BMCR 2022.09.38

Education in late antiquity: challenges, dynamism, and reinterpretation, 300-550 CE

, Education in late antiquity: challenges, dynamism, and reinterpretation, 300-550 CE. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. 336. ISBN 9780198869788 $100.00.


This is a very good book that has proven itself necessary for a balanced view of education in Late Antiquity. So far scholars have dealt separately with pagan, Christian, Greek, and Roman issues and have not explored sufficiently the higher goals of education from the fourth through sixth centuries. Because he has published extensively on it, Stenger is in a good position to deal with this period. He argues that previous treatments of education have focused on school exercises, the curriculum, individual teachers, and students’ lives. This book, however, concentrates on the educational theorizations made by some thinkers: that is, on educational philosophy. The volume insists on the “inertia” of classical education and discusses the way scholars have not put in relief the changes and transformation of educational practices. It intends to present a more nuanced image of Late Antiquity. Religion, the Christian Church, and culture made a fundamental difference on the way education was conceived.

At the start it is important to say that during the course of the book Stenger concentrates on some individual thinkers, both Christian and pagan, such as John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Themistius. He analyzes their work with great perception, especially highlighting that they believed in education as a way of life that contributed to self-formation and a general view of humanity. Stenger often examines in detail both ancient works that have already attracted scholarly attention and others that he considers necessary to show that the education common in Late Antiquity surpassed the usual models and formal schooling. The past was very much there but needed to be fully reinterpreted in order to reform one’s entire identity. Several of the thinkers on whose works the author expounds return in the various chapters in different contexts, putting in relief different aspects of their messages. For example, to have a full view of Augustine, it is not sufficient to go to a single part of the book; one has to peruse several chapters. Most readers will be interested in extrapolating the general and new views of Late Antiquity that Stenger proposes. Inevitably, however, there will be readers, who, like Basil of Caesarea, believe in going from author to author, sampling their work like a bee with different flowers, but they will also be satisfied. In elucidating the content of the various chapters, therefore, I will mostly disclose who the ancient figures are that attract Stenger’s attention without dwelling on each of them, due to lack of space.

The book consists of an introduction, conclusion, and six chapters. Chapter One, “Educational Communities,” is particularly rich and anticipates issues with which Stenger grapples in what follows. It considers what education had to do with group identity and textual communities and how texts played a fundamental role in the organization of these communities. It zeroes in on John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Gregory Nazianzen, figures that will return numerous times in the book. It also investigates the concept of Julian the Apostate’s education and the literary pursuits of the Gallo-Roman elites, in particular Sidonius Apollinaris.

Chapter Two, “The Emergence of Religious Education,” considers the attempts of Christianity to establish a strong notion of religious education, which from that time on, was never absent from the philosophical curriculum. The Christian idea of religious education came out of a backdrop of pagan Greek and Roman culture, which some started to dispute because it had stopped satisfying them. Stenger argues that Christian pedagogy was at the center of the teaching of Origen in Alexandria and Caesarea. Perhaps it should have been mentioned in a note that Origen was condemned as a heretic along with Didymus the Blind and Evagrius in a sixth-century synod convened by Justinian. Basil of Caesarea is another figure who occasionally appears in this book, arguing for young men’s selective appropriation of pagan culture, something that Augustine and Chrysostom would do to a lesser extent. They argued that knowledge was possible through getting rid of worldly cares.

Chapter Three, “What Men Could Learn From Women,” presents teaching and learning from the perspectives of women and considers some female figures who challenged the culture of male elites. Melania the Elder and the Younger, Hypatia, Macrina, Marcella, and others rose to literary prominence, even though their social roles did not undergo fundamental changes. Hypatia and Sosipatra were prominent female philosophers. Eunapius wrote a hagiographical account of Sosipatra and Gregory of Nyssa wrote an idealized portrait of his sister, Macrina the Younger, the most learned female saint. Stenger gives detailed accounts of the education of these women of Late Antiquity. Some readers might have been cognizant of them, but it is good that they are all investigated together. It is a pity, however, that the author did not devote any attention to Bagnall and Cribiore’s book on women’s letters on papyrus.[1] Some of those women were educated, and considering their letters, would have expanded the background on female education presented in this volume.

Chapter Four, “The Life of Paideia,” argues that educational discourse was not uniform in Late Antiquity but that the philosophical life continued to inspire one’s existence. This chapter looks at biographic and autobiographic accounts that show that education was a way of life, concentrating on Libanius, Themistius, Himerius, Synesius, and Macrobius. It also delves into the portrait of Origen that Eusebius of Caesarea presented in an idealized way.

