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Crinagoras of Mytilene and the Construction of Empire in Greek Epigrams of the Augustan Period

Thomas Keith

Scholarship on Imperial Greek literature and culture has, with a few important exceptions (Bowersock [1965]; Henrichs [1995]; Spawforth [2012]), largely overlooked the Augustan period.  Thus, Crinagoras of Mytilene (43 BCE-17 CE), the most prolific Greek epigrammatist of the age, is often dismissed as a mere flatterer, echoing imperial propaganda in order to win patronage at court.  In this paper I shall challenge this orthodoxy, drawing upon recent scholarship that conceptualizes the creation of imperial ideology as a dynamic process of interaction between ruler and subject (Ando [2000]).  I shall contend that Crinagoras is engaged in a complex project to negotiate the changed political and social realities of Roman imperial rule, and to make those new realities comprehensible and palatable to a Greek-speaking audience.

It has often been noted that the Greeks used mythological paradigms as a thought-tool to integrate non-Greek peoples into a broader conceptual order (e.g. Antonaccio [2001]; Malkin [1994]).  Thus Crinagoras repeatedly equates the Emperor and his family to gods or heroes, whose ability to affect their environment transcends the limitations of humanity.  Like Dionysos or Heracles, members of the Imperial family can extend their reach to the farthest bounds of the known world (A.Pl. 61).  The Emperor’s mere presence can lift formerly obscure places to greatness and unite regions once separate, knitting together the lands under his rule into a cohesive, coherent whole (A.P. 9.419).  Under Tiberius’ military leadership, Roman power has penetrated into areas so distant that even natural laws are called into question (9.430, with the interpretation of Chaumont [1992]).  Furthermore, landmark events in the lives of the Emperor’s family have significance that transcends the merely personal and portends positive developments for the entire imperial populace: the marriage of Cleopatra Selene to Juba II dissolves the traditional division between Egyptians and Libyans (9.235, with Braund [1984]), and Marcellus’ entry into manhood, symbolized by the cutting of his first beard, is a universal source of jubilation (6.161).  Following in the tradition of the Hellenistic kings (Bringmann [1993]), Augustus and his generals become instruments of cosmic order, bulwarks against the chaos that constantly threatens beyond the borders of Rome’s imperium: Germanicus’ victory over the Celts is painted in terms that echo the Olympian gods’ triumph over the Giants, with the general himself compared to Ares and Enyo (9.283, with Gow-Page [1968] ad loc.)

At the same time, Crinagoras subtly stresses the notion that Hellenic culture has a vital part to play in the successful functioning of the new imperial structure.  Rome’s rulers may possess raw power on a scale that dwarfs the Greek poleis, but strength is not enough to overcome the vicissitudes of fortune, whose role in human life is always unpredictable (7.638, with Bowersock [1964]).  If an Emperor is to govern well, he must temper his power with wisdom, which can only be attained through Greek learning, paideia.  Thus, time and time again, the Greek client provides his Roman patron with the gift of literature: Antonia, who is distinguished not only for her beauty but for her intelligence, receives Anacreon’s poems (9.239), while Marcellus, the destined successor to the throne, receives Callimachus’ Hecale (9.545).  Like Theseus in the old woman’s hut, Crinagoras implies, the young Roman hero should be willing to receive instruction before he embarks on his civilizing exploits, even if his teacher is someone of far lower status.  Similar themes can be observed in Crinagoras’ contemporary Diodorus of Sardis, for whom Tiberius surpasses his mythological counterpart Neoptolemus precisely because Tiberius possesses the prudence and self-control that the uncouth berserker Neoptolemus lacked (9.219, with Bowersock [1965] 133).

Ultimately, Crinagoras’ vision is of a marriage of both cultures, wherein Rome will wield its military might in the service of Hellenic ideals.  He thus prefigures the joint Greco-Roman ruling elite that would emerge in the second and third centuries CE, and testifies to the power of literature to shape intellectual conceptions of the nascent Empire.

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Empire and Ideology in the Roman World

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