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Defining Academic Space: How Second Sophistic Authors Appropriate the Chair (Thronos)

Sinja Küppers

Duke University

Every university department has one today: A 'chair'. The first academic chairs were established in Greek and Latin rhetoric in Rome by Vespasian (69-79 AD). Before its institutionalization, the physical chair (thronos) was, however, already a set component of educational space. For instance, in Plato's Protagoras 315c, Eryximachus and Phaedrus listen to Hippias teach from a thronos as do the students in Libanius' school (ep. 366, 1048; or. 3; on the informal educational space cf. Eshleman 2012). This paper shows that by the time of the Second Sophistic the chair (thronos) has evolved into a spatial symbol that Second Sophistic authors appropriate to define their own academic space and critique the one of others. The chair (thronos) uniformly belongs to the educational space of two disciplines, philosophy and sophistic rhetoric, that have traditionally been portrayed as polar opposites. In a peculiarly Second Sophistic development, however, certain “philosophers” deploy the association of the chair so as to define themselves rhetorically as intellectuals and interlocutors who freely roam away from the chair and “sophists". Using this spatial symbolism, Galen and Plutarch prominently demarcate themselves from the chair-bound sophistic educators.

Recent scholarship on Plutarch and Galen emphasizes their similarity to other Second Sophistic representatives, in particular sophists. They all traveled widely, shared a high-class origin, enjoyed an education in rhetoric, and produced versatile corpora (cf. Elsner 2009). Plutarch and Galen share this intellectual culture that was shaped by sophistic practices. For instance, Galen performs public demonstrations (epideixeis) of vivisections (cf. Gleason 2009, von Staden 1997) as a "necessary form of advertisement" (Eshleman 2012: 27). In these demonstrations, he reasserts his expertise while rebuffing his opponents. Yet Plutarch and Galen both self-identify not as sophists but as philosophers (cf. Mattern 2013: 37; Stanton 1973: 353). Defining the chair (thronos) as typically 'sophistic' helps Galen and Plutarch distinguish themselves from the sophists. In this fashion, they relegate the sophists to the classroom (cf. Plut. An Seni 26.796, De Recta 37b-48d) and mark off the role of philosophical intellectualism to themselves (cf. König & Whitmarsh 2007). Although philosophers taught from chairs, too, Galen and Plutarch foster the societal image of the philosopher as a free-roaming conversationalist, such as Socrates (e.g., Plut. An Seni 26.796, De Recta 37b-48; cf. Sidebottom 2009). In contrast to the philosopher who is free, both spatially and in speech, the fixed chair of rhetoric symbolizes sophists – such as Thessalus – who preach from their 'lofty' chair (ὕψηλος θρόνος) while using lecture notes (cf. Gal. MM 406K). This contrast is underscored by the physical conception of the academic chair throughout antiquity which is attested in literary sources and material culture (e.g., Raddato 2018). Sophists, for example, presided over chairs, sat on them, and leapt up from them in agitation (cf. Philostr. VS 526, 580, 538).

This paper appeals to scholars interested in ancient education, space, Second Sophistic Literature, the dichotomy of rhetoric and philosophy, and ancient medicine. 

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