Category Archives: Patristics

The small consolations of ancient “consolatio”


A friend recently passed away from as-yet unknown (to me) medical causes. He was 37, going on 38. Lots of thoughts and responses have been going through my mind and heart, of course. At the same time, professionally, I am starting to work on a book chapter about ancient letters and the science of historical study, so various thoughts about ancient letters have been emerging.

These two facets of my reality meet in the ancient letter of consolation, unsurprisingly simply called consolatio in Latin. These letters and the philosophical themes they bring up dance on the periphery of my existence. I feel that they are a good reminder of two things:

  1. Ancient people are different from us.
  2. There’s very little anyone can say to console you in the midst of the loss of a loved one.

Typically, the author of one of these expresses his own grief at the death in question. Then, if the dead person was known to the writer, he expresses his admiration for a life well-lived. At some point, there is some consolation in the fact that we all die, and a reminder that the person in question has been removed from the toils of this mortal life — whether of illness or that person’s particular misfortune or political circumstances.

I cannot, for the moment, find the specific letter from Cicero, but in one of his Ad Familiares (given by D R Shackleton Bailey in English as “To his friends”), Cicero consoles someone on the loss of a son by saying that at least the poor boy didn’t have to live through the evident troubles awaiting the Roman Republic.

Seems cold comfort to me.

Pliny writes a letter (1.12) lamenting the death of a friend who had committed suicide at age 67, asking for some consolation better than the fact that Corellius had lived a good life, was old, and had been ill with gout in his feet since age 32.

In the 400s, Sidonius Apollinaris writes consolatio to the effect that one should not weep for someone whose great and good name lives on after him (Ep. 4.11.6). He also strikes a Christian tone that good deeds buy heavenly reward. This is the new addition, found in Gregory the Great (Ep. 1.11) and Ruricius of Limoges (Ep. 2.3).

One of the new tones besides the hope of heaven is finding comfort in Christ, expressed by Gregory in Ep. 1.11 and Ruricius in 2.3 and 2.39. Ruricius also points out that bodily death is not a true cause of grief but, rather, spiritual death (2.46).

When I first had news of my friend’s death, my position was far more Plinian than anything. What does it matter that he does not have to live through whatever fresh hell COVID-19, racial unrest, and a tanking economy have to offer? What does it matter that he lived a good life and will be fondly remembered by his family, friends, and colleagues? He is gone, never to return.

As time passes, though, and especially as I see some of the strength of his sister’s posts on Facebook, there is comfort in Sidonius, Gregory, and Ruricius, that Andrew lived a good life, that he had fled to Christ for his trust in the resurrection.

Knowing that Andrew will be with us at the resurrection day, St Ambrose’s funeral speech on his brother Satyrus now comes to me, infusing the themes of consolatio with abundant Christian theology and the great solace that comes of knowing what awaits him. Change a few details, and this can apply as well:

He had no need of being raised again for time, for whom the raising again for eternity is waiting. For why should he fall back into this wretched and miserable state of corruption, and return to this mournful life, for whose rescue from such imminent evils and threatening dangers we ought rather to rejoice? For if no one mourns for Enoch, who was translated when the world was at peace and wars were not raging, but the people rather congratulated him, as Scripture says concerning him: “He was taken away, lest that wickedness should alter his understanding,” with how much greater justice must this now be said, when to the dangers of the world is added the uncertainty of life. He was taken away that he might not fall into the hands of the barbarians; he was taken away that he might not see the ruin of the whole earth, the end of the world, the burial of his relatives, the death of fellow-citizens; lest, lastly, which is more bitter than any death, he should see the pollution of the holy virgins and widows. (On the Death of Satyrus, ch. 30)

10 books, no. 3: The Philokalia

My third of ten books (sorry I fell behind on this) was The Philokalia, vol. 1:

The Philokalia is a five-volume anthology of Greek-language (plus a Greek translation of bits of John Cassian) ascetic/mystical texts focussed on the art of prayer, the prayer of the heart, pure prayer — viz., the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

It was compiled in 1782 by Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain (that is, Athos) and Makarios of Corinth, drawn from a selection of Athonite manuscripts of Greek-language spiritual masters that were themselves what the compilers thought of as “paterika” — anthologies of the “fathers”. In the Orthodox world, the “fathers” do not end in 749 with the death of John of Damascus (as in western assessments of “patristics”) but potentially extend until today. The “fathers” selected here run from the fourth through fourteenth century.

