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The Political Geography of Dionysius’ Periegesis and Arrian’s Periplus Ponti Euxini

Janet Downie

Dionysius of Alexandria’s brief hexameter poem surveys the geography of the oikoumene. In the Greek tradition of literary didactic, the poem’s epic style and its bird’s-eye perspective create an effect of timelessness, and Dionysius’ close engagement with the Hellenistic poets Apollonius of Rhodes and Callimachus, as well as the long Homeric tradition, seems to make this periegesis a tour for the bookish that has more to do with literary topoi than with real places in the contemporary world. Yet, an acrostic at lines 517-32, offers a very direct—if covert—reference to the time and political context of the poem’s composition: ΘΕΟΣ ΕΡΜΕΣ ΕΠΙ ΑΔΡΙΑΝΟΥ (“the god Hermes in the time of Hadrian”). In light of this wordplay, scholars have debated the relationship between the poem’s literary and political engagements. Little attention has been paid, however, to precisely where Hadrian is positioned in the trajectory of the Periegesis. In this paper, I argue that the acrostic accrues meaning if we consider the geographical space in which the emperor is introduced. Furthermore, I suggest that a contemporary text—Arrian’s Periplus Ponti Euxini—offers a useful complementary perspective: Arrian’s more overtly political Periplus, framed as a letter to Hadrian, places the emperor in the same part of the world, and illustrates more explicitly how the geography of the empire can be made to speak the language of imperial politics.

Both Dionysius and Arrian place Hadrian in the area of the Hellespont—at the boundary between Europe and Asia, in a region saturated with Greek heroic stories. Given the broad sweep of Dionysius’ poem, it is significant that he does not associate Hadrian’s name with the city of Rome, which is described as the “mother of all cities” in a suite of lines that catches the eye and ear through the anaphoric evocation of the river “Tiber” (350-56). Instead, the Hadrian-acrostic appears in his account of the middle Aegean. The sea is presented as a liminal space, a “bridge” (poros) between the two continents, and the reader’s gaze is directed northward, towards the Hellespont (538)—first by way of a reference to the mythological king Athamas (515)—and towards the Black Sea island of Leuke, where the spirits of Achilles and other heroes wander the land (541-548). By situating Hadrian here, Dionysius uses a resonant landscape to embody the imperial politics suggested by the reference, in the acrostic, to the divine boundary-crosser Hermes: guardian of a vast empire, Hadrian was, famously, a traveling emperor, and well known particularly for his interest in the Hellenic culture of the eastern Mediterranean.

In his Periplus Ponti Euxini, Arrian likewise transports the emperor from Rome to an eastern landscape, linking him with the forts and defenses that manifest imperial power in the Black Sea region, and with its mythological heritage—especially Achilles, on the island of Leuke. In Arrian’s text, however, these links to the local topography signify more than a general interest in Hellenic culture on the emperor’s part: here, Hadrian is given a role in propagating that culture. In the opening lines of the Periplus, for example, describing the adornment of a temple—of Hermes—at Trapezus, Arrian notes that the cult inscription is poorly composed because it is the work of “barbarians” (1.2), and he asserts that he will correct the text himself—when Hadrian assists the effort by sending better copies of the god’s statue and his own, to be installed at the site. Arrian places Hadrian in the landscape of the Hellespont and Black Sea, I argue, in order to make him a co-creator of Greco-Roman culture in this liminal space. Thus, as the second panel of a geographical diptych, Arrian’s circumscribed Periplus of the Black Sea region complements Dionysius’ vast, allusive geography of the oikoumene. Both texts situate Hadrian in the topography of the Aegean, and they offer different perspectives on the political significance of re-orienting imperial power in this way. 

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Writing Imperial Politics in Greek

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