Gaming Greekness: Cultural Agonism among Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire

Allan T. Georgia, Gaming Greekness: Cultural Agonism among Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire (Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2020). 9781463241230.

Reviewed by Elizabeth R. Davis, Brown University,

The fraught interactions between pagans, Christians, and Jews throughout the centuries of the Roman Empire have long been a rich field of scholarly inquiry. Georgia’s monograph is a sophisticated contribution to the field, taking up the slippery notion of “Greekness” as it functions in the literature of the late 1st through early 3rd centuries to demonstrate its power as cultural capital. He argues that during these centuries, Christian and Jewish communities consciously employed notions of Greekness, and paideia in particular, to gain footholds in the early Empire and assert their legitimacy. Georgia applies the lens of game theory to an impressive array of literary sources, demonstrating the agonistic aspects of this cultural discourse. The result is a nuanced, albeit at times disorganized, discussion of the ongoing processes of Christian and Jewish identity formation in this turbulent period.

Gaming Greekness is divided into six chapters, with the first chapter serving as an introduction and each subsequent chapter taking up one or two specific texts or authors, ultimately ending with a brief conclusion. Chapter 1 (“Gaming the System: Cultural Competition and the Stakes of ‘Greekness’ in the Early Roman Empire”) introduces Georgia’s theoretical framework and provides a general background to the Second Sophistic period (the “renaissance” of Greek literature and rhetoric among Roman elites in the late 1st through early 3rd centuries CE) and the Christian and Jewish engagements with this intellectual moment. The chapter, and indeed the premise of the monograph as a whole, is framed around what Georgia calls “Isocrates’ gambit,” the idea advanced in his 4th-century-BCE text Panegyricus that Greekness is centered around paideia, the idealized system of Greek cultural education. Greekness thus could belong to those who partook in Greek culture, which (in Georgia’s lens of game theory) launched a cross-cultural competition over what and who could comprise Greekness over the centuries; this competition held great sway over the Roman elite.

Chapter 2 (“‘In and Out of the Game’: Favorinus, Lucian and The Strategic Possibilities of Competing for Greekness”) examines the writings of the 2nd-century-CE authors Favorinus and Lucian to explore the various ways they employed Greekness in their self-representations. For example, Georgia argues that Favorinus’s Corinthian Oration taps into Hellenistic discourses and tropes to present him as sufficiently Hellenized, thereby asserting his place on the Roman stage. Through a close reading of the text, Georgia illustrates Favorinus’s use of agonistic language to cultivate his image. While the chapter is engagingly written, its connection to the book’s broader premise is not well-articulated; although both Favorinus and Lucian hail from the Roman provinces, making them “outsiders” in a physical (if not cultural) sense, neither writer is Christian or Jewish. This chapter is thus a bit of a missed opportunity to launch into Christian and Jewish literature and connect to the book’s central premise that much sooner.

The third (“Paul’s Understudy: Recasting Paul as a 2nd Century Cultural Competitor”) and fourth (“Piety and Paideia: Jews Dying like Greeks in front of Romans in 4 Maccabees”) chapters do turn to Christian and Jewish literature, with Chapter 3 examining Paul’s apostolic persona in his letters (and the letters amassed under his name) and Chapter 4 exploring the rhetorical strategies of 4 Maccabees. These two chapters were the most convincing case studies; Georgia deftly marshals the (incredibly vast) Pauline literature and scholarship to demonstrate Paul’s persona as a public intellectual was deeply steeped in Greek philosophical discourse, which thereby allowed him to engage with diverse audiences spanning the Mediterranean. Similarly, Georgia reads 4 Maccabees through the lens of competition to show how Jewish piety was refracted through a paideutic lens, thereby asserting Jewish legitimacy in the Roman context. In these chapters, the use of paideia as cultural currency is shown to be a varied practice. Paul uses it to cannily navigate the Mediterranean cultural landscape as he (and his later “ghostwriters”) spreads the Christian message, while the anonymous author of 4 Maccabees (perhaps Josephus, though Georgia acknowledges the scholarly debate) employs paideia both as a theme in the text and as a literary strategy to assert the importance of Jewish piety in the face of persecution.