I call these “Greek-language” texts because simply saying “Greek” will give the wrong idea to a modern reader — the monks herein are from Egypt, Mt Sinai, Judaea-Palestine, and Syria as well as from the “Greek” Mount Athos. They do not provide a vision of the entire Christian life or all of Orthodox spirituality, but simply an approach to pure prayer and the union of the mind with the heart, focussing largely on the Jesus Prayer, as noted above.

A shorter anthology emerged around the same time, and it may not be a shortened Philokalia, according to recent research, but actually an independent text based on the same or similar manuscripts. It is often called the shorter or little Russian Philokalia, and it is the book in the popular anonymous novel The Way of a Pilgrim. Along with the Russian translation of Isaac the Syrian, it was influential on the Optina Fathers and nineteenth-century Russian spiritual masters such as Theophan the Recluse.

Volume 1 is all that I’ve read of The Philokalia. It is entirely ancient, mostly fourth- and fifth-century authors, going possibly up to the later seventh. Not all of the authors are securely dated. It includes: Isaiah the Solitary; Evagrius Ponticus; John Cassian; Mark the Ascetic (or the Monk); Hesychios the Priest; Nilos of Ancyra; Diadochos of Photiki; John of Karpathos, and a pseudonymous text of Antony the Great.

In the first volume, the prayer of the heart and the conditions for it are charted to the emergence of the name of Jesus and the Jesus Prayer in the fifth century. It is a powerful, challenging book of a more than historical interest.

Finally, this translation is a version of The Philokalia in the spirit of Nikodimos and Makarios rather than a translation of The Philokalia as printed in Venice in 1782. The translators translate the same selections from the authors, but they reattribute them where we know better who wrote a text, and they translate them from modern critical editions. Moreover, they also produce their own general introduction to the volume besides introductions to each author and an invaluable glossary at the back.

If you are interested in Eastern Orthodox spirituality or a certain tradition of the ancient Desert, this book is a difficult but worthy place to begin.

Was Late Antiquity an age of spirituality?

Before I launch into this post, I’d like to make it clear that I greatly admire the work of Kurt Weitzmann and have enormously profited from the book Age of Spirituality, which the Metropolitan Museum Art has available as a free download. Now, onto the show.

Sometimes, when I read titles of articles and books about Late Antiquity, and sometimes even the content, I get the impression that there are people out there who imagine Late Antiquity to have been uniquely religious, or particularly “spiritual” — that there was a spiritual ferment in the years 284-641 (or earlier, if you take on the timeline of Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity).

I am not sure that this is true. (And I hope I’m not constructing a strawman. Hopefully my academic colleagues are aware of this. It’s mostly just an impression.)

When I say that, I am not saying that Late Antiquity is not an age of spirituality. I mean that the designation is misleading. When we talk about this as an age of spirituality, there is an unspoken assumption that “classical antiquity” was not. Allow me to articulate, first, why we might think this, and second, why I think “classical antiquity” was as “spiritual” as Late Antiquity.

Why might we think that Late Antiquity was more spiritual?

The nature of the evidence for religious activity in Late Antiquity leads us to think this way, I believe. One of main cultural events of Late Antiquity was the Christianisation of the Roman Empire, and hot on its heels came the rise of Islam. Cultural historians have to deal with these two facts, and, since Islam and Christianity are both still lived religions, the evidence for each in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages is still available.

