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Sincerity in the Second Sophistic: The Rhetoric of Religiosity in Philostratus’ Heroicus

Kenneth Yu

Universtiy of Toronto

This paper examines the catalog of giant bones (7.9-8.17) and the catalog of heroes (25.17-42.4) in the Heroicus in light of claims in modern scholarship about the re-enchantment of Greece under Rome, and the corresponding revival of traditional hero cult in the Imperial Greek period (cf. Gabba 1981, Henrichs 1999, and Jones 2010). The Heroicus depicts a vinedresser who describes to his Phoenician interlocutor a series of miraculous giant bones that he either viewed first hand or learned about through divine means, intimating the sensorially and religiously charged nature of his encounter with such phenomena. Similarly in the catalog of heroes, the vinedresser emphasizes how it was the hero Protesilaus, with whom he enjoys an intimate relationship, who reports to him in stunning detail descriptions of the Homeric warriors. I argue that Philostratus is ultimately concerned with how Greek religious knowledge could be acquired and transmitted in the Imperial period, for he contrasts the uninspired learning of the scholarly life in the city (δισδασκάλοις χρώμενοι καὶ φιλοσοφοῦντες, 4.5-10ff) with the superior knowledge he derives from Protesilaus in the countryside (cf. also Philostr. VS 552-54). What is at stake in the Heroicus is the means and authority by which one can access knowledge about traditional cultic life of the distant past. Philostratus insists, I demonstrate, that the maintenance of Hellenism under Rome requires unmediated access to heroes like Protesilaus who can re-actualize wonders of myth and cult of the past in the present.

The second half of my paper briefly explores how seriously we ought to take the sincerity of Philostratus’ turn toward traditional religion and cult, for it is precisely in the Imperial period that religious piety becomes a literary topos—exemplified not only in the Heroicus’ obsession with archaic hero cult, but also in Aristides’ Sacred Tales with its elaborately wrought piety toward Asclepius, and in Pausanias’ thematization of his own increasing religious sensitivity as he visits important cultic sites in mainland Greece. Greater attention to the fictionalizing techniques that Imperial Greek prose writers used to cast cultural and religious sincerity as a kind of literary device means that rather than taking Philostratus’ religious sincerity and experience of the divine at face value, we ought to examine how Second Sophistic writers consciously combined the fictional and the religious as a distinct mode of intellectual discourse. We can see that Second Sophistic writers began to treat Greek religion as a discrete value sphere that could be harnessed in fictional accounts to great literary effect.

Session/Panel Title

God and Man in the Second Sophistic

Session/Paper Number

31.5

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