Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Edward J. Watts, Riot in Alexandria: Tradition and Group Dynamics in Late Antique Pagan and Christian Communities. The Transformation of the Classical Heritage 46. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 2010. Pp. xv, 290. ISBN 9780520262072. $55.00.
Reviewed by Peter Van Nuffelen, Ghent University

The past was hugely important in Antiquity, and also in Late Antiquity. Claims about moral and intellectual superiority, for example, were staked on arguments about the priority of Moses and Plato. In his latest book, Edward Watts explores another dimension of the engagement with the past, namely its importance in shaping and sustaining group dynamics. He focuses on a riot in Alexandria, which started in 485 with the beating of the student Paralius who had questioned the authority and beliefs of his pagan teachers. After he had been saved by Christian students, the incident was seized upon by the bishop of Alexandria, Peter Mongus, to shore up his own position by challenging paganism in his city. It led to the destruction of the shrine of Isis at Menouthis. Watts shows how events are shaped by stories told about the past, how they are re-interpreted in the light of these stories, and how new traditions can develop to deal with traumatic events. As such, this book is a contribution to the social, religious, and literary history of Late Antiquity. It continues Watts's previous interests in late antique intellectual history and its social context, as exemplified in his 2006 monograph City and school in late antique Athens and Alexandria and it digests and expands various recent articles.

After the first chapter has set out the events of 485, the book falls into three parts, each focusing on how historical memory shaped the self-understanding of three particular groups and individuals involved in the Paralius incident: the Neoplatonist school, the monastic community, and the bishop of Alexandria.

Chapter 2 ("Personal Legacy and Scholastic Identity") identifies Xenocrates (339-314/3 B.C.) as the first leader of the Platonic Academy who crafted a scholastic identity by wedding his ethical teachings to stories and traditions that recorded his own exemplary life-style and that of his predecessor Speusippus. Through an analysis of Eunapius's Lives of the Sophists and Philosophers, the figures of Iamblichus and Prohaeresius, and of Porphyry's Life of Plotinus, Watts shows the same mechanism at work in Late Antiquity. Historical discourse thus had at once the function of strengthening school identity and rebutting attacks on that identity: indeed, as Watts suggests at the end of the chapter, emotional attachment to a school and its identity might be stronger than rational conviction by arguments.

The chapter explores very well the interrelation of memory and identity in a philosophical context, but it could have gained in depth by setting it in the context of other approaches to the shaping of group identity of a philosophical school. I think, for example, of Pierre Hadot's Qu'est-ce que la philosophie antique (1995) and Exercises spirituelles et philosophie antique (1981). If philosophy is indeed much more a way of living than a theory, as Hadot argues, this has an impact on how one perceives the philosophical community. Other scholars have argued that Post-Hellenistic philosophy insisted much more on the authority of the founder of a school and his texts as a means of guaranteeing unity within the school.1 Also, the theme of philosophical biography has been recently explored in detail by T. Schirren,2 who argues in particular that the genre was born out of the rivalry between schools: the authority of a school would be attacked by showing that the teachings of the founders of that school did not match their lives. While Watts also recognises the importance of polemic, Schirren sees such stories less as a conscious tool for solidarity within a school than as part of the rivalry between schools. Indeed, Watts even suggests that Xenocrates himself consciously chose to circulate stories about Speusippus and himself.

The focus of Chapter 3 ("Past, Present, and Future in Late Neoplatonic Historical Discourse") is firmly on how Platonic historical discourse shaped the events of 485 and afterwards tried to deal with them. Watts shows how Late Platonists collected stories of resistance to Christianity, and then briefly discusses the social contexts in which these were transmitted, namely during symposia and banquets and before and after lectures in the classrooms of Alexandria. In this context, Paralius's beating appears as the disciplining of an individual student who excessively questioned such communal traditions. When this was seized upon by the Christian authorities, it shattered the Neoplatonic community. Some tried to strike a compromise with the authorities, but others "recognised that they belonged to a community that had proven unable to live up to the models celebrated in its history" (71). Indeed, Isidorus's Life of Damascius ascribes the decline of the Neoplatonic community of Alexandria to the moral failings of its leaders, in particular Horapollon and Ammonius. In contrast, Damascius is depicted as the good philosopher who does not provoke the authorities, but is willing to stand up against them if the occasion so demands. Whereas after the riot Ammonius inaugurated a long tradition of Neoplatonism accommodating Christianity in Alexandria, Damascius left for Athens and later for Persia.

