1902 Encyclopedia > Longinus

Ancient Greek literary critic
(1st or 3rd century AD)

LONGINUS, a philosophical critic of great eminence, and one of the brightest spirits of antiquity, uniting Greek subtlety with Roman fervour, flourished in the 3d century, and is known to have perished under sentence of the emperor Aurelian in 273 A.D. He forms one of the last brilliant cluster of pagan literati; and Porphyry, round whom it centred, was the pupil of Longinus. As Porphyry is known to have been born in 233, it is probable that his preceptor, who could not have been less than twenty years his senior, may have been born about 210 A.D. The main authority for the facts of his life is a notice in Suidas, where we find it stated in a preface to a list of his writings that " Longinus Cassius, philosopher, preceptor of Porphyry the philosopher, a learned scholar and critic, lived in the time of the emperor Aurelian, and was cut off by him as having conspired with Zenobia, the wife of Odenathus." From the same authority we learn that Phronto, the rhetorician of Emesa in Syria, was his uncle, and that Phrontonis, sister of Phronto, was mother to Longinus, who thus became heir to his uncle Phronto. As to his birthplace there is no tradition, but it is probable that he was a native of Syria, possibly of Emesa, to which his uncle belonged. He tells us, as we learn from fragments of his works, that he enjoyed great advantages in travel and education, that his parents, being rich, took him to travel and he saw much of the world, and that he studied at Athens under Phronto, at Alexandria under Ammonius Saccas and the pagan Origenes, and at Rome under Plotinus and Amelius. The Neo-Platonic philosophy was then in the ascendant, but Longinus did not embrace the new speculations which Plotinus was then developing, and continued a Platonist of the old type. Hence the sting of a sarcasm attributed to Plotinus—" Longinus may be a philologer, but he is no philosopher." Longinus does not appear to have reciprocated the sarcastic feeling, for we have still extant a fragment of a letter in which he asks Porphyry to come to Phoenicia and to bring with him the treatises of Plotinus, for, he observes, though he does not feel much attraction for the subjects, he yet likes the man. The reputation which Longinus acquired by his learning was immense; it was of him that Eunapius first used the expression that has since become proverbial " a living library "—in modern phrase, a walking encyclopaedia.

The most conspicuous event of his life was also the most tragic in its consequences. He became secretary to Zenobia, the widowed queen of Palmyra, who acquired from him a knowledge of Greek, and made him her chief counsellor in state affairs. In this capacity he favoured the policy by which she aimed at independence of the Roman empire, encouraged, doubtless, to do so by the recent fate of Valerian, and by the feebleness of the tenure by which Rome held the Syrian provinces. Aurelian, how-ever, crushed the pretension, and, while Zenobia lost her power and was led captive to Rome, Longinus paid the forfeit of his life. According to Zosimus, Zenobia sought to exculpate herself with Aurelian by laying, the whole blame on her adviser. He died bravely, not seeking to escape his fate by suicide as a Stoic might have done, but following the example of Socrates and the precept of Plato, to whose philosophy he adhered.

The remains of Longinus that have come down to us, unfortunately scanty, are partly fragments of letters and extracts from criticisms on points of diction; and they bear out the impression we derive from the historical notices of the man. He is vivid and yet minute, lively and penetrating, and his observations show taste, learning, and judgment. Among the most notable of the fragments we . have a defence of the Platonic doctrine of the soul as a distinct essence from the body, wdiich defines clearly his philosophical position.

It only remains to advert in a few words to the remarkable pro-duction, called the Trecdisc on the Sublime, wdiich has usually passed current as a work of Longinus. This remarkable work, which is among the most notable productions of ancient criticism, second only in importance to the Poetics of Aristotle, and superior to that work in luminous beauty and sense of form, cannot be with certainty ascribed to Longinus, although the internal evidence favours the usual ascription. Of the two most startling difficulties the first is the absence of any mention of a treatise irepl S\j/ovs in the list by Suidas. The enumeration is, however, incomplete, and the phrase'' many other works," with which it closes, may be held to eover much. A more formidable difficulty is the circumstance that in the most important manuscript (that in the Paris Library, No. 2036, of the 10th century) the heading is Aiovvcriov if) Aoyyivov, giving thus an alternative author "Dionysius," and in the other important MS., the Laurentian at Florence, the title is 'Avavv/j.ov, implying that the author was unknown. According to Vaucher (Études, p. 134) this title is not the original one, and there are traces of an earlier title Aoyyivov, which had formed the superscription. Full information as to the critical question will be found in the editions of A. E. Egger (Longimi quai supersunt, Paris, 1837), Vaucher's Études Critiques sur le Traité du Sublime et sur les écrits de Longin, Geneva, 1854, and Otto Jahn's Aiovvolov 3) Aoyyivov irepl vil/ovs de Sublimitate Libellus, Bonn, 1867. Vaucher ascribes the treatise to Plutarch, but the evidence negatives that supposition, and, although there are difficulties in ascribing the work absolutely to Longinus, as Boileau and Gibbon and the critics of last century traditionally assumed, there is no other name than that of Longinus that presents so many concurring circumstances, to justify provisionally the current ascription. The fragments that remain of the undoubted works of Longinus are largely characterized by the same lively force and epigrammatic terseness which distinguish the treatise, " On the Sublime." The translations of this treatise into all the European tongues have been almost innumerable, including the famous one by
Boileau, which rendered the work the favourite text-book of the belle-lettristic critics in the last century. The most important English translations are by William Smith, 1739, frequently reproduced ; Hathaway, 1834 ; Spurdens, 1836. (W. D. G.)


It is probable that he owed part of his political fervour to the influ-ence or inheritance of the name " Cassius," from whatever source this surname was derived. The associations of this name were distinctly anti-imperial and even regicidal, as seen in Cams Cassius and in Cassius Chserea,-

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries