Indiana University Bloomington

Romantic Hellenism and Ritualistic Oratory in Aelius Aristides’ To Rome

Sam Stubblefield, religious studies
Written for IU Overseas Study Abroad Program, Oxford
Instructor: Panayiotis Christoforou

 Aelius Aristides’ oration to Rome seems to challenge second sophistic philhellenism: Rome is the harmonious cosmopolis that knows no rival, that supersedes all former glory.[1] In Rome, men are free. In Rome, no foreign power challenges imperial authority. In Rome, all are one under the beneficent care of the emperor and his magistrates. While some scholars have attributed Aristides’ encomiastic tone to sycophancy, professional self-interest,[2] and/or the generic demands of panegyric,[3] such an explanation fails to account for intriguing structural and thematic aspects of the text itself, especially when viewed with an eye towards the cultural milieu in which it was composed and delivered. Namely, Aristides paints Rome and the emperor with the same brush he and his contemporaries use to create Attic Greece. Accordingly, he works hard to separate Roman and Hellenistic achievements, since both are unrivaled, through explicit argumentation on the matter as well as more elusive stylistic techniques. Since this particular treatment of Rome would be fully intelligible only in a second sophistic context, it is thus emblematic of its time. In order to show the oration’s Hellenizing portrayal of Rome, I will investigate four important themes therein: the harmony of governor and governed; the providential dispensation of knowledge; Rome as a cosmopolis coextensive with the inhabited world (οἰκουμένη); and Rome as the foundation upon which (or body within which) philhellenism is able to flourish.

I must make a qualification before beginning the argument proper. I am not suggesting the presence of consistency within Aelius Aristides’ literary corpus. He was a rhetor, after all, and the job of a rhetor was not to treat all subjects in a logically coherent manner, but to persuade and dissuade. Aristides’ Panathenaic oration “praises Athens as the creator and centre of an empire of culture that embraces the whole world.”[4] This comprehensive, cosmic portrayal of Athens at once runs contrary to the comprehensive, cosmic portrayal of Rome and suggests that perhaps Aristides was not concerned with logical consistency across his oeuvre. Rather, he had at his disposal a panoply of rhetorical and cultural techniques and topoi that he applied with various nuance in all his orations.[5] The particularities of his methods are what is symptomatic of the second sophistic, not necessarily unqualified and exclusive adulation of Attic Greece. This is further attested by the fact that Aristides may be an outlier in his respect for Roman rule: “it is clear that he favoured the Roman system as it existed in practice in a way which is untrue of both Plutarch and Dio. There is only a very slight trace of any resignation about the Greek cities’ dependency on Rome.”[6] Simon Swain traces this tendency to prosopographical evidence of close ties to Roman administration and the relative stability of the empire under Pius, Marcus, and Commodus. Regardless of Aristides’ exceptional fondness for Rome as compared with some of his contemporaries and predecessors, what matters, as I will show, is that he treats Rome in a manner undeniably characteristic of the second sophistic even if overtly contrary to exclusive philhellenism.

Aristides does not come to Rome for the purpose of speechmaking. The oration is delivered in lieu of a sacrificial offering to the gods, presented as a necessary and pious accessory to Aristides’ unstated primary agenda: “As for me the vow that I made as I journeyed hither was not of the usual stupid (ἄμουσος) and irrelevant (ἐκμελής) kind, nor one unrelated to the art of my profession: merely that if I came through safely I would salute your city with a public address.”[7] Following the analogy between sacrifice and oratory to its logical conclusion, to praise Rome is thus to praise the gods. In order to do so, however, Aristides must invite audience participation.[8] Adumbrating later themes of harmony, he suggests that the oration will be musical by virtue of his opposition to a discordant––ἄμουσος and ἐκμελής––sacrifice.[9] However, since Rome is no ordinary subject of praise, the prayers of his audience must join with those of Aristides in order for the encomium to reflect the reality of the relationship between the governor(s) and the governed. Concord is the necessary encomiastic prerequisite for an empire characterized by concord. Interestingly, Aristides next characterizes himself as unmusical (ἄμουσος) so long as he is without men able to inspire eloquence greater than what would otherwise be possible.[10]

While Swain is skeptical of Aristides’ belief in the divinity of the emperor,[11] the coalescence of language pertaining to sacrifice, prayer, harmony, and the empire cannot go unnoticed. Regardless of the rhetor’s actual belief in imperial divinity (if belief is even a viable category), Aristides obviously intends to set forth an alliance between the divine and Roman governance in preparation for later, more detailed, treatment of rulership. Indeed, Aristides’ Cyzicene oration explicitly connects imperial cult with the relationship between the elite and the masses since, in conditions of good rulership, the gods are aligned with the few who lead the many.[12]

