Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Raffaella Cribiore, Libanius the Sophist: Rhetoric, Reality, and Religion in the Fourth Century. Townsend lectures/Cornell studies in classical philology. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2013. Pp. x, 260. ISBN 9780801452079. $49.95.

Reviewed by Jan R. Stenger, University of Glasgow (jan.stenger@glasgow.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

Libanius of Antioch (314-93 CE), one of the outstanding orators and teachers of the fourth century, has deservedly aroused growing interest among classical scholars in recent years. Many studies focus on Libanius as a historical figure, on his relationship to the Roman emperors, his position in the civic community and his epistolary network. Libanius' skill as an accomplished author, so highly valued in late antiquity and the Byzantine era, however, remains somewhat neglected. Thus the monograph by Raffaella Cribiore, a distinguished specialist on both Libanius and ancient education, promises to fill this striking gap by exploring the literary nature of the rhetorician's output. Based on the Townsend Lectures of 2010, the book is meant to complement Cribiore's previous study of Libanius' school by turning to his speeches and letters while excluding his school texts from consideration.1 Three themes stand out: the complex interplay of literature and reality, the public dimension of Libanius' works, and the sophist's stance on religious matters. Cribiore raises huge and controversial issues that defy definitive answers. Wisely, Cribiore eschews dogmatic pronouncements but rather highlights the complexity of these questions.

The four parts of the book are structured around the key themes. The first chapter (pp. 25-75) addresses the relation of literature to historical reality, with special emphasis on Libanius' autobiographical Or. 1. By comparing the oration with statements in his letters, Cribiore shows how the more 'private' epistolary genre, when used as a corrective, sheds light on the tendentious self-fashioning found in the autobiographical account. After the discussion of Or. 1, the book provides a vast overview of autobiographical and hagiographical texts in late antiquity in order to contextualise Libanius' self-presentation. This section, however, is not especially illuminating, as most of these works, in particular those on philosophical and spiritual leaders, differ widely in nature from the rhetorician's effort.

In the second chapter (pp. 76-131), Cribiore singles out one striking feature of Libanius' speeches: his use of invective and slander. Again, the question of the public reception of Libanius' works comes to the fore. Cribiore here maintains that the publication of these works cannot be determined uniformly but, rather, we have to allow for varying degrees of publicity. In analysing sexual abuse in Libanius' invectives, Cribiore draws attention to the representation and elicitation of emotions, a point that has been largely overlooked. Further, Cribiore underlines these invectives' theatrical aspects and points to parallels in classical oratory. She thus makes her readers aware of the fact that Libanius' displays would have also been received and appreciated by his audiences as entertainment—this should make us cautious in assessing the sophist's malice.

With the third chapter (pp. 132-181), Cribiore moves on to the field of religion. Before discussing Libanius' personal religious practice, she reviews modern concepts of religion, perhaps more extensively than necessary. Her reading of numerous letters sheds light on Libanius' 'belief' and seeks to establish different types of religious references – formulaic, significant, literary and educational—which, when tested, often collapse. Most interestingly, Cribiore finds that Libanius' attitudes towards religion vary between historical periods. Under Theodosius, for example, Libanius makes surprisingly few direct references to the contemporary religious turmoil, other than in the period immediately after Julian's death. In order to contextualise Libanius' moderate stance on religious matters, Cribiore, in a lengthy treatment, reviews a series of conversions and cases of uncertain religious allegiance in the fourth century. Nothing of this is really original or new, as the view that this period was characterised by fluid identities and beliefs has already become a commonplace.

Chapter four (pp. 182-228) continues this investigation, again drawing attention to the religious and social environment in which Libanius was socialised. Cribiore presents some fascinating figures—especially Libanius' friend Olympius—that emerge from his correspondence and orations. The examination of these figures' religious affiliations demonstrates that, at least for educated men in the fourth century, issues other than religion—e.g. social status, friendship and culture—often mattered more in personal relationships. In the remaining part of this chapter Cribiore returns to Libanius' attitude to the traditional gods. Following an extended discussion of pagan monotheism in late antiquity, she reaches the conclusion that we cannot access his personal beliefs; yet it is clear that before the large audience of his hometown Libanius maintained the image of a traditional pagan.

The book concludes with a somewhat erratic appendix on Julian's teaching edict, which treads a well-trodden path. Contrary to Cribiore's claim, it has already been argued that the emperor, despite the grey areas between religious groups, sought to create coherence among pagans and draw a sharp line towards Christians.2

Cribiore advances three major observations about which any reader of Libanius' orations and letters needs to be aware. First, while previous scholarship tended to categorise his output into public and private works, she underlines how elusive these seemingly stable categories are when it comes to specific texts. Even though a definite solution can hardly be reached, it is essential to assess what audience the sophist had in mind for each of his works and how 'public' their forum of presentation was. Second, and consequently, the works display clear marks of the audience's awareness and expectations of genre: Libanius had to take into account the conventions with which his addressees were familiar and what they would have wanted to hear. These factors influenced the shape and content of the texts considerably. Third, Cribiore subscribes to the current prevailing view that there were no clear-cut religious identities and thus Libanius, in his belief, was emblematic of this period. Her major finding, therefore, is that the rhetorician's oeuvre should not be considered a homogeneous body: each work is carefully adapted to its specific occasion. The interaction between the texts and their audiences thus made an enormous impact on the content of both the speeches and letters and can account for their seeming contradictions.

