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Hellenism in Rome

Children of Athens is an absorbing romp through Greek (and Roman) history

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

To a wise man,” said the first-century wonderworker Apollonius of Tyana, “everywhere is Greece.” That is to say, Greece is not a mere place, but a special state of mind. For Apollonius, on his extensive travels around the Greco-Roman world, the purported truth of this maxim is seldom open to doubt.

The Children of Athena: Greek Writers and Thinkers in the Age of Rome, 150 BC—AD 400
Charles Freeman (Apollo, £30)

The author of Apollonius’s colourful biography, Philostratus, depicts his hero as not just a philosopher but also an impossibly accomplished champion of culture — a confounder of logic and expectations who could vanish in plain sight, now fascinating Roman emperors and foreign sages, now inspiring whole towns into acts of celebration and renewal. The guiding ideology that drove this hero is a heady mix of philosophy, religion, magic and political insouciance — or, to give it another name, Hellenism.

In the context of the third-century world, where Christianity was an increasingly noteworthy presence in the towns and cities of the Roman empire, pagans such as Philostratus were keen to highlight what their own tradition had to offer.

In fact, he seems almost to present his hero as a pagan rival to Jesus. And, in turn, Apollonius — in his successful renewal of the shrines and local cults of Hellas — seems to hint at what Philostratus would like to see happen in his own contemporary context.

Despite living under Rome, Apollonius (and Philostratus) wants to celebrate an emphatically Greek form of culture. The celebration of Greek culture in the Roman world was, of course, nothing new, and it was something the Romans themselves had long enjoyed.

It is striking that the virtues of Hellas were what citizens turned to for cultural renewal

Alongside their admiration for Greek literature, philosophy, art and architecture, there was the successful movement known as the ‘Second Sophistic’ — whose parade of Greek-speaking intellectuals left a heavy imprint on the public life of the High Roman Empire.

But it is striking nonetheless that the virtues of Hellas — not Rome itself — were what many educated citizens of the empire turned to when they thought of cultural renewal. Indeed his was precisely the route taken later in the fourth century by the last pagan emperor of Rome, himself a champion of all things Greek, Julian the so-called Apostate.

Charles Freeman’s latest book, Children of Athena, is a highly readable tour through the lives and accomplishments of some of the great exponents of Greek culture under Rome. He introduces readers to a bracingly varied and energetic cast of characters — the geographers, doctors, polymaths, botanists, satirists, and orators are just part of the repertoire. In an early chapter, we meet the brilliant Greek historian Polybius, who wrote in the tradition of Herodotus and Thucydides, while training his sights on the rise of Rome in his own time.

At the other end of the book’s temporal range, we encounter the mesmerising Neoplatonist philosopher and polymath, Hypatia, who commanded the affection of the most brilliant Christian students of fifth- century Alexandria, but died at the hands of a rioting Christian mob.

Freeman manages to strike the balance for such a book: he supplies interesting biographical details while finding space to highlight memorable elements in their surviving writing. A rich vein of learning ripples through his text: Plutarch is introduced as “perhaps the most appealing figure” covered in the book. We gain a sense of how he was a “precursor of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis”, of how he mattered to Montaigne, Emerson and Nietszche, and of how he inspired Mary Renault.

Some noteworthy figures feature only briefly. Both Philostratus and Apollonius attract barely a passing mention; the fabulously enigmatic Favorinus of Arles, sophist and eunuch, receives no real treatment. Freeman is certainly cursory, then, about some figures about whom more might have been said.

At some points there is a rather simplistic treatment of Greek identity

At some points in his narrative, there is a rather simplistic treatment of the complex topic of Greek identity, or “Greekness”. Certainly all figures discussed in the book would have seen themselves as bearers of Greek culture, insofar as they all spoke and wrote in Greek, and relied on a shared set of reference points from the earlier Classical period.

But equally, Greek identity throughout these centuries was a site of continual negotiation and debate: the degree to which “Greekness” was experienced in any simple, certain or unitary sense by those who lived under Rome is an area of ongoing scholarly discussion which is left unbroached here.

The clear merits of the book nonetheless stand for themselves: Children of Athens is an absorbing romp through Greek (and Roman) history, full of learning and interest, which is just what the book’s manifold subjects deserve.

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