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Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski"                                                                DOI                                                 
Department of Classical Philology

received  10.09.2022; published 13.10.2022

core article


Abstract: A brief introduction to Alexandria, its rise as an intellectual and educational center, and the figures and activities that developed there in Late Antiquity

Keywords: Alexandria, library, grammar, philosophy, theology, Neoplatonism, monasticism, Antony, Arius


Unlike Athens, whose faded intellectual glory was revived in Late Antiquity, Alexandria never ceased to shine with its reputation as a literary and scientific center since Hellenistic times. A traditional center of grammar studies (including the reading and interpretation of classical texts from the Greek literary canon), the city continued to develop as such in the 4th–5th centuries. One of the prominent representatives of the Alexandrian grammatical tradition during the Late Antiquity is, for example, Didymus,[1] who apparently came from Alexandria and received his education there but worked as a teacher in Antioch and Constantinople and taught the poets of the young Libanius.[2] In Late Antiquity, however, the city was much more than that. Here was the first and main center of the spread of monasticism, whose heroes such as Antony and Pachomius – essentially Coptic hermits – became popular thanks to works such as the Life of Antony by Athanasius and the Sentences of the Desert Fathers (Apophthegmata patrum).[3] Here, along with the followers of Arius, the first great Christological disputes in Christian theology arose, among which the personality of Athanasius of Alexandria stood out. Here is also one of the inluencial centers of late antique Neoplatonism, where already in the 3rd century figures such as Plotinus and Porphyry took their first steps in philosophy.[4] In the 4th and the beginning of the 5th centuries, the Neoplatonist mathematician and philosopher Theon and his daughter Hypatia,[5] the philosophy teacher of Synesius of Cyrene,[6] who was killed by an angry crowd of Christian monks in 415, worked here.[7]

Initially, the city was known for the great Royal Library of the Ptolemies and its adjacent Museum (Μουσεῖον), which is a sanctuary of the Muses. A series of events involving the fire during the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey in 48 BC. and the destruction of the entire neighborhood of the Brucheion in the campaigns of Emperor Aurelian against Zenobia (272 AD) put an end to the Library and Museum. In Late Antiquity, the temple of Sarapis, or the Serapeum (Σεραπεῖον), which earlier in the Hellenistic era was considered a second or "daughter" library to the Great, became a similar center.[8]

Alexandria has always been a territory of coexistence and exchange between different ethno-cultural communities: Egyptians, Greeks, and Jews. While the intellectual climate elsewhere was relatively monolithic (for example, the Athenian sophist Proheresius was a Christian, but this little distinguished him in teaching and behavior from his fellow pagans), in Alexandria, the processes were different. Here, in the second half of the 2nd century and in the 3rd century, a synthesis between Greek and Christian thought, between the metaphysics of Neoplatonism and Christian theology, took place for the first time in the person of intellectuals such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen, both of whom formed a circle of disciples around him, and Origen was the first to draw up a program for systematic philosophical education entirely on Christian foundations.[9] In the first decades of the 4th century, a similar circle tried to gather with its sermons and presbyter Arius. But his views, influenced by the logic and theology of Neoplatonism, set the stage for the most dramatic Christological controversy in the history of the Church up to that time. To Arian's synthesis of Christianity and secular philosophy, denying the divine and consubstantial nature of Christ with the Father, his greatest opponent, Patriarch Athanasius, opposes a new figure with a great future in the history of Christianity – that of the ascetic, the hermit, the monk.[10] In his "Life of Antony" in the face of the first great ascetic of the Egyptian desert, the Alexandrian patriarch describes the true Christian philosopher. In the work, it is repeatedly emphasized that Antony remained ignorant all his life (Athanas. Vita Ant. PG XXVI 841), but with his words – as well as with his miracles – he always defeated and amazed even the highly educated (Athanas. Vita Ant. PG XXVI 956). In many places in the rich work of Athanasius, the terms "philosopher," "sophist," "rhetor," and "poet" have a pejorative connotation – these are the bearers of worldly, pagan false wisdom that is shamed at every contact with the authentic wisdom of the Scriptures, asceticism, and communion with God.[11] Therefore, from now on, the development of a Christian philosophical-religious synthesis combining God's Revelation with the intellectual achievements of Platonism, for example, in the work of authors such as Evagrius Pontius towards the end of the 5th century, will almost inevitably pass through the prism of hermitage, prayer, and monastic asceticism.[12]

In the second half of the same century, Alexandrian Neoplatonism also had its purely pagan, even radically pagan branch, centered around the Serapeum and associated with mathematical, musical, and astronomical studies such as those of Theon and his ill-fated daughter Hypatia. Initially, the Theonic school was extremely focused on the problems of mathematics, geometry, and astronomy (of which astrology in this age was an inseparable part). On this basis, the study of Plato and other authors in his tradition, as well as Aristotle, was built on – especially after his daughter took over the school, which happened towards the end of the 80s of the 4th century.[13] Probably in the late years of her teaching career – and of her life – Hypatia made an even more complete return to the beginnings of Platonic and Neoplatonic cosmogony and metaphysics through the study and teaching of the exact sciences.[14] If we accept the existence of two trends after the destruction of the Serapeum by an angry mob of Christian monks in 391,[15] Athens gradually displaced Alexandria as a flourishing philosophical center in the 5th century. One of the most influential Neoplatonists of this century, Proclus Diadochus, settled in Athens after and even as a young man learning, he found that Alexandria was no longer able to transmit Plato's teachings in a pure and unadulterated form.[16]


[1] PLRE I Didymus 1

[2] Kaster 1988: 269–270.

[3] See Robertson 2007: 139 n.3, where a review of the scholarly literature on the subject leads the author to conclude that the key works Contra Gentiles (Contra gentiles) and De incarnatione were most likely written by Athanasius in Alexandria shortly before his first exile from the city.

[4] See Smith 2004: 7 (Plotinus); 62 (Porphirius).

[5] Watts 2017: 36–46.

[6] Димитров 2005: 96–105.

[7] Watts 2006: 198-202. In their analysis of the Pagan and Christian records of Hypatia and her school, Watts and Dimitrov agree that the Neoplatonism taught in her school (despite the dramatic religious conflicts in Alexandria at the time) was far removed from the radical paganism and traditionalism of the Iamblichian movement and was much more open to Christian followers. Paradoxically, perhaps this is exactly what makes Patriarch Cyril and the leaders of Alexandrian Christianity see her as a threat to their positions in the city.

[8] Watts 2006: 145–150.

[9] See the study of Trigg 1998, especially 16–35.

[10] Watts 2006: 174–177.

[11] See for example In caec. PG XXVIII 1020; Contra gentes 19; De inc. verbi 47.5 etc.

[12] For the ascetic life of Evagrius see Palladius Laus. 38 и Casiday 2013: 9–27.

[13] Watts 2006: 193.

[14] Watts 2017: 36–46.

[15] For the latest interpretations of this historical event see Rohmann 2022.

[16] Watts 2006:92.




Athanasius. Contra gentes and De incarnatione, ed. and transl. by R.W. Thomson, Oxford, 1971.

The Lausiac History of Palladius, voll. I-II, ed. by E.C. Butler, Cambridge, 1898.

S. P. N. Athanasii archiepiscopi Alexandrini Opera omnia quae exstant. Patrologiae cursus completus. Series graeca, Acc. J.-P. Migne, Vol. XXVIII, Parisiis, 1887.


Secondary Sources

Casiday 2013: Casiday, A. (2013), Reconstructing the Theology of Evagrius Ponticus (Cambridge).

 Kaster 1988: Kaster, R.A. (1988), Guardians of Language: The Grammarian and Society in Late Antiquity (Berkeley).

 Robertson 2007: Robertson, J. (2007), Christ as Mediator. A Study of the Theologies of Eusebius of Caesarea, Marcellus of Ancyra and Athanasius of Alexandria, Oxford.

 Rohmann 2022: Rohmann, D. (2022), "The Destruction of the Serapeum of Alexandria, Its Library, and the Immediate Reactions", Klio 104(1), 334–362.

 Smith 2004: Smith, A. (2004), Philosophy in Late Antiquity (London).

 Trigg 1998: Trigg, J.W. (1998), Origen (London). 

 Watts 2006: Watts, E.J. (2006), City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria  (Berkeley).

 Димитров 2005: Димитров, Д. (2005), Философия, култура и политика в Късната античност. Случат на Синезий от Кирена (Велико Търново).


Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski"                                                                DOI                                                 
Department of Classical Philology

received  10.09.2022; published 13.10.2022

core article


Abstract: The current paper examines the origins and the development of theurgy as a concept, practice, and philosophical-religious theory. It discusses the main characteristics of the ritual-worldview, as it emerged in Late Antiquity, as well as the reactions that theurgy evoked in its followers and opponents (pagans and Christians).

Keywords: theurgy, philosophy, religion, ritual, magic, Iamblichus, Neoplatonism, Christianity, paganism.


The term “theurgy” (Greek. θεουργία, Latin. theurgia)[1] is a key term for the philosophical currents in Late Antique Neoplatonism and is based on the teachings of Iamblichus of Chalcis in Coele Syria (c. 3rd century – c. 325), a disciple of Porphyry and teacher of Aedesius[2].

Tradition presents Iamblichus as a disciple of Porphyry, who was in turn Plotinus’ most distinguished student, as well as, the author of his biography and of numerous works, including the “Introduction to the logical categories of Aristotle” (Isagoge, Εἰσαγωγή). This peculiar syncretism between peripatetic logic and Platonic metaphysics, especially as presented in Plato’s Timaeus and further developed by Plotinus’ teaching of emanations[3], was characteristic of many representatives of Neoplatonism in Late Antiquity. Plotinus and Porphyry themselves, Iamblichus’s pupil Aedesius and Aedesius’ pupil Eusebius[4] unfold their reflections of Neoplatonic cosmology and ontology in rational discources related to the reading and interpretation of texts. Union with intelligible entities far beyond the visible material world is achieved through contemplation (θεωρία) of the truths revealed through this speculation process[5].

Iamblichus’ approach is different: it does not involve speculative contemplation or logical-rhetorical techniques, but direct ritual activity that leads to a close communion with the gods. This “divine action” is designated by the neologism created for this purpose, which is θεουργία, from θεός “god” and ἔργον “work, аct”. The disciples of Aedesius, Maximus of Ephesus, Chrysanthius, the Athenian Neoplatonists of the late fourth and fifth century, Plutarch and Proclus[6], along with Isidore of Alexandria and the last scholarch of the Neoplatonic Athenian school Damascius before its closure in 529, all of them fit into this theurgic current of Neoplatonism established by Iamblichus[7].

