Category Archives: History

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.

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?

Leo in Ferrara and Florence in the 1400s

Pope Eugenius IV – he probably owned a manuscript of Leo, too

I recently submitted the manuscript of my book about manuscripts of Leo the Great. As I was revising it from thesis version to book version, I couldn’t help but notice those manuscripts whose owners or scribes we can name. There are several potentially interesting leads one could follow — Lanfranc of Canterbury, William of Malmesbury, the early network of Cistercians — but the one that stood out to me this time was from the millennium after Leo’s episcopate — not merely a large number of fifteenth-century manuscripts, but manuscripts that belonged to Basilios Bessarion, Nicholas of Cusa (Kues), Domenico Capranica, and Juan de Torquemada.

These men were all cardinals.

The first two are the most famous today. Bessarion was a ‘convert’ from the Greek side to the Latin side in the debates over unification that *almost* succeeded in the 1430s and 40s. Nicholas of Cusa (from Kues in Germany) is a famous humanist, theologian, and writer on matters to do with church constitution; he was originally on the side of a group devoted to having a series of church councils with higher authority than the pope (so-called conciliarists), but he also ‘converted’ to the papal side.

Capranica was also a humanist and theologian, this time from Italy. The Spaniard Juan de Torquemada’s name may be familiar because of his nephew, Tomás de Torquemada, first Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition and model for Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in the parable told by Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov.

You are probably now very excited (ha). Well, besides being cardinals, these men were all at the church council that started at Ferrara in 1438 and then, because of the unhealthy conditions there, moved to Florence in 1439. In fact, Capranica’s copy of Leo’s sermons and letters was written while he was in Ferrara early in 1438. Nicholas of Cusa owned a manuscript of the sermons and letters and another of the sermons that also contained some of his own works written in his own hand. Moreover, I am given to understand that Nicholas quotes Leo throughout his writings.

You may now wonder what went on at Ferrara-Florence that I find the interest in Leo of these cardinals significant. Well, this council is momentous for two reasons, and it really depends who teaches you about it. When I was first taught about this council in my Master’s degree, it was in the context of a class about councils generally (mostly western), and by a scholar who’s interest was Early Modern. We learned about Ferrara-Florence and its opposition to the rival Council of Basel that had been officially ended by Eugenius IV but that decided to depose him and keep rolling, anyway. The people in Basel are termed ‘conciliarists’ in ecclesiastical history, and there is often subtext in talking about that they are (imagined to be) a group that could have held Reformation at bay if only they hadn’t mishandled Eugenius.

The second time I learned about this council was in a class on Byzantine Theology, and the main thrust was its attempt(s) at reunion with the Eastern churches, the debate on filioque, and why it ultimately failed.

Bessarion represents a Greek who came over to the Latin side, Nicholas a conciliarist who went over to the papal side.

There are two ways one is likely to consider this quartet of cardinals and their books of Leo, and both are probably right.

First: They are drawn to Leo because he supports things they support. At these general councils, it was important to have antiquity on your side. Leo the Great is the first bishop of Rome to put forth an articulate theology of Petrine primacy. Exactly what you want in debates with conciliarists and Greeks! Moreover, he was on explicitly good terms with the Emperors Marcian and Leo I, so that’s good when talking to the Greeks. Just look how Marcian treated him! (Well, maybe not too closely — some of the letters are less reverent than others.) Moreover, it is clear that the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon is not gaining traction until Leo gives his approval — evidence (one can imagine the argument) that popes are higher than councils. He also rules on various matters of faith and life that the Latin, papal side was in favour of.

Second: Having read Leo, someone like Nicholas finds some persuasive arguments for papal primacy. Having read Leo, someone like Bessarion believes that the unity of the church hinges on papal-imperial cooperation.

Both are probably true, to some extent. Your interests shape which authors you are pointed to. Someone probably told Capranica that Leo was worth a read, so he had a copy made while at the council. And the books you read shape what you believe.

And so, 998 years after he was elected to the apostolic see of St Peter, Leo found an interested and engaged readership as the history of the church marched on.

Looking back at books of 2018

In 2018, I finished reading 56 books that were not picture/story books or board books. I do not know how many picture/story books and board books I read. My son owns 49 board books; I have read all of them multiple times this year. Of the non-board book picture/story books, I read 36, but we have more that I did not read. And there are the library books, books at other people’s houses, books at churches that I read along the way.

