In his last novella, Raffi takes the reader to late antiquity to introduce the Armenian philosopher and 4thcentury Athens’ leading professor of rhetoric, Prohaeresius. Part biography and part historical fiction, the plot of the book bends the rules of time to imagine a meeting between Prohaeresius and Movses Xorenats’i (“The Father of Armenian Literature”), in which Movses implores Prohaeresius to return to Armenia to help the country face grave dangers. Interspersed with lines from Armenian historical sources, the book also serves as a brief introduction to Golden Age and medieval Armenian literature.
The biographical element in the book is remarkably accurate when compared with the sole-surviving contemporary biography of Prohaeresius by his student, Eunapius (of which a translation from Classical Greek is included as an appendix to the book). In fact, Raffi’s descriptions of Prohaeresius’ life are so faithful to Eunapius’ biography that we wondered how Raffi got his hands on it. Was there an Armenian translation of the text available at the time? Despite several searches, we could not find any clues, and so we completed the translation without answers. Perhaps the Armenian translation of Eunapius had been lost, perhaps it had been translated into another language that Raffi had relied on (e.g., Russian), or perhaps Raffi knew someone versed enough in Classical Greek to be able to interpret the book for him… who can say?
But then, the other day, while browsing Robert Bedrosian’s History Workshop, we came across a copy of the Mkhitarist father Karekin Zarbanalian’s 1897 tome, «Հայկական Հին Դպրութեան Պատմութիւն» [History of Ancient Armenian Literature]. While browsing the book, we came across a brief section on Prohaeresius (essentially, a summary of Eunapius' biography) and it did not take long to discover that this had been Raffi’s source for Prohaeresius’ biography. The Mkhitarist fathers of San Lazzaro were educated in Classical Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Armenian (Classical and Modern), and often at least one other Near Eastern language, and had access to ancient and classical texts, so it's fair to say that Zarbanalian was probably summarizing directly from a Greek copy of Eunapius’ Lives of the Philosophers. There was only one problem: Zarbanalian’s book was published in 1897, whereas Prohaeresius had been published in 1884. How is this possible? A look at the title page indicated that the 1897 edition was the 2nd printing of the text, and a quick Google search yielded that the 1st printing was in 1865. This was it! This was Raffi’s source. And here, dear reader, is our translation of it:
By Karekin Zarbanalian
In the 4th century, we recall many Armenian philologists who went to Athens, Rome, and other prominent cities to be educated, but chief among them was Prohaeresius, who became so renowned in rhetoric and teaching that statues were erected in his honor in Athens and Rome, where they called him the king of eloquence.
It is unfortunate that Armenian literature does not give us any information about this renowned individual, forcing us to turn to foreign sources for instruction regarding our own national richness. Chief among Prohaeresius’ biographers was his student Eunapius, who, as a contemporary, deserves our attention for information regarding our greatest rhetorician.
Prohaeresius, says his biographer, had an attractive and handsome face even into his old age, which reflected his youthful vigor. He was also unimaginably and extremely tall, for he was said to be eight feet tall, and a giant even among the tallest men of his time. Leaving his native Armenia in his youth, he went to Antioch in hope of then reaching Athens, for not only had the heavens bestowed him with a handsome face, but also with poverty. Therefore, he turned to Ulpianus, who at the time had established a school of rhetoric in Antioch, and soon Prohaeresius became one of his most advanced students.
After staying with Ulpianus for a long time, Prohaeresius went to Athens, where he earned a great name and honor. There, he met a friend named Hephaestion, with whom he connected in a great mutual affection—and just as in their poverty, so too in the art of rhetoric did they compete, striving to surpass one another. They had nothing but a cloak and a coat, and four pieces of carpet that had worn out and discolored from age. There was a surprising harmony between them, as though their two bodies shared one spirit. Whenever Prohaeresius would leave the house, Hephaestion would stay inside and practice rhetoric, and Prohaeresius would do the same when Hephaestion would go to the auditorium; for the poor fellows were so impoverished that they had hardly one outfit between them. In Athens, their teacher Julianus of Cappadocia had a high regard for Prohaeresius’ shrewdness and erudition. And when Julianus left Athens, many tried to inherit his chair, but the most skilled among them—Prohaeresius, Hephaestion, Epiphanus, and Diophantus—were put forth as candidates. However, as this wasn’t a complete number, Epiphanius was also put forth (although he was not as notable as the former names) because the Romans had established a rule in Athens that there should be as many orators as there are listeners.