I know Christianity a lot better than Islam, and its history in the period is better documented, anyway. Two things about evidence for late antique Christianity give it an edge over other ancient religious traditions. First, it neither went underground nor ceased existing. The traditional Roman priesthoods all died out in Late Antiquity. No more sacrifices were made. No new hymns were written. The monuments were no longer maintained. Christianity, on the other hand, kept going.

Second, in the Early Middle Ages, the gatekeepers of knowledge were monks. Now, as anyone who has read Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, knows, monks loved them some Virgil and Ovid. They read and copied the “pagan classics.” But, by and large, given the expense involved in making a book, they read and copied Bibles, liturgical books, ascetic/mystical treatises, and the Church Fathers. As a result, we simply have more knowledge about the religious experience of Late Antiquity because people were copying it down.

Related to this is the fact that, although many things about Late Antiquity are foreign to us (very few people have any desire to live on a pillar in the Syrian desert, for example), because of Christianisation, the spiritual texts of Late Antiquity seem familiar to us. Their religious experience looks like what we expect religious experience to look like because, even if fewer and fewer of us in western academia are professing Christians, we frame our religious language and experience in these same terms — or in an explicit rejection of them.

Ancient pagans, on the other hand, don’t fare nearly as well. Most surviving ancient Latin texts are Late Antique in the first place. More Augustine survives than any other ancient Latin author. I believe St Jerome comes in second place. Late Antique Latin texts dwarf their classical predecessors for quantity. As a result, even if pagan religious experience were not foreign, we simply have less of it to deal with.

Another reason, however, has to do with our own prejudices, Christian on one hand and Enlightenment on the other. Neither position does justice to non-Christian religious experience in antiquity. The Christian prejudice, for example, explains the relatively rapid Christianisation in Late Antiquity because paganism was empty and dead, just a bunch of formal rituals and such. Now, not only is this untrue of late antique paganism (consider the Neo-Platonist experience), it is untrue of classical religion as well.

The Enlightenment, on the other hand, discounts the religious element of classical antiquity. My first-year philosophy professor completely disregarded the religious elements of Plato, downplaying them as having any real bearing upon his philosophy. We like talking about people who challenged traditional religion without acknowledging that perhaps they have their own distinct religious experience from which their challenge arises. Instead, we imagine the Greeks and Romans as a bunch of Enlightenment rationalists (E R Dodds has put this to rest in The Greeks and the Irrational).

It is my contention — and it certainly needs more research to be proven and publishable in an academic forum — that classical antiquity, and archaic antiquity, had its own meaningful, distinct religious experience. It was every bit as spiritual as Late Antiquity.


Another angle is: What about unspirituality in Late Antiquity? What do we say of authors who seem largely secular such as Ammianus? Or Christians like Sidonius who write verse populated by pagan deities?

Bodies beyond sex

I am just beginning to (finally) read Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. In my final trip to the library of St Paul University yesterday, I read Andrew Louth’s 1990 review of the book in question. The review was overall positive, but one note he struck is one that I sometimes feel as well.

Louth observes that “today” (that is, 1990), when you see a book with “body” in the title, you immediately know that it is going to be about sex. And so with this book. His concern with this modern preoccupation with sex is that it was not, in fact, always the main preoccupation of the ancient authors, which therefore produces something of an unintended distortion of their teachings. Yes, Brown may get their teaching on sex right, but without being fully situated, contextualised, and relativised to each author’s wider ideas about the body, we may believe that they were all very, even overly, concerned with sex.

I am at present working on an article about John Cassian’s Conferences, one of the early, foundational texts of Latin monasticism. Cassian’s fourteenth Conference — about chastity — is part of Brown’s concern, largely as a quiet response to Augustine. (In many ways, Cassian is a balancing force against medieval Augustinianism, both being read and copied innumerable times by the monks of the western Middle Ages.) As Brown notes, for Cassian, sexuality is not the heart of the person, but rather a symptom, and the deepest recesses of the person are where the true, most baleful sins lie — “anger, greed, avarice, and vainglory.” (p. 420, 2008 ed.)

