Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.45

Scott Bradbury, Selected Letters of Libanius, from the Age of Constantius and Julian.   Liverpool:  Liverpool University Press, 2004.  Pp. 290.  ISBN 0-85323-509-0.  $19.95.  

Reviewed by Raffaella Cribiore, Columbia university (
Word count: 2092 words

With this book, Scott Bradbury (henceforth B, the abbreviation he uses for the letters he translated) has done a great service to scholarship on Libanius and Late Antiquity. In translating these 183 letters of Libanius, dating from AD 355-365, which have never before been published in English translation, B clearly means to continue the work of A.F. Norman, who translated the 193 letters in the Loeb Classical Library series. B, who frequently cites Norman and his translations, has shown himself as a worthy successor in elucidating the intricate Greek and sometimes unclear views of a fourth century author whose works are still largely untranslated. With Norman's and B's work, about one-fourth of the letters in the corpus of Libanius are now available in English translation. This will make possible new assessments of Libanius's public and social role as well as an appreciation of his contemporaries' career networking. The letters are divided into five different groups, according to their addressee: I. Family members; II. Emperors and court officials; III. Prefects, proconsuls, and vicarii; IV. Provincial governors; and V. Men of letters and curiales). This arrangement makes clear where B's main interests lie, since the first group comprises letters to distant family members who played a role in public life. Within each of B's five categories, too, letters do not to follow a chronological order but for the most part are grouped according to the recipients. Such an arrangement, which was chosen to help the reader get some control of the overwhelming prosopography of the correspondence, is possible because B, unlike Norman, selected letters written within a single decade. A reading of this book conveys the distinct impression that the author has lived for a long time in the company of all the persons who appear in the collection and has mastered the intricacies of their relations. I have appended a list of notes and corrections to some of the letters, but I want to stress that B is a skilful and accurate translator who has labored over each word and has not been ensnared in Libanius' demanding Greek prose.

The book, which includes a preliminary glossary of technical terms, begins with an introduction that reviews Libanius's life and provides a clear exposition (necessary for most readers) of the structure of the late Roman administration in the Greek East. A third section concerns the preservation and survival of the letters in Libanius's corpus. The selected letters in translation follow. Each letter is preceded by information regarding where it was sent, who carried it, its date, and the corresponding numbers in the 1921/22 edition of Richard Foerster and in the 1738 edition of Johannes C. Wolf. Each text contains a thorough introduction and line notes when necessary, so that the reader -- in contrast to his experience with Norman's necessarily brief Loeb editions -- leaves each letter without too many questions. The cumulative information about letter bearers, for example, is useful and, when added to the details of writing and sending letters that some texts specifically reveal (e.g., B173), contributes much to the illumination of an important aspect of social life in antiquity. Two appendices complete this book. The first lists Libanius's main correspondents and includes brief sketches of their careers and the letters that concern them in both Norman's and B's collections. In doing this, B follows and continues the work that Paul Petit did in Les fonctionnaires dans l'oeuvre de Libanius. The second appendix consists of a helpful index of the letters so far translated into English with the corresponding numbers in Foerster's edition.

The introductions to the single letters vary greatly in length. Some, particularly when they introduce a series of letters concerning the same person or cover a certain topic, are quite long. Occasionally they seem too long, especially when they expand on individuals who do not appear in a specific letter, since a reader may not be as comfortable as B with the daunting range of Libanius's connections. At the same time, one should never complain about excessive information, particularly because the introductions and appendix 1 sometimes clarify and supplement the data lacking in PLRE. The translation of each letter follows the Greek text very closely, sometimes to the point of reproducing Greek particles and the full length of Libanius's paragraphs. This literal translation has the advantage of guiding the reader through the text while leaving no ambiguities as to how B interpreted any given passage. Doubtless, Norman's translations have great charm, but they occasionally deviate from the Greek in mysterious ways and contain a large number of British idiomatic expressions and proverbs that feel a bit anachronistic. In general B closely reproduces the Greek when he renders most proverbs and then explains their meanings in useful notes. His translations, however, occasionally feel too verbose because the Greek has an agility that it is difficult to reproduce in English. Sometimes the literalism is a bit awkward, as, for example, when B exactly translates the Greek houtos in the opening of a letter as 'this so-and-so' instead of (for instance) 'so-and-so, the letter carrier'(see, e.g., B 163). I am aware, however, that the style of a translation is entirely a matter of taste and choice.

The letters' arrangement, which groups messages to the same recipient together and out of a chronological order, has the advantage of permitting a comprehensive view of Libanius' relations with individual correspondents. One can appreciate the judiciousness of such a choice with respect to figures like Anatolius of Berytus, the philosopher Themistius, or Aristenetus, Libanius's friend from Nicomedia. At other times, however, it is a little unsettling to plunge repeatedly from Julian's Persian War in 363 into the early struggles of Libanius's career or his return to Antioch in the 350s. Even though the book covers only 10 years of Libanius's life, those years were packed with events and his reactions to them. An intimate knowledge of some minor personages, moreover, does not appear crucial and could even be dispensed with. I fully understand, however, the reasons for B's choice, which suits his primary interests, and I am also aware that all possible arrangements may have some drawbacks. It is clear that maintaining a traditional chronological order was not as imperative for B as it was for Norman, whose selection extended to the end of Libanius's life.

