intertextual play can be seen in Feldherr's examination of the phrase docta psallere in Sallust (Cat. 25) and Horace (Odes 4.13). My initial skepticism was allayed by Feldherr's deft argumentation and ruminations on Sempronia as a stand-in for Sallust as well as on the temporal element in Horace's ode. Just as Feldherr successfully connects historiography and lyric, so Keith utilizes intertextual connections between Catalepton 5 and Epicurean source material to probe the philosophical foundations of this neoteric poem. It is shown how the poem riffs on well-known Epicurean tropes particular to the time, and that even the sweetness of the Muses can be indulged in from time to time, provided that it is done with the proper Epicurean mindset. Peponi likewise looks to Epicureanism to help define the aesthetics of the Epistula Sapphus, an interesting essay that delves into the juxtaposition "of poetry reading and love-making … to playfully elaborate on a broadly conceived Epicureanism, or perhaps on the allure surrounding its approaches" (182).

Konstan's entertaining reading of Lucan is focused on the vertical axis, what is up and what is down, in this radical and topsy-turvy poem. He begins with a broad review of scholarship (including, refreshingly, many recent dissertations on Lucan) to show the problems of reading Lucan politically and poetically because "the excesses of his language are conceived of as a response to the chaos and loss of meaning he is presumed to have experienced under the new order of the Roman empire" (141). The paper reads the death of Pompey, his soul's momentary ascent and subsequent descent into the hearts of Cato and Brutus against Nero's catasterism at the poem's beginning to indicate "the tragic quality of [Pompey] and … of Lucan's epic as a whole" (147).

Turning to Roman drama, essays by Frangoulidis (on Plautus' Poenulus) and Wray (on Senecan tragedy) explore generic concerns and how readers create meaning in these works. Frangoulidis offers a close reading of Poenulus with an eye to correspondences between the Aphrodisias festival and the two meta-plots of the play. Wray looks at Senecan tragedy from the perspective of a reader who knows that Seneca is a Stoic philosopher as well as a dramatist. This is a challenging and refreshing piece that suggests "that the queer notion of failure as a way of doing life as art can light up aspects of Stoic ethics that, while seldom discussed in connection with the tragedies, might serve as reference points for a new way of understanding the potential of a specifically Stoic version of tragedy and the tragic" (223). I enjoyed Wray's depiction of Oedipus as a diva of failure and of how Stoicism's all-or-nothing moral perfectionism encourages tragic protagonists to milk their failures for all they are worth. The aesthetic reward for such an understanding of Senecan tragedy hinges on the artistic virtuosity by which such failures are celebrated: "This means that Seneca's tragic depictions of the sufferings of humans whose lives suck because they themselves suck are at the same time beckoning us to read them as objects of aesthetic contemplation and sources of aesthetic pleasure: what poems do" (233). Another must-read of the volume.

Laird and Manuwald treat the reader to neo-Latin texts (and translations) with substantial background and contextualization. Laird surveys the Chronis, a humanist Latin eclogue that draws extensively on classical texts such as Vergil and Ovid. Sections of this lament for a young man named Chronis reveal an admirable talent for allusion and wordplay, especially when the character of Echo repeats the final parts of words so supellex becomes lex and amore transforms into more. Manuwald shares a poem about the Fire of London (1666) by a merchant, Peter Causton, addressed to a learned, yet persecuted, clergyman that stresses connections between the fire (its causation and resolution) and religious conflicts of the time. A final piece by Spentzou assesses the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice through recent poetic versions by Margaret Atwood, Carol Ann Duffy, and Louise Glück. This essay sums up many of the major themes of Papanghelis' own works (listed at the end of the volume), and Spentzou's sensitive treatment of the myth and its reception underscores many of the strengths of the volume as a whole. As a whole, it is a winning collection, and many of the authors have written real gems in honor of Papanghelis' career.

