Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.05.37

Niels Gaul, Thomas Magistros und die spätbyzantische Sophistik: Studien zum Humanismus urbaner Eliten der frühen Palaiologenzeit. Mainzer Veröffentlichungen zur Byzantinistik, 10.   Wiesbaden:  Harrassowitz, 2011.  Pp. xvi, 500.  ISBN 9783447056977.  €84.00.  

Reviewed by Alexander Riehle, University of Vienna (


With this book, Niels Gaul, currently Associate Professor at Central European University, Budapest, presents a thoroughly revised version of his PhD thesis, completed in 2005 at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn under the supervision of Erich Trapp. As the title suggests, this study is much more than a monograph on a late Byzantine scholar best known, if at all, as a (mediocre) philologist. In the first part of the book, which analyzes the social and cultural setting in which Magistros flourished, Gaul revives the debate over the “Palaiologan Renaissance”. Although rejecting the notion of a Renaissance, which should be reserved for the cultural renewal that started in the Trecento, Gaul consciously uses another controversial term— “humanism”—in order to evoke structural similarities between the revivals of late Byzantium and Renaissance Italy (more specifically, the “civic humanism” of fifteenth- century Florence; see the definition on p. 3, n. 10, and pp. 197-202). Parting with traditional and still prevailing perceptions, he emphasizes that this humanism was not rooted in escapism (“Weltflucht”), which Byzantine scholars, disgusted with the demise of the formerly flourishing empire, allegedly sought by indulging in the study of a glorious past. On the contrary, he argues that the late Byzantine literary production, like every pre-modern literature, was deeply involved in and intertwined with social discourse and fulfilled mostly pragmatic functions. For this purpose, Gaul draws on modern theory, namely discourse analysis (Foucault), Bourdieu’s concept of “symbolic capital”, and the “cultural poetics” or “new historicism” initiated by Stephen Greenblatt. Accordingly, he concludes that the literary output of the late Byzantine “humanists” was neither separated from social and political realities nor just a mere reflection of them, but instead contributed to writing (creating, reinterpreting, transforming, etc.) these discourses.

The space in which these discourses were negotiated in early Palaiologan Byzantium was the theatron—a gathering of literati hosted by a powerful patron, in which rhetorical pieces were performed. Unlike previous scholars, who tend to overemphasize the integrative function of the theatra within intellectual elites, Gaul points out their “agonal character” and dubs them “theaters of power” (“Schauplätze der Macht”). After exploring the semantics of the term theatron in contemporary sources, Gaul gives a definition of how the term is understood in his book, namely to describe every kind of rhetorical performance that involved a closed venue and a limited audience, the representation of an ēthos acquired through rhetorical training, and the performance of a dramatic ritual (pp. 22-3). As reasonable as such a definition might be, I wonder how one could verify or falsify these criteria in specific cases, given the vagueness of the references to the term in the sources.

A key motivation for rhetorical performance in the theatron was the quest for literary and social distinction, as ample references to the Greek term φιλοτιμία testify. The greatest prestige could be gained in the emperor’s theatron, the references to which Gaul quotes and discusses on pp. 25-32. As he illustrates, not only encomia were performed there, but also judicial oratory. Theatra were, however, also organized by aristocrats such as Andronikos II's “prime minister” Nikephoros Choumnos as stages for self-representation that aimed at the acquisition and confirmation of symbolic capital and its subsequent transformation into actual power (pp. 32-7). Gaul emphasizes that prestige could not only be gained but also lost in such a setting, and that the seeming playfulness of the gatherings is a consciously employed fiction that belies their serious substance. In the following subchapter (pp. 38-50), Gaul discusses the concept and notion of ēthos both in rhetorical theory and in letters of the early Palaiologan period, concluding that for the Byzantines rhetorical training (παιδεία) and character formation went hand-in-hand. After years of such an education, the successful graduate would be “initiated” with his first performance in a theatron. What was most important in such a performance, and most appreciated by the Byzantines, was the presentation of a credible ēthos. Even if this “character” varied according to the context (subject, genre, audience, etc.), an examination of a series of such ēthopoiiai may allow us to understand the self-perception, self-fashioning and self-representation of an author within (i.e., both in accordance and in a permanent struggle with) the political, social and ideological constraints of his times. After sketching the process of political fragmentation and decentralization and the concomitant ideological shifts that took place in the early Palaiologan period (pp. 53-61), Gaul proceeds to an extensive analysis and interpretation of the Apologetic speech that Magistros delivered in front of the emperor in 1312/3 in order to defend his relative Chandrenos, who had been accused of treason, and of Nikephoros Choumnos’ Symbouleutic speech for the Thessalonians (pp. 62-120). Gaul convincingly argues that the latter oration was not a personal piece of advice by an official who was concerned about the situation in the city that he had formerly governed, but was part of the emperor Andronikos’ tentative political strategy to thwart the increasing power and autonomy of the local magnates. Magistros’ Apologētikos, on the other hand, was not only an apologetic speech for a relative, but can also be read as a text aiming at reconciliation with the emperor and his policies. This act of reconciliation did not include subordination, however. Based on a hitherto overlooked passage of the speech, Gaul establishes that Magistros was offered the rank of oikeios of the emperor with the aim to forge a strong tie to an important representative of the urban elite of the second most important city of the empire. Magistros, however, declined and, back in his hometown, presented himself in his Presbeutikos to the Thessalonian audience as Odysseus having resisted the charms of Circe (i.e., the offer to serve the emperor and to stay in the capital with all its pleasures). In both cases, personal and political interests intermingle and govern the literary (specifically generic) composition of the speeches.

