Libanius and Intellectuals (Oration I, 62-71)

Libanius and Intellectuals (Oration I, 62-71)

Assist. Prof. Dr. Dimitar Iliev will discuss part of the Authobiography of Libanius. Oration I, 62-71 describes the rivalry between Libaniuis and another retor in the forties of the 4th century Nicomidea, that almost ended with conviction for felony after a hearing before the provincial governor.

7 April 2021, 6 PM, Zoom

The discussion is continuation of the lecture Intellectuals as Public Figures in the 4th Century: The Cases of Prohaeresius and Libanius



About the excerpt: The selected excerpt is from Libanius` Oration I, known as Authobiographyparticular from its first part, written around the 70s of the 4th century, probably without ever being delivered in public. At the time, the rhetorician was about 60 years old and had been the official head of the public department of rhetoric in Antioch for about two decades facing no serious competition. The formal framework of his speech is the role of Fate (Τύχη) in the events of his life. The specific excerpt is one of the most dramatically portrayed episodes of his rivalry with other speakers, when an accusation of magic by one of his rivals nearly cost him a court sentence.


Questions and topics for discussion:

The proposed questions for the initial discussion aim, if possible, to stimulate a wider interdisciplinary discussion, not limited to them.

The text testifies to the spread of magic in the late ancient Mediterranean, the belief in it and its prosecution. What can we say about related practices such as astrology, mantica, theurgy? Lebanon's own position as a religious and cultural traditionalist towards believing in and practicing such things.

Provincial government and imperial hierarchy in the system of courts of the provinces of Asia Minor, corruption and the struggle for influence before officials: what does the selected passage about this part of the late Roman administration reveal to us?

Allusions to the sacred in the proposed passage: literary convention, religious traditionalism, or a little of both?

What does it mean to be an intellectual in Late Antiquity and other times? Does Libanius reveal himself as an intellectual in the selected passage and in what ways?

Text in English (download);  text in Greek (download) [Libanius' Authobiography (Oration I), A. F. Norman (edited with introducion, translation and notes) (Oxford University Press, 1965), 39–47.]


However, the professor’s wife began to suffer from mental illness, and he, refusing to believe that this was due to any physical ailment, tried to pin the blame on to me and, following bad example, he too tried to have my copyist examined. Upon his wife’s death, he left her grave in tears and entered the court, but even so his accusation was not presented in any legal form; his sole recourse was to have the man arrested. 63. Consequently, the roles were reversed; he tried to avoid a trial and I insisted that it be held. The governor was amused at the idea that I, having got the better of the professor, should now go to the length of procuring his wife’s dea th; it was just as absurd as for an athlete, who had it in his power to kill his opponent, to refuse to engage and to let him go, and then to try to do away with the fellow’s mother by means of magic. He did his best to escape, but the governor had him fetched by his attendants, since I maintained my stand, and gave him the alternative of proving me guilty or being found guilty himself, for the law forbade the illtreatment of anyone on baseless charges. He fell on his knees and besought that he should not be dismissed in disgrace, for his grief was to be regarded as the cause of all this, not he. 64. The governor took pity on him, and I could not blame him for it, for I could ever wish to see my enemy throwing himself on the mercy of the court, with no need for any other punishment; indeed, I will not refuse him if he wishes to become my friend, for any man who sees a sinner shamed and yet wants him done away with, is a mere brute and without the wit to realize that he is only human and may sometime perhaps be brought to such a pass himself. Not so the Bithynians in their attitude towards him : they would either get out of his way if they met him, or take good care not to meet him at all, and the fact that my assailant suffered no condign punishment caused people to inveigh against the magistrate who had given such a decision, even though he was very popular.

65. So he was crushed completely: his eloquence availed him nothing, especially as his general behaviour was held in disrepute. Hence, he had recourse to buying his pupils and spared none of the great wealth that came from his estates, but though they took all he offered, they did not entrust themselves to him. The cat was let out of the bag, and he became a laughing-stock throughout the city because of his trickery, his high hopes, and his disappointment.

66. There was only one Bithynian to take his part, a man of unquenchable rancour in all his undertakings. He alleged that, in the gossip, the inquiries, and the ridicule that arose from these gifts, his wife’s name had been bandied about too as a participant in this business and in the bribery. Into his travelling carriage he got and set off for Cappadocia, to his friend the governor, who was quite capable of obliging him by flouting the law, for these two had been students together in Athens and had done each other all kinds of good turns and probably continued to do so thereafter. Though the preparations for the Persian war, which occurred then, and other duties no less deserving of consideration ought to have induced him to stay where he was, the governor thought all important matters to be mere incidentals; so he got up and came along with bared blade, sending in advance a soldier whom I had to follow to Nicaea with seven youths whose crime was that they had not sold themselves. 67. So the people of Nicomedeia gave us up for dead, as the Athenians did those whom they sent to the Labyrinth.

However, under the guidance of Fortune, my saviour was destined to be Heracles, son of Zeus, who in a dream revealed to me what he would do and how he would quench the funeral flame; for I dreamed that a disciple of the Cynic Antisthenes mounted a great pyre in the centre of Nicaea and quenched it, and that his body prevailed over the fire. So I went on, heartened by this revelation of truth and the tidings of help. My advocates went as far as Libon, but there they went to ground and watched the outcome of the affair from afar, and when it was all over they emerged to offer their congratulations, as the Spartans did to the Athenians after the battle of Marathon. 68. Yes, that too was a labour of Heracles, and he brought me also from out of the shadow: the cocks were crowing and the criers were crying when there came a knocking at the door and our jailer shouted to us to come down. Alcimus and I were lodged in a perfumer’s shop awaiting our turn. This Alcimus, by the way, had something divine about him, I am sure; such a man could never have been sired by mortal man. Well, just before noon, that rascal of an accuser dashed in distraught and howling that Philagrius too was tarred with the same brush, an incomprehensible remark as far as we were concerned. 69. The governor left immediately, and we saw our friends all smiles, as though at some fortunate event. Of the nature and manner of it we had not the slightest idea until one of our friends gestured to us from a distance that our enemy had fled, for the governor had suddenly been confronted with the need to maintain the law. He had made up his mind to disclose a charge of murder against me when news arrived of Philippus’ tour of inspection, and he had to go off in a hurry to receive his grim overlord into his diocese: in a panic he declared that the time for favours was past and the law must prevail: he must either hand in his charge in proper form or reconcile himself to being a victim of necessity. That was the reason for the expression ‘being tarred with the same brush’, the inference being that he had been bribed to change his mind.

70. So my accuser went off home despondently, ‘eating his heart out’, while the governor, all blushes for the favour he had granted, summoned me to him, sat me down by his side in court, wiped his hand across his brow and tried to make light of his friend’s remarks on the professor’s behalf. He begged me not to be annoyed at my coming to him and to think of the whole incident as though it had never happened. I replied that such was my reaction even before he had begun to speak, but he asked for some guarantee of my words, namely, that I should allow him to attend an oration of mine in the heart of Nicomedeia. ‘Philippus summons me, to be sure’, he exclaimed, ‘but let this have precedence.’


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financed by the National Science Fund, contract КП-06-Н30/6, 13.12.2018