Reclaiming the Theatrical in the Second Sophistic

By Connolly, Joy | Helios, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Reclaiming the Theatrical in the Second Sophistic


Connolly, Joy, Helios


In 144 C.E., at his own command, the dying sophist Polemon was carried before dawn to his family tomb outside the gates of Laodicea and buried alive. He urged the men closing up the tomb to hurry, so that the sun would never see him speechless; to his friends, overcome with grief, he cried out in a loud voice: "Give me a body and I will declaim!" ([LANGUGAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] VS 544). (1) A grand performer to the end, Polemon makes his last appearance in Philostratus longing not for extended life, but for a chance to perform once more-a remarkable request, made more so by the fact that he specifies precisely what kind of performance he would like to give: a [LANGUAGE NOT PRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] one of several types of formal speech commonly performed by Greek sophists of the imperial period in their masterly displays of epideictic oratory. With their shocking fusion of melodramatic theatricality and deadly seriousness, Polemon's last words crystallize the strains shot through the relationship between an cient manly virtue and its performance- strains that I shall read against the backdrop of contemporary ethical thought and in the broader terms of Greek cultural identity under the Roman empire.

Marcus Antonius Polemon was one of a highly competitive assortment of Greekspeaking orators known as "sophists" who visited urban centers throughout much of the Mediterranean world giving epideictic performances based on mythological narratives and classical thought; rephrasing, for instance, Demosthenes' Against Leptines (attested in VS 527) or giving voice to Xenophon's imagined plea to be executed alongside Socrates (VS 542); or transforming Odysseus' reproach to the Achaeans in Iliad Book 2 into stylish prose (Tiberius, [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 11.538). Active throughout the early and middle principate, these men also worked as imperial legates and as informal mediators between Greek cities in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire and, in these and other circumstances, gave speeches on current events. (2) Their Severan biographer Philostratus, with some exaggeration, named the period of their prominence a[LANGUAGE NOT REPORDUCIBLE IN ASCII], explaining, "it must not be called new, since i t is old, but rather second," following the sophistic movement in fifth- and fourth-century Athens (VS 481). (3)

The last thirty years have witnessed something of a scholarly explosion on the Second Sophistic (or. to call it by a more neutral term, the Greek imperial period) which has featured innovative work on the Greek novel as well as the sophists' oratorical performances. (4) Recently, the period has been viewed in the light of the historical and philosophical developments sketched out in the third volume of Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality. (5) Foucault draws attention to the gradually intensified energy directed by Greek and Roman imperial writers along the following lines: the fashioning of an internally constructed and managed self, as opposed to the "natural" development of an individual actor shaped by and subject to the external laws of civic society; and the specific disciplinary practices through which the self is contemplated and maintained, practices that generally uphold and justify dominant hierarchies of gender, ethnicity, and class. In Foucault's writings, it is the philosophers and physicians active in the Latin-speaking West, notably the younger Seneca, Epictetus, Plutarch, Galen, and Marcus Aurelius, who dominate the ethical discourse of selfhood in the first three centuries C.E. Added to his list, as I am not the first to suggest, must be the sophists, who, as learned men [LANGUAGE NOT REPORDUCIBLE IN ASCII] and walking exemplars of elite Greek culture, well-read in classical philosophy and familiar with the principles of physiognomy and medicine, were expert participants in the cultural experience Foucault characterizes as "the care of the self." (6) It is unquestionably the case that the sophists, particularly in their role as teachers of elite youth, espoused and advocated many of the beliefs and practices Foucault describes. …

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