- Wandering Poets and Other Essays on Late Greek Poetry and Philosophy by Alan Cameron
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Wandering Poets is in some ways a companion to Alan Cameron's monumental opus, The Last Pagans of Rome (2011). The latter has inspired some long and hostile reviews and even an entire collection of essays devoted to critical engagement. This is a testament to the importance of his Last Pagans. Wandering Poets can be seen as a companion because it assembles a few of Cameron's classic articles on the Greek side (mostly) that deal with issues of prominence addressed on the Latin side in his Last Pagans. Chief among these is his conviction that modern scholars have fundamentally misunderstood the Christian intellectual class of Late Antiquity, inventing implausible tales of sudden conversion or sham Christianity, when the truth of the matter is that many Christians of the period saw no conflict between reading classical literature and writing classicizing literature on the one hand and their personal religious convictions on the other. Cameron has assembled in this volume ten classic articles, originally composed between 1965 and 2013, along with two new essays. However, in the case of the republished articles, he has updated or rewritten them to account for subsequent scholarship and to reflect his current views. This muddles the bibliographical record (why not a postscript to each original article instead?) but this is a small price to pay for access to his most recent thoughts.
Chapter 1 ("Wandering Poets") was an instant classic in 1965, but that was a very long time ago and Cameron has updated it with more evidence to bolster some of its central points about a class of poet, mainly from Egypt but with reputations established all over the late Roman world. He continues to maintain, against the intervening argument of Laura Miguélez-Cavero, that Egypt was in fact exceptional for its poets in this period and that this is not an illusion of our surviving evidence. He is also now much less convinced of the "pagan" credentials of many of these characters. For example, Cameron accepts the argument of Francis Vian that Nonnus of Panopolis composed his Paraphrasis of the Gospel of John first and his Dionysiaca second. The only conclusion, then, is that Nonnus was a lifelong Christian who simply had no difficulty reconciling his religious beliefs with the mythological tradition that was the common inheritance of all educated people. This emphasis on the compatibility of Christian elite culture and "secular" classical culture is prominent throughout the book, such as in chapters 2 ("The Empress and the Poet") on Eudocia and Cyrus and 7 ("Poets and Pagans in Byzantine Egypt"), in part on the credulity of modern scholars when it [End Page 270] comes to hagiographical claims of exposing vile pagan practices.
Chapter 3 ("The Poet, the Bishop, and the Harlot") reaffirms his acceptance of Vian's case for the order of Nonnus' Paraphrasis and Dionysiaca, and it has been updated in entertaining fashion to answer Enrico Livrea. Among other points of amusement, Cameron doubts that appreciation of female beauty is a rare trait in men and admits that Satan is possibly a biased witness. In the end, he insists that Nonnus the poet is not to be identified with Nonnus the bishop, whoever the latter might have been.
Chapters 5 ("Claudian") and 6 ("Claudian Revisited") are, respectively, an early essay that encapsulates the basic thesis of Cameron's 1970 book on the topic and a much later reconsideration. The second is interesting for its autobiographical reflections on Cameron's development as a scholar and for the admission, against intervening attacks, of youthful naïveté. He claims that his mature self would write the book differently, but this essay is primarily an answer to some critics...