Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.02.05


A. F. Norman, Libanius. Autobiography and Selected Letters. 2 Vols. Loeb Classical Library, Nos. 478, 479. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1993. Pp. viii + 529. Pp. v + 486. $15.50 each volume. ISBN 0-674-99527-9. ISBN 0-674-99528-7.


Reviewed by John Vanderspoel, University of Calgary.

The publication of these two new volumes doubles the availability of Libanius in the Loeb Classical Library. While the earlier volumes focused on the public oratory of the Antiochene sophist, one devoted to Libanius' speeches on or about the emperor Julian and the other containing various speeches on public issues, the new material largely concentrates on Libanius as a person. However much the Autobiography (Or. 1) is a speech, it was delivered to a small audience and represents Libanius' very personal description and assessment of his life and career. The Letters show Libanius in a very different light from the speeches, even when his position as sophist, i.e., a public figure, is an instrumental part of his correspondence. As a consequence, the four volumes present a reasonably complete picture of Libanius; the most obvious gap is the absence of his work as a pure sophist, the speeches delivered as a teacher and practitioner of rhetoric for its own sake. While letters and orations offer some material on this theme, a volume of declamations would find, for N. and for the LCL, a ready audience among students both of Late Antiquity and of rhetoric.

It is not surprising that N. has chosen to include the Autobiography in the new collection, even though he has previously published a text, translation and commentary (Oxford, 1965). As he notes in the preface, this speech and the Letters "are mutually illustrative" (vii); the desirability of a text and translation in the LCL is thus self-evident and, in any case, the earlier edition is now difficult to obtain. Moreover, N. is able in the new edition to take account of further manuscript studies, particularly those of J. Martin, as well as other work on Libanius' life and career since 1965. The 193 letters in the collection represent exactly one-eighth of the 1544 extant genuine letters. The principles of selection are: 1. to offer a "conspectus of Libanius' activities and attitudes throughout his career," and 2. "to introduce the more important of his correspondents" (vii-viii). They are presented in chronological order and are renumbered from 1-193. Concordances at the end of the second volume give the numbers or page numbers in the editions of Foerster, Wolf, Fatouros and Krischer, and Bouchery. Throughout, N. refers to items in his own selection as Letters, to other letters by Foerster's numeration and the standard abbreviation Ep.

A lengthy introduction (1-50) precedes the text and translation. It includes sections on Libanius' life and career (1-6), "The Autobiography" (7-17), "The Letter: Theory and Practice" (17-28), "Libanius and His Letters" (28-35), "Manuscript Tradition of the Letters" (35-43), and a list of abbreviations and bibliography (44-53). In the section on Or. 1, one of the key issues is the dating of the various sections of the work. Originally composed in 374, the later portions of the speech (156-285) were added on nine separate occasions. While N. accepts most of the conclusions of Petit (Paris, 1979), he suggests a few modifications (8-9). Much of the rest of this section is given over to a discussion of the role of Fortune in the speech. The treatment of the theory and practice of epistolography may well be the most useful section of the introduction. N. points out that Libanius was regarded in his lifetime and for a long period thereafter as the master of the craft. That his letters do not similarly impress the modern reader, with his different tastes, is naturally not the fault of the sophist. More significantly, N. shows how thoroughly and in what ways Libanius conformed to the rules of correspondence laid down by such authors as "Demetrius" On Style, with subsequent developments by the fourth century. Moreover, Libanius himself comments on issues such as the suitable length for a letter, etc. N. points to these, but oddly gives only the Foerster numeration, even when the letters cited appear in his own collection. This is also true for the section on "Libanius and His Letters", but with a minor inconsistency: he once refers to the first six books of the correspondence as "Letters 19-607" using Foerster's numeration (29; a few pages later [35] they are designated Epp.). The concordances are thus very necessary here, but the reader interested in pursuing the points discussed in the introduction might have been spared some effort by references to the current collection.

As is common for texts in the LCL, the critical apparatus is brief. For the Autobiography (52-337), some 75 textual notes are offered. This would yield an average of about one note for each two pages of Greek text, but the last few pages of the speech are notoriously corrupt and receive a rather higher average than the whole. The significance of J. Martin's work on the manuscripts and text is obvious: almost every textual note records one of his suggestions, though N. does not accept every proposal. The critical apparatus for the letters varies considerably from item to item; only the most important variants and emendations are listed.

