Greek Intellectual Life under the Roman Empire

Charles Freeman

The Ancient Greeks have been on my mind for many years. I first encountered them 60 years ago in a traditional English public school curriculum, where I had to read in Greek parts of Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides and the great playwrights of 5th-century BC Athens. Although I realised then that there was something special about the Greek mind, it was not until 1970 that I actually got to Greece. I still have a letter written to my parents from Delphi saying that I had spent hours there, as the Blue Guide (the famous Stuart Rossiter edition) had something to say about almost every stone of this magnificent oracle shrine on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. Little did I know then that I would end up as Historical Consultant to the Guides and contribute two articles for the latest edition of Mainland Greece. My survey of Greek history, The Greek Achievement, was published in 1999 and still sells a few copies every year.

For the last two years I have been working on the continuation of the Greek intellectual achievement in the Roman empire. The great age of Classical Greece, the 5th and 4th centuries BC, with its triumphant defence against Persian aggression and a rich tradition of philosophy and theatre, has been well covered in literally hundreds of books. The Hellenistic Age (323–31 BC) saw the emergence of Stoicism and the scientists, among them Hipparchus (c.190–120 BC), “the father of astronomy”, and the mathematician and pioneer of mechanics Archimedes (c.285–211 BC), They too have been the subject of many studies.

The Tower of the Winds in its present state, an Athenian horologium (building designed to measure time) probably erected in the 2nd century BC by the scientist Andronicus of Cyrrhus, Syria. (Its state in the 18th century is depicted in the image at the top of this article.)

However, after the brutal conquest of Greece by Rome in the second century BC, the Greeks became secondary to the history of the Roman Empire. The Romans derided them for their lack of military prowess and readiness to indulge in abstract discussions. This tradition of Roman cultural arrogance continued with later historians.

No less a historian than Edward Gibbon (1737–94), author of the celebrated The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88), opined: “If we except the inimitable Lucian [on whom see below], this age of indolence passed away without having produced a single writer of original genius, or who excelled in the art of elegant composition.” Even today, these ‘Roman’ Greeks tend to be neglected, almost inhabiting a cultural backwater when set alongside the many histories of Roman emperors and their exploits. So, through twenty biographies of prominent Greek intellectuals between 150 BC and AD 400, I hope to restore their achievements in my new book The Children of Athena.

Edward Gibbon, by a follower of Sir Joshua Reynolds, late 18th cent. (Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire, UK).

My first subject is the historian Polybius (c.200–118 BC). A cavalry leader from the Peloponnese, Polybius was taken hostage by the Romans after their defeat of Philip V of Macedon in 168. Unlike most of these hostages, he was sociable and wormed himself into a circle of Roman aristocrats. Obsessed by the devastating Roman defeat of the Greeks he set out in his Universal History (Ἱστορίαι, Historiai) to explore why the constitution of Republican Rome was effective in achieving this. The surviving books show that he travelled widely, walked over many a battlefield, interviewed the leading figures of his day, and tied these experiences into his narrative with an acute assessment of the political background to the rise of Rome. It is a remarkable achievement and places Polybius among the major historians.

Polybius, as depicted on a relief stelem found in the Greek Peloponnesian town of Kleitor, 2nd cent. BC (Museum of Roman Civilisation, Rome, Italy).

Then comes the now little-known Posidonius (135–51 BC), “the most learned scholar of my time” according to the geographer Strabo. Posidonius was a Stoic, applauded by his fellow Stoic, the Roman Seneca, as man who “will make you acquainted with things earthly and heavenly”. Sadly very few of Posidonius’ works survive but he was clearly a polymath, adept at philosophy in its broadest sense as well as history, geography, meteorology, astronomy and mathematics. He was no armchair philosopher, though, even sailing beyond the Straits of Gibraltar to measure the rise and fall of the Atlantic tides.

My book also introduces another Stoic philosopher, Epictetus (AD c.50–c.135), the only one of my subjects to have been born a slave. His words survive because they were taken down by one of his listeners, another of my subjects, the politician, historian and philosopher Arrian of Nicomedia (85–160s). Epictetus’ analysis of what can be changed in a mind and what must be endured is an original form of ‘mindfulness’; his teachings are still relevant today.

