The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch

By Raffaella Cribiore | Go to book overview

Introduction

THE SOPHIST LIBANIUS, who was an exponent of the revival of Greek literature that started with the Second Sophistic,1 taught in Antioch in Syria in the fourth century C.E. In Oration 55, he extolled to a student the advantages of a career as a teacher of rhetoric:

How great it is to rule over wellborn young men and see them improve in rhetoric
and proceed to the various paths of life! And what about the honors one receives
from them and their fathers, from citizens and foreigners? Teachers of rhetoric
are respected by all governors, small and great, and even by emperors. (23)

There are many similar statements in Libanius, as well as fervent commendations of good students. There are an equal number of negative assessments of the condition of rhetoric—a despised and silent discipline—and condemnations of youths indifferent to its charms. In general, Libanius's letters present a different view than the orations. In attempting to understand the reasons for the discrepancy and to unravel other puzzles that the vast corpus of the rhetor's surviving writings presents, this book delves into the workings of the most prominent school of rhetoric in Antioch (the modern Antakya, in south Turkey), where Libanius taught as “official sophist of the city.”2 The school served youths from all provinces of the Roman East. Its curriculum and teaching methods were common to other schools of the Roman Empire, so that the works of Libanius also provide a clear, welcome window on higher education in other times and places. We can apply to Libanius the words of the poet Meleager, who lived centuries before: “If I am a Syrian, what wonder? Stranger, we live in one country, the world.”3

Libanius kept a vast correspondence to advertise the quality of his teaching and to maintain contacts with the families of his pupils, former students, and a few other teachers. I have included in an appendix translations of about 200 letters that concern his teaching activity.4 All of the

1 The phrase, which comes from Philostratus (VS 481, 507), is commonly applied to
Greek culture from mid-first to mid-third century, but much evidence comes from later
times. Pernot (1993, 14 n. 9) proposed the term “Third Sophistic” for the fourth century.

2 These words were uttered bitterly by a former student, John Chrysostom, In Honor of
the Blessed Babylas, Against the Hellenes 18; Schatkin 1990.

3 Meleager lived in the first century B.C.E. This quotation comes from an epigram, Anth.
Pal. 7.417.

4 See Appendix One. In 1738, J. C. Wolf produced an edition with translations of the
1544 letters, but naturally, he could not take advantage of the magisterial text established in

-1-

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