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In 365, Libanius wrote a letter to Theodorus, a friend serving as the governor of Bithynia, and thanked Theodorus for a portrait that he had sent of the famous second-century rhetorician Aelius Aristides. The remarkable letter reads like something that the leader of a modern fan club would write about a picture of a teen idol. Libanius sat by the portrait and read a work of Aristides. When he looked deeply at the portrait, Libanius knew that ‘it was only proper that such a handsome man should produce such eloquence’ (Letter 1534.2). But this was not the first painting of Aristides that Libanius had received. Four years earlier, Libanius’ friend Italicianus had sent another portrait of Aristides, though one that Libanius (who appears to have been a connoisseur of such things) thought showed his idol with too much hair. Libanius concludes by asking for a third picture of Aristides that shows ‘his hands and feet’ and requesting that his friend ask some old men ‘What is the idea with the hair?’ – two odd requests that only the most dedicated admirer would make.
It is fitting that Libanius felt such kinship with Aristides. Not only were both men accomplished rhetoricians, but they each shared something of the same character. In fact, Libanius seems at times to have modelled his self-presentation on Aristides. Both Aristides and Libanius claimed with pride to have kept emperors waiting before delivering welcoming discourses. They also famously possessed rather delicate constitutions. Aristides’ particular personal foibles have become well known primarily through his Sacred Tales, a work which certainly provides an extremely exaggerated view of the sophist’s peculiar interests. Libanius rarely gets the same sneering scrutiny. Instead, scholars tend to accept Libanius’ frequent complaints about his emotional and physical maladies as more or less accurate descriptions of his condition at a given moment in his life.
Damascius' presentation of Isidore in the historical work called variously the Philosophical History or the Life of Isidore has been the subject of a great deal of misunderstanding over the centuries. Although Damascius had great respect for and close personal ties to his philosophical father, many readers have seen his text as a highly critical one that has little positive to say about its subjects. Photius, for example, states: “[Damascius] sets himself up as judge, not leaving a single one of those on whom he has lavished praise without some deficiency … thus pulling down and throwing to the ground each one of those whom he has extolled and glorified, he imperceptibly establishes his own authority in every way above everybody else. This is why he continually matches praise of Isidore with criticism”. Photius obviously read more of Damascius' text than we can, but even the fragments that survive reveal that Damascius' presentation of the intellectuals of his day has much more nuance to it than Photius allows. The text does contain a great deal of criticism, but readers make a mistake if, like Photius, they let this criticism overshadow the positive aspects of Damascius' portraits. This mistake is particularly acute if they do not appreciate what Damascius is trying to convey about Isidore.