A Hellenistic Jewel Box.

From G.W. Bowersock’s NYRB review [archived] of “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World,” a 2016 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

The final galleries in the exhibition deliver us into the new age with an enigmatic bronze portrait bust of Juba II, the Augustan king of Mauretania (today’s Morocco). He is one of the emblematic figures of the newly formed Roman Empire. In his own person he sums up the complexity of the Mediterranean world that followed the Hellenistic kingdoms. He was a North African possessed of a curiosity and erudition that would have embarrassed even Saint Augustine, another North African of three centuries later. Juba presided over a realm at the southwestern corner of Rome’s empire where Greek was read and spoken, and through his marriage to Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s daughter he had acquired strong ties with Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. He was a learned and multilingual scholar who furnished the results of his researches on Arabia to Augustus’s grandson, Gaius Caesar, as he was planning an expedition into the region. Juba’s kingdom was a kind of Hellenistic jewel box that kept Greek learning alive in the West even as the Roman government in Italy was growing increasingly autocratic.

If I knew about Juba and his Hellenophile kingdom, I’d forgotten. (The whole review, which is not behind the paywall, is worth reading as a roundup of the Roman/Hellenistic interface in general and Pergamon in particular.)

Update (May 2024). The review is now behind the paywall, so I have added an archived link.


  1. I should mention that the review starts out in a surprising and LH-appropriate way:

    In January 1880 the great Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, author of Fathers and Sons and one of the most cosmopolitan Russian writers of the time, was visiting Berlin, when he paid a visit to the Altes Museum. What he saw there not only made a profound impression upon him personally but marked the beginning of a momentous transformation in European understanding of the art and culture of the ancient Mediterranean world. He had been standing before a group of monumental reliefs that German archaeologists, after complex negotiations with the Ottoman sultan, had recently imported from the upper city, or citadel, above the small village of Bergama in western Turkey, north of Smyrna (Izmir). Turgenev was ecstatic, and in March of the same year he published his reaction in a rapturous article that appeared in a liberal journal devoted to European culture, Vestnik Evropy (European Herald).

  2. David Marjanović says

    kept Greek learning alive in the West even as the Roman government in Italy was growing increasingly autocratic

    …these have nothing to do with each other…?

  3. True. An odd phrasing.

  4. Stu Clayton says

    “Intellectuals Responsible For Crackdown”, dixit Vaticanus

  5. David Marjanović says

    Also from the article:

    The old king Attalus III, in an unexpected and unprecedented act of goodwill toward Rome, had bequeathed his entire kingdom to Rome in 133 BC.

    I don’t know any details, but I once read it wasn’t unexpected at all: the good man despaired and gave in to Roman pressure to spare his people a war.

  6. Well, it may have been unexpected to his people.

  7. Who started daubing “Romanes eunt domus” on walls.

  8. I didn’t know of Juba, but Jugurtha of Numidia a generation or two before was familiar to me from an old comic book (Vernal & Hermann, 1975).

  9. That sort of thing was not unheard of among the kings of Roman client-states who foresaw a disputed succession (often meaning civil war) or a non-Roman invasion after their deaths. Nicomedes IV of Bithynia did the same in order to forestall a takeover by Mithridates VI of Pontus, the one who “died old” due to ingesting small amounts of poisons to make himself immune. ObHat: mithridatum ‘universal remedy’ mithridates ‘book on comparative linguistics’ (in the 16-18C). Ptolemy VIII left his kingdom to Rome conditional on having no direct heirs (to make it pointless for his brother to assassinate him), but in fact he later had a son, so the transfer was not implemented.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    St. Augustine rather famously didn’t really know Greek, despite being not quite so far off in the bottom left corner of the map as King Juba had been. But I’m not sure if Augie was really embarrassed by that lack, rather than forging ahead and acting as if one could have opinions worth considering even if one communicated only in some vulgar βάρβαροι tongue like Latin. And soon enough Western Europe had an intellectual class that thought it could, like Augustine, get by w/o any Greek, so his fake-it-til-you-make-it approach was seemingly vindicated.

  11. David Marjanović says

    mithridates ‘book on comparative linguistics’ (in the 16-18C)

    …because the good man was said to have spoken random numbers of languages like 22 and 50.

  12. As discussed here (almost seven years ago?!).

  13. David Marjanović says

    Fruit flies like a banana.

  14. That sentence, though apt enough for its purpose, doesn’t really express a truth, which would be Fruit flies like bananas (thus destroying the symmetry). I can only read it, without great pain, as either ‘There is a (particular) banana which fruit flies like’, or as ‘Fruit flies like one banana each’, both of which are false.

  15. Really? It seems unexceptionable to me, a parallel to “Irishmen do like a Guinness” or “young people like a loud band.”

  16. I finally had a chance to confirm my vague memory: a complete six-line epigram of Juba survives, preserved not in the Greek Anthology, which provides most of our stock, but in Athenaeus’ gigantic dialogue The Deipnosophists or The Learned Banqueters, Book VIII, section 343e. The context is easy, the poem itself less so. I quote S. Douglas Olson’s version in Volume IV of the new Loeb Athenaeus, pages 66-67:

    “The Argive tragic actor Leonteus – he was a student of Athenion and a slave of Juba the king of Mauretania – was also a glutton, according to Amarantus in his On the Stage, in which he claims that Juba wrote the following epigram about Leonteus when he did a bad job of acting in the Hypsipyle [of Euripides]:

    ‘When you behold me, the cardoon-eating voice of the tragic actor
    Leonteus, do not believe that you look upon Hypsipyle’s ugly heart.
    For I was once Bacchus’ friend, nor did his gold-spangled ears
    get as much pleasure from any other voice.
    But now earthenware pots and dry frying-pans
    have taken away my voice, since I paid more attention to my belly.'”

    Juba and his epigram are edited and discussed in D. L. Page, Further Greek Epigrams (Cambridge, 1981), 65-67, who calls this squib “presumably authentic” and adds: “His work is highly praised by Pliny, Plutarch, and others, and the present epigram, which is distinctive and almost too ambitious in style, attests much greater virtuosity than is generally accredited to his prose writings nowadays; Jacoby (RE 9.2388) calls him a mere quoter, or at best compiler, from the books of others, to be congratulated only on the possession of an excellent library and the services of competent secretaries.” Page finds the first couplet “almost too cryptic even by the standards of a style practised by some Alexandrian poets and evidently admired by Juba”.

  17. That sort of thing was not unheard of among the kings of Roman client-states

    Apparently there was no legitimate male member of the family left.

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