“The Second Sophistic” is the name given by Flavius Philostratus (c. 170–245 ce) in his Lives of the sophists (481, 507) to the rhetorical style current in his day. The sophistic culture described by Philostratus involved highly educated members of the Greek elite improvising public declamations, often in the personae of famous figures from Greece’s historical or mythological past. The primary emphasis was upon the re-enactment of key moments of military or political significance: most themes were drawn from the times of either imperial Athens (fifth century bce) or the conquests of Philip and Alexander (fourth century bce). This historical emphasis was matched at the level of diction, morphology, and style by the revival of the “Attic” dialect used by classical Athenian writers such as Thucydides, Plato, and Demosthenes.
Modern scholars have taken over the phrase to encompass a number of broader phenomena (Whitmarsh 2005, 6–10). The term was revived in the nineteenth century by Nietzsche’s friend Erwin Rohde (1876, 1886), who argued that die zweite Sophistik was a primarily linguistic phenomenon promoting Atticism at the expense of “Asianism,” supposedly a more melodious style emanating from the Ionian Greek cities. Rohde based his arguments on the claims of an ancient author, Dionysius of Halicarnassus (writing in Rome at the turn of the millennium), who praised Roman conquest for its promotion of the “Attic muse” in response to “the other, who arrived yesterday or the day before from one of the pits of Asia” (On the ancient orators, 1). As was seen by the great Prussian scholar Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff (1900), however, Dionysius’ claims are motivated by the rhetorical (not to say xenophobic) need to promote Rome: there is no real evidence for an Asianist movement.
Wilamowitz-Möllendorff’s weighty intervention deterred subsequent generations of scholars, who generally left the field alone, until the 1960s. In a more politically conscious era, Glen Bowersock (1969) turned the focus away from literary content, and onto the historical role of the orators (or “sophists”) themselves, which he identified as one of mediation between the Greek elites who were politically dominant in the cities of the eastern Roman Empire and Rome itself. Against Bowersock’s Rome-centered view, Ewen Bowie (1970) argued that the Second Sophistic – the term now extended to cover the wider phenomenon of the literary archaism practiced in most Greek literary composition in the first three centuries ce – was primarily a vehicle for the preservation of Greek cultural values in the face of Roman domination. This interest in relations between Greece and Rome was spurred on, from the 1990s onward, by postcolonial theory: thus, for example, Simon Swain (1996) extends Bowie’s ideas into a broad theory of Greek resistance to Roman occupation, and Tim Whitmarsh (2001) argues that Roman conquest forced Greeks to rethink their ways of understanding the nature of identity. The diverse range of interpretations can be sampled in a number of collections of essays (especially Goldhill 2001; Konstan & Saïd 2006).
While many use “the Second Sophistic” as a convenient label for Roman–Greek imperial literary production in general, the narrower phenomenon described by Philostratus has also received considerable attention. As a form of rarefied competition for elite status, sophistry was an important means of consolidating class hierarchies while allowing for a limited amount of mobility. Thomas Schmitz (1997) has helpfully cross-applied Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of social distinction, built on the analysis of modern European educational structures. Bourdieu’s ideas have also been used, along with those of the anthropologist Michael Herzfeld, by Maud Gleason (1995), who emphasizes the importance of sophistry as a forum for constructing and debating masculinity. The self-conscious role-playing so central to the Second Sophistic (in the narrower sense) does indeed lend itself readily to discussion in terms of social constructionism, built around the idea of identity as performed rather than essentially inherent. Such approaches have been further cultivated by postmodern interest in performativity and mimicry (e.g., Connolly 2001; Whitmarsh 2005; Webb 2006).
- Bowersock, G. W. (1969). Greek sophists in the Roman Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Bowie, E. L. (1970). The Greeks and their past in the Second Sophistic. Past and Present, 46, 3–41.
- Connolly, J. (2001). Reclaiming the theatrical in the second sophistic. Helios, 28, 75–96.
- Gleason, M. (1995). Making men: Sophists and self-presentation in ancient Rome. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Goldhill, S. D. (ed.) (2001). Being Greek under Rome: The Second Sophistic, cultural conflict and the development of the Roman Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Konstan, D., & Saïd, S. (eds.) (2006). Greeks on Greekness: Viewing the Greek past under the Roman Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge Philological Society.
- Rohde, E. (1876). Der griechische Roman und seine Vorläufer. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Hartel.
- Rohde, E. (1886). Die asianische Rhetorik und die zweite Sophistik. Rheinisches Museum, 41, 170– 190.
- Schmitz, T. (1997). Bildung und Macht: Zur sozialen und politischen Funktion der zweiten Sophistik in der griechischen Welt der Kaiserzeit. Munich: Beck.
- Swain, S. (1996). Hellenism and empire: Language, classicism, and power in the Greek world, ad 50– 250. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Webb, R. (2006). Fiction, mimesis and the performance of the past in the Second Sophistic. In D. Konstan & S. Saïd (eds.), Greeks on Greekness: Viewing the Greek past under the Roman Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge Philological Society, pp. 27–46.
- Wilamowitz-Möllendorff, U. von (1900). Asianismus und Atticismus. Hermes, 35, 1–52.
- Whitmarsh, T. (2001). Greek literature and the Roman Empire: The politics of imitation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Whitmarsh, T. (2005). The second sophistic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.