BMCR 2002.01.10

Greek Biography and Panegyric in Late Antiquity. Transformation of the Classical Heritage Series, 31

Tomas Hägg, Philip Rousseau, Christian Høgel, Greek biography and panegyric in late antiquity. The transformation of the classical heritage ; 31. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. xii, 288 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0520223888 $50.00.

Some years ago A. Momigliano, in a series of lectures on the development of Greek biography, contended that biography and its partner, the encomium, were products of the new historical curiosity that developed in the Greek world of the fifth century, BC. The encomium subsequently became the domain of the rhetorician, while it was the philosophers who developed the idealised biography of the philosopher and the monarch.1 Nevertheless, further study has demonstrated that rhetoric clearly remained an important element in biography though, from the point of view of genre, biography remained separate from the very stylized encomium.2 In practice, however, the distinction between the two genres is not so clear; biographies are often clearly panegyrical and panegyrics are, at least in part, biographical, with neither having an a priori claim to accuracy; rather “in both instances, the ‘writer’ was a dramatist, creating movement, posture, and costume, just as much as dialogue. We are faced with choreography, as well as syntax” (p.14). The editors of this volume are not desirous of reopening the debate of genre—on this, they have simply decided to treat them as “two sets of texts” (p.1)—but rather to investigate these types of texts from two points of view: what do these texts tell us about how Classical Hellenism was translated into the Christian Hellenic culture of Late Antiquity; and what is, or are, the purpose(s) of these “two sets of texts” and what can be discerned about the audience of these texts.

All but one of the eleven studies in this volume were initially presented at a larger international symposium, “Rhetoric and the Translation of Culture”, convened at the Centre for the Study of European Civilization at the University of Bergen, 28-31 August 1996. Unlike many such volumes, the articles here form a unified collection with a strong common theme and subject matter. The time span of the authors covered is less than three centuries—most are from the fourth century—and deal with both Christian and non-Christian examples of both genres. Six of the eleven articles treat primarily, if not exclusively, the most important and representative of each genre in early Christian literature: Gregory of Nazianzus’ Funeral Oration on Basil the Great and the Life of St. Antony, probably written by Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria. Other ‘highlighted’ Christian texts include Eusebius, Life of Constantine, the fifth-century Syriac Life of the Rabbula, and the anonymous Historia monachorum in Aegypto. Late Antique non-Christian literature is also represented here by its most well-known examples: Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus (twice); Iamblichus Life of Pythagoras; and the Private Orations of Themistius, who was proconsul and prefect in Constantinople for much of the second half of the fourth century. These articles, as well as the editors’ introduction appended to them, contain such riches that no review of this size could possibly do them justice; little can be done here beyond a slightly annotated synopsis of their contents.

The first two articles, by Clark and Edwards, investigate the purpose of Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus and note that this Life cannot be considered apart from Plotinus’ Enneads to which it is always attached. Clark compares the Life of Plotinus to Iamblichus’ Life of Pythagoras, which also cannot be considered apart from its larger component, a collection of Pythagorean texts, and demonstrates that since both these lives actually function as an introduction to the works of their masters, it is very possible to read these texts not simply as lives, but as introductions to the lifestyles of their particular schools. From this vantage point it is possible to see that both these texts are likely to have served as ‘enlistment brochures’ (not her term) for their respective schools. Clark argues that these two texts are thus not to be read as texts competing for recruits against the growing Christian movement but against one another, reflecting rather an inner rivalry between the two philosophical schools, possibly over which is the true follower of Plato. Edwards examines the narratives of the birth and divine status of Plotinus as Porphyry records them in the Life of Plotinus and finds striking parallels to the life of Christ in the Christian Gospels, especially the Gospel of John. These findings lead him to conclude that the Life of Plotinus has indeed a Christian audience in mind.

Averil Cameron then examines Eusebius’ Life of Constantine by a comparison with the Life of Antony. While this seems an unlikely pairing at first glance, Cameron shows that the two texts actually share a great number of common concerns: in their respective lifestyles, both heroes must slowly come to knowledge; both are tormented by demons; both are subjected to trials which they overcome only with the help of God; and both are zealous for orthodoxy, among other things. In its own way, each of these texts, regardless of how their genre is to be classified, is written to portray a holy man. These common themes and other internal indications even suggest that these two texts might be apologetic pieces aimed at one another. This suggestion—intriguing enough in and of itself—might just be that new angle by which to resolve once and for all the question of authorship of the Life of Antony; Athanasius did, after all, specifically name Eusebius as one of his enemies.

Philip Rousseau argues that the purpose of the Life of Antony is not simply to present Antony as a model to be imitated but rather to portray him as a teacher and master—one who has been taught by God. Rousseau discerns considerable imagery from the Pentateuch that suggests that Antony is being depicted in Mosaic terms; in this context, his long discourse to the monks, which occupies the central sections of the Life of Antony, portrays Antony as “teaching a new people”, with the authority of a real experience with God. Rousseau proceeds to muse over whether this picture might help in the debate over authorship of this work but comes to no definite conclusion; perhaps a bit of collusion with Cameron on this issue might have helped.

