Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism and Power in the Greek World, AD 50-250 
by Simon Swain.
Oxford, 499 pp., £50, April 1996, 0 19 814772 4
Show More
Show More

Summer 165 AD. I dreamed of Athena with her aegis, in the form of the statue in Athens made by Phidias, and just as massive and beautiful. The aegis, moreover, was giving off a perfume, as sweet as could be, a perfume like wax ... It immediately occurred to me to have an enema of Attic honey.

20 January 166 AD. I dreamed that after my food had not digested properly I consulted Zosimus, my adopted father, about bathing and asked if it were necessary to bathe more. He said it wasn’t. I dreamed that I did bathe and had trouble with my stomach.

21 January. I vomited again in the evening – I had had a dream that a bone was troubling me and there was a need to expel it.

26 January. I dreamed that the lamps were brought into the Temple in accordance with a vow on my behalf and it was necessary to vomit – I vomited.

14 February. I dreamed that I was in Smyrna, though, since I was not aware of having made the journey, I did not believe for a second what was right before my eyes. I was offered figs. Then Corus appeared, the seer. He indicated the figs contained a quick-acting poison. I was full of suspicion and eagerly vomited, but at the same time a thought occurred to me: ‘What if I haven’t vomited completely?’ Next, someone said there was poison in some other figs as well. I was even more distressed. I was angry, too, because I had not heard it sooner ... After such dreams, I suspected that fasting was indicated (I preferred it anyway, even if it wasn’t) but I asked the god to show more clearly which he meant: fasting or vomiting.

Publius Aelius Aristides (117-c.187) suffered from chronic indigestion and scanned his dreams for a cure. The source of these dreams was the god Asclepius, for whom Aristides’ health was a matter of great concern. On one occasion the oneiroscopist records a (real) voyage to Smyrna. As the boat was approaching its destination, a violent storm suddenly sprang up, sending the other passengers into a panic. Aristides, however, understands it is the work of the deity and simply calls out his name. The ship eventually makes it safely into port. All is revealed in the god’s nocturnal broadcast. He was just trying to churn Aristides’ stomach a little in preparation for a truly massive purgation.

In return for such constant consideration, Aristides carried out immediately whatever he thought the god was asking him to do. Usually, this involved some kind of regimen made up of vomiting, not bathing (for years), or fasting, but it might also involve running a race without shoes in winter, sailing across a bay in a high wind in order to eat honey and acorns on the other side (and vomit); putting out in a small boat and arranging for it to capsize – ‘and the contrivance of the shipwreck, which occurred with real danger, seemed wonderful to all.’ ‘We were ordered to do many strange things,’ concludes Aristides cheerfully.

What was Asclepius saving him for? A career in politics, military victories, the salvation of mankind? No, something much more important. Aristides was saved for Greek prose composition: ‘I dreamed the sacred herald stood at the base of the statue of Olympian Zeus and called out my full name as if I were being publicly crowned.’ Aristides was an orator, among the most distinguished of a select group who toured the cities of the Mediterranean in the first centuries of our era, giving displays of rhetoric in front of great crowds. Not political speeches, of course, nothing about defending liberty or fighting oppression, or – God forbid – winning public office, but eulogies of cities and emperors and Rome, and lofty castigations of whole populations for bad habits: watching too many chariot-races in the case of the Alexandrians or, in the case of the people of Tarsus, ‘heavy-breathing’ of such a revolting intensity that the city sounded like a brothel. Moreover, all these speeches would be made in language spoken by neither the speakers not the spoken-to: in the dialect and vocabulary used in classical Athens five centuries before.

