American Journal of Philology 123.4 (2002) 637-641
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If more proof were needed that readings of the past are refracted through contemporary concerns, the spate of recent books on the Greek East and Rome in the early imperial period could serve as demonstration. As we struggle to come to terms with negotiating our identities in the new realities of a global world and to understand the imperialist projects that both shaped this world and contribute to its present tensions, the dynamics of an earlier transcultural, [End Page 637] multiethnic, imperial configuration claim our attention. In his introduction to this powerful and provocative collection of essays, Simon Goldhill explicitly positions it within this dialogue around the exigencies of identity and empire. As he comments, "there is still much to be learnt about cultural identity from the writing of the Mother of Empires" (25). Goldhill also describes the volume's primary theoretical foundation as that of cultural studies.
This choice is a major strength of the collection. For this perspective maintains that economic, military, and social domination do not take place in some material realm outside of discourse (i.e., outside the complex power grid of cultural formations, institutions, practices, and techniques that operate in a society). Such discourses are rather the mechanisms through which material conditions come into being. In this context, evidence for the intricate negotiations around power and place that underwrote the Roman empire is as likely to occur in rhetorical presentations, novels, athletic contests, monuments, biographies, philosophical writings, and theological tracts as in overt discussions of relations between Greekness and Roman power. It is from such evidence that these essays attempt to tease out the complicated question of the implications of Greekness in the early imperial period—a Greekness unbound from birth and descent, produced transculturally through an amalgam of education, social and political practice, and cultural performance and commanding the highest stakes in social and political payoff.
Each essay in this volume stays on topic. While Goldhill employs a tripartite schema for the book's organization, the essays fall into two subsets. One set provides macroanalyses that work to expose the cultural processes and strategies that worked to produce and maintain the historical moment, the glue of empire, so to speak. In this group are Goldhill's own chapter on the erotic gaze, Froma Zeitlin's on visions of Homer, Tim Whitmarsh's on the trope of exile, and Onno van Nijf's on athletics and festivals. The other set offers microanalyses of the ways individuals negotiated the thicket of overlapping allegiances and cultural positions confronting them during this period filled with the tensions of social and political transformation. To this group belong John Henderson's chapter on Polybius (a strength of the collection is its citation of Hellenistic antecedents throughout), Maud Gleason's on Josephus, Rebecca Preston's on Plutarch, Jas; Elsner's on the DeDeaSyria, and Seth Schwartz's on rabbis in Greco-Roman cities. My division indicates an emphasis in the chapters; relations between subjects and culture are always dialectical.
The caliber of the contributions is excellent overall. A high standard of analysis and cultural exegesis is evident throughout. Some of the essays, in fact, through their combination of erudition and stylistic panache, are a treat to read and are in the tradition of the best of the pepaideumenoi. Zeitlin's chapter on Homer's place in the visual culture, for example, is a dazzling tour de force. That Homer was the basis of Greek paideia and a focus of Greek communitas is a stale truism, but Zeitlin's wide-ranging survey conveys how extraordinarily present he was in the period, present for reworking and recuperating to vastly different [End Page 638] ends. Her analyses of the "close encounters" with Homer or his heroes through dreams, visits to the underworld, or apparitions make fascinating reading.
In another brilliant...