Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.02.34

Edward J. Watts, City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria (First paperback printing, originally published 2006). The Transformation of the Classical Heritage; 41.   Berkeley/London:  University of California Press, 2008.  Pp. xii, 288.  ISBN 9780520258167.  $27.50 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jerker Blomqvist, Lund University (
Word count: 1932 words

Table of Contents

The volume under review is the paperback edition of a book that appeared in hardcover in 2006. It is an enlarged and considerably reworked Yale University Ph.D. thesis of 2002. No changes have been made between the 2006 and 2008 editions.

The main theme of the book is the relationship between teachers of rhetoric and, in particular, philosophy with the political and religious powers of the surrounding late antique society. Watts has chosen to compare the situations developing in two centers of learning of the period, viz. Athens and Alexandria. The choice of these two cities for closer investigation is a natural one, given that, beside the emerging rival Constantinople, they were the most important providers of advanced teaching in the period under scrutiny. But a comparison between precisely these two localities proves to be particularly rewarding, since the conditions for philosophical activities in them developed in different ways in the final stage of antiquity. In Athens, philosophy was in conflict with the Christian ambiance and could, after AD 529, lead only a highly precarious existence, whereas in Alexandria, although conflict was not unheard of, the coexistence of philosophy with the new religion was more peaceful; the Alexandrian philosophical school (or schools) flourished for more than a century after the fateful year of 529 and came to an end only after the Arab invasion of Egypt in the 640s. Broadly speaking, the purpose of Watts' study is to define the differences between Athens and Alexandria in this context and to establish the causes of those divergences. But Watts offers much more: the book becomes a detailed study of nearly all aspects of higher education in the two cities in the relevant centuries and will have a lasting importance as an authoritative reference book for anyone interested in late antique cultural life.

The book consists of nine chapters, plus a short conclusion. The first chapter discusses the general conditions for advanced studies and academic life in the Greek-speaking parts of the Roman Empire. The pages of the eight following chapters are equally divided between the two cities under discussion, ch. 2-5 being devoted to Athens and 6-9 to Alexandria. The bibliography (pp. 263-279) is rich, although it includes only such scholarly publications as are explicitly cited in the footnotes; the numerous editions of ancient texts from which Watts must have excerpted most of his data are not listed there. A usable index (pp. 281-288) concludes the work.

In Athenian history the Herulian invasion of AD 267-268 is generally thought to mark the city's transition from relative prosperity to economic, artistic and political decline. According to Watts, the destruction caused by the invaders also affected the intellectual activities in the city, but not in an entirely unfavorable way. He assumes that not only the urbanized area suffered destruction, as clearly indicated by the archaeological excavations in central Athens, but also the countryside was subject to widespread devastation with disastrous consequences for its productivity. Watts concludes that this also had an impact on the demographic structure of the city's elite. Before the 260s, the leading families of Athens based their position on landed property in Attica and on commerce with the agrarian products. When the countryside was ravaged, the landowning families lost much of their income and, consequently, their influence on the affairs of the city. Instead, another group of people gained in importance; they were, according to Watts, the teachers of rhetoric and philosophy. Those people were the owners of the spacious urban villas that were built in Athens in the latter half of the fourth century and the remains of which bear witness to a new prosperity of the city. It is evident from contemporary sources, such as Eunapius' biographies of philosophers and sophists, that the professors were in many cases well-to-do immigrants from the east, who presumably could see their wealth increased from fees paid by a steady influx of students.

It could be argued that the image painted by Watts of an Athenian economy largely dependent on the rhetorical and philosophical schools is not quite without problems. Literary sources for the third-century history of the Roman Empire are scanty and provide only fragmentary information on the effects of the barbarian invasions. The fourth-century texts are more numerous, but those regarding Athens are written either by teachers (Eunapius, Himerius) or by their students (Libanius, Gregory Nazianzen). They give us lively descriptions of student life, sometimes riotous, and of the professors' affairs, including their rivalries, but little is said about Athenian life in general. The only contemporary source mentioning the economic situation is a passage in ch. 52 of the anonymous Expositio totius mundi et gentium (quoted by Watts p. 24), where the whole province of Achaea is described as small, mountainous and unable to support itself; Athens is contrasted with the commercial center of Corinth and depicted as possessing learning and ancient traditions but little else. The situation described in the Expositio has been thought to be an effect of the Herulian invasion by Day, whom Watts follows.1 Archaeological surveys of the Attic countryside--scanty as they are--partly point in a different direction: The decline of agricultural productivity set in already in the Hellenistic period and continued into the first centuries AD, whereas a slight revival is indicated by remains of the fourth and fifth centuries.2