Writers and intellectuals of the period tried to purge their discourse of anything that was modern, and disputed vigorously over lexical correctness: ‘A huge fish was then served in a bouillon, and someone said that all seafood was at its tastiest if served in this way. At this Ulpian frowned and said: “What’s the reference for ‘bouillon’? And as for ‘seafood’, I can think of none of the classical authors using the term.” ’ In his essay, ‘A Slip of the Tongue During a Greeting’, the Syrian satirist, Lucian of Samosata describes the embarrassment resulting from the use of the wrong verb: ‘I began to sweat and go red and was completely at a loss. Some of those present thought it was delirium, naturally enough, while there were others who thought I was talking nonsense because of my old age and others who thought I had a bad hangover from yesterday.’ Lucian was one of the few who could see the funny side of all this pedantry. One of his pieces has the letter Sigma accusing Tau of stealing words from him before a jury of vowels – an attack on the Attic affectation of using tt instead of ss in words like thalassa. Nevertheless, the tribunal Lucian convenes is an accurate replica of a classical Athenian court with all the classical plaintiff’s clichés, and the author never strays from the Attic language and syntax even when he is sending it up, reacting with a torrent of sincere abuse when ‘The False Critic’ accuses him, falsely, of error. In Lucian’s case, irony does not undermine linguistic regulation, it simply demonstrates a confident familiarity with the rules.

It would be difficult not to conclude from all this that the Greek literature of the Roman Empire was decadent, fossilised and self-obsessed, a pale and lifeless shadow of the classical model it followed so slavishly. This has been, and remains, the opinion of many, and a general neglect is the result. Today, the greater part of this vast and various corpus remains unclaimed by syllabuses and unheard of by the educated general public. Although the novelists are being rediscovered by those with an interest in narratology or sex, and the historians, Plutarch, Cassius Dio, Arrian etc, are mined for the original sources they might or might not have used, they are rarely read, as Tacitus or Thucydides are read, for themselves, and whatever of themselves they happen to bring to the subject just seems to get in the way. A large part of the remaining literature consists of unfashionable genres like speeches and essays or falls between generic stools. How would we classify Aristides’ bulimic Sacred Tales or Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans or Pausanias’ Guide to Greece? In some cases, this neglect is a relatively recent phenomenon. Plutarch used to be read as much for his moral essays as for his Lives, and Lucian was once very popular as a textbook for schools. What made him so useful is what now makes him obsolete: a simple, pure – yet wholly affected – Attic Greek. Classics is now sold as a door into the ancient world rather than as an education in its own right, but it is very hard to tell what reality these texts give access to. This literature falls between cultural as well as generic categories. It is certainly not classical, but in many cases it doesn’t seem to belong to its own period either.

Simon Swain’s achievement in Hellenism and Empire is to make inauthenticity the key to later Greek literature instead of its embarrassment. In the first half of the book he examines the relationship between language, identity and the past. He sees language as a form of cultural resistance to the Roman Empire, a purging of the conquerors from the lexicon – one of the worst solecisms was to use something that sounded like Latin. The obsession with classical Attic vocabulary is simply the most prominent manifestation of a general fashion for living in the past, or rather for reliving the past. The novels, for instance, are all set in a Mediterranean before the coming of the Romans. The orators revisited episodes from the fifth century BCE and made speeches that would certainly have improved the course of history, had they been made at the time. Their preoccupation with military victories worried Plutarch. In a rather pathetic passage from Advice for Statesmen, he says orators should not go on about Marathon and Eurymedon and Plataea and other glories of the past, but should celebrate instead moments of civic wisdom and consensus. In Sparta, meanwhile, young men and boys showed they were as tough as their famous ancestors by having themselves whipped in the precinct of Artemis and spattering her altar with blood. So many tourists wanted to watch this gory renaissance of the Spartan spirit that a new theatre had to be built.

This concern with past practices might extend to the smallest items of daily life. Athenaeus’ Dinner-Scholars discuss the artefacts and practices of the classical table as well as the proper words with which to describe them, in a great mess of philological antiquarianism. Even their dreams were colonised by figures from the classical age. Aristides dreams of Lysias, the paragon of Attic purity, ‘rather a gracious youth’, and is visited by Sophocles, ‘a handsome old man’. He dreams of Plato standing at the end of his bed composing one of his letters. The philosopher is furious: ‘He glanced at me and said: “Is this what you think appropriate for me, letter-writing?” ’

This nostalgia seems to have had consequences also for sexuality, although it is not quite clear what they were. Certainly it is nothing so obvious as a restoration of the homosexuality for which the archaic and classical ages had been famous. If anything, there is a strong distaste for such practices and a new emphasis on marriage. Swain tentatively suggests that this is related to a new regard for genealogy as a bridge to the past.

