Riot in Alexandria: Tradition and Group Dynamics in Late Antique Pagan and Christian Communities

By Barnes, T. D. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Riot in Alexandria: Tradition and Group Dynamics in Late Antique Pagan and Christian Communities


Barnes, T. D., The Catholic Historical Review


Riot in Alexandria: Tradition and Group Dynamics in Late Antique Pagan and Christian Communities. By Edward J. Watts. [The Transformation of the Classical Heritage, 46.] (Berkeley: University of California Press. 2010. Pp. xvi, 290. $55.00. ISBN 978-0-520-26207-2.)

Edward Watts has written a wide-ranging, thoughtful, and stimulating exploration of what can be learned from a single episode that occurred in Alexandria in the late-fifth century (probably in spring 486). The illuminating episode in question is known only because Zacharias of Mitylene included it in his account of the career of Paralius of Aphrodisias in Caria, which forms approximately the first third of his Life of Sever us (CPG 6995). Unfortunately, Zacharias 's Life of Sever us has survived only in a Syriac translation - this was edited together with a French translation by Marc-Antoine Kugener in Patrologia orientalis, vol, 2 (Paris, 1903); was reprinted as the separate volume Sévère, patriarche d'Antioche, 512-518 (Turnhout, 1993); and was translated into English by Lena Ambjörn (Piscataway, NJ, 2008). Watts has used both Kugener' s text and Ambjörn' s translation critically, stating at the outset that "in places they have been amended for clarity" (p. InI). He rounds off his book with an appendix answering Alan Cameron's argument that the Life of Sever us is fundamentally unreliable. Watts observes, quite correctly, that from a literary point of view Zacharias 's account of Paralius should be considered as "a self-contained work that has rhetorical concerns and a thematic structure distinct from the Life of Severus" (pp. 265-68). But Cameron also argues that Zacharias includes invented material supplied to him by Paralius and that Paralius himself is a dubious witness. Hence, it is not clear whether Paralius' s story about his beating in Alexandria can justifiably be taken au pied de la lettre ', as Watts appears to do.

Watts begins with a twenty-page analysis of how Christian students in Alexandria transformed the beating of Paralius into "a religious persecution launched by a hostile pagan intellectual establishment" (p. 11). Paralius, whom Watts describes "an obnoxious teenager" (p. 1 1), had been beaten by other students whose revered teachers he had denounced in offensive and insulting language. …

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