Authors and titles

"Propertius and the Unstructured Self" (Roy Gibson)
"Love and Death in Propertius 1.10, 1.13 and 2.15: Poetic and Polemical Games with Lucretius, Gallus and Virgil" (Jacqueline Fabre-Serris)
"From Grave to Rave: Reading 'Reality' in Propertius 4.7 and 4.8" (Gareth Williams)
"Place and Meaning in Tibullus, Lygdamus, Sulpicia" (S.J. Heyworth)
"Sulpicia and the Speech of Men" (William W. Batstone)
"Ovid's Literary Entrance: Propertian and Horatian Traces?" (Stephen Harrison)
"Till Death do us Part … or Join: Love beyond Death in Ovid's Metamorphoses" (Alison Sharrock)
"Death and Life in Lucan" (David Konstan)
"The Music of Time: Sallust's Sempronia (Cat. 25) and Horace's Lyce (Odes 4.13)" (Andrew W. Feldherr)
"Against Aesthetic Distance: Ovid, Proust, and the Hedonic Impulse" (Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi)
"Epicurean Philosophical Perspectives in (and on) [Vergil] Catalepton 5" (Alison Keith)
"Aphrodisia and the Poenulus of Plautus: The Case of Agorastocles" (Stavros Frangoulidis)
"Stoic Moral Perfectionism and the Queer Art of Failure: Toward a Theory of Senecan Tragedy" (David Wray)
"Resurrection Woman: Love, Death and (After)Life in Petronius's Widow of Ephesus" (Niall W. Slater)
"Love and Death in Renaissance Latin Bucolic: The Chronis and its Origins (Biblioteca Nacional de México Ms. 1631)" (Andrew Laird)
"The Pope as Arsonist and Christian Salvation: Peter Causton's Londini Conflagratio: Carmen" (Gesine Manuwald)
"Many Un/happy Returns from Eurydice" (Efrossini Spentzou)
Publications by Theodore D. Papanghelis


1.   See the similar "creative writing" method in his recent chapter "Pliny and Plutarch's Practical Ethics: a newly rediscovered dialogue" in Roman Literature under Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian,eds. Koenig, A. & Whitton, C.L. Cambridge University Press. 402-21.

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Paul Botley, Máté Vince, The Correspondence of Isaac Casaubon in England. (4 vols.) Travaux d'humanisme et Renaissance, no 588. Genève: Librairie Droz, 2018. Pp. v. 1 587; v. 2 533; v. 3 579; v. 4 593. ISBN 9782600058889. $346.80.

Reviewed by James Zetzel (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

In October 1610 at the invitation of James I of England, Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614), the greatest Hellenist of his age, emigrated from Paris to London. Casaubon's patron Henri IV had been assassinated in May 1610, and the Huguenot Casaubon thought it prudent and more conducive to scholarly research to live in a Protestant country. But although he was expecting and expected (as his correspondence shows) to write a commentary on Polybius to match the text and translation he had published in 1609, he never did. For the rest of his life he toiled in London as a defender of his faith for James I, producing two lengthy theological letters (to the Jesuit Fronton Du Duc and Cardinal Jacques Davy du Perron) and Exercitationes refuting Cardinal Cesare Baronio's account of the early church and papacy; the single volume of the Exercitationes Casaubon completed appeared shortly before his death. In addition to his controversialist writings, Casaubon produced a vast number of letters: the present edition contains the 731 surviving letters (including 312 previously unpublished) from his years in England. His entire extant correspondence numbers some 2500 letters, many still unpublished; the previous edition, by Theodore Janson van Almeloveen in 1709, contained only 1159 letters, most of them by Casaubon together with some addressed to him.1

The res publica litterarum of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was bound together by letters. A commonwealth physically extended but tightly knit by a web of correspondence, these letters contained news of scholarly projects and quarrels, politics and religious disputes (the two intimately related), family news, and gossip. The intimate and professional portraits created by these letters are immensely informative and sometimes moving; and although the publication of volumes of correspondence ebbed in the early eighteenth century, there has recently been renewed scholarly interest, including the discovery, annotation, and publication of important portions of this material. The new edition of the correspondence of Justus Lipsius reached volume 14 in 2012; the same year saw the publication by Paul Botley and Dirk van Miert of Scaliger's correspondence in eight volumes.2

