Monthly Archives: March 2015

Traversing the Empire of Letters in Pliny Epistles 1.10

Working Papers on Nervan, Trajanic and Hadrianic Literature 1.37 (22/3/15)

Traversing the Empire of Letters in Pliny Epistles 1.10’                                                                                                              Chris van den Berg

Abstract for a paper given at the project’s 3rd Literary Interactions conference, in Boston, 18-19 June 2015:

This paper offers a close reading of the tenth letter of Pliny’s first book of Epistles (to Attius Clemens, on the Syrian-Greek philosopher Euphrates). It examines how Pliny manufactures and manipulates distance and presence within the letter, arguing that Pliny’s careful—and at points confusing—treatment of these epistolary motifs serves two complementary functions. More immediately, Pliny reflects upon the literary aims and practical effects of his Epistles, seeking to complicate and redefine the traditional distinction between negotium (“public business”) and otium (“private activity”). Yet this vision of public literary engagement contains a second, cross-cultural element, as Pliny’s extended appeal to Euphrates as an exemplum outlines how to incorporate Greek culture and Greek individuals into the Roman community.

In this sense the letter is of a piece with Pliny’s inset Greek exempla in the first three books, Isaeus (Epist. 2.3) and Artemidorus (Epist. 3.11), each of whom in their respective fields, rhetoric and philosophy, mark the successful role that Greek individuals and Greek arts play in the construction of Roman identity and civic ideals in the Empire.

Pliny’s letter constitutes an important ancient conceptualization of cultural and literary interactions, and the paper concludes by considering briefly a much larger question: to what extent is Pliny’s redrawing of the lines that separate negotium from otium inextricable from his compelling association more generally of Romans with Greeks.


Thaumata and Mirabilia

Working Papers on Nervan, Trajanic and Hadrianic Literature 1.36 (22/3/15)

‘Thaumata and Mirabilia: Phlegon and his Roman contemporaries in the shadow on Pliny’s Naturalis Historia’                                                                                                              Kelly Shannon

Abstract for a paper given at the project’s 3rd Literary Interactions conference, in Boston, 18-19 June 2015:

The Περὶ Θαυμασίων written by Phlegon of Tralles, a freedman of the emperor Hadrian, is an important piece of evidence for literary interactions across the barriers of time, language, and genre during the Hadrianic period. Phlegon’s work, which has often been considered a subliterary text intended as pleasure-reading for literate Greeks in the imperial era, catalogues a number of marvellous phenomena: dead people returning to life (Mir. 1-3); hermaphrodites and spontaneous sex changes (4-10); monstrously large bones (11-19); unusual births, including deformed babies (20-21, 25), humans producing animal offspring (22-24), men giving birth (26-7), and astounding multiple births (28-31); unusually speedy aging processes (32-33); and living centaurs (34-35).

On the one hand, Phlegon’s work is firmly rooted in a literary tradition that had been popular in the Greek-speaking world since the Hellenistic era. A long line of so-called paradoxographers – Greek authors who compiled collections of marvellous or paradoxical material presented in list form – stretches back to Callimachus. His work (perhaps entitled Θαυμασία or ᾽Εκλογὴ τῶν παραδόξων) survives only in fragmentary form but seems to have catalogued marvels of the natural world (rivers and springs, animals, plants, stones, etc.). Callimachus’ successors in the ‘genre’ of paradoxography followed suit, creating similar compendia of diverse types of marvels apparently united only by the fact that they were in some way unusual or worthy of notice. These Greek paradoxographers had a tendency to emphasize their place as successors of Callimachus by citing his works (e.g. Antigonus 129) or those of each other, to give their own catalogues a literary pedigree. Phlegon, too, selfconsciously claims his place in this literary tradition. His Περὶ Θαυμασίων, like the works of his paradoxographer predecessors, also reads as a laundry-list of marvels not united by any narrative structure or apparent principle other than their wondrousness. He also makes sure his reader is aware of his place in the literary tradition by providing frequent citations of the authors from whose works he takes many of his miracles (e.g. Mir. 2.1, 3.1, 11.1, 13.1).