Indeed, as Boniface Ramsey notes in the commentary of his translation of the Conferences, food was a much more pervasive concern of the Desert Fathers than sex — something that Brown, in fact, notes. (But Ramsey is not at hand, so I cannot give you a reference to either him or Brown.)

At the same time as all of this, we are reading Clement of Alexandria‘s Paedagogus over at Read the Fathers. In Book 2 of this work, Clement says that since we are rational and have submitted ourselves to God the Word as our paedagogus, we must keep our bodies in check. The chapters of Book 2 are as follows:

  1. On eating
  2. On drinking
  3. On costly vessels (against luxurious tableware)
  4. How to conduct ourselves at feasts (mostly about music)
  5. On Laughter
  6. On Filthy Speaking
  7. Directions for Those Who Live Together
  8. On the Use of Ointments and Crowns (garlands?)
  9. On Sleep
  10. On the procreation of children
  11. On clothes
  12. On shoes
  13. Against Excessive Fondness for Jewels and Gold Ornaments

These are all, in one way or another, matters to do with how we live as embodied human persons, are they not? Food, drink, the treatment of food and drink, the use of our mouths, sleep, etc. Sex does not emerge until chapter 10.

The embodied human existence is more than sex, and all of us know it. I believe a new generation of scholars is pointing us in this direction, not only John Behr, Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement, who is definitely of a generation prior to mine, but my colleagues as well.

If we wish to grasp the ancients as they saw themselves, we need to understand their treatment of the body in matters of sex as well as eating, drinking, sleeping, excreting, dressing, laughing, and so forth.


Behr, John. Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement. Oxford, 2000.

Brown, Peter. The Body and Society. New York, 2008 (20th anniversary ed., originally 1988).

Louth, Andrew. Review of The Body and SocietyJournal of Theological Studies ns 4 (1990), 231-235.

Ramsey, Boniface. John Cassian: The Conferences. New York.

Why I am lead admin at Read the Fathers

7th-c fresco from when Curia became a church, now in the museum at Cripta Balbi, Rome

There is a website called Read the Fathers, and it sets out a reading plan that renews every seven years to read big chunks of most of the significant ancient Christian writers, ordered according to the old Victorian Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series. The original seven-year cycle ran from December 2012 to the end of November 2019. In December 2019, there was interest (from my brother) to start the cycle again, but the original administrators did not want to carry on the job (understandably).

So I took it on.

I have chosen to be the lead admin at Read the Fathers for a few reasons: my research and teaching, the usefulness of the project, and a desire to adapt the website to promote greater engagement with ancient Christianity.

My research and teaching

I research ancient Christianity for a living. The medieval manuscripts I read are not chosen willy-nilly. While I often focus on papal letters or canon law, the main thrust of the texts I research is that they are in some way related to the lived religion of late ancient Christianity. My Ph.D. dissertation was a study of over 300 manuscripts, all of which transmit letters of Pope Leo the Great (pope, 440-461), one of the chief agitators for the Council of Chalcedon in 451. My first post-doc was an analysis of manuscripts containing select letters of a few of Leo’s predecessors. Besides Leo, I have an article about the sixth-century Syriac historian John of Ephesus, and I am working on an article about the reception of Evagrius of Pontus’ demonology by John Cassian in the 400s.

I am a Classicist: a Latinist and Roman historian. The focus of my research is late antique Christianity.

It just makes sense, then, that I should read as many late antique Christian texts as I can. By reading more and more ancient Christian writings, I become better able to integrate the texts I focus on directly in my research — usually canon law or monastic — into their own context and the history of ideas. By reading more of these writings, I see what distinguishes one writer from another more clearly. I become a better reader of Leo, Cassian, John of Ephesus, by becoming a reader of Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian.

