Category Archives: History

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.

Notre Dame and ‘Western Civilization’

My first view of Notre Dame, 2012

In the days following the fire that consumed Notre-Dame de Paris’s roof and a certain amount of the cathedral’s west end, people have been making commentary, some of which, I understand, is to the effect that Notre Dame is a symbol of ‘western civilization’. Some of these people, I am given to understand by the outraged on Twitter, are right-wing, racist fanatics. I seem to miss the fanatics themselves but only see the outrage, so I sometimes wonder if the outrage is worth it?

Anyway, some of this outrage is fuelled not simply against racist leveraging of ‘western civilization’ but of the idea itself. Before I get rolling, I’d like to say up front that, although I believe that ‘western civilization’ is a Thing, I do not think it superior other civilizations or cultures. All civilizations and cultures are flawed and fallen, mixing good and bad.

One argument against Notre Dame as a symbol for ‘western civilization’ that I observed was that Gothic architecture owes much to Islamic architecture. Whether or not pointy arches were a moment of independent genius on the part of Suger’s architects and of the Islamic world I cannot say. Nonetheless, for the purposes of my ensuing argument, I will take it as given that pointy arches were first noted by Europeans in Spain when folk were going on pilgrimages and then adopted by architects in northern France.

This, and any other piece of detail, engineering, mathematics, etc., that was borrowed from the Islamic world does not suddenly nullify the fact that Gothic architecture is a thing from western Europe, and pretty much everywhere else it has gone, western Europeans or their descendants brought it with them, such as Gothic Cyprus.

In fact, if we accept the argument that the pointed arch is a direct borrowing into Gothic architecture from Islamic architecture, this in no way impinges on the idea of western civilization. I suspect that many people who object to ‘western civilization’ these days are more worried about Gibbon and the Enlightenment than what came before. If we acknowledge what came before, we see that Latin Christendom is a Thing.

When I say that Latin Christendom is a Thing, I mean that loosely connected group of polities that includes bishoprics that acknowledge the Bishop of Rome as their supreme head, use the Latin language in liturgy, law, theology, philosophy, sometimes poetry, and who think of themselves as somehow being part of the Same Thing, a Thing that is not the Greek-speaking Roman Thing to the East or the Arabic-speaking Islamic Thing to the South.

An example of the fact that Latin Christendom, internally, is a Thing can be found in the careers of two Archbishops of Canterbury. Lanfranc was born in Pavia. He went on to be schoolmaster at Bec, in Normandy, then prior, then abbot at Caen. In 1070, he became Archbishop of Canterbury. The next Archbishop was Anselm, from Aosta before becoming a monk of Bec, then prior, then abbot of Bec, then Archbishop of Canterbury, who spent a considerable portion of his episcopate in exile in Italy. These men crossed boundaries in an age before passports because there was a common cultural framework that united Pavia, Aosta, Bec, and Canterbury.

Through evangelization and conquest, Latin Christendom expanded itself in various directions.

But whatever Latin Christendom was — and the western European world that was to succeed it in the age of the nation-state — it was not hermetically sealed. Part of what makes Latin Christendom itself is its interaction with the non-Latin civilizations that surround it. Scholastic Aristotelianism needs Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes); the study of Aristotle needs, chronologically first, the translations out of Arabic and then out of Greek; Palermo’s glorious art and architecture are clearly indebted to east Roman (‘Byzantine’) and Islamic influences; an early medieval Archbishop of Canterbury was from Syria; the Latin liturgy in Rome was forever changed by Syrian and Palestinian refugees in the seventh century; I suspect Maximus the Confessor, himself a Palestinian, had a greater impact on Latin thought than often suspected; ‘western’ medicine relies heavily on Arabic learning; various strands of math come to the West out of the House of Islam.

It could go on.

This, of course, focusses Latin Christendom, but only because Latin Christendom provides us with the boundaries usually imagined by those who discuss it. Nonetheless, the world of the Byzantine commonwealth would also be an interesting starting place as well.

Whatever is meant by western civilization, when I talk about it, I do not imagine it to be either superior or hermetically sealed. In my field, many people are wary of suggesting you should study the Classics because they are the foundation of western civilization. Nevertheless, in saying that, I don’t think anyone imagines that Homer imagined himself part of a culture that included Britain. And it certainly not true that the inheritance of Rome is found only in ‘western civilization’ — a colleague who studies Islamic law says that there is new research arguing for the importance of Roman law in Islamic law. And the Great Mosque of Damascus is essentially a Roman basilica. We could go on — the interchanges and inheritances between cultures are numerous.

All of this to say — if Notre Dame is somehow a symbol, or even a triumph, of western civilization (the house is on fire!), this doesn’t mean that there is no cultural exchange that brings into play the greatness of others, nor does it mean that other cultures have no triumphs of their own (consider the Al-Aqsa Mosque) and are inferior. This is certainly never how I have viewed the world, and I believe that western civilization is a Thing.

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.