Greek Literature of the Imperial Age

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Greek Literature of the Imperial Age

Changed Conditions.

When Queen Cleopatra of Egypt committed suicide in 30 b.c.e., the last independent Hellenistic monarchy disappeared and all the eastern Mediterranean was under Roman rule. In place of the Hellenistic kings there were Roman governors whose language of administration was Latin. Yet Roman rule was light. On the local level, cities governed the people. Every Roman province contained a number of cities, some of them very old, some dating back to a foundation by a Hellenistic king or even Alexander the Great himself. Alexandria in Egypt was not the only city that Alexander founded; the Middle East was dotted with cities with the name "Alexandria" which claimed Alexander as founder. The Roman governor made his headquarters in the most important city in his province, and he was chiefly interested in law and order, and seeing to it that taxes were paid; but within limits, the cities were left to govern themselves. The governors cultivated the local elites and kept the loyalty of the well-to-do property owners, who were glad of the protection of an empire that safeguarded their economic interests, but at the same time they looked back with pride at the Golden Age of Greece and its great literary achievements. The literature of Greece under the Roman Empire reflected this vision: pride in the past, and support for the Roman Empire, or at least acquiescence to it. Rome would not tolerate anything that smacked of sedition.


The taste of the new imperial age ushered in by the emperor Augustus was classical. That is, it looked back to the classical period of Greece (480–330 b.c.e.) for its models. The taste is reflected both in the visual arts of the Roman Empire and the literary taste. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek teacher of rhetoric who settled in Rome about 30 b.c.e., expressed the same view in the various treatises on literary style which he produced; his On Ancient Orators defends the Athenian or "Attic" style of oratory exemplified by Demosthenes and rejects the ornate "Asiatic" style which replaced the Attic style in the Hellenistic period. We find the same taste for the past in the essays of two important essayists of the period, Plutarch and Lucian.


Plutarch (c. 40–c. 120 c.e.) is best known for his Parallel Lives: paired biographical essays of Greeks and Romans where Plutarch puts the life of a famous Greek side-by-side with a Roman whose career was in some ways similar, and follows each pair with a comparison. As well as his Parallel Lives we have a great collection of essays grouped under the title Moralia—"Moral Essays" where the adjective "moral" means "based on general observation of people." Their subjects range far and wide: religion, music, philosophy, superstition (which Plutarch hated), love, and divine justice. He was typical of Greeks who were happy to cooperate with their Roman rulers, but were still proud Greeks. Lucian, (c. 117–after 180 c.e.), born in Samosata, now the village of Samsat in Syria, tried a legal career before turning to lecturing, travelling widely over the empire giving public lectures. When he was about forty, he settled in Athens and wrote satirical essays which laughed at the lives and beliefs of conventional Greeks and Romans. Then, as old age began to close in on him, he accepted a job on the staff of the governor of Egypt, thereby joining the "Establishment" that had been the butt of his humor. His favorite literary forms were dialogues and epistles; the first was borrowed from the theater and also from the dialogues of Plato, and the epistle pretended to be a letter addressed to someone: thus his essay on a charlatan, Alexander of Abonoteichos, takes the form of a letter addressed to one Celsus. Alexander invented a religion centered on a god named Glycon who was incarnate in a large, tame snake that was fitted with an artificial head with a speaking tube so that the snake could give prophecies and answer questions, rather like the Wizard of Oz. Lucian ends his epistle with the hope that it may help the general reader by shattering his illusions and confirming any sensible ideas he might have.


Lucian was educated under a system heavily influenced by a literary movement known as the "Second Sophistic." It taught that an author should model his content and style on the best Greek authors of the past, and the most obvious way to do this was to use many quotations and allusions to these authors. It also placed great value on rhetorical exercises, and the chief "Sophists" of the movement were orators who gave declamations, often before large audiences that thronged to hear them perform in theaters or music halls (called "odeons") or other public buildings. The movement got its designation "Second Sophistic" from its memorialist, Philostratus, who belonged to a literary family on the island of Lemnos. Philostratus gave the literary renaissance that he chronicled in his Lives of the Sophists the name "Second Sophistic." Philostratus' "Sophists" were polished, cultivated orators who were to be distinguished from the sophists of the classical period in the fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e. They were men like Dio of Prusa, nicknamed Chrysostomos ("Golden-Mouthed") who lived about 40–110 c.e., Aelius Aristides (117–189 b.c.e.), and Maximus of Tyre (c. 125–185 c.e.). Their repertory of speeches celebrated both the power and the beneficence of Rome, and at the same time the glorious past of Greece. Nowadays their sociological content is more interesting than their literary excellence. Aelius Aristides, for instance, wrote a panegyric in praise of Rome that shared its power with the ruling classes among the subject peoples that it ruled by granting them Roman citizenship as a reward for cooperation. Aristides gives us a window into the psychology of Greece under Roman rule.

