Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Book Review | Being Greek under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic and the Development of Empire

Simon GOLDHILL (ed.), Being Greek under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic and the Development of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. viii + 395. Hb ISBN 0-521-66317-2.

Review by Theresa Urbainczyk

University College

When I edited this journal, I was once threatened with dismemberment by an angry author.  My crime was to have included a review which contained a sentence mildly critical of my would-be assailant.  This rather changed my attitude to reviewing and I would like to quote immediately the volume’s own dust jacket that this book ‘presents a series of brilliant insights’.

However as an ex-editor I cannot ignore my own strictures that I should write with the interested lay reader rather than the specialist in mind.  Consequently, I have to say that the book makes no allowances for those without at least one degree in classics. 

The combination of highly specialised academic vocabulary with gestures towards popular culture is uniquely alienating.  For instance Henderson writes in note 5 ‘Hence – pow! – hair-raising difficulty in apprehending Polybius’ own shock-horror within the formulaic/generic frissons of his editorial voice, his narratorial persona, and his cast of characters.’  (p. 31). Goldhill not only introduces his article on the erotic eye by quoting Mick Jagger’s ‘sex and sex and sex and sex and look at me’ (p.154), but also can write: ‘The Hellenic commentator on the world of impressions becomes intertwined with and erotically stained by the lovers’ play.  Not only is looking the height of erotic stimulation, but even (the) theory itself is pretty sexy stuff’  (p.170).  All I can say is, it does nothing for me.

The cast list is studded with stars.  Apart from Henderson on Polybius and Goldhill on the arousing gaze, there is Maud Gleason on Josephus, Rebecca Preston on Plutarch, Jás Elsner on Pseudo (?) Lucian, Froma Zeitlin on Homer, Tim Whitmarsh on exile in the Second Sophistic, Onno van Niif on athletics and Seth Schwartz with the best title ‘The Rabbi in Aphrodite’s bath’.

The volume will be of interest to those working on any of the above authors and generally on Greece under Roman rule, but the non-specialist reader will, I fear, not progress much beyond the first page.  If however they reach page 157 they will read ‘During the Hellenistic period, in particular in Alexandria with the foundation of the Museum and the Art Gallery as spaces for viewing, and with the concomitant growth of the discourse of art theory, there developed the image of the sophos as viewer, an ideal of the articulate and witty analyst of imagery, uncovering hidden means and displaying his – and it is, of course, normatively ‘his’ – sophia as a sign of an elite and cultivated response.’  The unattentive reader may think they are reading reflections on the activities of the contributors. 

The blurb promises ‘a fascinating and new understanding of the long history of imperialism and cultural conflict’.  Personally I think the reader of Classics Ireland would learn more on this subject, and would certainly have more fun, by reading Plutarch’s Parallel Lives.

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