BMCR 2020.01.12

Learning Cities in Late Antiquity: The Local Dimension of Education

Jan Stenger, Learning Cities in Late Antiquity: The Local Dimension of Education. London; New York: Routledge, 2019. xi, 264. ISBN 9781138299870 $140.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The development of cities has long been a central theme in late antique scholarship. Especially prevalent in recent studies are questions of urban continuity vs. decline, and the role cities played in the changing cultural and religious landscapes of the late antique period. This volume offers a new exploration of these themes by examining the connection between the local urban environment and different types of learning available within communities, with many of the chapters focusing on the relationship and tensions between Christianity and classical paideia.

The inspiration for the volume comes from the modern concept of ‘learning cities,’ an idea championed by a UNESCO initiative that counts over 1,000 cities in its global network of learning cities. Although there is no exact definition of a ‘learning city,’ the key characteristics include lifelong learning, inclusivity, and access to learning opportunities, and there is a focus on the effects of learning activities on a wider community and the importance of differing local conditions for learning.

Although examining the symbiotic relationships between education and local urban environments is certainly useful and can potentially shed much light on the ‘cultural ecosystems’ (cf. Hose, Chapter 3) of late antique cities, the volume fails to sustain this ‘Learning Cities’ framework. Apart from the contributions by the editor, the chapter on ‘Big Data’ by Osborne, Houston, and Lido, and the penultimate chapter by Champion, none of the rest of the papers engage with the modern theoretical framework of ‘Learning Cities.’ More crucial, however, is that, even if we leave aside the modern theory, any sense of overall cohesion among the chapters is still largely lacking. While all the chapters have something to do with ancient education—some more nebulously than others—there is not always an obvious attempt to tie the individual case-studies or concepts of education to a specific local environment or to explain why the specific city being discussed is important (e.g., Chapters 4, 5, and 6). Moreover, the volume claims to focus on Gaza as a case-study and, while most of the contributors discuss this city, at the same time there are papers (e.g., Fuhrer’s discussion of Augustine in Carthage and Rome, and Gray’s study of Jerome’s ascetic educational programme) which, although offering interesting and convincing arguments about their respective topics, feel jarringly out of place. Perhaps this problem could have been addressed by including a larger range of papers on western cities in order to provide a balance to the focus on Gaza, or by limiting the scope of the inquiry to only those studies dealing specifically with Gaza and its immediate eastern neighbours.

A final criticism, directed at the press (Routledge) rather than the editor or contributors, concerns presentation and copy-editing. There is no apparent consensus for how the chapters are structured or organized, which contributes to the disjointed sense of the volume. A glaring example of an editorial slip is on p. 74, where it seems that the language of a conference paper was not revised for the written version in the volume (the text states, “I would now like to read…”).

Despite these drawbacks and the overall lack of cohesion, the volume certainly has its merits. First, the broader idea of ‘Learning Cities’ prompts the reader to reflect on important questions about the role of education and educators within a society—questions that we should be asking ourselves not only about the ancient world, but also about our own contemporary societies. Who is education for? What is its function within a community and broader society? And what power does it have to change, maintain, or improve individuals and communities?

Second, it is possible to identity underlying currents that link some of the papers together, and these offer some valuable contributions to the study of the cultural history of late antiquity. For example, a number of the papers discuss the role that educators, especially rhetors, played as cultural leaders in cities, and the important inter-relationship between the classical style of education, paideia, and the urban context. Hose (ch. 3) discusses how cities were the ideal ‘cultural ecosystem’ for education. They provided schools, teachers, and students with the physical space, population, and political, cultural, and religious institutions in which to operate, and the schools in turn provided the skills and training with which individuals could govern and guide a city. Hadjittofi (ch. 7) focuses on Choricius of Gaza’s idea of the ideal city and citizenry. Choricius’ Gaza was characterized by harmony and peace, and he hoped that conflicts would be resolved with words and diplomacy, rather than physical might. Hadjittofi shows that classical education was crucial in Choricius’ worldview, and that the orator, with his use of persuasive speech, was the true urban hero and leader. Westberg (ch. 8) also discusses ancient ideas about the role of the ideal sophist, focusing on Choricius and Procopius of Gaza. Westberg provides an overview of the educational environment in Gaza, traces how it developed, and considers the sophist’s role in his community as perceived through his public performance and behaviour.