The content of his work, as well as the bookish nature of his research, allow Phlegon to lay claim to being an heir of Callimachus, in the sense that his collection resembles previous collections. Yet Phlegon’s text also shows significant differences from those of the paradoxographers who had gone before him. Whereas Callimachus and most of his successors seem to have focused on features of the natural world which astonish but do not necessarily present a challenge to the reader’s conception of how the world works (Giannini 1964, 129–30), Phlegon seems more interested in the supernatural than the natural. That is, Phlegon focuses on thaumata that violate the natural order of things by crossing the boundaries between life and death, male and female, human and non-human.

Phlegon’s paradoxographical material, while slightly unusual in comparison with other Greek works in the Callimachean tradition of paradoxography, have very good analogues in an earlier text written in Latin: Pliny the Elder’s monumental Natural History. Although Phlegon never cites Pliny directly, there are several close correspondences between their works. Phlegon’s report of the body of a centaur brought to Rome as a present for an unidentified ‘Caesar’ (Mir. 35-36) bears remarkable similarities, both in content and in presentation, to Pliny the Elder’s report of a centaur’s body preserved in honey and given to Claudius (HN 7.35). Both authors are interested in humans with extremely long life spans: Pliny devoted a portion of book 7 of the Natural History to this topic (Pliny HN 7.153-64), and Phlegon composed an entire work listing long-lived individuals (the Περὶ μακροβίων, another paradoxographical catalogue). Both authors also focus on human oddities, such as hermaphrodites and spontaneous changes of sex. They both present their accounts of hermaphrodites in very similar ways, choosing to authenticate their reports by claiming to have seen a sex-changer themselves (Pliny HN 7.36, Phlegon Mir. 9). These similarities of both content and presentation strongly suggest that Phlegon was aware of the Natural History, and that Pliny the Elder’s work influenced the way that Phlegon compiled his Περὶ Θαυμασίων.

This indebtedness to Pliny the Elder puts Phlegon in line with other authors working in a variety of genres during the Trajanic and Hadrianic era. For example, Pliny the Younger in his Letters (4.30, 8.20) discusses marvellous springs and lakes to which his uncle had devoted attention in the Natural History (HN 2.209, 232); Tacitus’ report of a phoenix (Ann. 6.28) may owe something to Pliny the Elder’s interest in the same phenomenon (HN 10.5); and Suetonius’ description of an omen that appears to Livia at the beginning of Augustus’ principate (Galba 1) is remarkably similar to Pliny the Elder’s presentation of the same event (HN 15.136-7). Like Phlegon, none of these authors cite Pliny the Elder directly, but he strongly seems to be lurking in the background. Thus it appears that Pliny the Elder exerted some influence over paradoxography after him: anyone who wanted to write about marvels during the Trajanic and Hadrianic era had to do show in the shadow of the Natural History. And the fact that this seems to have been just as true of Phlegon as of Roman writers proves that Pliny’s influence did not depend on whether the ‘paradoxographer’ in question was Greek or Roman. Thus Phlegon, far from being the one-off literary oddity he may appear, is actually remarkably connected to what looks to have been a part of the cultural Zeitgeist of the Trajanic and Hadrianic era: an interest in marvels coloured not just by the Greek Callimachean tradition of paradoxography, but also by the Roman writer of the great Naturalis Historia.


Beagon, M. 1992. Roman Nature: The Thought of Pliny the Elder. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

___. 2005. The Elder Pliny on the Human Animal: Natural History Book 7. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

___. 2011. “The Curious Eye of the Elder Pliny.” In Pliny the Elder: Themes and Contexts, edited by R.K. Gibson and R. Morello, 71–88. Leiden: Brill.

Brodersen, K. 2002. Phlegon von Tralleis, Das Buch der Wunder und Zeugnisse seiner Wirkungsgeschichte. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Doody, A. 2010. Pliny’s Encyclopedia: The Reception of the Natural History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fein, S. 1994. Die Beziehungen der Kaiser Trajan und Hadrian zu den litterati. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde. Stuttgart: Teubner.

Gabba, E. 1981. “True History and False History in Classical Antiquity.” JRS 71: 50–62.

Giannini, A. 1964. “Studi sulla paradossografia greca.” Acme 17: 99–140.

