Thursday, February 13, 2020


Ine Jacobs (ed.), Asia Minor in the Long Sixth Century: Current Research and Future Directions. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2019. Pp. viii, 245. ISBN 9781789250077. £38.00.

Reviewed by Andreas Külzer, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Division of Byzantine Research (

Version at BMCR home site

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

Especially in the first millennium, Asia Minor was one of the core regions of the Byzantine Empire, a distinctive peninsula with countless resources that were important for the prosperity of the state and its capital Constantinople. The sixth century on the other hand, the period of transition from late Antiquity to the early Middle Ages, belongs to the often discussed research topics in academic literature. The combination of both subjects, the geographical and the chronological one, in a single book title will surely arouse curiosity among academics; many scholars will have a look at this book. To say it in advance: they will not be disappointed, even high expectations are met. All in all, the present collection of thirteen essays written by historians and archaeologists on different aspects of the subject is a distinguished one.

The editors Hugh Elton and Ine Jacobs start their informative Introduction (1–8) with general methodological considerations concerning the aspects of space and time: The subdivision of history by using the category "Centuries" is sometimes problematic because of its randomness, people must be aware of the teleological aspects in their analyses. The inclusion of Thrace and the empire's capital Constantinople into the term Asia Minor is correctly justified with realities of the Byzantine administration (1, 3). Assignments and groupings of the thirteen essays follow; the editors present some interactions between single articles. Most of them, six in number, are dealing with the well documented area of the diocese Asiana in the west of Asia Minor. One of them is the following text, written by Inge Uytterhoeven, "A change of appearance. Urban housing in Asia Minor during the sixth century" (9–28). It is concentrated on settlements in Western Anatolia, among them the cities of Sardis, Hierapolis, Ephesus and Sagalassos, but also the rural area in between. In these spaces, the urban elites built luxurious residences during the fourth and fifth centuries AD, spacious and well decorated. From the sixth century onwards however, a good number of these houses changed their character, in the countryside as well as in the cities. Their aristocratic atmosphere was debased, they lost their exclusiveness and most of their decoration elements when craft businesses and taverns were set up in parts of these buildings. Henceforward, members of the lower classes lived side by side with aristocrats. This seems to be an interesting insight into the social history of that period and the former understanding of private and public space. Regardless of collecting the material, the value of this essay lays in its deep analysis. The change in space was not a single phenomenon but a supra-regional one, common in vast landscapes in Western Anatolia.

The essay of Ine Jacobs, "Pagan-mythological statuary in sixth-century Asia Minor" (29–43) deals also with aspects of public space: using the example of Sagalassos, the author emphasizes the fact that even in the sixth century pagan statues were existent in different parts of the city. Despite of all the well-known destructions, several statues survived during that time, some of them Christianized by adding appropriate attributes, some of them still reused in another context. Revisions and relocations of statutes were common. I agree with the author's statement that statues were not only a passive element of city decoration. Quite the opposite, they own an active function in urban space, even if this is difficult to realize nowadays. This applies not only for Sagalassos and Pisidia, where our knowledge is rich due to the excellent excavations and the various archaeological discoveries, but also for other cities in Asia Minor (esp. 29, 39–40).

In his article "Sixth-century Asia Minor through the lens of hagiography: ecclesiastical power and institutions in city and countryside", Efthymios Rizos underlines the importance of Asia Minor for the formation of the literary genre of hagiography (45–61); various works have been written here, many settlements, cities and villages are mentioned in the texts. There is no better documentation of rural life in late Antiquity; places like Sykeon in Galatia or Sion in Lycia became famous thanks to hagiography. Important is the observation that the main characters of the vitae were city-based bishops during the fourth and fifth centuries; in the sixth century however, the situation changed and the founders of monasteries, often based in the country-side, became the leading actors in the texts. The author's ease of handling the sources is impressive; reading of this essay is exciting and informative.

The article of Kristina Terpoy, "Studying Asia Minor in the sixth century. Methodological considerations for an economic analysis" uses three case studies in Isauria / Cilicia, in Lycia and in Northern Asia Minor to visualize that economic analyses of late Antique Anatolia at large are possible, regardless of dissimilar contemporary sources, miscellaneous research situation and regional differences that, however, do not count as a whole (63–78).

The essay of Emanuele E. Intagliata, "Forgotten borderlands. Northeastern Anatolia in the sixth century and its potential for frontier studies" focus on the wide but mountainous and in late Antiquity less inhabited landscapes of the diocese Pontica (79–90). The text is dedicated to the Byzantine defense system in so-called Tzanica, an area located by Procopius of Caesarea in the east of modern Trabzon. Just one of the seven fortresses mentioned by the historian can be identified assuredly. A lot of academic work remains to be done, as the author stresses out correctly. However, the Viennese research project Tabula Imperii Byzantini, dedicated to historical geography of the Eastern Mediterranean, will start its work in the region in the year 2020 and should help to clear the picture.

The essay of Hugh Elton, "The countryside in southern Asia Minor in the long sixth century" is dedicated to the wide area between Lycia in the West and Cilicia in the East (91–107). Using various data, written in a pleasant and erudite style, the text emphasizes the massive changes in the countryside due to Christianization and, later in the seventh century, due to the raids by Persians and Arabs. The importance of the Justinianic plague in the 540ies was obviously smaller for the countryside than for the coastlines, but the last word in this discussion is not spoken yet. The author's statements can be confirmed by the comprehensive books of Hild, Friedrich and Hansgerd Hellenkemper, Kilikien und Isaurien. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences 1990, and Hellenkemper, Hansgerd and Friedrich Hild, Lykien und Pamphylien. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences 2004, both with more than a thousand pages, providing further details concerning the villages and local centers in the countryside.

The rich information originating from these volumes is incorporated into the following essay, written by Angela Commito and dealing with "The cities of southern Asia Minor in the sixth century" (109–141). While urban development in the seventh century is a matter of intense academic discussion, the situation in the sixth century seems to be quite clear. The author underlines in her erudite and well-documented text the importance of sacral buildings and fortification walls as dominant monuments in urban landscapes, furthermore the importance of spoliation. The different city plans added to the text enable the reader to follow her argumentation easily. For sure, this is one of the best articles in a marvelous collection.

The following article by Hugh Jeffrey, "Aspects of sixth-century urbanism in western Asia Minor" leads to one of the most important landscapes of the Byzantine Empire, provided with various central market towns like Ephesus, Miletus, Sardis or Hierapolis (143–165). In close interaction with its predecessor, the text refers to the development of Christian ecclesiastical architecture, including, among others, references to the church of St. John in Philadelphia, modern Alaşehir, and the so- called building D in Sardis. Both structures were important for the further development of church building in Anatolia. Synagogues like the ones in Sardis or in Priene were usual components of the urban landscapes; the author underlines also the importance of bathhouses or private residences. At this point, a connection is established to the above mentioned essay by I. Uytterhoeven. The author succeeds well in illustrating the numerous phenomena in a comparatively short text.

James Crow starts his essay "Constantinople in the long sixth century" (167–180) with a clear definition concerning the "long sixth century," which he dates comprehensibly from the beginning of the reign of Emperor Anastasius I in 491 until the great siege of Constantinople by Persians and Avars in 626 (167). Skillfully, the author highlights aspects of the city's history, including the impact of the progressive Christianization on the local building stock. Concerning this article it should be emphasized again that complicated issues such as urban development are presented in a compact and well-balanced manner. The incorporated academic literature is rich and adequate, merely concerning the hinterland of Constantinople one could add Külzer, Andreas, Ostthrakien (Eurōpē) . Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences 2008; concerning the harbors Daim, Falco, Die byzantinischen Häfen Konstantinopels. Mainz: Roman Germanic Central Museum 2016.

To round out the volume, three regional studies are added at the end: Owen Doonan, "Industrial agriculture, intensification and collapse in Sinope and its territory during the late Roman / early Byzantine periods" (181–195) refers to an important settlement in the diocese Pontica; Andrew Wilson, "Aphrodisias in the long sixth century" (197–221) and Beate Böhlendorf-Arslan, "The glorious sixth century in Assos. The unknown prosperity of a provincial city in western Asia Minor" (223–245) are dealing with urban centers in the diocese Asiana. All of these settlements are different in structure, design and interaction with the surrounding areas.

As mentioned in the beginning, the book is a distinguished one; the individual essays are well-informed and erudite. Each is referenced with an individual, mostly exhaustive bibliography. Some additional thoughts: an overview of the articles at the end of the book, which might have served to introduce the whole topic, would have been useful but is missing. The lack of a general index is regrettable; it makes it more difficult to use the valuable information within this important essay collection. Furthermore, a compilation of the Future Directions mentioned in the title would have been welcome. In its current form, the aspects have to been worked out from the individual articles; they are therefore particular and topical. A summary from a more global perspective, similar to the Introduction, would have been nice. However, these remarks are not intended to reduce the fundamental value of this remarkable book.

Authors and titles

Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. A change of appearance. Urban housing in Asia Minor during the sixth century. Inge Uytterhoeven
Chapter 3. Pagan-mythological statuary in sixth-century Asia Minor. Ine Jacobs
Chapter 4. Sixth-century Asia Minor through the lens of hagiography: ecclesiastical power and institutions in city and countryside. Efthymios Rizos
Chapter 5. Studying Asia Minor in the sixth century. Methodological considerations for an economic analysis. Kristina Terpoy
Chapter 6. Forgotten borderlands. Northeastern Anatolia in the sixth century and its potential for frontier studies. Emanuele E. Intagliata
Chapter 7. The countryside in southern Asia Minor in the long sixth century. Hugh Elton
Chapter 8. The cities of southern Asia Minor in the sixth century. Angela Commito
Chapter 9. Aspects of sixth-century urbanism in western Asia Minor.
Hugh Jeffery
Chapter 10. Constantinople in the long sixth century. James Crow
Chapter 11. Industrial agriculture, intensification and collapse in Sinope and its territory during the late Roman/early Byzantine periods. Owen Doonan
Chapter 12. Aphrodisias in the long sixth century. Andrew Wilson
Chapter 13. The glorious sixth century in Assos. The unknown prosperity of a provincial city in western Asia Minor. Beate Böhlendorf-Arslan
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Emanuela Bianchi, Sara Brill, Brooke Holmes (ed.), Antiquities Beyond Humanism. Classics in Theory. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. viii, 310. ISBN 9780198805670. $100.00.

