THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF THE SECOND SOPHISTIC

William A. Johnson and Daniel S. Richter (editors)

OUP  (2017) h/b 776pp £97 (ISBN 9780199837472)

The term ‘Second Sophistic’ is commonly used to denote a revival of classical Attic prose and rhetorical practice in the Hellenic world between (approximately) 50 and 250 A.D. (some scholars extend the scope of the phenomenon into the fourth century, or even beyond). The term as such refers to the First Sophistic from the 5th and 4th century B.C., when the potential of language and rhetoric was fully explored and exploited for the first time (at its best and at its worst). The reason for this resurgence during a period when Greece was under the political control of the Roman Empire has been hotly debated: some scholars have argued that the Second Sophistic served the nostalgic need of the Greeks to resurrect the long-gone, good old times in order to strengthen their feeling of cultural superiority, whereas others have claimed that the rhetorical practice of that time was of concrete significance for those Greeks who wanted to make a political career in the Roman system. More recently, it has even been argued that the Second Sophistic was largely a modern invention and that rhetoric per se was equally important in the Hellenic world in all periods.

The discussion continues, and the volume under review accommodates many of its aspects and facets. Its length and wide scope bespeak its multifaceted approach: it contains no fewer than forty-three chapters, adding up to a total of more than seven hundred pages, arranged in eight different sections: ‘Introduction’ (three chapters), ‘Language and Identity’ (five chapters), ‘Paideia and Performance’ (four chapters), ‘Rhetoric and Rhetoricians’ (five chapters), ‘Literature and Culture’ (fifteen chapters), ‘Philosophy and Philosophers’ (five chapters), and, finally, ‘Religion and Religious Literature’ (six chapters). All chapters are divided into relatively brief sections; they all contain their own bibliography (instead of a general bibliography at the end) as well as a section with recommended further reading—all of which makes the volume very reader- and student-friendly. 

In what follows, I select a few chapters for brief comments. Tim Whitmarsh rides his ‘hobby horse’ by attempting to deconstruct the Second Sophistic and its cultural dominance afresh (see already the introduction to his monograph Beyond the Second Sophistic: Adventures in Greek Postclassicism, Berkeley 2013, 1–7). To achieve this end, he borrows the metaphor of the ‘wave theory’ from physics, and the 19th-century German classicist Erwin Rohde (1845–1898) is, once more, used as a straw man to construct the idea of the Second Sophistic as the fantasy product of a ‘nationalist concern to protect Greek culture from the stain of near eastern influence’ (15). The late Thomas Habinek, in turn, asks whether there was a Latin Sophistic, concluding with a ‘yes, but’ answer that it was ‘not one that most Latin authors would care to admit to’ (35). Consequently, the handbook contains numerous chapters not only on Greek, but also on Latin authors and texts. In addition to the many author-centred chapters, we can find contributions on more ‘esoteric’ topics such as, for example, ‘retrosexuality’ by Amy Richlin, who interprets sexuality and sexual practices in Second Sophistic texts as emblematic of the recreation of a glorious past. Other chapters look at genres and textual modes that lie on the fringe of what has traditionally been considered typical of the Second Sophistic, such as poets and poetry (by Manuel Baumbach), Jewish literature (by Eric S. Gruen), and Christian apocrypha (by Scott Fitzgerald Johnson). 

This brief glimpse may give an idea of the wide range of authors, texts, genres and viewpoints covered by this volume—an approach that corresponds to a broad notion of the Second Sophistic as ‘one that attempts to integrate Greek literature of the Roman period into the wider world of early imperial Greek, Latin, Jewish, and Christian cultural production’, as the editors put it in their introduction (7). Ironically, this is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, a book that moves away from a narrow definition of the Second Sophistic and opens up for new horizons is most welcome. On the other, there is a certain risk of ‘randomization’—in the sense that almost ‘anything’ from the first three centuries AD might eventually be regarded as somehow being related to the Second Sophistic. It could of course be argued that Second Sophistic rhetorical practice was so dominant at that time that any other aspect of literary and cultural production should indeed be viewed in relation to it. Yet one should not lose sight of the nucleus, namely, the aforementioned upswing in the production and performance of classical Attic prose and rhetoric.

To summarize, this handbook covers an unusually wide range of topics that are relevant to Hellenic culture under Rome in the first three centuries AD. Those teaching courses on any aspect of this period will consult the volume with much benefit and might even consider putting selected chapters on the syllabus.

Silvio Bär

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