The following two chapters (pp. 121-210) are dedicated to “the discoursive proximity of late Byzantine intellectuals to the Second Sophistic”, meaning that in both periods intellectuals stand out for (1) their pursuit of distinction through paideia, which manifests itself mainly in the atticizing sociolect, and (2) their political engagement in and for the polis. This proximity was enabled and facilitated by structural similarities in the political situation of the empire(s) and reinforced by the mimetic approach of early Palaiologan scholars to their ancestors from the imperial period: “they used the potential of mimesis to create realities through fiction” (p. 122). This becomes evident from Gaul’s lucid and compelling reading of Magistros’ rhetorical and lexicographical works. Further evidence is provided by the revival of two genres that had flourished during the Second Sophistic— meletai and symbouleutic oratorary delivered for an urban audience—and the reception of authors like Aelius Aristides, Philostratus, Plutarch and Libanius. As Gaul argues, this revival was mainly initiated and sustained by urban elites, who showed a greater concern about the welfare of the polis and of society in general than did previous generations of educated elites. Hence we can speak of a “late Byzantine sophistic” analogous to the designation of the late Roman movement.

The second part of the book, dedicated to Magistros’ “bios and ēthos”, exemplifies the arguments brought forward in part I. Gaul is aware of the methodological and practical difficulties that the historian faces when it comes to “reconstructing” the biography of an individual and to assessing its role in history. Not only is the factual biographical information contained in the sources limited and fragmentary, but also the nature of the sources—in this case, mostly texts penned by the author himself—poses serious problems. In his biographical sketch, Gaul therefore does not aim to discover the “true human behind the words”, but rather traces the persona (ἦθος) that the author consciously created for himself in his rhetorical pieces, which, accordingly, can be interpreted as a series of ēthopoiiai (pp. 10-12 and 46-7).

After a brief survey and reassessment of some aspects of Magistros’ life (including his birth date, social background, and formative years), Gaul subdivides his interpretation of these ēthopoiiai into chapters that examine the different personae, each roughly corresponding to a stage of Magistros’ life: “Teacher and scholar”, “Rhetorician”, and “Monk”. Apart for some useful new insights into Magistros’ actual teaching within the circle of his disciples, the most interesting result that Gaul presents in the first chapter is his interpretation of Magistros’ philological commentaries (and the codices containing these commentaries) as a main source for his authority as an intellectual and teacher (pp. 241-66). A set of values shared by the urban elites—paideia being the most important of them—allowed those capable of participating in the concomitant discourses to gain access to their circle. It is in light of the demise of the political power sustaining this paideia that the numerous speeches and letters of the early fourteenth century endorsing, defending or quarreling over the status and nature of paideia should be read (pp. 272-310).

Two historical events that had a deep impact on the city of Thessaloniki—the raids of the Catalans on Macedonia in the first decade of the fourteenth century and the civil war between the two Andronikoi in the 1320s—were decisive for shaping Magistros’ rhetorical ēthos. Forming the chief “thematic clusters” in Magistros’ oeuvre (pp. 213- 4), they were the threatening forces against which Magistros developed his idea of the unifying bonds of paideia, as Gaul shows in his discussion of the lengthy letters to Joseph the Philosopher and Theodore Metochites (pp. 311-29).

The last phase of Magistros’ life—from the time when he took monastic vows, adopting the name Theodoulos (dated by Gaul to the mid-1320s), until his death (after 1347/8)—is characterized by a striking silence. One of his few writings dating from this period is his rebuke (psogos) of Hierotheos, who, as Gaul demonstrates, was Magistros’ spiritual son. The speech reveals a slight antipalamite color, which corroborates Gaul’s hypothesis that Magistros opposed the monastic ideal propagated by Palamas and his followers, without ever joining the antipalamite “party” of Akindynos and Gregoras. The increasing references to his sickness and blindness might provide further explanation for his decision to withdraw from the active political involvement that characterizes his earlier life and to confine himself to silent and indirect opposition (pp. 338-64). The volume closes with a conclusion, an extensive English summary (pp. 371-83), two appendices on Magistros’ literary oeuvre—a useful list of his works as well of some contemporary sources for his biography (pp. 387-414), and a detailed description of the codices that contain his rhetorical oeuvre (pp. 415-28)—, illustrations of important manuscripts and various indices (quoted primary texts, proper names, key subjects and terms, manuscripts).

Gaul’s profound knowledge of the history and culture of the early Palaiologan period (to which the rich bibliography also testifies), his eagerness to apply fresh methods inspired by modern theory to the literary production of a distant past, and his sensitivity towards the peculiarities of the texts under examination make this book an exceptional study of rhetorical culture in late Byzantium. It remains to hope that Gaul’s approach to Byzantine rhetorical texts as cultural products forming part of wider discourses will lead to a new understanding and appreciation of Byzantine rhetorical literature.

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