Chapters 5 (“The Parting of the Ways Had Greek Road Signs: Posture, Deportment and the Philosophical Marketplace in the Frame Narrative of Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho”) and 6 (“The Monster at the End of [T]his Book: Hybridity as Theological Strategy and Cultural Critique in Tatian’s Against the Greeks”) build on the strength of the previous chapters to further demonstrate the variety of expressions and uses Greekness took in the religious literature of this period. In Chapter 5, Georgia presents a close reading of the 2nd century Christian author Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho to show the strategies at play in the contest for legitimacy: Justin sets the dialogue in a colonnaded area of an unmistakably Greek port city and employs subtle elements, such as facial expressions and clothing choices, to claim Greek culture for the Christians while denying it to the Jews. The case study of Chapter 6, Tatian’s Against the Greeks, takes a sharp turn away from the others: Georgia argues that Tatian undermines the premise of paideia as cultural capital and, thereby, Isocrates’ gambit of what makes a Greek. While other Christian and Jewish authors sought to employ paideia to assert their validity, Tatian instead lays the whole enterprise bare through his self-portrayal as a “monstrous” Greek/barbarian hybrid, capable of seeing past Isocrates’ account of Greekness as a bounded and ultimately Greek phenomenon. By exploring the mutual influences of Greeks, Romans, and barbarians, Tatian could thus wrest paideia from the auspices of cultural prestige by exposing its “ethnicity-defying” roots. Finally, Georgia’s brief conclusion looks ahead to the continued, albeit much changed, use of Greekness by the Christian authors of Late Antiquity.

Georgia presents a convincing case for the applicability of game theory to the Christian and Jewish literature of the early Roman Empire. In describing the struggle for Christian and Jewish legitimacy in the Roman world as a “non-zero-sum game” (one in which there may not be a strict “winner” or “loser,” and all sides involved may variously cooperate as well as compete), the variety of rhetorical uses of Greekness is better explained. All types of engagement with Greekness are not created equal, nor are they used for precisely the same objectives or in front of the same audience; Christian and Jewish authors use Greekness for different purposes and functions within the complex and constantly shifting cultural dynamic that characterizes the early Roman Empire. That said, while Georgia makes the mechanics of this competition clear, the stakes are less so. The possible consequences of engaging, or perhaps more importantly, not engaging, in this game are not adequately addressed. There remains an open question of whether employing Greekness and paideia truly got the authors closer to their goals, and whether these motifs function as strongly in a preponderance of Christian and Jewish literature or just the case studies outlined here. Additionally, the book would have benefitted from a deeper discussion of the colonial dynamics of the Roman Empire. Chapter 1 alludes to the broader questions of power and empire operating between Roman authority and Greek culture, and Chapter 6 discusses Tatian’s self-image as an ‘outsider’ in the Empire; however, the text as a whole misses an opportunity to engage more deeply with the Roman imperialism and colonization that underlies each case study.

Georgia has a clear command of the state of his field and the prior scholarly work on this topic, evidenced by the heavy footnotes throughout. The theoretical and methodological grounding of Georgia’s work are thus clearly demonstrated, allowing one to see precisely where his contribution fits within scholarship. However, as a result, the book is densely packed with references to primary and secondary sources which sometimes distract from the point at hand; for example, Chapter 4 jumps from a close reading of 4 Maccabees to a detailed discussion of the rhetoric surrounding kingship in the writings of Horace. While these explorations certainly provide context and grounding, they do make for a somewhat challenging reading experience. Additionally, each case study could have benefitted from the briefest introduction to the life and works of each chosen author.

However, these criticisms do not detract from Georgia’s overall thesis. As I read the final chapter in which Tatian pulls back the curtain on the use of paideia as cultural currency, I could not help but draw a parallel to the work that Georgia himself has done in writing this monograph. Georgia has successfully troubled the waters of Isocrates’ gambit, raising important questions regarding the uses, abuses, imitations, and tropes of Greekness in the early Roman Empire. Gaming Greekness is an impressive contribution to studies of the cultural and religious dynamics of the early Empire, standing on the shoulders of the field’s many giants to explicate the rulebook of the competition at hand.