As usual, a book that I completed means that I finished the entirety of that which is bound between two covers. Some are books that I started before 2018. And many texts and books were read that were not read in toto. For example, none of Leo the Great’s letters are here because I did not read any of them bound together as a single volume. And many articles, poems, and other non-books were read.

The first book I completed was The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire, Vol. 1 by R. C. Blockley. This is the introductory volume, not the texts with translation.

The final book I completed was volume one of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Claudian, ed. and trans. Maurice Platnauer.

Of the 56 books of 2018, here are the stats by category/genre:

  • Ancient texts in translation: 11, of which 3 were ‘patristic’
  • Ancient texts in the original: 1 — Horace, Epistles, Book 1, with commentary by Roland Mayer
  • Medieval texts in translation: 3, unless we count Pseudo-Dionysius and Justinian as medieval, then subtract two from ‘ancient’ and ‘patristic’, then add them to medieval.
  • Scholarly works about ancient subjects: 5
  • Scholarly works about medieval subjects: 6
  • Other history: 2 (The Mammoth Book of Pirates and Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree)
  • Works about Christian theology/spirituality not already counted: 9
  • Memoirs: 1 (Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy MacLean)
  • Novels: 10 (this includes The Silmarillion to make life easier)
  • Young-adult novels (already counted in the 10): 3
  • Historical Fiction: 1 adult (Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy), 2 YA
  • Books of non-ancient, non-medieval poetry: 1 (Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti)
  • Graphic Novels: 1 (Infinity War by Jim Starlin)
  • Souvenir guide books: 3 (+ a book about the Mildenhall Treasure already classed as ‘scholarly works about ancient subjects)
  • Books in German: 1 (Patzold, Steffen. 2015. Gefälschtes Recht aus dem Frühmittelalter: Untersuchungen zur Herstellung und Überlieferung der pseudoisidorischen Dekretalen. Heidelberg.)
  • Plays: 2 (Euripides’ Bacchae and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child)
  • Books that defy my classifications; 1 (Pieces from a Broken Land by Victoria Fifield; memoir? art? both.)
  • Books written by friends: 4 (including the above, 2 books by another friend, one of which is not yet in print, the other of which is Dayspring MacLeod, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel, and Aaron Pelttari, The Space that Remains: Reading Latin Poetry in Late Antiquity)

I turned 35 this year. The 35th book I finished was Mayer’s commentary on Horace, Epistles, Book I.

There are fifty-two weeks in a year. The fifty-second book I finished was The World of Medieval Monasticism by Gert Melville. I read another history of monasticism, The Story of Monasticism by Greg Peters. Melville’s is better in my opinion, but Peters’ is probably better for normal people.

Half of 56 is 28. The 28th book was Seamus Heaney’s translation of Aeneid, Book VI — I really, really liked it.

The rereads were The Lord of the Rings, read as three volumes (so counted as three books) and A. D. Melville’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I also reread the Aeneid, but this was my first time reading Frederick Ahl’s translation and Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book VI.

The most-read author was J. R. R. Tolkien (4) followed by Andrew Louth (2) and Dayspring MacLeod (2).

This was the year I finally read The Silmarillion and Pride and Prejudice.

Are we reading Virgil backwards? (The headless body of Priam)

Pompey’s head

I have been reading some very good essays on Virgil today, and one fact that my students keep bringing up is that the headless corpse of Priam on the beach is an allusion to Pompey’s headless corpse on the beach of Egypt. This surprised me, since I was fairly certain that Pompey’s headless corpse in Egypt is, in fact, a detail from Lucan, a good century after Virgil, that alludes, therefore, back to Virgil.

So I did a little digging.

The passage of Virgil in question is Aeneid 2.557-8:

iacet ingens litore truncus, / auulsumque umeris caput et sine nomine corpus.

A great trunk lies on the shore, a head torn from shoulders and a body without a name.

The alluding passage in Lucan (first encountered by me in what is now a distant memory, Stephen Hinds, Allusion and Intertext; I even forget what Hinds says) is Civil War 1.685-6:

hunc ego, fluminea deformis truncus harena / qui iacet, agnosco.

I recognise him, who lies on the river’s sands, a misshapen trunk.

The parallels in the Latin make the allusion to Virgil in Lucan fairly clear. What I wondered was how we came to the inverse allusion — that Virgil’s image of Priam’s corpse is of Pompey’s. I did some digging, and it seems that because Pompey was beheaded at the mouth of the Nile and controlled Asia, and because Priam’s body is on the shore and he also controlled Asia, Virgil is making such an allusion.