The Novel.

Writing romantic novels did not begin with the "Second Sophistic" but this was the period of its great development. In fact, Dio of Prusa included a novella in one of his orations. The other novels we have are Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton, An Ephesian Tale by Xenophon, Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius, Daphnis and Chloe by Longus, and the Aethiopica of Heliodorus. The authors are only names to us. The plots are full of voyages and adventures with pirates, shipwrecks, and premature burials, and the characters live in a world where everything is governed by chance, but apart from that, they show considerable variation. Chariton's romance, which could date as early as the first century b.c.e. is a historical novel; Chariton places it after the Athenian expedition to Sicily (415–434 b.c.e.) which took place in the Peloponnesian War and ended in disaster at Syracuse. His heroine Callirhoe is the daughter of Hermocrates, the Syracusan leader of the resistance against Athens. Daphnis and Chloe is the story of a shepherd, Daphnis, and his love, Chloe, who, like characters in a Greek New Comedy, turn out to be children of well-to-do parents. There are religious overtones to these novels. Xenophon's Ephesian Tale celebrates the cult of Artemis of Ephesus and Heliodorus celebrates the cult of the Sun-God, known in Rome as Sol Invictus. In this respect they resemble Apuleius' Latin novel known as The Golden Ass which is a better novel than any of them. It need not surprise us that some of the Christian apocryphal gospels as well as stories of Christian saints borrow features from the novel.

The Acceptance of Roman Rule.

The underlying theme of the historians who wrote in Greek was acceptance of Roman rule, and recognition of the benefits that it brought to its subjects. The same Dionysius of Halicarnassus who wrote On Ancient Orators also wrote a history of early Rome titled Roman Antiquities which covered the period from Rome's beginnings to where Polybius began his history with Rome's first war with Carthage (265–241 b.c.e.). His aim was to celebrate Rome's empire and also to prove a special relationship between Greece and Rome by proving that Rome's origin was Greek. Flavius Josephus (37–100 c.e.), a Jew who took part in the rebellion of Judaea against Rome that broke out in 66 c.e. but went over to the Roman side in 67 c.e., wrote the history of the revolt in his Jewish War, a work in seven books written in the tradition of the great classical historians Herodotus and Thucydides. His aims in writing, he tells the reader, were to remind the victors in the war of the valor of the men they conquered, and also to console the Jews who were vanquished and urge them to reflect on their failed revolt. Josephus wrote one other major work, his Antiquities of the Jews on Jewish history, as well as a tract titled Against Apion which is a reply to an anti-Semitic tract written by someone called Apion who is otherwise unknown. Josephus accepted Roman rule, but he remained proud of his Jewish heritage. The Egyptian Appian, who was born at the end of the first century c.e. emphasized the benefits of Roman rule in his Roman history. He was not an original researcher—he was a civil servant dabbling in history—but his organization was an effort at a new approach. He wrote a history of Rome's conquests, people by people and region by region. He did not completely abandon the annalistic technique whereby the historian presents the pageant of the past year by year, but he made an effort to deal with Rome's wars of conquest as separate military operations.


Arrian, or Flavius Arrianus, to give him his full name, was a governor of Cappadocia in Asia Minor under the emperor Hadrian (117–138 c.e.) where he defeated an invasion by an Iranian tribe known as the Alans in 134 c.e. He was a disciple of the philosopher Epictetus, and like Xenophon with Socrates, he preserved his teachings. His major work that survives is his Anabasis which borrows its title from Xenophon's Anabasis ("The March Up Country"), but Arrian's "March" is the story of Alexander the Great's conquest of the Persian Empire (334–323 b.c.e.). He based his history on the memoir written by Ptolemy, Alexander's general who became king of Egypt and founded the Ptolemaic dynasty that ended with the suicide of Cleopatra in 30 b.c.e., supplementing Ptolemy when necessary with the memoir of Aristobulus who had been a Greek technician with Alexander's army. Arrian's account is a sober narrative, and a valuable source for the military campaign of Alexander, for the historians contemporary with him have survived only in fragments.