Reviewed by Colin C. Smith, University of Colorado—Boulder (

Version at BMCR home site

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

According to the traditional narrative, humanism begins in the Renaissance as a return to the distinctly Greco-Roman conception of the primacy of the human subject. While this view is not entirely misguided, an overcommitment to it entails the danger of missing the senses in which the human subject for the ancients is not primary, but instead is positioned within a broader continuum that also includes inorganic matter, nonhuman animals, and the gods. Thus conceived, humans are but one among the beings and forces within the agential cosmos, which is itself possessed of the same nous that characterizes the human.

In Antiquities Beyond Humanism, scholars working in and among philosophy, classics, political theory, and comparative literature explore a series of topics regarding the interactions between ancient thought and the turn enacted through contemporary posthumanism and new materialism to consider this neglected aspect of ancient thinking. To be sure, the book is of significant interest to those who study subjects in continental philosophy like psychoanalysis, feminist theory, queer theory, and object-oriented ontology. But this excellent volume also should be read by those with broader interest in antiquity, as it demonstrates ways in which the ancient texts continue to be of the greatest value to promising new movements in contemporary thinking.

The book is an installment in Oxford University Press's Classics in Theory series, in which critical theory is brought to bear on classical studies. Having begun as the conference "Posthuman Antiquities" at New York University in November 2014, the volume includes an introduction, and thirteen further chapters divided between three sections. The authors touch on subjects taken from throughout Greco-Roman antiquity, including Homer, the Presocratics, Attic tragedy, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Hellenistic poetry, and Ovid. Indeed, the scope of ancient subjects covered is among the book's many virtues.

In the Introduction, the editors begin by reviewing the putative influence of antiquity on Renaissance humanism, before turning to consider the historical interpretations undergirding the recent posthumanistic reception of antiquity, including the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German neo-humanists, E. R. Dodd's The Greeks and the Irrational (1951) and its reception among the postwar French classicists influenced by structuralism, the feminist turn among classicists in the 1970s and 1980s, the critical theories of Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari, and the complicated role of the ancients in recent critical feminist thinking represented by figures like Elizabeth Grosz, Judith Butler, and Luce Irigaray.

Part 1 is titled 'Posthuman Antiquities?' and includes four chapters through which this very possibility is interrogated. It begins with Adriana Cavarero's "The Human Reconceived: Back to Socrates with Arendt." Cavarero takes up a very different conception of posthumanism than that which will follow in later papers, by focusing on the totalitarian eradication of human subjectivity represented by Nazi posthumanism. She addresses Hannah Arendt's view that so-called 'Platonic metaphysics' inaugurates the "abstract ontology" that "prevents the metaphysical tradition from thinking a 'pure' concept of politics" and thereby finds its conclusion in the radical evil of Nazi posthumanism (34-5). She distinguishes this from Arendt's conception of Socrates and his imperative to 'know thyself' as it offers a critical response to the social conditions that allow for banal evil represented by Eichmann, by indicating the wonder (to thaumazein) of human plurality. Ramona Naddaff continues the discussion of Socrates with "Hearing Voices: The Sounds in Socrates' Head." Naddaff is interested in Socrates' daimonic voice, particularly with regard to the way it connects Socrates with the more-than-human realm of the divine. Socrates contains both himself and an 'other,' understood as a divine moral legislator beyond merely human rationality, and thus Naddaff situates the philosopher as the paradigmatic posthuman. Next, Michael Naas writes in "Song and Dance Man: Plato and the Limits of the Human" on the Athenian Stranger's odd separation in the Laws of the human from the nonhuman through the notions of singing and dancing. Naas argues that the human conceived as a zōion echon mousikēn kai choreian implies the distinctly human share of the greater cosmic order represented by music and dance, with music and dance acting as the kinds of measurement through which humans respond to the structure of nature. In "Tragedy and the Posthuman," Miriam Leonard considers Greek conceptions of the human and the monstrous through Attic tragedy, and especially its depiction of Oedipus. Leonard uses the psychoanalytic theory of Freud and Lacan, along with some Nietzschean concepts, to conclude that Oedipus is "both a pharmakos — a sacrificial animal — and a tyrannos — a divine king" (92). Oedipus thus is more and less than human, capturing the sense in which Greek tragedy indicates the larger spectrum of possibility in which the human is positioned.

Part 2 includes four chapters dealing with 'Alternate Zoologies,' or the fluidity among categories of living beings and natural forces. The first is Sara Brill's "Aristotle's Meta-Zoology: Shared Life and Human Animality in the Politics", which considers Aristotle's political and biological thought. Brill concludes that the human condition entails a radical intensification of non-human animal sociality, leading to an account of the political as the place (topos) in which the 'living-together' (syzēn) of human life (bios) unfolds. Kristin Sampson argues in "Sounds of Subjectivity or Resonances of Something Other" that the meaning of 'voice' (phōnē) is broadly conceived as a natural force in Homer before later becoming tied to the human individual in thinkers like Plato. Sampson bases this thesis on the notion of 'corporeality without body,' or the view (influenced by Bruno Snell and Hermann Fränkel) that the Homeric subject "has" neither body nor soul but instead is a kind of corporeality that lacks an underlying entity or substance. Sampson unpacks this compelling account through a consideration of voice broadly, a thorough review of its appearances in the Homeric texts, and a subsequent comparative discussion of the role of voice in Plato's Protagoras. In "Shared Life as Chorality in Schiller, Hölderlin, and Hellenistic Poetry," Mark Payne addresses a kind of poetic mediation between the human and non-human realm that he calls 'chorality' by considering some works of Schiller, Wordsworth, and Hölderlin alongside the Hymns of Callimachus and the Homeric "Hymn to Delian Apollo." Payne argues that chorality represents a kind of self-recognition through participation in a chorus, made possible through intersubjectivity and expanded sociality (141). Concluding the section, Giulia Sissa offers in "Apples and Poplars, Nuts and Bulls: The Poetic Biosphere of Ovid's Metamorphoses" a discussion of the principles of change, flux, and stability at play in the speech of the character Pythagoras of Samos. From this, Sissa develops an account of the cosmos as the space in which that which is present remains despite losing its identity, or what she calls a posthuman kind of becoming. Sissa unpacks this with close reference to the notion of food and the kind of anthropocentric vegetarianism for which the Pythagoras character advocates.

Part 3, 'Anthro-Excentric,' comprises five papers on non-human forces and their emergent and interactive senses. In "Hyperobjects, OOO, and the Eruptive Classics—Field Notes of an Accidental Tourist," James I. Porter considers the relationship between the contemporary movements like OOO (object-oriented ontology) and speculative realism, and ancient thinking as represented by Heraclitus, Empedocles, Seneca, and Lucretius. After offering a crisp and helpful review of the contemporary theory, Porter turns to the ancient texts to argue that "ancient selves are ongoing emergencies, ongoing experiments in living on the edge and in extremis, the aim of which is to find an ethical relationship not in the first instance to one's self, but rather to the blank contingency and indifference of the world in all its absolute and irrevocable necessity" (203). Also dealing with emergence, Emanuela Bianchi argues in "Nature Trouble: Ancient physis and Queer Performativity" for a conception of nature (physis) in ancient thinking as an emergent performativity on the model of Butler's thinking, albeit not framed with reference to the human as in Butler. Bianchi argues instead that nature on this model is a performative field of coming to be and passing away, and is furthermore queer insofar as the non-human entities composing nature "continually play hide and seek, withdraw and manifest, to and with one another, and to and with us" (229). Bianchi draws on a wide range of theorists including Butler, Irigaray, John Sallis, and, more critically, Grosz and Karen Barad, to develop her account.

In "On Stoic Sympathy: Cosmobiology and the Life of Nature," Brooke Holmes offers a rich and thorough discussion of the role of sympathy in Stoic metaphysics. She describes sympathy for the Stoics as a kind of "film of becoming" that makes possible and organizes the web of causes binding together the whole of Nature (240). Holmes draws on modern thinkers like Deleuze and Grosz while also working closely with the ancient texts to develop her view of Stoic sympathy as speaking to the double perspective of living beings insofar as they are open to external change from without and yet possessed of internal nature and mindfulness. Holmes' argument for sympathy as a superordinate cosmic principle will certainly be of much interest to anyone working on the Stoics. In "Immanent Mmateral: Figures of Time in Aristotle, Bergson, and Irigaray," Rebecca Hill offers a new account of the notion of time in Aristotle as constituted in a meaningful way by difference, which both chronos and kinēsis necessarily entail, and with close reference to gender. Hill conceives of this not as a challenge to the traditional view of the connection between time and motion in Aristotle's thinking, but instead as an account of a more primordial understanding on which it depends and that has meaningful similarities to the understandings of time found in Bergson and Irigaray. Claudia Baracchi's chapter "In Light of eros" concludes the section and the volume. Here Baracchi considers eros as a cosmic principle that undergirds and precedes scientific knowledge (epistēmē) and discourse (logos). With reference to key passages in Aristotle's Metaphysics and Plato's Symposium, Baracchi interprets eros as a principle of creation and destruction that indicates a kind of androgyny capable of jointly sustaining creation and destruction.

Among the volume's many virtues, I am struck in particular by the boldness among all authors in staking out interpretively ambitious stances that offer great potential reward. At times I found myself wanting some authors to go into more depth with some of the ancient texts they cite to show exactly how they take a given point to be at play therein. Ultimately, the book offers occasion to rethink human positioning in light of the horrific errors regarding self-conception in our own time by returning to the ancient view of the interconnected cosmos in which the human is merely a part, and one materially dependent on the whole.

Authors and titles

1. Introduction / Emanuela Bianchi, Sara Brill, and Brooke Holmes

Part 1: Posthuman Antiquities?
2. The human reconceived: back to Socrates with Arendt / Adriana Cavarero
3. Hearing voices: the sounds in Socrates' head / Ramona Naddaff
4. Song and dance man: Plato and the limits of the human / Michael Naas
5. Precarious life: tragedy and the posthuman / Miriam Leonard

Part 2: Alternative Zoologies
6. Aristotle's meta-zoology: shared life and human animality in the Politics / Sara Brill
7. Sounds of subjectivity or resonances of something other / Kristin Sampson
8. Shared life as chorality in Schiller, Hölderlin, and Hellenistic poetry / Mark Payne
9. Apples and poplars, nuts and bulls: the poetic biosphere of Ovid's Metamorphoses / Giulia Sissa

Part 3: Anthro-Excentric
10. Hyperobjects, OOO, and the eruptive classics – field notes of an accidental tourist / James I. Porter
11. Nature trouble: ancient physis and queer performativity / Emanuela Bianchi
12. On Stoic sympathy: cosmobiology and the life of nature / Brooke Holmes
13. Immanent maternal: figures of time in Aristotle, Bergson, and Irigaray / Rebecca Hill
14. In light of eros / Claudia Baracchi
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Patricia A. Rosenmeyer, The Language of Ruins: Greek and Latin Inscriptions on the Memnon Colossus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xix, 262. ISBN 9780190626310. $90.00.