Table of Contents

1. Gaming the System: Cultural Competition and the Stakes of “Greekness” in the Early Roman Empire (1–56)
2. “In and Out of the Game”: Favorinus, Lucian and The Strategic Possibilities of Competing for Greekness (57–106)
3. Paul’s Understudy: Recasting Paul as a 2nd Century Cultural Competitor (107–68)
4. Piety and eia: Jews Dying like Greeks in front of Romans in 4 Maccabees (169–216)
5. The Parting of the Ways Had Greek Road Signs: Posture, Deportment and the Philosophical Marketplace in the Frame Narrative of Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (217–60)
6. The Monster at the End of [T]his Book: Hybridity as Theological Strategy and Cultural Critique in Tatian’s Against the Greeks (261–98)
Conclusion (299–304)


1. Since reading this book, I have been looking at texts with an eye to agonistic language and to the tacit value of paideia and seeing these themes everywhere! How did you select which authors and texts to focus on to encapsulate your argument? Were there other case studies you considered?

I appreciate this question because it allows me to emphatically agree about how many examples demonstrate this kind of dynamic. I was focused on places where this competing for Greek cultural legitimacy intersected with Christian and Jewish literature. So that factored into my decision-making. This cultural game was being played in all sorts of places, and at various levels, so many other examples could be raised. The one that was “on the cutting room floor” (as it were) was the emperor Claudius’ Letter to the Alexandrians (P. Lond. 1912), which I see as an explicit example of a prisoner’s dilemma (a longstanding thought experiment in game theory in which two captured prisoners have to decide whether to inform on the other without knowing whether the other had talked or not, with inter-dependent outcomes based on what each chose. If both are silent, they both get less time. If only one speaks, the speaker goes free. If both talk, both get charged and sentenced to more time than if they were both silent.) In this case, two communities (representing the prisoners) “talk” in appeal to the emperor, and both suffer outcomes that result from aggressive moves against one another. What payoffs may have come had these two communities learned to cooperate, rather than appeal to Rome? To me, that is a very intriguing question.

2. What do you think the role of the audience of each text was in the “contest”—i.e., was the “game” played only by the authors in the process of writing, or were readers drawn into the process of meaning-making and competition as well? Does the process differ depending on who was reading?

I imagine the “game” to have been culture-wide––wrapped up in writing, reading, talking and scribing, but also in clothes, food, artistic taste, etc., etc. A reader (or listener) who encountered Tatian, for example, was brought into a necessarily complex part of the game because the cultural competency to read his argument entailed subjecting oneself to the critique he leveled. But it also empowered a reader to pass judgment on a speaker and weigh in on the credibility of whoever was performing Greekness. By contrast, the author of 4 Maccabees is unknown to us, but the text betrays his/her awareness as a reader and learnerthat poses very interesting questions about how that individual was introduced to the themes and motifs that are employed in 4 Maccabees.

3. Do you plan to continue this research, perhaps with new case studies or looking at how the “game” changes moving into Late Antiquity?

That’s a tough question––research these days is wrapped up in an academic employment situation that has become dire. But my hope was/is to engage how the cultural influence of Greek culture patterned how cultural issues were competed over in other late-ancient discourses. Two I had in mind to consider included the influence of Greek rhetoric and rhetorical forms on the Coptic-language literature of Shenoute of Atripe, who is so often credited as the greatest writer/speaker in Coptic, and also the preference for rhetorical ekphrasis among Greek intellectuals as an influence on the iconoclastic movement of the sixth and seventh centuries. Not sure if I’ll have the chance to get to those projects, but certainly there are many avenues for further inquiry.

Thank you for your answers—I greatly enjoyed your book and will certainly continue to ponder these notions of competition and exchange moving forward. Hoping to see more of your work in the future!

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    Because I can't shut up, this welcome and insightful discussion helped me sharpen some things I was trying to express. I fully expect this to die in the comments, but I wrote some of my thoughts here


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