According to his friend and correspondent Joseph Scaliger, Casaubon was "doctissimus omnium qui hodie vivunt"3; he may also be the one whom we are best equipped to understand as a person and a scholar. He published an extraordinary amount (including editions of Athenaeus, Polybius, Strabo, and Theophrastus' Characters in Greek and Persius, Suetonius, and the Historia Augusta in Latin, as well as a major essay on satire and much more); he also kept an extensive diary, wrote detailed notes on everything he read (some sixty notebooks survive, in the Bodleian) as well as copious marginalia in his books, many of which survive with his distinctive handwriting. And of course he was an assiduous correspondent; in addition to his own letters, there are five large volumes of letters to him in the British Library. They were used, as was Casaubon's diary, by Mark Pattison in his biography (itself a classic of Victorian literature); they have been studied to good effect by a few modern scholars, notably Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg in their recent book on Casaubon and the Jews.4 Nearly fifty years ago I proposed to edit the correspondence; luckily the committee that awarded me a fellowship took longer than I did to realize that I was not remotely up to the task.

The difficulties of studying Casaubon are formidable. Not merely the sheer quantity of his books and papers, but the range of his knowledge: he knew the classical world in encyclopedic detail, but was also as learned as he was devout in his study of religion and the early church. He read not only Greek and Latin, but Hebrew and Arabic as well. What is more, he was—particularly in the years covered in this edition—deeply engaged in theological controversy. There is a practical difficulty as well: while Casaubon and his friends were capable of calligraphic writing, his private notes are nearly impenetrable, and some of his correspondents are not much better. To master even a small part of Casaubon's mental universe requires a range of knowledge, keenness of sight, and devotion beyond the capacity of most mortals. For their labors on this material, Paul Botley and Máté Vince deserve our profound admiration as well as our thanks. This is an extraordinarily careful edition; in its methods and its precision, it follows the edition of Scaliger's letters produced by Botley and van Miert in 2012. The editors date letters as accurately as possible, identify individuals mentioned, give meticulous textual histories and apparatus criticus, and supply a synopsis in English of each letter, as well as a translation of one written in Arabic (most letters are in Latin, French, and/or Greek). There are some weaknesses: the annotation is pointlessly repetitive, and the choice of reference texts for quotations is sometimes unhelpful; there is no biographical index of correspondents; while all Greek phrases are translated, whole letters in Greek (and phrases in Arabic in the correspondence with Thomas Erpenius) are not; allusions to or quotations of Greek are more regularly identified than Latin ones, and references to Erasmus' Adagia are no substitute for identifying classical tags that the editors do not seem to recognize. By and large, however, this edition displays an astonishing level of both learning and accuracy.5

The whole of this collection is worth much more than the sum of its parts: it is the patterns and themes that are most illuminating. Certain subjects keep appearing: Casaubon's correspondents asking about the (never completed) commentary on Polybius; Casaubon talking about his various ecclesiastical projects, thanking his friends for letters, books, or assistance, and regretting his separation from his library (which the French government would not let him take to England), his wife (when she travelled to Paris on family business), and his country. The largest correspondence is with his close friend Jacques Auguste de Thou, the historian and statesman, who protected Casaubon's interests at the French court; there are significant numbers of letters also to and from Daniel Heinsius, Hugo Grotius, and others in Leiden, Augsburg, and Heidelberg, and in England with John Prideaux in Oxford and with the King's various episcopal advisers.

