BMCR 2017.04.14

Between City and School: Selected Orations of Libanius. Translated texts for historians, 65

, Between City and School: Selected Orations of Libanius. Translated texts for historians, 65. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015. viii, 262. ISBN 9781781382530. $34.95 (pb).

This volume presents, for the first time, modern English translations of twelve lesser-known speeches composed by one of the eminent rhetorical teachers of late antiquity, Libanius of Antioch (314-393). Only one of them had previously been translated into English, but this translation was published already in the eighteenth century and is now not easily available.1 The orations covered in this volume (Orations 61, 37, 40, 55, 53, 41, 39, 35, 51, 52, 63 and 38) roughly span the period from the beginning to the end of Libanius’ career as the official sophist of his hometown (that is, from 358 to 388 CE). Although they hardly belong to the most important pieces in Libanius’ vast oeuvre, their inclusion in the series Translated Texts for Historians is likely to attract more scholars and students to Libanius’ oratory. Readers interested in the culture of the fourth century will find Raffaella Cribiore’s translations helpful not only because they make the sometimes difficult Greek of the sophist more easily accessible, but also for the informative introduction and the substantial comments in the footnotes. Cribiore, who as one of the leading experts in this field is undoubtedly excellently placed to undertake such a task, has united the twelve speeches under the headings of ‘city’ and ‘school’, arguably the two pillars of Libanius’ intellectual universe; she presents them in chronological order, which nicely shows that some preoccupations were constantly on the sophist’s mind from his early career to his final years. The last decades have seen a considerable increase of translations of Libanius’ letters, orations and school texts into modern languages, so Cribiore’s well-chosen selection of compositions makes a significant contribution to this international endeavour.2 She deserves, furthermore, praise for widening the scope of literary and historical studies on the Antiochene teacher beyond his well-researched masterpieces.

Not long ago Cribiore has published a monograph that deals with the literary dimension of Libanius’ orations and letters, as well as his attitude towards religion, and the reader of her monograph will not be surprised to find in the present volume, in particular in the introductions to the texts, much material reused from her previous book.3 As a matter of fact, the translations of the twelve speeches can be read as a companion volume to the monograph, supplementing the primary sources for Cribiore’s argument. The new translations are, furthermore, a sequel to another volume in the same series which in 2000 presented the late A.F. Norman’s translations of nine well-known Libanius speeches also dealing with civic and educational matters.4 In contrast to Norman, who tried to make the Greek text sound more familiar to modern ears, Cribiore aims at a rather literal translation, so that the intended readers, advanced scholars and students alike, may appreciate the sophist’s style, even if they have no knowledge of ancient Greek.

The title ‘Between City and School’ is somewhat understated as the orations cover much more ground: apart from the city council of Antioch and students of rhetoric, the key topics are the conduct of imperial officials, the public functions of eloquence, friendship, acceptable norms of behaviour (in particular within the family and in sexual matters), and human psychology. A feature that unites some of the works is also invective as we see Libanius’ spite and slander at their height in Orations 37, 40, 39, and 38.

The volume opens with a general introduction to Libanius’ biography and school, the main themes of the selected orations, and questions of literary genre. Overall, the information is very instructive, yet the scarcity of detail given on the city of Antioch in the fourth century and of references to modern scholarship limit the introduction’s value.5 Cribiore, furthermore, makes some claims and suggestions which seem problematic. It is, for example, rather unlikely that the pagan sophist, as she argues (2), was familiar with, and influenced by, Athanasius’ Life of St Antony as Libanius nowhere displays knowledge of Christian texts. Further, Cribiore appears to underestimate the seriousness and purposes of Libanius’ invectives when she supposes that they aimed particularly at entertainment and pleasure (18-19); what they certainly do, but perhaps not at the expense of persuasion. In the context of the invective and its stock motifs, of which Libanius makes ample use, it would also have been worth considering the extent to which the published and transmitted speeches reflect what the sophist had actually said in the oral performance. Of more general importance is what Cribiore says about Libanius’ attitude to religious matters. She is right in pointing out that religious identities in his days were flexible and did not know clear-cut boundaries, and that Libanius was on friendly terms with Christians (15-16). One wonders then, however, whether it makes sense to speak of ‘grey pagans’ and ‘grey Christians’ because these categories presuppose that there was something like a ‘true’ pagan or Christian, a prototype with a precisely delineated identity.

The translations of the twelve selected pieces are each preceded by an introduction to the argument, key topics, historical background and individual figures involved, as well as by a brief synopsis. In addition, many detailed comments in the footnotes explain difficult passages, discuss textual problems, refer to literary echoes and provide additional information on historical facts and people. In general, these explanations assist the reader immensely in understanding the arguments, but sometimes Cribiore could have spared him or her banal or unnecessary remarks (e.g. 165, n. 57 ‘Greeks were afraid of snakes…’). The scope of the present review does not allow to go into every detail, so I confine myself to selected observations.

