BMCR 2007.08.07

The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch

, The school of Libanius in late antique Antioch. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 1 online resource (360 pages) : map. ISBN 9781400827671. $45.00.

Table of Contents

The corpus of Libanius (314-393 CE), said to be the largest to reach us from (polytheist) antiquity, forms the basis for any social history of late-antique Antioch. As Cribiore (henceforth C.) points out from the start, “There is more than one Libanius…” (2) and her book is rigorously selective. She has dredged and trawled that vast corpus for the evidence that permits us to reconstruct Libanius’s school of rhetoric — its relationship to its society, its organization (both students and assistant teachers) and to a lesser degree, its pedagogy. (See esp. 137.)

The book follows on C.’s prizewinning Gymnastics of the Mind (Princeton, 2001) and the relationship between the two is explicit: “Though Egypt provides the tangible remains of ancient rhetorical education, Syria (through Libanius’s school works, orations, and letters) contributes a sort of commentary to those teaching and learning materials.” (147) Her earlier work considered those realia of education preserved in Egypt, and the present book tests some of the conclusions reached there against the best-documented educational institution of antiquity. Close, as always, to her primary evidence, C. supplements her 230-page text with translations of about 200 of Libanius’s letters, all focusing on the school and its students.

C.’s project is not without precedents, beginning in the late 19th century. Most notably, A. J. Festugière gave a prominent place to Libanius the educator in his Antioche païenne et chrétienne, Libanius, Chrysostome, et les moines de Syrie (Paris, 1959), and included translations of about 100 letters, many relating to education.1 Paul Petit, as well, explored the prosopography of Libanius’s students ( Les étudiants de Libanius, Paris, 1956) and A. F. Norman, who worked on Libanius for half a century, inevitably covered some of the same ground.2 C’s book is remarkable, though, for the patient assembling of a “big picture” out of the abundance of anecdotal evidence and less than candid documents. Many of her innovative claims are correctives (usually of Petit’s conclusions) and tend to take the form of demonstrations that the evidence has been stretched too far and simply does not support what previous scholars have built upon it.

By far the most often read of Libanius’s sixty-four preserved orations (not to mention fifty-one declamations and a large collection of progymnasmata) is his Autobiography (Or. 1). This complex, simultaneously public and private, rewritten and revised text (13) paints the picture of a remarkably hardworking, fiercely competitive educator (and advisor of cities and emperors), at his peak in the golden years of Julian’s short reign (361-364), and later disillusioned, embittered and defensive, as he saw the rhetoric he practiced losing ground to the study of law, which in turn involved at least a passing acquaintance with Latin — a language for which he had little use. There is much to correct in this picture (aside from C.’s revisions, see most recently Jorit Wintjes, Das Leben des Libanios (Hist. Studien der Universität Würzburg, 2, Rahden Westfalen, 2005) but Libanius’s self-portrait nevertheless constitutes the essential foil against which his other writings have been read. It is also, incidentally, the source of a familiar series of vivid anecdotes, widely quoted to illustrate the dog-eat-dog world of fourth-century higher education.

After reviewing this and the other relevant sources for rhetorical education in the Greek east, C. uses the opening chapters to establish some norms and to open some questions that will surface later in her reading of the letters and orations that apply specifically to education. She also introduces two corpora of letters that she will frequently invoke as comparanda — and they do, in fact, nicely underline the continuities over the longue durée of the relationships and experiences under examination: the 122 surviving letters of an anonymous Constantinopolitan educator of the tenth century ( Anonymi professoris epistolae, ed. A. Markopoulos, Berlin, 2000) and the correspondence of a Basel publisher, ca. 1500, with his sons and their teachers (B. C. Halporn, The Correspondence of Johann Amerbach, Ann Arbor, 2000). At this point, we are told that “the traditional starting age of 14 or 15 [for rhetorical education] can probably be maintained on average” (31) and that a rigorous division was maintained between the schools of the grammatikoi and Libanius’s school. This last represents a change of position on C.’s part (33, n.112). In her earlier book she had followed Petit and Kaster in the view that Libanius’s staff included grammarians, but now considers the evidence for this “so shaky as to become nonexistent” (35). Certainly, the letters give us a Libanius who fiercely defended his turf against rival rhetors and personally dominated his assistants within his own school.

C.’s second chapter, on “Schools and Sophists in the Roman East”, surveys the evidence for other teachers and schools in the region in the fourth century. The intense rivalries are revealed by conflicting assessments (e.g., on Prohaeresius, 53) and what emerges is an educational map dominated by Athens, with arriviste Constantinople and Libanius’s Antioch on a lower level of prestige, followed in turn by numerous regional centers. Both rhetors and, in particular, students had considerable mobility, and in general tried to move up this hierarchy. The challenge for Libanius was first, to attract students, often from remote areas. These are better documented than his Syrian and particularly his Antiochene students because he communicated with their families by letter. His second task was to retain students, who might be inclined to move on to another teacher or to succumb to the attraction of the prestige of the Athenian schools. Success at the first of these tasks depended on Libanius’s personal prestige as a public speaker (83) but his correspondence makes it clear that he supplemented this by using “all of his connections in order to attract students from small centers” (82).

His success was considerable, and in Ch. 3 C. sets out to explain that success. Extrapolating from the letters (to include local students) and taking into consideration earlier estimates, C. puts the total student body at 80 in the early years of Libanius’s teaching, and although the number of foreign students declined, “…there is no need to posit a sharp decline in his popularity” (97) since increased numbers of local students may have kept the total in the same range. It seems that the rise and early death of the Emperor Julian had little effect on enrolment in this school (90-91), though Libanius was proud of his role in the Emperor’s education (142-143), and had good relations with him. Here, as in subsequent chapters, anecdotal evidence is ably woven together into a plausible picture. Libanius had two prominent Christian students: John Chrysostom, who turned on his teacher and vilified him, and Basil the Great. In the corpus of the latter’s letters is a correspondence with Libanius whose authenticity has been doubted (101, with notes). C. is inclined to take as authentic those letters where the subject is recruitment: it appears that Basil remained faithful to his old teacher and that Cappadocian students came to Antioch through his intervention. This, according to C., was the real skill of Libanius in recruiting. It lay in his maintenance and manipulation of an “‘old boys” network” (110) that kept the students coming from remote regions.

Chapters 4 through 6 cover the experience of the student in the school, from application (“Admission and Evaluation,” 111-136) to pedagogy (“Teaching the Logoi,” 137-173, and “The Long and Short Paths to Rhetoric,” 174-196). Acknowledging that “…the information that one can extrapolate from his orations and letters about the program of studies is admittedly scanty…,” C. says she will also pursue the broader goal of explaining “…the excitement young men felt for education on this level.” (137 The three chapters are in fact broken down into a series of largely discrete studies, each devoted to a question on which the evidence can provide some enlightenment. Attention is given in Ch. 4 to letters of recommendation (111-116), the initial diagnostic test that placed the new student in the proper group ( symmoria) (120-122), the reports (on which C. disagrees with Petit’s judgment: “monotonous and uninteresting,” 126) (122-136), and an excursus on nature vs. nurture in ancient educational theory (127-134). About the program of study (Ch. 5), in the absence of much evidence, C. gives us reflections on some of Libanius’s persistent metaphors (teacher-as-father, sowing and reaping), something on the progymnasmata (143-147) and the books studied (especially Demosthenes and Plato, 148-152). She goes on to claim that “one of the tasks of a sophist was to continue the work of the grammarian by exposing the student to every kind of literature…through a radically different method of reading” (157).

We are reminded at this point that a deadly conflict of interpretive communities, which was to change the future of education, was taking place under Libanius’s nose, though he chose largely to ignore it. Gregory of Nazianzus is introduced to represent the Christian side. Julian had claimed the whole of Greek literature for the polytheists, as the only true heirs to the tradition. Gregory responded, addressing a polytheist acquaintance, that Homer was “not just your Homer” (168). If there is a weakness in C.’s book, it is in leaving this conflict unexplored (whereas for some of her predecessors, notably Festugière, it was central). In her defense, it should be acknowledged that, deeply involved in this conflict though he was, Libanius himself generally chose to keep silent about it, and his own writings must be supplemented by those of his renegade student John Chrysostom before his involvement becomes clear. Libanius’s Antioch was polytheist (at least as he described it), his ideal polis a polytheist one, and the idea of a competing interpretive community was one he could easily put out of his head.3

After arguing for the learning of epistolary skills as part of the rhetorical curriculum (169-173), C. goes on in Ch. 6 to consider the length of time the students spent in the school: the “long path” Libanius praises (and that he himself followed) turns out to have been the exception rather than the rule (176): “The short road to rhetoric was well trodden” (182) and apparently more than adequate to most career choices.

These choices, along with the “decline” of rhetorical studies in the late 4th century are the subjects of the final chapter, “After Rhetoric” (197-228). The overall message is discouraging: “…considerations of competence and training did not on the whole inform appointment procedures” (197-198). What, then, are we to make of the aging Libanius’s complaints about the threat to his school of rhetoric of the schools offering more immediately lucrative training in shorthand, and in Latin (and Roman law, to which Latin is generally said to have been the gateway)? C. here drops a small bombshell by taking a stand against the communis opinio that “… the teaching of Roman law in Berytus was conducted in Latin …,” (209) emphasizing the weakness of the evidence on which that opinion is based. However much Latin was actually required, she concludes, the threat to rhetoric is easily exaggerated, and there is little reason to think that that threat was significantly greater in the 380’s and 390’s than earlier in Libanius’s career. Sometimes the orations and the letters tell conflicting stories (207, 212). The analysis of Libanius’s letters of recommendation is extremely valuable (213-222). C.’s conclusion, in “Rhetoric: A Passport to Office?” (225-228) is that “…the ideal of the educated governor steeped in eloquence appears only in the works of sophists, and not invariably even there.” (227) Libanius effectively acknowledged at the end of his career that rhetoric was not essential for success (228).

The translations of the letters (233-321) bring us close to the difficulties of the entire enterprise. Libanius’s letters of recommendation (over 500 preserved, from a lifetime output that must have been in the thousands) and letters to fathers, keeping the families of students from distant places abreast of their children’s progress, are at the same time all too familiar (in their function) and quite foreign, in their manner and style. C. emphasizes that, in comparison with the many preserved (Latin) letters of recommendation of his contemporary Symmachus, those of Libanius are “more individualized” (215) — that is, he avoids boiler plate and finds fresh ways of saying the same old things. But as C.’s analysis makes clear, the addressees had to do considerable reading between the lines. The letters of recommendation are, not surprisingly, overwhelmingly positive — all of Libanius’s students seem to have been, in Garrison Keillor’s phrase “above average” — but if he has nothing bad to say, there is nevertheless a great deal that he carefully does not say (217-219). Comparable constraints are perceptible in reports to fathers (119. 134-36): negative assessments are rare, and the bad news may well have been left to the letter-carrier to deliver orally (125-26). These concise communications (averaging less than a page) are rarely straightforward in what they reveal, and obscurities — whether stemming from rhetorical ornamentation or from studied colloquialism — abound. As evidence, they promise a great deal, but what they deliver is more problematic. On the rare occasions where Libanius seems to call a spade a spade — in Letter 60, a father is told that one of his sons is a successful student, but that the other “should not have been born” (259) — the report of failure is woven into a pattern of Iliadic allusion that turns the hyperbole into elegant wit. In general, then, this evidence is not unlike the Delphic dialogues of Plutarch, the priest of Delphi: the ideal informant writes abundantly on what he is uniquely qualified to tell us, but does so in such an oblique manner that we are left with as many questions as answers.

If there are blank places in the big picture C. presents, however, it is because there are gaps and obscurities in the evidence. What she has done here is to present that evidence and to elaborate on it in a remarkably accessible and attractive way. Her work fills a gap in the literature on ancient education and on late antiquity generally.


1. Why C. characterizes Festugière’s translations as “somewhat inadequate” (2, n., 4) remains unclear, and in general her observations about other translators do not put her in the best light (e.g. 184, n. 64). Libanius’s epistolary style is both evasive and difficult, and there is ample room for disagreement on the translation of many passages.

2. With regard to the translations, it is true that the 200 letters C. translates have generally been neglected (1-2, n. 4) and in fact none are included in the selection in Norman’s Loeb edition (Libanius, Autobiography and Selected letters. 2 vols. Cambridge MA, 1992).

3. Or. 30, in which Libanius petitioned Theodosius on behalf of the temples and cults of the gods, is a rare exception to this rule, where Libanius confronts the problem as a contemporary one.