In my last post, I quoted Ernest Renan on the depravities of the city of Antioch:
The sights were strange; there were some games in which bands of naked young girls took part in all the exercises, with a mere fillet around them; at the celebrated festival of Naiouma troupes of courtesans swarmed in public in basins filled with limpid water .
22. Malala, p. 287, 289.
23. John Chrysostom, Homily vii on Matt 5, 6 (vol vii, p.113); See O Müller, Antiquit. Antioch. p 33, note.
24. Libanius, Antiochichus, p. 355, 366.
But I suffer from endemic scepticism on references that I have not checked myself. And I am always glad to look at Malalas. So let’s verify these statements. What do theses sources actually say?
We’ll start with the first one.
Now Malalas is not online in English, and so his Chronicle tends to remain unknown. (The page references in Renan are to Dindorf’s edition). But I find that I have a PDF, and, with a bit of hunting around, I find that the passage is in book 12, chapter 10, covering the reign of Commodus:
10. Young people of noble birth from every city and country district would come to the sacred contest of the Olympic festival to compete under a vow, and they matched themselves against each other. They conducted themselves chastely and with great moderation, and received no gain from any source. For they were rich and had their own slaves as attendants, (288) each according to his wealth. Many of them were girls. They used to bring much gold from their native city. But they competed because of their oath and their vow and in order to win glory in their own city. So they came in a competitive spirit and with a formidable reputation. Some wrestled, some ran, some played the trumpet, some took part in the pankration, others fought in boxing matches wearing box-wood finger-guards, others drove chariots with young horses, while others sang songs from tragedy. There were also virgin girls who practised philosophy and who were present under a vow of chastity, competing, wrestling in leggings, running, declaiming and reciting various Hellenic hymns. These women fought against women and the competition was fierce whether in the wrestling, the races or the recitation. Anyone among them, as they say, whether a woman or a young man, who was crowned as victor amid the acclamations of the holy populace would remain chaste till the end of his life, for immediately after the contest he would be ordained and become a priest. Equally the philosopher virgins who were crowned would become priestesses after the contest. Then they would all depart from there. Those who were owners of landed property did not pay taxes, but the victor’s property remained exempt from tax from the moment of his victory but only for his (289) lifetime. If he also owned workshops, the workshops that the competitor possessed remained immune from obligations for his lifetime only. So many came to compete that their numbers were unparalleled, but however many happened to arrive under a vow, whether young men or virgin girls, they were all allowed to take part in the spectacle. Sometimes a great number came, and at other times they did not, depending on the seasons and the sea winds.
Now this says many things; but it does NOT say what Renan says that it does. We might speculate about what the young female athletes did in fact wear, or not wear; but fact is that the statements of Malalas do not tell of a debauched event. Naughty Renan!
On to the next statement.
Chrysostom’s homilies on Matthew are all online, and homily 7 is here in the NPNF translation. The reference is to chapter 7. After some effort, I have found that Renan’s reference to “tome VII, p.113” can be found in Migne, PG57, col. 79 contains 113, in chapters 5-6 of the homily. (I’ve modernised the Jacobean language of the translation).
And you … run down to the theatre, to see women swimming, and nature put to open dishonor, …?
But you … go your way to the fountain of the devil, to see a whore swim, and to suffer shipwreck of the soul. For that water is a sea of lust, which does not drown bodies, but works shipwreck of souls. And while she swims with naked body, you, watching, are sunk into the depths of lust. For such is the devil’s net …
But what is still more grievous is this, that they even call such utter destruction a delight, and they term the sea of perdition a channel for a pleasure voyage. …
For in the first place, through a whole night the devil preoccupies their souls with the expectation of it; then having shown them the expected object, he binds them at once, and makes them captives.
For don’t think, because you didn’t have sex with the harlot, that you’re clean from the sin; for in your heart you have done it all. …
However, rather than just find fault, let’s devise a mode of correction too. What then will the mode be? I would commit you to your own wives, that they may instruct you. …
If “he who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery,” he who is forced even to see her naked, how is he not become ten thousandfold a captive? The flood in the days of Noah did not so utterly destroy the race of men as these swimming women drown all that are there with great disgrace. …
And you, when there is a question of precedence, claim to take place of the whole word, forasmuch as our city first crowned itself with the name of Christian. But in the competition of chastity, you’re not ashamed to be behind the rudest cities.
Renan’s comment here is accurate. And Chrysostom’s words in our porn-drenched age may make uncomfortable reading, and more so when read in full.
The third statement — that the water was clear — is referenced to the Antiochichus of Libanius. Thankfully I find that I have access to this translation (also offline, drat it). But the page number problem recurs, and I cannot relate Renan’s numeration to the numbers in the translation that I have to hand. However some passage such as this is probably in mind:
We, however, all have our fountains inside our houses, and the public ones are for show. (248) Besides, with regard to the purity of the water, you could make a fair test, if you were to fill a swimming pool and then check the water from entering. You would think it to be empty, for the floor of the bath stands out so clearly under the water. So I am not sure whether the sight would serve to inflame your thirst rather than to quench it, for it entices you to drink and gives such pleasure before even you begin to do so.
The peculiar clarity of the water gives point to the observation of Chrysostom.
We may award Renan 70%. But really, he should have done better with his first point.