The earliest speech included in this volume is Libanius’ monody on the city of Nicomedia, which was razed to the ground by an earthquake in 358 CE (Oration 61). In the aftermath of the disaster, the sophist commemorated with a rhetorical lament the place where he had spent five successful years of his life. Surprisingly, the introductory remarks make no mention of his fragmentary monody on the temple of Apollo at Daphne (c. 363 CE, numbered as Oration 60). A comparison of these two closely related compositions would have shed further light on Libanius’ technique.

An important invective, whose inclusion is very welcome, is Oration 37 against Polycles, in which Libanius tries to salvage the late emperor Julian’s memory from ill-meaning suspicions spread by one former official. To put this affair into context and illuminate its significance, Cribiore should have provided some discussion of Libanius’ ‘Julianic agenda’, that is, on his efforts to influence with pamphlets public opinion about the emperor after his death on the Persian battlefield in 363 (Orations 17, 18, 24).6 Similarly, the pair of speeches that seek to ban private visits to the governors (Orations 51 and 52, 388 CE) is important for understanding Libanius’ views on imperial administration and the course of justice under Theodosius I. Here Cribiore has a sensible discussion of the relationship between the two speeches, which share most of the arguments but apparently were tailored for different audiences, with the latter being intended for an official readership. However, as the sophist repeatedly made pleas to Theodosius and enjoyed a kind of comeback at the time, some detailed information on his relationship with Theodosius’ court and on relevant scholarship would be essential.7

On somewhat shaky foundations rest Cribiore’s speculations about the religious affiliation of some individuals attacked or supported by Libanius (see introductions and notes on Orations 40, 63, 38). While it is certainly good to cast doubt on the claims made by scholars who often were too quick to identify persons as pagan or Christian, Cribiore occasionally makes herself bold inferences from Libanius’ imprecise phrases about religious preferences. It is, for instance, questionable whether the expression ‘enemy of the gods’ is sufficient for categorising someone as Christian, only because the sophist applies it elsewhere unambiguously to the followers of Christ. Libanius’ general preference for circumlocution and vague wording should caution us against rash conclusions, and Oration 39, the consolation to the teacher Antiochus (before 384 CE), will suffice to highlight the difficulties in establishing a historical person’s religious identity (in this case, Mixidemus, probably a pseudonym) solely on the basis of a highly rhetorical text (144 n. 16, 148 n. 43).

Oration 55, to Anaxentius, is in fact a kind of open letter directed to one of Libanius’ students who is summoned by his father to return home to his native Gaza because he is put under pressure by the local sophist. It is possible that the student was required to perform some liturgy in his hometown. Cribiore hypothesises that this work may not be an actual speech but rather a rhetorical exercise; she suspects that Anaxentius was not a real student but that his story had an exemplary value, namely arguing that the student of rhetoric must not abandon his post, but also pay due respect to his father (80). Cribiore’s interesting hypothesis is supported by the lack of specific detail in the speech, the stereotypical characters, and the great amount of mythical and historical exempla, which bring the typical school exercises to mind. It is then, however, not convincing that Cribiore considers the oration an early work, because her argument rests on assumptions about Libanius’ personal views on rhetoric. If this is just an exemplary story with no bearing on reality, its speaker is, not the historical Libanius, but a literary persona whose views need not correlate with any stage in the author’s life.

Cribiore’s overall accurate and readable translations make fascinating compositions of Libanius accessible to modern readers. Her knowledgeable introductions and notes display magisterial command of the primary texts. By highlighting thematic links between the speeches and key themes she gives insight not only into the sophist’s mind, but also into the political and cultural life of Antioch. There are only a small number of omissions and typos in the text, the glossary of important terms is rather sparing, and the volume lacks a subject index, which makes it hard to look for specific information. The value for scholars and students is also diminished by the fact that Cribiore does little to cite and engage with recent scholarship on Libanius and late antique Antioch, apart from generously referencing her own works. Nonetheless, Libanius scholars will find in the volume much useful material and discussion.


1. Libanius, Oration 61, the monody on Nicomedia, translated by John Duncombe in 1784. Some of the other speeches have been translated into French.

2. Overviews of modern translations are provided in Cribiore’s bibliography (249-251) and in Lieve Van Hoof (ed.). Libanius: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014, 331-334.

3. Raffaella Cribiore. Libanius the Sophist: Rhetoric, Reality, and Religion in the Fourth Century. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2013. See my review in BMCR 2014.07.41.

4. A.F. Norman. Antioch as a Centre of Hellenic Culture as Observed by Libanius. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000.

5. A notable absence from the bibliography is, for example, Jorit Wintjes. Das Leben des Libanius. Rahden/Westf.: Leidorf, 2005.

6. See Jan Stenger. ‘Libanios und die öffentliche Meinung in Antiochia’, in C.T. Kuhn (ed.) Politische Kommunikation und öffentliche Meinung in der antiken Welt. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2012, 231-254.

7. Although he never met the emperor, Libanius addressed to Theodosius no less than fourteen speeches. Hans- Ulrich Wiemer. ‘Emperors and Empire in Libanius’, in Lieve van Hoof (ed.), Libanius: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014, 187-219.