The footnotes to the translation are again typical of the LCL; no more can be expected. They are brief, sometimes terse, but add the most important information necessary for a better understanding of topics and individuals addressed or mentioned, with references to PLRE and to Otto Seeck's Die Briefe des Libanios. N. often cites letters not included in the collection, when these are appropriate, and frequently refers to orations where either the subject or the individuals in a letter are treated in greater detail. In addition, he identifies quotations or paraphrases from other authors, ancient or more contemporary, where Libanius has included them; the sophist's classicism, as well as that of his correspondents, or sometimes their lack of learning, is thus evident. Different readers will, of course, find these notes more or less useful depending on their own background and interests. N. has attempted to suit as many of the readers as possible, with considerable success, and has included some additional, lengthier, notes on three groups of letters in an Appendix.

The bulk of the two volumes is given over to the selection of letters (340-529, 2-451). N. follows his own principles of selection admirably. Libanius devoted, at various points in his career, considerable energies to a number of items that affected him personally. The first is his removal to Antioch and its associated problems. These include the attempt to obtain permission to leave his official post at Constantinople, the difficulty in establishing himself officially at Antioch, the disputes with rivals and the efforts (quite legitimate, perhaps) to recover the salary he had been paid for his official duties at Constantinople while theoretically on approved leave of absence for reasons of health, but nevertheless teaching privately at Antioch. Another concern was the status of his son Cimon, born of a long-standing union with a woman of low status. Libanius sought to have him declared legitimate with varying success: promises to that effect were rescinded or not carried out, until the reign of Theodosius. Cimon's eventual success met with further disaster, since his resulting status required an attempt to obtain immunity from curial duties. His ensuing quest for an official position in imperial service, granted by the emperor, was refused by the eastern Senate on the grounds of his low birth! Not long thereafter, he predeceased his father, the ultimate blow to Libanius. A third concern is health. Libanius had early in his life been struck by lightning, resulting in frequent references to debilitating headaches, deliberately alluding to the physical pains of Aelius Aristides, throughout his career. He was afflicted as well by gout and kidney disease.

Many of the letters reflect these concerns of Libanius. Since the sophist mentions them frequently to his correspondents, N. introduces some of the sophist's important contacts with his selection of correspondence on these themes. Letters to important imperial officials frequently introduce friends and provide recommendations for former students and others, while letters to friends reflect a variety of issues, some major, some minor. It is worth noting, as N. does on occasion, that Libanius' religious views do not interfere with his ability to maintain solid friendships with Christians as individuals and imperial officials.

There is little point in quibbling with N.'s selection. Each scholar will have favourite letters that might have been included, but the goal that the collection be representative is met. Overall, the tone of the collection is pessimistic: Libanius seems rarely to have been a happy man and generally to have felt rather weighed down by his duties, obligations and preoccupations. Even the Autobiography contributes to the heaviness of the collection, though Libanius begins by pointing out that he was "neither the happiest nor the unhappiest of men" (1).

A few individual points follow. After a brief introduction, the Autobiography begins with an account of Libanius' native city (2: "First then, if it is conducive to good fortune to be a citizen of a great and famous city, let us consider the size and character of the city of Antioch"), his family, his early life and his education, before its examination of Libanius' life and career to 374, where the original oration ended. This is highly typical of panegyric and the rules of rhetorical theory; at first glance, Libanius seems to be composing a panegyric on himself. If so, the role of Fortune may be little more than a clever disguise, for even when he points to the bad fortune he has experienced, his perspective is the perseverance he displayed, sometimes badly, in difficult circumstances; he tends to concentrate on factors outside of his own control or to cast them as such. A more detailed treatment of this suggestion cannot be offered here, but a closer examination of the speech on this basis may prove fruitful.

N. accepts the view that Themistius served a term as proconsul of Constantinople in 359 and collected members for the enlargement of the Senate in that capacity (Vol. I, 501, note e). I am inclined to think that he was never proconsul nor prefect of the city during the reign of Constantius and that he enlarged the Senate under the terms of some other office or position. A full discussion of the problem will soon appear elsewhere.

All in all, these new volumes are necessary, welcome and useful. In his Preface, N. pays tribute to the work on Libanius of the late Paul Petit. N. deserves an equal tribute for these, as well as, the earlier volumes and for his contributions generally to the understanding of the Antiochene sophist.