The literary tradition has preserved several stories, presented as eyewitness accounts about the visible manifestations of theurgy. The students of Iamblichus, especially the more rationally inclined like Aedesius, were asking repeatedly their teacher to demonstrate to them his supernatural abilities, which were the subject of many rumors. Once on a visit to the mineral baths of Gadara, he agreed and got his students to ask the locals for the names of two of the fountains from which the best water flowed. When he found out that one is named after the god Eros, he touched the water in the pool below the spout, recited some obscure formula and as a result of that a child with snow-white skin and golden blond hair emerged from the pool. Iamblichus repeated his actions at the opposite fountain called Anteros (verbatim. “love returned or counter-love”) and from there also emerged a boy similar to the former one, with the only difference that this one had black hair.The two children embraced Iamblichus as if he were their father before diving back into the waters from which they had been emerged[8]. The biographer of the philosophers Eunapius claims that the story was personally handed down to him by his teacher Chrysanthius, who heard it from his teacher Aedesius, a disciple of Iamblichus. Similar accounts of miracles and divine appearances circulate about Maximus of Ephesus, another of the disciples of Aedesius in his school at Pergamum. Eusebius, a schoolmate of Chrysanthius and more reserved about theurgy (like Aedesius on the above account), describes to Julian the gathering of the philosophers from Pergamum at the invitation of Maximus at the temple of Hecate in the city[9]. Maxim lights incense and sings a hymn to the goddess, while her statue begins to smile slightly and finally laugh visibly. At that moment there was a general uproar and Maximus declared that the torches in Hecate’s hands would immediately lit – something that indeed happened. Excited, the philosopher’s colleagues left the temple and as Eusebius reports, they were “frightened for the moment by this theatrical wonderworker" (θεατρικὸν θαυματοποιόν).

Other Neoplatonists, who belonged to the more moderate rational current probably had a similar attitude towards these shows. In the biography of Maximus, the same teacher Eusebius explains to Julian that the essence of the teaching is in its lectures, and anything more than that is charlatanism, deceit and bewitching of the senses (τὴν αἴσθησιν ἀπατῶσαι καὶ γοητεύουσαι μαγγανεῖαι)[10]. The practitioners of the theory are even more vulnerable to criticism from their rival Christians, who equate the practices of the former with the most wicked and base magic[11]. In the eyes of the uninitiated theurgy remains at best a cheap deception for the senses (which leaves the viewers attached to the material and the apparent), while at worst theurgy is only a sinful communion with demonic beings. In some extreme cases, it can also look like extortion of the gods in order for them to bow to the will of the theurgist (divine-worker)[12]. On the contrary, for the adherents of theurgy, the practice contains, among other things, a deep spiritual and symbolic meaning. In the accounts of theurgic miracles, this meaning was probably clearer to its contemporaries. However, it is no coincidence that in the account of the miracle of Iamblichus, the two fountains are called Eros and Anteros, embodying perhaps the mutual attraction of opposing elements gathered for a moment around the person of the Neoplatonic miracle worker[13].

Of the surviving literary heritage of Late Antique Neoplatonism, the work that gives us the clearest insight into the ideological basis of theurgy is “On the Mysteries of the Egyptians” (De mysteriis). In the spirit of literary mystification characteristic of these circles, the composition is presented as the response of the Egyptian priest Abamon to a letter from the philosopher Porphyry. In this letter the interlocutor is presented as skeptical and condemning of theurgic practices, which was probably Porphyry’s actual position on the matter. Abamon-Iamblichus replies in ten books, presenting his exposition in order to reveal the real meaning of ritual practices in Egyptian religion (along with that of the Chaldeans and Assyrians).

The purpose of religious ritual is to cleanse the soul of the evil that has attached to it as a result of its embodiment –in the same way that in tragedy, according to Aristotle, the observation of another’s suffering (πάθη) leads the deliverance of the soul from passions (πάθη)[14]. The invocations (κλήσεις) to the gods do not imply compulsion for them to manifest and show themselves, as it may seem to be. The gods being completely self-manifesting and self-sufficient, they do appear because of their benevolence and goodwill towards the theurgist. In this way the communicants experience union (ἕνωσις) with the divine, learning to free themselves from their bodies, while they remain still in their bodies, and therein lies the salvation of their soul (τῆς ψυχῆς σωτήριον)[15]. Through the union caused by theurgic ritual, the soul contemplates blissful visions that separate it completely from the human world.  Thus, although we are born susceptible to influences and passions (ἐμπαθεῖς), while the gods are not such by nature, we become pure (καθαροί) and unchangeable (ἄτρεπτοι). This communion with the gods is made possible by their affectionate regard (φιλία) to the practitioners and is accomplished through the use of appropriate divine names and other συνθήματα – a term that can be understood as “signs”, “passwords” or “symbols”[16].

Nonetheless, the process does not depend on and is not guided by the intellectual ability of the person performing the theurgic ritual. Words and actions are unutterable (ἄρρητα), while the essence of symbols is unspeakable (ἄφθεγκτα). If it were otherwise, philosophers relying solely on their rational knowledge would reach union with the divine without the aid of theurgy, but they fail to do so. The symbols used in the ritual achieve an effect of their own accord, while the ineffable power of the deities itself recognizes in the human being, that which is their image (εἰκών). This happens independently of reason and before it is rationally realized[17]. An important element of theurgic ritual is prayer, which is categorized in three types. The first kind of prayer leads to the divine. The second kind connects the human to the divine, while the human being and the deity act in accordance and the deity grants certain gifts to the human being, which start operate in him even before he has uttered the prayer. The third kind, the most perfect, is the union with the divine, which gives full power over the existence of the human being. It fills the latter with the primordial fire (πῦρ) of the sacred beginning[18].  

Here we see a system of beliefs and practices which, along various lines, has certain similarities, on the one hand with the so-called “Gnosticism” and “Hermeticism”, inasmuch as there are unified currents of thought under these general terms, and on other with orthodox Christianity, as well as with the classical platonic philosophy, and in some respects even with the religious doctrines and practices of Zoroastrianism and Hinduism. The question of the origin of this religious-philosophical system is a complex one with many obscure points, some of which may never be illuminated by modern scholars. Nevertheless, some of the characteristic features of theurgy as we see it in Iamblichus and his followers can be traced in earlier testimonies.

First, the theurgist is one of the last incarnations in ancient literature of the figure of the pagan “holy man” (θεῖος ἀνήρ). This “holy” or “divine man” as a solid and consistent presence in the pagan world is mostly a construction of nineteenth-century scholars, influenced by the later figure of the Christian saint. However, from the 2nd century onwards we can see a set of recurring biographical motifs in the literature and religious consciousness of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire[19]. The Greek “divine men” were sages and philosophers, enjoying extreme closeness with the gods and sometimes they were deified at the moment of their death. Perhaps the most famous among them is Apollonius of Tyana (c. 1st century AD), whose life has been described by Flavius Philostratus in the 3rd century. In his biography Philostratus mentions, among other things, how Apollonius performed every day at sunrise in private certain rituals of which he told no one except those of his disciples who had taken a four-year vow of silence[20]. Similarly, in his biography of Iamblichus, Eunapius describes how his disciples constantly questioned him about what he did in secrecy and would not reveal to anyone. They also told him about the rumor that they heard that during prayer their teacher levitates ten cubits (over 4.5 m) above the ground [21]. Levitation is also familiar to the heroes of Philostratus: one of them describes to Apollonius the life of Indian ascetics and mentions how they rise 2 cubits (nearly 1 m) above the ground during their prayers to Helios (Sun)[22].

Another, more direct source of the theurgic system is the so-called “Chaldean Oracles” apparently popular in wider Gnostic and Neoplatonic circles too. These are a collection of verses in Greek hexameter, the poetic meter used in epic poetry and also by the oracles of Apollo, for example, those at Delphi and Claros. The verses are considered to have been “delivered by god”  (θεοπαράδοτα) to Julian the Chaldean and written down by his son, also Julian, somewhere towards the end of the 2nd century.[23] The ethnonym Χαλδαῖος, which in its narrow sense can be considered synonymous with “Babylonian” or with “an inhabitant of Mesopotamia”, usually carries also the connotations of a person adept in astrology and magic. This name evokes associations with the wisdom of the Eastern cults in general as it was understood by the average citizen of the Roman Empire in that era. Julian-father, about whom information is very sparse was probably a “Chaldean” in more than one sense of the word, while the Suda Dictionary calls him a “philosopher” too. Julian the son, who recorded the prophecies transmitted by his father (according to some authors he was put into trance by him as part of a theurgic ritual), was also the author of several other unpreserved texts[24]. The Julian-son is also the first person to go down in history with the epithet “Theurgist”. The word θεουργός itself is first attested in his verses. There, in one fragment, the theurgist is presented as a man elevated above the “herd” of the other human beings, who are subject to the blows of Fate[25]. Other fragments that have come down to us (often quoted by authors such as Proclus) also allude to symbols, prayers, and rituals that can lead the human soul out of the shackles of the body and upwards to union with the divine[26]. Apart from these first records of some kind of theurgic rituals and incantations many of the fragments of the “Chaldean Oracles” that survive today contain the basic tenets of a complex cosmogony. As far as we can judge from the textual fragments, it seems to be somewhat analogous to that of Plotinus and somewhat similar to that attested in the Hermetic literature or the accounts of the Gnostic Valentinus.[27].

At the same time, we can consider the literary mystification, presenting these verses as divine oracles, as part of a broader trend in late paganism. During this period, a significant number of the oracles in the Greek world, from Delphi do Didyma and Claros, began to answer more general questions concerning worldview issues. Their inquirers looked increasingly to Apollo for answers to questions such as, “What is the nature of the gods?” and “What is life after death?”. The answers that these divinatory centers began to give accordingly moved further away from utilitarian answers and were transformed into a kind of “philosophy in verse” bearing the direct authority of the god[28]. In terms of genre, the “Chaldean Oracles” fall into this current. They draw from and at the same time contribute to the tendency towards syncretism between religious and purely philosophical elements of the ancient Greek cultural tradition.

  In summary, theurgy as a phenomenon is a product of this same syncretic tendency. The philosopher is no longer just an intellectual or an academic scholar. He is a religious leader, the head of the sacred acts, as well as a privileged interlocutor of the gods. On the one hand, this further elevates his status as a spiritual mentor in people’s lives and a healer of their personal psychological weaknesses. On the other hand, it makes the philosopher even more vulnerable to accusations of magic or simple quackery. In any case, the theurgic current of Iamblichus in late antique Neoplatonism influenced the relationship between philosophy and Christianity. Theurgy identifies more closely than ever the role of the philosopher with that of the pagan priest. It urged its followers to realize in themselves a more solid Hellenic identity, encompassing culture, philosophy, and religion. As representatives of such a Late Antique Hellenic identity, the Neoplatonic theurgists were potentially more exclusively hostile towards their fellow-citizens Christians and more likely to see the spread of Christianity as a threat. The clearest manifestation of this attitude was the religious policy of emperor Julian, the so-called Apostate, during his brief reign between 361 and 363, who was a also follower of the philosopher and theurgist Maximus of Ephesus.


[1] For the name see e.g. Iambl. Myst. IX.6., Aug. Civ. D. X.9.

[2] PLRE I Iamblichus 1 450-451, Еunap.Vit. soph. V.

[3] Plot. Aen. V.2.1. The term “emanations” originates from the Latin emano “flow out, spread out from a source” and is the Latin word of Plotinus’ metaphor in the passage, according to which the One (τὸ ἕν) has “overflowed” (ὑπερερρύη) and hence all that follows in the hierarchy of the world was generated.

[4] Eunap. Vit. soph. VII.2.12.

[5] Plot. Aen. I.1.7.

[6] Watts 2006: 90-93.

[7] For him see. Петрински 2018.

[8] Eunap. Vit. soph. V.2.2-7.

[9] Eunap. Vit. soph. VII.2.6-11.

[10] Eunap. Vit. soph. VI.2.3

[11] Among the numerous pejorative references to the term “theurgy” and its related words in Christian writers of the era see e.g. Cyrill. Alexandr. In Is. proph. PG LXX.932.

