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Paianic Revival in the Roman Empire

Hanna Golab

University of Wisconsin-Madison

This paper demonstrates that the trends in Greek imperial literature, which appreciated and emulated the classical style of Athenian prose (Whitmarsh 2005), was matched by a yet unrecognized poetic trend of paianic resurgence. This revivalist movement has gone so far unnoticed, because it is mostly preserved in inscriptions; for example, the so-called Erythraian Paian survives in four stone copies from Erythrai in Asia Minor, Ptolemais Hermiou in Egypt, Athens, and Dion in Macedon (IEry 205, Inscr. métr. 176; IG II2 4509; Ἐπιγραφαὶ τῆς Μακεδονίας I 8). While the original version is dated to 380-360 BCE, the other three belong to the late 1st and 2nd c. CE. Similarly, Ariphron’s Hymn to Hygieia, formally not a paian, but revolving around the matters of healing, was supposedly composed around 400 BCE, but resurfaced only in the 2nd-3rd c. CE on two inscriptions (IG II2 4533, IG IV2 132) and in at least six literary quotations.

My paper will further establish that this trend was not solely an antiquarian exercise. The interest in Classical paians stimulated a surge in new poetic compositions. In Athens, Sarapion wrote and produced his paian in 174/175 CE (SEG 28 225), a little after Aelius Aristides composed his paians in honor of Apollo and Asklepios (Hier. Log. IV.39). Sarapion’s literary ambitions are showcased by another paian, allegedly composed by Sophokles, which was inscribed on the same monument (Bowie 2006: 83-87).

Some of those paians were performed by specialized groups of ritual singers who were devoted to this particular choral genre. In Rome, a group of paianistai served in the cult of Sarapis, but it also concerned itself with the cult of the Flavian emperors who were recognized as healing divinities (Palmer 1993). The activities of the Roman paianistai, who probably sang in Greek, continued or reappeared under the Severan dynasty. The paianistai are confirmed also for Egypt and Athens (Rutherford 2001). It is clear, then, that this revivalist trend should be recognized on a large scale across the Mediterranean.

I propose that this revival was motivated by three separate factors. First, poetry and prose were both part of a wider movement to revitalize Classical literature. Second, the heightened health risks and medical conscience that came with the expansion of the Roman Empire caused a greater need for Greek choral responses to illness and disease, especially in the fallout of the Antonine Plague. And third, the inscribed paians were a part of a more widespread effort to create therapeutic landscapes (term originally proposed by Gesler 1992).

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Breaking the Paradigm: Greek Poetry in the Roman Empire

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