Hansen, W.F. 1996. Phlegon of Tralles’ Book of Marvels. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Lehoux, D. 2012. What Did the Romans Know? An Inquiry into Science and Worldmaking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schepens, G., and K. Delcroix. 1996. “Ancient Paradoxography: Origin, Evolution, Production and Reception.” In La letteratura di consumo nel mondo greco-latino: Atti del convegno internazionale, Cassino, 14-17 settembre 1994, edited by O. Pecere and A. Stramaglia, 373–460. Università degli studi di Cassino.

Stramaglia, A. 2006. “The Textual Transmission of Ancient Fantastic Fiction: Some Case Studies.” In Fremde Wirklichkeiten: literarische Phantastik und antike Literatur, edited by N. Hömke and M. Baumbach, 289–310. Winter.

___. 2011. Phlegon Trallianus: Opuscula De rebus mirabilibus et De longaevis. Bibliotheca Teubneriana. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Defining Socio-Literary Spheres

Working Papers on Nervan, Trajanic and Hadrianic Literature 1.35 (21/3/15)

‘Defining socio-literary spheres: the Methodology of Describing and Comparing First and Second Century Greco-Roman Literature’                                                                                        Paul Robertson

Abstract for a paper given at the project’s 3rd Literary Interactions conference, in Boston, 18-19 June 2015:

In this paper, I will argue for a new way of describing and comparing literature during the first and second centuries. Using what I term ‘socio-literary spheres’, I discuss the shortcomings of previous methodologies, forward my own, and demonstate its application and utility by applying my methodology to several diverse texts from the first and second centuries that seem highly different: Dio Chrysostom’s Orations, Epictetus’ Discourses, and the Christian Acts of the Apostles.

I define ‘socio-literary spheres’ as semi-autonomous fields of literate, cultural production that develop their own standards and modes of discourse, usually implicitly, which are appropriated and re-inscribed by authors who deploy these discourse conventions due to the implicit but fundamental tie between literary content, form, and social purpose. This language of ‘spheres’ (or clusters, circles, groups, etc.) explicitly departs from, and disputes the methodological utility of, views of ancient literature that describe texts along hierarchical, normative lines of ‘high versus low’ or ‘literary versus non-literary’ texts. It also specifically avoids characterizing literature in other commonly delineated ways, such as genre (e.g., autobiography vs. history), geography (e.g., Western vs. Eastern), culture (e.g., Greek vs. Christian literature), or ethnicity (e.g., Jewish or Judaean).

Understanding overlaps and/or boundaries between different texts and different groups of texts is in many ways a problem of description and taxonomy. Methodologically speaking, to understand the overlaps between texts across boundaries such as culture, ethnicity, geography, or even language requires a more sophisticated description and taxonomy of literature. I propose a polythetic classification, namely one that is based on a particular cluster of characteristics, none of which are necessary to a given sphere. These characteristics involve a text’s style (grammar, vocabulary, etc.), but also types of content (e.g., group identity, ethical exemplarity, cosmological claims, etc.) that are linked to shared social purposes (group formation, establishing authority, etc.). Socio-literary spheres are the particular constellations of generally shared characteristics of literary style, content, and social purpose.

It in my contention that a properly nuanced taxonomy based on such socio-literary spheres allows for the identification of socio-literary spheres that functioned as pan-Mediterranean phenomena. These spheres cut across essentialized distinctions such as culture, geography, and language. I thus propose a different way of conceiving of and approaching intertextuality that engages with both social practices and certain types of literary content.


Greek and Latin discourses of provinciality

Working Papers on Nervan, Trajanic and Hadrianic Literature 1.34 (21/3/15)

‘Greek and Latin discourses of provinciality in the early second century CE’                                                                                        Myles Lavan

Abstract for a paper given at the project’s 3rd Literary Interactions conference, in Boston, 18-19 June 2015:

Over the course of the first three centuries CE the Roman world was transformed from a tributary empire whose population was divided between a few million Roman citizens (the vast majority of them Italians), and tens of millions of non-citizen subjects, into a world state with universal citizenship in which all free inhabitants were Romans. The process entailed a reconfiguration of Roman identity and privileged status by which Italy and Italians lost their hitherto privileged position. That transformation was well underway in the early second century CE. The reigns of Trajan and Hadrian saw the growing provincialisation of the core institutions of the Roman state: the expanding population of provincial citizens came to dominate the legions, may well have begun to outnumber of Italian citizens overall, became a majority in the imperial elite (the equestrian and senatorial orders) and – most striking of all – reached the Principate itself. For the first time too emperors began to spend significant time in the provinces rather than in Rome. This paper will investigate how these processes are reflected in Greek and Latin writing of the period. It will map the similarities and differences between Greek and Latin ‘discourses of provinciality’ by exploring how Greek and Latin writers represent the condition of provincials and especially that of provincial citizens.


