Yesterday’s post, investigating a paragraph on Dirk Rohmann’s book, drew some comment on the last sentence:
In John [Chrysostom]’s metaphorical words, the apostles have “gagged the tongues of the philosophers and stitched shut the mouths of the rhetoricians.” This passage echoes a similar statement in an unpublished manuscript (attributed to John) which asserts that “the senate decrees have been overthrown, the philosophers and orators have been put to shame, and the Areopagus has been wiped out.” This statement could be right because it is attested that in the last quarter of the fourth century large private mansions were constructed on the Areopagus hill, traditionally a place that housed archives.
 Watts (2006), 80–81. – Watts, Edward J. 2006. City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria. Berkeley: University of California Press.
I had in fact intended to look into this myself. The sentence suggested to me that the meaning was as follows:
- The rise of Christianity in the empire led to the destruction of pagan literature and written documents of all sorts.
- The Christians destroyed the Areopagus and the archives kept there.
- We know this because large private houses were built there at the end of the fourth century.
But in fact we learn that Dr R had no such intention, and the sentence was merely intended to offer evidence for the abandonment of the Areopagus by that date.
However the reference given is Watts’ City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria. And … there is a preview of this online, including pages 80-81! [Update: in fact the whole book is online at Academia.edu here!]
Watts seems like a rather good book, which I would very much like to read! He tells us that Athens was sacked by the Herulian barbarians in 267. This ruined the fortunes of the leading citizens, who were unable to repair public buildings. But by the late 4th century things were recovering, and a period of opulence ensued.
The section that concerns us is as follows:
To understand the challenges faced by Plutarch’s school, one must first explore the economic and religious changes Athens underwent in the later fourth and fifth centuries. Both archeological and epigraphic sources indicate that, contrary to the trend of the previous century, relatively widespread prosperity took hold among the Athenian upper classes in the later fourth century. The most striking evidence for the new wealth of the city comes from the ruins of a number of large houses constructed in the mid- to late fourth century on sites scattered throughout the city.1 The remains of the most elaborate of these houses were found grouped together on the north slope of the Areopagus hill. Dating from the last quarter of the fourth century, these houses were extraordinary in both their size and their layout.2 At a time when the average Athenian house occupied something in the neighborhood of 130-150 square meters, the Areopagus houses ranged in size from 1000 to 1350 square meters.3 These large houses had distinctive architectural features (like apsidal rooms)4 and elaborate interior decorations such as were common to urban and suburban villas of the time.5 Broad upper-class prosperity is seen from the remains of other Athenian buildings as well. These include the massive Palace of the Giants in the Agora,5 an elaborately decorated complex of buildings and enclosed gardens that occupied over 13,500 square meters of space,7 and public construction of a stoa complex containing a mysterious round building.8
Epigraphic evidence from the later fourth and early fifth centuries tells a similar story. Inscriptions describing the efforts of private individuals to pay for the physical rehabilitation of the city begin to appear in the mid-fourth century. In the later fourth century, a new gateway to the Acropolis was constructed.9 Similarly, private funding paid for the renovation of the theater of Dionysus, the erection of a sundial, and the carving of a set of honorary statues to a prefect responsible for renovating the Library of Hadrian.10 The inscriptions mark some of the men responsible for these projects as teachers, but it seems best to see this public spending less as an indication of the wealth of teachers and more as proof of the general prosperity of the period.
The source of this activity is particularly interesting because many of the people responsible for this renewed public euergetism were demonstrably pagan. Traces of this can be seen in several well-known public inscriptions. One such inscription honors the prefect Herculius. It marks him as a defender of the city whose image rests beside that of Athena.11 Another inscription records civicly sanctioned honors for Dexippus, who is “dear to the gods.”12 These references ought not be taken as mere rhetorical convention. Wealthy Athenians in the late fourth and early fifth centuries worked hard both to maintain the vitality of pagan worship in their city and to demonstrate this vitality publicly. On May 27, 387, a man of senatorial rank named Musonius celebrated a taurobolium, an initiatory rite that culminated in a very public acclamation of the devotee’s piety, and displayed an inscribed commemoration of this act.13 Another (undated) taurobolium memorial also survives from this period.14 As was the case with taurobolia commemorations in fourth-century Italy, these monuments were intended to preserve the memory of specific public acts of pagan religious self-expression.15 Less exotic public manifestations of pagan devotion also occurred. Wealthy pagans continued to pay for the Panathenaiac procession16 and, through their influence, the Athenian temples remained intact until the middle of the fifth century.17
Given the general decline of city councils in the fourth-century Roman East, the vigor shown by the Athenian councilor class is remarkable.18 Indeed, its vitality is particularly notable because this Athenian recovery occurred despite the fact that most historically prominent families had been devastated by the Herulian attack. It seems, however, that this activity was due as much to a sense of pagan civic patriotism as to a re-emergence of economic power among Athenian city councilors. Simply put, fifth-century pagans valued Athenian civic institutions and were willing to assume certain extraordinary burdens to keep them viable. There was a reason for this. At a time when imperial and provincial administrators were pursuing policies largely favorable to Christianity, the city council could serve as a governing organ that preserved certain features of pagan civic life. Possibly because of this continued relevance, participation in civic government remained a source of pride to Athenian pagans. Civic office in general and the archonship in particular remained an important achievement in one’s political career, even in the later fifth century,19 and evidence suggests that the archonship was an office that was often tied to prominence in the pagan community.20 Beyond simply valuing the office, Athenian pagans also respected the continuity of the institution. In some cases, pagans even continued to mark each year with the name of the eponymous archon, a deliberate contrast to the system of dating employed by the Christian court.21
Well that’s very interesting. Indeed I have to force myself to stop quoting at that point, because it’s all fascinating, and very readable.
This gives a different picture. The houses are not being built by Christians intent on erasing the pagan past; they’re being built by pagans on the town council intent on preserving and enhancing it.
Likewise there is no mention of archives, although I had certainly thought (evidently wrongly) that this was the point of the comment. I was unable to find any mention of archives on the hill of the Areopagus anywhere. The state archives were kept in a nearby temple, of the Mother of the Gods, the Metroon, as far as I am aware. I am entirely ignorant here, of course.
Watts tells us that the city was so badly damaged by the Herulians that the buildings around the agora were not rebuilt, but used as a garbage dump; and that leading Athenian families from the 2nd and 3rd centuries disappear. Did any such archives perish then, rather than in the late 4th century?
Interesting to see how the author’s intention comes across quite differently to the reader!