Tag Archives: eusebius

Christian historiography vs Christian historiographers

Entering Late Antiquity, the ancient historian must come face to face with the Christian religion. Many classicists and ancient historians are not comfortable with Christianity as subject matter; one young Latinist I met referred to himself as ‘allergic to Christianity’. Yet this period of transition from Classical to Medieval has a great many Christian sources, growing in quantity and significance over the centuries.

One of the new Christian things of Late Antiquity is history writing. There is not really any Christian history writing (or ‘historiography’) before Late Antiquity, although elements of historical note work their way into other Christian works, of course — especially acta of martyrs. In particular, the genre of ecclesiastical history does not exist before Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339). Late antique Christians also write other historical works; Eusebius wrote a chronicle, a Life of Constantine, and a work with a certain amount of history for its polemical point, On the Preparation of the Gospel.

Besides the fifth- and sixth-century continuators of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History and Chronicle (as well as those works’ Latin translators, Rufinus and Jerome), other texts of history writing by Christians include Lactantius’ On the Deaths of the Persecutors (written ca 313-16); Sulpicius Severus’ Chronicle (ca 403 — an account from the origins of the world to 400); Orosius’ Seven Books of History Against the Pagans (418, of like scope to Sulpicius); and, later (at least by the 500s), more ‘national’ histories, such as Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks, Jordanes’ Getica about the Goths, and Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards.

Alongside these, descended from lives of martyrs come the various texts of saints’ lives, with varying degrees of relationship with ancient historiographical norms. We also have some biographical texts, such as the Liber Pontificalis that gives brief biographies of the bishops of Rome, originally composed in the 520s.

(I’m sure I’m forgetting other texts just now.) We also have what is often called ‘Classicising’ history — most notably by Procopius in the court of Justinian, who, I think, is considered a Christian (although I, personally, would be interested to see if there is a case for his religion being traditional Samaritan). Among the fragmentary historians mentioned last post, Malchus was said by Photius to be favourable to Christianity; this is not really the same as being a Christian, though. Eunapius and Olympiodorus were pagans, and I do not know if we know Priscus’ inclinations. Again, I do not know about the religion of the Latin fragmentary Sulpicius Alexander (late 300s) and Renatus Profuturus Frigeridus (early 400s).

Anyway, sometimes people want to find some unifying thread amongst the Christian historiographers, trying to argue for something that makes ‘Christian’ history writing distinct, unique. Style? No, they are too diverse, from the very classical Procopius to the less classical Gregory of Tours. Themes? Once again, not really; Procopius writes about wars, buildings, and terrible things Justinian did, whereas Orosius covers pretty much everything and Gregory of Tours just the Franks.

Perhaps divine causation? While this may not be the most prominent feature of ancient ‘pagan’ history writing, it is not equally present across the board in these historians. So, once again, no.

In fact, I do not think you will find anything that unites late antique Christian historiography. This is because I do not believe that such a thing exists.

There are Christians who are historiographers, or historians, or whatever you wish to call them.

But their style, their content, their themes, are determined by their texts’ genres.

Thus, to take one example, that which makes a chroniclechronicle has nothing to do with Christianity. Christian events take up more space the later a chronicle goes, but that is true with all late antique history. A chronicle is not determined by what sorts of events its author deems fit for inclusion. It is determined by its chronographic outline/obsession and the brevity of its entries. Indeed, there are pre-Christian chronicles, so clearly Christianity has nothing to do with what makes a chronicle.

Christianity does unite the Ecclesiastical Histories, of course, but Eusebius set the path for the genre, and various other features distinguish them from other forms of history writing. They include divine causation, they include extracts from primary sources, they are concerned with the battle against heresy, they are concerned with Christian authors and thinkers. These main features persist in Bede’s eighth-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People where he also brings in evangelisation as a major accompanying theme.

Orosius, on the other hand, is strongly obsessed with divine favour and divine causation, but has a variety of other things going on. His universal history became a very popular model for the Middle Ages, and it is certainly influenced by his Christianity, but I am not certain that it is the defining characteristic of the world history.