What, though, does the structure of Roman governance look like? To Rome presents the emperor in absolutist terms using two principal metaphors, one having to do with music, the other with masters and slaves. The former was foreshadowed in the preface while the latter follows logically from the specific way in which Aristides envisions musicianship:


But for the eternal duration of this empire the whole civilized world prays all together, emitting, like an aulos after a thorough cleaning, one note with more perfect precision than a chorus; so beautifully is it harmonized by the leader in command. . . . All directions are carried out by the chorus of the civilized world at a word or gesture of guidance more easily than at some plucking of a chord; and if anything need be done, it suffices to decide and there it is already done.[13]


The emperor plays the governed as a flute, but he is no tyrant over mindless, slavish plebs. No, he knows them better than they know themselves, and so his absolutism is the ultimate exercise of liberality.[14] “Like a chorus waiting for a trainer,” the governors appeal to the emperor should any question arise.[15] They too “are all equally among the ruled, and in particular they differ from those under their rule in that it is they––one might assert––who first show how to be the right kind of subject.”[16] The gap between musical imagery and despotism is small indeed. “Accordingly,” says Aristides, “they fear his displeasure and stand in great awe of him than one would of a despot (δεσπότης), a master who was present and watching and uttering commands.”[17] But, intriguingly, Aristides pains himself to make clear that the emperor is not a δέσποτης in any traditional sense: “nor is the country said to be enslaved, as household of so-and-so, to whomsoever it has been turned over, a man himself not free.”[18] Moreover, Aristides locates the Persians’ failure in their lack of differentiation between government and slave-management: “For the word ‘master’ (δεσπότης) applies properly within the circle of a private household; when it extends to cities and nations, the role is hard to keep up.[19] Yet Aristides himself extends Roman despotism not only to cities and nations, but to the inhabited world (οἰκουμένη). He all but forthrightly hails the emperor as δεσπότης without revealing his hand.

As regards mode of government, To Rome is littered with Hellenism. In the sections I have just examined, usage of aulos and chorus as a metaphor for governance is both contemporaneous with other second sophistic writers and, consequently, with the Greeks of the fifth and fourth centuries.[20] Aristides’ rhetorical question, “Are not these advantages beyond the old ‘Free Republic’ (δημοκρατία) of every people?”[21] at once alludes to the formal sense of democracy in opposition to monarchy and democracy as the traditional sovereignty and constitution of a polis.[22] Imagery of the city-state (πόλις) and inhabited world (οἰκουμένη), which I will later analyze, is present throughout. The most explicit formulation of the relationship with classical Greek governance and Rome occurs near the end of the oration. After listing the “three constitutions in human society,”[23] tyranny/oligarchy, kingship/aristocracy, and democracy, Aristides tells the emperor, “Your state, on the other hand, is quite dissimilar; it is such a form of government as if it were a mixture of all the constitutions without the bad aspects of any one.”[24] When one looks at the perfect balance of the three imperfect constitutions, “he will see in this one, the One who holds the most perfect monarchic rule, One without a share in the vices of a tyrant and One elevated above even kingly dignity.”[25] In this way, Aristides consistently uses a thoroughly Hellenistic vocabulary to speak of Rome, its emperor, and its constitution. Whether or not we should read allusions in To Rome with the specificity of Oliver, whom Simon Swain and others charge with over-allegorizing,[26] Aristides nonetheless relies heavily on second sophistic literary methods; and even if he waxes poetic about Rome’s unsurpassed glory, he creates that Rome with unabashed philhellenism. This is not Tacitus.

Thus far I have neglected to investigate the mechanisms by which Aristides’ rather laudatory appraisal of Roman governance and empire came about. This is important because how Rome became Rome is for Aristides also why Rome is not Greece. In short, the good rulership of Rome is the prerequisite condition for empire. Empire is, in turn, the prerequisite condition for philhellenism, that is to say, culture. One cannot be Greek without also being Roman. I have dealt with good rulership at length, so I will turn first to what kind of empire, exactly, Rome is; then I will examine the relationship between (Roman) empire and (Greek) culture.

