The Medieval Review 17.01.05

Cribiore, Rafaella, ed. Between City and School: Selected Orations of Libanius . Translated Texts for Historians, 65. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016. pp. viii, 262. $34.95 (paperback). ISBN: 978-1-78138-252-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Byron MacDougall
Institut für Byzantinistik und Neogräzistik, Universität Wien

In the first of her two earlier monographs on Libanius, Cribiore noted that the fourth-century sophist of Antioch and professor of rhetoric boasted to have written "more than any man alive." [1] Given the tremendous bulk of Libanius' surviving works--over 1500 genuine letters, four Teubner volumes of declamations and school exercises, and 64 orations--that boast is credible, and it explains why much of that corpus still awaits translation. [2] It does not, however, explain why all but one of these twelve orations in particular should have had to wait until now to be translated into English. [3] From Libanius' friendship with Julian to fourth-century classroom management, from relations between pagan and Christian communities to the sexual mores and theatre claques of one of the greatest cities in the Roman Empire--in short, everything that makes Libanius a fascinating and indispensable source for so many aspects of fourth-century cultural history is represented in these orations. That very topical variety also makes him a challenge to translate. Besides the sheer difficulty of Libanius' Greek-- Cribiore's comment that his prose "is not more difficult than some of that of Demosthenes or of Thucydides" (25) is not exactly reassuring--an intricate knowledge of fourth-century prosopography as well as social, cultural, and administrative history is required to make sense of Libanius' often oblique references. For that reason, scholars and students of Libanius, post-classical rhetoric, and education in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages will be grateful to Cribiore, as her credentials for undertaking a translation project like this include not only the aforementioned monographs and numerous other studies on Libanius but also two books on education in Egypt during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. [4] Readers without access to the original Greek could not ask for a better guide to these orations. [5]

The book's introduction (25 pages) provides a brief background to Libanius' life, the city of Antioch itself, and Libanius' school and audience. The beginning student may require a more systematic treatment of what the rhetorical curriculum actually looked like in this period, and for a basic introduction may be directed either to Cribiore's own book on The School of Libanius or to the relevant chapters in George Kennedy's A New History of Classical Rhetoric, which is still a useful resource, though surprisingly not included here in the select bibliography. [6] More advanced scholars interested in the transmission and manuscript tradition of these orations, a transmission guaranteed by the cultural canonization of Libanius in Byzantium, may now refer to essays in the recent volume edited by Van Hoof. [7]

The orations themselves are annotated with copious footnotes and arranged in chronological order. They include the following: Or. 61 ("Monody for Nicomedia"), an encomium and lament for the city, destroyed a few years earlier by an earthquake; Or. 37 ("To Polycles"), a posthumous defense of Julian against a slander that he had his wife poisoned; Or. 40 ("To Eumolpius"), against a pair of brothers who insulted Libanius first by hiring a young man who had studied (horribile dictu) Latin and then by allowing an Egyptian poet to upstage Libanius' planned rhetorical performance; Or. 55 ("To Anaxentius"), a plea to a student not to return home to Gaza but to continue his studies with Libanius in Antioch; Or. 53 ("On the Invitations to Banquets"); against the custom of allowing boys to attend the banquets at the Olympic festival at Daphne outside of Antioch, where it is alleged that they become easy prey to the sexual advances of older men; Or. 41 ("To Timocrates"), advising a governor not to be influenced by the acclamations of organized claques in the theatre; Or. 39 ("To Antiochus"), to a teacher concerned that a rival teacher is supported by a certain Mixidemus, who is the real subject of the oration and the target of the most lurid invective; Or. 35 ("To Those Who Do Not Speak"), which chastises former students for not actively participating in the municipal council; Or. 51 ("To the Emperor, Against Those Who Besiege the Governors"); its pair Or. 52 ("To the Emperor, Proposal of a Law Against Those Who Visit the Headquarters of Officials"); Or. 63 ("For Olympius"), on the death of the titular Olympius, who shocked the community by naming Libanius his heir, and who Cribiore convincingly demonstrates was in fact a Christian; and Or. 38 ("Against Silvanus"), against an ungrateful former pupil, who was the son of a friend and former teaching assistant of Libanius, and who Libanius argues should not be granted exemption from the financially onerous task of performing a civic liturgy on behalf of the city.

