Students and Violence in Late Antique Athens

It was a real pleasure to see Dallas DeForest‘s article in the most recent volume of the Journal of Late Antiquity: “Between Mysteries and Factions: Initiation Rituals, Student Groups, and Violence in the Schools of Late Antique Athens.” Dallas is not only a stalwart participant in the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, but also a fellow University of Richmond alumnus and (so to be) Ohio State Ph.D.  So we have significant ties from our own student days, which I am happy to report were somewhat less fraught than those he describes in Late Antique Athens (but only somewhat as anyone who has been on High Street after an Ohio State football victory knows).  It is also worth pointing out that Greg Fisher, a PKAP alumnus from the very early days of our project, also has an article in this volume. One of the best things about being involved in an archaeological project is the chance for professional and social networks to intersect.

Dallas’s article identified three major elements to student life in 4th and 5th century Athens. First, he looks at the fragmentary evidence for initiation rituals which appear to include kidnapping, psychological and physical hazing, a ritual bath, and a feast before the prospective student becomes a member of the student group surrounding a particular philosopher or teacher of rhetoric in the most famous ancient university town. It is remarkable to imagine these brilliant late sophists (Prohaeresius, for example!) sanctioning the kidnapping of prospective students the moment they step off the ship at Piraeus, but this practice was apparently so widespread that students must have expected it.

Once the student was among the initiated, he entered a cohesive, hierarchical world centered on the teacher.  Students held different ranks and certain charismatic individuals appear to have had leadership positions among their fellow students. From these positions they likely organized the violence that was increasingly part of student life. In most cases, the violence seems to have remained at the level of pranks designed to embarrass rival teachers and their students. It could, however, become more serious. Dallas describes the clash between students of Prohaeresius and Apsines which landed many of the students and their teachers in the court of the governor of Achaea in Corinth. Apparently, such violence was a sufficiently recognized part of student life, that certain confident participants in Athenian student life regretted never being allowed to demonstrate their eloquence in the governor’s court.

Dallas provides a few tantalizing and speculative glimpses of the wider implications of his view of Athenian student life. Of course, the role that the baths play in initiation rites is hardly surprising, but nevertheless has clear parallels with Christian baptism (or the initiating rites associated with any number of Late Antique pagan mysteries). While Dallas does not go this far, he does recognize that the violence in Athens parallels the violent world of Late Antique cities and noted that student violence or violence between well organized groups might help explain how conflicts between pagans and Christians (or Circus factions) could escalate so rapidly. By linking together initiation, group cohesion and violence, Dallas begins to unpack the complex social world of Late Antique urban life and make clear how these social relations allowed sectarian violence to escalate into such destructive rampages as the Nika Revolt in Constantinople or the burning of the Sarapeion in Alexandria.

The interest in Late Antique urbanism almost certainly reflects the influence of Tim Gregory, Dallas’s (and my) advisor. Gregory’s first book, Vox Populi: Violence and Popular Involvement in the Religious Controversies of the Fifth Century A.D., looked at urban, religious violence in Constantinople in the 6th century.  Both focused on the social conditions that might create such violence in Late Antique cities and how the emergence of new groups in Late Antiquity – heresies, student groups, Circus factions, et c. – fortified by new practices designed to ensure loyalty and cohesion could create conditions for more serious confrontations.

So, as another semester gets underway, it was strangely comforting to read about the hazing and rituals surrounding academic life in Late Antiquity. I am grateful not to have to organize my most loyal students to kidnap prospective undergraduate majors or graduate students. I am also pleased enough that violence between student groups largely remains confined the gridiron and hockey rink. How’s that for a saccharine reflection to start your semester?

Yeah, our life is better because we don’t have kidnap students to get majors.

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