Category Archives: Ancient World

What makes Leo Great?

Me at Leo’s tomb, St Peter’s

Today is the feast of Pope Leo the Great. Since his letters and the transmission are the major concern of my research, it is worth taking a moment to explain why he is Leo ‘the Great’ (and not just because he’s the first bishop of Rome named ‘Leo’).

There may be a temptation to weigh Leo’s greatness by our own scales — what is truly, timelessly, great about Leo? His rhetoric? His theology? His historical impact? His rulings in canon law? His preaching? A grand mixture of all of the above? While interesting, this would certainly not tell us why he is Leo ‘the Great’, since the only other pope universally called ‘the Great’ is Gregory I (590-604) — not everyone thinks of Nicholas I (858-867) in this regard, so I am unsure whether we have three ‘Great’ popes or only two.

Susan Wessel rightly rejected this approach in Leo the Great and the Spiritual Rebuilding of a Universal Rome. Unfortunately, she still answered the question in terms of what Leo’s intrinsic greatness may have been — only situating this greatness as people in his own era would have perceived it. The argument still has to do with seeking a unified answer in his corpus of writings and actions.

Neither of these approaches actually tells us why Leo is ‘the Great’.

Leo is one of the first — if not the first — articulate theologians of papal primacy. This is not why he is ‘the Great’.

Leo wrote more letters destined to be sources for canon law in the succeeding generations than any predecessor. This is not why he is ‘the Great’.

Leo wrote more surviving letters than any bishop of Rome before Gregory the Great. This is not why he is  ‘the Great’.

Leo helped dissuade Attila the Hun from passing down into central Italy. This is not why he is ‘the Great’.

Leo left behind the first surviving corpus of sermons preached by a bishop of Rome. This is not why he is ‘the Great’.

Leo was the first bishop of Rome buried at St Peter’s. This is not why he is ‘the Great’.

Leo was very heavily involved in the geo-ecclesiology of his day, East and West, and he he helped organise the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This, too, is not why he is ‘the Great’.

Chalcedon gets us close, though.

Pope Leo I is called Leo Magnus, Leo the Great, because of his two-nature Christology as outlined in his letter to Flavian of Constantinople of 448 (the ‘Tome’, epistle 28 in the 1753 edition of the Ballerini, repr. Patrologia Latina vol. 54). In 451, Leo succeeded in having this Christology enshrined as the official dogma of the imperial church at the Council of Chalcedon, of which he was a chief player (although the Emperor Marcian was even more so), and he did his best after Marcian’s death, from 457 to his own in 461, to see that it was approved throughout the Empire and that various bishoprics were filled with Chalcedonian bishops.

He expounded it more carefully and more fully in his 124th letter to the monks of Palestine, which he re-used in his 165th letter to the Emperor Leo. This Christology was essentially the traditional Christology of the Latin West, with roots in Augustine of Hippo (who died in 430) and Hilary of Poitiers (who died in 368), and people had schisms over it in the decades after Leo died.

A lot could be said about what Leo’s contribution to theology was and how that contribution was interpreted and received by the imperial church in the century to come — and what would be said would be interesting, and it would highlight why those who loved Leo loved him greatly.

And this is why Leo is ‘the Great’ — theology.

(And how do I know this? Our earliest references to him as magnus, as cited in a 1911 article of C H Turner, are in relation to his status as a theologian of the person of Christ.)

Poetry

The death of Pentheus on an Attic red figure kylix, c. 480 BC

This year, I taught pretty much nothing but poetry. In first semester, Latin class was the Latin verse epistle — Horace, Ovid, Ausonius, Sidonius. In English translation was Latin epic — Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, Claudian. In second semester, Greek class was Theocritus’ Idylls. In English translation was classical mythology — Hesiod’s Theogony and selections from his Works and Days; Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and Agamemnon; Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Antigone; Euripides’ Hippolytus; some Pindar; selections from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; some of Virgil’s Georgics and Aeneid; some of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Heroides; several Homeric Hymns; a bit of Prudentius and Nonnus — the prose was largely from Apollodorus and Livy.

This is a lot of poetry. And teaching ancient poetry draws you not only to a given poet’s wider corpus (that is, those poems of Horace, Theocritus, Ovid, et al. not covered in class) but to the intertexts, one way and the other. Theocritus makes you cast you eye back to Homer but also forward to Moschus, Bion, and especially Virgil’s Eclogues. Teaching the story of Pentheus, whether from Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Apollodorus’ Library, brings the mind circling back to Euripides’ Bacchae. Reading about Polyphemus in Theocritus, Idylls 6 and 11, brings you not only to Homer but to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Euripides’ Cyclops. Herakles and Hylas in Idyll 13 drives you inevitably to Apollonius’ Argonautica. Any reference to Peleus or Thetis makes me think of Catullus 64.

And on it goes.