Greek Writers and Roman Exemplarity: Cultural Interactions

Working Papers on Nervan, Trajanic and Hadrianic Literature 1.33 (21/3/15)

‘Greek Writers and Roman Exemplarity: Cultural Interactions’                                                                                        Rebecca Langlands

Abstract for a paper given at the project’s 3rd Literary Interactions conference, in Boston, 18-19 June 2015:

Why, at the start of the second century CE, is it the Greek writer Plutarch who takes it upon himself to craft elaborate moralising biographies of the great exemplary figures of Republican Rome, while these traditional exempla are largely conspicuous by their absence from the works of his Latin-writing contemporaries Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius? All these authors make it clear in their works that they see moral exemplarity as a pressing contemporary concern, but their writings respond to the tradition of Roman exemplarity in different ways, with Plutarch exhibiting the most evident enthusiasm for traditional tales established in Roman cultural memory. The focus of this paper will be Plutarch’s appropriation of the Roman exemplary discourse in a range of his writings, and it will explore the relationship between his treatment of exemplarity and those of Latin texts written in the same period.

The focus on exemplarity – a phenomenon which is both textual and extratextual and which relies on a culture of shared knowledge and consensus – will enable us to develop a model for understanding the interactions between texts that moves beyond intertextuality to take into account the significance of wider cultural settings. Literary and rhetorical exemplarity is a highly referential practice and relies to a large extent on a shared resource of stories and meta-exemplary principles held in common by a unified community. Argument and moral instruction proceed by means of allusion to familiar figures. How far, then, does Plutarch share in the same extratextual culture of exemplarity and narrative traditions that animated the works of Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius and Martial? How far does he participate in the Roman cultural consensus surrounding Roman exempla? How far is his treatment of exemplarity informed, on the other hand, by an independent Greek literary, rhetorical and philosophical tradition? Can Plutarch’s rather different articulation of exemplary concerns be explained by his need to spell out stories and ethical structures that can remain implicit in the Latin texts? The paper will begin to explore the broader cultural dynamics that are revealed by a comparison of contemporary Greek and Roman treatments of this fundamental Roman cultural practice of exemplarity.


Images of Community in Ignatius of Antioch and Beyond

Working Papers on Nervan, Trajanic and Hadrianic Literature 1.32 (21/3/15)

‘Images of Community in Ignatius of Antioch and Beyond’                                                                                        Jason König

Abstract for a paper given at the project’s 3rd Literary Interactions conference, in Boston, 18-19 June 2015:

Much of my recent work (some of it developed specifically as part of the ‘Literary Interactions’ project) has focused on representations of intellectual community in the Greek and Latin literature of the late first and second centuries (e.g. on Pliny’s Letters, Plutarch’s Quaestiones Convivales and Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights). This paper compares the early Christian literature of the same period, and asks how we explain the differences and the similarities. The books of the New Testament and the writings of the Apostolic Fathers are on the whole very difficult to date securely, but Ignatius of Antioch is a rare exception: his letters, sent from captivity, on his way to be martyred in Rome, to a range of churches in Asia Minor, are fairly securely datable to the reign of either Trajan or Hadrian. In many respects Ignatius’ vision of Christian community is very close to what we find in Paul’s letters, but he also has some idiosyncrasies, for example in his repeated insistence on a very rigidly defined hierarchy, presided over by a bishop and council of elders, who must be obeyed for anyone who wants to be free of heresy. The dominant impression, for someone coming to this material from authors like Pliny or Plutarch, is of its alienness: Ignatius, like other early Christian writers, designedly constructs an image of community outside the boundaries of Greco-Roman society. And yet there are also striking overlaps in some of his broad conceptions: for example his fascination with inter-city relationships and his obsession with harmony are very close to Dio Chrysostom’s speeches on concord just a little way to the north and at more or less the same time Ignatius was writing. By taking a closer look at that point of comparison, along with others (and building on the starting-points laid out by Eshlemann, The Social World of Intellectuals, 2012, and Lotz, Ignatius and Concord, 2007), I aim to raise new questions about what kinds of literary and cultural interaction within the Greco-Roman world Ignatius is engaged in.


