BMCR 2015.10.25

Literature and Society in the Fourth Century AD: Performing ‘paideia’, Constructing the Present, Presenting the Self. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 373

, , Literature and Society in the Fourth Century AD: Performing 'paideia', Constructing the Present, Presenting the Self. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 373. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2014. x, 247. ISBN 9789004278486. $142.00.


In 1992, Peter Brown drew together many fourth century texts, including the works of Libanius and Eunapius, to explain the functioning of an empire-wide elite and the rise of Christian bishops to positions of influence. This reconstruction gave particular prominence to the power of paideia – education in classical texts and literary forms – to function as a recognisable marker of status that enabled individuals from distant communities to ‘set up a system of instant communication with men who were, often, total strangers to them’.1 In a review of Brown’s magisterial book, Keith Hopkins did, however, pause to reflect on the richness of the available material and wonder whether it might cause modern scholars to overemphasise the distinctiveness of the final centuries of the ancient world: ‘Was the world of late antiquity … so markedly different … from previous centuries? Or is it just more fully known?’.2

Lieve Van Hoof and Peter Van Nuffelen’s excellent new volume explores these issues across ten chapters, most of which are based on insightful close readings of individual texts. In their introduction, the editors argue for greater continuity between the ‘Second Sophistic’ and the fourth century than is sometimes claimed, and thus also propose applying the same scholarly approaches to the literature of both periods. As is often the case in studies of the earlier era, their focus is on texts as agents of social change, rather than merely as records of it: ‘Shifting attention away from the literary question of how texts position themselves in a literary tradition as well as from the historical question of how they reflect past realities, the emphasis of this volume is on how literature impacts on society and how that impact is exploited by its practitioners’ (4). While there is some variation in the degree to which each individual paper explores this phenomenon, the book is successful in illuminating numerous examples of how texts constructed versions of reality, and images of their authors, to deal with specific situations. In fact, it is this close attention to details of text and context that characterises the volume’s most significant insights.

The chapters begin with Mark Vessey’s exploration of the modern concept of ‘literary history’ (16-30), focusing on the idea of ‘Latin literature’, as distinguished from ‘Roman literature’, in the Handbuch der lateinischen Literatur der Antike. His epilogue then argues that the first appearance of a recognisable chronologically organised list of ‘classical’ Latin authors comes in the Chronicle of Jerome. This is followed by two chapters that pick up Peter Brown’s interest in the role of both paideia and philosophical parrhesia – the action of speaking truth to power – in fourth-century politics: Bertrand Lançon (31-47) collects a range of evidence for the prominence of scholars of rhetoric and medicine as imperial officials and influential courtiers, particularly during the reigns of relatively uneducated emperors; in contrast, Neil McLynn (48-67) focuses on a single author, presenting a set of careful examinations of Gregory of Nazianzus’ correspondence with a succession of local governors. These two papers differ in both their scope and their views on the power of paideia, and thus the political clout of educated men. For Lançon, the fact that emperors consistently sought to gain and retain the support of the educated classes, especially orators, demonstrated the authority attached to culture and might even allow one to term the fourth century as the age of ‘un empire culturel’ (47). This chapter also presents Libanius, Themistius and Ambrose as ‘lettrés intouchables’ (44) because of their impressive mastery of paideia and parrhesia, with the bishop of Milan appearing in his traditional role as the man who could make emperors tremble. McLynn, however, is more cautious about accepting that paideia was an automatic route to influence, instead arguing that close analysis of individual texts reveals ‘the constraints upon the political uses of literary culture, the risks of failure which enhanced the gratification of occasional success’ (67). He uses Gregory’s letters and poems to present the bishop as someone who needed to build up his relationship with each governor slowly and carefully through a series of contacts and favours, rather than taking his own influence for granted.

Both Lançon and McLynn also stress the ways in which politically-engaged authors worked to present their proposals as mutually beneficial to themselves and their addressees. Sigrid Mratschek’s chapter (134-56) examines the working of similar persuasive manoeuvres in Paulinus of Nola’s Ep. 49, an appeal for compensation to be paid to the owner of a grain ship which had gone missing at sea and was later plundered by influential men after it reached land at Bruttium. Mratschek provides a clear articulation of how Paulinus skilfully transformed a routine petition to the vicarius into a Christian miracle story, with the ship and its cargo being preserved by divine intervention. The one survivor from the voyage, a poor Sardinian sailor named Valgius, is presented by Paulinus as having experienced a vision of Christ and St Felix. He therefore appeared before the vicarius not as a low-status witness in a judicial case, but as a ‘living relic’ (149), and so Paulinus invites the official to accept his version of events, receive the prestige of association with the miraculous and decide the case in the shipowner’s favour. This skilful deployment of rhetoric for practical purposes is also the subject of Lieve Van Hoof’s discussion of Libanius, Or. 31, in which the orator asks the city councillors of Antioch to grant the income of a civic estate to his assistants. (68-82). This chapter argues that we should not simply accept at face value Libanius’ lamentations about either his assistants’ poverty or the hostility shown to rhetorical education by the ruling emperor, Constantius II. Instead, Van Hoof reads Libanius’ exaggerations as part of an appeal to the town council not only for financial benefits, but also, more importantly, for a reaffirmation of the social status of rhetoricians and of oratory itself, in the face of the challenge posed by the rise of training in shorthand as an alternative route into the imperial service. As with Mratschek’s reading of Paulinus, Libanius emerges from this chapter as an astute lobbyist who could persuade his audience that they would greatly prefer to have him as an ally than an opponent.

The power of rhetoric is also the subject of Peter Van Nuffelen’s chapter on Christian orators at the turn of the fifth century, focusing on John Chrysostom and his opponents Antiochus of Ptolemais and Severian of Gabala (201-17). Patristic authors, including John in his De sacerdotio, argued that priests should only use rhetoric for teaching, rather than to seek popularity or social advancement. Nonetheless, Van Nuffelen demonstrates successfully that a churchman who could deliver a powerful speech or sermon might win himself popularity, material wealth and powerful patrons, all of which could be vital for survival in the ecclesiastical controversies that raged in Constantinople and other great cities of the East. In addition to countering claims that Christians eschewed the ‘tricks’ of classical rhetoric, this chapter also argues convincingly for the continued social status of rhetoric into the fifth century, as well as for similarities with the competitive environment of the ‘Second Sophistic’. Morwenna Ludlow’s incisive chapter on Gregory of Nyssa (83-102) also explores this theme of textual self-construction, looking at how the bishop defined himself as both teacher and pupil, especially in his relationships with his siblings Basil and Macrina. While Gregory exalted them both in his writings and discussed the ways in which he learned from them, he also claimed to be moving on to develop their ideas and address other audiences, thereby becoming a teacher through his own literary enterprises. A final section on Gregory’s reading of Song of Songs also illuminates his treatment of this Old Testament book as a text about texts and teaching, in which ‘the Bride’ instructs others, just as Gregory goes on to do in his own exegesis.

Although most of this volume, in comparison to many studies of late-antique literature, is primarily concerned with prose, two chapters examine poetic works in detail: Clare Coombe’s piece on mythological comparisons in Claudian (157-79) and Roald Dijkstra’s exploration of the presentation of the Apostles in early Christian poetry (180-200). Coombe provides a series of nuanced readings of passages where Claudian presents the magister militum Stilicho as the phoenix, as Apollo and as Tiphys, helmsman of the Argo. The explication of these passages persuasively argues for ways in which the resonances of these images would have shaped an educated audience’s understanding of Stilicho’s role in the cosmic order and so furthered his political aims. Dijkstra’s approach is more thematic, ranging across a number of authors to examine the treatment of the twelve Apostles (including the problematic character of Judas), the idea of concord between Paul and Peter and also the supreme importance of the latter, and thus the primacy of the Roman see. Although some interesting details are highlighted here, there are some problematic generalisations, especially the claim that all the poets discussed here, with the exception of the non-clerical Proba, ‘contributed to the position of the Roman bishop and its status as primus inter pares among Christian bishops’ (199). While such a conclusion is justified for Damasus, it is harder to maintain for a figure such as Gregory of Nazianzus.

In some ways, John Weisweiler’s chapter on inconsistency and unreliability in Ammianus Marcellinus’ Res Gestae (103-133) does not seem to fit with the volume’s theme as well as some of the other contributions, with the discussion of social impact being largely confined to an epilogue. This is, however, a very minor quibble about an intelligent and innovative piece. Building on Gavin Kelly’s ground-breaking literary reading of Ammianus, as well as incorporating approaches seen in modern scholarship on other classical texts, including Cassius Dio and Tacitus, Weisweiler presents three case studies of passages where Ammianus’ narrative appears suspect.3 In the discussion of each of these examples (the usurpation of Silvanus, the supposed eye-witness description of the Persian army and the tale of Craugasius of Nisibis), this chapter argues that Ammianus’ text draws attention to the questionable features of its own narration, and of the practice of historiography itself: ‘By making visible the problems faced by him in the reconstruction of past events, Ammianus does not undermine, but enhances his authority as a reliable guide to the history of his own time’ (131). While readers may find some details of Weisweiler’s readings more persuasive than others, his analysis of the text as a sophisticated piece of literature is certainly to be welcomed. This and the other nine chapters represent fruitful engagements with individual texts and, more importantly, as a whole this impressive volume demonstrates the benefits of applying techniques from the study of earlier imperial literature to works from late antiquity. ​


1. P. Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire, Madison, 1992, 35-70 (quoting 40).

2. K. Hopkins, ‘‘Rhetoricians rule…or bishops bamboozle’, Times Literary Supplement, 23rd April 1993: 11.

3. G. Kelly, Ammianus Marcellinus: The Allusive Historian, Cambridge, 2008.