[12] E.g. Maximus believes that the signs of the gods can be ignored until the latter accepts your judgement: Eunap. Vit.soph. VII.3.12-13

[13] Shaw 1995:122-126.

[14] Iambl. De myst. I.11.

[15] Iambl. De myst. I.12.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Iambl. De myst. IΙ.11.

[18] Iambl. De myst. V.26.

[19] Liefeld 1973.

[20] Philostr. V. Apoll. I.16. The practice is well known from the Pythagorean tradition and is a loan from there.

[21] Eunap. Vit. soph. V. 1.7-10.

[22] Philostr. V. Apoll. III.15.

[23] Majercik 1989: 1.

[24] Suda: iota 433, 434. Majercik 1989: 1-2

[25] Or. Chald. frg. 153.

[26] Or. Chald. frg. 108-100, 150.

[27] Majercik 1989: 4-24.

[28] Lane Fox 1986: 189-200



 Primary Sources

 Eunapio. Vite di filosofi e sofisti. Testo Greco a fronte. Introduzione, traduzione, note e apparati di Maurizio Civiletti. Milano, 2007.

Jamblichi De mysteriis liber. Rec. Gustavus Parthey. Berolini, 1857.

Philostratus. Apollonius of Tyana, Volume I-II. Edited and translated by Christopher P. Jones. Cambridge Mass., 2005.

Plotinus. Ennads. Vol. I-VII. Ed. By A.H. Armstrong. Cambridge Mass., 1999.

Sancti Aurelii Augustini episcopi De civitate Dei libri XXII, voll. I-II, rec. B. Dombart. Lipsiae, 1877.

 Suda Online:

The Chaldean Oracles. Text, translation and commentary R. Majercik.  Leiden, 1989.

Cyrilli Alexandriae Archiepiscopi opera quae reperiri potuerunt omnia. Patrologiae cursus completes. Series graeca. Acc. J.-P. Migne. Vol. LXX. 1864.


Secondary Sources

Lane Fox, R. (1986), Pagans and Christians in the Mediterranean World from the Second Century AD to the Death of Constantine (London). 

Majercik, R. (1989), “Introduction” – in: The Chaldean Oracles. Text, translation and commentary R. Majercik (Leiden), 1-46.

Liefeld, W. L.  (1973) “The Hellenistic “Divine Man” and the figure of Jesus in the Gospels”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 16.4. (Chicago) 95-195.

Shaw, G. (1995), Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus (University Park, Pennsylvania).

Watts, E.J. (2006), City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria  (Berkeley).

Петрински, Г., „Дамасций Диадох: образът на интелектуалеца езичник и залезът на античния свят“ - in: Втори четения на АРУКО „Мислене и действане“, 14-15.12.2018 г., достъпно в Youtube: част 1. ( ) и част 2.  ( ) (Last accessed date: 19.09.2022 г., 21:31).


Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski"                                                                DOI                                                 
Department of Classical Philology

received  10.09.2022; published 13.10.2022

core article


Abstract: The current paper traces the origins, meanings, and usages of the main words in Ancient Greek and Latin, which correspond approximately to our concepts of “culture” and “education”. It also takes into account the names of the various persons, who made education and intellectual activity their profession.

Keywords: culture, education, concepts, words, Latin language, Greek language, orator, philosopher, sophist


In Ancient Greek and Latin there are no words with the same scope and connotation as the Bulgarian “kultura” and “obrazovanie” and their equivalents in modern languages (English: culture, education, French: culture, formation, etc.).

The most used and comprehensive term in Greek is παιδεία. Παιδεία is a verbal noun from the verb παιδεύω „train, teach, educate“, which in turn is derived by the suffix -εύω, denoting position, work, or status (cf. βασιλεύω “reign”, δουλεύω „work“ and others) and the noun παῖς “child” (both of genders: boy and girl);”a person before reaching adulthood“. Παιδεία is identified with the notion of “civilization” (also a non-existent word in pre-modern times) in the Greco-Roman World and denotes the practice of educating the children and youth in general: namely their particular training, the education given to them, which shapes them finally and makes them complete personalities. The word can mean also the education process itself[1], as well as its result in the form of education, the cultural intelligence of the individual[2] along with the cultural tradition accumulated in the society as a whole[3]. In this way, the Greek word παιδεία appears to be the equivalent of both our words “education” and “culture –the latter in the aspect of both personal enculturation and a common civilizational domain.

          A partial Latin equivalent, as far as literary culture and literacy are concerned, is the notion of litterae, verbatim. “literacy, letters, reading and writing” and from which the word “literature” originates[4]. This word is often combined with studia, the plural of studium “lively interest in something, diligent occupation with something”. The plural form of the word, which can mean any pastime, hobby, or personal passion[5], even political prejudice, received early on a particular meaning and was used in denoting intellectual pursuits. Sometimes, as with the Greek παιδεία, the concept may also include the outcome of intellectual pursuits: scholarship, education, literary[6]. Due to the originally broad meaning of studium and studia, education and culture are often specified with the phrase studia litterarum[7]. In a similar sense, the phrase studium doctrinae or studia doctrinae[8] is used. Education and learning can also be designated with the word doctrina, the verbal noun of doceo “learn, teach”. In Christian and Late Antique Greek, however, the use of doctrina is used in naming and distinguishing the “doctrines” of pagans and Christians, heretics and orthodox[9].       

Thus the social class of the educated, constituting the elite of Greco-Roman society is defined as docti or more frequently as litterati in Latin[10] and πεπαιδευμένοι[11] in the Greek world. While those who not only received a higher education but also made education and culture their professional occupation, those whom today we would call “intellectuals”, are seen in different ways and bear different names.

In the Roman Empire, from the time of its greatest flourishing, which coincides with the reign of the Antonines (2nd century AD), itinerant public orators were active in the Greek-speaking East, sometimes also acting as rhetorical tutors, such as Dio Chrysostom and his pupil Polemon of Laodicea, Aelius Aristides, the writer Lucian of Samosata and others. Several generations later, Flavius Philostratus (floruit ca. 220-240 г.) described the lives and activities of many of these itinerant men of letters, comparing them to the earlier itinerant teachers of the classical-era Greece, 5th century BC, known as “sophists“ (σοφισταί). In his “Lives of the Sophists” (Βίοι σοφιστῶν) Philostratus compares the sophists of classical Greece with the intellectuals of the Antonine era and defines the former as “old”, while the latter as “new sophists”[12]. According to him in the name σοφιστής two occupations are combined: orators (ῥήτορες) and philosophers (φιλόσοφοι), who have been the representatives of the two main types of higher education in the Greek world since the time of Plato and Isocrates (4th c. BC)[13]. This includes various forms and degrees of syncretism between rhetoric and philosophy: philosophizing orators, philosophers inclined to flowery eloquence, and so on. Under the influence of Philostratus, the intellectual upsurge of the second century is still commonly referred to in scholarship as the “Second Sophistic”.

Following the crisis of the third century and the reign of Diocletian and Constantine, the fourth century witnessed another such massive development of intellectual and creative activity in the Greek-speaking world. It is significant that a new biographer, similar to Philostratus, emerged in this epoch, this is Eunapius of Sardis, who was active in the late fourth century and wrote the “Lives of Philosophers and Sophists” (Βίοι φιλοσόφων καὶ σοφιστῶν). Although, in his corpus of biographies, Eunapius formally distinguishes between philosophy and rhetoric and reserves the title “sophist” only for teachers of eloquence[14], he brings together twenty-three personalities belonging to the cultural life of his time with the aim “to compose a continuous and clear history of the lives of the best philosophers and rhetoricians”[15]. Among the representative figures of fourth-century philosophy and rhetoric selected for this purpose are the Neoplatonists Plotinus, Iamblichus, Porphyry, the emperor Julian, the rhetoricians Himerius, Proheresius, Libanius, and Oribasius, the latter gained fame as the personal physician of Julian. The work of Eunapius is the only complete conceptual view of fourth-century intellectuals centered around adherents of traditional religion and παιδεία. Eunapius’ survey has the clear purpose of conveying a sense of the living tradition of Hellenism (in the Late Antiquate meaning of Ἕλλην, denoting in Greek the person who is “pagan”) at the very end of the 4th century, when Christianity has been already the only official state religion and the Gothic tribes have been permanently settled in the Empire[16]. This intellectual current is often recognized in recent scholarship as the “Third Sophistic”, although it was not named as such by its contemporaries or by later generations of the same cultural tradition[17].

Thus, in the Greek language the terms “rhetorician”, “philosopher” and “sophist” are used, the latter of which may be synonymous with “rhetorician”, or may serve as a generic term somewhat corresponding to our notion of “intellectual” – one who is professionally engaged in scholarship and letters, being publicly visible by virtue of his profession. Latin-speaking authors in the Late Antiquity usually called their teachers and intellectuals rhetor[18] and philosophus[19]. Much less common is the term sophista, which was probably more clearly perceived as a loan word to the Latin speakers of that era and was marked with the connotations of the Eastern Greek tradition[20]. Among the original words for Latin teachers, the most used are magister[21] and praeceptor. Notable is the use of a praeceptor from Jerome of Stridon regarding Gregory of Nazianzus, whom the Latin translator of the Bible presents as his adviser on the interpretation of difficult passages of the New Testament[22].

The epigraphic monuments from the Bulgarian lands provide us with numerous data on the level of culture and education in the major urban centers such as Odessos, Philippopolis, Augusta Traiana, Serdica, etc. – mostly related to the orthography and style of the monuments and especially to the literary and metrical techniques applied in the inscriptions in verse. From the local epigraphic heritage, we also understand the relations between the classical παιδεία and the local Christian communities [23]. In addition to that, it is noteworthy that they hardly mention explicitly the intellectual professions. In one inscription from the theatre of Philippopolis, dating from the 3rd century, the noble Roman citizen of local origin Publius Viridius Julianus is called τὸν ῥή[τορα], with the second part of the word “rhetorician” lost, but that is the recovered meaning for sure. Honored with a statue in the theater, Viridius Julianus came from a family of honored citizens of Philippopolis, and along with his qualities as an orator (and perhaps a teacher of rhetoric) had a brilliant political career like other members of his family[24]. Another such inscription, dedicated to the “excellent sophist” (ἄριστον σοφιστήν) from Pautalia, was found near the demolished “Chukur Banya” in Kyustendil and was described by Yordan Ivanov. The name of the honoree with the dedication is lost, as is the monument itself, and we cannot determine even approximately its date. Some researchers have seen in the preserved letters of the facsimile traces of a Near Eastern (Syriac or Hebrew) name, but these unlikely conjectures have been rejected by the publisher of the inscription, Georgi Mikhailov [25].


[1] Lib. Or. LVIII.4.

[2] Eun. Vit.Soph. X.6.4.

[3] E.g., in many places in the Pseudo-Clementine homilies the phrase ἡ τῶν Ἑλλήνων παιδεία or παιδεία Ἑλληνική is used: Ps.-Clem. Hom. II.22, IV.12, XVI.3 and others.

[4] Macr. Somn. Ι.18.2.

[5] One of the positions in the imperial office, known at various periods as a studiis or magister studiorum (last attested somewhere in the early IV c.: CIL VI.1704) included, at certain times, the interpretation of religious rituals and omens or the supervision of the palace library.

[6] Aug. Confess. IV.14.23.