Furthermore, I even get to teach ancient Christianity sometimes. As a Ph.D. student I taught “Christianity Before Constantine” and “The History of Christianity As a World Religion Before 1453”. As Teaching Fellow in Late Roman History, I taught one explicitly religious course — “The Bishop and City of Rome in Late Antiquity” — but ancient Christianity was part of “The Emperor in the Late Roman World” and “Crisis, Continuity, and Culture in the Fifth Century,” besides the lecture I gave on early Christianity in the survey course about the Roman Empire.

Reading “the Fathers” will do nothing but profit such teaching. Indeed, it even gives valuable context and discussion for teaching Greek and Roman mythology!

Choosing to be the lead admin will give me impetus not to put reading and re-reading these texts off to another day.

The Usefulness of the Project

I have always been something of a “Classics evangelist.” I love ancient (and medieval) literature. I love Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Euripides, Sophocles, Seneca, Plato, et al. I think they are worth reading in and of themselves. I also think that understanding the classics helps us understand our own culture, since we are in some way heirs of the ancient Greeks and Romans (neither are we the only heirs, nor are the ancient Greeks and Romans the only ancestors of “western” culture — but the point stands).

So also for the Church Fathers. If you are interested in intellectual history and how “we got here”, you can’t just jump from Aristotle to Descartes, or (if you’re a Protestant of a certain variety) from the Apostles to Martin Luther, or, indeed, from Augustine to Aquinas. Knowing the movers, shakers, and shapers of the ancient Christian tradition puts the medieval and modern traditions into clearer focus, I believe.

For Christians, reading ancient Christianity is a way of coming to grips with one’s own heritage, with the thoughts and lives of the people involved in forming a New Testament canon, in articulating the foundational doctrines of Christian theology, in bodying forth liturgy, monasticism, canon law. Whether one accepts the forms of ritual, living, and believing of the ancient Christians is, in a certain way, beside the point. I know a Catholic who says that one must first know “orthodoxy” before rejecting it if one is to be a proper heretic.

Since I believe in the project — read seven pages of Patristics a day for seven years and good things will happen to you — I am willing to keep it running.

The Future of the Project

I have taken on this project, finally, because I want to give it a future. Right now, we are trying to come up with solutions for setting the calendar free so that new readers can join with the Apostolic Fathers whenever they want, and start the seven-year cycle as they please.

My other desire for the project is to slowly transform it into an open access encyclopedia of ancient Christianity. To that end, I have attempted recruiting my Patristics network to write introductory posts that will serve as the heart of the encyclopedia (only one person has said yes). It strikes me that it would be great to have an up-to-date, high-quality, scholarly website that not only gives readers a reading plan for the Fathers and a blog to discuss the Fathers but also solid information on the Fathers.

Hopefully in the next seven years I’ll get that sorted out.

The neverending story of Leo’s manuscripts

I recently asked a senior academic who’s been helping me out to order two library catalogues through interlibrary loans for me (working at the uOttawa library gives me some privileges as an alumnus, but not ILLs). I remarked that I keep finding more manuscripts of Leo’s letters.

His response was that it may never end.

My ever-growing list of Leo manuscripts is the result of new catalogues with proper indices being published, new and old databases running well, and me having access to old catalogues. I suspect that those manuscripts necessary for editing the text of Leo’s letters were already identified when I finished my Ph.D. dissertation in 2015.

However, I just discovered another ninth-century codex today, hitherto unknown to me: Vat. Reg. lat. 423. This manuscript contains material from Gallic councils (Gaul = France geographically), the Concordia canonum of Cresconius, and then two of Leo’s letters, Epp. 14 and 7, followed by a letter of Damian of Pavia, then fragments of Priscian the grammarian. It has also, it turns out, been digitised.

For your viewing pleasure, folio 62v where Leo begins:

But the story of transmitting Leo’s letters has never simply been about establishing the text (it has been that, of course). It has also been about discovering who owned, copied, and read the letters, where and when. Maybe sometimes even why. It is about the journey of texts from Leo’s utterance to his notarius to printers in the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Era.