Reviewed by Felipe Rojas, Brown University (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

Enta geweorc is an Old English poetic collocation used to describe the traces of dilapidated monumental architecture in the landscape of Early Medieval England. Those words—which mean "work of giants"—offer a glimpse into how the material remains of Roman Britain (perhaps specifically the ruins of a monumental bath) were understood by some of the inhabitants of the island long after the fall of the Roman Empire.1 They also provide a distant analog to the types of evidence and themes Patricia A. Rosenmeyer examines in this rich and rewarding book. The Language of Ruins will be of interest to classicists studying topics as diverse as Roman antiquarianism, ancient pilgrimage and elite tourism, and the reception of Homer and Sappho in the first few centuries AD. The book also has much to offer those working on Egyptomania, the cross-cultural understanding of ruins, and the entanglement of vernacular and learned as well as ancient and modern discourses about antiquities.2

Monumental ruins around the world have often provoked wonder among later generations of interpreters. Occasionally, those ruins have incited awestruck visitors to carve textual records of their presence on them. The inscribed ruin with which this book is concerned is one of a pair of colossal anthropomorphic statues in a necropolis of Egyptian Thebes (modern Luxor), originally erected in the fourteenth century BC to commemorate Amenhotep III. From at least the first century BC, that statue was understood by Greeks and Romans as a memorial not to an Egyptian pharaoh, but rather to the Homeric hero Memnon, a mythical king of the Ethiopians who was killed by Achilles in Troy. The so-called "Colossus of Memnon" bears an archive of ancient interpretations of the statue's significance in the form of 107 Greek and Latin inscriptions, carved in the first three centuries AD. Evidently, that statue attracted as much attention in Roman antiquity as it has since European explorers, antiquarians, and scholars began to write about it and illustrate it in the early eighteenth century AD.

In Chapter 1, Rosenmeyer describes the statues in Thebes, the ancient literary sources that mention them (including those dealing with the origins of the speaking ruin), and the ancient inscriptions carved on that statue's legs.3 As both the inscriptions and the literary sources attest, many different people traveled far specifically to visit the Colossus. Visitors were there also to audit, as it were: to examine with their ears as much as with their eyes. In 27 or 26 BC, an earthquake seems to have damaged one of the colossal statues, somehow generating the physical conditions under which it produced a howl or shriek when heated by the sun's rays. The sound ceased at some point in the late second or third century AD, perhaps as a result of imperial intervention.4

In Chapter 2, Rosenmeyer considers the motivations of the various foreign visitors who left their mark on the colossus. Most of those people were military and administrative officers (including eight prefects of Egypt). A few of them registered the presence of their wives and children; some of those wives (including Hadrian's spouse Sabina) left inscriptions of their own. So did sophists and poets (including women who wrote in different archaizing styles). Rosenmeyer teases differences between intellectual and religious, or secular and sacred motivations, but clear-cut distinctions are anachronistic. She also probes the visitors' yearning to be present in all their individual specificity by calling attention to the insistence with which many of them recorded the time of day at which they heard Memnon's wondrous voice (pp. 27-33).

In Chapter 3, Rosenmeyer ponders "How to converse with a statue". The common, yet contradictory drive to experience what others had already experienced (i.e., Memnon's voice), and to do so in a way that was at the same time intensely personal is repeatedly attested in the inscriptions. This chapter demonstrates that Memnon and his visitors were mutually constitutive. In Thebes, dialogue with the past occurred viva voce. Successive performative visits by a diverse array of people animated broken rock; the sound of that rock made the visit worthwhile for foreign travelers. Memnon's voice turned those travelers into witnesses of the divine—or at least of the vividness of the traces of the Homeric (or Egyptian) past. Rosenmeyer marshals the inscriptions that attest to the challenge and the excitement of dialogue with the ruin. This chapter will be of particular interest to scholars thinking about the unstable ontological status of certain statues in classical antiquity. The author's discussion of the various ways ancient visitors engaged in conversation with Memnon deserves readers beyond classics. The evidence is remarkably explicit and abundant. It is easy to imagine embarking on comparative exploration with cultural traditions elsewhere in the world in which matter was—and sometimes still is—alive. 5

Homer was a lens through which to interpret the material remains of the past for travelers throughout the Greek and Roman worlds. In Chapter 4, Rosenmeyer explores how different people used the Homeric texts to make sense of the colossus. Especially valuable is her emphasis on the social range of Homeric interpreters. She surveys the many inscribers who wrote or commissioned inscriptions that engaged with Homer and also the various ways in which those engagements happened. Many people invoked Homer through lexical archaisms or the use of short epic phrases. But one of them, the poet Arius, borrowed four Homeric lines whole-cloth and rearranged them in an epigraphic cento. The heterogeneous intertexts allow Rosenmeyer to shed light on the inscribers' self-positioning with respect to both the ruin and Greek literary tradition. As she shows, Arius purloined Homeric lines to animate the speaking statue of an epic hero, and also to present himself as a living Homeric poet.

In Chapter 5, "Sapphic Memnon", Rosenmeyer deals mostly with the poems of Julia Balbilla, who visited Thebes as part of Hadrian's retinue in November 130 AD. Balbilla's poems are famous because they are written in an artificial Aeolic dialect, using Sappho, rather than Homer, as a literary compass. Those inscriptions have received more attention than any others on the colossus. Much energy has been spent opining about their aesthetic value. Whatever twentieth and twenty-first century scholars may think about Balbilla's verses, the poems are fascinating cultural artifacts. Her inscriptions, along with those of the poet Claudia Damo and a handful of other inscriptions on the colossus, provide valuable insight into how Roman women interacted with ruins, with Greek and Roman literary culture, and with conflicting historical traditions. Although Rosenmeyer is right in claiming that most of the inscriptions are concerned only with the Greek interpretation of the colossus, Balbilla's texts furnish incontrovertible evidence that multiple memory horizons coincided and clashed at the site. Balbilla herself records conflicting traditions about the honorand of the statue, some of which she learned from "[Egyptian] priests who knew stories of old" (poem 29 line 4).

In Chapter 6 Rosenmeyer turns to texts written by seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century European travelers and intellectuals. She draws connections and contrasts between ancient and modern interpreters and interpretations and detects a major shift in the attitude of early modern visitors towards the colossus with respect to that of their predecessors. Europeans wanted to appropriate antiquities and, paradoxically, to abduct those antiquities from Egypt so as to "literally bring them 'home'" (p. 203). This chapter also extends into more recent periods several themes treated in earlier chapters. The debate about the implications of a once vocal—indeed animated—statue gains new relevance in the early modern period when different intellectuals were themselves preoccupied with the existence of sophisticated, and potentially deceitful automata.

The Language of Ruins's principal contribution is subjecting the entire inscriptional corpus on the colossus—and not just choice portions of that corpus—to critical analysis. For a study of inscriptions carved directly on an archaeological ruin in Egypt, however, the book is unapologetically philological and centered almost exclusively on foreign (i.e., Roman and later European) understandings of that ruin. Egyptians of any period are almost totally absent. But as Balbilla's poem 29 shows, Egyptian perspectives were available to ancient visitors as they are to anyone who visits the site now. A few ancient commentators explicitly note that the noise the statue emitted may have been due to local priests who intentionally manufactured a miracle (pp. 10-11).5 Rosenmeyer's reliance on texts is in some ways unobjectionable. She is, after all, a philologist. But the colossus has existed in many media. The early modern desire to collect can only be very partially explored through the written record. Key manifestations of that desire are missed by focusing exclusively on words; the instruments whereby European travelers captured their archaeological prey were very often drawings, photographs, and rubbings.6

Rosenmeyer largely subscribes to the trope of oblivion and rediscovery of the statue. The end of classical antiquity results in cultural amnesia (p. 176) followed by sudden anamnesis with the advent of the "intrepid European explorers" (p.169). Oblivion and rescue are at best myopic tropes, even if they are foundational to the disciplines of classics and archaeology. Absolute indifference for the colossus or other material remains of the past must be demonstrated. What did people think of the statue in the many intervening centuries? How did locals explain its origins and meaning? If vernacular discourses about antiquities in countries such as Greece and Italy have often been ignored by classicists, neglect has been more extreme in Muslim lands and it deserves redress. The statues in Thebes were never lost or forgotten (except by the authors in whom classicists are usually interested). The people who lived and continue to live by those statues have always known of their existence and have had not only their own explanations of the meaning and significance of those monuments, but also their own manners of interaction with them and their own strategies of interpretation. What's more, local and foreign traditions are rarely fully separate—perhaps they cannot be. When in the mid-nineteenth century the American Arabist Edward Joy Morris visited the monument, he noted the following: "There are no modern inscriptions, but there is a kind of traditionary record of the former vocality of this statue still lingering among the Arabs, for they call it Salamaat, or the statue that bids good morning."7

Rosenmeyer concludes with a suggestion that the inscriptions on the statue continue to speak "the universal language of ruins". And yet, as this very book shows, there is no such thing, but rather a babel of tongues about the traces of the past. Not all speakers recognize each other as interlocutors. Indeed not all of them recognize "ruins" as valid indices of the past 8. Rosenmeyer should be commended for breathing life into all the Greek and Latin inscriptions on the colossus. I hope her book also inspires her readers to resuscitate other Memnons, both in Thebes and beyond.


1.   The words are part of an eighth or ninth-century poem known as "The Ruin". A scholarly edition of that poem can be found in Philip Krapp and Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie (eds.), The Exeter Book, New York: Columbia University Press, 1936, pp. 227-229.
2.   See, for instance, Alain Schnapp et al. eds. World Antiquarianism: Comparative Perspectives, Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2013, and Alain Schnapp, Ruines: essai de perspective comparée. Collection, Lyon: Presses universitaires de Lyon, 2015.
3.   The inscriptions have been available since they were edited by André and Étienne Bernard, Les inscriptions grecques et latines du colosse de Memnon Paris: Institut français d'archéologie orientale, 1960.
4.   Since the nineteenth century, Septimius Severus has been associated with restoration efforts that either silenced the statue or were prompted by its sudden muteness. In "The Miracle of Memnon," Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 21, no. 1 (1984): 21–32, Glen Bowersock raised the intriguing possibility that the restorer may have been the Palmyrene empress Zenobia.
5.   See, for example, Stephen D. Houston, The Life within: Classic Maya and the Matter of Permanence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.
6.   Visual documentation extends the life of the statue well beyond the academic realm. See, e.g., Clipper ship Memnon.
7.   Morris, Edward Joy. Notes of a Tour through Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Arabia Petræa, to the Holy Land: Including a Visit to Athens, Sparta, Delphi, Cairo, Thebes, Mt. Sinai, Petra, & c.: By E. Joy Morris. Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1843, quote on p. 90.
8.   For ruins (or the lack thereof) in China and among the Inca, see Hung Wu, A Story of Ruins: Presence and Absence in Chinese Art and Visual Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012, and Steve Kosiba, "Ancient Artifice: The Production of Antiquity and the Social Roles of Ruins in the Heartland of the Inca Empire." In Benjamin Anderson and Felipe Rojas (eds.), Antiquarianisms: Contact, Conflict, Comparison, Oxford: Oxbow, 2017, pp. 72–108 (on which see BMCR 2018.06.04).

