Libanius and the Jews

Libanius and the Jews

The fourth century pagan philosopher and close friend of the Emperor Julian Libanius is not well known today in large part due to the fact that he has been eclipsed by several better-known contemporaries such as his patrons: the Emperors Julian, Valens and Theodosius I. As well as his famous students such as Saint John Chrysostom.

Libanius however in recent years has begun to move out of the shadowy side roads of history and much more into the spotlight as one of the most influential thinkers (especially of those related to late Romano-Greek paganism) of the later Roman Empire as well as one of the major intellectual opponents of Christianity of that time.

Libanius however was a man of opposites in his career in that he was close friend and correspondent of the Emperor Julian (who attempted to re-invigorate paganism as a force to be truly reckoned with in the Empire [and was almost successful I might add]), while also having a close relationship with the Emperor Theodosius I (who stamped out paganism with bloody persecution after bloody persecution after Julian). In his school in Antioch Libanius would teach, discuss and/or correspond with practically anyone on the great intellectual subjects and systems of his day. (1)

This can be reasonably read as Libanius putting into practice the beliefs in regard to the value of universal education and the elucidation of truth by continual debate (the Socratic method), which he outlined in his 'Progymnasmata'.

However, we can also reasonably suggest that Libanius' motives were a bit more Machiavellian than the pure idealism often suggested in relation to his activities often suggests. This is because while he was himself a pagan: he seems to doubt the victory of his own system of faith and kept in with Christians even going so far as to defend a friend of his who stole property from a pagan temple. (2)

While Libanius was happy to correspond with Julian and suggest course of action: (3) he was often accused in his own time of 'defending things in the past' and refusing to get involved in the present struggles to either defend or destroy those traditions. (4) I would argue that this characterisation is fairly accurate since Libanius never really got involved with the external state of his religion, but rather kept his faith as an internal state which conveniently allowed him to engage in a bit of double-think and keep 'in' with the Christians (as well as the jews).

Now while I don't think the rise of Christianity was necessarily going to occur - as Cameron has recently argued (again) that it was 'inevitable' - (5) but I do think that paganism in Antioch - which was the centre of Libanius' world - was very much on the defensive, while Christianity was on the offensive. (6)

As such then we can place Libanius in the kind of role often ascribed to Seneca the Younger in relation to his philosophy in theory and his daily practice of that philosophy. In other words: Libanius - like Seneca - was regarded (rightly in my opinion) as a hypocrite who was more interested in looking after his own skin in the religious wars (primarily; but not always, between Christians and the various pagan cults and sects) that his beliefs called him to participate in.

After all had Libanius acted more in line with his expressed religious convictions then we might reasonably suspect that he wouldn't have played down religious differences as a rule thumb (7) or played to the religious ideas of different emperors in order to maintain official patronage of himself and his school. (8)

Thus, we can see Libanius as a kind of philosophic prostitute who did and said what he believed would bring him the best advantage in the political fashion of the day, but who believed this intellectual prostitution was in keeping with his own philosophic insights (a bit like Henri de Saint-Simon or Georg Hegel to give more modern examples of this phenomenon).

It is a classic case of double think that has long been common among intellectuals and is very familiar to scholars and students of Marxist political theory. The exponents of which - as Paul Johnson and Slavoj Zizek among others have noted - have an unfortunate (and endlessly amusing) tendency to have their intellectual 'heart' somewhere while taking the rewards and favours of everything that they are supposed to oppose, while advocating its destruction (often citing Lenin's maxim on this point).

This intellectual prostitution is evident in relation to Libanius' relationships with the jews in that Libanius had very close contract with the self-chosen people as they were a significant part of the population of Antioch (9) and also since jewish 'philosophers' (such as then existed) were very active in Palestine. So Libanius - predictably enough - maintained a lively correspondence with the individual he believed was the head of all jewish intellectual activity in nearby Palestine (some of the letters from Libanius survive): the patriarch. (10)

We also know that - like his advocacy for Christian friends to the authorities - Libanius also engaged in such activism on behalf of high-ranking jews. (11) We can also reasonably suggest that part of the reason that Libanius engaged in this activism is because the jews were incredibly powerful in the city of Antioch and elsewhere (having got the Roman governor of Palestine dismissed for angering them and the jewish leadership in Palestine not shortly before). (12)

This jewish power is also incidentally indicated by Julian's own offers to rebuild the Temple of Solomon if the jews would support him against the Christians (13) and his contact with the jewish leaders. As well as in the fact that many - ostensibly non-jewish - Christians chose to attend worship in synagogues as well as in churches (14) (as well as that the jews had their own semi-pagan shrine to the mother of the Maccabees near to Antioch). (15)

We can see from this that the power of the jews in the time and locale of Libanius was considerable and even - as has been argued by one scholar - 'exceeded that of the Hasmonaeans or the Herodians'. (16) This might be why Libanius has been described as holding distinctly anti-jewish prejudices by Feldman (17) since Libanius believed that the jews wielded an awful lot of power in both Antioch and the Near East more broadly. (18)

Thus, we can see why Libanius - as a kind of intellectual prostitute - would actively cultivate jewish intellectual acquaintances (who were often influential figures in the jewish community) as well as defend jews from legal cases opened, and attacks made, against them (it was this very same power that Libanius' student John Chrysostom railed against in his works on the jewish question). Libanius was frightened that if he angered the jews then he would lose his school and many of his students (i.e. everything he had spent his life working for), while conversely if he befriended and defended them then their influence could potentially be used to benefit him and his school (much like his keeping in with the Christians).

The choice was not difficult for Libanius, but regardless Libanius still openly disliked the jews as a people more broadly (as Aristotle would have done if the legend regarding his well-regarded jewish student is accurate [which I personally doubt]). This is clearly shown in the contrast when in his orations Libanius attacks the jews (19) - based on his own experiences - for weakening the economic structure of the Roman Empire by demanding that they not till the soil anymore (as others happily did), but that they should be given new 'better' conditions in the cities where they could profit most. (20)

That Libanius was being broadly anti-jewish is demonstrated when he writes that these were 'typical jews' (i.e., jews are a grasping and ungrateful people never satisfied with a good thing, but always wanting more), while Libanius writes elsewhere to a friend that the jews have in their power numerous Imperial political appointments in the Near East. (21)

However, when Libanius writes to the patriarch of the jews in Jerusalem then all of a sudden: the jews magically become a wonderful people who have contributed so much to the world. (22)

This clearly shows that Libanius recognized those who held the real unofficial power in the Near East at the time (as opposed to the official power) in the jews and that he was too frightened of losing everything for which he had worked to jewish intrigues to oppose them.

Thus, Libanius worked with and defended the jews in public, while holding strong anti-jewish attitudes in private and expressing distaste for how the jews operated in rather guarded terms in public so as not to antagonize (and keep in with) the Christians (who he recognized as being inter-twined with the jews as key players in the politics of Antioch as well as being rather hostile to the jews).

Therefore, we can see Libanius as both an intellectual prostitute in relation to jewish interests, but he was at least one who; unlike many of his spiritual kin alive today, recognized that the jews were not a supreme force for good in the world.


(1) Raffaella Cribiore, 2007, 'The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch', 1st Edition, Princeton University Press: Princeton, p. 27

(2) Raffaella Cribiore, 2013, 'Libanius the Sophist: Rhetoric, Reality, and Religion in the Fourth Century', 1st Edition, Cornell University Press: Ithaca, p. 135

(3) Adrian Murdoch, 2008, 'The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World', 3rd Edition, Inner Traditions: Rochester, pp. 162-163

(4) Cribiore, 'Libanius the Sophist', Op. Cit., p. 136

(5) Alan Cameron, 2011, 'The Last Pagans of Rome', 1st Edition, Oxford University Press: New York

(6) This is implied in both Murdoch's analysis (Op. Cit., pp. 128-144) as well as Glen Bowersock, 1978, 'Julian the Apostate', 1st Edition, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, pp. 94-105

(7) Isabella Sandwell, 2007, 'Religious Identity in Late Antiquity: Greeks, Jews and Christians in Antioch', 1st Edition, Cambridge University Press: New York, p. 10

(8) Ibid, pp. 22-26

(9) Ibid, pp. 46-47; Cribiore, 'The School of Libanius', Op. Cit., p. 27

(10) Ibid, p. 76; Gunter Stemberger, 2000, 'Jews and Christians in the Holy Land: Palestine in the Fourth Century', T & T Clark: Edinburgh, p. 247

(11) Ibid, pp. 247-248

(12) Ibid, pp. 241-242

(13) Cf. Bowersock, Op. Cit., pp. 88-90; Murdoch, Op. Cit., pp. 141-144

(14) Sandwell, Op. Cit., pp. 83-85

(15) Ibid, p. 47

(16) Stemberger, Op. Cit., p. 243

(17) Louis Feldman, 1993, 'Jew & Gentile in the Ancient World: Attitudes and Interactions from Alexander to Justinian', 1st Edition, Princeton University Press: Princeton, p. 113

(18) Ibid, p. 71

(19) Lib. Or. 47:13

(20) Sandwell, Op. Cit., pp. 112-113

(21) Feldman, Op. Cit., p. 227

(22) Ibid.