For example, I am going to have to revisit the Council of Florence, for besides manuscripts belonging to Bessarion, Nicholas of Cusa, Juan de Torquemada, and Domenico Capranica, I have also discovered the copy made for Pope Eugenius IV himself! Vat. lat. 1326, also digitised.

This manuscript is exciting not only because of the ownership but also because it contains a collection of Leo’s letters I did not know about, and there are two more manuscripts of that collection, one of which was made for Angelo Capranica, also a cardinal, brother of Domenico! This is Vat. lat. 1328, another digitised manuscript.

Moreover, more careful examination of library catalogues has ferreted out copies of Leo belonging to Popes Nicholas V (successor to Eugenius IV) and Paul II (a couple popes later). These Renaissance popes at least owned copies of Leo. I imagine Eugenius IV, if not the others about whom I know little, actually read him, based on said pope’s activities.

I have found a few more eleventh-century manuscripts, as well as some homiliaries that contain the Tome (Ep. 28 to Flavian) amongst the homilies.

One final victory was identifying a manuscript whose shelfmark as recorded by the last editors of Leo in 1753 (brothers by the name of Ballerini) seems no longer to exist — Vat. Chig.C.VII.212, a sixteenth-century copy of Leo’s letters with acts of the Council of Chalcedon as compiled and translated by Rusticus a millennium earlier. Despite its late date, this manuscript may be worth investigating because of how few manuscripts of Rusticus exist.

Eventually, I may quit hunting these manuscripts. As I say, most of what I’ve found in the past week or so will not affect my edition. But they affect the story! And I love the story.

The Virgilian tradition

The famous 3rd-century mosaic of Virgil from the Bardo Museum, Tunis, Tunisia

Some time ago, back when I was a Master’s student, I wrote a little piece called You Should Read the Iliad, and then another called simply The Odyssey. I finally wrote my third in the series, Why read the Aeneid of Virgil? in July of 2018. Having written about the Age of Augustus, and how we who study later Rome also know earlier Rome, my mind keeps circling back to the Virgilian tradition, a vast literary heritage that begins as soon as Virgil’s work is produced. Virgil is an instant classic, as seen in Propertius 2.34.59-66:

My pleasure to languish with yesterday’s garlands,
Whom the sure-aiming god touched to the bone;
For Virgil the power to tell of Actium’s shores
In Phoebus’ guard and Caesar’s gallant ships,
Who now wakes to life the arms of Troy’s Aeneas
And walls cast down on Lavinian shores.
Surrender, writers of Rome, surrender, Greeks!
Something greater than the Iliad is born.
-Trans. A. J. Boyle, ‘The Canonic Text: Virgil’s Aeneid’, in his own Roman Epic, p. 79

For Late Antiquity, Virgil is the single most important Latin poet. This is true not only for the obvious writers, such as Servius with his commentary on Virgil, or Macrobius’ Saturnalia, nor only for the poets — Virgilian intertexts are inevitable in Claudian — but even for those men dubbed ‘Fathers of the Church’ — Virgilian quotations and allusions abound in Augustine of Hippo. I’ve not read much Jerome yet, but I suspect the same will prove true. This use of Virgil as a source of wisdom is a Latin parallel of how Greeks treated Homer.

The Virgilian tradition, then, is vast . I have beside me The Virgilian Tradition: The First Fifteen Hundred Years by Jan M. Ziolkowski and Michael C. J. Putnam. It is 1024 pages long, not including the endmatter. Here are some highlights …

The Virgilian Middle Ages

The explicit intertext, signalled in its title, of Alan of Lille’s Anticlaudianus (1182) is the invective of Claudian. Yet here we also find various Virgilian intertexts, not to mention an explicit naming of Virgil.