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Sabine R. Huebner, Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xv, 192. ISBN 9781108455701. $24.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Brent Nongbri, MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society (

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I can still recall the thrill I felt as an undergraduate the first time I encountered a dusty copy of Adolf Deissmann's Light from the Ancient East.1 Here were the texts of actual ancient papyri and inscriptions put into conversation with early Christian literature, illuminating not only the vocabulary of the texts but also the social world in which ancient Christians lived. And it had so many great pictures of papyri, ostraca, inscriptions, and more! But as I returned to the book over the years, my enthusiasm waned a bit. Deissmann's romanticism and orientalism did not age well, the peculiar theological axes he was grinding became more prominent with repeated readings, and at 467 pages of text (never mind indices), the book was cumbersome. But what if there was a streamlined, up-to-date, and methodologically sophisticated effort to bring the papyrological record to bear on the understanding of the social world of early Christians? And what if it was written by a trained historian instead of a theologian? And what if, on top of all that, it was just as well illustrated as Deissmann's book?

Enter Sabine Huebner's Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament. This engaging book offers a series of case studies showing what can be gained when a specialist in the field of ancient history, particularly in papyrology, turns to texts and questions that are typically examined within the framework of New Testament studies. Huebner sets out to study "common people … individuals of lower social classes" in the hopes of shedding new light on the world of the New Testament, a world that New Testament scholars "fail to properly set into context" because they are, according to Huebner, "generally unaware of the latest research on the periods and social strata with which they are concerned" (2-3).

An opening chapter introduces the main body of evidence Huebner employs, the papyri of Roman Egypt. An efficient overview of the rise of Christianity in Egypt is followed by a short but convincing argument that the documentary remains that have survived from Roman Egypt generally reflect the social reality of the Roman world more widely. That is to say, the Egyptian evidence can illuminate other areas of the Roman world where written evidence of everyday life is less plentiful, particularly Galilee and Judea.

Having laid that groundwork, chapter 2 turns to an analysis of P.Bas. 2.43, a papyrus letter recently identified by Huebner as the earliest surviving Christian document. The letter is obviously Christian, as it closes with a distinctively Christian formula—"I pray that you fare well in the Lord," the last word of which (κυρίῳ) is abbreviated in the typical Christian fashion (κω, a so-called nomen sacrum). In a forthcoming edition of the papyrus, Huebner will argue on prosopographical grounds that the letter came from Theadelphia in the Fayum and was written in the 230s, decades before the next earliest surviving Christian documents.2 The contents of the letter thus give us a tantalizing glimpse of some Egyptian Christians outside Alexandria at a relatively early period. We find that this particular group of Christians ran in fairly elite circles, as the letter is concerned with the gymnasiarchy and the city council.

The third and densest chapter proposes an ingenious new solution to the old problem of the Augustan census mentioned in Luke 2:1-2. Huebner sets the narrative in Luke in the context of what we can know about different kinds of censuses taken in the early imperial period. By charitably assuming that the author of the gospel was not ignorant of basic historical facts, Huebner proposes that what was being described in Luke 2:1 was not the provincial census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6 CE (which is mentioned by Josephus as the cause of an uprising). Instead, Huebner begins by pointing to two passing comments of early Christian authors. First, Justin Martyr states that the birth of Jesus took place when Quirinius was a procurator (ἐπίτροπος, Apol. 1.34). Second, Tertullian states that Jesus was born just after the census of Sentius Saturninus, who, according to Josephus, was the governor (ἐπιμελητής, ἡγεμών) of Syria from 9-6 BCE (Tert. Adv. Marc. 4.19; Jos. Ant. 16.10.8, 17.1.1). Huebner thus suggests that Luke must be referring to an otherwise unattested "client state census" under Herod that took place at the same time as the Roman imperial census of 8 BCE, when Gaius Sentius Saturninus was the governor of Syria. In this scenario, Quirinius would be the lower official that actually carried out the census, the prefect (that is to say, the office typically designated in papyri by substantive participial forms of the Greek term ἡγεμονεύω).3 The solution resolves the tension with our other source for the birth of Jesus, namely the Gospel according to Matthew, which places the birth of Jesus during the reign of Herod the Great. It also places the census in a period when both Nazareth and Bethlehem would have fallen under a single jurisdiction (which was not the case in 6 CE). With regard to the problem of Joseph travelling to Bethlehem "because he was descended from the house and lineage of David," Huebner again turns to an early Christian commentator, this time John Chrysostom, who argued that Joseph (and Mary) must have been "citizens" (πολῖται) of Bethlehem and only temporarily resident in Nazareth (In diem natalem PG 49 col. 351). Huebner finds such a scenario reasonable in light of the movements of people mentioned in surviving papyrus census returns from Egypt: "Luke's description seems thoroughly realistic if one accepts that his intent was to leave his readers with the impression that Joseph's family was originally from Bethlehem and owned some property there" (42).4 Huebner's reading is both plausible and intriguing even if this class of census (the "client state census") is not terribly well attested.

Chapter 4 turns briefly to three literary papyri, the surviving copies of the Gospel according to Mary, a text that depicts Mary as the one in possession of secret knowledge who teaches the other disciples. This functions as an entrée into an exploration of the status of women in Christian communities in Egypt. Although women played important roles in monastic settings, there is no evidence for female clergy in Egypt despite a wealth of papyrological documentation for clerics. This differs from the situation outside Egypt, where evidence exists for a female presence in church hierarchies. Huebner posits two possible explanations for this phenomenon: the relatively late spread of Christianity in the Egyptian countryside and the influence of Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria from 189 to 232, whose proto-orthodox views likely left little space for women in positions of power within the church. Yet, Huebner points out the well documented circulation in Egypt of certain Christian literary texts that depicted women in positions of power shows at least an interest in alternative views among some Egyptian Christians.

The fifth chapter gathers the evidence for what we can know about carpenters in the Roman world. Census returns suggest carpenters typically had a small household (unlike farmers, who required extended families to help with agricultural labor). Papyri and ostraca also give the impression that carpenters were mobile, following construction work where it led. They could have periods of apprenticeship that lasted up to six years. Because Jesus is depicted in the gospels as being able to read, Huebner notes that ancient readers of the gospels would have assumed he had a decent education, further implying that Joseph must have been reasonably financially successful. Huebner places carpenters generally in the class of "craftsmen," not especially highly regarded in Roman society but considerably better off than unskilled day laborers.

Chapter 6 again takes its starting point from the opening of the Gospel according to Luke, specifically Mary's trip from Nazareth to Judea (1:39), which prompts Huebner to ask what we can know about ancient travel. The main motivation for travel was trade and state-sponsored movement of goods, but other occasions for travel noted in the papyri include festivals, birthdays, sicknesses or deaths in the family, and court hearings. Huebner also notes evidence for women in particular travelling in connection with births, often to assist a friend or relative. Travel by foot was common. For those with means, donkeys, wagons, and boats offered greater speed and comfort, but the weather and bandits were an ever-present threat to travelers. For travel lasting more than a day, the best option was staying with networks of friends, but commercial inns were also available.

In the final full chapter, Huebner returns to shepherds, asking what we can know about this profession. She points out that while scholars have studied the image of the shepherd in ancient mythology and literature, the lives of actual shepherds have remained obscure. Despite limited space for pastures in Egypt, the papyri do record the presence and activities of shepherds in the Roman era. Declarations of sheep and goats show that owners of herds would either hire shepherds individually or pool resources to share a shepherd. The hired shepherd (νομεύς) was distinct from the rather rarer case of an owner of a herd acting as a shepherd (ποιμήν). To judge from declarations of livestock, the typical herd in Roman Egypt was about 80 to 100 animals, consisting of mostly sheep with a few goats. The work of the shepherd included leading animals to grazing areas, making sure they were secure at night, and handling the birth of new animals. According to surviving account books, shepherds were quite poorly paid. Shepherds also appear with some frequency in petitions, often being accused of grazing herds on someone else's fields.

In a short "Afterword," Huebner reiterates the need for students of the New Testament to pay greater attention to the quotidian history of the lower classes, among whom were the earliest followers of Jesus. On the other hand, she also admonishes ancient historians to make better use of early Christian sources.

Huebner brings an impressive array of sources together to recontextualize several figures and passages from the gospels from different angles. Yet, the book remains very readable. The 27 color images and 8 well-labelled maps nicely enhance the text. Despite the title of the book, Huebner for the most part limits her discussion to the gospels (the book might more accurately be called Papyri and the Social World of Jesus), and this leaves the door open for future studies taking a similar approach to the more urban settings of other New Testament texts, like the Pauline letters. Given the fruitful results of Huebner's work on display here, I hope such future studies appear sooner rather than later.


1.   Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World (rev. ed.; trans. Lionel R. M. Strachan; New York and London: Harper & Row, 1927).
2.   Sabine R. Huebner, "P.Bas. II.43 R," in Sabine R. Huebner and W. Graham Claytor, Isabelle Marthot-Santaniello, and Matthias Müller (eds.), Papyri of the University Library of Basel (P.Bas. II) (Berlin: de Gruyter, forthcoming).
3.   Huebner may overstate her case here in claiming that "Luke certainly does not call Quirinius a governor" (46). Both the noun ἡγεμών and the verb ἡγεμονεύω seem to translate a variety of Latin words indicating positions of authority ranging all the way from princeps down to praefectus, and including legatus and praeses provinciae. See the sources gathered in Hugh J. Mason, Greek Terms for Roman Institutions: A Lexicon and Analysis (Toronto: Hakkert, 1974), 51-52.
4.   This point about Bethlehem as Joseph's hometown finds further strong support in Stephen C. Carlson, "The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7," New Testament Studies 56 (2010), 326-342.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2020


Kelly Arenson, Health and Hedonism in Plato and Epicurus. London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2019. Pp. x, 217. ISBN 9781350080256. $114.00.

