Kees Geluk

The Natural Rise of an Empire: an Ecocritical Study into Late Hellenistic and Early Imperial Greek Poetry

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Be it tunnels or roads, deforestations or wind turbines: landscape alterations often elicit strong human responses. This kind of environmental engagement is not new. In my project, I aim to show how Greek-speaking intellectuals responded to the rising Roman power by engaging in a debate about the non-human world – not only landscape, but also animals, plants and trees – and the place of man in it.


During the first century BCE, Rome increasingly gained power, and when Octavian in 31 BCE conquered Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the rulers of the last remaining Hellenistic kingdom, he decisively united the eastern and western parts of the Mediterranean into one empire. Greek-speaking intellectuals from the east – poets, rhetoricians, philosophers – had to accommodate themselves to this new empire, with a new, absolute ruler. Many of them travelled to Rome to start teaching and writing there. Scholarly emphasis has been placed on the political position and cultural identity of these Greek-speaking migrants in Rome, focusing on concepts as Hellenism, archaism, classicism and παιδεία. Indeed, for our understanding of how they gave this new political and cultural order a place, the insights into the negotiation and interaction between different identities are invaluable. In this project, it is my hypothesis that these migrants were also engaged in a much larger debate, about the non-human world and the place of man in it. Not only do their literary utterances inform us about their position in relation to the new power, they also reveal underlying assumptions on how society as a whole related to the natural world.

Research question

This project will therefore try to answer the following question: how do Greek poetic texts of the late Hellenistic and early imperial periods present and construct the relationship between the rise of the Roman empire and the natural world in which this takes place? To understand this, I propose that the concept of anchoring innovation is crucial: to make sense of the new reality, these poets had to somehow connect the innovation (the new Roman empire) to what they themselves already knew, believed and valued about the natural world – the anchors. More simply put: how do they anchor the rise of Rome in the non-human world?

Corpus & theory

My main corpus is the Garland of Philip, a collection of Greek literary epigrams, compiled by Philip of Thessalonica. It includes almost 600 short poems – the only type of Greek poetry surviving from the early empire – written by around 40 poets, coming from different parts of the Mediterranean. Besides the non-human world, political Rome plays a prominent role in many of them, not in the least because some of the poets, like Crinagoras of Mytilene and Philip of Thessalonica, travelled to Rome and sought patronage at the Imperial court. The theory that grounds my approach is the concept of ecocriticism, which has been increasingly popular in literary studies over the last decades, but only really gained a foothold in classical scholarship in the last 5-6 years. It focuses on literary representations of the relationship between humans and the environment and interrogates the paradigm of nature and environment serving as resources for man. By more carefully and critically examining the role of nature, not merely dismissing it as ‘background’, an ecocritical perspective can offer insight into the way in which the poets of the Garland conceived of contemporary societal developments through man’s relationship with natural phenomena, such as landscape, animals, trees and plants (nature in a wide-ranging sense).