It is perhaps Casaubon's relationship with James I and his court that is the most persistent theme of the volume. James was a considerable scholar and controversialist himself, and he interfered with his experts. One long set of letters (e.g. 1602 02 26) documents James's attempts to alter the unfavorable portrait of his mother (Mary, Queen of Scots) painted by De Thou in his Histoire universelle. James expostulated and supplied his own version of events; De Thou did some whitewashing. James also insisted on reading the letters between Casaubon and de Thou, with the result that for a time they exchanged two parallel sets of letters, one for the King, and one private. And James read drafts of Casaubon's letter to Du Duc, at one point (through Bishop Neile), objecting to the use of the ambiguous facinus to describe Henry VIII's reformation; Casaubon substituted the more neutral inceptum. Casaubon writes to Georg Michael Lingelsheim bemoaning the distractions of the court: "Vita quam nunc vivo aliis me curis occupatum tenet. Plerumque enim Regem sequi cogor" (1611 11 27). There were benefits, too: the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury served as godparents to Casaubon's son James and he received a stipend as a prebendary of Canterbury Cathedral.

Aside from long-running discussions, there are some striking individual letters. There is a magnificent letter of commiseration to De Thou (1611 04 21) on not being made Premier Président of the Parlement of Paris, as well as letters to Heinsius on the recent deaths of Henry Prince of Wales and others (1612 12 01) and to De Thou on the death of Nicolas Lefèvre (1612 12 15): "Quantam in eo viro iacturam fecerit, hoc praesertim tempore cum in dies crescit impietas, patria nostra, quis exprimere verbis queat?" Casaubon writes to Archbishop Abbot, complaining that people were throwing stones at his windows (1612 09 24); to Claude Saumaise, praising the scholarship of English ecclesiastics (1612 11 20); to De Thou, describing his stay in Oxford (1613 06 26); to his son Jean (1611 11 28), inveighing against an opponent: "Asinus, stultus, imperitus, nebulo, vappa." A baroque request for a letter of recommendation from John Forbes in Heidelberg (1614 02 07) is equalled by a gaudy letter of self-introduction from Christian Anesorg (1613 11 29), filled with (particularly Plautine) classical echoes.

Casaubon's ecclesiastical preoccupations kept him from the classics, and there are few discussions of philological subjects. There is correspondence with Alexander Hume about Hume's Ramist Latin grammar; with David Hoeschel, Janus Rutgersius, and others about their publishing projects; requests or comments about the meaning or usage of a few individual words; requests for assistance in getting manuscripts; but there is nothing to match the 254 letters between Scaliger and Casaubon. More striking are the letters in which Casaubon sees his current projects as the extension, and perhaps culmination, of his philological work: thus to J. Cappel (1612 12 06): "Occurrunt multa philologica: non sine voluptate mea sit quod praeterita studia tam gravi instituto ancillentur"; to Heinsius (1613 09 04): "Quamquam scito, ab annis quam plurimis ita me alias literas tractasse ut semper tamen sacrae, et quae ad sacras pertinebant, me sibi vindicarent." Already terminally ill, he recalls a long-ago conversation with his father about religion and philology and relates it to his work on Baronius (1614 04 21): "Summa voti mei in suscipienda ea scriptione fuit ut quasi decimam studiorum meorum Deo immortali persolverem." Casaubon was, as Eduard Fraenkel said in describing his work on Aeschylus, "a great and good man," and much of that greatness and goodness lies in his religion. For him as for his friends, religious devotion and scholarly writing are inseparable; his diary shows the degree to which he viewed his philological labors as a gift from, and to, his God. This publication of even a part of his correspondence is a gift to us.6


