- Libanius the Sophist: Rhetoric, Reality, and Religion in the Fourth Century by Raffaella Cribiore
Raffaella Cribiore is already well known and respected for her studies of Libanius, and this most recent book is another welcome addition. True to form, Cribiore demonstrates a remarkable grasp of Libanius’s vast corpus and uses that knowledge to nuance our understanding of this central fourth-century scholar and his city, Antioch. In the process, Cribiore brings new depth and detail to our knowledge of the complexity of religious identifications. She notes that Libanius’s works have survived thanks to their rhetorical quality, even while their author has been criticized as a rigid pagan out of touch with his time. She writes to rehabilitate Libanius, which she does through her careful use of Libanius’s 1,544 genuine letters along with his orations. Cribiore’s years spent with Libanius’s writings allow her to show that he presents himself in interestingly different ways through what she argues are his more public orations and his less public letters, and that his religious and political positions are sensitive to his context and shift over time.
Chapter One argues for a distinction in audience and tone between Libanius’s letters and orations, which in turn helps explain “certain seeming inconsistencies and contradictions in his oeuvre that have plagued the modern perception of Libanius” (20). Cribiore refutes scholarship that argues that letters in antiquity were as public as orations and demonstrates some of the ways in which Libanius shaped readers’ view of himself and his world through his rhetorical choices. Her careful juxtaposition of Libanius’s Autobiography and the contemporaneous pagan and Christian traditions of the “life of the holy man” is particularly interesting. She suggests “that Libanius was not deaf” to contemporary Christian and pagan literature, painting a picture in contrast to the “static image of this sophist as a figure entirely immersed in a world of rhetorical rules and mythology … an inflexible pagan” (74).
Cribiore investigates Libanius’s rhetoric more broadly in Chapter Two, focusing on invective, especially sexual slander, to complicate the “stark black and white” caricature of Libanius (22). Again, Cribiore helpfully places Libanius’s work into conversation with early Christian rhetoric, even if her discussion of the Christian material could benefit from further nuance. While some readers might wish for an explicit awareness of the challenges of applying the term “homosexuality” to late antiquity, a familiarity with Gleason (1995) and Soler (2006), and a more substantive engagement with Knust (2006), Cribiore nevertheless provides thought-provoking readings of Libanius’s work that address concerns about his apparent inconsistencies.
Chapter Three returns to religious allegiance and, like recent books by Elm (2012) and Cameron (2011), provides evidence for a full spectrum of religious identifications in late antiquity. Without referencing Rebillard’s recent book (2012), she similarly challenges a sharp binary of pagan and Christian categories (138–39). Cribiore’s analysis is sometimes limited by her training outside of religious studies, [End Page 473] such as when she refers without comment to “Constantine’s conversion in 312” (9), and notes, “Religion is ultimately an interior state. It takes a great deal of intuition and personal experience to assess it in others, and we may even doubt at times whether or our beliefs are truly authentic or are simply derived from habit and childhood experiences” (136). Careful readers will also note a pervasive critical stance to Sandwell’s book (2007) that does not always seem deserved, but will welcome Cribiore’s exposition and contextualization of Libanius’s references to the gods. The chapter concludes with an interesting exposition on the criticism a “staunch pagan” like Eunapius could launch against a “moderate” or “gray” pagan like Libanius (169). While Cribiore’s preference for Guignebert’s 1923 vocabulary might cause some surprise, her study of political appointments and religious allegiances is quite valuable.
Chapter Four demonstrates the significance of many of the book’s claims through the example of Libanius’s close friendship with Olympius. Cribiore’s argument that Olympius is a...