BMCR 1997.08.18

1997.08.18, Themistius and the Imperial Court: Oratory, Civic Duty, and Paideia from Constantius to Theodosius

, Themistius and the imperial court : oratory, civic duty, and Paideia from Constantius to Theodosius. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. xii, 280 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780472104857

This book, based on V.’s doctoral thesis under the direction of T. D. Barnes, provides a thorough reconstruction of the career of the fourth century C.E. orator Themistius in light of a fresh assessment of the relevant primary sources. Alongside of his portrayal of Themistius, V. also examines in detail aspects of the political and social history of the eastern empire after the death of Constantine the Great, with particular focus on the city of Constantinople.

Although Themistius (ca. 318-385/7 C.E.) has not received the same scholarly attention as his contemporary and acquaintance Libanius of Antioch, during his lifetime he was held in very high regard among the elites of the eastern empire. After his adlection to the Senate, in 357 Themistius gained a position of leadership (prostasia) that was perhaps the equivalent of princeps senatus. In particular, he was given responsibility for recruiting new members for the Senate of Constantinople, whose size the emperor Constantius increased to be equal in number (and hence status) to the Senate of Rome. Constantius’ esteem for Themistius is also evident in that he had the privilege of dining at the emperor’s table (Libanius, Ep. 66.2; Themistius, Or. 31.353a). Themistius was called upon to deliver orations for Constantius, Julian, Jovian, Valens, Gratian and Theodosius I; indeed, the number of imperial panegyrics he delivered exceeded those of any other fourth century orator. In these speeches, aside from the praise of the emperor that he was expected to render Themistius also sought to influence his imperial audience according to his own philosophical ideals; it is with some obvious pride that he claims to have persuaded Valens to heed his advice from time to time (Or. 31.354). Themistius also wrote a protrepticus to Julian after the latter had been appointed Caesar in 355, and in his reply Julian refers to his studies with Themistius (though it is unclear whether Themistius was Julian’s teacher in any formal sense). The high point of Themistius’ career was his appointment in 384 as urban prefect of Constantinople by Theodosius. (He had been nominated for this position early by Constantius in 359 but had declined the office at that time.) In light of Themistius’ relations with each of these rulers, as well as the prominence which the Senate of Constantinople acquired under his leadership, V. describes him as “[i]n some important ways the most significant politician outside of the emperors and their court officials during the period of his active service as a senator” (p. 220). For one who spent over thirty years as a senatorial leader in Constantinople this is no small claim.

In the introductory chapter, V. situates Themistius within the ancient tradition of oratory and imperial panegyric (evident, for example, in the rhetorical treatises attributed to Menander Rhetor). The tradition of imperial panegyric, though alien to modern tastes, had been of long duration in the Graeco-Roman world and still possessed its full vigour in late antiquity. V. portrays Themistius in terms of a model of fourth century rhetoric developed by Peter Brown, 1 i.e., a type of oratory which was intended to remind rulers that they should govern according to the values of traditional paideia derived from classical authors; according to V., Themistius corresponds to the philosopher who, in Brown’s model, was accorded parresia, i.e., independence of status vis-à-vis the ruler. Such an approach to Themistius helps to account for the distinctive nature of his oratory: in his imperial orations, he usually began with an abstract discussion of a philosophical topic (such as justice) and subsequently worked in elements of panegyric (for example, by citing instances where the emperor fulfilled the ideal of justice). This pattern sets the speeches of Themistius apart from those of contemporary orators such as Libanius and Himerius, and indeed Themistius always considered himself primarily a philosopher. V. also discusses the rhetorical tradition as it was manifested among fourth century Christian bishops, noting that Themistius did not directly engage or compete with Christian orators. V. holds the view that the widespread Christianization of the eastern empire by the fourth century led Themistius (himself a pagan) to make appeals for imperial toleration of religious plurality. 2 For example, in a speech to Jovian (Or. 5.68d) Themistius anticipated the famous affirmation of Symmachus (Relatio 3.8-10) in 384 that there are multiple ways to knowledge of the divine; according to V., such assertions were inspired by Porphyry’s earlier formidable attack on the Christians and constituted an implicit critique of Christian triumphalist claims to exclusivity.