1.   Theodorus Janson ab Almeloveen, ed., Isaaci Casauboni Epistolae, insertis ad easdem responsionibus (Rotterdam, 1709). There are two earlier editions. I note that all the early editions I have consulted for this review (and many more) can be found online at MDZ (Münchener DigitalisierungsZentrum),
2.   A. Gerlo et al., eds., Iusti Lipsi Epistolae (Brussels, 1978--) ; Paul Botley and Dirk van Miert, eds., The Correspondence of Joseph Justus Scaliger (Geneva, 2012), reviewed BMCR 2014.10.02.
3.   "Casaubonus doctissimus. Ego eius discipulus, gustum habeo rerum, sed non doctrinam. . . . C'est le plus grand homme que nous ayons en Grec: Ie lui cède; est doctissimus omnium qui hodiè vivunt." Scaligerana Secunda (Groningen, 1669), 45.
4.   Mark Pattison, Isaac Casaubon, 1559-1614 (ed. 2 Oxford, 1892); Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg, "I have always loved the holy tongue": Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and a forgotten chapter in Renaissance scholarship (Cambridge, MA, 2011), reviewed BMCR 2011.05.24.
5.   The text is astonishingly accurate. In ten cases where I thought something was wrong, I consulted BL Burney 363-366 on microfilm and found ten small mistakes distributed among five letters; the most serious were ignara for ignava in 1611 01 21 and uxorae for uxori in 1611 03 17. In 1613 12 30 read propere rather than perpere. The editors are not entirely consistent in adapting punctuation and capitalization to modern standards. The only serious printing error is that pages 9 and 10 of volume 4 are duplicates.
6.   Eduard Fraenkel, ed., Aeschylus: Agamemnon (Oxford, 1950) 1: 38. Fraenkel (1: 36-38, 62-78) and Grafton and Weinberg (above, n.4) are by far the best introductions to Casaubon's scholarship.

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Thursday, April 25, 2019


Jeffrey Spier, Timothy F. Potts, Sara E. Cole (ed.), Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2018. Pp. xv, 344. ISBN 9781606065518. $65.00.

Reviewed by Maria Cannata, Peking University (

Version at BMCR home site

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

This catalogue accompanies the first of a multiyear series of exhibitions under the banner "The Classical World in Context," whose overall aim was to illustrate the complex interconnections between the Classical world and Egypt over the course of 25 centuries. As Potts points out, the aim of this project is in line with the increasing realisation among scholars of the need for a contextual and cross-cultural approach to the study of ancient cultures, one in which they are understood as part of a "broader cultural sphere" that shared and exchanged aspects of their religion, artistic production, and customs, rather than as isolated entities defined by their own culture.

The exhibition and the accompanying catalogue are broken down into four sections, each dealing with a specific timeframe. In the catalogue the individual sections are examined through a series of essays, several by established scholars, that investigate further the Classical World's interconnections with contemporary peoples.

Part I examines the Bronze Age (2000-1100 BC) and the earliest evidence for contacts between Egypt and the Aegean, which were initially indirect, with Levantine trading centres as intermediaries. From around the second millennium BC began what is often termed an International Age, which saw an exponential increase in contacts between different Eastern Mediterranean peoples. Already from the beginning, Minoan Crete was a central player in such a network, as witnessed by finds of Egyptian imports at Knossos, as well as Minoan finds in Egypt.

Part II covers a time when, following a hiatus of about four centuries, trade contacts between Egypt and the Aegean resume again (700-332 BC). Greeks, Carians and Cypriots are some of the foreign people attested in Egypt as traders, settlers, and soldiers in the Egyptian army. A very important centre at this time was Naukratis, the first Greek city in Egypt. The city played a kind of dual role since it gave the Greeks an economic opportunity in a "country of legendary wealth" whilst allowing the Egyptians to link riverine with maritime networks, and to foster political alliances. Here Greeks were allowed to settle and to build religious structures dedicated to their own deities. Nevertheless, the finds from the residential quarter show how much Egyptian domestic religion had penetrated into their private sphere even though, institutionally, clearer boundaries were preserved.

Part III covers the Ptolemaic Period in Egypt (332–30 BC) and begins with an introduction into the historical background to Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt, and the subsequent organisation and administration of the country by the Ptolemies. The foremost city in the country now became Alexandria, founded by Alexander early in 331 BC on the northwest coast of the Delta, thus ideally sited for trading contacts with the Mediterranean World, and well connected to the rest of Egypt through the Nile. Alexandria was a multiethnic city, although the degree of interaction between the diverse ethnic groups is still a matter of debate. The complexity of such interactions can be seen in the adaptation of Egyptian funerary imagery within the typically Alexandrian tomb typology, where the use of cremation was widely used in preference to Egyptian mummification. Such a mix can also be seen in the Ptolemies' self-presentation in Alexandria as both Hellenistic kings and Egyptian pharaohs.

