The Second Sophistic: A Cultural Phenomenon in the Roman Empire

By Graham Anderson | Go to book overview

2

Preparation, prelude, performance

So far we have viewed the sophists as they would have appeared to the outside world of Graeco-Roman society at large. We must now take a closer look at the techniques by which they were expected to demonstrate their virtuosity within the context of public or private performance. 1 A system culminating in dazzling displays of extempore rhetoric on anything and everything demanded a great deal of systematic and perhaps overmechanised preliminary training. Philostratus not infrequently draws attention to the immense efforts sophists had to expend behind the scenes in order to acquire and maintain a seemingly effortless technique, 2 while Lucian could complain about the short-cuts open to the unscrupulous careerist too anxious to get to the top. 3 The following discussion does not set out to offer a history of late Greek rhetoric, but rather to draw attention to aspects of it which are particularly characteristic of sophistic practice.


PREPARATION: THEPROGYMNASMATA

One of the most characteristic cultural forces in the formation of a sophist or a sophistic outlook is that of a small group of preliminary exercises, progymnasmata,4 of which we have a steady stream of examples from the second century onwards, some at least by sophists in their own right such as Libanius 5 and possibly Hermogenes as well. Not only do they provide a basic repertoire for the elementary student of rhetoric, they also provide the habits of thought that will preserve or develop it. With minor variation these exercises include essays in narration (mythos, diēgēma), description (ecphrasis) and basic techniques

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