Chapter 2 deals with Themistius’ early career, for which evidence is admittedly scarce. Themistius’ grandfather, who was honoured by Diocletian, had received recognition as a philosopher. His father Eugenius was a teacher of philosophy in Paphlagonia, and presumably gave him his early education. V. argues that Themistius received further instruction from the rhetorician Basil of Neocaesarea, the father of Basil the Great; the elder Basil’s combined knowledge of philosophy and rhetoric, with the latter seen as subordinate to the former, influenced Themistius (though he did not take on Basil’s Christianity). An early speech (Or. 24), a protrepticus to the people of Nicomedia, already demonstrates Themistius’ basic understanding of the relationship between philosophy and rhetoric, a view which remains constant throughout the rest of his speeches; according to this view, V. writes:

The practice of rhetoric or philosophy by itself was not sufficient. Rather, the two disciplines were to act in harmony, each supporting the other. Rhetoric was to serve philosophy by being a vehicle to allow moral correction to reach as many people as possible and become useful. Conversely, philosophy needed to abandon its esoteric nature and give attention to reaching more people, a view perhaps originating in Themistius’ education and not entirely dissimilar to the delivery of sermons by bishops. In accordance with this view, Themistius regarded himself as a philosopher first and an orator second (pp. 47-48).

Chapter 3 focusses on Constantinople, its foundation by Constantine and its development in status vis-à-vis Rome. Themistius was closely associated with the city, and it remained one of his enduring concerns. V. argues that the formation of the Constantinopolitan Senate, and its enlargement under Constantius, were crucial for ensuring that the city retained its status as the capital of the eastern empire.

The next several chapters examine in succession Themistius’ relations with various emperors: Constantius (ch. 4), Julian (ch. 5), Jovian (ch. 6), Valens (ch. 7) and Theodosius (ch. 8). In each of these chapters V. analyzes and comments on the orations which Themistius delivered for these respective emperors. Moreover, these chapters feature brief but detailed historical accounts of each reign; in particular, V.’s presentation of the events surrounding the accession of Theodosius in 379 (pp. 187-195) clarifies several thorny problems. V. also sheds valuable light on the differences between Themistius and Julian in their approaches to traditional pagan religion and to Hellenistic culture. In contrast to Julian’s vigorous assertion of paganism as a universal religion along the lines of Christianity, Themistius played down the role of traditional religion as an essential part of paideia because of its divisiveness (pp. 119-127, 217). As well, V. identifies a treatise preserved in Arabic, the Risâlat, as a panegyric of Julian written by Themistius in 362 (referred to in Libanius, Ep. 818.3): V. breaks new ground in using this text for the first time as evidence for the relationship between Julian and Themistius (pp. 127-134; appendix 3 and 4, pp. 241-249). 3

At several points in his career, Themistius was obliged to defend himself for his active public role, since, as Garth Fowden has shown in an authoritative article, 4 the common pattern of fourth century philosophers was to withdraw from public life. By contrast, it was precisely as a philosopher that Themistius engaged in public responsibilities; this led to not a little criticism, and he was frequently accused of sophistry and of debasing philosophy. The names of his opponents are not known, but the extent and intensity of the debate are evident from many of Themistius’ orations. V. provides a thorough discussion of this entire debate and of Themistius’ defense before these accusations (pp. 94-95, 108, 121-22, 208-215; relevant passages are also translated and analyzed in appendix 2, pp. 230-240). In his philosophical interests, Themistius seems to have been out of step with his contemporaries as well. His extant paraphrases of numerous works of Aristotle, written early in his career while he was a young teacher, reflect an attempt to understand and disseminate the view of Aristotle on their own terms, and he may well have approached Plato in a similar manner. Though his writings show that he was familiar with contemporary philosophers (such as Porphyry and Iamblichus) as well as with Christianity, in general his philosophical approach appears distinctly antiquarian in the context of the fourth century. While he saw himself as an active philosopher along the traditional model of Socrates and Plato, Themistius was historically more significant as a political figure and hence the focus of V.’s book on Themistius’ political career is justified.

V. has produced a valuable study of a figure who merits more attention from scholars of late antiquity. Students of fourth century imperial and senatorial history especially would find the work useful.

1. Peter Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992) 61-70.

2. To the extent that in one speech Themistius urged Valens not to persecute non-Arian Christians (pp. 178-79).

3. Such use of this text was already suggested by G.W. Bowersock, Julian the Apostate (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978) 31 n. 23.

4. Garth Fowden, “The Pagan Holy Man in Late Antiquity,”Journal of Hellenic Studies 102 (1982) 33-59.