Cultural leadership and the competition between classical education and other educational opportunities such as law or monastic training are considered by Tiersch (ch. 9), Champion (ch. 10), and Stenger (ch. 11). Tiersch discusses Procopius of Gaza’s perspective on the tensions and relationships between the spheres of law and rhetoric, focusing on his letters to colleagues and to his brothers, both of whom worked as jurists in Constantinople. She shows that civic pride was central to Procopius’ self-definition as a rhetor, that Procopius believed (and illustrated in his career), that rhetoric was at the centre of all culture, and that training in rhetoric was necessary for the study and practice of law. Tiersch’s chapter helps to contextualize the common complaints among late-antique intellectuals and teachers, such as Libanius of Antioch, that Greek rhetoric was in danger from ‘lesser’ subject such as Latin or law, and shows that there was more fluidity among the disciplines, their students, and their educators than is often acknowledged. Champion (ch. 10) and Stenger (ch. 11) consider the relationships between the educational approaches of rhetorical schools and monasticism. Champion compares members of the rhetorical schools in Gaza (Aeneas, Zacharias, Procopius, and Choricius) to the monk Dorotheus. Champion discusses how Dorotheus envisioned monastic education as enforcing a habit of ‘humility’ and shows how this form of training was at its essence, according to Dorotheus, similar to that of classical education. Importantly, Champion questions the validity of the notion of “Learning Cities” in the ancient world. He points out that classical education happened at such a small-scale in antiquity that it is difficult to apply the underlying concepts of ‘Learning Cities’ (e.g., learning for social cohesion and widespread access to learning) to the ancient world. Nevertheless, Champion suggests that it could be possible to investigate the modern idea of ‘lifelong learning’ by studying Dorotheus and other monastic movements that argue for a lifelong habit of monastic training. Finally, in the last chapter Stenger reflects on different types of cultural leadership by comparing the educational approaches and types of authority cultivated by Aeneas of Gaza on the one hand, and the ‘Two Old Men’—hermits in a Gazan monastery—on the other.

These contributions on the nature of cultural leadership and the orator’s place in late antique cities shed light on local power dynamics and hierarchies in Gaza and its eastern neighbours. Furthermore, in those papers that discuss education and educators in Gaza, there is an overall consensus that different cultural traditions (Christians, classical) were able to co-exist in Gaza, thanks to the efforts of Gazan thinkers and educators (cf. especially Hose [ch. 3] and Stenger [ch. 11]). This notion of the fluidity of identities and practice in late antiquity is important for our broader understanding of the transformations of society. Moreover, although mostly focused on eastern cities, the issues of cultural leadership and identities raised by these authors will certainly provide useful insights for scholars of the late antique west as we try to understand the changing place of classical education and educators amidst the transformations of urban environments in an increasingly fragmented western empire.

A thorough discussion of each remaining chapter is impossible in the scope of this review, but the issues raised by both Gray and Jacobs deserve further comment. Gray’s chapter focuses on Jerome’s ascetic educational programme, as laid out in his instructions for the upbringing of ‘Little Paula.’ Gray shows that, for Jerome, asceticism was a new form of elite identity. Whereas traditional pagan education—the ‘old’ form of cultural elitism—was firmly located in the urban context, his new ascetic Christian education must be sought in rural monastic communities. This idea of ascetism as cultural elitism could certainly help us to understand the transformation of educational practices and ideals in late antiquity, such as the apparent disappearance of traditional rhetorical schools visible in the public sphere in the west, and the rise of western monastic ‘schools’ around figures like Cassian or Caesarius of Arles.

In the following chapter Jacobs provides a survey of the survival of theatre structures and statuary in cities of Roman East, arguing for the importance of using material evidence to corroborate literary evidence and to provide insights where are literary sources are silent. She emphasizes local variations, but argues overall that in the pre-Justinianic period there is good evidence for widespread continuation of theatre structures and statuary, with some Christian adaptation. Especially interesting in this chapter is the point that the continuation of theatres and statuary has implications for the non-elite layers of society. Continuity in these traditions in the public sphere meant that not only those individuals who still had access to higher education, but also the “city populations at large stayed in contact with ancient myths, stories, heroes and divinities in various ways” (p. 131).

Although the volume as a whole does not work coherently or achieve its goal of offering a new theoretical framework for understanding education and cities in late antiquity, individual contributions will surely be keenly read for their own merits, and perhaps the volume will prompt further investigation into the place of education and educators in ancient and contemporary society. Indeed, if readers approach the volume with individual contributions in mind or read as a group that smaller set of chapters that deals with Gazan thinkers and cultural leaders, they will certainly not be disappointed.

Table of Contents

1. Jan Stenger, ‘Learning cities: a novel approach to ancient paideia’, pp. 1-23
2. Michael Osborne, Muir Houston and Catherine Lido, ‘The role of big data in elucidating learning cities ancient, present and future’, pp. 24-46
3. Martin Hose, ‘The importance of the Greek polis for Greek literature, or why Gaza?’, pp. 47-69
4. Therese Fuhrer, ‘Augustine’s rhetorics of theology: religious debates in late antique Carthage’, pp. 70-86
5. Christa Gray, ‘Jerome, Quintilian and Little Paula: asceticism, education and ideology’, pp. 87-110
6. Ine Jacobs, ‘The sixth-century city in the Roman East: survival or demise of the traditional urban context’, pp. 111-144
7. Fotini Hadjittofi, ‘Town and gown in the orations of Choricius of Gaza’, pp. 145-163
8. David Westberg, ‘Ideals of education and sophistic realities in late antique Gaza’, pp. 164-186
9. Claudia Tiersch, ‘Procopius of Gaza and the debate on rhetoric versus law in his letters: was there a leading form of knowledge in Late Antiquity’, pp. 187-211
10. Michael Champion, ‘Tradition and habituation in rhetorical and monastic education at Gaza’, pp. 212-229
11. Jan Stenger, ‘Consensus versus diktat: two models of cultural leadership in Gaza’, pp. 230-258
Index, pp. 259-264