However, it is to be admitted that Procopius does allow for divine causation; thus the argument that late antique ‘Christian historiography’ has as a uniting thread such causation. Perhaps my issue, then, is not with the answer but with the question itself.

It simply strikes me that to lump these authors’ heterogeneous works together due to similarities of religion and time period is to start to lose a sense of what makes an ecclesiastical history, an ecclesiastical history; a chronicle, a chronicle; a world history, a world history; ‘classicising’ history, ‘classicising’ history; an epitome, an epitome; a saint’s life, a saint’s life; a national history, a national history.

The differences are, to me, more important. Any similarities must arise less from there being such a thing as ‘Christian historiography’ as simply attributes common to the late antique Christian mindset.

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Everyone is biased

Nero

A vitally important fact that we all must come to terms with sooner or later is the reality of bias existing everywhere. For some reason, many of us have fooled ourselves into thinking that our news sources and our history books are somehow magically, spectacularly unbiased — that modern investigators of the truth can look clearly and objectively at facts and set them out for all to see.

Such a mindset leads to young people being surprised or scandalised or suspicious day after day when they start to engage with the primary sources that make up our knowledge of the pre-modern world. For, you see, pre-modern authors (ancient & mediaeval, plus many others pre-‘Enlightenment’) often wear their bias on their sleeve.

When we start to look at sources for early Christianity, for example, they kick up a fuss about the bias these authors had, that we cannot necessarily trust what Tertullian says about pagans or Eusebius on Montanists. That they are scandalously biased by their own religious beliefs. Eusebius, and ‘The Anonymous’ are so clearly anti-Montanist that we can trust almost nothing of what they say! But whom else can we trust, lacking any Montanist sources?

Or perhaps it’s Suetonius or Tacitus, who often corroborate each other on details. Despite this corroboration, it is clear at times that what these men say about the early emperors is biased by their own personal histories, their own class, their own writing careers under Trajan and Hadrian. People will go to great lengths proclaiming this bias, and say that we can, therefore, not trust these narrators.

It is true. We cannot trust them.

Sadly, we can trust no one. Everyone is biased.

We think we can trust Gibbon because of his modernist show of impartiality. But we cannot; contemporary research into Late Antiquity has shown him wrong on many points relating to the relationship between Church and Empire — his own anti-Christian bias slanted his perception of the evidence.

Or if you read contemporary reviews of Syme’s classic The Roman Revolution, today’s historians observe that some of Syme’s own contemporary socio-political world has leaked through (I’m going to be a bad blogger and not hunt down that reference).

Despite how hard we try, scholars are not free from bias. Acknowledging this is the first step to helping the reader find the truth that both parties seek.

To return to the ancients, we often assume that we can trust eyewitnesses. They may not be biased, but at least — unlike Tacitus and Suetonius or Eusebius vs. Montanists — they were there. They saw and heard with their own ears and eyes. How could we doubt, for example, Sennacherib’s account of his own reign? Or Eusebius’ account of a speech by Constantine that he witnessed for himself? Or Villehardouin’s description of the Constantinople-sacking Fourth Crusade?

But the eyewitness can, apart from deliberate obfuscation, misconstrue events and misread the signs and present the ‘best’ version of the truth (which isn’t lying per se). This misconstrual, misreading, and ‘best’ version are all touched by the eyewitness’ personal bias.

It can be a cruel lesson to learn, that we are all biased.

Knowing bias, though, helps gives us insight into texts. What is Suetonius’ social background? What is his education? What is his occupation? What is his relationship to the current régime? If we ask questions about what forms an author’s bias, we can move into a deeper knowledge of the ancient world; we can form more informed opinions on the reliability of certain reports over others; more importantly, we can see what sorts of things people of Suetonius’ day and class believed true of the first 12 Caesars — perhaps even what contemporaries of those Caesars believed true.

This can bring us beyond simply trying to recount the ‘facts’ of politics and military campaigns or seeking to find the psychology of the emperors into discovering the worldview of the Romans who wrote and read these texts for themselves. A most valuable journey for all.