Libanius, The Riot of the Statues (387)

In 387 CE, the Emperor Theodosius raised taxes on the city of Antioch. The people rebelled by lashing out against the emperor’s statues, and the emperor, angered by this act, threatened to burn the city to the ground. Libanius, the prominent intellectual and teacher of Antioch, wrote the following letter to the emperor, asking for clemency, and appealing to the emperor’s good judgment. He cites earlier examples of image destruction by the public, and the ways in which past emperors responded. The passage has been edited down from Libanius, Orations 19.25–66, tr. A. F. Norman, Loeb Classical Library 452 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 285–309.

25. There arrived the decree concerning the gold, something long dreaded. What up to then seemed incredible was only too credible; the land could not bear the burden, and so those who had heard the directive cast themselves to the ground, the majority revealing their utter incapacity: however much they might wish it, they would be incapable of doing what they could not, and their persons would be in the direst straits…. 26. The court-room was crammed with people—ex-governors, city-councillors, professional lawyers, retired military men. Of these that I have listed, some, as I have said, began to make tearful supplication, others wept without speaking, though they too must obviously be classed as suppliants….

27. So up to that point, Sire, you had been wronged by none,… but now, when they had come outside and were bringing their entreaties to an end, some fellows began to cause a disturbance…. 29. We used to gaze with reverence upon your statues;…. Urchins, mere boys, darted upon them all, quickly clambered up and down, jumped from one to another with more vigour than that of men in their prime….

31. So I began to listen, and in the shouts of many of them there was the word “gold”—the shouting naturally having to do with the object of the crush. When things reached the stage of meddling with the statues, there were some offenders, but the spectators far outnumbered the performers of this outrage. Then how was it that they did not try to stop them? I repeat what I have said before—that a stronger power prevailed to stop them. There was some superhuman agency here and within them, which forced each man to look upon this and prevented him from uttering a word.

32. No magistrate put in his appearance, and so, numerous though they were, they were forced to be still. The city councillors, so far from participating in or witnessing such behaviour, went to ground wherever they could and tried to save their own skins, for they were afraid that if they appeared on the scene, they would be lynched. Upon the commission of even more shocking outrages, the fear they entertained because of the lesser deeds appeared justified in consequence, for after the commission of such excesses, how were they to expect them to behave in other matters, especially when the house of one of the notables had already been set on fire? They were much more concerned, though, for their lives than for their homes. 33. Anyway, they scattered because of the panic that affected them. They could not see one another, or tell or hear the news about the situation, and at the same time rumour exaggerated the numbers of those who attacked the statues, and so they lay low, praying for the end of the business, but incapable of venturing to act…. 36. However, when the Count of the East heard that archers had engaged the incendiaries, he visited the scene in person, and brought in troop reinforcements, and so made it abundantly clear that with the same force he could have done the same in the previous stages too. Wounds sustained by the incendiaries from roof-tiles caused them to be handed over to trial, and the many ways of search did the same with those guilty of sacrilege. Their accomplices, who knew the identity and the actions of their fellows, turned state’s evidence, and conviction was quick, clear and easy.

37. The prisoners had to be classified according to the seriousness of their crimes. So this was done. Then proceedings had to be instituted immediately for the punishment of the worst offenders. This too was done: some fell by the sword, or lost their lives at the stake, or met their deaths at the jaws of beasts. Nor could mere boys be saved by the very fact of their youth—their tender years, in fact, were a disadvantage to them in their involvement in such misdeeds. Those who escaped punishment were simply the innocent, for the investigator everywhere applied such rigorous examination to everyone that no one at all could evade the truth.

39. …Rumour has it that you will unleash the military to pillage the property of us all, or to massacre the inhabitants of the city, or that you will avenge the insult by a huge fine or by shedding the blood of the leading lights of the city council. 40. … You have heard my explanation that the action was not that of the city as a whole, so how can it be just for everyone to be put to death, for instance, those who at the time of this offence were not even resident here, or who were fettered by illness, or who thanked their lucky stars that they had not been murdered by someone?…

47. ...You should be reminded of the clemency employed by Constantius towards the misconduct of the cities. After the death of Theophilus which that fine governor suffered at the hands of five copper-smiths at the chariot races quite contrary to his deserts, Constantius sent here Strategius as prefect, and, though sore at heart, when he spoke to him of punishment, he repeatedly insisted that he should go about the business with the utmost moderation. Nor did Strategius disregard these instructions, nor yet did any more matrons than was proper go into mourning. 48. “Ah, but what took place then,” it will be objected, “was the murder of Theophilus. Now we are concerned with an outrage against the imperial statues.” Now I will ignore the fact that that incident also was an outrage against an emperor, and will demonstrate that, in precisely similar circumstances to these, Constantius remained true to himself. In the city of Edessa, the inhabitants, resenting some treatment they had received, cast down his bronze statue, turned it face down, lifted it up, as they do with children in school, and administered a thrashing to the back and back-side, commenting also that anyone visited with such a whipping was far removed from imperial dignity. 49. When Constantius heard of this, he did not fly into a temper, he sought no punishment, nor did he humble the city in any way. He refused to punish them, any more than he would have punished cranes for their clatter. This and such-like behaviour seemed so noble and praiseworthy, that by his moderation his slackness in military matters was disguised. Every year the Persians nibbled away bits of our territories and increased theirs at our expense, but he still had his devotees to wish him long life because of his clemency towards the cities.

50. This can be a credit to any man, but especially to those in authority. When fortune allows omnipotence, it redounds greatly to a man’s praise and renown that there should be some restraint and some moderating influence. Then will you want this said of another rather than let mankind say it of you? Never, noble Sire, withdraw your claim to victory in this sphere in favour of any man.….

64. Relieve us, then, Sire, of our grave distress, and equate with our exile and our lamentation the gloriousness of our restoration. Let us recover our boudoirs and our bedrooms. Let us kiss our front doors, the inner doors, and those thereafter, and let us enjoy our sleep of nights as we lie down in our own beds.