Reviewed by Attila Németh, Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University (

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Arenson's Health and Hedonism offers an arresting comparative study of Plato's treatments of pleasure in the Republic (ch. 1) and the Philebus (chs. 2-3), the debates that followed among Platonists and Aristotelians (ch. 3), and Epicurean hedonism (ch. 4-7). She concludes (ch. 8) that Epicurus conceived pleasure in terms of organic functioning. She contends that Epicurus and his followers were interested in essentially the same questions as the Platonists when they parsed the relationship between health and hēdonē, asking for instance whether the relation between pleasure and health make the former a viable telos. But, although their investigations sometimes coincided, Platonists and Epicureans came to quite different conclusions. In articulating her main arguments, Arenson considers several important secondary topics, such as the philosophical and historical influences of Plato, the debates between the Academy and the Peripatetic school, and the credibility of Cicero's account of the different types of Epicurean pleasures, all of which she illuminates from a new and highly polemical perspective.

In Chapter 1, "The Pleasure of Psychic Harmony in the Republic", Arenson analyses Socrates' arguments for the superiority of the pleasures of the philosophical life in Book 9 of Plato's Republic. She argues convincingly for a connection between Socrates' equation of harmonious psychic functioning with health in the middle books of the Republic and his defence of the hedonic superiority of the just life in Book 9. The ensuing pleasure enjoyed by the entire soul is thus its psychic health, which can be brought about only through virtuous and rational activities.

In Chapter 2, "Restorative Pleasure and the Neutral State of Health in the Philebus", Arenson outlines Plato's metaphysical explanation of pleasure and health. Then she turns to Socrates' 'restoration' model of physical pleasures, and to what she calls his 'perception requirement', according to which processes of restoration and disturbance can be pleasurable and painful, respectively, only if they are perceived. This is also a significant condition for Epicurus. This conclusion allows Socrates to deny that neutral conditions, such as the absence of pain, are pleasurable—a challenge set for Epicurus.

Chapter 3, "Plato's Anti-Hedonistic Process Argument", is the historically most complex part of Arenson's discussion. This chapter revolves around the role of restoration in Plato's demonstration that pleasure is not the "good". Since all processes belong to the realm of becoming and not to the realm of being, and the good belongs to the class of being, pleasures that are processes are not goods in themselves; at best, they are instrumental to the good. Arenson evaluates the role this "process argument" plays not only in the Philebus, but also in the Platonists' debates with the Aristotelians, who held that pleasure belongs to the activity of healthy functioning and not to the process of attaining such outcome. Arenson's speculative reconstruction makes Epicurus' distinction between kinetic and katastematic pleasures a reply to Plato's description of pleasure as process, and to Aristotle's reaction to Plato's view. In justification of this historically neat theory of Epicurus' response to earlier thinkers, Arenson must give a coherent explanation of Aristotle's views on pleasure in his different works, which somewhat overcomplicates her arguments. She formulates an interpretation of Aristotle's claims concerning pleasure in the Rhetoric which, compared with competing explanations,1 seems unconvincing and does not really move the arguments forward. By the end of her book, the reader in any case recognizes that Arenson's historical claims about Platonic and Aristotelian influence on Epicurus are compelling.

In Chapter 4, "Cicero's De Finibus and Epicurean Pleasure", Arenson examines Cicero's account of Epicurean pleasure in De Finibus. She contends that there are problems with Cicero's way of formulating the difference between Epicurus' kinetic and katastematic pleasures, with the former characterized by changes and/or motions in one's state and the latter not. In her view, Cicero misrepresented the role of sensory pleasures in Epicurus' hedonism. This also led him to introduce the following paradox into Epicurus' conception of the summum bonum: since the active stimulation of the sense organs is the criterion for (kinetic) pleasure, why should tranquillity and painlessness (which are katastematic pleasures) be ends for the hedonist, since they do not involve the motivational power of change or motion? Arenson contests that Cicero's representation might have been influenced by earlier ancient interpretations familiar to him, such as the divisio Carneadea. She decides, therefore, to sideline Cicero's account and to pursue her exploration of Epicurean hedonism on the basis of other ancient sources.

In Chapter 5, "Epicurean Pleasures of Bodily and Mental Health", Arenson argues that "Epicurus defines katastematic pleasure in terms of the perception of the healthy functioning of a living organism" (p. 86). In other words, katastematic pleasure is a conscious awareness that counts as pleasurable because it is a perception of painless organic functioning constituted by various bodily and mental activities – a goal worth pursuing for itself. Arenson believes that such an understanding of Epicurus' hedonism should not be allowed to collapse into a position she calls the "Unitary View" (UV), which holds that if all pleasure is related to an organism's natural functioning, it makes no sense to distinguish different types of pleasure. She accordingly rejects first of all the interpretations put forward by the major proponents of that view such as Gosling, Taylor, and Nikolsky. Her reasonable objection to Gosling and Taylor, that they fail to provide a clear account, does not in fact put clear blue water between her interpretation and theirs. I think she demonstrates convincingly, however, that while Epicurus did not believe that one's katastematic state is independent of the process that brought it about (a point made by Nikolsky), it does not follow that there is no difference between the causally related kinetic and katastematic pleasures.

In Chapter 5, Arenson makes her case for katastematic pleasure being the healthy functioning of a living organism. Here, one may question whether her arguments are entirely satisfying, and whether they are not merely based on a bodily characterization of the highest good. I think she is on the right track when she draws attention to passages that describe optimal mental functioning in terms of health; but then she confuses her account in her conclusion (cf. p. 107) when she describes mental katastematic pleasure in terms of the "healthy bodily functioning and a confident expectation thereof". Bodily conditions cannot be either (1) necessary, or (2) sufficient for mental katastematic pleasure—that is, for tranquility (ataraxia)—for the following reasons: a person, for example, who is in a perfectly healthy bodily condition and is confident that he will remain in that shape still might have various sorts of painful anxieties about the future—which cuts against (2); or, if you consider Epicurus' notorious claims how mental pleasures such as remembering some past philosophical conversations can dispel bodily suffering (as in the example Epicurus set on his deathbed: DL 10.22), we also find that neither the absence of bodily pain nor the expectation of a healthy bodily condition in the future is necessary for being in the state of ataraxia—which cuts against (1). These objections raise the question how bodily and mental health (aponia and ataraxia) relate to one another in Epicurus' robust conception of the highest good. We do not get an adequate answer to this at this point of Arenson's argument, and the reader can only construct a tentative answer based on the findings of Chapter 7.

In Chapter 6, "Pleasurable Restorations of Health in Epicurean Hedonism", we finally arrive at Arenson's positive conception of Epicurean kinetic pleasure, which is necessary for a clearer understanding of the argument of Chapter 4. Arenson builds a strong case for kinetic pleasures being the outcomes of processes that restore an organism to its natural state, both bodily and mental, with the former states depending on a prior physical deficiency, and the latter on a prior mental deficiency. Pleasurable sensory variations that are not restorative, such as the pleasures of hearing or seeing, do not fit the category of kinetic pleasures according to Arenson, which is why she excludes Cicero's evidence from her discussion. On her account, a kinetic pleasure stems from the psychological recognition of a deficiency, where the recognition takes the form of a desire for replenishment, the satisfaction of which is perceived as pleasant. Arenson now can harvest the results of her work in the first three chapters and make a comparison between the theories of Epicurus, Plato and Aristotle (pp. 115-16), as she will also do in Chapter 8 ("Conclusion: Health and Hedonism in Plato and Epicurus"). Nonetheless, as Arenson recognizes, this interpretation calls up the same niggling worries raised by the argument of Chapter 5. Since Arenson has built her case mainly on the evidence considering physiological functioning, can her restoration model be applied to mental pleasures as well? She gives what I think is a very original answer to this question, suggesting that we should think of restorative kinetic mental pleasures in the context of the medical model of philosophical therapy. This goes hand in hand with her explanation of mental katastematic pleasure's being an awareness of a healed and therefore healthy condition. Arenson then turns to six possible major objections to her account, most of which depend on the claim that Epicureans did not recognize the existence of any restorative pleasure. Much hangs on her answers to these objections; but as it was difficult to judge her case in Chapter 4 without her positive interpretation of kinetic pleasure in Chapter 6, many things remain similarly hanging until her further discussion in Chapter 7 ("Epicureans on Taste, Sex, and Other Non-Restorative Pleasures"). Consequently, I discuss both chapters together.

I think the strongest objection Arenson raises to her own interpretation is the fact that some pleasures, such as the pleasure one might take in fame, are not connected either to restoration or painless functioning, and thus fall outside the scope of kinetic and katastematic pleasures. Consequently, Epicurus' two kinds of pleasure do not account for all known pleasures. Arenson attempts to account for how the case of fame can fit her general lines of interpretation of kinetic and katastematic pleasures, but she fails to give a compelling answer, given the further worry that, even if fame is connected to restoration and painless functioning, it is unclear how it would be also linked to health. She tries to resolve this difficulty by saying that "when I satisfy my desire to be famous and overcome my crippling anxiety about getting others to recognize me", "I feel better because I am better; my mind is momentarily untroubled by pain, and this is healthy and good" (p. 123, her emphasis). I think this solution points to the gravest difficulty with her book: its regular claim to give a completely coherent explanation of Epicurean hedonism. I am rather sceptical that the Epicureans would have conceived of pleasure derived from fame as healthy, even momentarily, because it is based on false beliefs, which are the fundamental reason for the disturbance fame also causes (cf. Lucretius on fame in DRN 5.1117-35). Perhaps the arguments Arenson puts forward could meaningfully be extended into the wider context of Epicurean ethics. If one points to Epicurus' taxonomy of desires (Ep. Men. 127-8), one can easily establish the claim that pleasures taken in the satisfaction of unnecessary and unnatural desires are unhealthy. One could list countless examples of such pleasures, such as those one might take in drugs or in many other forms of bodily or mental overindulgence. Arenson, instead of rejecting the objection she raises here, could have resolved it by simply situating her interpretation within Epicurus' normative ethical context and saying that Epicurus conceived of unhealthy, non-restorative pleasures as a sort of excess (cf. Ep. Men. 131). This would do no harm to her overall very novel conception of Epicurean hedonism.

Arenson, however, is not willing to embrace such a solution because she wishes to limit the scope of Epicurus' non-restorative pleasures to the perception of healthy, painless functioning—pleasures that manifest the well-being and painless functioning of an organism as well as its underlying health. These pleasures she classifies as katastematic, against the communis opinio of modern scholarship that takes them to be kinetic. On her view, this communis opinio was misled by Cicero's evidence. She not only manages to put forward compelling arguments for her interpretation of taste, sex and other non-restorative pleasures being katastematic pleasures but, in consequence, she frees our conception of Epicurean hedonism from a number of familiar tensions, thanks to which we can now see it in a completely different, more balanced and nuanced light.

