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Greek texts offer fascinating glimpse of multicultural Roman Empire

Casper de Jonge, Professor of Greek Language and Literature, believes that Greek texts from the Roman Empire are more interesting than was first thought. They offer a fascinating glimpse of the polyphonic and multicultural world of the Roman Empire. Inaugural lecture on 7 October.

The ‘hits’ from ancient Greek literature, such as Homer’s Odyssey, the classical tragedies and Plato’s dialogues, come from the heyday of the Greek world (8th to 5th centuries BC). But a huge number of texts were written in Greek in the Roman period too (1st century BC to 5th century AD). The writers came from all corners of the Roman Empire, especially the east because Greek was a kind of lingua franca: non-Greeks also embraced the Greek language and culture. For long, these Greek texts were not particularly rated. They were thought to be too nostalgic and too hung up on the ‘classical’ period when Greece ruled the roost. The authors (so the thinking goes) dreamt only about the past and ignored their own time.

Casper de Jonge

Casper de Jonge, Professor of Greek Language and Literature, sees it differently. He is studying various Greek-speaking authors and argues that their works offer insight into the cultural diversity of the Roman world. One example that he will give in his inaugural lecture is the relatively unknown poet Crinagoras of Mytilene from the island of Lesbos. A number of Crinagoras’s poems have survived. One of these is usually seen as a classical paean to the Roman general and later emperor Tiberius. But a closer look reveals that the text actually raises critical questions about the Roman treatment of enslaved Armenians and Germanic peoples. And in other Greek texts De Jonge discovered passages that give a voice to marginal groups in the Roman world. For instance, the critic Longinus places Homer next to Moses and the Iliad next to Genesis. Greek literature thus moves nimbly between Greek, Roman and local perspectives.

What makes you want to study Greek texts from the Roman period?

‘The Roman period is fascinating because it’s a kind of new, globalising world in which all sorts of cultures and identities come together, from Spain to Syria. Greek was a common language that kept the communication going between all these groups, especially in the eastern part of the Empire. What I find exciting about this is that literature often stems from migration: these Greek texts are written by people who are moving within the Roman Empire. They often move to Rome but they write in Greek. This mobility creates a context in which they dare to speak out about the world.’

Your appointment means Leiden University now has two professors of Greek language and literature (alongside Ineke Sluiter, ed.). You could say that Leiden is a bit hung up on the classics.

‘Yes,’ he laughs. ‘You should keep what is good about the classics, and expand it even. But in the research into Greek literature, you are not just concerned with the past because the texts also have a lot to say about the present. Ineke Sluiter has shown how antiquity can offer all sorts of perspectives on today’s challenges. In a way I do that too because migration and cultural interaction are important contemporary themes. I think it offers enlightening perspectives if we look through the eyes of history at how people dealt with migration in other times and the stories they told about it.

What kind of perspective, for example?

‘When people come to the Netherlands, we often emphasise that they should first learn the Dutch language. If I look at migrants in the Roman empire, they sometimes learn Latin but also continue to use Greek as the international language.  Greek allows them to have an independent, non-Roman voice in their texts. The Romans in turn really valued the Greek language and culture and wanted to take these as an example. Such a mutual, open attitude towards each other’s language and culture could also be good in our times and lead to more interaction.’

What will be your focal points for the coming period in terms of research and teaching?

‘I’d like to further develop the theme of migration and literature in antiquity. A couple of young PhD candidates are now working on Greek poems from the Roman period as migrant literature. It’s a theme that sheds new light on antiquity and makes a connection to the present. In my teaching I want to seek even more collaboration with other disciplines, such as Assyriology, Egyptology and Ancient History. My colleague Rens Tacoma is researching inscriptions on migrants’ graves (at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities, among others). We want to compare these with literary texts on migration and also want to actively involve students in that research.’

Text: Jan Joost Aten
Image: Unsplash

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