Samuel Rubenson compares the Life of Antony with a number of other early lives of saints, primarily those of Jerome, the lives of Macrina and Gregory Thaumaturgos composed by Gregory of Nyssa, and the Life of Pachomius, with a view to flushing out just what hagiographic texts might tell us about the nature of Christian education. Not all of them deal with education, and they differ on related issues such as Antony’s holiness, which seems to stem from his teaching while Hilarion’s stems from his miracles. Nonetheless, Rubenson is able to discern traces of a beginning of a specifically Christian paideia in the lives of Macrina and Pachomius, involving the careful, systematic poring over the Psalms, and the resources and rigors of a cenobitic monastic training; in each case, the Christian scriptures are the font from which they drink.

The articles of Norris, Konstan, and Bortnes, consider various aspects of Gregory Nazianzus’ Funeral Oration on Basil the Great, certainly the greatest representative of panegyric from this period. Gregory wrote this oration shortly after he had, under pressure from his enemies, resigned his presidency and bishopric amidst the political melée at and surrounding the Council of Constantinople in 381. He was also on the outs with the family of Basil after he had offended them by not attending the actual funeral of Basil. Norris shows clearly that Gregory was concerned as much with restoring his reputation, recently darkened on both these fronts, as he was concerned with presenting a Basil for all to emulate; for all Basil’s concern for a Christian paideia rooted in Greek paideia, Gregory reveals himself as even more passionately concerned about traditional Greek culture and literature. Konstan and Bortnes, on the other hand, are more interested in the nature of friendship in Gregory’s oration, the former examining the vocabulary vis-à-vis its classical antecedents while the latter explores the pervasive language and imagery of ἔρος, much of which Gregory has borrowed from Plato. While the relationship between Basil and Gregory is one of equals, classically represented by φίλος, Gregory describes their equal footing by ἔρος, although the Basil who now resides in his new home (heaven) has once again donned the mantle of master.

Robert Penella, much like Norris above, demonstrates the ulterior motives of several of Themistius’ Private Orations : Oration 20, an epitaphios in honor of his own father, is as much an advertisement of the breadth of his own education. Likewise, other of his orations show clear traces of a self-defense against criticism of those who consider Themistius to have abandoned a true philosophic life by engaging in a political career.

Patricia Cox Miller, in by far the longest article of the book, looks at the genre of collective biography by comparing the nearly contemporary collections of Eunapius’ Vitae philosophorum et sophistarum and the anonymous Historia Monachorum in Aegypto. The genre was adopted from classical antecedents but underwent a significant shift from biography to hagiography, and in the process the individual lives often lost their distinguishing characteristics, leaving one with the impression of many similar character sketches, rather than individual biographies. As with the philosophical lives above, the focus is rather on a lifestyle than on an individual life.

The last article, that of Glen Bowersock, might at first seem the “odd man out”, better fitted to a specialist journal or perhaps to something akin to the recent collection of Edwards and Swain,3 but it nonetheless signals another type of Hellenic influence and perhaps looks towards another extremely fruitful avenue of research, the degree of Hellenism in Christian Oriental texts. Bowersock carefully examines the vocabulary and descriptions in the Syriac Life of Rabbula, the fifth-century bishop of Edessa, clearly demonstrating that the anonymous author of this work is quite familiar with, and a faithful translator of, the social customs and the geographic details of Edessa and its environs; and he even recovers Syriac examples of the Greek crowd acclamation ὠκεανέ, the Syrian locution for the bought slave, οἰκόγενες (Syr. ylydy byth), and only the second example of the epithet ‘victorious’ for Tela/Constantia.

The eleven studies presented in this volume are all of first-rate quality by top scholars in the field. The review here does no justice to the wealth of detail and learning contained in this studies. Reading the texts from the different angles that the authors provide is in itself an enriching experience. It is certainly a book that one ought to read slowly and carefully in order to digest all therein. All in all, this is a most welcome collection of essays that ought to provide the careful reader much grist for the mill of reflection, and it forms a more than fitting complement to the other volumes that have already appeared from the same Norwegian research project of which the Bergen conference from which these papers stem forms but one part.4


1. A. Momigliano, The Development of Greek Biography (Cambridge 1971) esp. 100-102.

2. See D. R. Stuart, Epochs of Greek and Roman Biography (New York 1967), especially, c. 3, “The Prose Encomium of Historical Personages,” pp. 60-90; A. J. Woodman, Rhetoric in Classical Historiography (Bristol 1988).

3. M.J. Edwards and S. Swain, eds., Portraits: Biographical Representation in the Greek and Latin Literature of the Roman Empire (Oxford 1997), is concerned with the historical value of hagiographical texts.

4. The project is “Rhetoric and the Translation of Culture”; two volumes have already appeared: C. Hogel, ed., Metaphrasis: Redactions and Audiences in Middle Byzantine Hagiography (KULTs skriftserie 59; Oslo: Research Council of Norway, 1996), and J. Bortnes and I. Lunde, eds., Cultural Discontinuity and Reconstruction: The Byzanto-Slav Heritage and the Creation of a Russian National Literature in the Nineteenth Century (Slavica Norvegica 9; Oslo: Solum Forlag, 1997).