We Believe in Happy Endings

Working Papers on Nervan, Trajanic and Hadrianic Literature 1.31 (21/3/15)

‘We Believe in Happy Endings: The Romance of Republican History in Florus and Appian’                                                                                        Adam Kemezis

Abstract for a paper given at the project’s 3rd Literary Interactions conference, in Boston, 18-19 June 2015:

Appian and Florus, both writing in the mid-second century AD and describing Roman history down roughly to the start of the Principate, employ the same curious narrative structure to describe the second and first centuries BCE. Both accounts first tell the story of Rome’s foreign conquests down to Caesar’s time (App. Celt. through Mith.; Florus Epit. 1.17-47) before jumping back to a point in the mid-second century BCE and describing Rome’s internal conflicts down to the mid-30s (App. Civ.; Florus 2.1-18); after this the narrative is reunified, and during Augustus’ career foreign and internal wars are described concurrently (App. Aeg.; Florus 2.19-33). This paper will examine this structure and argue that it is similar to the “separated lovers” plot structures common to Greek novels of the same period, and will explore how that similarity affects issues of teleology and narrative perspective. Just as the novelists use mutual erotic attraction to create tension that is resolved in the lovers’ eventual happy reunion, so the historians use Roman virtus or aretē to move the action forward to a point where Augustus can reunite the disparate strands of the narrative. In both cases the resolution becomes a climax beyond which the narrative cannot properly be continued. Thus novelists and historians alike create a narrative perspective in which they and their readers exist in a static space outside of the realm of tension and contigency that their characters inhabit. The emergence of such narrative forms at this time is an important clue to the discursive background behind the political and military stance of Hadrian and Antoninus in reaction to Trajan’s renewed drive to imperial expansion.


Seeing 69CE through different eyes

Working Papers on Nervan, Trajanic and Hadrianic Literature 1.30 (17/3/15)

‘Seeing 69CE through different eyes: Plutarch and Tacitus on Galba and Otho’                                                                                         Timothy Joseph

Abstract for a paper given at the project’s 3rd Literary Interactions conference, in Boston, 18-19 June 2015:

It is clear that the contemporaries Plutarch and Tacitus worked from some of the same source material when narrating the tempestuous events of January–April 69 ce, the former in his Lives of Galba and Otho and the latter in Books 1–2 of the Histories. The authors’ accounts of that period have much in common, both in their general progression and in specific details. And throughout, both make continued and conspicuous use of the language of vision. While some of this may have existed in their shared source(s), Plutarch and Tacitus both employ this language in order to establish themselves as authors capable of revealing, or laying before their readers’ eyes, what can be hard to see during the time of the principate. But the two have different areas of focus, which may speak to their different places in elite imperial society.

In the opening chapter of the Galba, Plutarch writes that in 69 the soldiers ushered in and led out the year’s four emperors “as though on and off of a stage” (G. 1.5). He goes on in the Galba and Otho to zero in on the moments when emperors are first revealed to given groups (e.g., Galba at G. 5.1 and 15.4; cf. Otho in the critical moment at G. 24.3), and to put great value on how emperors appear to others (e.g., Galba at G. 13.4; Otho at O. 3.5). This interest in the sight and the seeing of the emperor himself may speak to Plutarch’s status as a Greek provincial, writing for a Greek-reading audience that had little access to the individuals at the height of power in Rome.

Tacitus, on the other hand, is writing for an audience of fellow Roman political actors and, perhaps, future principes. His concern is to lead these readers into the back chambers of power, to “look closely into” events (introspicere, the verb he later uses of his craft at Ann. 4.32.2), and to share his insider’s perspective. His accounts of the imperial comitia at Hist. 1.14–17, to be contrasted with Plutarch’s much shorter telling at G. 23, and of the considerations of a truce at Hist. 2.37–38, at odds with what Plutarch writes at O. 9, stand as examples of Tacitus’ very different employment of his historical eyesight.


