Stephen Halliwell’s TLS review of Prosopography of Greek Rhetors and Sophists of the Roman Empire, edited by Paweł Janiszewski, Krystyna Stebnicka, and Elzbieta Szabat, starts with two paragraphs explaining the term “sophist” that I thought were useful (and entertaining) enough to post here:

In his extraordinary work On the Death of Peregrinus, which recounts with malicious relish the career of a strange guru-like figure who committed self-immolation after the Olympic Games of 165 AD, the satirist Lucian refers to Christians (of whom Peregrinus was one for part of his life) as a sect which worshipped “the notorious crucified sophist”. In that loaded term “sophist”, Lucian expects his audience to appreciate the sneering suggestion that Christianity’s founder had speciously laid claim to privileged knowledge and had vaunted it through public teaching. Later in the same work, Lucian calls Peregrinus himself, in a devastating phrase, “a sophist with a death-wish”. Although this Prosopography of Greek Rhetors and Sophists of the Roman Empire claims to include all those Greek-speaking figures in the Roman Empire who are called “sophist” in our sources, it does not in fact find a place for Peregrinus. Ironically, however, it does have an entry for Lucian himself, despite his own general use of the term to denote pseudo-intellectuals or charlatans of whom he witheringly disapproves.

The tidy taxonomies of reference works can easily conceal murky problems of historical interpretation. “Sophist” was a Greek word with a long, semantically tangled history. Originally signifying a specialist or expert in various domains, it came to be especially associated, both positively and negatively, with a fluid class of intellectuals who employed, and sometimes taught, a repertoire of flamboyantly rhetorical methods of self-promotion, including an ability to declaim in virtuoso manner on virtually anything under the sun. By around the end of the first century AD, “sophist” could be used semi-technically of rhetoricians engaging in high-profile epideictic or display rhetoric, or those occupying official chairs of rhetoric at Athens, Rome and elsewhere – figures, that is, who supposedly define the era which modern historians, not without awkwardness, call the Second Sophistic. It is clear, though, that the cachet (for some) of “sophist” resisted precise definition. When the otherwise unknown Charidemus of Byzantium died at the age of only twenty, his family put the single word “sophist”, alongside his name and age, on the inscription on his tomb, leaving posterity to ponder its resonance. But as we see from Lucian, “sophist” never ceased to be an ambivalent category: available equally for assertions of prestige and as a marker of suspicion and contempt.

The review is not favorable: “absurdly meagre and evasive statement… spuriously positivist agenda… one of several major issues which this book tends to obscure…” And here’s a beautiful example of damning with faint praise: “The three Polish historians who have compiled this volume deserve credit for their industry in collecting and referencing a great deal of biographical information, even if much of it is readily to hand elsewhere (and even if their scholarship, though mostly serviceable, is far from impeccable: Greek gets garbled, there are frequent misprints, and the translation sometimes lapses).” Ouch!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    In Keats’ “Lamia”, the hapless hero’s revered old teacher is several times described pretty positively as a “sophist.” This being Keats, though, there’s a very distinct ambiguity about the whole thing. A bit along the lines of the Wordsworthian condemnation of murdering to dissect (though the point is made a good bit more subtly by Keats than in that frightful poem.)

  2. Interestingly, the words “sophistry” and “sophism” appear in English in the fourteenth century, coming to us from French, and both terms are pretty unambiguously negative. “Sophist” does not appear for another couple hundred years, taken (slightly more directly) from Latin, and in English it retains the ambiguity found in the Greek and Latin terminology. (From the seventeenth century, there is also the now-obsolete female form “sophistress”.)

  3. This makes me hungry to read a history of those called sophists, even if not this book.

  4. The case for the sophists isn’t really available in the ancient sources: we only hear from their enemy, Plato. So the only way to defend them is in fiction or semi-fiction, like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

  5. A hundred quid per book for “collecting and referencing a great deal of biographical information … readily to hand elsewhere” isn’t a bad return.

    Merriam-Webster says: “Latin sophista, from Greek sophistēs, literally, expert, wise man, from sophizesthai to become wise, deceive, from sophos clever, wise”,

    a definition that suggests the pejorative meaning has been there a very, very long time.

  6. Greg Pandatshang says

    Incidentally, Roger Parvus, writing a few years ago on Vridar, argued that Peregrinus was the true author of the Ignatian letters:

    Peregrinus, if I’m not mistaken, holds the distinction of being the first Christian attested in a non-Christian source. Hmmm, well, I suppose Josephus does mention James the Just (and Jesus to boot), but Peregrinus would be the first attested post-canonical Christian, and, since Lucian met him, the first attested firsthand.

  7. David Marjanović says

    I suppose Josephus does mention James the Just (and Jesus to boot)

    Widely thought to be an interpolation.

  8. Stephen C. Carlson says

    Widely thought to be an interpolation.
    Not so widely anymore. The most common position now is that the Jesus passage is partially interpolated, and the James one is legit. See Alice Whealey, Josephus on Jesus (2003).

  9. Greg Pandatshang says

    Unsurprisingly for a reader of Vridar, I am entirely open to the possibility that the words “the brother of Jesus called Christ” or just the words “called Christ” in this passage are an interpolation, which would potentially make it a story about some other James or some other brothers James and Jesus. Note that there is another Jesus mentioned by name in the passage. Indeed, this thought influenced by initial inclination to call Peregrinus the first attested Christian. However, it seemed only fair to mention the probably more widespread view that Josephus does attest James the Just.

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