Book Note | Valuing the past in the Greco-Roman World

by Kelsi Morrison-Atkins in


James Ker and Christoph Pieper, eds. Valuing the past in the Greco-Roman World: Proceedings from the Penn-Leiden Colloquia on Ancient Values VII. Leiden: Brill, 2014. 

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Valuing the Past in the Greco-Roman World, a volume of proceedings from the seventh Penn-Leiden Colloquium on Ancient Values, considers “the organization of value in time” (1), with particular attention to ancient uses of the “past.” The book’s nineteen chapters cover a broad selection of Greek and Latin texts and material culture spanning from the Archaic period through Late Antiquity and explore from multiple perspectives how the past was mobilized in antiquity to make particular ethical, political, and rhetorical claims. While the chapters themselves are largely focused on close reading and historical analysis of ancient texts, rippling beneath the surface is a call to “careful reflection on what it is we do when we ascribe value to the ancient Greco-Roman world in part or in whole” (2).  This call for reflection framed my own reading of the volume, pushing me to ask:  If “antiquity” is defined as a past “understood to be different, separate, singular, or special. . . distinguished in one way or another through public discourse” (4), what can a consideration of the values ascribed to antiquity in antiquity teach us about the politics of valuing the past in the present, perhaps especially in the wake of the surging interest in Greco-Roman antiquity among far-right, white supremacist movements in the United States?[i] 

After James Ker and Christoph Pieper’s general introduction, Valuing the Past in the Greco-Roman World is divided into six parts according to the “main discursive practices through which we find value being ascribed to (or through) a distantiated past” (14). In Part 1, “Locating the Past in Peoples and Places,” Jeremy McInerney, Maaike Leemreize, and Joseph Farrell analyze the spatial dimensions of discourses of pastness, asking how collective histories as well as power and status are negotiated by associating certain contemporary peoples and places with the past. McInerney pushes back against positivist attempts to locate the ubiquitous Pelasgians and Leleges, arguing instead that these peoples functioned as a “bridge to the deep past” (31) shaping Greek ethnic identity and etiologizing socio-political tensions in the present. Leemreize describes contemporary Egypt for Tacitus’ Germanicus as a “theme park” (69) of antiquities, a site of bygone prestige and power against which the emerging Roman empire could define itself. Finally, Farrell demonstrates how the Roman suburbium functioned “as a kind of time machine” (92) whereby movement away from the city becomes movement into a simpler landscape untainted by time and urban life. In each of these chapters, we see how the contemporary inhabitants of “valuable” spaces are erased or essentialized in order to construct suitable narratives of the past for those in power.

In Part 2, “Encountering the Past through Material Objects,” questions of space and place are brought to analyses of material objects as themselves evidencing time as palimpsest. Between Margaret M. Miles’ analysis of the preservation of burnt temples as “reminders of valiantly fought invasions that could bind communities together” (111) in Athens and elsewhere in the wake of the Persian War and Amanda S. Reiterman’s exploration of keimêlia as small, asynchronous objects that “mark [ancient peoples’] individual and familial pasts” (164), we see on vastly different scales the affective bonds forged in relation to material objects that can construct and/or reinforce political, social, and even kinship across and through time. Karen Bassi in turn explores the tangibility and authority that material artifacts lend to a constantly receding past, engaging the offering of Croesus in Herodotus’ Histories to underscore that “the value of the past is determined in part in relation to visible evidence in the present” (174). These chapters are powerful “object lessons” of the force of encounters with the past to shape individual and communal identities, even as materiality’s meanings are not static but shaped and re-shaped over time.

Part 3, “Persons Seeming to Embody an Ancient Ethos,” moves from asynchronous objects to asynchronous individuals, considering how figures are variously made to inhabit ancient and contemporary worlds simultaneously. Sharpening a common scholarly impression that there is something inherently anachronistic about Sophocles’ Ajax, Sheila Murnaghan argues that his patina of pastness is not evidenced by his dress or manner, as is often the case, but is rather an effect of a dramatic moment of shifting “civic self-definition,” evoked by “associating certain qualities, and certain figures who are deemed to embody those qualities, with the past” (203). For Christina S. Kraus and Eleanor Winsor Leach, the nature of the past’s value to shift with time is explored as a feature of genre and an effect of reception. Just as Tacitus’ biographical Agricola “explore[s] the fixity—and especially the lack thereof—of past res gestae and the stories that are subsequently told about them” (223), the narrative of M. Atilius Regulus as a self-sacrificial leader promoted by Cicero, Livy, and Horace traces how “reception frequently overtakes factuality” as “positive interpretations [of M. Atilius Regulus] come to replace negative, reaching a high point in Cicero and Horace” (243). Whereas Part 1 attends to the elite strategies of erasure of peoples and places, this section addresses the rehabilitation or redefinition of certain individuals as touchstones in the (e)valuation of the past.

