On Libanius and Semi-Random Thoughts

04 Feb

I’m taking a brief detour from my reading up on early Christianity by diving into Libanius. This wasn’t intentional, at least the thought that this would be a detour. Part of the plan was to read more on 4th century culture overall, and look at both the philosophical arguments about various competing belief systems and how Christianity was integrated into existing culture. However, while it’s clear that Libanius doesn’t care for Christianity all that much, he doesn’t come out and directly contest it in his writings, not really. The changing culture of his times colors Libanius’ writings in less obvious ways but I’m going to save that discussion for later.

Instead I’m going to point out something which pops up all the time in sources, throughout the Medieval period (and I imagine before and after as well) which is a commonality to the way people talk about things today (professional historians or folks who’ve read a fair amount can quit reading now if you like). I informally title this, Kids These Days (consider this to be accompanied by a deep sigh). In Norman (2000), Libanius’ Oration 62 (using Norman’s numbering system) is titled, “Against Critics of His Educational System.” The title is pretty self-explanatory. Some individual or group accused Libanius of being a poor teacher of rhetoric and he sets out to defend himself.

I’m going to focus on this statement, “Instead I will proceed to the crux of this disastrous business. You see, parents no longer threaten their children or bar them from the table or the baths if they are negligent, nor yet do they punish them so, or threaten that they will expel them, disinherit them, leave their inheritance to someone else. They can’t approve but they dare not blame. They have changed position with them, so that the sons wear angry looks and the parents cower before them. Students get this licence and sleep, snore, drink, and get drunk, and hold high revelry, and make it plain to the teachers that, unless they put up with any and everything, they will go off to someone else and their fathers won’t stop them. And the wretched parents, as Andromache did, connive at their sons’ desires.” 1

Yup, those kids – they aren’t like they used to be. And it’s all their parents’ fault. This, along with wistful recollections of “the good old days” come up all the time in the sources. The reason I like this is it displays a commonality of attitudes and opinions from over 1500 years ago with those of today. Now Medievals and Ancients thought differently from us; I’m certain of it. The experiences which formed them as individuals and as groups were profoundly different from the experiences of those of us living today in western culture. They viewed the world through another lens, one which resulted in different thought processes, responses to stimuli, etc., etc., from us. (I have a draft of an entire post on this). However with all the differences between their world and ours, some common themes exist, including complaining about the younger(next) generation.

I’m pretty early on with Libanius. I’ve read A.F. Norman’s (2000) Translated Texts for Historians book and am currently finishing Cribiore’s The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch. I still have the four Loebs to go through but this has been interesting reading so far and if time allows, I’m planning to discuss him in a bit more depth once I finish. He has some interesting and somewhat surprising opinions on corporal punishment of students, less surprising yet disturbing comments on women, and overall there’s his bitterness. I’ll wait to expand on it later but he comes across as someone who is either unable or unwilling to change with the times. There are interesting contrasts to draw between Libanius and someone like Themistius. Both were classically trained pagans and as Roman culture changed Themistius thrived and Libanius complained.

On to the semi-randomness. I found this anecdote humorous anyway. Once I finish reading Libanius I plan to move on to Symmachus. I have a book of his letters translated by Salzman and Roberts (2011). The other English language translation of his material that I’ve been able to find is his Relationes (uncertain if this a complete or partial collection) by Barrow (1973). It seems that used copies of this are going for upwards of $200. Fortunately, Purdue libraries has a copy and in checking the catalog, I found that it’s available to check out. Ordinarily I would have expected this to be housed in the Humanities, Social Science and Education Library (HSSE – commonly pronounced “hissy”). Instead it’s in the Hicks Library Repository.

The repository is interesting. Basically, these books aren’t on shelves where you find one and take it to circulation to check out. Instead they’re stored in some fashion (I’ve never been back there) and to check them out you go to the repository desk, fill out a request card and the librarian gets it for you. I don’t think anyone will find it surprising that these books tend to be those not checked out very often.

Poor Symmachus – if he only knew. I had a meeting on campus yesterday and after it ended I headed to the lower level of Hicks, filled out the card, the librarian took it, and entered the information in the computer.

Librarian: “I’m sorry. This is available but we don’t have it here.” Uh-oh, modern technology (in this case the online catalog) has betrayed me again.
Me: “Where is it, HSSE?” (I was mentally wondering about parking availability near another library – HSSE is close though – and how well my leg would hold up if this meant extensive walking)
Librarian: “We have a repository for the repository for books which are checked out very infrequently. If you submit a request we’ll get it and send you an e-mail when it arrives.”

I found this funny. Ol’ Symmachus evidently doesn’t get much play. I’m not mad at all – I have four more volumes of Libanius to get through and am back on campus in about three weeks so I’ll request it a couple of days ahead of time. I’ve always believed that when it comes to the amount of his material translated into English, Symmachus is woefully underrepresented, at least when compared to how often he’s mentioned in modern books. The Salzman and Roberts volume is a step in redressing this, but this repository for the repository thing may help explain the reason for it.

Beyond that, I apologize for not posting much lately. I’m still working through my post-op backlog of work. I’ve also been working back through my old posts and fixing links in WordPress so they aim readers to WP, not Blogger. I’m back to August, 2010 and once I finish I’m going to close the Blogger site, except for a redirect post. And I’m about 1500 words into my Cameron review which I need to finish.

1 Libanius, Or. 62.24-5.

Barrow, Reginald Haynes, ed., Prefect and Emperor: The Relationes of Symmachus, A.D. 384. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1973). ISBN: 978-0198144434.

Cribiore, Raffaella, The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press (2007). ISBN: 978-0-691-12824-5.

Norman, A.F., trans & ed., Antioch as a Centre of Hellenic Culture as Observed by Libanius. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2000). ISBN: 9-780853-235958.

Salzman, Michele Renee and Roberts, Michael, The Letters of Symmachus: Book 1. Atlanta, Georgia: Society of Biblical Literature (2011). ISBN: 9-781589-835979.


Posted by on February 4, 2012 in Blogology, Books, Literature


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6 responses to “On Libanius and Semi-Random Thoughts

  1. Steve Muhlberger

    February 4, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    A repository for the repository! Nice!

    Toronto’s main collection used to be divided between Library of Congress classification and “Old Class” which were old and unused books that were not worth the cost of reclassifying. Then in the 80s (I think) new books bound for obscurity were brieflisted — just given a number and a vague association with some part of the LC classification. Then I think the OldClass disappeared somewhere — maybe a repository.
    Even with my wide and obscure interests over, more than a decade I hardly ever used any books from either OldClass or brieflisting. I remember one respectable but old anthropology book and the collected works of John Adams — interesting but falling apart because of high acid paper dating from the 1850s.

  2. Curt Emanuel

    February 4, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    Symmachus at least has an LC number so I suppose he should be grateful for that. It was an interesting term though. You’d think they’d have come up with Repository Archive or something. Heaven only knows where they’re stored – probably one of the old WWII barracks on the other side of campus or someplace. It made for a nice chuckle on a moderately messed up day.

    I think back to 25 years ago when I was in school – if I’d needed to find this from a card file, I’m not sure I’d have been able to. I need to remember this the next time a “good old days” discussion comes up and mention that finding a book back then meant walking to the library and physically thumbing through cards. I can’t imagine how much time that saves every day on a college campus.

  3. Nathaniel Campbell

    February 7, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    U.S. libraries tend to use these off-site repositories just for the old and wholly underused books; I recall when I was an undergraduate having to request a book from the repository that hadn’t been touched in over thirty years! (I was writing on an obscure twelfth-century German poem, so go figure.)

    They are much more common, however, in European libraries. One of the universities I studied at in Germany, in fact, had the ENTIRE circulating collection in underground vaults. The only way to access a book from them was to turn in a request at the circulation desk; they promised to have it retrieved within 30 minutes. And the thing is, this was not an old library building; it was, in fact, designed by the same architect who did glass cupola over the Reichstag in Berlin. The amount of glass–with great awnings angled just so–made for spectacular amounts of natural light in the reference reading room; I loved studying there. But the design also meant that the only books you could actually browse were the non-circulating reference books.

  4. Curt Emanuel

    February 7, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    The Hicks Library is where I want to be if there’s ever a nuclear attack. It’s almost completely underground and the repository desk is on the 3rd level down. I have no idea how much space they have hollowed out but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a large area. The building with the HSSE Library is pretty close so it would make sense from a book handling standpoint if the repository ran under it so it could be accessed from there.

    Now you’re making me curious about the history behind its construction. May have to dig a little. It looks fairly new but for all I know it may be a renovated bomb shelter.

  5. Nathaniel Campbell

    February 7, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    When I worked at Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library, the admin was exploring off-site storage possibilities (Hesburgh is fast running out of space). My boss was part of a team that actually traveled to Hicks to see the robotic retrieval system in action. He loved it. Alas, the higher-ups weren’t ready to commit, so the whole project has been shelved in favor of spending money to renovate Hesburgh with more cushy chairs and a coffee shop–since catering to the whims of the undergrads is, of course, a higher priority than, you know, having space to store books.


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