The lesser among these orators were merely called teachers, and their abilities were restricted to within schools’ walls and courts; but for the more famous and intelligent among them, the city was divided—and not only the city, but also all the nations that were subject to Rome. Most of the East chose Epiphanius; Arabia chose Diophantus; Hephaestion left Athens, yielding to Prohaeresius, and passed away shortly after; and all the Pontians and students of the surrounding provinces sent for Prohaeresius. Besides that, all of Bithynia and the Hellespont, the part of Asia that runs from Lycia, Pamphylia, and the Taurus mountains, as well as Egypt and Libya were astonished at Prohaeresius’ ability, to the extent that his glory was home to a land of which the borders remain uncharted.
But with glory comes envy. The masters of rhetoric among Prohaeresius’ friends couldn’t stand his glory, and to undermine him there were no means that they didn’t resort to. They won over the ruler of the city by bribing him and had Prohaeresius exiled from Athens. With the departure of the Armenian orator, they began to seek glory and fame among themselves.
On top of the pain of exile, poor Prohaeresius experienced the bitter pain of poverty once more, but returned shortly thereafter to Athens. Others could have returned from exile with the price of gold, but rhetoric was enough for Prohaeresius. As in Homer’s poems, the god of oratory, Hermes, without fearing the hostile masses, made his way to Achilles’ tent with Priam. When Prohaeresius returned to Athens, fortune was in his favor, for the ruler of the city had changed, and although his enemies tried to get him exiled again, they were unable to find a way. And Prohaeresius, returning to Athens like a new Odysseus after a long and tedious captivity, had now found few of his old friends alive and in good health. Among them was Tuscianus, whom Suidas called the most powerful orator, and of whom Prohaeresius’ biographer Eunapius said that “only he was worthy of being Prohaeresius, if Prohaeresius hadn’t existed.”
When the ruler returned to Athens, he called his sages for counsel and presented various matters for them to find solutions to, but they could not satisfy the ruler with their answers. So the ruler invited them to return to compete in debate for a prize, and they all came running back, not knowing that Prohaeresius had also been invited...
The ruler said, ‘I have one more proposal for you. Pick one person from among yourselves who can discourse well, for it will be against Prohaeresius.’ Terrified by Prohaeresius’ name, the sophists said, ‘We cannot improvise in debate.’ Then the ruler nodded toward Prohaeresius, who, standing in his court, approved of this proposal, and fearlessly invited his enemies to propose any subject they wanted. At this, they maliciously chose a difficult subject that was not only inappropriate to eloquently discourse on, but was almost impossible to improvise in debate. But Prohaeresius did not refuse, and he even asked for his entire speech to be recorded, so that there would later be no debate about what he had or hadn’t said. He then asked everyone in the court to remain silent and not to applaud until he had finished giving his speech. His discourse was so astonishing, eloquent, and replete with wisdom that the audience had difficulty restraining their applause and keeping silent, and the scribes could hardly follow along. Just when they thought he was finished, he launched into a second part that was even more powerful and beautiful than the first. And when he was done, he said, “It’s possible that I have said something wrong or that they have mistakenly recorded what I have said,” and he started the same speech all over again, identically, without a single difference from the first word to the last. This astonished the audience so much that when he fell silent after his speech, everyone in the audience ran up to greet him, not as a rhetorician, but as a new Hermes, and called him a god. The ruler led Prohaeresius out of the court in a soldierly parade and gave him his worthy rhetorician’s chair. But the envy of the sophists found other dishonorable means by which to deceitfully depose him from his chair. Prohaeresius remained privately in Athens without a murmur until Anatolius Berytius—who for his wisdom had attained the honor of the eparchy—came to Athens. Like his predecessor, he invited the sophists of the city and gave them subjects to discourse on, but ultimately disapproved of them all and honored only Prohaeresius by offering him a seat at his table.
At around this time, or a little earlier, Emperor Constans invited Prohaeresius to Gaul, where Prohaeresius went and surprised the emperor and his entire court, not only with his genius, but also with his way of life, because he was very tall and a most decent person, and amiable in all ways. And his livelihood was surprisingly plain, such that even in the cold winters of Gaul, he wore only one tunic, walked around practically barefoot, and not only drank his water cold, but also didn’t eat his food hot. Constans sent him with honors to Rome, where the grandees of the city, having also honored him, asked him to speak a word of praise about their singular city. Here, too, Prohaeresius appeared as such an excellent orator that only Cicero, had he been alive, would not have had need to praise him. The Romans paid a worthy tribute to their panegyrist by erecting a copper statue of Prohaeresius, inscribed with the words:
From Rome, the Queen, to the King of Eloquence.