Part IV, covering the period of the Roman domination of Egypt (30 BC–AD 300), shows a certain degree of repetition in that three out of five essays deal with the topic of the Egyptian cults of Serapis and Isis, albeit from slightly different points of view and focus. The first sets the scene by discussing the increasing presence of Egyptian culture in Italy, particularly from the 3rd century BC, a topic further examined in the second essay which discusses the waxing and waning fortunes of Egyptian cults under a succession of different Roman emperors, while the birth and successive diffusion of the cult of these gods is treated in the fourth essay.

The various essays are of a high standard, although they are mostly descriptive rather than analytical, providing an overview of the topic rather than an in-depth study, as is to be expected in a publication that is addressed to the wider readership. The focus is on the material culture displayed in the exhibition, which most of the authors use as evidence to corroborate and/or illustrate their points. A photographic catalogue of these objects is appended at the end of the section in which they were discussed, and is itself complemented by a series of short essays in which the objects and their function are explained and contextualised along with a list of references to academic literature. The main essays include additional illustrations of material culture that, though not part of the exhibition itself, corroborate and exemplify the argument made by the various authors.

One of the strongest points of this catalogue is the inclusion of so many colour photographs of artefacts relating to the topic of cultural interconnections, while the accompanying essays, including the entries accompanying the catalogue, clearly explain their significance in understanding how ancient populations interacted among themselves and the degree of such interactions. A good example is the entry by Alexandra Villing (cat. 62-65), which discusses imports of Greek pottery with bespoke decoration, found mostly in Egyptian sanctuaries. Of particular interest is the Apries amphora (cat. 65), so called because of the band of cartouches naming the Pharaoh, a decoration which had religious resonances in both cultures and thus provides a good example of the cross-cultural mediation created by the ancient artisans. Another interesting example is provided by the Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden (cat. 150) discussed in a short essay by Jacco Dieleman. The scribe who composed it appears to have used both Egyptian and Greek magical texts, in some cases even translating from Greek into Egyptian, and thus shows the level of multiculturalism and bilingualism that society had reached in Roman Egypt.

Less clear is one of the examples discussed in the first essay in Part I in which it is stated that the appearance of writing around this time "cannot be seen as a purely indigenous Cretan development," since it is likely that the concept of writing itself and some of the generic shapes of the Cretan Hieroglyphic and the Linear A script were adopted from the Near East. West Anatolia is the likely place, "where there is strong evidence for the contemporary use of the so-called Luwian Hieroglyphic" (p. 10). Here unfortunately the reader is left wondering why the development of writing on Crete cannot have taken place independently of other areas' influence and what type of evidence exists to suggest this. Slightly misleading is also the suggestion that "the presence of silver cups with Minoan stylistic traits in the treasure found at Tôd in Upper Egypt (…) may indicate the use of Aegean tableware in an Egyptian cult context" (p. 10) (cat. 12-16) based on the discovery of two Minoanizing miniature rhyta (used in cult activities on Minoan Crete) in an outdoor cult setting at Tell el-Dab‛a. However, the latter was not a typical Egyptian settlement and the engagement with Minoan cultural practices attested at this site may result from the presence of people from different cultural backgrounds living there.1