As other recent large-scale projects on Libanius indicate,3 it is—after a period of studies on individual aspects of his life—time to bring together the accumulated findings on Libanius' career, social standing, religious belief, and rhetorical skills. Cribiore's monograph thus sits squarely within current scholarship on the Antiochene teacher. The author's familiarity with research on Libanius leaps from every page. That, however, does not prevent her from making the bold claim that her approach to the literary dimension of his works should be regarded as especially innovative; given that in recent years several publications have been drawing attention to Libanius as a literary author, this claim seems exaggerated. A similar observation holds true for Cribiore's view of Libanius' religiosity. It has already been argued that the sophist encapsulated the fuzziness of religious identities and the pragmatic approach to this issue that most of the educated elite in the fourth century displayed. Fanatics like the emperor Julian or Firmicus Maternus were rather the exception that proves the rule.

The major asset of Cribiore's book, then, lies in her impressive and magisterial command of the primary texts, especially Libanius' correspondence. Time and again she brings letters and speeches to life, yielding important insights into Libanius' thinking, actions, and oratory that have gone largely unnoticed by scholars. Further, Cribiore deserves praise for challenging long-held views on publication and audience: the extent of public circulation and, thus, the potential impact of each text has to be examined individually (although some patterns can be discerned). Related to this finding, the book demonstrates that, in order to judge Libanius' views and strategies accurately, it is indispensable to consider the wider context of the political, social, religious and cultural landscape during his lifetime. The value of a seemingly unremarkable missive often comes out only if contextualised in its original setting, illuminating its allusions. Further, Cribiore reminds us of the importance of the likely audience response to speeches as well as letters. In order to better understand how the intended audience would have received Libanius' thoughts and attitudes we must try to recover with what they were familiar and expected regarding, among other things, literary genres and ethical norms. Overall, the strength of this study is that it sheds light on Libanius' adaptability as an author and it highlights the dynamic nature of his oeuvre.

This merit notwithstanding, some weaknesses diminish the effectiveness of Cribiore's argument. As said in the beginning of this review, she raises big questions that cannot be easily settled. That said, it is still unsatisfactory that the chapters repeatedly end without a clear conclusion, leaving the reader wondering how to make sense of their loose ends. Likewise, although Cribiore claims to investigate the literary side of Libanius' works, she, in fact, engages in an in-depth discussion and close reading of the texts only occasionally. In a similar fashion (as in her previous book) she makes use of the letters and speeches primarily as evidence for social and religious history. This is particularly striking as she aims to illuminate the interaction of texts and audiences. This interplay needed to be shown in the texts more clearly. Further, Cribiore incorporates a vast amount of historical background information and draws in alleged literary parallels which then make only a minor contribution to our understanding of the Antiochene sophist. In some places, lengthy discussions are even out of place, for instance on Cicero and Roman oratory (pp. 91-93, 106-108).

Despite her wide-ranging reading of secondary literature, Cribiore's use of scholarship can be patchy, the limits of which emerge particularly in her discussion of religious matters. She singles out one scholar to argue against, without taking notice of other views relevant to the issue. In doing so, she tends to misrepresent differing views, e.g. when she discusses Sandwell's argument on Libanius' religious identity (p. 137-138).4 Cribiore's selective reading cannot lead to really new results. One might also doubt whether she is right in putting so much emphasis on religious aspects. For one thing, Libanius obviously did not attribute utmost significance to the issue of belief throughout his life, as Cribiore herself makes plain (p. 180). So, in this respect, the focus of the book might be misleading. Further, she seems to downplay late antique attempts to erect religious boundaries and establish clear-cut definitions. To be sure, the existence of fluid identities can hardly be explained away, but, as figures such as Julian, Ephraem and Chrysostom show, religious differences and conflicts made at least some people more conscious of their allegiance. This can also be argued for several passages in Libanius' works. In this context, it is also necessary to consider Hellenism and ethnic identity, a point that Cribiore fails to connect to her discussion. Finally, some readers might not want to follow her into highly problematic speculations, for instance, about the impact of Athanasius and other Christian models on Libanius (p. 74) or the direct influence of Salutius' treatise (p. 218-219). These points are unwarranted by the evidence.

Despite these objections, Cribiore's well-informed book is a welcome addition to Libanius scholarship. Although it does not offer a completely new picture of the sophist, it addresses major research questions and challenges some established opinions.


1.   R. Cribiore, The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch, Princeton, NJ, 2007.
2.   See J. Stenger, Hellenische Identit├Ąt in der Sp├Ątantike, Berlin 2009, pp. 101-110.
3.   H.G. Nesselrath, Libanios: Zeuge einer schwindenden Welt, Stuttgart 2011, appeared too late to be considered by Cribiore; as did O. Lagacherie and P.-L. Malosse (eds.), Libanios: Le premiere humaniste, Alessandria 2011. L. Van Hoof will be editing a collection of essays on Libanius' life and work.
4.   I. Sandwell, Religious Identity in Late Antiquity, Cambridge 2007.

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