Chrétien de Troyes, Erec et Enide (1100s), makes use of Dido and Aeneas.

But the most famous medieval reader of Virgil is the Supreme Poet of Italy, Dante Alighieri, whose Inferno has Virgil as guide not only of the character Dante in the poem but of the poet Dante who wrote the poem.

Where else to turn in the 1000-year medieval reception of Virgil? Well, at the very least Petrarch (1304-74), whose works are littered with Virgil, and Chaucer, particularly The House of Fame which draws on Virgil’s own personification of Fama in Aeneid 4.

The Early Modern Virgil

For the early modern era as for the Middle Ages, Virgil was very much a powerful presence, in both Latin and vernacular literature, such as the Portuguese Lusiads by Camões, the Italian Gerusalemme liberata by Torquato, and in English, Milton’s Paradise Lost.

It should come as no great shock that various aspects of the Virgilian tradition are also in Ariosto, Orlando Furioso. Besides his ongoing use of epic similes and set-piece descriptions (ecphrasis in the singular, ecphraseis in the plural), Ariosto has a number of scenes modelled on or inspired by Virgil. Early in the epic, for example, Bradamant is dropped into a cave by a mortal enemy of her family. The cave turns out to be Merlin’s tomb, and a sorceress dwells there, who proceeds to show Bradamant the parade of her descendants — including Ariosto’s patron, whom Ariosto compares to Augustus, saying that he even has his own Virgil! (Quite the boast.)

Virgil Today

Sometimes it may feel like the ancient Classics have fallen on hard times. But new translations of the Aeneid keep appearing, including the potent translation of Book VI by Seamus Heaney. Moreover, epic retellings find their ways onto our shelves, if less often onto our screens — I think particularly of Ursula K. Le Guin’s masterful novel Lavinia.

One potential reception of Virgil that is, in fact, disputed, is Battlestar Galactica, which both Peggy Heller and Charlotte Higgins argue has Virgilian elements. Chris Jones’ arguments against the two are not entirely convincing. Intertextuality is not the same as adaptation; Ronald D. Moore could very well have had some basic Virgilian-Aeneid structures in mind without creating a perfect sci-fi adaptation. I like the idea, that is, of Virgil as intertext, if not as inspiration or source for BSG. It would, in fact, be entirely fitting for the poet whose masterpiece is in many ways the ultimate intertext of both Homeric epics and the Latin epic of Ennius to be used as an intertext for TV shows today.

What I want to see in the Virgilian tradition is a good graphic novel — Roy Thomas gave us The Iliad and Odyssey for Marvel; Gareth Hinds, after a splendid Beowulf, has also given us The Iliad and Odyssey. Could one of them give us the Aeneid as well? Please? (I know nothing about Agrimbau and Sosa’s — is it worthy?)

Study Later Latin!

Codex Amiatinus, portrait of Ezra (Cassiodorus?), folio 5r (c. 700, based on older Italian Bible)

One of the many interesting facts found in Jürgen Leonhardt, Latin: Story of a World Language (read my review), is that about 80% of surviving ancient Latin texts are from the late 200s to the mid-500s. The sheer quantity of texts, then, makes Later Latin literature appealing, doesn’t it?

The other 20% of surviving ancient Latin texts cover about 500 years of literary history — those are the Latin texts we are all most likely to study: Cicero, Caesar, Sallust, Livy, Horace, Catullus, Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid, Propertius, Lucan, Suetonius, Tacitus, and others, including those fragmentary poets of the Republic such as Ennius.

When you think about those who study English literature,  not only do these Latin classics not add up to a very large quantity of texts in comparison, they are also among the most studied texts in the world. Everyone who ever studied Latin with seriousness, whether a Ciceronian so harshly criticised by Erasmus, Erasmus himself, or, say, Aelred of Rievaulx, read Cicero.

So we should keep reading Cicero (there’s more to that argument, but that’s for later).

But Cicero has been analysed, edited, commented upon, translated, and so forth a lot.

