Greeks on Greekness: Greg Woolf

Greeks on Greekness Colloquium Abstract

Greg Woolf, University of St. Andrews

“Playing Games with Greeks.”

This paper took its departure from Pliny Epistulae 4.22 which begins by relating Pliny’s participation at the consilium of Trajan when it discussed an appeal from the city of Vienne against the decision of one of its chief magistrates to suppress a gymnicus agon funded by the will of a civic benefactor whom Pliny leaves unnamed.

This letter is a key text in the modern discussion of the spread into the Latin provinces of a festival culture of Greek origin. My paper began by asking how it might be incorporated into conventional analyses of Hellenisation, but rather than pursue such an analysis it examines the ways debates about Greek games may have been used in contests for power in the colony of Vienne, so ostentatiously Roman (and so post-/ un-Allobrogian); in the political manoevuring of Trajan’s court under the shadow of Domitian and his surviving legacy; and in the letter itself where it does more than contribute simply to Pliny’s exemplification of virtue in his own conduct and that of the letter’s “hero” Junius Mauricus. Greek games certainly were controversial, but the energy of that controversy might be released and appropriated to other ends. Some context, from the Lex Ursonensis, from elsewhere in Pliny’s letters, and from the epigraphy of the Capitoline Games of Domitian and their eastern models and rivals, helped make the point.

The discussion was excellent, and made me realise I could do more with Pliny’s Latin models and stress even more his (display of) mastery of Greek ideas and terminology. We also discussed the modern controversy over the relative importance of rhetorical education and gymnastic culture in making claims about elite culture and identity in the empire. Pliny, ever the peace-maker, offers to join Maud Gleason with Onno van Nijf and Simon Swain with Glen Bowersock in a celebration of how rhetoric might find a rich source of material in askesis and gymnastica, while festivals a la grecque like the Demostheneia and the Capitolia offered stages for sophists to perform alongside atheletes to crowds that admired both.