The activities and concerns of Greek scholars in the period from Tiberius to Nero helped to lay the groundwork for the obsession with the classical that characterized intellectual life in the following centuries. In Rome, scholars working at the imperial court undertook the major cumulative project of editing and explicating the corpora of classical authors, while in Alexandria and in Rome classicizing scholars attempted to prove their Greekness and to defend the value of the classical canon against the attacks of Jewish scholars and doctors of the Methodist school, again with members of the imperial household as an audience. I argue that the nascent movement of classicism and Atticism typically called the Second Sophistic grew out of this collaboration between the imperial household and classicizing scholars, and of these debates between classicizing scholars and their Jewish and Methodist rivals.
The paper I offer therefore sets out in brief a new model for the study of Greek intellectual life under Roman rule, breaking away from the periodization and narrow vision that define Philostratus’ conception of the Second Sophistic and that have been employed also in major recent studies (Swain; Whitmarsh 2001, 2005). Contrary to the arguments of these studies, I show that the major cultural challenges facing classicizing scholars came not from Rome, but from other Greek-speaking scholars, such as Jews and Methodist doctors. At the same time, I demonstrate that the period from Tiberius to Nero, which is absent even in studies that treat the Second Sophistic as an integral part of Roman history (Bowersock 1965, 1969; Spawforth), fits into a larger story of the development of classicism and Atticism.
The first component of the paper’s argument focuses on the editing and commentating work undertaken by scholars at Tiberius’ court (Hillscher; Kaplan). Collectively, these scholars produced editions and commentaries on many major classical authors, continuing the project undertaken at Rome in the previous generation by Dionysius of Halicarnassus and others.Tiberius’ personal astrologer Thrasyllus led the way, producing editions and commentaries of Plato and Democritus (Tarrant; Mansfeld), but he was joined also by many other scholars, including Seleucus the Homeric (Mueller), who treated much of the classical canon. The literary heritage of Greece’s classical period was effectively filtered through Rome thanks to the efforts of these scholars.
Scholars at Rome and Alexandria in this period also contributed to the growing trend of employing the literature of Greece’s classical period as a touchstone for Greek identity. This trend was especially clear in debates between the Greek and Jewish communities of Alexandria which spilled over to Rome during the reigns of Gaius and Claudius, and which involved both sides labeling one another as Egyptians, rather than as Greeks and Jews. Such debates provide a larger context for a series of works produced by Alexandrian scholars concerned with establishing standards of lexicographical purity, and even in a work by the grammarian Irenaeus that attempted to prove the Attic origins of the Alexandrian dialect of Greek (Haupt 2.435-440). Irenaeus and other Alexandrian scholars turned to the classical canon and Atticism as a way to demonstrate that they were truly Greek in response to suggestions that they were not.
The paper’s final section considers the responses to the Methodist doctor Thessalus of Tralles and his anti-classical approach to medical education. His attack on the Hippocratic corpus, which he presented in a letter addressed to Nero himself (Pigeaud), provided inspiration for the Hippocratic lexicon authored by a certain Erotian, and dedicated to Nero’s personal physician Andromachus (Manetti; von Staden). The imperial household watched and listened as classicizing scholars debated with their rivals, and competed for their support and patronage.
In sum, I demonstrate that classicizing scholars viewed Rome as an ally rather than a threat in their attempts to defend the classical purity of Greece. The real threat came instead from other Greek-speaking scholars who were less enamored of the classical past and its literature.