According to The Virgil Encyclopedia (from Wiley), under the entry ‘Pompey’, Virgil is alluding to Asinius Pollio here. Unhelpfully, Asinius Pollio’s account of the civil war does not survive.

The first person I know of to say that Virgil is making Priam into Pompey in this passage is Servius, the great late antique commentator on Virgil. Due to his access to things now lost to us, we tend to believe Servius. Servius does not give us a source for his belief that Virgil is implicitly making Priam into Pompey. There is, in fact, nothing in the content of Servius that would make us take this line of reasoning beyond our trust in Servius.

Of course, we want to take this line of reasoning because we are in the age of the ‘pessimistic’ or ‘anti-Augustan’ reading of Virgil, the reading that deeply problematises the killing of Turnus, that puts into the forefront of our reading of Book 6 the facts that the golden bough does not come easily and that Aeneas and the Sybil return to the land of the living through the gate of ivory, the gate designed for false dreams. Or we remember Dido and, along with St Augustine, we weep. We are also the age that notes that the first simile of the epic, comparing Neptune with a statesman who calms mobs with a word, is not actually referring to Augustus, who calmed civil strife with war, and we remember that Neptune was the patron of Pompey and of Antony — the enemies of Caesar and Augustus, respectively.

But what if Servius is wrong, and what if he’s wrong because somehow we’ve read the allusion backwards?

What if, that is, the real allusion has been Lucan all along? What if Virgil is not comparing the headless corpse of Priam to the headless corpse of Pompey? What if Lucan’s allusion has so much power that it has become the Virgilian intertext? Thus, we cannot help but see Priam as Pompey after reading Lucan, even if that was not Virgil’s intention.

Or — what if there’s a detail I’ve missed? Perhaps I’ve missed another Pompey intertext to which Virgil is explicitly alluding. Correct me if I’m wrong.

True hyperbole

Statue of Ovid and National History Museum, Constanta, by Alexandru Panoiu

As I noted in my recent post about Ovid, he spent the last decade of his life in exile in Tomis, on the Black Sea, Constanța in modern Romania. As noted by Garth Tissol in the introduction to his commentary on book one of the Epistulae ex Ponto (the text I assigned my students), Fitton Brown has argued that Ovid, in fact, never went into exile, and it’s all just a literary fiction.

One of the main reasons it has been argued that Ovid stayed at Rome and wrote the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto as an exercise in poetic wit, has been his use of hyperbole. Tomis is not nearly so bad as Ovid makes it to be. Most people reject Fitton Brown’s argument.

Indeed, it strikes me that Ovid’s hyperbole is, in fact, true. Or rather, it is true to him.

The Roman province to which he was exiled was called Scythia Minor. Ovid portrays his place of exile as Scythia in the worst possible sense. Ancient Scythia is, essentially, Ukraine. For an idea of what the weather in Scythia can be like, Saskatchewan is the Ukraine of Canada. Ovid’s literary Scythia is a place of unending winter and deep gloom. Think of an Italian in a six-month Saskatchewan winter.

The inhabitants of Ovid’s Scythia are, inevitably, Scythians. Scythians are archetypal barbarians. They are the sort of people who drink wine from their enemies’ skulls. In Ovid, they are always engaged in war. Warfare is so continuous in Ovid’s Scythia, he can’t even plant a garden and is always girded for battle.

We look at Tomis and say, ‘It is not unremitting winter! The weather is not all that bad.’ It is, after all, on the Black Sea coast. The summers are not bad, and the sea has a tempering effect on the winter. This isn’t the Scythian plain.

Moreover, even if there was some battling, it was not all war all the time for an entire decade.

To read Ovid this way is to miss the point.

Why would we read a poet for an accurate, historicist picture of the scientific details of climate and battles? We read him for his artifice, his wit, and his soul. Read the letters from Pontus. Ovid is miserable.

Sure, it may not really be a Gigantomachy as he imagines it. He may not be Ulysses. But it sure feels that way. The winter’s not as bad as in, say, Regina, but it’s still pretty bad for a guy from central Italy. The battles may not be endless, but for someone from Rome in the midst of the Peace of Augustus, one battle is more than enough.

Not only this, but it is the winter of Ovid’s soul that matters, isn’t it? It is the battles waged against his heart and memory. He has been taken against his will to a place he did not wish to go. This is the real heart of the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto.

I do not think anything but hyperbole will bring that across. Who tempers his sorrow with accuracy and reason when lamenting to his friends?