15th-century depiction of Epictetus in dispute with the Emperor Hadrian (Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. Canon. Misc. 37, f.78r, produced 1436).

My next two subjects were also active in travelling through the Mediterranean. Strabo (c.63 BC–AD c.25) spent 40 years compiling a survey of the Mediterranean and its peoples. His Geography (Γεωγραφικά, Geōgraphika) is one of the longest surviving Greek texts (over 700 pages in English translation) and when it was rediscovered in the 16th century it fascinated Renaissance scholars. Typically for a Greek writer, Strabo argued that the central Mediterranean was ideal for civilisation with the outer, less fertile regions being the homes of those who would never achieve civilised status!

Pedanius Dioscorides (c.40–c.90) travelled through the east to research animal, vegetable and mineral cures for various ailments. In his De Materia Medica (to Latin name usually used for his Περὶ ὕλης ἰατρικῆς, Peri hulēs iatrikēs) he lists no fewer than 4,740 afflictions and the plants and minerals recommended to ‘cure’ them. So Dioscorides informs us that cinnamon cleans away pus that darken the pupils, can bring on periods and even abortions, and help those who have difficulty urinating. It can be stored by being cut into small pieces, soaked in wine and then allowed to dry out. De Matera Medica is amazingly comprehensive: Dioscorides lists all the names by which a plant is known, where it flourishes and when to pick it and store it, even how to recognise counterfeits. Despite many bizarre treatments (read Dioscorides on the uses of beavers’ testicles, for instance!) some are in fact effective. His influence was pervasive and long lasting; an annotated edition by one Andrea Mattioli was the bestselling book of natural history in the 16th century.

Heuresis (the personification of discovery) presents Dioscorides with a mandrake root, a plant said to let out a deadly scream when pulled from the ground. Here a dog appears innocently to have dug up a mandrake root, which is why Heuresis is pointing with one hand to an unfortunate dead animal at her feet (Austrian National Library, Vienna, Cod. Vind. med. gr. 1, produced c.515).

Among the travel writers comes Pausanias (c.117–c.180), the author of a guide to mainland Greece. Not much is known about Pausanias or his motives in creating this guide but he concentrates on monuments and shrines from before the 2nd century BC and appears nostalgic for the days before the Roman conquest when the Greeks enjoyed true liberty. Often regarded as somewhat pedantic, Pausanias is increasingly respected after many of the inscriptions he describes have been found by archaeologists to be accurate; the likelihood thus increases that his quotations from texts that have not been recovered are reliable.

Then there are the philosophers and orators. Plutarch (c.46–120s) is my favourite. He championed a revival of Platonism, wrote many works on how to cope with the demands of daily living, and advice to those entering public life. Sort yourself out first, he counselled, and then you can be an effective politician dedicated to the wellbeing of others. Good advice for some politicians today! Plutarch’s most famous work is the Parallel Lives (Βίοι παράλληλοι, Bioi parallēloi), which compared prominent Greeks with their Roman equivalents. So the orator Demosthenes is compared with the Roman Cicero, and Alexander the Great with Julius Caesar. The Lives are crammed with details and anecdotes not known elsewhere and are remarkable for analysing the inner minds of Plutarch’s subjects. As he put it, “A phrase or jest often shows a greater revelation of character than battles where thousands fall” (Life of Alexander 1.2).

Phryne going to the public baths as Venus, whilst Demosthenes is taunted by Aeschines (detail), an imaginative conflation of tales from Plutarch by J.M.W. Turner, 1838 (Tate Gallery, London, UK).

Oratory went hand in hand with public life. Some orators were simply show-offs, giving speeches for cash, others represented their cities in dealings with other cities and even Roman emperors. It was a skill well taught, with each speech needing to achieve “excellent vocabulary in accordance with ancient standards, penetrating thought, perceptivity, Attic grace, harmony and the skilfulness of the whole”, as the satirist Lucian of Samosata put it (Zeuxis 2). Dio of Prusa (40–120), also known as Dio Chyrsostom, was one of the most accomplished orators. He delivered speeches on ‘kingship’ before the emperor Trajan, defended himself against criticism from his fellow citizens and preached “concord” between rival cities who were quarrelling over what he considered “an ass’s shadow”. Aelius Aristides (117–81) perfected speaking in the Attic dialect as it had been spoken back in the 5th century BC, at the zenith of Athens’ cultural power. He was an arrogant man, avoiding public office and dismissing any criticism of his oratory. He claimed to enjoy a special relationship with Asclepius, one of the gods of medicine, and used this assumed divine support as yet another means of asserting his superiority over his fellow orators.

Very few of the orations delivered by the wealthy Herodes Atticus (101–77) survive but his 3rd-century biographer Philostratus claimed that “his style of eloquence is like gold dust shining beneath the waters of a silvery eddying stream” (Lives of the Sophists 2.1.10). Herodes is far better known for his buildings. More of his creations, the Odeon and stadium in Athens, the magnificent fountain dedicated to his wife Regilla at Olympia, and other public buildings scattered around Greece, record his patronage more than any other of my subjects. Remarkably, the Odeon, long bereft of its original cedarwood ceiling (used for acoustic purposes), is still used for summer concerts.

Bust of Herodes Atticus, AD c.161 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

The great age of Greek science was the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, centred in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, home of the great library. That tradition continued into the Roman empire. Claudius Ptolemy (c.100–170) was the genius who raised both astronomy and geography to new heights. The Almagest, his masterpiece, its name abbreviated from the Greco-Arabic, Al-Megiste, “the greatest”, explained every movement of the planets, the Sun and the Moon, though from the heliocentric perspective that the Earth was the centre of the universe. He also provided a catalogue of over a thousand stars arranged in 48 constellations, the longitude and latitude of each, and their comparative brightness. Ptolemy drew heavily on Babylonian sources and the works of earlier astronomers such as Hipparchus (190–120 BC), and it was not until the 16th century that his work was challenged by Nicolaus Copernicus, who understood that the Sun provided better explanations for the movement of the planets. Ptolemy’s Geography was so complete for Europe and Asia that later scholars were able to create maps from it alone.

The most influential physician from Classical times was Galen (129–216). One might cite Hippocrates (c.450–c.380 BC) as a rival for prominence: Galen’s writings show that he revered and preserved many quotations from “the father of medicine”. Yet Galen was expert in philosophy as well as medicine and his many surviving works gave him an authority which lasted for centuries. Galen was certainly a proud character, but he had every cause to be, as he used logic and careful observation to bring about cures when other doctors had given up. Although he began his practice by patching up gladiators in his native city of Pergamum, he survived for many years in the hothouse atmosphere of Rome and administered even to the imperial family of Marcus Aurelius. His distasteful party piece was severing the squealing nerves of a pig and then restoring them in front of a public audience.

A modern statue of Galen in his native Pergamon/Pergamum (Bergama, Turkey).

Gibbon considered Lucian of Samosata (125–180s) to be the only original mind of this period. He was certainly right to highlight him. Lucian was born in Syria and, although he mastered Greek perfectly, he always considered himself an outsider. A philosopher who ridiculed other philosophers, an orator who taunted other orators, he has left a wide range of satirical works. So we find a mock auction of different philosophies, with Zeus and Hermes as the auctioneers. The Pythagoreans are advertised as offering five years of contemplation and a diet of beans. The Cynics, who despised worldly possessions, offer a promise of sleeping on the ground, the discarding of wives and children, and throwing all one’s money into the sea. Buyers of Aristotelianism will learn how far light can penetrate under the sea and how the soul of an oyster is composed. Scepticism is illustrated by a finely-balanced scale so that one cannot tell whether one weight is heavier than another. Both guesses would be wrong. A wedding banquet to which rival philosophers are invited degenerates into chaos. A student of philosophy reflects that he is only halfway to finding truth after twenty years of studying. An intellectual Greek employed by a Roman aristocrat finds that he is only an ornament to be shown off by his pretentious master. Lucian is inexhaustible and his scurrilous works have been admired over the centuries. He is still worth reading.

Then, in contrast, there are spiritual philosophers and early Christian theologians, Plotinus (c.205–70), Clement of Alexandria (c.150–c.215) and Origen (c.185–c.253). The mystic and austere Plotinus was not a Christian but he has inspired many Christians with his meditations on ‘The One’ – a supreme spiritual force. While his eyesight was bad and his writing worse, his devoted follower Porphyry related his sophisticated philosophy in the Enneads which have captivated mystics ever since. Clement and Origen were steeped in Greek philosophy and integrated Christ as a figure sent by God as the culmination of world history. Origen was a brilliant biblical scholar who used his literary expertise to analyse demanding theological passages. The Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus said that he had learned more from one page of Origen than ten pages of the revered Roman theologian Augustine (354–430). Both Clement and Origen believed that Christ was a later creation of the Father, so when the Trinity was proclaimed as dogma in 381 they lost their status as orthodox theologians. Origen was even declared heretical in 553, a sad fate for an exemplary Christian.

Origen teaching the catechism to his students, Jan Luyken, 1700.

I finish my biographies with three pagan orators of the 4th and 5th centuries AD who resisted the rise of Christianity. Themistius (c.317–c.388) was a court orator who survived from one emperor to another. He had a brilliant way of praising each new emperor by dwelling on the failings of the last and arguing that the newcomer was the embodiment of Plato (428/7–348/7 BC), still the most revered philosopher. Thank goodness, he would argue, finally we have a really good man on the throne. He was subject to acute jealousy from his fellows, suffering accusations that a philosopher degraded his calling by serving as a court official, but he survived until his health failed in the 380s.

Libanius (314–93) was a leading teacher of oratory in Antioch in Syria. We benefit from the vast number of letters and speeches of his that survive. He provides a vivid picture of his times and his method of education: we know where his students come from, what they are expected to have read before they arrive at his school, and even what letters of commendation he wrote for those who have graduated.

Hypatia, Alfred Seifert, c. 1890 (priv. coll.).

Lastly there is Hypatia (c.355–415) from Alexandria, the only woman among my biographies. As an accomplished mathematician and philosopher she inherited her school from her father and gained a reputation for wisdom and respectability. Alexandria was a volatile city, prone to outbreaks of violence, and the rise of Christianity brought new tensions. Hypatia was associated with the traditional world in which philosophers were respected for their status as a representative of wisdom. In the turmoil of conflicting ideas she was eventually murdered by a Christian mob. She has since become a feminist icon, the last upholder of pagan philosophy in a school where both Christians and pagans could study together.

Hypatia’s death is often seen as marking the end of a pagan learning that welcomed students of whatever beliefs. While many of its exponents had a strong sense of ‘the beyond’, there were no set texts or dogmatic statements about what should be believed. As Dio Chrysostom put it, “My doctrine aims to harmonise the human race with the divine, and to embrace in a single term everything endowed with reason, finding in reason the only sure and indissoluble foundation for fellowship and justice” (36.31). In contrast, Christianity brought a set of non-negotiable doctrines and a canon of approved texts, the Old and New Testaments, which were finalised in the 4th century. A statute promulgated by the emperor Theodosius II in 425 ordered the removal “from the practice of vulgar ostentation all persons who usurp for themselves the name of teachers and who in public schools and private rooms are accustomed to conduct with them students whom they have collected from everywhere”. This was a new world of learning.

In summary, my argument here, and at greater length in The Children of Athena, is that the intellectual achievements of the Greeks continued as a vibrant tradition throughout five centuries under the Roman empire. Not only was the tradition sustained but, as my subjects show, it breathed new life into many of the disciplines that the Greeks had founded: philosophy, medicine, geography, history, astronomy, and much else besides. These free-travelling Greek intellectuals were replaced by monks whose world was inevitably narrower.

Charles Freeman is a specialist on the ancient world and its legacy. He has worked on archaeological digs on the continents surrounding the Mediterranean and develops study tour programs in Italy, Greece, and Turkey. He is Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides series and the author of numerous books, including the bestseller The Closing of the Western Mind, Holy Bones, Holy Dust and The Awakening.