In Part 4, “The Present Distanced from Past Examples,” Caitlin C. Gillespie, Lisa Cordes, and Jonas Grethlein are concerned with moments of rupture that question narratives of progress and even assumptions of the past’s inherent value. Whereas the previous section addressed exemplary (masculine) figures, Gillespie begins by noting the representation of Agrippina the Younger in Tacitus’ Annals as a negative exemplar of an imperial woman who “misreads her own symbolic presence in public material culture as representative of her actual roles” (289). It is in this play of gender and power in both the domestic and public realm that Gillespie convincingly underscores Tacitus’ grappling with whether past norms still apply on shifting political ground. Similarly, Cordes addresses the role of politics in establishing hierarchies of past and present in Domitianic panegyric. Cordes demonstrates well through Statius’ Silvae and Martial’s Panegyric that “panegyric modes of writing glorify the present and in fact insist on its superiority to past eras” (294), with this superiority justified in part by enlivening past figures as guarantors of imperial prestige. Grethlein argues that 4th century orators demonstrated a marked preference for recent rather than ancient examples and illustrations, as “proximity to the world of the audience in general increased the persuasiveness of exempla marshalled by orators” (336). Grethlein in particular scrutinizes a modern tendency to divide time and ascribe a unique “character” to each age, comparing and contrasting this with ancient conceptions of history’s proximity (348). 

Part 5, “The Archaic Past in Literary History” takes up this interest how time gets parsed and its implications for canonical authority in ancient literature. Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ own thoroughgoing investment in the revival and preservation of classicism is central for Lawrence Kim and Casper de Jonge. Rather than denoting a period understood as “primitive” in relation to its classical successor, Kim argues that Dionysius’ use of “archaios” is as much a qualitative as a temporal distinction, as (self-controlled) “archaicizing, somewhat paradoxically, is an essential part of some of the best classical writing” (360). de Jonge compares Dionysius’ and Longinus’ allegories of literary decline as a “corrupt household,” underscoring how issues of style and engagements with past literary traditions become political and moral concerns. These ancient thinkers, according to de Jonge, exhibit divergent understandings of the compatibility of classical Greek literary production with Roman imperial rule, with Dionysius holding out much more hope than Longinus that the “‘Asianic’ period of decline ended with Octavian’s rise to power” (389). Mieke de Vos and Jason S. Nethercut narrow their focus to ancient literary standard-bearers, asking how the distinctions between men’s vs. women’s poetry and epic vs. historiography, respectively, work as strategies for denying or undercutting the legitimacy of certain types of writing. de Vos charts the complex ways in which the “female tradition” standing in Sappho’s legacy as contained and constrained by genre. According to de Vos, the transmission of “women’s poetry” after Sappho was determined in no small part by its adherence “feminine” subject matter as predetermined by male critics, even as Sappho herself was transformed in this androcentric tradition from historical woman to mythical muse (428). Nethercut likewise demonstrates how the past can be devalued or limited by genre, as Lucretius’ play with Ennian epic poetry in his De Rerum Natura allows him to “redirect these Ennian exempla to his own Epicurean ends, while also implying that Ennius has read them incorrectly” (446). In this section, appeals to genre and canonical authority are a potent mode of marking temporal periods and assigning them value, even as these practices are themselves bound up with contemporary political regimes, philosophical commitments, and gender relations.   

Though it is the shortest section, Part 6, “Antiquarian Discourses,” contains multitudes. Joseph A. Howley and Ilaria L.E. Ramelli weave together questions of canonicity, authority, and the past’s knowability addressed throughout the volume and it is here, with Ramelli’s piece, that we are met with “a glimpse of the otherwise absent Late Antiquity” (17), in which Jewish and Christian modes of valuing the past (finally) make their appearance. Reprising anxieties of the past’s mutability seen throughout this volume, Howley argues that Gellius’ Noctes Atticae functions as a kind of “how-to guide” for adeptly navigating the past’s unavoidable and vexing mediation. Lest it be interpreted as merely an exercise in the critical evaluation of sources, Howley argues that “The Noctes is about valuing antiquity, but even more so it is about valuing those who mediate and communicate antiquity” (465). While allegorical interpretation might call to mind a specific mode of biblical interpretation, Ramelli argues that allegoresis, or “allegorical interpretation of texts, rituals, traditions, iconography, cultic epithets, etc.” (485), was central to Stoic as well as Middle and Neoplatonic thought as a tool for valuing and incorporating the past into present philosophical, cosmological, and theological discourses.  Ramelli’s analysis of allegoresis applied to ancient myths, poetry, and other authoritative texts foregrounds, contra Gellius, how a tradition’s transtemporality and openness to multiple interpretations could be seen as a sign of its prestige. In these philosophical debates, allegory and authority were deeply intertwined as evidencing a tradition’s capacity to hold out “a nugget of truth and wisdom which came from the most remote times,” accessible through allegorical interpretation (505).  It is here that familiar figures to scholars of ancient Judaism and early Christianity emerge—Philo, Origen, Porphyry, and Clement, to name a few—as allegorists who “used allegory to value their own favorite antiquity” (486). Both Howley and Ramelli shed light on the ways in which the authority and status of ancient texts and their interpreters are mutually reinforcing, complicating even further how power and status are negotiated in and through discourses of the past’s value.

Valuing the Past in the Greco-Roman World asks how the past was defined, accessed, and valued in that period of time so often considered “our” antiquity (18) and provides an array of fascinating examples that work together to undercut notions of the value of the past in the past as in any way uniform or monolithic. This range of historical perspectives calls for further reflection on the ethics and politics underlying our own individual and institutional practices of valuing the past in the present and contributes much to our understanding of the range of values ascribed to the past in the past.  

[i] See for instance Sarah Bond’s recent Hyperallergic article “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color.” This piece and the extreme conservative backlash against (and misreading of) it demonstrates starkly how particular notions of the past as a “value” belonging rightly to some groups and not others functions as a tool of oppression and marginalization in the present. This reveals also the high stakes of public scholarship that questions such practices and assumptions.

Kelsi Morrison-Atkins is a Th.D. candidate in New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School.  
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