The Romans were so thorough in forestalling the possibility of any actual heroics that might disturb the Roman peace that the dream-world of discourse was the only space left to the Greeks for great deeds. Ancient feuds between neighbouring cities were now fought out over epithets. Rivals contested bitterly for the exclusive right to be called ‘first city’ or ‘mother city’ of the province, and would bombard the Imperial court with speeches from their most famous speechmakers in order to get a letter from the emperor which included one of these titles in his reply. Aristides, who dreams of dreaming and of interpreting dreams, who finds the meaning of meteorology in a treatment for his stomach, who manufactures accidents to make his nocturnal visions come true, seems to typify this culture. Long before the formal division, the eastern half of the Empire looks sequestered in its own empire of signs.

Cut out of present history, the Greeks rehearsed the history that had safely passed. The monumental nature of the literature of the period is part of an explicit aspiration to match their ancestors’ deeds with equally magnificent words. Arrian’s motivation in writing another history of Alexander was to provide finally a text worthy of his achievement, as Homer had for Achilles: ‘I do not think I am unworthy of the first place in Greek language as Alexander was in arms.’ Alexander was something of an obsession. In one extraordinary dream Aristides imagines finding a double tomb with one half set aside for Alexander and one half for himself: ‘I was pleased, and conjectured that we both had reached the pinnacle of our professions, he in military power, and I in the power of speaking.’ Despite its nostalgia, this was not an unassuming age. It was a true renaissance, combining the sense of loss with the ambition to regain.

The second half of Hellenism and Empire is devoted to more detailed studies of nine individual authors. Overwhelmed perhaps by the amount of material, the author’s argument begins to flag and he is content simply to comb each unwieldy oeuvre in turn for signs of hostility towards, or unhappiness with or disdain for, Rome. This is well-covered ground and Swain’s interpretations will be disputed. There are many examples of Rome being omitted or ignored and Greek culture being extolled, but very few clear statements of resentment directed against Rome or against Roman influences. Even the most conspicuous cultural exports, like gladiatorial combats, which the Athenians in particular seem to have loved, were not blamed on Rome. On the other hand, the Greeks did not have a monopoly on the Greek revival and it seems perverse to separate the bearded philhellenism of Hadrian and his successors from the Atticist endeavour. In contrast to the powerful image of Greek language as a refuge from Roman power, we are left in the closing chapters with the anti-climactic observation that the Greeks maintained their cultural identity into the third century despite being fully incorporated into the Roman political system and the Imperial administration.

Reading Lucian’s consternation at using the wrong word, or Athenaeus’ Dinner-Scholars, whose conversation is continually interrupted by inquisitions to weed out anything too modern, it seems clear that the practice of purism was producing an intense and rather peculiar subjectivity, a nice conjunction of self-consciousness and discursive practice that should not have escaped the notice of Michel Foucault. Yet one searches in vain through Le Souci de soi for references to Atticism or the practices of nostalgia. One of the problems perhaps was that Foucault drew his line at the wrong point, at the end of the classical instead of the beginning of the Imperial period. Later Greeks seem hardly to have noticed the end of the classical period and the past they dream about runs seamlessly on past Alexander and into the early Hellenistic world dominated by his Greek(ish) successors. The real trauma begins when the Romans arrive, at the end of the third century BCE, to begin over a century and a half of cynical exploitation, violence and terror. Between Plato and Plutarch there is one of those real discontinuities that Foucault was always looking for but found so hard to locate. It was not to be discovered in some kind of ‘paradigm-shift’, but in war, not in the kind of power that is invisible and all-pervasive, but in the kind whose arrival you cannot fail to observe, the kind that was not there before, and that you wish would go away. It might be argued that the new subjectivity we see in Plutarch and Aristides is not political so much as geo-political, the result of an imposed domination and a profound alienation from a present occupied by barbarians.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences