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The culture of ancient scholarship

A book review

The scholastic lifestyle is not a development of the modern world. It was a characteristic of the ancient world, and deserving of a detailed look. This article reviews a new book that studies how scholars operated in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

Written by Joshua R. Hall on

What is the world of scholars like? This is a very difficult question to answer because we have a good understanding of how individual agency contributes to a person’s behaviors and their experiences, and thus their decisions. Because of this, trying to understand the scholarly environment of the ancient world is made even more difficult than our typical dearth of sources. However, a recent volume edited by Sean A. Adams explores just this.

Scholastic Culture in the Hellenistic and Roman Eras: Greek, Latin, and Jewish (De Gruyter, 2019) is the product of a conference held at the University of Glasgow in 2017. Though very much an edited volume and not a comprehensive examination of academic culture in the ancient world, its essays provide interesting insights into an oft under-appreciated topic in ancient studies. Afterall, the sources that we read today were products of this intellectual tradition, one that we must understand to really get to grips with ancient literature.

Fresh insights

Adams makes it clear in his introduction that the purpose of this volume is not to be complete, but rather to make “important contributions and provide fresh insight in a few, specific areas” (p. 1). After a brief opening chapter which sets the scene for the rest of the book, we move onto a really intriguing aspect of the ancient culture of knowledge: archives. Gaëlle Coqueugniot’s contribution, “Scholastic research in the archive? Hellenistic historians and ancient archival records,” explores the possibility that historians actually consulted material in archives (p. 7-29). After an introduction to archives in the ancient world, she focuses in on two extremely important historians: Timaeus of Tauromenion and Polybius.

Coqueugniot opens the analytical portion of her essay with a well-known criticism that Polybius levelled against Timaeus (Polyb. 12.27.2-5). In this, he criticizes the earlier historian for conducting researching in archives in Athens rather than doing “proper” history (which is writing about events you’ve actually seen, or consulting witnesses to those events). I think she is right in saying that by doing this “Polybius [aimed] at enhancing his own historical method, which relies more on direct experience” (pp. 13-14).

Despite Polybius’ criticism, it is evident that the use of archival documents “steadily increased” from the fifth century BC onwards. Even the critical historian himself is shown to have consulted archival material to bolster his points (p. 26). That this was not unique behavior in Polybius’ supposed consultation of the early treaties between Rome and Carthage is helpful in our interpretation of these (Polyb. 3.22-26). Overall, Coqueugniot concludes that Hellenistic historians did use archival information in their research, and that this “paralleled with the development of structured public repositories.” (p. 27)

The second chapter, by Myrto Hatzimichali, looks at the circulation of lexica – think: ancient dictionaries – in the Hellenistic period into the Imperial period. We are immediately introduced to an important – and almost certainly correct – hypothesis: lexica were not circulated in the same way as other written works.

The reason for this is quickly highlighted. Not only were they something of a specialist type of publication aimed at scholars, but they were massive. The Suda (Π 142), for instance, notes that Pamphilus’ On rare words ran to 95 books! Some were even longer than this. Because of this, and the target audience of lexica, meant that their circulation was probably dependent on libraries and the continual copying by scholars. Through this process, exact duplicates were not necessarily created, because “extractable information was valued infinitely more than the texts’ own style or potential literary merit.” (p. 50) Though these works may have had limited circulation, they were important sources of information and works of ancient scholarship.

Matthew Nicholls then looks at the intersection of booksellers, libraries, and book-loving people. We are presented with an image of Imperial Rome that was littered with book spaces. But, these were clustered together in some places. Areas like the Vicus Sandaliarius had a concentration of purveyors of literature. Close to these were other intellectual spaces, like public libraries or halls of debate. The evidence he musters strongly supports his conclusion that Rome consisted of an “urban landscape fairly well populated by potential readers, writers, listeners, customers” (p. 67). An interesting supplement to the discussion is a digital model of Rome – created by Nicholls – which shows some of the concentrated intellectual spaces in a helpful visual form.

The fourth chapter asks the important question of “Do all books look alike?” Serena Ammirati’s focus is on the Latin legal book, its morphology, and its typology. Her general conclusion is that it was not until the fifth century AD that a standardized format for Roman legal texts came into common use. There were, however, elements of earlier works which marked them as legal texts. Notably, the use of rubrics – text written in red – and very visible demarcation of sentences and paragraphs. Probably unintentionally, Ammirati’s chapter reminded me of how little evidence we have of texts before the first century AD. Not that we do not have the writing itself, but that we do not possess scrolls or papyri in Latin from earlier periods. It is a disappointing fact of our evidence.

Herodian is the topic of the next chapter, in which Stephanie Roussou suggests new readings of certain passages preserved primarily in the Herodian epitome by Pseudo-Arcadius. This is a very dense discussion, worthy of praise, though hard to summarize in a review of this type. In general, Roussou shows that there is enough evidence to reconstruct elements of this work which is preserved in disparate manuscripts and highlights a few of Herodian’s sources for accentuation rules. She refers readers throughout to her new critical edition of Pseudo-Arcadius’ Epitome (Roussou 2018), for which this almost feels like a companion chapter. Not being familiar with her book, I cannot elaborate on how much this chapter adds or supplements it, though it seems like it does both to at least some extent.

Eleanor Dickey looks at the concept of the linguistic expert in ancient Greek culture, and the basis of their supposed expertise. She first establishes that these people did exist (e.g. Ar. Nub. 658-694, Sext. Emp. Math. 1.176-77, 209), and then moves on to looking at how their expertise of was established. The earliest form this took was through “observation of regularities and extrapolation of rules from them” (p. 116). This required the extensive use of analogy, and began at least in the fifth century BC. The latter form of linguistic expertise was attained through mastering the Attic canon. Experts in this vein may have arisen because of a demand amongst non-elites for help in their Greek education which consisted of archaic and classical texts (pp. 117-118).

This chapter inspired me to a considerable amount of thought. Those who have studied the ancient world at most levels will already be aware of the difficulties that we face in interpretation of our evidence. We approach it with our intellectual baggage intact (regardless of how much some people aspire to objectivity), and this helps form our conclusions. Dickey’s chapter reminds us – even more so than some of the others in this book – that the ancients did this as well, and reminded me of the caution that we must use in trying to find “universals” or historical information in texts. A thorough understanding of the intellectual background of the authors we read (both ancient and modern) is necessary for anyone serious about studying the past.

From this insightful discussion, we are transported to the land of Latin literature and one of the most famous Roman authors: Suetonius. Rather than looking squarely at his Vitae Caesarum (known in English as The Lives of the Caesars), R.M.A. Marshall looks at how he presented bibliographies in his De uiris illustribus. This is a collection of biographies like his other work, but of literary figures rather than emperors. It is preserved only in fragments, rather than as a complete text, unfortunately. Marshall’s conclusion on these is that they did not present the bibliographies of literary figures in an objective and logical fashion as in Callimachus’ work, but rather they are an “incomplete, and gossipy discussion of selected titles” (p. 144). The image he paints of Suetonius’ work is one that is enjoyable to read, and perhaps shaped by the nature of Roman library practices – fragmented throughout the city as they were – as opposed to the use of a universal library as was possible in the eastern Mediterranean.

The volume’s editor, Sean A. Adams, studies the practice of literary translation in Roman and Jewish culture in the penultimate chapter. He begins with a survey of how people were taught to translate in the course of an ancient education. Direct evidence for dual language learning dates from the first century AD in the form of school texts like the anonymous Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana. There would include glossaries and example dialogues of things that the student would experience in day-to-day life.

Adams then surveys how Roman and Jewish scholars and authors thought about translation, which ranged from a source of power (e.g. Cic. De or. 1.155) to the growth of knowledge. Interestingly, he highlights that Roman authors did not translate their works into other languages to spread their influence throughout the Mediterranean, but translated works from other cultures into Latin for consumption by readers of that language. Jewish scholars, on the other hand, translated their culture’s texts into the more widely-spoken language, Greek. This is “presented as a cultural achievement, one that would benefit both Jews and Greeks alike” (p. 162). This may have even been a strategy of cultural survival, inserting Jewish texts into the language of their political overlords.

We may see a similar culture of translation in the modern world. One need only look at scholarly works on the ancient world that are translated into other modern language. Although some get translated into English, there seems to be a disproportionate number translated from English into other languages. Not a deliberate cultural strategy by modern academics, but perhaps best seen as part of the modern publishing landscape, this is almost certainly a symptom of Anglophone scholarship slowly coming to dominate academic fields. Thus, the ancient power dynamic of Latin < Greek < Hebrew may be seen, with English being both the “Latin” and “Greek” in that very basic diagram. Though, our field is still one of considerable linguistic diversity and colour, and perhaps other disciplines – notably the hard sciences – would make better examples of this. This should give us pause when we think that something “should be translated into English” and consider the power dynamics that this implies.

The volume’s final chapter looks at the Rabbi as an intellectual figure in Graeco-Roman and Byzantine scholarly culture. Catherine Hezser’s depiction of Rabbis in Hellenistic, Roman, and early Byzantine Palestine is one of public intellectual – though an anachronistic term, pp. 170-171 – in the vein of other scholarly persons of the period. However, they were distinctly Jewish in practice, and were oriented towards the real-world in ways that others may not have been. A focus on living a “Torah-observant lifestyle” offered a “Jewish alternative to empire-wide” philosophical trends. Nevertheless, this must be understood in the context of Romanizing and then Christianizing Israel, and there was engagement with Graeco-Roman “wisdom” on the part of the Rabbis.

Closing thoughts

In general, this is a very interesting collection of essays. Scholarly culture – and its production – is an important topic in ancient world studies. The chapters in Scholastic Culture all remind us that to really understand the Greek, Roman, and Jewish texts we rely on for our knowledge of the ancient world, we must understand the literary culture that produced them. None of these were produced in a vacuum, and all were influenced by existing literature and ideas.

We only need to think about an author like Livy to see the importance of this. For much of Rome’s history, we do not have a continuous narrative history outside of the Ab urbe condiate.Show Even this is only preserved in summaries for many books. But, he was not an eyewitness to the events he talked about. His first pentad – the ten books that cover the history of Rome from foundation to 292 BC – were based on earlier historians. Thus, what is preserved by Livy is a first-century BC/AD perspective on the period.

When we think about the arguments about how to successfully study history in the Hellenistic period touched on by Coqueugniot, or the discussions of literary (thus presumably historical at times) matters at the bookstores and libraries of Rome presented by Nicholls, it is obvious why we cannot take everything he wrote at face value. And it is worth remembering, as Adams reminds us, that “ancient scholars were aware that not all texts were equal in quality” and that even texts like those of Sophocles or Aeschylus could be found in lesser quality copies (p. 157). These considerations a given for Romanists (and similar approaches exist for all ancient authors), and can easily be seen in the excellent discussions of modern works like the introduction to Stephen Oakley’s commentary on Livy (Oakley 1997), but should be remembered by all of us.

These kinds of considerations may not be widely known, or understood, amongst lay readers. And it is for that reason that I would recommend any or all of the chapters in the volume under review here as important reading to help understand the scholarly culture of the ancient world.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • S. Oakley, A Commentary on Livy: Introduction and Book VI (1997).
  • S. Roussou, Pseudo-Arcadius’ Epitome of Herodian’s De Prosodia Catholica (2018).

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.