Arenson's book is therefore a success. Although its narrow focus and the lack of a wider narrative of Epicurean ethics makes strong demands on the reader, it has significantly advanced our account of Epicurus' kinetic and katastematic pleasures.2


1.   D. Wolfsdorf, Pleasure in Ancient Greek Philosophy, Cambridge 2013, pp. 108-9; J. C. B. Gosling and C. C. W. Taylor, The Greeks on Pleasure, Oxford 1982, pp. 196-8.
2.   This review was written with the support of the Hungarian Research Fund, NKFI, no. 128651.

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C. Jacob Butera, Matthew A. Sears, Battles and Battlefields of Ancient Greece. A Guide to their History, Topography and Archaeology. London: Pen & Sword, 2019. Pp. 385. ISBN 9781783831869. £24.00.

Reviewed by Emil Nankov, National Archaeological Institute with Museum, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (

Version at BMCR home site

At first glance the book under review may appear to be just another scholarly celebration of the ancient historiography of Greek and Roman warfare, supplemented by a healthy dose of modern topographic study, eruditely written by two academically-trained classicists and ancient historians.1 That impression, however, does not do this book justice. In reality, the work offers fresh perspectives on the materiality of warfare by focusing on the topography of ancient battles — that is, on the battlefields themselves. Importantly, it also values and promotes personal interaction with ancient landscapes. The authors explicitly state in the Preface and Acknowledgments that "this is a book designed for the traveler to Greece" (p. vii), and one that encourages readers to visit the places themselves. Framing itself within the genre of practical travel guides, the book diverges significantly from any compendium of ancient battles arranged in chronological order.

The book's structure is well suited to fulfilling the aims stated at the outset. Each chapter is devoted to a particular battle, featuring short descriptions of the site, historical outlines of battles, topographical notes on battle sites, and informative lists of ancient and modern sources at the end. For obvious reasons the authors' narratives favor land battles (18 are described) as opposed to sea battles (only four: Salamis, Artemisium, Naupactus and Actium), which contributes to the decision to arrange the 22 battles first by region and then by date. 2 The introductory chapter "Ancient Greek and Roman Warfare" (pp. ix-xxiv) provides basic historical background without unnecessary details, which makes the battle chapters easier to follow. In effect, the scope of the book inevitably directs the modern traveler to close encounters with the ultimate expression of Greek hoplite warfare: the pitched battle. A heavy emphasis falls on the achievements of the Greek phalanx of the Classical period in the context of the Greco-Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian War, the Corinthian War, the Theban-Spartan War, and the clash with Philip II of Macedon, while the arrival of the Roman legions in Greece is examined through six decisive battles (Cynoscephale, Pydna, Chaeronea [86 BCE], Pharsalus, Philippi and Actium).

Butera and Sears rely primarily on Greek and Roman historiographical tradition for their brilliant descriptions, seamlessly intertwined with personal autopsy. The backbone of battle narratives is built on information from Greek and Roman authors, while only one inscription is cited as a primary source, the so-called 'Themistocles Decree' (p. 32).3 The text is aided beautifully by the 47 color photographs taken by the authors themselves during their visits to the battle sites. Thus they have followed closely the topography-based approach to the study of ancient warfare utilized by military historians like Johannes Kromayer and W. Kendrick Pritchett. For secondary sources it is obvious that the authors lean heavily on scholarship published in English, whereas the handful of cited titles in Greek, French, German and Italian concern exclusively the Roman expansion in Greece, e.g. the battles of Cynoscephalae, Pydna, Pharsalus, Philippi and Actium (pp. 220, 243, 262-263, 281-282, 378-379).

The graphic representation of battle tactics and troop movements, drawn attractively upon satellite photos from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), will be of immense help for any traveler trying to make sense of a battle site on the field. The result is well worth the effort on the part of the authors who, quite understandably, have assigned to these illustrations a prominent position in each chapter.4 These visual aids of the narrative can be further appreciated when one realizes that only in five cases — the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Leuktra and Chaeronea (in both 338 BCE and 86 BCE) — do we possess the luxury of having prominent topographical features like burial mounds and trophies erected in the aftermath, which can serve as more reliable markers when positioning oneself within an ancient battlefield. In most cases, travelers are at the authors' mercy, having to rely on battle site descriptions, color photographs and GPS coordinates in the attempt to get their bearings in the countryside.

The authors should be praised for the idea to include archaeology in the subtitle of their book. On at least a few occasions, such as the battles of Amphipolis (pp. 191-199), Chaeronea (338 and 86 BCE [pp. 173-177]) and Actium (pp. 374-377), one comes across substantial references to archaeological evidence in support of the history-laden narratives. The authors are not to blame for this imbalance. Battlefield archaeology as such is not practiced in Greece, and the exceptional case of the capture of Olynthus by Philip II of Macedon in 348 BCE, on the basis of which John W. I. Lee developed the concept of ancient urban combat5, has to do with the aftermath of city sieges, not pitched battles. Nevertheless, archaeology, unlike history, brings out the physicality of ancient warfare before the eyes of a modern visitor, regardless of whether one is looking at shattered bones (Chaeronea, 338 BCE) or a victory trophy carrying original writing from the time of the battle (Chaeronea, 86 BCE). Further opportunities, cited by Butera and Sears, for acquiring fresh insights into the study of ancient battlefields are the geomorphological and photogrammetric prospections carried out in the vicinity of Pydna (pp. 240-241) and Philippi. Albeit few in number, and in the case of Philippi with inconclusive results (p. 282), such approaches are likely to enrich scholarly discourses about decisive battles that are traditionally dominated by written sources and topographic considerations. In several cases the archaeological bent of the historical narratives could have been stronger if more artifactual evidence was drawn into discussion.6

Apart from the introductory chapter, where six illustrations have been reproduced, throughout the book photographs of archaeological artifacts are scarce. The three exceptions include the Spartan hoplite shield captured by the Athenians during the battle of Pylos, now on display at the Agora Museum in Athens; the so-called "Ossuary of Brasidas" at the Archaeological Museum in Amphipolis; and the sculptural reliefs of the Aemilius Paullus Monument at Delphi (pp. 197-198, 238, 301, 313).7 This fact may be attributed both to the authors' aim to stay more focused on experiencing topography as opposed to examining monuments or militaria in museums and to a restriction on the part of the publisher intended to reduce production costs.

The publisher has done an excellent job with the production of the book. Maps, satellite photos and photographs are of superb quality, which contributes greatly to its usefulness. The editing is perfect, and so is the typography. The guide is a must for military buffs and eager travelers, who should make it a necessary part of their travel kit when roaming the battlefields of ancient Greece, although the hard binding and the high-quality paper on which the book is printed make it a bit heavy to carry around. Because of its accessible writing style and a short index at the end, the guide will be equally useful for undergraduates, teachers and the general public. The annotated citations of ancient texts and modern studies accompanying each chapter is suitable for acquiring deeper knowledge, as well as for undertaking scholarly pursuits in the field of ancient warfare.


1.   The steady flow of books on ancient battles supported by the Pen & Sword Military demonstrates their continuing interest in Greek and Roman warfare. E.g. Pietrykowski, J. Great Battles of the Hellenistic World. Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books (2012); Taylor, D. Roman Republic at War: A Compendium of Roman Battles from 498 to 31 BC. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military (2017).
2.   On the back of the book jacket it is stated incorrectly that the book "covers 20 battles".
3.   Perhaps an oversight has caused the omission of a full citation of the book (cited simply as ML 23) where the inscription has been edited: R. Meiggs and D. M. Lewis (eds.) A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century BC. Oxford University Press (1969; revised edition 1988).
4.   One assumes that all graphic renditions superimposed on the satellite imagery have been prepared by the authors, since nowhere in the book is there an explicit statement to the contrary.
5.   Lee, J. W. I. "Urban Combat at Olynthus, 348 BC". In: Ph. Freeman and A. Pollard (eds.) Fields of Conflict: Progress and Prospect in Battlefield Archaeology (BAR International Series 958). Oxford: Archaeopress (2001), 11-22. Lee, J. W. I. "Urban Warfare in the Classical Greek world". In: Hanson, V. (ed.) Makers of Ancient Strategy. Princeton University Press (2010), 138-157.
6.   For example, the work of Goette, H. R. and Weber, T. M. Marathon. Siedlungskammer und Schlachtfeld - Sommerfrische und Olympische Wettkampfstätte Verlag Philipp von Zabern (2004), 78-94, contains a useful presentation of data devoted to burial of the dead and the commemoration of the battle acquired through archaeological excavations at Marathon. Similarly, Kosmidou, E. and Malamidou, D. "Arms and Armour from Amphipolis, Northern Greece. Plotting the Military Life of an Ancient City." Anodos. Studies of the Ancient World 4-5/2004-2005, Trnava (2006), 133-147 has further bearings on the archaeology of battles near Amphipolis. Völling, Th. "Römische Militaría in Griechenland: ein Überblick." In: M. Feugère (ed.) L'équipement militaire et l'armement de la République. Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies 8 (1997) 91-103 presents valuable data on the military equipment of Roman legions during the Late Republic found on various sites and sanctuaries. Occasional reference to the book by Holger Baitinger Waffenweihungen in griechischen Heiligtümern. Monographien des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums 94 Mainz (2011) may have augmented the traveler's experience of a battle site by directing their attention to military booty, examples of which can be seen in Greek museums.
7.   Curiously, the color reproduction of the fallen warrior from the East pediment of the Late Archaic temple of Aphaia, featured prominently on the book jacket, is uncredited.

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Matthew A. Sears, Understanding Greek Warfare. Understanding the ancient world. London; New York: Routledge, 2019. Pp. 140. ISBN 9781138288607. $150.00.

Reviewed by Clemens Koehn, University of New England (

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Publisher's Preview

Ancient military history remains a booming area of Classical Studies. In the last decade, major collective works have been published.1 While these publications provide wide-ranging overviews of various periods and aspects of ancient warfare, their design (and price) is better suited for specialist scholars than for undergraduates. We are therefore grateful to the publishers for including a volume dedicated to ancient Greek warfare in their Understanding the Ancient World series of introductory textbooks; as such, it is the first book on this topic especially designed for tertiary teaching purposes.