Թագուհին Հռոմ թագաւորի բանին։
Regina rerum Roma, Regi Eloquentiae.
Η Βασίλίσσα Ρώμη, τού βασιλέως Λόγων
I do not know whether such an honor has been bestowed upon anyone else. The Romans asked Prohaeresius to send one of his students there to fill his place, and he sent Eusebius of Alexandria.
Prohaeresius returned once more to Athens with the distinction of stratopedarches given to him by Emperor Constans, who exhorted him to make any request he wanted. And Prohaeresius, first having expressed gratitude and praise for being in Athens, the mother of wisdom, asked for the tariffs on wheat to be lifted, which the emperor then had effected through the aforementioned Anatolius. He then delivered a panegyric for Emperor Constans for the act of grace by which he removed the taxes on grain. Prohaeresius once again took the rhetorician’s chair when Julian became emperor. This sophistic emperor did not want to be inferior to anyone in arms, knowledge or rhetoric, and did not abase himself to honor Prohaeresius, whom he described in a letter as follows: “A torrential and relentless river of eloquence, and of mighty speech like Pericles.” Yet Julian had high expectations of Prohaeresius, whom he nonetheless uncharacteristically approached with favor and exception, in hopes that Prohaeresius would record the history of his military exploits (which he had witnessed in Gaul), such that it would give him eternal glory for which he was not worthy, for he was an apostate and a persecutor of Christians, while Prohaeresius himself was an honorable Christian. Julian inimically removed all Christian teachers from their positions with the exception of Prohaeresius, whom he retained out of this false hope. But that great man, who was honorable to himself and to all who knew him, willingly and boldly renounced his chair—that beloved chair, in which he became exalted and which he so exalted, but supreme to which he considered the glory of true faith.
At that time, Prohaeresius was already about 90 years old, adorned with beautiful, silvery gray hair, but still with a lively face and youthful strength. It was at this time that his biographer, Eunapius, then a 17-year-old, became his student, lived in his house for five years, and learning the details of his life, passed down that information to us. Prohaeresius passed away shortly after Eunapius left his care, at about 95 years old, full of age and glory. “When I looked at him,” said Eunapius, “though Prohaeresius had now reached his eighty-seventh year, his hair remained curly and thick and—because of the number of grey hairs—silvered over and resembling sea foam, I regarded him as an ageless and immortal being.”
Prohaeresius had written other rhetorical speeches aside from the aforementioned ones, mainly eulogies and panegyrics, none of which have reached us due to the cruelties of either time or envy. However, the stories and sayings about him that have come down to us attest to his glory and honor, and so do his students, which included St. Basil of Caesarea, and also beloved in Greek literature, St. Gregory the Theologian, who in his profound wisdom indebted himself to the efforts and genius of his teacher, whom he knew closely from childhood and to whom he dedicated the following lines:
Boast greatly no longer with your head held high Cecropia,
It is not right to measure a torch against the light of the sun,
Nor to pit a mortal against Prohaeresius in rhetoric,
Who vanquished the world with his words of oration.
Attica shook with unexpected thunder,
But the academies of outspoken intellectuals
Yielded to Prohaeresius, and gave way to what was fated.
The resplendent glory of Athens was marred when he passed,
In bitterness upon its deathbed.
Flee hereafter from Cecropia, young apprentices!
Diophantus, a famous orator at the time, delivered a eulogy in memoriam of Prohaeresius after his death, from which the following lines have reached us: “O Marathon! O Salamis! Your magnificent names are now buried in silence. What a trumpet of your glorious victories you have lost!”
Among Prohaeresius’ contemporaries, the next most famous sophist and orator is considered Libanius, who was a pagan and therefore remained and was honored by the emperor Julian. This orator also speaks of Prohaeresius with great praise in his letters, and notes that he captured the world with his eloquence, became worthy of statues, and led a noble life.
In summarizing the life of this marvelous stranger, let us say that he left behind vivid memories. After he grew up and left Athens, and while in the city of Tralles in Asia Minor, he married a woman named Amphiclea with whom he had two daughters. When they came of age, they left their parents, and it is said, Prohaeresius was very grieved. That’s when paganism, with its implacable hatred for Christianity, gave way to a momentary frenzy, and the Muse of Milesius tried to console his sorrows with her lyrical verses.