Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Book Review: City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria

Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Edward J. Watts, City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria (First paperback printing, originally published 2006). The Transformation of the Classical Heritage; 41. Berkeley/London: University of California Press, 2008.

Reviewed by Jerker Blomqvist

The Table of Contents is available from the above page.

The volume under review is the paperback edition of a book that appeared in hardcover in 2006. It is an enlarged and considerably reworked Yale University Ph.D. thesis of 2002. No changes have been made between the 2006 and 2008 editions.

The main theme of the book is the relationship between teachers of rhetoric and, in particular, philosophy with the political and religious powers of the surrounding late antique society. Watts has chosen to compare the situations developing in two centers of learning of the period, viz. Athens and Alexandria. The choice of these two cities for closer investigation is a natural one, given that, beside the emerging rival Constantinople, they were the most important providers of advanced teaching in the period under scrutiny. But a comparison between precisely these two localities proves to be particularly rewarding, since the conditions for philosophical activities in them developed in different ways in the final stage of antiquity. In Athens, philosophy was in conflict with the Christian ambiance and could, after AD 529, lead only a highly precarious existence, whereas in Alexandria, although conflict was not unheard of, the coexistence of philosophy with the new religion was more peaceful; the Alexandrian philosophical school (or schools) flourished for more than a century after the fateful year of 529 and came to an end only after the Arab invasion of Egypt in the 640s. Broadly speaking, the purpose of Watts' study is to define the differences between Athens and Alexandria in this context and to establish the causes of those divergences. But Watts offers much more: the book becomes a detailed study of nearly all aspects of higher education in the two cities in the relevant centuries and will have a lasting importance as an authoritative reference book for anyone interested in late antique cultural life.

The book consists of nine chapters, plus a short conclusion. The first chapter discusses the general conditions for advanced studies and academic life in the Greek-speaking parts of the Roman Empire. The pages of the eight following chapters are equally divided between the two cities under discussion, ch. 2-5 being devoted to Athens and 6-9 to Alexandria. The bibliography (pp. 263-279) is rich, although it includes only such scholarly publications as are explicitly cited in the footnotes; the numerous editions of ancient texts from which Watts must have excerpted most of his data are not listed there. A usable index (pp. 281-288) concludes the work.

See the above page for the entire review.

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