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Text and Paratext: Reading the Emperor Julian via Libanius

Alan Ross

Columbia University

This paper examines how Libanius of Antioch strove to condition and manipulate an early readership for the corpus of texts written by emperor Julian “the Apostate”. In so doing, it makes the case for the application of paratextual theory to investigate the relationships between texts in order to overcome some shortcomings in traditional intertextual theory.

Julian is exceptional among Roman emperors for the number of his extant literary works. This extensive oeuvre has been the starting point for several studies of the emperor (Athanassiadi 1992; Smith 1995; Elm 2012). Similarly, it has long been recognised that Libanius, who was heavily invested in curating Julian’s posthumous reputation, knew and responded to Julian’s writings in his Funeral Oration for Julian (Oration 18), a lengthy retrospective assessment of Julian composed shortly after his death. Libanius thus has an intertextual relationship with Julian’s writings, the study of which is critical for understanding his intellectual responses to Julian’s reign (Wiemer 2005; Elm 2012: 441-51; Célérier 2013).

This paper argues that within the immediate aftermath of Julian’s death, however, Libanius had unusually privileged access to Julian’s works compared with the initial audience of his Funeral Oration. Libanius was the emperor’s confidant for the last few months of his life, and had demonstrated his interest in Julian’s writings over the previous decade. The disparity between author and audience’s knowledge of Julian’s writings calls into question the function that any allusion to Julian’s works could have: could his audience be expected to recognise, let alone interpret how Libanius alluded to Julian’s works? (Debates over intentionality and identification have repeatedly troubled intertexual theorists; Conte 1986, Hinds 1998, Farrell 2005). 

The central portion of this paper argues for a different relationship between the Funeral Oration and Julian’s oeuvre — not intertextual, but paratextual — that makes a virtue of the disparity in knowledge between author and audience.  Paratextuality was developed by the French theorist Gérard Genette (1987) and highlights the interpretive importance of titles, contents lists, indexes or other such seemingly peripheral material to condition how a reader approaches a modern publication. Genette invokes the metaphor of a threshold to describe the paratext: connected to but distinct from the main text, it opens the way for the reader to approach the text, and can precondition how s/he interprets it. Paratextuality has been applied to ancient texts almost exclusively within classical Latin literature (e.g. Jansen 2014). This paper offers the first application to late antique Greek literature.

Libanius’ Funeral Oration, although not a simple paratext, nonetheless exhibits a paratextual relationship with Julian’s writings. In addition to more his subtle allusions, Libanius explicitly names eight of Julian’s compositions, and even exhorts his audience to read them (18.303). He exerts quantitative and qualitative control over a corpus of Julian’s works that had just been rendered complete by its author’s death. From a quantitative perspective, Libanius omits several works that we can be sure (via his allusions elsewhere) he knew — such as Julian’s early panegyrics to his benefactor and later opponent, Constantius II. Qualitatively, Libanius intimates how his audience should interpret these works, for example he labels Julian’s Letter to the Athenians, a self-justification for his revolt against and a blatant attack upon Constantius, an apologia, thus identifying it as a work of self-defence (Ammianus describes a similar text as a ‘fierce invective’, 20.10.17). Libanius thus steers his audience away from reading certain of Julian’s texts that fit awkwardly within his depiction of the heroic emperor, and enforces generic specificity for his audience in the case of texts that were generically ambiguous that also provide a positive depiction of Julian.

The paper’s conclusions address late antique reading culture amongst pagans, especially in terms of how authors sought to introduce audiences to new or recently-composed works within a literary environment dominated by a heavily static canon of Greek texts that formed the basis for traditional Hellenic paideia.

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Late Antique Textualities

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