Teaching epic makes me want to read more epic — not just, say, Statius’ Thebaid but the Mahabharata or Ramayana as well, besides rereading all of Homer.

So on it will continue to go.

Teaching poetry and reading poetry — there is no end.

And my mind now moves to research. I am currently examining two of Leo’s letters as sources for post-Roman social history. It is an interesting topic and has its own appeal. But all this poetry filling up my mind and heart — it makes me want to write about poetry! Maybe a study of Statius? Or perhaps start somewhere smaller — Ambrosian hymns? Rutilius?

Whatever the poetry is, it will have to be late antique. And, although Rutilius is great, probably Christian, since the intersection of later Latin literature and ancient Christianity is where my research strengths currently lie. Venantius Fortunatus, maybe? Arator? I could bring both philology and theology to bear on these texts, hopefully in a fruitful way.

But for now — Vandals in Africa.

The Numinous

Poussin: Apollo and the Muses

Today I gave my final lecture of Greek and Roman Mythology, ‘Myth Today’. I spent a lot of it talking about the use of classical mythology in popular culture — Wonder WomanStar Trek, Eric Shanowar’s Age of Bronze, the work of Neil Gaiman — and how harnessing a mythological framework enables one to tell a story with wide consequences that broaden the audience’s vision and challenge their assumptions, much as science fiction and fantasy do.

Indeed, this is one of the reasons we keep going back to classical mythology, whether it’s the retelling and reshaping them for our own era (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys or Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey) or drawing inspiration from them (possibly Battlestar Galactica, T S Eliot, The Wasteland).

Towards the end of the lecture, I moved into different territory about why the classical myths continue to draw us in — myths are bigger than true, to quote my friend Emily. To quote Northrop Frye (whom I badly paraphrased in class):

my general critical position … revolves around the identity of myth, along with those of folk tale, legend, and related genres, continue to form the structures of literature.

….

every human society possesses a mythology which is inherited, transmitted, and diversified by literature. –Words with Power, xii, xiii

Classical mythology, to an anglophone who grew up reading literature and watching TV and film and reading comic books that are part of an artistic heritage that constantly negotiates that past, is, along with the Bible, the basic grammar of story in the West.

Frye, of course, is pushing us farther than this, pushing us up into the transcendent.

This is certainly where Joseph Campbell wants us to go with The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth. Certain classical myths, as noted by C S Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism, hold a power beyond the poetry that clothes them — stories like Orpheus and Eurydice. These stories are the kind that people like Campbell see recurring throughout world cultures…

According to Frye, then, all literature is mythological — so all language is, perhaps, mystical? Owen Barfield (so I’m told) lays out the argument in Poetic Diction that in the poetic mode words come laden with meaning, more than just the simple diction of that given moment but all of their meanings. This is polysemy. The polysemous nature of poetic language drives us to symbol, turning words — mere utterations of vocal noise or squiggles on a page — into windows into other worlds. (Thus Coleridge, whom both Frye and Barfield read.)

And so in poetry, and in mythology, we find ourselves drawn further up and further in to something different and bigger than a simple materialistic world where A always = A, but can also = alpha or even be transmuted into something completely different.

Is this, therefore, a means by which the very act of storytelling, or the labour of versification, is itself a means of communicating with the numinous?

The numinous is where I find myself at the end of my myth course. What did the Greeks and Romans get out of their common stock of stories, from Homer through Ovid to Nonnus of Panopolis and Fulgentius the Mythographer? What is it that is intrinsic to these stories that drives us to them again and again, compelling us to read them? Is it because they give us a brush with Something Bigger?

I had two minutes, so these were things that were left unsaid. But I do still want to push these boundaries.

Edinburgh or Ancyra?

Here’s a little gem, slightly edited for effect:

Once [there], our traveller could … feel safe in a proper metropolis, with its ancient fort standing proud on a rugged crag, its old town crowding down the hill’s gentler back, and its regular, properly-planned new town spread out below, with its imposing architecture and grand monuments to distant monarchs.

Immediately, this reads like a description of Edinburgh, doesn’t it? But, in fact, it is a description of late antique Ancyra — but written by Sara Parvis in Marcellus of Ancyra and the Lost Years of the Arian Controversy 325-345.

Sara (one of my Ph.D. supervisors) is Senior Lecturer in Patristics at the University of Edinburgh, where she had already been living for several years at the time her book about Marcellus was published.

This is the kind of little gem one writes into one’s book for those who know. I love it.

Coming to grips with late antique Christianity

Fifth-century mosaic from San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

I once heard an anecdote about a colleague who (I think) said that Constantine’s revisions of the imperial postal system were more significant than his conversion to Christianity. This may, in fact, be true, depending on how you define your terms. However, it is the case that, overall, coming to grips with Christianity will help you understand late antiquity better than knowing the imperial postal system.

If you begin with the Tetrarchy and Diocletian, you will need to have some grasp of who Christians are and why the Roman government disliked them for understanding the persecution.

