Greeks on Greekness: Tony Spawforth

Greeks on Greekness Colloquium Abstract

Tony Spawforth, University of Newcastle

“Pellan twilight? Greek identities and the Hellenistic past under the Roman principate.”

In current research much emphasis is (rightly) placed on the centrality of Classical Greece in contemporary perceptions under Roman rule of what it was to be ‘Greek’. On this view, the Hellenistic age and its works were, with the signal exception of Alexander himself, somewhat sidelined in the classicizing paideia of the Greek-speaking provinces under Roman rule. However, co-existing with this romanized ideal of Greece, conceptually centred on provincial Achaia (Pausanias’ panta ta Hellenika) and (to a lesser extent) the major Ionian cities, was a geographically much vaster zone to the north and east constituted by population groups whose Hellenism was more likely to be cultural than ethnic, and which owed much of its initial diffusion to the work of fourth-century and Hellenistic kings of Macedonian descent. Although these areas produced cultural figures whose output clearly mapped onto the hegemonic configuration of Greek paideia (Lucian is the obvious example), the existence of such individuals should not obscure the fact that the hellenized areas whence they came were, conceptually as well as geographically, as periphery to (Greek) centre. Greek pepaideumenoi generally preferred to look over the shoulder of the (post-Alexander) Hellenistic age, its history, its high culture and its monuments, to an anterior antiquity; and the populations of this periphery, construed as non-Greek barbarian by the Classical Greeks, in (classicizing) Greek, but also Latin, writers of Roman times were still viewed as less than fully Greek-a prejudice occasionally extended to include Hellenistic colonial foundations allegedly barbarised by surrounding indigenes.

Against this background, it is perhaps unsurprising that the place of the Hellenistic past in the memory of the Greek-speaking provinces has received little systematic attention from modern scholarship. Yet recent works on, in particular, Hellenistic city-foundations, colonisation and ruler-cult rely significantly on evidence in fact deriving from the Roman period and reflecting the value attached by Greek and hellenized cities to their royal and/or Macedonian antecedents in an age (the second and third centuries) which coincided with the height of the classicizing tendency in Greek paideia. This evidence comes mainly from Macedonia itself, from Asia Minor and Syria, and from Egypt, and in broad terms it reflects the desire to commemorate Hellenistic city-founders and kings, or to claim a Macedonian origin. Such activity, to the extent that it marked a city’s assertion of its own historical identity, in the first instance was a function of the civic pride and patriotism typical of the time, not least in Roman Asia Minor, where many cities in this highly urbanised region, big and small, owed their existence to Hellenistic royalty. However, it seems legitimate to ask how far this activity could also refract a broader consciousness of, and identification with, the Hellenistic age among the local elites of these areas. Here too, the regional dimension matters. A nostalgia for the glory-days of the Macedonian homeland can be independently documented there among the notables of the Roman province, where it found expression in personal names and also in literary production (the Stratagems of Polyaenus, composed c. AD 160). To the east, Macedonian (or pseudo-Macedonian, i.e. trained to fight in the Macedonian way) settlers had come to constitute, along with Greeks, the dominant stratum in the new colonial foundations of the Hellenistic kingdoms, retaining their local predominance when these cities became part of the Roman empire. Occasionally self-styled ‘Macedonians’ are still found in the near east in the early-Christian era, whether as troops (in the army of Commagene) or as high status-groups within the local citizen-body (Alexandria, Seleucia-Tigris, albeit now Parthian); in western Asia Minor, a Macedonian-identified colonial elite, or something like it, seems to be attested at second-century Phrygian Hierapolis, a Seleucid foundation. Such evidence makes all the more persuasive the ‘Graeco-Macedonian’ identity recently diagnosed by Simon Swain for Appian of Alexandria, author of the Roman History. In the milieu of the diaspora, the ‘Macedonian times’, as the Hellenistic age could be described in Greek authors of Roman date, might be predicted to evoke warmer memories than in, say, Plutarch’s Boeotia or the Athens of Herodes.

The paper closes by considering the phenomenon of ‘Alexandrolatry’ in the Roman east, both literal and figurative. Most marked in Macedonia, it has also left traces in Asia Minor, Egypt and the near east, although not, on the whole, in Roman Greece. At civic level, honours for Alexander undoubtedly had an independent base in genuine Alexander-foundations, as also, perhaps, in cities where he was remembered as a benefactor (in Ionia, notably). It has rightly been observed, however, that the flood of statues, coin-images, cults and foundation-claims, mainly dating no earlier than the second century, cannot be entirely distanced from the play with Alexander’s image by successive emperors from Augustus on–telling synchronisms in particular are documented for Severan Macedonia, but also in Cilicia. Although such imperial play may have coincided with the personal predilections of emperors such as Trajan or Caracalla, its ideological import should also be recognised, especially when linked to imperial campaigns on the eastern frontier. If understood as a form of propaganda, its intended audience, as Petre Ceausescu has seen, is best understood, not as the capital, but as eastern-provincial, specifically the Greek (or ‘Graeco-Macedonian’) elites of the Hellenized territories of Asia and Egypt, where Alexander’s act of conquest still constituted the ultimate legitimating charter for their own socio-political dominance in the cities.

Greek paideia under Roman rule tended to stress the cultural, and classicizing, components of Greek identity. Obviously enough, such a construction particularly suited the educated elites of the historic cities of the Aegean centre, promoting as it did the prestige of ancestral achievement. But the hellenophone world was a huge space, culturally and historically variegated, and it embraced hellenized regions to the east where historically and culturally other allegiances may have competed for recognition as constitutents of ‘Greekness’. To think in terms of ‘contested’ identities may be simplistic: after all, Plutarch wrote lives of Alexander and Demetrius as well as Pericles and Themistocles, and statues of the Successors adorned Roman Athens as well as Antioch or Alexandria. But the complexity on the ground, so to speak, of what it is often singularly described as Greek identity needs more notice than it tends usually to receive, as does the hand of Rome. There is a definite sense in which elite-Roman attitudes to the merits and achievements of Greek culture paralleled, and perhaps stimulated, the foregrounding of Classical Greece in the paideia of provincial Greeks. At the level of the state, however, as early as Augustus the myth of Alexander, as well as that of Classical Greece, was absorbed into the ideological self-representation of the principate, with both receiving continued deference from imperial governance until well into the third century. In assessing the nuances of ‘Greek identity’ in this period, the outlook of Roman emperors, as well as Greek sophists, deserves our attention.