Greeks and Romans on Jokes and Laughter

Working Papers on Nervan, Trajanic and Hadrianic Literature 1.29 (17/3/15)

‘Greeks and Romans on Jokes and Laughter: Quintilian’s Inst. 6.3 and Plutarch’s Quaest. Conv. 2.1’                                                                                         Katarzyna Jazdzewska

Abstract for a paper given at the project’s 3rd Literary Interactions conference, in Boston, 18-19 June 2015:

The purpose of the paper is to compare and examine two ancient discussions of jokes and laughter, coming from two roughly contemporary writers: Quintilian (Inst. 6.3) and Plutarch (quaestio 2.1 of Quaest. conv.). Together with Cicero (De orat. 2.216-289), the two authors provide the most extensive theoretical reflection on laughter coming from antiquity, drawing from and reflecting on the previous ancient tradition of humour studies, the foundations for which were laid by Plato, and which were developed by Aristotle and subsequent thinkers of the Hellenistic period.

The paper focuses on Quintilian’s and Plutarch’s understanding of laughter and humour and on the two authors’ evaluation of usefulness and perils of these phenomena. The context of the two authors’ discussions is markedly different: Plutarch is discussing laughter within a context of a Greek symposion, while Quintilian is concerned with the use of jokes and laughter in oratory, above all courtroom oratory. As a result, Plutarch focuses on laughter as a bonding phenomenon and provides advice on inoffensive, “proper” joking, which he distinguishes carefully from insult and ridicule. Quintilian’s concern, on the other hand, is the efficiency of laughter and jokes as a confrontational, polemical strategy (in brief, they should present an orator in a good light, and his opponent in a bad one).

Despite the difference of the context, there is a considerable number of parallels in Quintilian and Plutarch, which indicate that they are working within the same intellectual tradition, even if their different preoccupations make them occupy opposite positions (for instance, both authors give their assessment of Cicero’s wit, both are concerned with the observance of good taste, and both discuss skills and techniques required to successfully use jokes and raise laughter). Remarkably, however, while Plutarch’s treatment of laughter betrays certain universalizing tendency (he uses a variety of Greek, Roman, and barbarian exempla), Quintilian’s account is very much Rome-centred: like Cicero before him, he is dismissive of Greek theory and practice of humour (at least in the rhetorical context), as both his exclusively Roman exempla and comments on Demosthenes’ lack of wit show.


Without Lies or Deception

Working Papers on Nervan, Trajanic and Hadrianic Literature 1.28 (17/3/15)

‘Without Lies or Deception: Greco-Roman Cultural Protocols of Oracular Truth and Authority in the New Testament Letter to Titus’                          J. Albert Harrill

Abstract for a paper given at the project’s 3rd Literary Interactions conference, in Boston, 18-19 June 2015:

The Deutero-Pauline epistle to Titus (ca. 95–125), addressed to Paul’s alleged co-worker in Crete, deploys a polemic against opponents (“foolish talkers and deceivers”), which takes the form of a famous proverb advancing ethnic stereotype about the island’s entire populace: “There are also many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision; they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for sordid gain what it is not right to teach. It was one of them, their very own prophet, who said, ‘Cretans are mostly liars, brutes and loitering gluttons.’ This testimony is true! For this reason, rebuke them sharply, so that they may become sound [‘healthy’] in the faith” (Titus 1:10–13). The assertion that the Cretans are liars appears in the Hymn of Callimachus to Zeus and other writings, as commentators have noticed. My paper aims, first, to investigate Titus’s intertextual use of this proverb by focusing on its claim that the testimony is true even though it comes from “pagan” prophecy. Then, I plan to contextualize the epistle’s wider claim that the Apostle Paul’s teaching is, like the Cretan proverb, also an oracle without lies and deception. The goal of my paper is thus to investigate an intertextual allusion in early Christian literature in light of its cultural and artistic protocols on the truth and authority of oracles in the Trajanic and Hadrianic eras.