Leo the Great, on the other hand, has 23 letters that have received no edition since 1753, and I am contemplating writing the first commentary on the whole corpus of letters.

Not only is Later Latin relatively understudied: It’s vast! Here’s but a sample of people as they pass into my mind:

Lactantius, Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, Ausonius, Ambrose, Symmachus, Augustine, Prudentius, Sedulius, Leo I, Innocent I, Celestine I, various other popes, Caesarius of Arles, Peter Chrysologus, Quodvultdeus, Prosper of Aquitaine, Ammianus Marcellinus, Hydatius, Priscian, Donatus, Servius, Macrobius, Claudian, Porfyrius, Boethius, the legal work of Justinian

The list could and does go on. We have poetry of multiple genres (including epic and some experimental stuff), history of multiple genres, biography, letters, sermons, speeches, grammar books, commentaries on classical poets, commentaries on the Bible, theological treatises, philosophical texts, autobiography, monastic rules, and more.

If we extend our dates to around 800, as the much anticipated Cambridge History of Later Latin Literature will, then we also get Gregory the Great, Gregory of Tours, Aldhelm, Bede, some lovely Hiberno-Latin literature, and more!

There’s something for everyone in later Latin literature, and a lot of it remains untranslated, or poorly translated, or only available in expensive translations. So learn some Latin and go read it!

Can you spot a persecution when you see one?

Ignatius of Antioch, from the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000)

Reading the introduction to Robin Whelan’s Being Christian in Vandal Africa: The Politics of Orthodoxy in the Post-Imperial West, I was reminded of a joke a friend once told.

A man dies and goes to heaven. While he’s there, he meets one of the ancient Christian martyrs (I like to imagine the Apostolic Father Ignatius of Antioch, myself). Ignatius asks our modern fellow what life is like for Christians in the 21st century.

“Well,” he says, “let me tell you. If you say grace before a meal in public, people look at you as though you have three heads. And at work, people made fun of me for being a churchgoer. Christians are the butt of so many jokes! Christians get tirades launched against them whenever they speak about the faith in public. They really throw us to the lions!”

Responds Ignatius, “Ah, they still use lions?”

In the introduction to Being Christian in Vandal North Africa, Whelan says that the term “persecution” is problematic. Certainly in the context of the above joke it is. There is a huge difference between being made to feel socially awkward and what the Sri Lankan martyrs suffered on Easter Sunday this year. In a late antique context, there is also a big difference between the Emperor Julian banning Christians from teaching rhetoric and the Emperor Diocletian killing Christians.

However, the reason given for persecution being problematic in the context of the book is that it is used by groups who think of themselves as the exclusive, true, catholic, real Christian church when they meet with sanctions against them by the secular government. I don’t see how this fact has any bearing at all on whether a person is being persecuted.

Now, we can question whether the activities carried out by the Vandal kings were or were not on religious grounds, or whether they targeted religious people, or whether they were as bad as Victor of Vita says in the History of the Vandal Persecutions, or whether there was quite as much as he says, or that it was unremitting as he makes it seem. All well and good. But Whelan acknowledges the legal sanctions against Nicene Christians and those who were sent into exile. Even if the Vandals did not persecute all Nicenes all the time, by any definition of persecution that I know, they seem to have persecuted some of them some of the time.

That is to say, the orthodoxy or otherwise of the persecuted party is immaterial when the question of whether or not they are being persecuted. Late antique persecution of (to use labels everyone knows) Donatists or ‘Arians’ or Manichaeans or pagans does not cease to be persecution if the persecutor is ‘catholic’ or ‘orthodox’, nor does the persecution of ‘catholic’ and ‘orthodox’ Christians by ‘heretics’ cease to be persecution because the catholics succeed at being catholic in the long run.

But this brings me into other, related territory — the contested space of ‘orthodox’ and ‘heretic’ in Late Antiquity, on which, more anon.

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.)