Rome cannot properly be spoken of because Rome is incomprehensible in its immensity. Everywhere intelligible life exists, so too does Rome.[27] But within this language of vast expanses, Aristides does also point out that the inhabited world is ruled in the particular by a single city, a single emperor who is the essence of the οἰκουμένη.[28] Thus, one can either travel across the world . . . or see it all in Rome: “[S]o there is a common channel to Rome and all meet here, trade, shipping, agriculture, metallurgy, all the arts and crafts that are or ever have been, all the things that are engendered or grow from the earth. And whatever one does not see here neither did nor does exist.”[29] Since the Roman polis is co-extensive with the cosmos,[30] Aristides can then speak of the city in terms of a cosmic body whose walls are, quite literally, skin, “a barrier of men who have not acquired the habit of flight.”[31] He of course supplements his observation with references to Homer and Euripides.[32] The repeated imagery of a stable, timeless body or polis that constitutes the inhabited world is important because only under such conditions can the second sophistic––and, consequently, the fiction that is Attic Greece––flourish. Paradoxically, though, Rome can only be spoken of in terms of eternity because that is exactly how those in the second sophistic write about Attic Greece.[33]

Be that as it may, Aristides must draw clear distinctions between Rome and Greece. Even if he speaks of Rome as he speaks of Athens, he cannot admit to the fact for purposes I will now explain. Rome’s ability to govern rose commensurate with its imperial power. But how does Rome gain these benefits? “The knowledge how to rule (τὸ ἄρχειν εἰδέναι),” says Aristides, “did not yet exist before your time . . . But this knowledge is both a discovery of your own and to other men an importation from you.”[34] Sophistic affinities between the importation of Roman regnal science and Greek culture aside, this new discovery unknown to the Hellenes poses obvious problems. For the sophist, how can Greece lack the knowledge of something so important as rulership? The key term is knowledge: they simply didn’t have the scientia because this science of rulership is a Roman distinctive. Moreover, since the science itself did not exist, it would have been impossible for the Hellenes to possess this knowledge, as the subsequent catalogue of the Greeks’ regnal failures attests. Accordingly, Aristides establishes the dual superiority of Greece and Rome while avoiding any direct blame on either: “For if it did exist, it would be among the Hellenes, who distinguished themselves for skill (σοφίᾳ), I venture to say, very greatly, at least in the other arts.”[35] Moreover, the science of rulership did exist in a sort of embryonic form in Athens but was “established”[36] (βεβαιωθῆναι) and brought to health by the emperor.[37]

If the emperor/Rome is the end, the telos, of all good that has come before, Aristides (the man who, after all, spent so much time with Asclepius) saw it fit to include prophecies which have now come to pass: “Just as Homer did not fail to realize that your empire was to be, but foresaw it and made a prophecy of it in his epic,” so, too, would have Hesiod, were he as prescient as Homer.[38] One could read this as Romanocentrism at its finest, but doing so would fail to take into account that, according to Aristides, Rome is itself the fulfillment of Greece.[39] Simon Swain says that we should be wary of reading To Rome in a naïve, Romanocentric manner because Aristides, “who had no interest in Roman history or culture, and wanted no part in the system he praised,”[40] had his loyalties firmly set in Greece. If this be true, then we must also apply Aristidian philhellenism to Rome itself: Aristides loves Greece enough to Hellenize Rome.[41]

The fulfillment of prophecy leads to one final note on the Roman oration. Aristides did not engage in oratory for his own glory, but to further the will of Asclepius.[42] “Thus, rather than seeing him as an ambitious man who was afraid of going too far, we would do better to say that he looks like someone who wanted to go as far as he possibly could but was afraid he might not get there on his own.”[43] To Rome is another variation on the theme. Aristides likens the speech to a sacrifice. He first invites his audience to participate with prayers, and he closes his extended hymn with an invocation of all the gods and their children.[44] Rome is, in the end, enjoying good fortune because the god(s) have ordained it so,[45] and the event of the Roman oration is concurrently a direct thanksgiving towards the emperor and empire, and an indirect testament to divine favor. This is consistent with Aristides’ other work, since in the fourth of the Sacred Tales, “the emperors, and the governors of Asia feature extensively, and all of them are in the hands of the god.”[46] The tone is, accordingly, triumphant. Given the debt owed to the emperor (likely Pius, though the date is uncertain), it would make sense for Aristides to offer To Rome as a liturgical act in and of itself––a sort of grand substitute for the positions he consistently and adamantly rejected.[47] This line of argument avoids the temptation to reduce the oration to mere sycophancy and brings Aristides’ characteristic piety to the fore.








[1] In this essay I will take a broad view of the second sophistic as intense Hellenizing and atticizing tendencies ca. 50-250 c.e. Debate concerning the division between sophists, rhetors, and philosophers, as well as the issue of teaching, are important as far as they go, but are of little use for my argument; Cf., E.L. Bowie, “Greeks and Their Past in the Second Sophistic,” Past and Present 46 (1970), passim, 3-4 and esp. T. Whitmarsh, “‘Greece is the World’: exile and identity in the Second Sophistic” in S. Goldhill, ed., Being Greek Under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic, and the Development of Empire (Cambridge: University Press, 2001), 276.

