Plato’s Pilot in the Political Strategy of Julian and Libanius

David Neal Greenwood

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The rhetorical career of Libanius of Antioch (a.d. 314–c.393) spanned the reigns of a number of fourth-century emperors. Like many orators, he used the trope of the emperor as a pilot, steering the ship of state. He did this for his imperial exemplar Julian and in fact for his predecessor Constantius II as well. Julian sought to craft an identity for himself as a theocratic king. He and his supporters cast him as an earthly parallel to the Christ-like versions of Heracles and Asclepius he constructed, which was arguably a co-opting of Christian and particularly Constantinian themes. In a public oration, Julian even placed himself in the role of Christ in the Temptation in the Wilderness. This kind of overtly Christian metaphor was not Libanius’ preferred idiom, however, and he wrote of Julian as another kind of chosen and divine saviour-figure, one with its roots in the golden age of Greek philosophy. The figure of the κυβερνήτης, the ‘pilot’ or ‘helmsman’, is a philosophical concept with roots in the thought of the pre-Socratics but most familiar from Plato. The uses of this metaphor by Julian and Libanius highlight the rhetorical strategy and self-presentation the emperor employed during his reign.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)607-616
Number of pages10
JournalClassical Quarterly
Issue number2
Early online date12 Oct 2017
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017


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