Welcome to the Fourth Sophistic

For a while I wrote a blog that was mainly about my research into the archaeology and history of Greece in the Roman period (romangreece.wordpress.com). But for various reasons, not least of which was the upheaval of moving to Denmark last autumn to start a new job, I fell out of the habit. Now, wanting to start blogging again I realised that the old blog title didn’t really give me the scope to write about the things I want to write about. For one thing my research now isn’t just about Greece but about the wider Roman Empire (I plan to write a post about that soon). For another I don’t want to confine myself to writing only about the ancient world but want to be able to write about whatever else I happen to find interesting or important. So I’ve started a new site.

Why “The Fourth Sophistic”? ¬†Ancient historians use the term Second Sophistic to describe a revival of Greek culture – primarily literary culture – at the high point of the Roman Empire in the late 1st to the early 3rd centuries. The term was coined by the 3rd century author Philostratus who wrote a group biography of some of the leading lights of this movement, a group of men who travelled around the cities of the Greek-speaking eastern Mediterranean delivering speeches to captivated audiences in theatres and council houses. These men could command exorbitant fees as teachers of rhetoric and some of them even had the ear of Philhellene emperors such as Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. Philostratus saw the “Second Sophistic” as a sequel to the first flourishing of Greek oratory in the hey day of the Classical period in the 5th-4th centuries BC.

The “Second Sophistic” was a decidedly backward looking movement: orators sought to emulate the literary style of ¬†Classical forebears like Demosthenes and gave erudite speeches on topics of historic interest such as the Persian Wars. In other orations, however, they addressed the issues of the day and gave advice on matters of political and social importance. They were also not averse to giving more more humorous speeches – for example, praising trivial subjects as insects, parrots or human hair – as a way to showcase their formidable rhetorical skills. Almost all of the writings of these men are now lost but authors whose works do survive, such as the wandering political sage Dio Chrysostom, the humorist Lucian or -probably best known – the biographer and moralist Plutarch, can be thought of as operating on the fringes of the movement.

In their fascination – bordering on obsession – for the distant past and in their striving for topical relevance, to say nothing of their literary pretensions, these sophists come close to what I’d like this blog to be.

Historians of the Byzantine period have already coined the term “Third Sophistic” to refer to a still later revival of ancient Greek culture so welcome to the Fourth Sophistic – a blog about ancient history, archaeology, modern culture and politics. More to come soon….