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Describing Greece: Landscape and Literature in the Periegesis of Pausanias. 
By WILLIAM HUTTON. Greek Culture in the Roman World. Cambridge and New 
York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. xiii + 372. Cloth, $111.00. 
ISBN 0–521–84720–6.

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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Online 2009.08.02

Pausanias is one of those ancient authors, like Strabo and Pliny the Elder, 
whose literary output has long been valued as an unmotivated repository of 
objective data. Like those same authors, Pausanias’ esteem has improved 
with the deepening interest in Imperial culture generally, and particularly 
the “Second Sophistic.” Over the past two decades, following the 
seminal study by Christian Habicht, [[1]] scholars have explored with fresh 
vigor the social and cultural setting, themes and strategies of the 
Periegesis Hellados. [[2]] Among these works, Describing Greece by William 
Hutton (H.) is distinguished as a vastly detailed reading that aims for a 
comprehensive picture of Pausanias the literary and cultural figure. The 
project probably seemed more bold (cf. pp. xi–xiii) as a Texas 
dissertation in the early 1990s, when the studies of Habicht and a young 
Jaś Elsner were still defining the field. The excellent, ambitious 
monograph that has come from this thesis synthesizes earlier scholarship 
and offers a wholly new assessment of Pausanias and the Periegesis.

According to his introductory chapter (pp. 1–29), H. endeavors to 
understand the Periegesis on its own terms and in its own time. This is not 
a new goal, but no previous study has pursued it on such a scale and 
succeeded on so many levels. Pausanias, H. asserts, was a dynamic and 
erudite thinker with a distinct range of interests. His cohesive work was 
the product of a cultural setting intensely engaged with the Classical 
Greek past but defined by the Roman Imperial present. In other words, 
Pausanias was not a “dependable dullard,” H.’s favorite catchphrase 
for old interpretations that underrate Pausanias’ mind and quarry the 
Periegesis for nuggets of realia. Instead, the author should be viewed as 
an innovative “non-conformist” (pp. 51–3), because of his 
unparalleled investment in the description of places, his focus on the old 
Greek gods, his studious avoidance of Atticism and his reticence to present 
himself in an era of competitive intellectualism.

Chapter 2 (pp. 30–53), which serves as an extended introduction, aims to 
contextualize the Periegesis in social, economic and cultural history. H. 
already identified (pp. 9–11) the elusive author conventionally as an 
educated, wealthy resident of a city in Asia Minor, possibly Magnesia on 
Sipylus, who was active during the middle to late 2nd century. His outline 
of “Pausanias’ world” is prudent: Mediterranean travel flourished in 
a peaceful age; Hellenism was a mark of cultural sophistication within a 
network of elite associations; Greeks could view the Roman conquest as a 
misfortune while appreciating the benefits of Imperial stability and 
promoting their past among natives and foreigners alike. But certain 
observations are incomplete or wayward. Contrary to H.’s claims, the 
archaeology of ports and shipwrecks does not in fact reveal that “the 
majority of people whose movements have left some trace” possessed 
considerable political power, and frequent travel generated many 
pluralistic communities, not just “cultural homogenization” among 
elites (pp. 30–1). Moreover, H.’s treatment of the sophists is too 
simple, and one wonders whether they really imagined themselves on the 
model of the “itinerant wisemen” of Classical Greece (pp. 33–4). Also 
striking are H.’s initial emphasis on the uniformity of elite identity 
across the Empire, and his soft-pedaling of any cultural or political 
significance attached to local identities, specifically ethnic (p. 31). 
While exceptional figures like Philopappus and Polemo could showcase their 
local and supralocal attachments for effect in different contexts, honorary 
and commemorative activities across the eastern provinces show that many 
Greek elites were presented foremost as members of civic communities. If 
one considers the importance of civic identity for elite self-fashioning, 
it is unsurprising that municipal aristocrats were also deeply interested 
in the uniqueness of their historic community, the ancestral home. 
Likewise, the diversity of local history, genealogy, cult and landscape was 
a chief interest of Pausanias, who reveled in recording divergent mythic 
traditions, and single buildings or artifacts.

Chapters 3–5, which address the structure of the Periegesis, are perhaps 
the strongest of the book (pp. 54–174). H. argues persuasively that 
Pausanias’ criteria for inclusion in his description of central and 
southern Greece are the richness of the local traditions and remains, as 
well as personal familiarity and the organization of his work. His 
depiction of territories followed a well-known radial pattern, but H. adds 
nuance: regions can have subregions and multiple hubs, centrality can be 
defined on political, religious or historical grounds, and routes often 
disregard physical geography. The narrative structure applied to 
territories can be seen in miniature within cities. H. illustrates these 
principles by treating the example of the Corinthia and Corinth. He 
concludes that Pausanias strove to uncover contemporary reflections of the 
ancient Corinthian identity, even when that meant eliding the colony’s 
monumental grandeur in favor of a “rhetoric of smallness” (pp. 
166–73). This sensitive reading shows how the fluid narrative of the 
Periegesis embeds culture and history in physical space; it eschews a 
picture of relentless linearity that merely charts places. This point has 
never been demonstrated with such acuity and force.