[7] Sidon. Apoll. Epist. III.2., Cassiod. Varia III.11.4.

[8] Hieronym., Prol. In Isaiam.

[9] Tert. De testim. 1: nihil nobis erit cum litteris et doctrina perversae felicitatis; Aug. Serm. VIII.1: apostolica doctrina; Aug. Civ. D. III.2: euangelica doctrina and others.

[10] See e.g. Ps.-Aug. Quaest. test. I.100.2.

[11] See e.g. Lib. Epist. 172.1.

[12] Philostr. Vitae soph. Ι.480-484.

[13] Ibid., 1.484.

[14] In the fourth century there were occasions when a philosopher such as Plutarch, scholarch of the Academy of Athens and a follower of Iamblichus, may also be named by the general term of σοφιστής (inscription IG II2 4224, comment from Watts 2006: 94; contra Cribiore 2007: 59, which does not share the identification of Plutarch with the Neoplatonic philosopher from the inscription).

[15] Eunap. Vitae II.2: εἰς ἀκρίβειαν ἱστορίαν τινὰ λαβεῖν τοῦ φιλοσόφου καὶ ῥητορικοῦ βίου τῶν ἀρίστων ἀνδρῶν.

[16] Civiletti 2007: 35-39.

[17] On the adequacy and usefulness of this term see. Pernot 2021.

[18] E.g., this is how Augustine of Hippo called his teacher of eloquence in Carthage (Aug. Confess. IV.16.28). 

[19] Cassiod. Variae IX.23.

[20]See, e.g., the letter of Sidonius Apollinaris to Senator Probus of Narbonne, in which the bishop refers to the intellectual influence of Probus on his contemporaries, naming mainly with Greek loan words their areas of intellectual activity influenced by his addressee: heroicus… comicus… lyricus… historicus… grammaticus… panegyrista… sophista… epigrammatista (Sid. Apoll. Epist. IV.1).

[21] Hieronym. Contra Ioh. 9.

[22] Hieronym. Epist. LII.

[23] See a fairly early example of a Christian epitaph from Plovdiv in the 3rd century, interspersed with poetic formulas: SGLI 207 ( ). See also the marble plate in the early Christian monastery complex near Stara Zagora: Шаранков, Н. (2003), „Раннохристиянска епитафия с цитат от Омир“ – in: Герджикова, В., Е. Маринова (ed.), Cultura animi. Изследвания в чест на Анна Николова (София), 336-241.

[24] IGBulg. 5468, See also Шаранков, Н. (2006), „Virdii, Munatii, Antii. Знатните римски родове във Филипопол и провинция Тракия“ – in: Дончева, Ив., Ст. Йорданов, П. Цончева (ed.), Societas Classica (Велико Търново), 189 и 193.

[25] IGBulg 2054. On the facsimile by Y. Ivanov before the phrase “excellent sophist” we find the letters ΙΟΝΗΠΑ, but these can be easily recovered as Mikhailov does as …] ιον (a part of the name ending in -ιος) ἡ πα[τρίς  “motherland (dedicate)“.



 Primary Sources

 Cassiodori Senatoris Variae, ed. Th. Mommsen, Berolini, 1894.

Hieronymus, Prologus in IsaiamBiblia Sacra vulgata: Lateinisch-deutsch Band 4, Isaias - Hieremias - Baruch - Hiezechiel - Danihel - XII Prophetae - Maccabeorum. Ed. Andreas Beriger, Widu-Wolfgang Ehlers. Berlin, 2018.

Libanii Opera, rec. Richardus Foerster, voll. I-IX, 1903-1922.

Tertullianus, De testyimonio animae – Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum XX, ed, A. Reifferscheid, G. Wissowa Vindobonae, 1890, pp. 134-143. 

S. Eusebii Hieronymi Epistulae. Vol. II, ed. Is. Hilberg. Editio altera supplementis aucta. Wien, 1996.

Eunapio. Vite di filosofi e sofisti. Testo Greco a fronte. Introduzione, traduzione, note e apparati di Maurizio Civiletti. Milano, 2007.

Pseudo-Augustini Quaestiones Veteris et Novi Testamenti CXXVII. Accedit appendix continens alterius editionis quaestiones selectas. Ed. F. Tempsky, Vindobonae, 1908.

S. Aurelii Augustini Confessiones. Ad fidem codicum Lipsiensium et editionum antiquiorum recognitas ed. C.H. Bruder, 1837.

Sancti Aurelii Augustini episcopi De civitate Dei libri XXII, tertium rec. B. Dombart, voll. I-II, Lipsiae, 1905.

S. Aurelii Augustini Sermones. Patrologiae cursus completus. Series Latina. Acc. J.-P. Migne. Vol. XXXVIII, 1863.

S. Eusebii Hieronymi Contra Ioannem Hierosolymitanum. Patrologiae cursus completus. Series Latina. Acc. J.-P. Migne. Vol. XXIII, 1843.

Sidonius. Poems and Letters. Vol I-II, ed. and transl. W.B. Anderson, Cambridge Mass., 1936.

Philostratus. Lives of the Sophists. Eunapius. Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists. Ed. and transl. by Wilmer C. Wright, Cambridge Mass., 1921.

Macrobe. Commentaire au songe du Scipion. Texte établi, traduit et commenté par M. Armisen-Marchetti, 2 voll., Paris 2001-2003. Digital edition by the digilibLT group - Università degli Studi del Piemonte Orientale []

Die Pseudoklementinen I: Homilien. Ed. Georg Strecker, Berlin, 1992.


Secondary Sources

 Civiletti 2007: Civiletti, M. (2007), “Introduzzione” – In: Eunapio di Sardi, Vite di filosofi e sofisti (Milano).

Cribiore 2007: Cribiore, R. (2007), The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch (Princeton)

Pernot 2021: Pernot, L. (2021),“The Concept of a Third Sophistic: Definitional and Methodological Issues”, Rhetorica 39 (2), 177–187.

Watts 2006: Watts,E.J. (2006), City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria  (Berkeley).


Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski"                                                                DOI                                                 
Department of Classical Philology

received  10.09.2022; published 13.10.2022

core article


Abstract: This article is a brief overview of the Late Antique general education from the elementary to the highest stages. It traces the methods and materials used at the various educational levels, but also briefly considers the functioning of education in the wider social context of late Roman society, both in the East, where education was predominantly in Greek, as well as in the West, where education was predominantly in Latin.

Keywords: education, literacy, grammar, rhetoric, philosophy, Greek, Latin, authors, canon, teacher, school, school of thought, grammarian, rhetorician, philosopher.


1. Introduction

Basically, Late Antiquity inherited the Greek model of education, which was solidified during the Hellenistic era and was shaped further by Latin contributions within the institutional and social framework of the Roman principate (1st-3rd centuries AD)[1]. Thus. the core of the classicist and conservative cultural tradition was passed from generation to generation to be embedded (often in a synthesized, didactic form) in the civilizations of Byzantium and the medieval West[2]. This Greco-Roman educational tradition remained essentially intact not only through Late Antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages but in some cases into early modernity. We find echoes of it in many places - from the prairie schools of the USA in the 19th century[3] to the Bulgarian Rеvival school along with the anecdotes and sentences in Petar Beron's “Fish Primer”.

2. The first years and home-schooling

From the earliest times both in Greece and Rome, one of the first educational institutions was the family[4]. In some cases, especially in wealthier and more elevated families, this home education continues into later life. Private education in a family setting is well attested among the elites of the Late Roman Republic and Early Empire.[5] In Late Antiquity, we also see examples of private education at both the elementary and more advanced levels.

One of the best documented and most interesting of such examples is found in Paulinus’s of Pella poetic autobiography, “Thanksgiving Prayer” (Eucharisticos). The author, descendant of a noble family, grandson of the poet and consul Ausonius of Burdigala (now Bordeaux, France), thanked God's providence for everything at the end of his turbulent life during the last days of the Western Empire (5th century). In the nostalgic account of his childhood, he also describes his first steps in education. From a young age, Paulinus had two private tutors in Latin and Greek[6] – a situation rarely attested in the Latin-speaking West at that time, but apparently possible. Moreover, the first language that the precocious Paulinus learned was Greek. At the age of five or six he began with “the teachings of Socrates and the warrior legends of Homer.” (dogmata Socratus (sic!) et bellica plasmata Homeri), i.e. probably with verses from the “Iliad” along with instructive anecdotes and maxims attributed to Socrates (hardly he could be taught the dialogues of Plato at such an early age)[7]. Although he switched to Virgil soon after, the author admits that he remained more adept in Greek due to communication with the domestic servants and playing with their children.[8] In the poem itself, which he wrote decades later, Paulinus expressively and skillfully combined the two languages. The Greek loans he sometimes uses are particularly marked not simply by their origin but by a long tradition of use by the educated Roman elite[9]. Throughout the passage about his early home education, interrupted by illness around the author's 15th year[10], he stresses the close involvement of his parents in the process. They used to follow their child's development closely and may have initially assumed a teaching role themselves. The text explicitly mentions both the teachers of the two languages and the respective authors taught, but the elementary tutor responsible for teaching writing and reading remains unnamed[11]. He was probably either an educated house slave or the father himself. Last but not least, the father and mother were not only teachers and guardians but also educators who used to teach the child good manners and the avoidance of vices (vitia).

Around this time in the East, Christian intellectuals were also emphasizing the role of parents as both primary educators and “educators in virtue” (παιδευτὰς ἀρετῆς)[12]. John Chrysostom, to whom this definition belongs, expresses elsewhere his concern for the child's home environment. The wet nurses (τροφεῖς), the tutor (παιδαγωγός), and the other house slaves (οἰκέται) should be selected in such a way that the child does not listen to idle talk and gossip. The master of the house should direct his attention to the little offspring's access to the servants, their behavior while around the child, and their characters. If there are no slaves worthy of the child's company, it is proper to hire suitable freemen for the house for a fee.[13] Although Chrysostom's precepts have more of a moralistic focus, there are similarities with Paulinus' testimony about the linguistic influence of the servant. Ever since the time of Quintilian, parents have been advised that children should have wet nurses and servants whose language is not ignorant and vernacular (ne sit vitiosus sermo nutricibus)[14]

3. Elementary Education

 Same as today, the majority of children started school at the age of 6-7 – unless they were staying at home to study with a private tutor[15]. In the cities of the Late Roman Empire, there was a developed system of teachers' departments, partly sponsored by the state or by local benefactors [16]. In addition, teachers received a monthly or annual payment from each of their students. [17]. These schools for basic literacy are called γραμματοδιδασκαλεῖον in Greek and ludus litterarius in Latin, while the teachers bear the title magister ludi in the Latin world[18], and γραμματιστής, γραμματοδιδάσκαλος or simply διδάσκαλος in the Greek[19]. The house slave who went with the student from home to school and back was called by the Greek two-component word “pedagogue“ (παιδαγωγός), used also in Latin as (paedagogus). The same slave could further assist his young master in his household work if he was sufficiently educated. Henri-Irénée Marrou shows with selected source material that at this stage of education, especially in the Latin world, it was not impossible for girls to attend literacy schools. We do not have enough information to assess to what extent such cases are exceptions or common practice. In any case, among the upper classes, home schooling remains the more widely accepted option for girls[20].

