Sunday, October 10, 2010

Book Review: Riot in Alexandria

Bryn Mawr Classical Review (Reviewed by Peter Van Nuffelen)

Edward J. Watts, Riot in Alexandria: Tradition and Group Dynamics in Late Antique Pagan and Christian Communities. The Transformation of the Classical Heritage 46. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 2010.

The past was hugely important in Antiquity, and also in Late Antiquity. Claims about moral and intellectual superiority, for example, were staked on arguments about the priority of Moses and Plato. In his latest book, Edward Watts explores another dimension of the engagement with the past, namely its importance in shaping and sustaining group dynamics. He focuses on a riot in Alexandria, which started in 485 with the beating of the student Paralius who had questioned the authority and beliefs of his pagan teachers. After he had been saved by Christian students, the incident was seized upon by the bishop of Alexandria, Peter Mongus, to shore up his own position by challenging paganism in his city. It led to the destruction of the shrine of Isis at Menouthis. Watts shows how events are shaped by stories told about the past, how they are re-interpreted in the light of these stories, and how new traditions can develop to deal with traumatic events. As such, this book is a contribution to the social, religious, and literary history of Late Antiquity. It continues Watts's previous interests in late antique intellectual history and its social context, as exemplified in his 2006 monograph City and school in late antique Athens and Alexandria and it digests and expands various recent articles.

After the first chapter has set out the events of 485, the book falls into three parts, each focusing on how historical memory shaped the self-understanding of three particular groups and individuals involved in the Paralius incident: the Neoplatonist school, the monastic community, and the bishop of Alexandria.

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