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Marcus Antonius Polemo

Page history last edited by Rick Cole 13 years, 1 month ago




Bust of Polemo found at the Temple of Zeus in Athens.



Marcus Anotonius Polemo 

Polemo was a second-century, sophistic rhetorician and statesman. He is also called by the Greek name Polemon, Polemo of Smyrna, and Polemon of Laodicea. Much of what is known about Polemo comes to us through Philostratus's Lives of the Sophists.



Early Life: Privilege, Education and Power.


In 88 AD, Polemo was born in Laodicea (near the modern day city of Denizli, in Southwest Turkey). Most of his life, however, was spent in the Greek coastal city of Smyrna, a culturally and sophistically significant city.


Polemo was born to a noble family, tracing its history into the late republic. Distinguished members of Polemo’s family include kings in the regions of Pontus and Thrace and Marcus Antonius Zeno who reached the level of suffect consulate (an appointment to the highest elected office in the Roman Republic). Polemo's home was said to be the finest in the entire city of Smyrna. Polemo maintained ties to both Laodicea and Smyrna throughout his life, where he was an honored citizen whose patronage aided both cities.


In Smyrna, Polemo studied rhetoric under Scopelianus of Clazomenae, an eloquent speaker whose students came from throughout the empire. Polmemo’s other teachers include philosopher Timocrates and Dio Chrysostom. He was a gifted orator known for having a quick wit and for eschewing progymnasmata, the typical rhetorical exercise students were required to do. He preferred performing declamations, presumably where he could demonstrate his mental agility.


Polemo’s career as a rhetorician, and important figure in the revival of Greek thought known as the Second Sophistic, is largely attributed to his, and his family's high standing in society. There is a well-known account about Polemo’s boldness, one that is more in keeping with a patrician than a mere rhetorician, where Polemo expelled the future Roman emperor Antoninus Pius out of his home while Antoninus was the Governor of Asia. Polemo’s long lineage of wealth and privilege also meant that he had been a recipient of a very fine classical Greek education. Polemo's renown and historical significance is largely due to his role in resurrecting, performing and adapting that education to Roman society in the second century. 


Career: The Public Intellectual


If the Second Sophistic were personified, Polemo would be that man. The period represents a sort of rennaisance for Greek rhetoric, literature, thought and education within the Roman world. Greece became a cultural center for the Empire. A classical Greek education became standard for rich and or powerful elites from Rome and the rest of the empire. Polemo, with his wealth, pedigree, powerful associations, classic education, and rhetorical skill, was a perfect ambassador or representative product of this relationship between culture and power. 


Polemo’s rise to political significance can be marked by his appointment as Smyrna’s representative to the emperor Trajan. He replaced his teacher Scopelianes in this role. Polemo also served as ambassador for the Emperors Hadrian and the aforementioned Antoninus Pius. On one special occasion, Hadrian invited Polemo to speak in Athens at the consecration of the temple of Olympian Zeus, thereby honoring Polemo as a respected rhetorician of his day. Polemo was also invited by the city of Athens to speak at the start of the Olympic games. Another famous political episode occurred around the time of Polemo’s death. He was elected by Smyrna to represent the city in a dispute to the emperor Antoninus Pius. Polemo died before he could address the emperor, but when his speech was read to the emperor, Antoninus Pius was so moved by Polemo’s writing, he ruled in Smyrna’s favor. 


Career: Writings


There is not much of Polemo’s work left in the historical record. He did not write a handbook or exposition on rhetoric like so many of his peers. Perhaps this is due to his predilection toward quick-wittedness and away from the formalized exercises and approach to rhetoric. Also, he was more a politically active oratorthan a teacher. In any case, only two extant works are attributed to Polemo. The two declamations are in the common form of funeral orations, to be read at the anniversary of that battle, for two generals that died in the Battle of Marathon, Callimachus and Cynaegeirus. The declamations are not especially noteworthy examples, but do reveal information about Polemo’s vocabulary and arrangement choices. 


A book on physiognomonics, the study of the relationship between outward appearance and inner character, is also attributed to Polemo. The book itself is preserved in Arabic. His work is built on earlier work by Aristotle and is part of a larger tradition of study. Polemo does add significant new details to the science, especially with his observations of eyes.


Death and Legacy


Polemo died in 145. He was suffering from gout and decided to starve himself to death. He had himself sealed in his family tomb and died therein.


He remained a popular and influential rhetorician throughout the remainder of the Second Sophistic and into its second revival in the fourth century. His most significant student was the Greek orator Aelius Aristides. Accoriding to the Christian scholar and historian Jerome, he also had a significant influence on Gregory of Nazianzus, the Bishop of Constantinople.





Bowersock, G.W. Greek Sophist in the Roman Empire. London: Oxford University Press, 1969. Print.


Bowie, Ewan, and Jas Elsner. Philostratus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print. 


Boswell, Grant. "Marcus Antonius Polemo." Classical Rhetorics and Rhetoricians: Critical Studies and Sources. Ed.s Michelle Ballif, and Micheal G. Moran. Westport, CN: Praeger, 2005. Print. 


Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. New York: Facts on File, 1994. Print.


Evans, Elizabeth C. "The Study of Physiognomy in the Second Century A.D." Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association. Vol. 72 (1941): 96-108. Print.


Gibson, Craig A. "Notes on Marcus Antonius Polemo Declamations." Classical Philology 105.2 (April 2010), pp. 213-216 


Hesseling, D. C. "On Philostratus' Lives of the Sophists." The Classical Review 44.2 (May, 1930): 59-61. Print. 




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