BMCR 2008.02.18

Man and the Word. The Orations of Himerius

, , Man and the word : the orations of Himerius. The Joan Palevsky imprint in classical literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 1 online resource (xiv, 312 pages).. ISBN 9780520933712. $55.00.

Man and the Word. The Orations of Himerius by Robert Penella is an edited collection of introductions and translations of the extant orations of Himerius, the fourth-century teacher of rhetoric in Athens. This book is the author’s second contribution to the prestigious “The Transformation of the Classical Heritage” series published by the University of California Press; and like the first offering, this second book is an impressive example of meticulous scholarship, readable translations, and detailed annotation.1 Penella admirably demonstrates throughout his work an expertise in Greek philology and a rich knowledge of classical mythology, philosophy, and literature.

The distinctly non-Christian voice of Himerius brings a unique perspective to life among the elite in the late Roman east, and his speeches attest to the vibrancy and vitality of classical culture and education in a place like Athens, which in his day was an important “college town” where the likes of the emperor Julian and Basil of Caesarea spent time in study. So these translations will be of great interest to scholars of late antique culture, society, and politics.

The book is divided into eight chapters, preceded by an introduction. Instead of simply following the numerical sequence in the ordering of his translations, Penella chooses to arrange the orations thematically into the separate chapters, based on either specific subjects or the various contexts in which the speeches were delivered. This arrangement is a wise choice and benefits the reader as it provides grouped examples of the different types of stock and occasional speeches practiced and delivered by rhetoricians in antiquity. However, some selections are so fragmentary or brief, that at times it is difficult to see exactly how the oration fits into the broader category. Nevertheless Penella usually offers some reasonable explanation for the choices he has made.

Each chapter begins with an introduction that provides contextual information, synopses, and historical problems related to the selected orations. Additional information about the numeration, ordering, and manuscript location of the speeches can be found at the end of each translation, and Penella appends a concordance at the end of the book which lists the numbered orations in the standard edition with the corresponding pages in Penella’s book.

The “Introduction” provides basic background on the life and work of Himerius, and addresses various issues related to the chronology of Himerius’s career and travels. In particular Penella discusses Himerius’s double stint as a teacher of rhetoric in Athens, suggesting that the end of the first may have been a result of a professional quarrel with the Christian rhetorician Prohaeresius. Part of the intermediary period was spent at Constantinople at the court of Julian, and Himerius’ journey to the imperial capital offered occasions to deliver orations in other cities along the way. Penella also discusses the interactions Himerius may have had with the great Antiochene rhetor Libanius. Penella’s discussion of the language and style of the orations is particularly interesting, as he connects Himerius’ skillful use of mythological and historical allusions with the importance of such images in the language and discourse of elites in Late Antiquity as well as in the formation and affirmation of a distinctly Greek identity in a Roman world. Penella then highlights the peculiarities of Himerius’s metaphors, allusions, and vocabulary, while the remainder of the introduction deals with issues related to the manuscript tradition, the titles and types of the various orations, and the available editions and translations.

Chapter 1, “Himerius’s Son, Rufinus,” presents translations of two orations relating to Himerius’s son, who had died at a relatively young age. The first is a brief request for free status for his son before the Areopagus, and the second is a monody of lament for his lost son. Chapter 2, “In Praise of Cities and Men,” includes four speeches delivered in various cities that exemplify “speeches of arrival,” in which Himerius, upon his arrival, praises the particular city and the individual who invited him to orate. For Himerius, cities and men are great because they preserve and promote Greek culture. Oration 41 is especially fascinating because it follows Himerius’s initiation into the Mithraic mysteries at Constantinople, and Himerius implies that the city is truly worthy of praise because it was originally an Athenian colony. He also praises the emperor Julian, his patron, because “he has also washed away by his virtue the darkness that was preventing us from lifting our hands up to the Sun…” (62), thereby celebrating the (temporary) end of Christian rule in the empire.

Chapter 3, “In and Around Himerius’s School,” assembles speeches that highlight features of the daily life of his school. The length and subjects of the fifteen speeches compiled in this chapter vary, including topics such as student recruitment and disorder, celebrations and welcoming, and exhortations to study and train. Chapter 4, “Coming and Going in Himerius’s School,” groups seventeen orations (some fragmentary) relating specifically to arrivals and departures to and from his school, either by Himerius himself or by his students, and demonstrate how frequently Himerius orated before his students.

Chapter 5, “The Epithalamium for Severus,” is a single, fully extant oration celebrating the marriage of one Himerius’s former pupils. Penella shows how Himerius follows the structure for such a speech as explained by Menander Rhetor, and the oration is full of rich mythological references that celebrate the goodness and benefits of marriage, honor the parties involved in bringing the couple together, and praise the beauty of the young bride.

Chapter 6, “Imaginary Orations,” compiles five declamations and an encomium in which Himerius puts himself in the guise of either a historical figure or some unnamed speaker and delivers an “imaginary” speech on a particular topic or theme. These orations are classic examples of what Penella calls the “height of the ancient rhetorical curriculum” (156), and they would be of particular interest to scholars of classical rhetorical declamation. Himerius argues as Hyperides in defense of Demosthenes, as Demosthenes against Alexander, anonymously against the philosophy of Epicurus, as a poor man wronged by a rich man, and as Themistocles against Xerxes. In the encomium, Himerius commemorates the fallen dead of Athens at the close of the fifth century. All of these speeches are excellent examples of Himerius the rhetor at his best.

Chapter 7, “Orations Addressed to Roman Officials,” is the longest, and most of the orations address various proconsular governors of Greece. All of the speeches are panegyrical, and they show how important patronage relationships were to cities in the late antique world. One can also clearly see how the language of Greek culture joined together intellectuals and government officials, and how orators used the form of the panegyric to shape the response and behavior of the intended listener. Again one can see Himerius’s masterful use of myth, history, and literary allusions to flatter his listeners and encourage them to return the favor through benefactions.

Chapter 8, “Miscellaneous Remains,” compiles fragments attributed to Himerius in the modern critical edition. Many of the them are no more than a few words, and even the longer fragments are without context and therefore have limited use or value. Nevertheless Penella’s inclusion of these translated fragments rounds out all of the extant material attributed to Himerius.

In conclusion, Penella’s book is an important and timely contribution which offers for the first time a complete English translation of the orations of Himerius. The excellent footnotes consistently explain the various mythical, historical, and philosophical imagery and allusions in the text, and the translations are eminently readable. Scholars broadly interested in classical culture and education, rhetoric, and myth will benefit greatly from this book, and scholars interested in ancillary topics such as the emperor Julian, Constantinople, and late antique Athens will equally gain from this book.


1. R. J. Penella, The Private Orations of Themistius, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.