The essay by Versluys (Part IV) on the subject of Aegyptiaca Romana, and, in particular, its meaning and the scholarly debate surrounding it, gives a good example of current debates in academia. The author begins by stressing the need for a precise definition of the terms of the discussion, sadly lacking in the current debate, as shown by the discussion about Egyptian and Egyptianising material culture, which is likely to be a scholarly obsession not shared by the ancient audience. Rather, he argues, the focus needs to be shifted from the meaning of an object to the function it served in its ancient setting. To do so Versluys poses two fundamental questions. Firstly, whether this apparent "Egyptianness" alone would have determined how the object functioned in a Roman context; and, secondly, what the Roman understanding of this "Egyptianness" actually involved. Using a bronze foot table from Pompeii decorated with a recumbent sphinx (Fig. 83) as example, Versluys cogently argues that the interpretation of this object as evidence for domestic religion linked to the Isiac cults is without foundation. Rather, such decoration is entirely in keeping with a long-standing tradition of adorning furniture with this type of creatures, and which may have its roots in the Greek adoption of a Near Eastern tradition. Another, even stronger, link may be represented by the presence of a sphinx motif on Augustus' seal and thus a common element of Augustan images. Yet another possibility is that the use of an Egyptian style was meant to reproduce an ancient statue imitating the antiquities belonging to the Hellenistic Eastern Mediterranean elite that were avidly sought by the Romans. Thus, as the author points out, one should focus not on the object's meaning as we perceive it from our own cultural standpoint, but rather on the conceptual links that may have been "triggered" in the ancient audience when seeing such an object.

A similar sentiment is expressed by Caitlín E. Barret in the catalogue entry discussing Nilotic scenes in Roman art (cat. 152- 153) interpreted by past scholarship as evidence for Isiac cult practice. More recent academic work stresses the need for a nuanced approach to the interpretation of such scenery, since these may have conveyed different messages in different contexts. Thus the author suggests one should consider the interaction of this imagery with diverse contexts and viewers, rather than as having a single meaning. Such admonitory remarks, quite unusual in a publication aimed at the wider readership, are very important reminders of the need for caution when interpreting ancient material culture, not least because of the risk of seeing the evidence through our own culture's eye.

The breadth of the exhibition―spanning a period of nearly 2500 years with some 200 artefacts from museums worldwide―sets this ambitious project apart from similar exhibitions about the ancient world. The lavishly illustrated colour catalogue to which more than 50 scholars have contributed informative essays and which is accompanied by an extensive bibliography makes this an excellent introduction to the theme of intercultural contacts and their extent during this time period.

Table of Contents

Timothy Potts, Forward
The Bronze Age 2000–1100 BC
Jorrit M. Kelder, Sara E. Cole, and Eric H. Cline, Memphis, Minos, and Mycenae: Bronze Age Contact between Egypt and the Aegean
Manfred Bietak and Constance von Rüden, Contact Points: Avaris and Pi-Ramesse
Jorrit M. Kelder and Eric H. Cline, In the Midst of the "Great Green": Egypto-Aegean Trade and Exchange
Eric H. Cline, The Sea Peoples

The Greeks Return to Egypt 700–332 BC
Alexandra Villing, The Greeks in Egypt: Renewed Contact in the Iron Age
Henry P. Colburn, Contact Points: Memphis, Naukratis, and the Greek East

Ptolemaic Egypt 332–30 BC
Alan B. Lloyd, The Coming of Alexander and Egypt under Ptolemaic Rule
Thomas Landvatter, Contact Points: Alexandria, a Hellenistic Capital in Egypt
Stefano Caneva, King and Pharaoh: Religious Encounters and the Ruler Cult in Ptolemaic Egypt
Robert Steven Bianchi, "Portrait" Sculpture in Ptolemaic Egypt
Luigi Prada, Multiculturalism in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt: Language Contact through the Evidence of Papyri and Inscriptions

The Roman Empire 30 BC–AD 300
Rolf Michael Schneider, Before the Empire: Egypt and Rome
John Pollini, Contact Points: The Image and Reception of Egypt and Its Gods in Rome
Christina Riggs, Art and Identity in Roman Egypt
Laurent Bricault, Traveling Gods: The Cults of Isis in the Roman Empire
Miguel John Versluys, Egypt and/in/as Rome


1.   Caitlín E. Barrett, The Perceived Value of Minoan and Minoanizing Pottery in Egypt. Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 22.2 (2009) 211–234.

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