          These elementary schools, representing the broadest possible base of education in the Late Antique world, were not present everywhere and did not necessarily cover all the citizens of the Empire. They are a phenomenon mainly encountered in the cities as well as an integral part of the urban landscape[21]. The agricultural countryside cannot boast of such institutions and the mass of peasants living outside the urban centres are completely illiterate. This is evidenced by many papyrus documents of the era, preserved mostly in Egypt, in which the formula “I wrote it down for him because he is illiterate“ is regularly found (ἔγραψα ὑπὲρ αὐτοῦ ἀγραμμάτου)[22]. Nevertheless, a curious testimony of Augustine of Hippo from the first quarter of the 5th century reminds us that even in key urban centers like Carthage in North Africa there were uneducated commoners who could not read or write. However, the church teacher describes how even these people mocked the speech of the peasants[23]. There is nothing surprising in this: even the illiterate in Carthage could listen to Augustine's sermons, just as those in Antioch listened to John Chrysostom in the church, or some of them might be among the audience during the recitations of John’s Chrysostom teacher Libanius.

We have ample evidence describing the process of education in elementary literacy. For this purpose, waxed wooden tablets were used, on which a metal stylus, pointed on one side for writing and flat on the other, was used to erase the writing and reuse the tablet[24]. Both children and teachers had such written materials. After becoming more confident in writing the letters, students could move on to write in ink on a wooden board or on papyrus[25]. Initially, the teacher shows the children how to spell the letters and gets them used to their visual appearance[26]. An interesting account from the “Life of Saint Syncletica”, attributed to St. Athanasius of Alexandria, informs us that the children heard and memorized from the teacher the names of the Greek letters together with their spelling: “alpha”, “beta”, etc.[27] John Chrysostom testifies that written signs are learned not only in alphabetical order, but also in jumbled order, and in pairs: the former with the latter (α-ω), the latter with the penultimate (β-ψ) and in all other combinations[28]. The student then moves on to writing two-letter and three-letter combinations forming syllables (βαφ βαχ βαψ βεφ βεχ βεψ и т.н.)[29]. Holy Jerome mentions in his letter to the matron Leta concerning the education of little Paula other aids such as figures of the letters made of wood or ivory for the child to play with[30]. In reading this document as a source for the history of education, it is well to bear in mind that Paula's case is peculiar: she was destined from birth to become a virgin of God in order thus to secure His blessing on the health of the other children of Leta. However, similar educational toys were probably in use not only in the home of Leta but in other families of the educated and wealthy elite. In the same letter Jerome advises the matron, presumably drawn from the pedagogical experience of teachers: when writing the letters for the first time on her own, either Paula's hand should be guided or the outlines of the characters should be pre-marked on the board and she should just follow them[31].

What follows is the writing of whole words. Initially, these were mostly the names of Homeric heroes such as Hector and Odysseus or gods along with other mythological characters such as Castor [32]. With the continuous spread of Christianity among educated elites in the 4th century, the practice of replacing these names with those of biblical tradition began to take hold gradually.  Jerome recommends for this that the names of the apostles, prophets, and Jewish patriarchs from Abraham onward be used[33]. In parallel with writing, the habit of reading aloud (the only familiar one at the time) is practiced and some of the names, as well as other words, are specially chosen for peculiarities and pronunciation difficulties [34]. The next stage is whole phrases. They can be quotations from Homer, Euripides, or Virgil or verses from the Book of Psalms in the education of young Christians [35] and especially instructive maxims, sometimes in verse form for easier memorization, attributed to Menander and Demosthenes in the Greek world or Cato in the Latin[36].  A wooden tablet from Antinoopolis, Egypt, on which students practiced transcribing the iambic verse is preserved and upon it is written ἀρχὴ μεγίστη τοῦ φρονεῖν τὰ γράμματα “the most important principle is to understand the letters” [37].

3. Material conditions: schools and teachers

 We learn much about the school environment from the collection of Latin-Greek phrasebooks known in later tradition as the Hermeneumata pseudodositheana, which took their present form in the bilingual Greco-Roman Empire between the 1st and 5th centuries. One of the examples describes the daily life of a boy. He gets up from bed, gets dressed, greets his parents in the company of the wet-nurse and the teacher, and goes to school. There he greets his teacher (καθηγητής, magister), takes the writing board and the scribe box from his slave, and erases the previous day's exercises[38]. Then he draws lines on the board using a ruler, while he transcribes the example given by the teacher (ὑπογραμμός, praescriptum). He shows it to the teacher, who corrects him and has him read it aloud. The student then passes it on to another schoolmate, apparently so that he can read the example too[39]. What follows is a short dialogue with a schoolmate about who should dictate to whom and who should write. The dialogue is interrupted by the teacher asking the youngest students, who are learning the letters, to stand up and one of the older students to dictate syllables to them. The others write names and verses and give them to the assistant teacher  (ὑποδιδακτής, subdoctor)[40].

The ancient classroom was an even livelier place than the modern one. It had a teacher, a teacher's assistant, and a multitude of students of different ages in different educational stages who were teaching each other and sometimes the older ones helped the younger ones[41]. Moreover, it is obvious that the roles of elementary teacher and grammar teacher overlaped, something which will be discussed below. The location where the classes are held is not explicitly stated, while in archaeological excavations and researches, specific school locations are usually difficult to identify. This is due to the fact that most educational institutions of this era used space that was not built for and was not specifically dedicated to them. In fact, it is more correct to say that the notion of “school” in its modern sense has not been known at least until the Middle Ages and along with the closer relation of the educational process with the buildings of churches and monastery complexes.[42]. Rather, we can refer to teachers' „offices” or, metaphorically, „seat, chair” (θρόνος, κάθεδρα, cathedra) – urban, imperial or private depending on the source of revenue[43].  The teacher himself and his officially recognized teaching status make the school. The latter is located is in public places such as forums, porticoes, and basilicas, where there is a room set aside for the school along with the teacher's teaching chair, seats for the students, and a door or curtain (velum) to separate it from the outside world and its noise[44].

The school is also a place of violence. This is confirmed by numerous authors, among them Ausonius, who in his exhortatory poem to his young grandson describes the learning process accompanied by whippings (verbere multo), blows (plagae), and shouts(clamores)[45]. His contemporary Augustine of Hippo reinforces this picture with accounts of the school in his native Thagaste[46]. Even though, as with physical punishment in later eras, institutionalized violence is assumed to be a necessary evil in the first steps of education. In the words of Ausonius, all generations pass through the bitterness of the rod, and he consoles himself with the fruit of this violence during his peaceful old age[47].

The social status of elementary teachers is generally not high[48]. Teachers at the next level, grammarians, have slightly higher prestige and salary. The edict of Emperor Gratian in 23.05.376 sets the annual payment-in-kind of the grammarians in the diocese of Gaul at 12 rations of grain (annonae). In Augusta Treverorum (now Trier), the seat of one of the imperial residences, the Latin grammarian was allotted 20 rations, and for a Greek one, if he could be found, the portion was 12, as in the other cities[49]. Approximately equivalent to a monetary amount according to prices at the time, this was between 48 and 60 gold solidi per year with an approximate poverty line of around 50 solidi[50]. To this state, salary must be added to the fee due to the family for each individual student. An epigram of Palladas of Alexandria (4th century) reports, albeit in a complex poetic form riddled with complaints, a sum on the order of a gold solidus per disciple [51]. Thus, depending to some extent on the number of his students, the grammarian is not too wealthy, but neither is he in abject poverty. The same poet, although he describes himself as suffering from severe poverty in his numerous epigrams, states elsewhere that his household consisted of a wife, children, a slave, domestic birds, and a dog [52]. This is a modest property, but by no means places its owner at the bottom of the social pyramid[53]. Accordingly, in individual cases, such as in Ausonius' Burdigala in the late 4th-early 5th centuries, the grammarians could be freed slaves, but also representatives of noble families such as Ausonius himself and his family[54]. Elsewhere there are landowners among the grammarians, albeit small ones, partly because of the state's tax reduction for that profession[55], while educators at an even higher level, such as rhetoricians, enjoyed both unquestioned prestige and good material status - in many cases both of these professions were inherited in part due to the wider distribution of the profession among imperial elites. The same edict of Gratian assigned to the city rhetoricians a salary of 24 portions, double that of a grammarian, and to the rhetoricians of the throne of Trier 30 portions. The edict uses for them the Latin word oratores, which implies both the teaching of rhetoric and the delivery of solemn public declamations on various occasions. The meaning of both activities is contained in the Greek word ῥήτωρ, which in Late Antiquity is almost synonymous with the term σοφιστής. However, in the school of Libanius at Antioch, of which we have a fuller record than elsewhere, we see how these two terms are distinguished as technical designations of certain school offices. Ῥήτορες can be any number of teachers of rhetoric at different levels, including assistant head teachers, but the sophist is also a public declaimer, graced with all the privileges, influence and “elevated” status in his city - and sometimes beyond - derived from his prestigious functions [56]. Prestige was the reason why the orators and grammarians of the capital city of Trier deserved higher pay in the eyes of Emperor Gratian. The public declaimer was also significantly better paid than ordinary rhetoricians. The sophist Libanius in his autobiography complains how after eight years as holder of the Antiochian Chair of Rhetoric he was the victim of a robbery in which he lost 1,500 gold solidi in cash[57]. Like all holders of public teaching chairs, he received his basic salary in kind, and his inherited wealth was in real estate, so this sum was probably accumulated solely from the fees of his students[58].                 

4. The School of Grammar and the Literary Canon

At approximately 11-12 years of age, the child is ready to begin mastering the classical literary canon in the grammar school (γραμματικός, grammaticus)[59]. In Late Antiquity, the boundary between educational stages is not always clearly drawn. Depending on the location, the students, the sponsorship of the chair, the work of the “grammarian” and the “grammatic”– when they are different persons at all – may overlap in different degrees[60]. In some places there is also a clear tendency for material from the upper grades to be gradually introduced earlier[61]. If we go back to the Latin-Greek phrasebook mentioned above, we see a similar picture. While the younger children write letters or sentences, the older student of the same teacher receives a literary text and has to make a comment on it (ὑπομνήματα, commentarium), an explanation of rare and obsolete words (γλῶσσαι, linguae), and grammar notes (τέχνη, ars). Asked by the teacher to read (ἀνάγνωσις, lectio), the student probably receives additional explanations after the pronunciation assessment (ἐξηγήσεις, expositiones), interpretation of the meaning (διάνοια, sensus), analysis of the persons (πρόσωπα, personae) on the passage. The teacher asks the student about the grammatical features of the text and the student explains, clarifying also which word what part of the speech is (μέρος λόγου, pars orationis). Then he declenses some of the names and makes a metrical analysis of the verses (ἐμέρισα στίχον, partivi versus)[62].

