BMCR 2022.06.28

Themistius and Valens: orations 6-13

, Themistius and Valens: orations 6-13. Translated texts for historians, 78. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2021. Pp. 416. ISBN 9781800856776 £110.00.

Panegyrics present a great challenge as historical sources and for many years received little attention in historical research. But recently,  the perception of panegyrics as meaningful sources has changed. For most such studies, however, the following perspective has predominated: “much of reality can be glimpsed only through a ‘distorting mirror’, and of these distorting mirrors the most warped was panegyric.”[1] Nixon and Rodgers wrote the first major commentary on this genre in 1994 in which they address the features of panegyric and the historical background of each speech.[2] The panegyrics of Themistius, especially those on Valens, deviate from the Panegyrici Latini in form and content, as they do not follow the guidelines of Menander Rhetor.[3] Therefore, the analysis of Themistius’ panegyrics proves even more complex and that on Valens in particular due to the fact that Valens seems to have little to commend him, which Lenski has described in detail in his classic monograph.[4] There are now numerous studies on Themistius, one of the most successful orators of his time, who exerted influence on various emperors. Swain’s work makes all of Themistius’ eulogies on Valens available in English translation for the first time, offers a commentary upon them, and focuses on the special features of Valens as emperor.[5] Swain’s work also closes a gap in the series of “Translated Texts for Historians”for the speeches during the period of the dual rule of Valentinian and his brother Valens, since or. 7, 9, 11, and 13 and most of or. 8 had not previously been translated into English.[6]

In his introduction Swain discusses some important issues before giving a useful overview of the eulogies of Valens: or. 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 13. He first details Themistius’ career before he became Valens’ panegyrist. He then addressesThemistius’ designation as “King of Words” and the relationship between Themistius and Julian. With these topics, he shows in a comprehensible way how Themistius could be helpful to the emperor especially in view of Valens’ atypical background as an emperor.

The second part of the book contains the translation of and commentary on the seven speeches. Each translation (based mainly on the Downey/Schenkl edition) is preceded by a detailed introduction that aims to provide the date and context for each speech and to identify what situation Valens faced and what topics the speech was intended to discuss with reference to Themistius, other ancient sources, and secondary scholarship.[7] Here Swain also analyzes Themistius’ artistry in incorporating various topics into his speeches and presenting the solutions to each issue in the best light.

Swain, who sees Themistius’ panegyric as ”advocacy” for the emperor, aims to explain the important role Themistius played “in helping Valens to communicate some of his key policies and to establish himself before the elite of Constantinople and the wider eastern aristocracies as a caring and civilized ruler capable of acting in their best interest” (xi). He discusses Themistius’ success, especially under Valens, and highlights Themistius’s experience in the political-administrative sphere at the highest level, particularly under Constantius II. Thus, at the time of Valens’ appointment, Themistius had already become a “man of power” (5), an insider of the palace. Swain attributes Themistius’ great influence to his prestige (doxa) as expressed by Libanius. He emphasizes Themistius’s close contacts with influential elites through his leadership in the expansion of the senate in Constantinople, most of whom were representatives of the cities of the East. Swain makes it clear that they could attribute their appointment as senators less to their ancestry than to their wealth. Swain sees another important reason for Themistius’ success in the fact that he was open to different religious concepts, speaking about the deity in the neutral language of Hellenistic discourse and also adding a Christian tone to the speeches when necessary (11).

The question of Themistius’ success inevitably leads to an examination of the fact that Themistius emphasizes in every speech that he is speaking as a philosopher. Swain suggests (as Heather and Moncur) that Themistius deceived his audience by posing as a philosopher in every speech, ceaselessly striving for the moral improvement of the emperor and other people. He assumes that Themistius only presented himself as the emperor’s advisor, but that the content of his speech was the result of a meeting with the emperor’s advisory staff, which included Themistius.

In his chapter ‘King of Words’, Swain takes a stand on the widespread assumption that Themistius’ career was largely driven by his flattery. Themistius has rightly—so Swain—been accused of this since antiquity and even today. “But it is of no help in interpreting the progress of his career. The simple fact is that he had a powerful personality that propelled him” (11). This explanation, which Swain again borrows from Libanius, is certainly not wrong. But can it really adequately explain the influence of Themistius, who, according to Swain, had the task of ensuring the emperor’s acceptance among the elites? What if the ancient accusation of flattery does not reflect the impression of the elites, but rather primarily that of a small group of theurgic Neoplatonists, who through the textual tradition have exerted a strong influence on the contemporary view of philosophical discourse at the time of Themistius? Their concept of philosophy categorically ruled out a philosopher giving public speeches, let alone eulogies on the emperor, and so they could not understand the speeches as philosophy but only as flattery. If we assume that the actual addressees of the eulogies, the elites of the empire, shared Themistius’ concept of philosophy and actually took him seriously as a philosopher, they would not have seen any contradiction between philosophy and public eulogies. It then becomes possible to locate Themistius’ continued success within the concept of philosophy that he develops in every speech. Deriving this from his speeches on Valens is, of course, beyond the scope of a commentary on all the eulogies on Valens.[8]