The book follows the general chronology of Greek history. The first chapter deals with Bronze Age and Homeric warfare. Sears discusses aspects of warfare in the second Millennium BCE, such as the deployment of chariots and massed infantry. He then engages with the complex scholarship on the nature of Homeric battle, including discussion of the extent to which massed phalanx-style infantry formations were already in use, or alternatively, whether the battle order was more fluid and open compared to later developments. While generally providing a good account, he does so in a somewhat distorted manner when he argues that "scholarly boxes [are] too neat and tidy" (p. 19). No scholars involved in the discussion would claim that pitched battles were the only form of Homeric warfare, as Sears implies. The remainder of the chapter examines the imitation and perception of Homeric warfare by later generations of Greeks. Sears concludes the chapter with a discussion of an Homeric duel; here, his statement that the combined throwing and thrusting of spears in Homer is "a form of combat unattested in other Greek sources" (p. 26) is rather contestable, as the comparison of textual and pictorial sources from the Archaic period proves.2

The second chapter deals with warfare in Archaic times up to the Persian wars. Sears discusses the rise of the phalanx, the vexed question of the 'Hoplite revolution', the various interpretations of othismos (literal vs. figurative), etc. In the end, he tends to favour the so-called 'orthodox' view, in which there is not much development of the phalanx during the Archaic and Classical period. Unfortunately, he does not cite major recent contributions such as Adam Schwartz' Reinstating the Hoplite (an orthodox work), or Chris Matthew's Storm of Spears.3 Sears cursorily mentions his own experiments with hoplite equipment (p. 37), which would have made it all the more appropriate to give the reader his opinion of Matthew's results. Sears continues this chapter by discussing the political implications of the 'Hoplite revolution' and by analysing two case studies of hoplite battles: Thermopylae in 480 BCE and Nemea in 394 BCE. A short discussion of the pictorial representation of the hoplite, his image strictu sensu, concludes this chapter.

In compliance with his chronological approach, Sears then discusses naval warfare, since during the Persian wars the navy became Athens' major instrument of waging war. This chapter focuses exclusively on Athenian naval developments in the 5th century, analysing Salamis in 480 BCE and Naupactus in 429 BCE as case studies for sea battles. Sears does not discuss any later naval history, the important developments of the late Classical and Hellenistic periods are ignored. While he generally provides a solid overview of naval matters in the 5th century, it is rather inappropriate in this context not to find any mention of significant contributions such as H.T. Wallinga's study of the naval aspects of Xerxes' campaign, or Boris Rankov's final report on the reconstructed Olympias.4 Furthermore, Sears' discussion of Aeschylus' presentation of the Persian defeat at Salamis is rather one-sided. Of course, there is a stream of scholarship that interprets the Persians as blatant celebration of Greek triumphalism; but at the same time, there are also many scholars who stress the highly empathetic aspects of this play, given that it basically consists of numerous scenes of collective and personal mourning and grief after the loss of so many lives.5 In an introductory textbook, but not only there, one has to follow the principle of audiatur et altera pars, otherwise one's own point of view is not contextualised.

In the fourth chapter, under the rather misleading title 'Total War', Sears discusses military developments during the Peloponnesian war. Given its importance as a trigger for many changes, the decision to dedicate a full chapter to this major conflict is absolutely justified. Sears first discusses the implications of having an author of the status of Thucydides as the main source for the war. Sears then gives a lengthy outline of the war as such, and then continues to discuss military developments such as siege warfare and the role of light-armed infantry. The chapter concludes with an interesting discussion of the new generation of military leaders that the war generated, such as Brasidas and Alcibiades, and an overview of the war as portrayed in contemporaneous Athenian dramatic productions. The latter is quite topical, but one has to be cautious not to make too many connections between actual events and the dramatic staging, at least with regard to tragedy. That Euripides' Trojan Women is a direct answer to the Athenian atrocities at Melos, is rather unlikely on the basis of the chronology (and, in addition, one should not forget that it is part of a trilogy on the Trojan War, so the mythological context is more complex).6 It is strange that in this chapter, Sears does not follow his usual structural paradigm by including a section dedicated to providing close-up case studies of battles. For instance, the major battles of Delium in 424 BCE and Mantineia in 418 BCE are surprisingly not reviewed.

The fifth chapter covers the fourth century until the rise of Macedon. Sears discusses to what extent the phalanx formed from a civic militia still mattered, or whether mercenaries now dominated warfare. An analysis of the battles of Lechaeum in 390 BCE and Mantineia in 362 BCE concludes this chapter. Again, although Sears provides a wide-ranging overview of various developments, he fails to analyse the growing importance of cavalry; standard works such as the monographs of I.G. Spence and R.E. Gaebel are nowhere referenced.7 His brief discussion of the development of artillery under Dionysios I in Syracuse in the 390s, does not consider the scholarly debate as to whether Dionysios oversaw the invention of artillery per se or of torsion artillery in particular. Here, Sears seems to follow the outdated hypotheses of Marsden and neglects to consider the views of more contemporary scholars.8 Sears has also overlooked the fact that Andreas Konecny's article on the Lechaeum battle has been translated into English and published in an influential essay collection on peltasts.9

The sixth chapter is dedicated to the rise of Macedon under Philip and Alexander's conquest of Persia. Sears adumbrates the sources, and then focuses on Philip's military reforms and Alexander's subsequent campaigns. He selects the siege of Tyre in 332 BCE, and the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BCE, for in-depth analysis. He concludes the chapter with a brief evaluation of other scholars' assessments of Alexander's military genius. Sears bases his discussion of Philip's reforms on Minor Markle's summa on Macedonian arms and armament, but fails to refer to Markle's major thesis, that the army had been fully equipped with the new sarissa only under Alexander and that Macedonian phalangites still used a variety of conventional weaponry. The vast literature on the precise length and use of the sarissa since the publication of Markle's work is nowhere mentioned. 10

The last chapter covers Hellenistic warfare. Sears initially discusses the polis level, and then examines the new large kingdoms and their armies. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Polybius' famous comparison between phalanx and legion, and two case studies, this time not on battles but on leaders: Pyrrhus and Hannibal. The inclusion of the latter is fully justified, since the Carthaginian army as well as its leaders clearly fought in a Hellenistic manner. Sears does not discuss the late attempts by Seleucids and Ptolemies to adjust to the Roman manipular system.11 Whether the cavalry really "fell by the wayside, replaced by the reemergence of the phalanx as the be-all-and-end-all of Hellenistic warfare" (p. 181), is rather contestable. The decision in Hellenistic battles was still primarily sought through the cavalry on the wings, but without defeating the phalanx, the battle could not be won (as Raphia in 217 BCE illustrates)

Sears' book is written in a casual and sometimes informal style, and it therefore will certainly appeal to undergraduates. However, despite its ostensible comprehensive coverage, there is often a conspicuous absence of scholarly debate. Sears provides his own translations of sources, but they are arguably not accurate on several occasions.12 Sears makes the undergraduates aware that important scholarly work exists in other languages besides English; but his repeatedly used formulation "though in German/French, this is an important book" sounds rather odd. This being said, Sears' book offers a detailed presentation of the vast and difficult topic. As regards its suitability as a textbook for educational purposes at the tertiary level, it will have significant utility.


1.   Including the Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare (2007), and the Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World (2013).
2.   Eg Call. 1 West; Tyrt. 11 West; the famous Chigi vase, hardly properly analysed by Sears, and other depictions of warriors using spears fitted with throwing loops for both throwing and thrusting. On p. 42, Sears cites Callinus and Tyrtaeus but assumes that the warriors there are operating both with javelins and thrusting spears. However, the mode of fighting is the same as in Homer, the formulation in Call. 1.5: καί τις ἀποθνήσκων ὕστατ᾿ ἀκοντισάτω refers to a spear as well as a javelin, as the formulation in Tyrt. 11.25: δεξιτερῇ δ᾿ ἐν χειρὶ τινασσέτω ὄβριμον ἔγχος can clearly refer to movements before throwing the spear; this is exactly the same vocabulary as in Homer. For a more detailed analysis of this hybrid mode of fighting see now C. Koehn, In Speergewittern. Zur Semantik von "Fernkampf" und "Nahkampf" in der griechischen Archaik, in Mnemon 18 (2018), pp. 46-70.
3.   A. Schwartz, Reinstating the Hoplite. Arms, Armour and Phalanx Fighting in Archaic and Classical Greece, (Stuttgart 2009); C. Matthew, A Storm of Spears. Understanding the Greek Hoplite in Action, (Philadelphia 2012); one could have mentioned also F. Echeverría Rey, "Hoplite and Phalanx in Archaic and Classical Greece: A Reassessment", in Classical Philology 107 (2012), pp. 291-318.
4.   H.T. Wallinga, Xerxes' Greek Adventure. The Naval Perspective, (Leiden 2005); B. Rankov, Trimreme Olympias. The Final Report, (Oxford 2012).
5.   See e.g. the discussion in: A. Favorini, "History, Collective Memory, and Aeschylus' Persians", in Theatre Journal 55 (2003), pp 99–111.
6.   See now D. Kovacz, Euripides: Troades, (Oxford 2018), pp. 8-15.
7.   I.G. Spence, The Cavalry of Classical Greece. A Social and Military History, (Oxford 1993); R.E. Gaebel, Cavalry Operations in the Greek World, (Norman 2002).
8.   Cf. P. Kingsley, "Artillery and Prophecy: Sicily in the Reign of Dionysius I", in Prometheus 21 (1995), pp. 15-23; H.M. Schellenberg, "Diodor von Sizilien 14,42,1 und die Erfindung der Artillerie im Mittelmeeraum", in Frankfurter Elektronische Rundschau zur Altertumskunde 3 (2006), pp. 14-23; D. Campbell, "Ancient Catapults. Some Hypotheses Reexamined", in Hesperia 80 (2011), pp. 677-700.
9.   N.V. Sekunda-B. Burlinga (eds.), Iphicrates, Peltasts and Lechaeum, (Gdansk 2014).
10.   See as a more recent example C. Matthew, "The Length of the Sarissa", in Antichthon 46 (2012), pp. 79-100.
11.   N. Sekunda, Hellenistic Infantry Reform in 160s BC, (Lodz 2001).
12.   Some examples: p. 52: Hdt. 7.211: "as soon as the barbarians had overtaken them" – it means rather "as soon as the barbarians had reached them" (the Spartans could hardly turn around if already been overtaken); p. 107: Thuc. 6.15.4: "This state of affairs went a long way towards ruining the city" – it must rather be "They (sc. the Athenians) ruined the city in a short time" (this refers to the time after the expulsion of Alcibiades in 406 BCE); p. 130: Xen. Hell. 6.4.28: "He (sc. Jason) was the greatest man of his time and not to be despised by anyone" – the sense is certainly more nuanced: "He was the greatest of his time in that regard that he was not easily despised by anyone."