The final three chapters adopt a topical approach that results in a 
somewhat disjointed triad. Chapter 6 (pp. 175–240) is a masterful survey 
of Pausanias’ language. Blatantly devoid of Atticism, his style recalls 
Herodotus and perhaps the Asianist rhetorician Hegesias, another Sipylene, 
but an almost Thucydidean “proliferation of notable idiosyncracies” 
gives his language its own pungent flavor. Chapter 7 (pp. 241–71) 
investigates the generic roots of the Periegesis. H. sensibly observes 
that, while many other works described monuments and art, Pausanias’ 
creation of an itinerary through a broad region and his fascination with 
historical landscapes were novel, though reminiscent at least in 
organization of the geographic tradition of periploi. The book ends with a 
discussion (pp. 273–324) of the shifting attitudes of the Periegesis and 
their putative link to Pausanias’ growth. Such interpretations are always 
tricky, and ultimately we cannot know for sure whether Pausanias’ varying 
treatment of, for example, the Imperial cult or religious history is a 
psychological or a structural symptom, or both at once (cf. pp. 307–8). 
In any case, by this point H. has convinced the sympathetic reader to 
embrace the complexity and individuality of the Periegesis.

Describing Greece is a learned and insightful study that successfully 
portrays the creative and intellectual mind behind the Periegesis. To this 
end, H. has written a sweeping overview of Pausanian studies, citing and 
engaging every major and minor predecessor back to August Boeckh and 
Wilhelm Schmid. He addresses most of the basic controversies surrounding 
the Periegesis, and his own conclusions are always cogent and often 
convincing. H. shines most brightly in his sharply-focused analyses of 
structure and language. Readers will look elsewhere for better coverage of 
the historical realities of touring, of archaeological and epigraphic data 
and of reception (see n. 2, above). But no other book offers a more 
intricate and eloquent evaluation of Pausanias as a writer to be 
appreciated for his ingenuity in composition and his innovative vision of 

For all its sophistication and breadth, Describing Greece has a few 
inconsistencies. Although this long book is admirably polished, the quality 
of the plans and photographs is insufficient for a study that depends on 
imagining the landscape, and there are a handful of glaring errors in 
content and language. [[3]] Moreover, in certain respects, H. seems to have 
become one with his subject, which does not always make for easy reading. 
The prose is crisp yet prolix, and the chapters exhibit a Pausanian 
capacity for detail and complication. Some sections, such as the one on 
Lucian (pp. 195–203), are so digressive as to be distracting. Like the 
Periegesis, for better or worse, Describing Greece is most comfortably 
approached piecemeal or chapter-wise, as a book to digest over time and to 
enjoy as a thesaurus of categorized observations. This is undoubtedly a 
tool for research, not teaching: younger students should still turn to 
Habicht for a concise and dependable introduction.

Any study of such a challenging author cannot accomplish everything, and H. 
has mixed success at situating Pausanias in his literary tradition. To be 
sure, the associations H. traces between Pausanias and many other Greek 
authors both big and small enrich our understanding of Imperial Greek 
literature. But H. oddly pegs the Odyssey as the zenith for the literary 
subject of travel (pp. 5–6) and neglects the Argonauts, Alexander, the 
novels, the apostolic narratives and two works of patent relevance (if 
somewhat later date), the Heroicus and the Life of Apollonius. Underlying 
the romantic décor of these travel-stories is a vivid concept of the city, 
the countryside, the wilderness and the sea that resonated with the 
cultured authors and their readers, men like Pausanias. The Periegesis also 
shares something important with other compilatory projects of the age, such 
as those by Aelian and Athenaeus: an impulse to collect and classify 
disparate information as a means to order knowledge and construct identity. 
It is a sign of H.’s achievement that, while scholars continue to explore 
Pausanias’ many contexts, Describing Greece will furnish both a solid 
starting-point and an authoritative point of comparison.

Vanderbilt University

[[1]] Pausanias’ Guide to Ancient Greece, Sather Classical Lectures 50 
(Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1985; rev. ed. 1998).

[[2]] E.g., Domenico Musti and Mario Torelli, eds., Pausania: Guida della 
Grecia 1–8 (Milan, 1990–2003, 3rd ed.); Jaś Elsner, “Pausanias: A 
Greek Pilgrim in the Roman World,” P&P 135 (1992) 3–29; Jean Bingen, 
ed., Pausanias historien, Fondation Hardt, Entretiens sur l’antiquité 
classique 41 (Geneva, 1996); Karim W. Arafat, Pausanias’ Greece: Ancient 
Artists and Roman Rulers (Cambridge, 1996); Viciane Pirenne-Delforge and 
Gérald Purnelle, eds., Pausanias: Periegesis 1–2 (Liège, 1997); W. 
Kendrick Pritchett, Pausanias Periegetes 1–2 (Amsterdam, 1998–9); Susan 
E. Alcock, John F. Cherry and Jaś Elsner, eds., Pausanias: Travel and 
Memory in Roman Greece (New York, 2001); Johanna Akujärvi, Researcher, 
Traveller, Narrator: Studies in Pausanias’ Periegesis, Studia Graeca et 
Latina Lundensia 12 (Stockholm, 2005); Maria Pretzler, Pausanias: Travel 
Writing in Ancient Greece (London, 2007).

[[3]] E.g., Megara is not on the Isthmus of Corinth (p. 27, but correct on 
p. 73); misuse of “notoriety” with a positive connotation (p. 34 n. 
14); Longus is not “among the earliest of the Greek novels” (p. 50); 
apparent confusion over the ancient usage of “Isthmia” for the 
Panhellenic Games and Festival but “the Isthmus” for the site (p. 99 n. 
15); scattered misspellings in the main text and typographical errors or 
omitted information in the bibliographic entries.

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