Closely connected to the role of the theurgic Neoplatonists in Themistius’ speeches is the highly disputed question of the relationship between Themistius and Julian, as Themistius, at least according to the tradition, did not deliver a eulogy to Julian. This circumstance seems to many scholars of late antiquity to require an explanation, since neither of them were Christians—for Julian this is at least true after the death of Constantius II—and Julian had a pronounced interest in philosophy and also styled himself as a philosopher. Swain clearly positions himself in his sub-chapter on Julian by not interpreting the missing speech of Themistius on Julian as a gap in the tradition. He convincingly works out the incompatibility of the two philosophical concepts—that of Julian and that of Themistius—from Julian’s letter to Themistius. He ranks Julian, like most scholars of late antiquity, among the theurgic philosophers who were accused of quasi-magical practices by their opponents (114, 142). Swain sees a major difference in the philosophy of the theurgic philosophers and Themistius. In doing so, he is not guided by the frequent prejudice that there was a strict division between Christian and non-Christian authors in late antiquity. Therefore, he does not view—as others have—the two as connected simply because they belonged to a common non-Christian ‘camp’. It has often been noted that Julian criticized Themistius for calling himself a philosopher even though he was breaking the unwritten rules expected of an ancient philosopher, namely, keeping a low public profile. Swain, however, is one of the few who consistently takes this conflict into account while interpreting the speeches on Valens. He interprets three passages within the speeches as openly criticizing Julian’s understanding of philosophy and his handling of it as a ruler (or. 6.77; or. 7.99 and 8.107). To this point, the fact that both Julian and Themistius were not Christians may have prevented most scholars from coming to Swain’s entirely plausible conclusion. However, since Julian reproaches the philosopher Themistius for precisely what Constantius valued most—“his outstanding commitment to public service” (10)—the question arises whether his open criticism of Julian’s understanding of philosophy is really a purely personal revenge as Swain assumes (16) or perhaps rather part of a concept of rule with which Themistius wants to show which philosophical concept the emperor supports: that of his eulogist, not that of the theurgists.

Some aspects of the commentary on the speeches remain controversial. For example, in or. 8, which Themistius delivered in the middle of the army camp, Swain refers to a passage in which Themistius praises Valens for his prodigious skill in not raising but lowering taxes in war. In his explanation, Swain refers to a letter of Themistius to Julian in which he had shown interest in “economic health” (157) and in this context had used the “oikonomikos logos” known from the tract of Bryson Arabus. This letter, however, is only preserved in Arabic, which Swain also mentions, but its author and addressee are disputed in research.

Overall, it can be said that Swain has fulfilled the aim expressed in the introduction, making the volume an indispensable work for all those interested in “the political history of the key transitional period of the 360s and 370s” (xii).


[1] Sabine G. McCormack, Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981), 2.

[2] C.E.V. Nixon and Barbara Saylor Rodgers, ed. and trans., In Praise of Later Roman Emperors. The Panegyrici Latini (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994).

[3] D.A. Russell and  D.A. Wilson, ed. and trans., Menander Rhetor, Edited with Translation and Commentary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

[4] Noel Lenski, Failure of Empire. Valens and the Roman State in the Fourth Century A.D. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002).

[5] A German translation and commentary of all the imperial eulogies has been available for some time: Hartmut Leppin and Werner Portmann (Übersetzung, Einführung u. Erläuterung), Staatsreden. Themistios, Bibliothek der griechischen Literatur 46, (Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann, 1998).

[6] Parts of or. 8 and 10 are translated in Peter Heather and John Matthews, The Goths in the Fourth Century, Translated Texts for Historians 10 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1991); or. 6 in Peter Heather and David Moncur, Politics, Philosophy, and Empire in the Fourth Century: Select Orations of Themistius, Translated Texts for Historians 36 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001).

[7] Themistii orationes quae supersunt, recensuit Schenkl, H., opus consummaverunt Downey, G. et Norman, A. F., Band 1, Leipzig: Teubner, 1951.

[8] On this issue, see Simone Mehr, Ganz Philosoph und ganz Rhetor: Ethik als göttliche Legitimation in den Panegyriken des Themistius auf Valens, Promotionsschrift, (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, 2020).