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Tuesday, February 11, 2020


Christian H. Bull, The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus: The Egyptian Priestly Figure as a Teacher of Hellenized Wisdom. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 186. Leiden: Brill, 2018. Pp. xvi, 532. ISBN 9789004370814. €164,00.

Reviewed by Korshi Dosoo, Würzburg​ (

Version at BMCR home site


The Corpus Hermeticum (CH) must represent one of the most complex textual phenomena of the Roman period, and as a collection of pseudonymous works, the reconstruction of its context of production, circulation and use poses considerable problems for historians of religion. Christian Bull's monograph, a revised version of his 2014 doctoral thesis, represents one of the most successful attempts to come to grips with these problems. Ambitious in its scope, it aims not only to understand the ritual 'Way of Hermes', but also the lived reality behind the texts. In these goals the author draws considerably upon other recent scholars, notably Garth Fowden, David Frankfurter, and Jacco Dieleman, whose extensive use of the Greek and Demotic magical papyri allowed them to argue that the Hermetica should be seen as originating from the same linguistically and culturally diverse priestly milieux as these texts.1 But while these authors may have left us with a commonly-held consensus on these questions, they did not, as Bull notes, provide a fully argued form of the hypothesis, a task that he sets out to perform.

The monograph begins with a helpful presentation of the status quaestionis of hermetic studies, summarising past research and major problems before ending with a helpful theoretical discussion of the role of Hermes within the texts, understood through the theoretical lens of cultural memory. The remainder of the book is divided into three main parts, the first of which, Who is Hermes Trismegistus? introduces more fully the central protagonist of the Hermetica. This section begins with an investigation into the origin of his title "Thrice Greatest" in Egyptian and Greek-language sources, and it continues with a survey of early discussions of Hermes-Thoth in Greek literary texts. This search for a prehistory of the Hermetica is followed by one of the monograph's boldest sections, an exploration of the writings of the Egyptian priest and Greek author Manetho. Bull's argument, too rich to resume in full here, makes the case for the authenticity of the letter of Manetho to Ptolemy II Philadelphus preserved by George Syncellus, suggesting it to be the introduction to Manetho's work on Egyptian history usually known as the Aigyptiaka. This work's ultimate goal, he argues, was to demonstrate that the beginning of Ptolemy III's reign marked a new Sothic cycle, and hence a new golden age.

The importance of this work for the Hermetica lies in the fact that it refers to a succession of figures named Hermes, the latest of whom, Hermes Trismegistos, is associated with familiar later Hermetic topoi such as the recovery and transmission of primeval wisdom. Indeed, the letter seems to attest to the existence of Greek-language texts attributed to Hermes-Thoth as early as the reign of Ptolemy III. Bull's argument here goes well beyond the sphere of religion, linking the writing and circulation of these 'Proto-Hermetica' to the production of Ptolemaic, and later Roman, political propaganda.

This leads into a discussion of the theory of kingship, already present in Manetho, but more fully expressed in the Hermetic tractates proper (principally SH XXIII, the Korē Kosmou), which makes the case for the divine origin of royal souls. Traces of this doctrine can be found in Hellenistic and Roman astrological material more broadly, suggesting that the "proto-Hermetic" layer may be taken to include the fragmentarily-attested but highly influential Hellenistic authors Nechepsos and Petosiris, legendary Egyptian king and priest respectively. Again, the intricacy of the argument prevents a full summary, but the cosmology implied by this doctrine—centred on kings, and valorising various categories of ritual experts—implies for Bull an origin in priestly milieux whose goal was the legitimation of pharaonic kingship and their own authority.

The second part, What is the Way of Hermes? reconstructs the cursus followed by an initiate of Hermetism using the evidence of the philosophical Hermetica. While the phrase "Way of Hermes" does not, in fact, appear in the Hermetica, but we do find comparable discussions of a "Way of Immortality", and the mention of an order (suntaxis) in CH XVI and of various different categories of discourses (genikoi, diexodikoi) in the Coptic Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth (Disc.8–9) demonstrate that the authors of these texts did imagine them as following a sequence.

Bull's principal innovation in this section is in his reconciliation of the 'monistic' and 'dualistic' tendencies of the different tractates. While previous authors proposed multiple schools of Hermetism, or a cursus that moved from a world-affirming monism for initiates to a world-denying dualism for the initiated, Bull proposes a movement in the other direction, from dualism to monism. The initial stages ("conversion", "knowing oneself", "becoming a stranger to the world") consist in a recognition of the need to separate oneself from the Way of Death followed by the masses, and instruction in the nature of humanity and the cosmos, leading to a recognition that goodness exists only in the divine. This separation sets the stage for a ritual of rebirth represented in CH XIII. Despite the challenges of reconstructing a ritual from an idealised mythic representation, Bull convincingly suggests a real ritual context through linguistic parallels to the magical papyri. This assimilation of the initiate to God effected by the ritual now reveals the divine origin of the cosmos, resulting in the monism of the later tractates. The final stage, "Heavenly Ascent", is reconstructed based on Disc.8–9, and consists of a guided ascent to the eighth hypercosmic sphere, where the Hermetist hymns the ineffable ninth sphere, gaining a preview and guarantee of his blessed afterlife. Again, this section is informed by a careful attention to the ritual context, noting again the parallels to the magical papyri in the chanting of vowels and the idea of recording the ritual on a temple stela protected by curses.

The third part of the monograph, Who were the Hermetists? turns to the question of the social context of the authors and users of the Hermetica. This section draws most heavily on the often-underutilised technical Hermetica, with Bull stressing the insufficiency of distinct modern categories such as philosophy, 'magic', and the mysteries. The author follows earlier studies in pointing out references to communal activities such as the singing of hymns and the sharing of meals, to which he adds the observation that both strands of Hermetica presuppose an interest in astrological contemplation and calculation. This introduction is followed by an extended reconstruction of the relationship between the Egyptian priesthood, the Hermetica, and the magical papyri, delving more fully into seams already identified by Fowden and Frankfurter. In particular, this section uses the archive often known as the Theban Magical Library (here the 'Thebes Cache') to demonstrate the clear parallels between the Hermetica and magical texts, and demonstrate the implication of priests in both. The key text used here is the so-called Mithras Liturgy of PGM IV.475-829, already recognised by Fowden as parallel to the Hermetic ascent ritual. This section integrates the story of Thessalos, the Greek doctor who visited Thebes to seek a magical revelation, as a prototype of the exchange between a Hellenic seeker of knowledge and the Egyptian priesthood that might lie behind the Hermetica.

The final part of this section discusses the distinctive contribution of Egyptian priests to the Hermetica in more theoretical terms, using Frankfurter's idea of the appropriation by the priesthood of the Hellenic stereotype of the oriental sage, nuanced by Richard Gordon's argument that this development arose in part from the priests' own sense of their vocation. 2 As with the discussion of Thessalos, this section uses material found in similar discussions of religious interculturality in Roman Egypt—Chaeremon's idealised description of the priesthood, the apocalypticism of the Asclepius in the context of the Egyptian Chaosbeschreibung—but Bull succeeds in finding interesting new perspectives; once again he innovatively demonstrates the relationship between the Hermetica and politics, arguing the "impious new law" mentioned by the Asclepius to be the decree of 198/199 CE which outlawed traditional Egyptian divinatory practices.

In his conclusion, Bull returns, albeit cautiously and with careful grounding, to Richard Reitzenstein's idea of the origin of the Hermetica in a small community of Hellenes interested in both Egyptian wisdom and Greek philosophy, led by Egyptian priests, perhaps in the Fayum of the first century, which may have expanded into a larger number of voluntary associations of the type well attested in Graeco-Roman Egypt.

Bull's work represents an accessible yet profound and thoughtful introduction and handbook to the Hermetica, providing both a fair and thorough summary of previous work and a lucid approach to understanding them, and it is likely to become an invaluable reference work and source of further ideas in years to come.

Potential readers may be disappointed to find relatively little engagement with the Demotic text published in 2005 by Richard Jasnow and Karl-Theodor Zauzich as the Book of Thoth: A Demotic [...] Pendant to the Classical Hermetica. This represents less Bull's failing than the fact that this text's connections to the Hermetica have proven less clear than originally hoped.3 Bull's solution, rather than seeing the Book of Thoth as a direct predecessor, is to argue that a simple translation of such a text would have been unsatisfactory to a philosophically-oriented Hellenophone, requiring the priests to (re)invent an Egyptian tradition using their knowledge of Greek philosophy. This deep enmeshment of the corpus with Greek texts is apparent from Bull's able exegesis of the texts in this second part, but it was precisely this feature that led Festugière to suggest the Egyptian elements to be largely decorative. This complicates the priest-as-authors hypothesis, intended to explain the presence of Egyptian ideas, to which priestly authors would have unique access, an explanation which loses power according to the degree to which such Egyptian ideas are absent or ambiguous. A second problem, perhaps a resolution to the first, arises from Bull's convincing demonstration that many of the central ideas contained in the Hermetica were already circulating in Greek in the early Roman period, and likely earlier. If many of the borrowings from Egyptian theology were already accessible to and used by hellenophone authors before the writing of the philosophical Hermetica, this may further reduce the need to presuppose priestly authors writing qua priests, that is, as inheritors of tradition that only they could mediate.

Another problem of chronology is apparent in Bull's use of Frankfurter's theory of the commoditisation of priestly knowledge following the decline of the temples, originally intended to explain the high number of magical formularies that survive from the third and fourth centuries CE.4 Bull proposes that the priests were already seeking non-traditional sources of income in the first and second centuries, yet despite the policies of the Roman administration, a decline is much less apparent at this period.

None of the objections raised here reduce the value of Bull's work as a major advance in our knowledge of Hermeticism; rather they represent unresolved issues in the studies upon which he builds, and they point the way towards research which may nuance our understanding of socio-ethnic identity and the transmission of knowledge in the Roman Mediterranean even further. ​


1.   Garth Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986); David Frankfurter, Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998); Jacco Dieleman, Priests, Tongues and Rites: The London-Leiden Magical Manuscriptsand Translation in Egyptian Ritual (100–300 CE) (Leiden: Brill, 2005).
2.   Frankfurter, Religion in Roman Egypt, pp.225-237; Richard Gordon, "Shaping the Text: Innovation and Authority in Graeco-Egyptian Malign Magic," in Kykeon: Studies in Honour of H.S. Versnel, edited by Herman F.J. Horstmanshoff et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2002), pp. 71–76.
3.   Cf. Joachim F. Quack, "Die Initiation zum Schreiberberuf im Alten Ägypten", Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 36 (2007), p.261.
4.   Frankfurter, Religion in Roman Egypt, pp.214-233. ​

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