Finally, I wish to emphasize that we should be grateful for the painstaking and knowledgeable work that B has done, both in the translation of these letters and in the discussion of the many issues they raise. An intriguing author such as Libanius, whose work and personality tend to be evaluated on the basis of a limited range of texts, deserves to be better known. While some of the letters in this collection concern eminent figures such as the Emperor Julian or the philosopher Themistius or officials holding top positions in the Roman government, other letters addressed to minor decurions or to students are no less important because they show Libanius's wide range of interests and acquaintance.

I append a list of notes and corrections to some of the letters.

B73.2. It is better to use the middle rather than the passive form, 'Know that you are inviting me to the Lydian plain.'

B77.2. The translation of the sentence 'and he is a godsend to his eager teachers, not a burden to such as them, since he thinks that the labours themselves are a respite from labours' is theoretically possible, but a better translation, which takes into account the balanced word order and the antithesis is: 'he is a godsend to eager teachers and a burden to those who are not such.' The indefatigable student could wear down teachers less willing than Libanius.

B77.4. The concept that this very eager student, forced to quit school in order to save his property, was 'deprived of further tears' (a note clarifies that these were tears due to hard work) is incorrect. An accurate translation would read: 'crying (or to his great sorrow) he is deprived of getting more.' This is not the only student who wanted further instruction and apparently quit Libanius's school in tears.

B80. The recipient has two sons studying with Libanius, but the second has just arrived at Antioch and has not yet met Libanius. Translate, 'As we take thought for the youth you have entrusted to us, we are not neglecting even the son whom we have not met yet.'

B85.4. 'Those who came to me eis logous' does not mean 'those who came to speak with me' but 'those who came for instruction, for rhetoric.'

B103.3. Translate: 'Let our Marcus train his mind there, turning his eyes away a bit from the belt of office, I mean his own. He should still look at yours and reason within himself that it is the fruit of rhetoric and that the fruit of the rhetoric of his father also contributed to the post he has.'

B103.4. Translate: 'About the horse for us, if you bought it, send it, if not, write to us so that we may adopt the second alternative, I mean those horses that are not more valuable than copper coins.' (There is no reason to think of bronze horses and an unknown proverb.)

B139.3. It is better to translate 'I am sure that you will entrust him to his teachers and you will keep him free from the usual rough behavior of students.' Libanius is alluding to the rough treatment of beginning students that was typical in schools of rhetoric and in schools of law as well, cf. Paul Collinet, Histoire de l'école de droit de Beyrouth (Paris 1925), 106-108.

B140. The introduction should state that the Magnus mentioned in the letter is the iatrosophist Magnus, the famous doctor remembered by Eunapius and Palladas, PLRE7. Note 151 is not correct. This is not a 'jibe at those who blame god ... a proverbial phrase' but a concrete allusion to the boy's guardians who blamed Zeus and not themselves for the financial losses he suffered. B152.4. Instead of 'to beat a retreat from them (that is, from the people who bothered him,)' translate: 'to go back (retreat) to them (that is, his students).' This phrase shows Libanius's ambivalence about teaching. In the summer, when he was very busy with other duties, he sometimes wished to find relief from them by going back to his students.

B154.1. The phrase 'well-springs in his soul, since you yourselves have similar ones' needs to be explained. Fortunatianus 1 was a school fellow of Libanius (even though PLRE does not indicate that) together with Philippus 3, cf. Petit 1956, Appendix 1.

B155. The translation 'bid your daughter help her mother and write' is ambiguous; the Greek says, 'bid your daughter to write and to help her mother.' The words are paradoxical and are written with a smile because the girl in question was a baby. Cf., however, Ep. 1473, written three years later, in which Alexandra's daughter appears to be a child prodigy -- at least in her parents' view.

B160. The addressee, Arion, was not a philosopher from Ancyra (this is repeated on p. 151), but his father Agathius may have been one, if one interprets in this way the word sophia in letter 728. This word, in any case, does not necessarily allude to philosophy. In the first line one should read: 'in order that you may not be unaware once you meet him ...' (and not 'of what you have got'), that is, the student goes home and meets his father after completing his studies.

B166.1. The translation 'many circuits around the tribunal' is too literal; it looks like Apringius is doing laps. It is probably better to say 'much running because of the tribunal' (that is, many cases pleaded in court).

B166.2. The sentence 'cut his course as short as possible so that he may acquire what takes more time' should read 'cut his course as short as possible so that he may use for a longer time what he acquires (learns).' Being older than usual, Apringius cannot stay in school too long because his career would be shortened.

B179.5. Correct the translation 'but now since I have got hold of Miccalus (and this is what I do) I am writing.' Libanius argues here that he did not send a letter because he did not have a trustworthy carrier, 'but now since I have got hold of Miccalus (that is, of my very self) I am writing.' He thus underlines his complete trust in Miccalus as a letter carrier.

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