Cribiore adopts an expressly literal approach to translation, aiming "at scholars and especially students in the hope of demonstrating as well as possible the skeleton of the sophist's prose" (25). Both groups in her target audience will appreciate Cribiore's fidelity to the pace and sentence structure of the original, which in the space of a single page can range from breathless bursts of rhetorical questions to expansive and involved periods. On the whole the literalness of the translation does not adversely affect its readability. Moreover, Libanius was fortunate to find a translator both sensitive and sympathetic to his own verbal artistry-- Cribiore's "prostitute and panderer" is for example a particularly happy rendering of πόρνος...καὶ προαγωγός (Or. 38.8, p. 240).

Of the twelve orations translated here, one of the most intriguing (Or. 37 "To Polycles") is a posthumous defense of Emperor Julian against a rumor that he had arranged for the poisoning of his wife Helena, the sister of Constantius II. Due to the abiding scholarly and popular interest in Julian, an interest which has contributed to Libanius' fortunes as well, the first translation of this difficult text into English is an important service that will be warmly welcomed by the field. The text, to which Cribiore had dedicated an earlier study, [8] is addressed to Libanius' former friend Polycles, whom Libanius accuses of spreading a lie contrived by their late mutual friend Helpidius, former Praetorian Prefect of the East and a relative of Libanius by marriage, in order to defame the memory of Julian. Julian is said to have offered a jewel to a court doctor in exchange for poisoning his wife Helena. Libanius' oration consists partly of an exercise in character assassination, as he sets out to defend the memory of Julian by discrediting his accusers Polycles and Helpidius. This is an important text, and our only source for the rumor in question, but many of the events it alludes to, not to mention Libanius' language itself, are obscure. It is with the series' audience in mind, some of whom may not have access to the original Greek, that the following suggestions are offered:

On p. 53 (Or. 37.3), Cribiore's translation unintentionally softens the slander that Libanius is spreading against his target Helpidius. Instead of "a man who is serious has other concerns than a concubine, something that matters to someone who is unfortunate," Foerster's text (240.22-23) has to mean "he [i.e., Helpidius] served in the place of a concubine for a man who was serious in other respects, but in this [i.e., the fact that he was sexually involved with Helpidius] was unfortunate" (ὡς ἀντὶ παλλακῆς γένοιτο τὰ μὲν ἄλλα ἀνδρὶ σπουδαίῳ, τουτὶ δὲ ἀτυχοῦντι). Furthermore, this means that Libanius' subsequent remark ("there were those who claimed he was in the grip of this vice until his death") does not refer to a rumor that Helpidius "had a concubine while married to the saintly Aristaenete" (so Cribiore, p. 53 n. 31), but to a rumor that he continued to serve "in the place of a concubine" for other men during his marriage to Aristaenete.

On pp. 55-56 (Or. 37.7), Libanius finds it shocking that Helpidius told such a vicious lie about Julian, who was a paragon of virtue, and he invokes a mythological parallel to convey the extent of Helpidius' audacity. Instead of "I think that the man who lied like this would not even refrain from [slandering] the sons whom the Phoenician woman had by Zeus and from denying that his closest kin suffered the most terrible things at their hands deny that his kin were justly judged by them," read simply "It seems to me that a man who tells such lies would not refrain from saying of the sons of Zeus and the Phoenician woman that their closest kin suffered the most terrible things at their hands" (Foerster 242.17-20). Just as the proverbially just sons of Zeus and Europa (i.e., Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon, according to the usual tradition) would never have mistreated their close kin, so Julian would never have mistreated Helena, who in addition to being his wife was also his cousin.

On p. 57 (Or. 37.11), Instead of " asking for punishment if he lies concerning things for which he should be grateful," it seems that the meaning of Foerster's text (245.2-3) is closer to " lying, he is calling for punishment against the things/people to whom he owed gratitude" (ὧν ὤφειλε χάριν, τούτων ἀπαιτεῖ δίκας ψευδόμενος). Libanius has just described how Julian had intervened to protect Helpidius against angry soldiers under his command, and in spreading the lie about Julian attempting to poison Helena, Helpidius is declaring that the person to whom he owed a debt of gratitude ought to have suffered punishment.

On p. 57 (Or. 37.12), It seems that two alternative translations of a single Greek expression suggested themselves, but a final decision was never made regarding which to use: "you added the vote from yourself, brought to us the verdict from yourself [your own verdict]." This problem occurs elsewhere in the book as well.