Overall, this is the essence of learning in grammar. Linguistic and other competencies are achieved through exercises on texts from the classical canon of Greek and Roman literature. These texts are transcribed and read aloud, then follow grammatical analysis, and interpretation along with cultural-historical and literary-critical commentary. This educational system suited the social and cultural needs of the Late Roman Empire, in which both dominant languages were in a state of diglossia (an increasingly serious divergence of everyday language from the accepted literary norm)[63]. Not to mention that the Empire integrated and assimilated  –often very successfully– many people that had other languages and cultures, but even for native speakers of Greek, the Homeric epic (c. 8th century BC) was archaic and difficult to understand even in Demosthenes's Athens (4th century BC). Moreover, in Late Antiquity the texts of Demosthenes himself were already quite different from the spoken Greek of that age. The same is true of Latin, although the texts accepted as canonical of Roman literature were more recent than the Greek. But what does this literary canon consist of? The two great epic poets of the ancient world, Homer for Greek and Virgil for Latin, are the foundation of grammatical learning.[64] Other important poets of the school canon, judging by citations in literary sources, papyrus fragments, and the volume of extant works, are playwrights. Perhaps the question from the phrasebook about who's talking to whom in the teaching excerpt[65] exists because of a choice of dialogue from a drama. The three great Attic tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are studied in the Greek-speaking world, with a strong predominance of the latter, who became a favourite school author for centuries and this is reflected in his richer manuscript tradition. Regarding the authors of comedy Menander was particularly popular in earlier periods, but in Late Antiquity, thanks to archaizing and classicizing tendencies in philology, Aristophanes returned to the honoured place[66]. In the Latin West, the preferred playwright was the comedian Terentius, who in this era exceeded Plautus in popularity[67]. Along with him, according to the enumeration of Ausonius, the poets Horace and Catullus also occupy an important place, while regarding the prose writers the leading one is Cicero[68]. Despite the great attention that modern times devote to Caesar, Titus Livius, and Tacitus, the most important historian in the Late Antique school was, contrary to expectations, Salust[69]. In the Greek East Demosthenes holds the primacy among the school orators, while the historians that are studied are Thucydides, Xenophon, Herodotus, and Hellanicus of Mytilene. Lyric poets who wrote in unusual archaic dialects (most notably Pindar, but also Alcaeus, Sappho, Alcman, etc.) are relatively less represented in late antique Greek education, especially compared to the classical and Hellenistic eras[70]. Nonetheless, they are still present to some extent in the canon, while great erudites such as Synesius of Cyrene (5th century) knew and valued them enough to compose Christian hymns with elaborate theological reflections in a Doric dialect imitating the style of Pindar[71].

The involvement with these authors was carried out gradually - another reason why there is not always a clear separation between the subjects of the elementary teacher and the grammar teacher. As we have seen, the more sophisticated reading and writing exercises involve naming mythological characters from poetry or entire chapters from the epic. From here it only takes one step to the full consideration of larger passages and finally entire works. The basic outlines of this canon remained intact throughout the Middle Ages. The more advanced students at some point always encounter Virgil or Homer along with their legends of gods and heroes. From the point of view of an increasingly dominant Christianity, this could be a moral and worldview problem, because an introduction to pagan mythology took place along with the teaching of correct and refined Greek or Latin. Due to the simpler and less socially prestigious language of the biblical texts, placing education entirely on Christian foundations was not an effective option - especially for those Christians who also belonged to higher social classes and wanted to maintain their education as a social marker placing them on par with other members of the elite.  

The “retellings” of Gospel texts in the high style of pagan poetry constitute partial attempts to reconcile form and content. For example, Nonnus of Panopolis (5th century), author of the colossal late antique epic tale on the exploits of the god Dionysus (Διονυσιακά), wrote also a poetic paraphrase of the Gospel of John [72]. Cultivated Christians such as St. Basil of Caesarea try to reconcile pagan education with biblical and theological scholarship by presenting them as two stages of the same process: the study of the pagan authors precedes entry into the deeper truths of the faith[73]. The most common practice, however, remains the partial modification of the school canon through the introduction of biblical readings. We have already mentioned above that young Christians are taught to read and write with names from the Bible and verses from the Book of Psalms instead of or alongside the instructive maxims of Cato or Menander. In the same way, the study of the Book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs was gradually introduced into the more advanced stage of their training from the 4th  century onwards[74]. Jerome advises little Paula's mother to give her daily passages from the Holy Scriptures to copy and sing the Psalms of David[75]. He expects her to study first the Book of Psalms, then the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Book of Job, the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles, then the books of the Old Testament, the prophets and the sacred history alike, and finally the Song of Songs. Following the biblical readings, she is to be introduced to the works of Cyprian of Carthage, the epistles of St. Athanasius, and the writings of Hilary of Poitiers[76]. This is one of the most detailed Christian education programs of Late Antiquity to come down to us, but again we have to remind ourselves that Paula was a virgin, dedicated to God, who was to receive a particularly strict home education. Apart from this, there was a widespread belief among the high-ranking Christian matrons of Late Antiquity that an education exclusively comprised of Christian readings was the best for a girl. These are also the views of St. Macrina the mother of St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nyssa, who gave a similar education to her daughter[77]. However, most citizens of the Late Empire are aware that an elevated man who needs to be successful not only at home but also out in the world cannot do without a secular education, and Macrina is far from depriving her two sons of one.

Isidore of Pelusium (5th century) gives interesting recommendations for the readings of every young Christian. According to him, it is no coincidence that Solomon's three books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs are arranged in a certain way in the Old Testament. In this order they should also be studied by the youth. The parables constitute instructions in fundamental ethical truths, expressed in a manner suitable for a still childlike mind to understand. Ecclesiastes then presents to the young man the vanity and illusory value of everything in this world. Finally, the Song of Songs introduces him to the ineffable mystery of God's love (ἔρως). This biblical book –as Jerome advises– should be read last of the biblical readings because its spiritual meaning can only be properly interpreted in the light of the preceding books of Solomon[78].

A testimony of Augustine of Hippo leads Marrou to the conclusion that girls may also have attended grammar schools[79]. However, Augustine's text on the requirements for a wife mentions that she must be "literate or easily teachable by you” (litterata, vel quae abs te facile possit erudiri)[80]. First, strictly speaking, it is not clear whether the “literacy” requirement encompasses knowledge of the poets or only basic literacy. Second, both of them do not exclude the option, explicitly mentioned by Augustine, of the woman receiving home education under the care of her husband. In the late antique world we see women at all levels of education. Raffaella Cribiore has examined the evidence of Egyptian papyri for women teachers in the first two educational stages[81]. The figures of Hypatia of Alexandria and the companions of the Holy Jerome in Rome and Jerusalem show clearly that women could be disciples and even teachers of a higher level. Such women, however, belong most of exclusively at the higher strata of society (which, by the way, is also true of most male rhetoricians and philosophers), while the reason we know about most of them is because they are exceptions. Usually, the more advanced the educational level, the less evidence we have of the presence of women in schools. To the extent that there are highly educated women, they always belong to the elite, were usually educated at home, and were rarely public figures of the same order as male intellectuals.  

5. Schools of Rhetoricians and Philosophers

In the school of grammarians, a cultural tradition in the form of a set of texts is learned above all passively. The student must internalize the grammatical rules of good Greek or Latin, acquire an aesthetic taste for literary figures, and memorize facts from the real and imagined past of his civilization as reflected in the studied works. In the next educational stage, the young student begins to acquire the ability to produce his own interpretations and variations on ready-made cultural forms. This skill was acquired in the rhetorical school. Young people usually joined that school around the age of 14-15. As a general rule, rhetorical education was considered a gateway to a public career and for this reason, used to attract mainly boys, but not girls[82]. We have abundant information about the rhetoric school of the famous Greek sophist Libanius at Antioch in the fourth century, thanks not only to his speeches but above all to his vast correspondence, a good deal of it with former or contemporary students and their families.[83].

          Cribiore describes the general plan of the complete learning cycle under Libanius. During the first year, students in his school studied rhetorical theory under his assistants and were introduced to the major works on eloquence according to the Greek tradition. In the second year, prose writers, especially Demosthenes and Plato, are read and analyzed. In the third year, Libanius himself supervised the writing of preliminary rhetorical exercises, the so-called “progymnasmata” (προγυμνάσματα). Fourth and fifth-year students improve in composing actual speeches called “exercises” (μελέται). In the sixth year, the few of them who have remained to continue their studies at the school have also the chance to become assistant teachers[84].

Nevertheless, this simplistic picture presents itself to our eyes much more colourful and varied when we look at the details. First of all, here we observe the same smooth and unclear transition between educational levels as in the earlier stages of training. In many places the preparation for the writing of independent compositions began with the first and simplest “progymnasmata” and with time grammarians became increasingly occupied with them, despite the resentment of the rhetoricians[85]. Moreover, Libanius was a notoriously strict sophist, and his overall educational program was notable for its almost ascetic burden. Many in this era became accomplished orators and writers after a much shorter and more concise period of study. In his work „Bibliotheca” Patriarch Photios informs us that the writer and philosopher Damascius in the 5th century spent three years studying under the rhetorician Theon in Athens [86]. Others, such as Augustine of Hippo, were forced to begin and interrupt their studies at Madaura and Carthage because of their family's financial situation until they could find benevolent relatives for sponsors[87]. The actual entry of such poorer students into rhetorical training might take place later compared to others. Thus, the students who came to enroll in the rhetoric school were not a homogeneous group, either in age or in educational level and interests. There were no formal entrance exams, but, especially as far as the more popular teachers were concerned, applicants had to be screened and grouped in some way. We know about Libanius that he personally met the boys entering his school, while he recalled in them the traits and character of their parents (because most of the pupils came to him as a result of longstanding family ties), and as he conversed with them judged their level and their needs. Then, without returning anyone back, he assigned the pupils to divisions (συμμορίαι), while at first his assistants dealt with them[88].

In smaller settlements, both rhetoricians and philosophers usually served the needs of local communities. Movement from one place to another even in smaller settlements was possible, for example, Augustine's transfer from Thagaste to Madaura. Although in the great centers of education such as Antioch, Alexandria, or Athens we observe phenomena of quite a different order. As we have said, Libanius recruited a good number of his disciples through his networks of influence among the families of his alumni. In the same way, the influential rhetoricians of Athens in the mid-fourth century sought students mostly from certain cities and provinces with whom they were connected by family ties or friendship. This is evident from the account of the school of the sophist Julian by Eunapius. Following his death his most advanced and closest disciples (who in Greek tradition are called ἑταῖροι, “comrades”) contested his teaching chair. This is presented by Eunapius not only as a conflict internal to Athens but as an event affecting all nations under Roman rule (τὰ ὑπὸ Ῥωμαίοις ἔθνη). We can understand these words as an obvious exaggeration, but the continuation of the narrative shows that there is something more behind them. Each of the assistant rhetoricians draws clients from areas that are almost rightly his: Epiphanius - from the East, Diophantus - from Arabia, Prochaeresius - from Bithynia, Pontus, Lydia, Pamphylia, and Egypt. Eventually, the legacy of Julian is granted apparently to the latter, who is the most popular contender in various regions[89]. Similarly, the flourishing of the Neoplatonic school of Athens during the 5th century was partly due to the origins of its scholarch, Syrianus. The latter was born into a family of pagan intellectuals from Alexandria and he managed to attract a large group of Alexandrian youths to study at the Academy. Part of the same movement was his best student and his successor at the head of the school, Proclus[90].

The information we have about Libanius's rhetorical teaching seat at Antioch suggests that many of the young men did not arrive there alone. Usually, those from more distant places were accompanied by their slave pedagogues[91]. These pedagogues were not mere servants, who simply led the child to the masters of the school, but many of them – especially the more educated ones– were also tutors or moral mentors during the independent training of the young students[92]. Emperor Julian repeatedly praises his pedagogue for having taught him to walk in one straight path as a youth, while shyly and respectfully bowing his head[93]. Libanius describes the pedagogues of his disciples as watchmen, stricter than that of the mythological Danae, who keep an eye on them to see if they indulge in feasts and pleasures in the great city[94]. The temptations of ancient cities like Antioch, Athens, or Carthage rightfully worry parents. The latter are also concerned about the development of their children, which in that era they could hardly follow from a great distance. Augustine describes with grief and remorse the daily worries and tears of his mother Monica over his moral decline during his student years in Carthage [95]. To assuage the anxiety of parents, even those not as devout as Monica, Libanius used to maintain regular correspondence in which he reported his students' behavior and progress to his clients throughout the Greek world. Sometimes the bearer of those letters, a confidant of both the rhetorician and his correspondent, was charged with the task of adding his own personal impressions to the brief description of Libanius[96].

In some cases, the student years hold more risks than visits to theatres, circuses, or brothels. For example, Athens in the early 4th century was a notoriously turbulent university center. Against the backdrop of the city's notables, still not fully recovered from the Heruli invasion of 267, the sophists and philosophers amassed wealth and influence that went beyond the city limits. Rival teachers and their students indulged in almost daily quarrels and brawls on the streets of Athens, which on several occasions prompted the intervention of the central authorities[97]. St. Gregory the Theologian in the eulogy for his friend St. Basil the Great, with whom they were fellow students in Athens, sums up his impressions of the city as a struggle of horse-racing enthusiasts[98]. Furthermore, cases of violent abductions of students were not rare. Libanius describes his own arrival as a student in Athens, where he was to study under the sophist Epiphanius, however, he never saw his teacher, because Libanius was abducted, kept inside a clay jar at the port, and then locked for two days in a room. At last, he was released from there only after swearing an oath to stay with his new teacher Diophantus. He not only reconciled himself to this situation but accepted such forced enrollment as something perfectly in accord with the traditional order of things[99]. The fights between the students of different Athenian teachers had been known to Libanius since he was a child. After having been fascinated with rhetorical eloquence and deciding to devote his life to it, the fighting and hijackings at the ports became for him part of the romantic myth of student life in Athens - a myth that he did not indulge in while a student there anyway.[100].

The core of rhetorical education in Late Antiquity was the composition of preparatory exercises, or “preliminary exercises” according to a set pattern, called the „progymnasmata” (Greek. προγυμνάσματα, Latin. progymnasmata, praeexercitamina). The term is first mentioned incidentally in the anonymous Rhetoric to Alexander, probably dating from the fourth 4th BC and originating in the Aristotelian school, however, probably this is not about the orderly system we see in Late Antiquity[101]. In the 1st century AD. The Roman orator Quintilian lists several exercises composed in writing (stilo componi). Among them are retellings of something heard (narrationes), praise and reproach (laudare et vituperare), common places (loci communes), defending a choice between two options (thesis), and also the rest with their Greek names ἀνασκευή and κατασκευή - proving or disproving the veracity of a known legendary fact (among Quintilian's examples is Romulus and Remus's she-wolf)[102]. About the same time dates the first known collection of Greek progymnasmata, by Aelius Theon of Alexandria [103]. The fourth century AD can be regarded as a peculiar flourishing period of manuals on these short forms - exercises are known to us under the names of Libanius, of his pupil Aphthonius, of Epiphanius of Petra, Ulpianus of Emesa, Siricius of Neapolis and Sopater[104]. Only the manuals of Libanius and Aphthonius are preserved of those. Earlier, the eminent rhetorician Hermogenes of Tarsus (second half of the 2nd century) author of other treatises on eloquence, had written his own progymnasmata, which would later be united in the so-called Corpus Hermogeniacum and would seriously influence Byzantine rhetoric. Following the 4th century, the known authors of progymnasmata to us are considerably fewer, and of these is preserved the composition of Nicolaus of Myra (V в.). In the 6th century, the grammarian Priscian, who worked and taught Latin in Constantinople during the reign of Emperor Anastasius, translated and adapted into Latin Hermogenes's progymnasmata as a part of his efforts dedicates his work to the consul.

Thus, the extant models of sample exercises belong to six authors, most of them late antique: Theon, Hermogenes, Libanius, Aphthonius, Nicolaus, and Priscian. As far as Libanius is concerned, we have a few examples of each type of his progymnasmata preserved, which he probably used for teaching in his school. However, these exercises are not collected in a systematic corpus accompanied by theoretical explanations for each of them and were probably written and used ad hoc[105]. Concerning the complete extant corpora for the one that has come down to us under the name of Hermogenes there is some doubt that it may be the work of Libanius or another member of his school[106]. The late 4th work of Libanius's pupil Aphthonius occupied gradually a place of honor in Hermogenes's corpus and became the most popular collection of progymnasmata used in Byzantium and even in the West during the Renaissance and modern history[107].  For each exercise, Aphthonius gives a description of the main components it should contain (κεφαλαῖα). For example, when composing a eulogy about a person, it should dwell on the following points: introduction, the background of the person, upbringing and education, deeds, comparison with other personalities, and conclusion. Each of these sections has subdivisions. The deeds of a human being are seen as due to his character, to his body composition, and to the occasion [108]

Here are the main types of progymnasmата according to Aphthonius and their Latin counterparts in Priscian:

  • Fable retelling (μῦθος, Priscian. fabula);
  • A retelling of a mythological, legendary, or historical event (διήγημα, Присц. narratio);
  • substantiation of the correctness of a maxim or an anecdote (χρεία, Priscian. usus);
  • substantiation of the correctness of proverbs or maxims (γνώμη, Priscian. sententia);
  • defending or refuting the veracity of a mythological or legendary reference (ἀνασκευή/κατασκευή, Priscian. confirmatio/refutatio);
  • strengthening of a generally accepted statement (τόπος, Priscian. locus communis);
  • praise or reproach of an individual (ἐγκώμιον/ψόγος, Priscian. laus/vituperatio);
  • comparison of celebrated or reviled personalities (σύγκρισις, Присц. comparatio);
  • composing a speech on behalf of a character (ἠθοποιΐα, Priscian. adlocutio);
  • description of a landscape, place, or work of art (ἔκφρασις, Priscian. descriptio);
  • defending a life choice between two or more options (θέσις, Priscian. positio);
  • position in a debate on introducing a fictitious law (νόμου εἰσφορά, Priscian. legis latio).

In this classical arrangement, the progymnasmata follow a certain thematic thread, the skills for performing each successive exercise are prepared by the previous ones, and the different types of progymnasmata progress from the simpler to the more complex.

Having gone through all the forms of preliminary exercises, the young student begins to compose real speeches (μελέται, declamationes), initially presented to the teacher and the circle of students at the school, but gradually eligible for public performance too. In parallel or afterward, many students attend the lectures of philosophy professors. There the teaching consists mainly of reading a commentary on classical philosophical works. Some of these commentaries have been written down, either by the teacher himself or by his students, as independent works for study. Thus, under the name of Porphyry of Tyre (3rd century) (Εἰσαγωγή, Isagoge) is preserved, which goes far beyond the role of a companion text and constitutes an extended exposition of the metaphysics of Porphyry's teacher Plotinus. Similarly, Proclus (5th century) left commentaries on Plato's dialogues “Alcibiades”, “Cratylus”, “Parmenides”, “Timaeus” and the “Republic”, but also on the “Elements” of Euclides. In the educational paradigm of Neoplatonism, the dominant philosophical current of Late Antiquity, mathematics, and geometry play an essential role. The curriculum of the Athenian Neoplatonists of the 5th, taught by Plutarch, Syrianus, and Procus, is well known. Students first studied mathematics, geometry, and astronomy (which in this era included the discipline of “astrology”). Then the most important writings of Aristotle were studied, and finally those of Plato[109]. When Proclus arrived in Athens at the school headed by Syrianus, he already had some initial philosophical training under the Alexandrian teachers. Plutarch, Syrianus‘s predecessor and teacher, had retired from active participation in the school but still helped as an advisor in running the institution and solving the more complex cases. Plutarch took the young man for a conversation so he could better assess what group to place him in. Impressed by Proclus's gift, Plutarch, though advanced in years, took a personal interest in him and decided to read with him two works, which had the same main theme: the “On the Soul” of Aristotle and “Phaedo” of Plato[110]. Syrianus, like Proclus himself, offered to a very small circle of their disciples (one or two persons) a reading with commentary of sacred texts such as the “Chaldean Oracles” or the “Orphic Hymns” as the culminating subject of the philosopher's educational cycle, which would introduce them to the highest realms not only of theory but also of divine practice, known in that age as “theurgy”[111].

The Neoplatonic system of philosophical education is based on a specific classification of virtues. At its core is Plato's classic catalogue of the four cardinal virtues (ἀρεταί): wisdom (σοφία), manliness (ἀνδρεία), temperance (σωφροσύνη), justice (δικαιοσύνη)[112]. These four cardinal virtues are further developed into an extended taxonomy by the successive efforts of Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus. The main strands in this taxonomy of virtues are: civic (πολιτικαί), purifying (καθάρσεις), contemplative (θεωρητικαί), and paradigmatic (παραδειγματικαί)[113]. The first type of virtues are related to practical, civic, and social ethics and human functioning in society. The second type aims at purification and liberation from bodily and spiritual passions. The third has to do with the proper observation of mental supersensible forms and entities. The fourth - with their direct embodiment in the material world in the person of the philosopher. Each part of systematic philosophy education in the Neoplatonic schools reflects the development of one element or another of this hierarchical set of virtues.

  Rhetoric and philosophy complete the educational cycle of the average representative of the urban elites of the Late Roman Empire. There are also more specialized areas in which clerks are trained (speed-writers), lawyers (law), doctors (medicine), architects, etc. They will not, however, be the subject of this brief sketch outlining the basic path that a young man of good lineage and ability was expected to follow in order to be successfully recognized as a member of that part of Late Antique Greco-Roman society which has left to the next ages the overwhelming amount of written evidence of that era.   


[1] Marrou 1948a: 147–149.

[2] Льо Гоф, Ж. (1997), Цивилизацията на средновековния Запад, София, 137–138.

[3] Cribiore 2001: 17.

[4] Marrou 1948b: 14–15.

[5] Ibid.: 64–65.

[6]  Paul. Pell. Euch. 117.

[7] Ibid.: 73–74.

[8] Ibid.: 75–78.

[9] Ibid.: 67: ἀκοινονόητα “obscene, indecent acts,” has a longer and richer history of use by Latin than by Greek authors, beginning with Cicero himself: Cic. Ad Att. VI.3.7.

[10] Paul. Pell. Euch.: 119–121.

[11] Ibid.: 65–66.

[12] Ioh. Chrys. De Anna III PG LIV.636.

[13] Ioh. Chrys. De vana gloria et de educandis  liberis 469–490.

[14] Quint. Inst. I.1.5.

[15] Marrou 1948b: 63–64, Kaster 1988: 46. Kaster quotes a letter from Ausonius, Paulinus' grandfather, in which he introduces himself as a private elementary teacher for young children.

[16] Marrou 1948b: 113–115.

[17] Cameron 1965: 257.

[18] Marrou 1948b: 64.

[19] Cribiore 2001: 51.

[20] Marrou 1948b: 65.

[21] Kaster 1988: 20-21.

[22] See. bgu.2.373 (от 298 г.) /;2;373/ /; bgu.2.408 (от 315 г.) /;2;408/ /; sb.1.5335 (от IV-V в.) /;3;751/ / and many more. See and Kraus 2000, a new summary analysis of similar phenomena observed in documented papyri. 