Cassius Dio.

Cassius Dio deserves special notice, for he is an important source for Roman history. He was born in Iznik in modern Turkey, ancient Nicaea, the son of a consul, in 163 or 164 c.e., and he himself would become a consul and a provincial governor under the emperor Septimius Severus (193–211 c.e.). He started to write in the reign of Caracalla (211–217 c.e.), one of the most odious emperors of Rome. His history, starting with Rome's beginning and continuing to 229 b.c.e. was a tremendous work that took ten years to prepare and twelve to write. Part of it has survived, and for the missing portions, we have digests written by later writers in the Byzantine period. For the reign of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome (27 b.c.e.–14 c.e.), the account of Cassius Dio is the fullest that we have.

The Christian Writers.

Although still in its infancy in the first century c.e., Christianity began to produce its own literature almost as soon as its founder, Jesus, was crucified in 33 c.e. The earliest writings were letters exchanged between the disciples of Jesus and converts that were later compiled as the New Testament of the Bible. As the persecution of the Christian church intensified, other writings commemorated martyrdoms. One of the earliest examples is a group of seven letters composed by Bishop Ignatius of Antioch who, in his old age, was taken to Rome to be put to death sometime in the reign of the emperor Trajan (98–117 c.e.). Guarded by ten Roman soldiers, whom he describes in one letter as "ten leopards," he travelled across modern Turkey to Smyrna (modern Izmir), where he composed letters to the Christian communities nearby, and from there he proceeded to the Hellespont where he embarked on a ship for Rome. The custodian of Ignatius' letters was the bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, who was burned to death at the age of 86 in the arena at Smyrna in 156 c.e.; the story of his martyrdom survives in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic versions. Apologies, that is, defenses of the Christian faith appear in the second century c.e.; one of the first, notable for its conciliatory tone, was by Justin the Martyr, who was born in Shechem (modern Nablus in Israel). His apologies are lucid explanations of Christianity for the non-Christian; his First Apology, written about 150 c.e. is addressed to the emperor Antoninus Pius, and his Dialogue with Trypho reports a discussion with a Jewish rabbi which ends on a note of mutual tolerance and respect. By the third century c.e. Christian theology was borrowing from the Greek philosophers. The most brilliant theologian of the period was Origen (185–254 c.e.), who learned philosophy in Alexandria where a fellow pupil was Plotinus, the founder of Neo-Platonism, the mystical interpretation of Plato which was to be the last great school of pagan philosophy. After teaching for a period in Alexandria, Origen moved to Caesarea in Palestine where he produced, among other works, the first critical edition of the Old Testament. During the brief but violent persecution of the Christians under the emperor Decius (249–251 c.e.), Origen was tortured, and never recovered from the ordeal. Later Christian churchmen decided that Origen had married Greek philosophy a little too closely with Christianity, and judged him heretical. The same fate befell the greatest of the Latin theologians, Tertullian, who was born in Carthage in North Africa about 155 c.e., converted to Christianity about age forty, and then abandoned Catholicism for the heresy of Montanism, which was founded by a Christian in Phrygia (in western Turkey) who claimed to have a new revelation vouchsafed him by the Holy Spirit. Tertullian wrote over thirty treatises on all aspects of life, from women's fashions to sports in the arena. But the great age of Latin theology came in the fourth and fifth centuries c.e., after the empire became Christian, with men such as St. Augustine and St. Jerome.


G. Bowersock, ed., Approaches to the Second Sophistic (Philadelphia, Pa.: American Philological Association, 1974).

H. Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1966).

Thomas Haegg, The Novel in Antiquity (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1983).

C. P. Jones, Culture and Society in Lucian (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986).

—, Plutarch and Rome (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1971).

George Kennedy, The Art of Rhetoric in the Roman Empire (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972).

B. E. Perry, The Ancient Romances: A Literary-Historical Account of Their Origins (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).

D. A. Russell, Plutarch (London, England: Duckworth, 1973).