Some 4th century pagan festivals in Libanius

Reading through the Literary Reminiscences of the ill-fated E.H. Barker, I find a short list of the works of Thomas Taylor, the 18th century translator known as the “English Platonist”.  Snobbery forbade his recognition in England, but his work was rated higher on the continent.  The list begins with some biographical details, for Barker knew him.

It is a mighty list, here, but also a useful one.  For instance Barker mentions that in his 2 volumes translation of 41 dissertations by Maximus of Tyre, there is material from Libanius about pagan festivals.  Since there is no index, this means Barker must have read this.  The material is in vol. 2, p.267, and belongs to the Descriptions, part of the Progymnasmata.[1]

Solemn festivals when approaching produce desire in the human race, when present they are attended with pleasure, and when past with recollection : for remembrance places men very near the transactions themselves. The recollection also possesses a certain advantage. For in speaking of solemn festivals it is also necessary to speak concerning the gods in whose honour they are instituted. Men prepare themselves for these festivals when they approach with joy. The multitude, indeed, procure such things as may furnish them with a splendid entertainment, but the worthy those things by which they may reverence the gods. Cattle and wine, and whatever else is the produce of the fields, are brought from the country. Garments also are purified ; and every one is anxious to celebrate the festival in perfection. Those that are in want of garments are permitted to borrow such as are requisite to adorn themselves on this occasion from those that have abundance. When the appointed day arrives the priests open the temples, pay diligent attention to the statues; and nothing is neglected which contributes to the public convenience. The cities too are crowded with a conflux of the neighbouring inhabitants, assembled to celebrate the festival; some coming on foot, and others in ships.

At sun-rise they enter the temples in splendid garments, worshipping that divinity to whom the festival is sacred. Every master of a house, therefore, precedes bearing frankincense : a servant follows him carrying a victim ; and children walk by the side of their parents, some very young, and others of a more advanced age, already perceiving the strong influence of the gods. One having performed his sacrifice departs ; another approaches to perform it. Numerous prayers are everywhere poured forth, and words of good omen are mutually spoken. With respect to the women, some offer sacrifices in the temples, and others are satisfied with beholding the crowd of those that sacrifice. When such things as pertain to the divinities are properly accomplished, the tables follow, at which hymns are sung in praise of the god who is honoured in the festival. Social drinking succeeds, with songs, which are partly serious and partly jocose, according to the different dispositions of the company. Some, likewise, feast in the temples, and others at home; and citizens request strangers to partake with them of the banquet. In the course of drinking, ancient friendships are rendered more firm, and others receive their commencement. After they have feasted, rising from table, some take the strangers, and show them whatever is worthy to be seen in the city, and others sitting in the forum gaily converse. No one is sorrowful, but every countenance is relaxed with joy. The exaction of debts gives place to festivity, and whatever might cause affliction is deferred to another time. Accusations are silent, and the judge does not pass sentence ; but such things as produce pleasure alone flourish. The slave is not afraid of blows from his master, and pedagogues are mild to youth.

In the evening they sup splendidly, at which time there are so many torches that the city is full of light. There are also many revellers, and various flutes, and the sound of pipes is heard in the narrow streets, accompanied with sometimes the same, and sometimes different songs. Then to drink even to intoxication is not perfectly disgraceful ; for the occasion in a certain respect appears to take away the opprobrium. On the following day the divinity is not neglected ; but many of those that worshipped on the preceding day do not again come to the shows. Those that contend in the composition of verses attend on this, but those with whom the contest is in the scenes on the preceding day. The third day also is not far short of these; and pleasure and hilarity are extended with the time of the festival. When the solemnity ends, prayers are offered for futurity, that they, their children, and families, may again be spectators of it ; after which the strangers depart, and the citizens accompany them.

Taylor continues by saying “The same author, likewise, in his account of the Calends observes as follows:”

This festival is extended as far as the dominion of the Romans ; and such is the joy it occasions, that if it were possible time could be hastened for mortals, which, according to Homer, was effected by Juno respecting the sun, this festival also would be hastened by every nation, city, house, and individual of mankind. The festival flourishes on every  hill and mountain, and in every lake and navigable river. It also flourishes in the sea, if at that time it happens to be undisturbed by tempest : for then both ships and merchants cut through its waves and celebrate the festival. Joy and feasting everywhere abound. The earth is then full of honours, inconsequence of men honouring each other by gifts and hospitality. The foot-paths and the public roads are crowded with men, and four-footed animals bearing burdens subservient to the occasion ; and the ways in the city are covered, and the narrow streets are full. Some are equally delighted with giving and receiving; but others, though they do not receive any thing, are pleased with giving, merely because they are to give. And the spring by its flowers, indeed, renders the earth beautiful, but the festival by its gifts, which, pouring in from every place, are every where diffused. He, therefore, who asserts that this is the most pleasant part of the year will not err ; so that if the whole time of life could be passed in the same manner, the islands of the blest would not be so much celebrated by mankind as they are at present. The first appearance of the swallow is, indeed, pleasant, yet does not prevent labour ; but this festival thinks proper to remove from the days of its celebration everything laborious, and permits us to enjoy minds free from molestation. These days free the youth from twofold fears, one arising from their preceptors, the other from their pedagogues. They also make slaves as much as possible free, and exhibit their power even in those in chains, removing sorrow from their countenances, and exciting some of them to mirth. They can also persuade a father who expects the death of his son, and through sorrow is wasting away, and averse to nourishment, to be reconciled to his condition, to abandon darkness, lay aside his squalid appearance, and betake himself to the bath : and what the most skilful in persuasion are unable to accomplish, that the power of the festival effects. It also conciliates citizen with citizen, stranger with stranger, one boy with another, and woman with woman. It likewise instructs men not to be avaricious, but to bring forth their gold, and deposit it in the right-hands of others.

Taylor adds:

He concludes with observing, that the altars of the gods in his time did not possess all that they did formerly, this being forbidden by the law of the Christians ; but that before this prohibition much fire, blood, and fume of sacrifice ascended to heaven from every region, so that the banquets in honour of the gods were then splendid during the festival.”

The curious quotation mark is Taylor’s, leaving the reader to wonder whether he is again quoting Libanius!

  1. [1]For which see the new translation by Craig A. Gibson, Libanius: Progymnasmata, here.

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