Chapter Five, “Moulding the Self and the World,” considers that a method to develop and improve oneself inspired both Christian and pagan writers of this period (especially Neoplatonic philosophers) whose work went beyond the educational discourse. It analyzes texts from the fourth through sixth centuries, in particular those of Themistius, Gregory of Nyssa, Macrobius, and Boethius, that develop a concept of self-perfection by imitating role models. Stenger argues that Macrobius did not publish a book of encyclopedic nature, as scholars have regarded it, but a compendium of general culture. At that time, many teachers and students underwent significant journeys, searching for intellectual and personal improvement. Sophists, philosophers, and ecclesiastical authors, among them Themistius, Libanius, and Gregory Nazianzen, headed for Athens. Among Themistius’ works, Stenger examines closely Or. 27, which is not well-known.

Chapter Six, “The Making of the Late Antique Mind,” continues to dismantle the concept that past literature and morality had to constitute the models of pedagogic training. The past needed to be preserved by blending it with the present. Education generated a historical view of the past. The chapter moves from the pedagogic approach of Themistius to the rhetor Himerius and to the first of the homiletic series of Chrysostom’s sermons, where the scriptures became the new syllabus. These thinkers tried to make sense of the past through the present. Chrysostom believed in fully embracing the present of the Christian truth and disowning past knowledge. Together with Augustine, he found very attractive the idea that the Hellenic culture of the past had died. Cassiodorus, on the other hand, found that the schools of rhetoric were indispensable in maintaining contact with the past and believed in trying to harmonize the past with Christian learning.

The book’s conclusion reiterates the idea that in Late Antiquity paideia was understood as the cultivation of one’s identity. Even teachers of rhetoric who were not of the same caliber as the intellectuals considered above believed that education had a noble function that shaped one’s life. Traditional culture was not rejected but was reinterpreted with the ultimate goal of self-perfection.

At the end of this review, I would like to make a few observations. In Chapter One, Stenger treats the catechumenate, insisting on the high standard of teaching concerning the photizomenoi, which he considers the higher class of catechumens. I think one has to make a distinction based on what the catechumens had to learn qua catechumens. Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem (d. 387), makes a distinction between the nomenclature applied to beginners and those admitted to baptism who were at a different stage of education. Catechumens started to be initiated in ascetical exercises. “Up till now you have been called a catechumen, that is one who hears from the outside,” says Cyril, placing the others in a different group.[2] Of course there were students who had received, and continued to receive, an education in grammar and rhetoric and were ready for an interpretation of the Scriptures at higher levels. These were, for example, the students of Didymus the Blind in Alexandria who left commentaries on the Psalms and Ecclesiastes. These lectures his students supposedly took down were transmitted in the Tura papyri. Didymus and his group of students in the fourth century would have deserved a detailed treatment in Stenger’s book.

The book also insists on the use of authoritative texts in Christian communities. But it is important to realize that education in general—especially in Late Antiquity—consisted of the reading and exegesis of authoritative texts. And yet, “to learn philosophy, even by reading and commenting upon texts meant both to learn a way of life and to practice it.”[3]  Nowadays, Pierre Hadot is usually confined to a note, as here, though his influence on education and culture was fundamental. A rapid consideration of the pedagogic method of the Stoic Epictetus would have enriched the background of the questions that Stenger explores. Epictetus taught philosophy in Nicopolis, Epirus, in the second century. His students came to the school proud of the education in grammar and rhetoric they had received and ready to read books on philosophy in detail. The goal of a stay in Nicopolis, Epictetus said, was to achieve knowledge concerning previous thinkers, especially to apply practical principles to one’s way of life. The philosopher wanted to eradicate false ethical beliefs in his students and change their whole person. Books had to facilitate the growth of a person. What I said does not infringe on the book’s whole value. This volume illuminates a concept of education not based solely on the cultivation of the past but on ideologies that claimed to make sense of human existence. This is an important contribution to the study of education in the Greco-Roman worlds.



[1] Roger Bagnall and Raffaella Cribiore 2015, Women’s Letters from Ancient Egypt: 300 BC-AD 800. Ann Arbor.

[2] William Harmless 2014, Augustine and the Catechumenate, Collegeville, MN: 59.

[3] Pierre Hadot 1995, Philosophy as a Way of Life, Oxford; 2002, What is Ancient Philosophy? Trans. M. Chase. Cambridge:  146-57.