Chapter 4 ("History and Shape of Monastic Communities") opens the second part of the book. It provides background for sixth-century monastic life in Egypt through an analysis of the hierarchical nature of the Pachomian communities. Emphasising again the importance of anecdotes in shaping communal memory and adherence, Watts interprets the Historia Monachorum with its numerous anecdotes as a document that provides anecdotal demonstration of what a succesful ascetic life can accomplish.

Chapter 5 ("Anti-Chalcedonian Ascetics and their Student Associates") focuses more closely on fifth-century Alexandria and how communal adherence shaped the events and the interpretations afterwards. The students who rescued Paralius were "philoponoi", secular ascetic affiliates. The author of the main source of the events, Zacharias Scholasticus, had been one himself. Watts then argues that the story of Paralius, as told by Zacharias, was recrafted as a historical narrative showing how "anti-Chalcedonian students had challenged and prevailed over their pagan teachers." (146). The event became a sign of their self-confidence. Watts explores with acumen the way the past was reshaped to fit a certain view of the present and what the significance the Paralius affair assumed among anti-Chalcedonians, monks and students.

Part 3 opens with a discussion of how "The legend of the Alexandrian Bishop" (Chapter 6) was created. It pointedly focuses on Athanasius (328-373), the most legendary of Alexandrian bishops. After drawing on Peter Brown's work to discuss the ways in which late antique bishops constructed their authority,3 he shows how Athanasius consciously assumed the guise of a martyr. This image was perpetuated in later encomia, turning Athanasius into a key point of reference for later bishops.

The chapter aptly sets the scene for the following ones, but I found the discussion a bit truncated. In recent years Annick Martin4 and Alberto Camplani5 have done a lot to explore the self-presentation of Athanasius and the Alexandrian patriarchate in general, but their works are absent. Watts does not discuss how the image of Athanasius was shaped by the fourth-century or early fifth-century Alexandrian church history reconstructed by Camplani, and the Coptic history edited by Orlandi could receive more prominence.6 Nor is the vulgate tradition on Athanasius as found in the church historians Rufinus, Socrates, and Sozomen discussed.7 The description of Athanasius's dealings with the Meletian schism perpetuates the old idea that the Meletian schism was particularly popular among the native Coptic population (171). It also suggests rather one-sidedly that Athanasius's ambition was to blame for his attacks on the Melitians (172), whereas the situation was much more complex: the Melitians did not respect the deal struck at Nicaea.8 Chapter 7 studies how the image of Athanasius was used by Theophilus and Cyril, the "triumphant" Alexandrian bishops of the first half of the fifth century. Theophilus used Athanasius to justify his attacks on pagan shrines such as that of Serapis. Cyril was at first more inclined to set Theophilus up as a model, but he then began to depict Athanasius as an example for his fight for orthodoxy.

The last chapter ("Peter Mongus Struggles with the Past") shows how the bishop of Alexandria drew on these historical traditions to legitimise his actions during the riot of 485. Peter Mongus was in a difficult position: as an anti-Chalcedonian bishop, he had alienated some of his hard-line followers by subscribing to Zenon's Henotikon (482) and thus seeking reconciliation with the Chalcedonians. The anti-Chalcedonians had developed a long tradition and self-image of resistance to imperial power after 451, which is particularly clear for Peter's predecessors Dioscorus and Timothy Aelurus, who kept the memory of Athanasius and Cyril alive.9 Peter Mongus construed his acceptance of the Henotikon as the theological surrender of the emperor and in the process evoked the memory of Athanasius and Timothy Aelurus. But not all the monks were persuaded, and the beating of Paralius provided an occasion for Peter Mongus to shore up his support by focusing on, or creating, a common pagan enemy.

A certain degree of repetition is unavoidable in a book that constantly returns to the same incident, but Watts mostly deals well with it.10 As I have suggested, the book could have profited from exploring certain issues a bit further, but this would not have affected his stimulating interpretation of the Paralius incident and its wider significance.

Riot in Alexandria is a noteworthy contribution to the study of Late Antiquity because of its original perspective. It succeeds in showing the real importance views on the past had, how they shaped communities, and how they could be manipulated. Watts refocuses attention on the internal life of communities to understand wider processes such as the "Christianisation of the Empire" and thus allows micro-history to elucidate macro-history. Although our sources are all written, Watts constantly reminds us that the specific memories communities created and kept alive were primarily oral and must have circulated widely. Because they impacted on group identities, such stories could also be used; conversely, when historical circumstances changed, the past could be adapted. History, in other words, really mattered.


1.   D. Sedley, 'Philosophical allegiance in the Greco-Roman World', in M. Griffin and J. Barnes (eds.), Philosophia Togata: Essays on Philosophy and Roman Society, Oxford, 1989, 97-119; D. Sedley, 'Plato's Auctoritas and the Rebirth of the Commentary Tradition', in J. Barnes and M. Griffin (eds.), Philosophia Togata II: Plato and Aristotle in Rome, Oxford, 1997, 110-29; M. Frede, 'Epilogue', in K. Algra, J. Barnes, J. Mansfeld and M. Schofield (eds.), Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, Cambridge, 1999, 771-97.
2.   T. Schirren, Philosophos Bios: die antike Philosophenbiographie als symbolische Form : Studien zur Vita Apollonii des Philostrat, Heidelberg, 2005.
3.   In particular the insistence on poverty relief (169): see P. Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, Hanover, 2002. Brown is now challenged by P. Allen, B. Neil, and W. Mayer, Preaching Poverty in the Late Roman World: Perceptions and Realities, Leipzig, 2010.
4.   A. Martin, Athanase d'Alexandrie et l'Eglise d'Egypte au IVe siècle (328-373), Rome, 1996. Martin's chronology of the early years of Athanasius should be used alongside the one proposed by T. Barnes (Athanasius and Constantius, Harvard, 1993), who is followed by Watts. One should also take into account S. Parvis, Marcellus of Ancyra and the Lost Years of the Arian Controversy 325-345, Oxford, 2006.
5.   A. Camplani, 'L'identità del patriarcato di Alessandria tra storia e rappresentazione storiografica', Adamantius 12 (2006), 8-42 and 'L'Historia ecclesiastica en copte et l'historiographie du siège épiscopale d'Alexandrie', in N. Bosson and A. Boud'Hors, eds., Actes du huitième Congrès International d'Étude Coptes, Leuven, 2007, 417-424, with references to earlier papers.
6.   T. Orlandi, Storia della chiesa di Alessandria, Milan, 1968-1970, 2 Vols.
7.   P. Van Nuffelen, Un héritage de paix et de piété. Étude sur les Histoires ecclésiastiques de Socrate et de Sozomène, Leuven, 2004, Ch. 5.
8.   H. Hauben, 'The Melitian "Church of the Martyrs". Christian Dissenters in Ancient Egypt', in: T.W. Hillard, R.A. Kearsley, C.E.V. Nixon, and A.M. Nobbs, eds., Ancient History in a Modern University, Volume 2. Early Christianity, Late Antiquity and Beyond, Grand Rapids (Mich.) and Cambridge (U.K.) 1998, 329-349.
9.   This is true not only for the anti-Chalcedonians on whom Watts focuses: see, e.g., C. Pietri, 'D'Alexandrie à Rome: Jean Talaïa, émule d'Athanase au Ve siècle', in: ALEXANDRINA. Mélanges offerts à Claude Mondésert, Paris, 1987, 589-605.
10.   I spotted only a few typos (13 n. 60; 33 n. 20) and some unnecessary repetition (126, 128, 165).

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