If you begin earlier with the Third Century Crisis and are interested in Latin literature, the fact that we have so little Latin literature from the second century will throw you into the arms of Cyprian of Carthage and his letters.

Beginning with Constantine there is a conversion of the upper classes, and these are the people who produce or for whom are produced most of the stuff that survives from antiquity — fancy houses, poems, philosophical treatises. Their religion is thus not inconsequential. And they eventually do become Christians — we can learn about the last pagans of Rome (to cite the title of a book by Alan Cameron)

And if you are interested in Later Latin Literature, Christianity is all over the place. Some of the greatest poets of Late Antiquity write explicitly religious poetry. It would be a shame to study the world of late antiquity (to cite the title of a Peter Brown book) and miss out on Prudentius and the other Christian epicists. Likewise the Greek verse of Gregory of Nazianzus, or the sublime Syriac poetry of Ephrem and his luminous eye (to cite a Sebastian Brock title).

While the rise of western Christendom (to cite Peter Brown again) is a major feature of the study of the Mediterranean world in Late Antiquity (Averil Cameron this time), I admit one should be perspicacious. There is a lot to grapple with.

Consider the realm of texts: Augustine of Hippo is the ancient Latin author with the largest surviving corpus, for one thing. We have more Christian letter collections from Late Antiquity than the non-Christian ones from preceding centuries. Indeed, Christians love books — sermons, letters, poems, long theological tractates, canon law documents, apologies, polemics, biographies, hagiographies, liturgies, and so forth, flow forth in abundance in Late Antiquity in Latin, Greek, Syriac, and Coptic.

Material culture is also a big realm, from Spain and even Britain in the West to Mesopotamia in the East, the Roman Empire and its Persian neighbour has its fair share of physical remains, some of them the large, mosaic-encrusted churches of Ravenna, others the foundations of churches in Salamis on Cyprus. This is not to mention the myriad smaller objects of Christian origin — ivories, icons, Bibles, Bible covers, communion vessels, etc.

Moreover, Christianity is a complex phenomenon. Are we looking at the beliefs and writings and practices of the educated elite? What about the urban poor? What about different modes of belief amongst different Christian bodies? Bishops? Laypeople? Rome? Antioch? Nisibis?

In fact, there’s so much, whether you like Christianity or not, how could you help but take an interest in it if you’re interested in Late Antiquity?

The Aesthetics of Greek and Latin

Chancellor Gorkon

Chancellor Gorkon famously said, “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon,” in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It is a trope that is expressed about basically all literature — you cannot appreciate something in a translation. Something is always lost in translation, even if a translator is capable of conveying the same, precise meaning as the original text.

One of the elements lost is the original aesthetic of the text. The sheer pleasure of reading well-wrought verbal artistry is entirely untranslatable. Anaphora, anacolouthon, assonance, alliteration, not to mention other devices that don’t begin with A are rarely, if ever, capable of reproduction in a translation. Puns are well-nigh impossible. Poetic meter and prose rhythm are almost inevitably sacrificed.

I was reminded of this recently while teaching Theocritus. It has been a few years since I last read Theocritus in the original Greek, and I find myself enjoying him much more in Greek than I had in my more recent reading of him in English translation. The aesthetic pleasures of Theocritus are in some ways, of course, those of any poet. Reading dactylic hexameters aloud, for example, has an aural significance that nothing else provides (even things equally pleasant are simply different). And then you meet his use of literary devices — playing with words, repeating various sounds across several lines of poetry as a means of tying together the concepts in a poem in a way that English, with a different vocabulary, cannot do with the same meanings.

There is also the pleasure of reading Doric Greek. Ancient Greek, if you were not aware, exists in multiple dialects. The dialect of Theocritus is primarily Doric. This means that he has certain versions of common words that different from other dialects — poti for pros, for instance. He also frequently uses long alpha where the Greek you learn in class uses eta. Some of his pronouns are different, etc. This use of a different dialect provides both an aesthetic and philological pleasure. His Greek ‘sounds’ different from Homer’s, although he does use some Homeric vocabulary and forms; it sounds different from Plato’s, as well.

Finally, part of the pleasure of reading verse written in inflected languages is the fact that word order matters a lot less than in English. As one of my students calls it, every once in a while Theocritus gives us a ‘Happy Grammar Fun Time’ — he will delay a crucial word in a sentence through enjambment so that it is both the final word of the sentence and the first word of a line of poetry. Not only this, in one of the occasions he does this, that final word of the sentence is separated from the rest of the sentence by a refrain. Without the word, as you would read the sentence naturally, it has one meaning. Suddenly, a new meaning appears after the refrain.

You cannot do this in English.

It is hard to explain the sheer pleasure that comes from reading literature in its original language, but it is a truly pleasurable aesthetic experience to read Theocritus in Greek, or Virgil in Latin, or any author in the language he or she originally used.