[23] Aug. Doctr. Christ. IV.3.5: “city-bred men, even when illiterate, seize upon the faults of rustics” (rusticos urbani reprehendunt, etiam qui litteras nesciunt). Сf. и Hieronym. Ep. CVII.4: “the very rudiments and first beginnings of knowledge sound differently in the mouth of an educated man and of an uneducated” (ipsa elementorum sonusaliter de eruditoaliter de rustico ore profertur).  

[24] Marrou 1948a: 232-233, Τσάμπης 1999: 184.

[25]In the sands of Egypt and elsewhere have been preserved such study wooden boards. Оne of the most famous among them dates from the very end of East Roman rule in the country: SB 28 16984 131-132 (VII в.) / /.

[26] Τσάμπης 1999:178-179

[27] Athan. Vita Sincl. PG XXVII.1540.

[28] Ioh. Chrys. In Matth. XI PG LVII.201

[29] Marrou 1948a: 229, Τσάμπης 1999: 179.

[30] Hieronym., Ep. CVII.4.

[31] Ibid., cf. Marrou 1948a: 234.

[32] Marrou 1948a: 230.

[33] Hieronym., Ep. CVII.4. See and Τσάμπης 1999: 180.

[34] Marrou 1948a: 231.

[35] Τσάμπης 1999: 180.

[36] Marrou 1948a: 235.

[37] Cribiore 2001: 39.

[38] Colloquia Monac. 2 e-i.

[39] Ibid. 2 j.

[40] Ibid. 2 k-n

[41] Cribiore 2001: 16.

[42] Cribiore 2001: 17.

[43] Marrou 1958b: 114-116.

[44] Marrou 1948b: 66.

[45] Aus. Protr. 14-31.

[46] Aug. Confess. I.9. See and Marrou 1948b: 71-72.

[47] Aus. Protr. 34-35.

[48] Marrou 1948b: 66.

[49] C.Theod. XIII.3.11.

[50] Kaster 1988: 116-117.

[51] AG IX.174, Cameron 1965:257.

[52] AG X.86.

[53] Cameron 1965: 258.

[54] Kaster 1988: 100-102.

[55] Ibid.: 110-113.

[56] Cribiore 2001: 56-57.

[57] Lib. Or. I.61.

[58] Cameron 1965: 258.

[59] Marrou 1948b: 64.

[60] Kaster 1988: 44-45.

[61] Marrou 1948a: 241.

[62] Colloquia Monac. 2 o-r.

[63] For the term See Пачев, А. (1993), Малка енциклопедия по социолингвистика, Плевен, 37-40.

[64] Marrou 1948a: 244-245; Marrou 1948b: 79.   

[65] Colloquia Monac. 2 q 4.

[66] Marrou 1948a: 246.

[67] Marrou 1948b: 80. Aus. Protrept. 58.

[68] Aus. Protrept. 56-64.

[69] Marrou 1948b: 80.

[70] Marrou 1948a: 246.

[71] Димитров 2005: 139.

[72] See one of the latest studies of this curious work in Lightfoot 2021.

[73] Bas. Ad adolesc. 2.

[74] Τσάμπης 1999: 180.

[75] Hieronym. Ep. CVII.9.

[76] Ibid. 12.

[77] Greg. Nyss. Vita Macr. 3.

[78] Isid. Pelus. Ep. IV.40 PG LXXVIII 1089-1092.

[79] Marrou 1948b: 75

[80] Aug. Sol. I.10.

[81] Cribiore 2001: 51-55.

[82] Cribiore 2001: 56, see. and Τσάμπης 1999: 301.

[83] The collection of Libanius' letters as we have it today covers roughly the first decade of his teaching at Antioch (355-365) and the last years of his life (after 384). On the peculiarities of the arrangement and selection of the documents, probably primarily the work of Libanius himself, and on possible explanations for the gaps in the chronology, see the recent studies of van Hoof 2022.

[84] Cribiore 2001: 56.

[85] Marrou 1948a: 258; Τσάμπης 1999: 222.

[86] Phot. Bibl. 181.126b.

[87] Aug. Confess. II.3.

[88] Cribiore 2007: 121-122.

[89] Eunap. Vit. Soph. X.3.11-14.

[90] Watts 2006: 98-99.

[91] Cribiore 2007: 118-119.

[92] Cribiore 2001: 49.

[93] Вж. Jul. Misopogon 20.

[94] Lib. Or. XXXIV.29.

[95] Aug. Conf. III.10.

[96] Cribiore 2007: 127-129.

[97] Watts 2006: 42-45.

[98] Greg. Naz. Fun. in Bas. 15

[99] Lib. Or. I.16-17.

[100] Ibid. 19.

[101] Поповић 2007: 5.

[102] Quint. Inst. I.4.15-25.

[103] Kennedy 2003: ix

[104] Поповић 2007: 9.

[105] Cribiore 2007: 144.

[106] Kennedy 2003: 73.

[107] Kennedy 2003: 89-90.

[108] Aphth. Prog. VIII.

[109] Watts 2006: 98.

[110] Marinus Vita Procl. 8-12.

[111] Ibid. 26; 36.

[112] Plato Resp. 427e.

[113] Porph.Sententiae ad intellig. 32.



Primary Sources

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Jean Chrysostome, Sur la vaine glorie et l’éducation des enfants, ed. A.-M. Malingrey, Paris, 1972.

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Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski"                                                                DOI                                                 
Department of Classical Philology

received  10.09.2022; published 13.10.2022

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Abstract: This is a brief introduction to the city of Pergamum, its development as a cultural and educational center along with the public figures and activities that have been prominent there during the Late Antiquity.

Keywords: Pergamum, library, philosophy, Asclepius, theurgy, Priscus, Maximus, Chrysanthius


Pergamum was an ancient center of pagan philosophy and learning. In the Hellenistic period, the city was the center of the Attalid kingdom. The Attalid dynasty was a rival to the Ptolemies and was famous because of its prominent figures, who served as patrons of the letters and the sciences. Around 189 BC it was built as one of the most important libraries of the Hellenistic world on the Acropolis of Pergamum, which has flourished as the second largest library –following that of Alexandria– at least by the time of the Late Roman Republic. According to Plutarch at that time Mark Anthony gave 200.000 scrolls to the Egyptian queen Cleopatra – as compensation probably due to the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria by Julius Caesar[1]. According to a widespread legend reported by Pliny the Elder, it was in Pergamum that the writing material bearing the city’s name was invented and destined to dominate along with the form of the manuscript codex in the Middle Ages – parchment (in Latin pergamenum)[2]. Following the beginning of our era, sources also mention libraries in Pergamum, although not as important and prestigious. In the 2nd century, a similar library was founded, with a statue of Emperor Hadrian near it, by a prominent resident of the city, Flavia Melitina, who was the wife and mother of city councilors[3]. As archaeological and epigraphic evidence suggests this later library was located within the sanctuary of Asclepius the Savior (Ἀσκληπιὸς Σωτήρ), one of the most important cult centers of health deities in the ancient world. Here the famous orator Aelius Aristides of the Second Sophistic (2nd century), received a divine revelation from Aeschylus in the role not only of a healer but also of a personal savior and heavenly protector[4]. Therefore, it was not surprising that the city was chosen as the seat of the pagan philosopher Aedesius of Cappadocia. The latter was born near the end of the 3rd century into a not significantly wealthy family, then he was sent by his father to Greece (probably Athens)  to obtain a promising education in order to become rich, however, he returned as a student of philosophy and later a follower of the Neoplatonist Iamblichus[5]. Eunapius, perhaps slightly exaggerating, describes how after the establishment of Aedesius in Pergamum, Greeks and all sorts of neighboring peoples began to flock to him[6]. Aedesius established a school and a family there while some of his most prominent students have been Maximus of Ephesus, Chrysanthius, and Priscus. Eunapius, who personally knew the disciples of Aedesius and listened to the lectures of several of them, reports that according to their descriptions, their teacher was an extremely amiable man, whom everyone could see in the city streets and was also able to converse on everyday topics with common persons as a vegetable seller, a weaver or a blacksmith– something that was not usual for other exalted adepts of Iamblichus’ Neoplatonism, such as the gloomy and taciturn Priscus[7]. The latter along with his schoolmate from the school of Aedesius, Maximus of Ephesus, became part of Julian’s entourage during his brief reign. However, despite his harsh character –or perhaps because of it– Priscus remained restrained philosophically even as part of the imperial court, and accordingly he did not suffer any punishment or retaliation from Julian’s successors after the death of the latter[8].

Unlike Priscus, the other popular philosopher from Pergamum, Maximus, was a much more prominent and controversial figure, who used to behave haughtily and lavishly in the court of Julian[9]. He managed to impress the future ruler in his youth when he toured the enlightened centers of Asia Minor and arrived in Pergamum. According to the biographer Eunapius, Julian listened in Pergamum first to Eusebius another disciple of Aedesius’, who presented himself as a proponent of that current in Neoplatonism, which relied more on traditional logical-rhetorical approaches to knowledge. Maximus, however, belonged to another type of Neoplatonists, who followed in the footsteps of Iamblichus into the so-called “theurgy” –communication with the divine world through the practice of special rituals. Eusebius told the young Julian of such a ritual, which he attended as a witness: it was in the sanctuary of Hecate, where Maximus not only made the goddess smile at his incantations but managed to light up the torches that she held in her hands. The future Caesar needed no more to follow the miracle worker and become his disciple[10]. Imposing in his appearance in his speech and his presence[11], popular throughout Asia Minor like his teacher Aedesius[12], Maximus is also described by Eunapius as being particularly self-assured in his theurgic rituals, almost to the point of sacrilege. When Julian invited his old teachers Chrysanthius and Maximus from Pergamum to his palace in Constantinople, they received unfavorable omens from the gods and Chrysanthius listened to them, but according to Maximus, the will of the gods should be tested until one received favorable omens for what would decide to do[13]. This is perhaps the most unapologetic attitude towards the divine, attested in the sources by an adherent of traditional religion in Late Antiquity.



[1] Plut. Ant. 58. Evans, R. (2012), A History of Pergamum: Beyond Hellenistic Kingship, New York, 79-80.

[2] Plin. NH XIII.21.

[3] IvP 6, IvP 38. See Pearcy, L.T. (1985), “Galen’s Pergamum”, Archaeology 38 (6), 36.

[4] Ael. Arist. Orat. Sacr. 292-293, see also the translation of Behr, C. A. (1967), Aelius Aristides and the Sacred Tales, 224-225, where the visit to Pergamum is dated in the summer of 145 AD.

[5] Eunap. Vitae Soph. VI.1, PLRE I Aedesius 2.

[6] Eunap. Vitae Soph. VI.4. In the strange expression used by the biographer, (Ἕλληνές τε... καὶ πρόσχωροι), “hellenes” could mean “pagans”, but its combination with πρόσχωροι “neighbors” rather suggests the use of the word as an ethnonym. In that case, the “neighbors” could be people of non-Greek origin (probably natives from Asia Minor, Persians, or even Jews) who are also described as being attracted by the fame of the Greek sage.

[7] Eunap. Vit.Soph. VIII.1. 

[8] Eunap. Vit.Soph. VII.4.

[9] Ibid.

[10]  Eunap., Ibid.; PLRE I Maximus of Ephesus 21, 583.

[11] Eunap. Vit.Soph. VII.1.

[12] Ibid. VII.3.

[13] Ibid. VII.3-4.



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