On p. 59 (Or. 37.16), Libanius says "it was not possible" for Polycles to counter the charges Libanius leveled against Helpidius and to come to the latter's defense. In the sentence that follows, instead of "For how would it be possible for the same person who said that he, too, had heard such words concerning himself?" read "How could it be possible for someone who says he himself had also heard such a report about him [i.e., about Helpidius]?" Libanius is referring here (Foerster 247.10-11) to Polycles' own confession at Or. 37.3 (Foerster 241.3-4) that he had heard the same rumor regarding Helpidius, namely that Helpidius "was in the grip of this vice [of playing the role of a concubine] until his death." Libanius is saying that Polycles could not effectively come to Helpidius' defense against Libanius' accusation of having played the role of a concubine, since Polycles had himself admitted to having heard just such a rumor about Helpidius.

This book is an important contribution that fills a major gap in scholarship. Precisely for this reason, however, it deserved more careful proofreading. The cosmetic errors are distracting, and include misplaced accents on Greek words (108 n. 43 χόρος; 126 n. 21 καταπτύστος; 144 n. 14 παρανόμος); missing punctuation at the ends of sentences (49, 160 n. 23, 197 n. 47); the occasional malapropism (Demosthenes called Aeschines the "refuse" not the "refusal" of the market square, 180 n. 28); and instances where one is left scratching one's head: Asia Minor is not an island (40 n. 85); and present-day Nicomedia is more commonly known as İzmit, not "Schemith" (31 n. 12), a name which may have been current among the area's Turkish inhabitants in John Duncombe's day (whose eighteenth-century translation of this oration is cited elsewhere by Cribiore), when it may have been appropriate to call it "a small village," though it certainly cannot be described as such today.

These minor criticisms however do not detract from the fact that the translation of these orations--again, only one of these has ever appeared in English before, and in an eigthteenth-century translation at that--represents a major scholarly accomplishment. As fortunate as Libanius was to inherit Cribiore as his translator, we are even more fortunate to have her as our guide to the world of these fascinating and under-studied texts. Cribiore intended for the translation to allow the text to "speak in its own terms and with a voice that sounds partly authentic" (25). That voice comes through clearly in moments of arresting immediacy: "Know the way I am: each of the friends who are in the underworld lives in my soul. The nights know this especially. Though I spend my day conversing with the living, the nights bring the company of those: I hear nothing, but I do the speaking" (225). Passages like this, which thanks to this book will now attract the attention they deserve, make Cribiore's enthusiasm for her subject understandable.



1. Raffaella Cribiore, The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 3. See also her more recent Libanius the Sophist: Rhetoric, Reality, and Religion in the Fourth Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013).

2. The reader is directed especially to the recent collection of essays devoted to Libanius and his writings: Lieve Van Hoof (ed.), Libanius: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). See the appendices at pp. 317-350 for a comprehensive list of Libanius' works and modern translations.

3. The only one of the twelve to have been previously translated into English is Or. 61, called a "Monody for Nicomedia," which appeared in an 18th-century translation of Julian: J. Duncombe, Select Works of Julian, 2 vols., 3rd ed. (London: J. Nichols for T. Cadell, 1798). A few have been translated wholly (nos. 35 and 40) or partially (nos. 38 and 55) into French, and two (nos. 51 and 52) have been translated in an unpublished French dissertation. For bibliographical details see Cribiore's introductions to the translations themselves as well as the appendices at Van Hoof, Libanius, 332-334.

4. See Raffaella Cribiore, Writing, Students, and Teachers in Graeco-Roman Egypt (Atlanta: Scholars' Press, 1996) and eadem, Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

5. For the Greek text of these orations, see the third and fourth volumes in Foerster's Teubner edition: R. Foerster (ed.), Libanii Opera (Leipzig: Teubner, 1906-1927 [repr. Hildesheim: G. Olms, 1963]).

6. George Kennedy, A New History of Classical Rhetoric (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 201-229.

7. In Van Hoof, Libanius, see for the transmission of the orations Pierre-Louis Malosse, "Libanius' Orations," 81-106 (81-82); for Libanius as a Byzantine "classic" see Heinz-Günther Nesselrath and Lieve Van Hoof, "The reception of Libanius: from pagan friend of Julian to (almost) Christian saint and back," 160-183.

8. Raffaella Cribiore, "Defending Julian: Libanius and Or. 37," in O. Lagacherie and P.-L. Malosse (eds.), Libanios le premier humaniste (Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2011), 167-175.

Copyright (c) 2017 Byron MacDougall

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