In his life of Tiberius, Suetonius records an anecdote regarding a grammaticus named Seleucus, who, knowing the emperor’s habit of posing learned questions over dinner, learned beforehand from Tiberius’ servants what he had been reading so that he might work up the answers in advance; when Tiberius discovered this, he first broke off relations with him and later drove him to suicide (Tib. 56). The area of learning that the Greeks called á¼¡ γραμματικÎ®, which had originated as a stage in the primary education for children, is here revealed to have become an avenue for social advancement, and even a matter of life and death, for adults. Suetonius had considerable respect for this field of learning; he not only excelled in it himself, but also devoted one book of his compendious De viris illustribus to famous grammatici and their counterparts at the secondary level, rhetores. Just as expertise in the learning of the grammaticus had by his day become a respectable accomplishment for adults, so too had virtuosity in the typical exercise of the rhetor, the declamatio. The elder Seneca attests to its popularity already in the reign of Augustus, and by the second century CE the ability to compose brilliant speeches on set themes was what created the glittering superstars of the Second Sophistic.
How was it that these activities, which had begun as exercises for schoolboys, had by the second century CE acquired such glamour that their mastery could lead to wealth, fame, and social advancement? For many years scholars never seriously posed this question; it was thought sufficient simply to note the vapidity that marked the literary and intellectual endeavors of the high imperial period. In recent decades this critical disdain has been increasingly, and quite properly, replaced by an appreciation for the sophistication of these activities and for the complex cultural work that they did. Yet I would argue that earlier scholars were in an important sense correct: much of the intellectual and literary activity of the high empire does seem breathtakingly pointless. In this paper I suggest that we ought to take this pointlessness seriously, and reconsider it in its broader political and social context.
At least two aspects of the situation should be noted. On the one hand, under a system of absolute power, no matter how benevolent and enlighted, the more anodyne intellectual and literary endeavours are, the safer they are. It is easy to think of examples from the first century CE of writers and thinkers who fell foul of particular emperors, but much more difficult to do the same for later periods; it is perhaps no coincidence that this development correlates rather precisely with the rise of formalized and regularized imperial patronage of the liberal arts. On the other hand, the more pointless cultural attainments are, the more devoid of serious content, the more effectively they function as pure markers of social status. Meaningless accomplishments and useless skills are the cultural equivalents of luxury goods, whose main purpose is simply to prove that one has the wealth and the leisure to acquire them. In short, understood in its wider political and social context, the pointlessness of the cultural life of the high empire can be seen as precisely its point.