However, the fourth century was a period of lively intellectual activity in Athens; so much is clear from the literary sources. Athens could perhaps also be described as "an otherwise stagnant city" (p. 128), for the food supply still seems to have been problematic in c. 345, when the emperor Constans, on the behest of Prohaeresius, designated a number of islands as grain suppliers of Athens. The century was also a relatively peaceful period, for we hear only little about such conflicts with the Christian religion that would eventually bring about the closing of the Platonist school of Athens. The case of Prohaeresius, as Watts points out, is illustrative. He was a Christian but had studied under pagan professors and had among his own students in Athens both pagans and Christians. As a consequence of his professed faith he was supported by Constans but had a problematic relationship to Julian. Although the latter exempted Prohaeresius from his ban on Christian professors, the matter of religion was, according to Watts, now introduced on the intellectual scene of Athens. In the next century, when Neo-Platonist philosophy became dominant there, the school of Athens obstinately defended pagan traditions and continued its role as "a haven for unrepentantly religious pagan philosophers and rhetoricians" (p. 259). Religious rites became a regular ingredient in the school's activities, and the theurgical practices of leading Athenian Platonists as Proclus, Hegias and Damascius eventually became too overt a challenge to the powers of the Christian empire. After carefully analyzing the text of John Malalas, which is our principal source, Watts concludes that the legislation of 529 was directed against certain specific religious practices, e.g. divination, going on not only in the Athenian school. Thus, Watts rejects certain earlier interpretations of the event, e.g. that Justinian's law was meant as an attack on philosophy in general or at least on its Athenian variety, or that the closing of the Athenian school was an attempt to favor the capital's educational institutions by transferring some of the Athenian intellectual funds to the imperial metropolis. It becomes clear that it was the local situation in Athens and the reaction of the regional authorities to the imperial directive that triggered the intervention against the school.

In contrast to Athens, Alexandria was a big city, and Watts makes the point that the learned institutions with their professors and students can never have been as dominant in the city life as in Athens. The learned institutions established by the Ptolemaic kings still functioned in the Roman period, although under altered conditions. Watts gives a full treatment of the evidence for those changes in the source texts. In Alexandria also a more diversified program of education was available than in Athens, for since Hellenistic times the exact sciences, in particular mathematics and astronomy, had a haven there, and also medical training was offered. These scientific disciplines were more neutral in religious and ideological matters than the teachings of the purely philosophical schools, so the environment may seem to have favored a peaceful coexistence between Christian and pagan intelligentsia. However, the population of Alexandria was a mixed one, the mobs were unruly, and the city had long been notorious for the riots that disturbed its peace from time to time, as evidenced by Dio Chrysostom's Alexandrian speech (cited by Watts p. 143). The Christianization brought new actors into this play: orthodox believers versus adherents of what were deemed to be heresies, congregations of monks who could be persuaded to fight for the right cause, whatever it was.

Christianity established itself at an early stage in Alexandria--in contrast to Athens. It is evident that the earliest known leaders of the catechetical school (Pantaenus, Clement, Origen) had taken advantage of the teaching offered by the pagan philosophers and scientists. Christians of the upper classes were regularly attending the philosophy classes in the third and fourth centuries, but in the decades around AD 400 there came to a crisis. The most spectacular events were the destruction of the Serapeum in 391 and the lynching of the philosopher Hypatia by a Christian mob in 415. Hypatia had represented the scientific and religiously more neutral orientation among the pagan teachers. She was more acceptable to Christians--as e.g. to her devotee Synesius of Cyrene, the future bishop of Ptolemais--than the orthodox Neo-Platonists, who had established themselves in Alexandria too. With Hypatia gone, the Christians had few uncontroversial options when seeking traditional learning, and the Neo-Platonists found it wise to leave Alexandria for Athens. When they returned in the latter half of the century, they brought with them the Iamblichean variety of Neo-Platonism, with its focus on religious belief and ritualistic practices; the scene was set for new conflicts with the Christian establishment of Alexandria. Conflicts did occur, but what eventually came out of it in the 490's was a concordat between the orthodox patriarch Peter Mongus and the leader of the philosophical school (probably Ammonius, Hermeias' son). The precise stipulations of that agreement cannot be ascertained, Watts points out, but the important consequence of it was that Christian students could acquire philosophical schooling of the highest level, with time establish themselves as first-rank philosophers, and efficiently defend both the importance of philosophical schooling against their Christians detractors and their Christian interpretation of Platonism against pagan adversaries. John Philoponus is the best example of those Christian Platonists of the sixth century, and Watts, in the concluding chapter on Alexandria, portrays his person with due detail.

This is an important book. The above summary has given only a fragmentary picture of its rich contents. What impresses the reviewer most is Watts' seemingly complete mastering of the rich and variegated literary sources of the history he tells: not only does he find significant details in all sorts of texts, he also succeeds in integrating the information gathered from the sources to form a coherent and believable representation of the historical totality. On some individual points a reviewer may feel inclined to hesitate but, considering the evidence brought forward and Watts' analyses of it, it is hard to disagree with his universal conclusion: "Pagan philosophy in late antiquity lived and died based upon the abilities of its teachers to adapt to the religious climate of the city around them" (p. 259).


1.   John Day, An Economic History of Athens under Roman Domination. New York: Columbia University Press 1942, pp. 252-270.
2.   Garth Fowden, 'City and Mountain in Late Roman Attica', The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 108,1988, pp. 48-59; Hans Lohmann, 'Agriculture and Country Life in Classical Athens', in: Agriculture in Ancient Greece. Proceedings of the Seventh International Symposium at the Swedish Institute at Athens, 16-17 May, 1990. Ed. by Berit Wells. Stockholm, 1992 (Acta Instituti Atheniensis Regni Sueciae Ser. in 4° 42), pp. 29-57.

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