The Second Sophistic: A Cultural Phenomenon in the Roman Empire

By Graham Anderson | Go to book overview

1

Sophists in society

Early in the third century AD the Athenian sophist Philostratus coined the term 'Second Sophistic' to denote the activities of a number of professional speakers, starting in the fourth century BC. In the course of rehearsing the lives of these men, he concentrates on the period of the Early Roman Empire; and it is the one and a half centuries before his own time, from the end of the first century AD to that of the early third, that has most commonly come to bear the title 'Second Sophistic'. 1 In practice Philostratus begins his gallery of sophists far too late, and the Second Sophistic as he conceives it continued long after his own time. But he has given an identity, perhaps an arbitrary or even spurious one, to something that flourished, notably in the Greek world, in the early Roman Empire, and it is that something which we must try to characterise.

The very term 'Second Sophistic' implies a 'First Sophistic' beforehand, and some possible resemblance between the two. The idea of a 'First Sophistic' would have evoked the intellectual ferment of the Golden Age of Athens itself in the late fifth century BC, 2 when traditionalist education and civic and religious values were challenged by a new breed of impressively professional outsiders who might claim to teach the skills of public life-including the art of public speaking-for pay. One thinks particularly of luminaries such as Protagoras of Abdera, Gorgias of Leontini, Prodicus of Ceos and Hippias of Elis, flaunting their array of skills and pretensions before impressionable Athenian audiences. Some of the teachings they imported seemed to imply ethical relativism and political pragmatism; the very suggestion that such potentially subversive values could be taught brought about the resistance of Socrates

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