[2] Simon Swain, Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism, and Power in the Greek World, a.d. 50-250 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 283.

[3] Cf. Swain, Hellenism and Empire (1996), 274-5.

[4] E.L. Bowie, “Greeks and Their Past” (1970), 29.

[5] Cf. G. Anderson, “The Second Sophistic: Some Problems of Perspective” in D.A. Russell, ed., Antonine Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 107: “The result, as so often in sophistic literature, is the manipulation of motifs and topoi in ever-more-surprising combinations. When ‘sophistic’ takes possession of any given genre, the result is a distinctive texture which is something more than mere rhetorical elaboration.”

[6] Swain, Hellenism and Empire (1996), 259-60.

[7] “Translation of the Roman Oration” in J.H. Oliver, The Ruling Power: A Study of the Roman Empire in the Second Century After Christ Through the Roman Oration of Aelius Aristides (Philadelphia, PA: The American Philosophical Society, 1980), 1.

[8] Ibid., 2-3.

[9] This is more obviously expressed in Oliver, “Roman Oration” (1980), 108, where Aristides likens his speech to paeans and dithyrambs.

[10] Ibid., 3.

[11] Swain, Hellenism and Empire (1996), 286, 286n123, and 292; Aristides’ intense devotion towards Asclepius leads me to beware of any argument challenging his piety.

[12] Ibid., 287.

[13] Oliver, “Roman Oration” (1980), 29, 31.

[14] Ibid., 32.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 31.

[17] Ibid., 32.

[18] Ibid., 36.

[19] Ibid., 23.

[20] Oliver, Ruling Power (1980), 916-7 identifies Dio Chrysostom’s Discourse XLVII 7 and IV 139 as contemporary evidence and Plato, Laws II 670e and Xenophon, Cyropaedia III 70 as ancient evidence.

[21] Oliver, “Roman Oration” (1980), 38.

[22] Oliver, Ruling Power (1980), 921.

[23] Oliver, “Roman Oration” (1980), 90. Oliver, Ruling Power (1980), 942 identifies the threefold grouping of constitutions with Plato, Politicus 291d-292a and Laws III 693.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Swain, Hellenism and Empire (1996), 275n82.

[27] Oliver, “Roman Oration” (1980), 6-10; 28: “except possibly some that you condemned as worthless.”

[28] Ibid., 9.

[29] Ibid., 11, 13.

[30] Ibid., passim, 93.

[31] Ibid., 84.

[32] Oliver, Ruling Power (1980), 938 further cites Aeschines, Against Ctesiphon 84 and Demosthenes, On the Crown 299.

[33] Cf. Bowie, “Greeks and Their Past ” (1970), n109: “Aristides in the Roman Oration and the Panathenaic Oration puts the case for each empire with equal fluency and (mutatis mutandis) the same arguments.”

[34] Oliver, “Roman Oration” (1980), 51.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., 101.

[37] Ibid., 97; Cf. G. Woolf, “Becoming Roman, Staying Greek: Culture, Identity, and the Civilizing Process in the Roman East,” PCPhS 40 (1994), 119.

[38] Ibid., 106.

[39] Cf. Oliver, Roman Power (1980), 889.

[40] Swain, Hellenism and Empire (1996), 297.

[41] But Cf. G. Woolf, “Becoming Roman” (1994), 135 for a different interpretation: “By intervening to preserve what was good about Greece, through beneficia and law, Hadrian and Marcus show themselves more Roman, not less.” When viewed from the perspective of military/cultural dominance, this view is convincing since those in the Roman empire creates Greece as a fiction. It does not, however, take into account how that interpretation of Greece Hellenizes Rome itself. Moreover, since “Greekness” was no longer coterminous with ethnicity, it too had universalizing tendencies whose relationship to Roman universalism is by no means clear-cut: cf. Whitmarsh, “‘Greece is the World’” (2001), 273.

[42] Though obedience to the will of Asclepius could, unsurprisingly, coincide with an impressive degree of self-importance: cf. F.I. Zeitlin, “Visions and revisions of Homer” in S. Goldhill, ed., Being Greek Under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic, and the Development of Empire (Cambridge: University Press, 2001), 206.

[43] Ibid., 262.

[44] Oliver, “Roman Oration” (1980), 109; cf. Oliver, Ruling Power (1980), 875. I would also do well at this point to note the existence of Aristides’ prose hymns.

[45] Cf. G. Woolf, “Becoming Roman” (1994), 119 for the empire’s governance as an officium or vocation. Aristides perhaps magnifies the theme Woolf identifies.

[46] Swain, Hellenism and Empire (1996), 266.

[47] On Aristides’ debt, cf. G.W. Bowersock, Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (Oxford: University Press, 1969), 45.


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