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Reviewed by:
  • City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria
  • Daniel H. Frank
Edward J. Watts City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria The Transformation of the Classical Heritage 41 Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006Pp. xii + 288.

City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria is a fine, well-written, and scholarly volume, which presents the contrasting pedagogical environments and divergent intensions of paideia in late antique Athens and Alexandria. That there was, indeed, a real difference in the level of accommodation between pagan and Christian culture in Athens and Alexandria is the major theme that Watts wishes to clarify. If one takes a too simple linear approach, one might be inclined to suppose a general suppression of pagan, classical culture over time by the regnant Christian culture. Although Christianity did "win" in the end, such a view manifestly overlooks the deep and enduring interplay of the two competing cultures and the levels of accommodation between them. The pedagogical realities and the very signs of paideia in both Athens and Alexandria, however different they were from each other, force a revision of the view that late antique Christian culture stood in polar opposition to pagan culture and that no accommodation was possible.

Before the coming of Islam, Athens and Alexandria had by the end of antiquity two quite distinct ways of confronting the manifest differences between pagan and Christian commitments. In Athens, the original home of philosophy, there existed a much deeper divide between pagan and Christian culture. Teachers such as Proclus and Damacius, the latter the last teacher of philosophy in Athens before Justinian closed his school in 529, were unrepentant pagans and unaccommodating to the local Christian power structure. As a result, the pagan thinkers and schools depended upon local patronage and, importantly, a weak Christian establishment. But when the church came to dominate civic life in the sixth century, the pagan philosophers were beleaguered and overwhelmed.

By contrast, Alexandria, a relative latecomer on the philosophical scene, had a markedly different character. John Philoponus, the great sixth-century thinker, writing just when the Athenian schools were closing down, is perhaps a paradigm case of the kind of accommodation between pagan (Aristotelian) philosophy and the tenets of Christianity. While defending the creation of the world against both Proclus and Aristotle, Philoponus is clearly well versed in pagan thought. His arguments in defense of creation and against eternity are subtle and give every indication of a cultural commitment in Christian circles to a close reading of, and in this sense respect for, "ancient" authors. As Watts indicates, the Alexandrian Christian community was not sealed off from pagan intellectual circles; this in marked contrast to the Athenian model. Thinkers like Origen of centuries earlier drew heavily on Greek culture in presenting their views. The adaptive strategies of the Alexandrian Christians allowed for a less adversarial relationship with the civic authorities and accounted for the survival of the school of Olympiodorus, himself a pagan, until the 560s—and beyond, for he had successors until the seventh century. [End Page 436]

There are some salutary lessons to be learned from this story of adversary and accommodation in late antiquity. One is the capacity for internal reform and transformation in the light of changing external conditions. Here the Alexandrian philosophers were clearly more imaginative than their Athenian counterparts. In the final analysis, however, it seems that demographics and the attendant cultural interaction played equally important roles, for the centuries-old dialogue between pagan professors and Christian students in Alexandria paved the way for a commonality of interest that was markedly absent in Athens.

Watts's book is essential reading for students of late antiquity. Students of philosophy will gain insight into the religious and social contexts in which philosophers, pagan or Christian, wrote, and students of late antique paideia and general culture will admire the nuanced discussion of the competing ideals that marked an educated person.

Daniel H. Frank
Purdue University


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