Book Review: The Rhetoric of Power in Late Antiquity

17 Nov

Frakes, Robert M., Digeser, Elizabeth DePalma and Stephens, Justin, eds., The Rhetoric of Power in Late Antiquity: Religion and Politics in Byzantium and the Early Islamic World. New York: Tauris Academic Studies (2010). ISBN: 978-1-84885-409-3.

This book contains 11 essays covering a variety of topics and geographic regions. The most prominent theme, as one would expect in a book dedicated to Professor Harold Allen Drake, is that divergent religious and political entities could and did peacefully coexist during the Later Roman Empire. This theme is not universal as is obvious for a book in which one essay discusses Ireland, however it is predominant.

Following a forward by John W. I. Lee and and an Introduction by the editors, the essays are divided into four broad thematic areas, as follows:

Part I: The Image of Political and Episcopal Authority

  • 1. “The Adventus of Julian at Sirmium: The Literary Construction of Historical Reality in Ammianus Marcellinus,” by Eric Fournier
  • 2. “Butheric and the Charioteer,” by Robert M. Frakes
  • 3. “Calming an Angry Enemy: Attila, Leo I, and the Diplomacy of Ambiguity, 452,” by Michael Blodgett
  • 4. “‘Patres Orphanorum’: Ambrose of Milan and the Construction of the Role of the Bishop,” by Michael Proulx

Part II: The Function of Roman Tradition in Emergent Societies
  • 5. “‘Your Brothers, the Romans’: Early Islamic History as a Turn of the Classical Page in Early Muslim Thought and Literature,” by Thomas Sizgorich
  • 6. “Spiritual Landscapes: The Late Antique Desert in Ireland,” by Jim Tschen Emmons

Part III: Civic Elites in the Byzantine East
  • 7. “The World of St. Daniel the Stylite: Rhetoric, Religio, and Relationships in the Life of the Pillar Saint,” by Miriam Raub Vivian
  • 8. “Two Philosophers from Gaza”:
    “Timotheos of Gaza and the Grande Caccia of Piazza Armerina” by Frank J. Frost
    “Choricius of Gaza, Oration XIII: Religion and State in the Age of Justinian,” by Roberta Mazza

Part IV: Addressing Challenges to Sacred Texts and Rites
  • 9. “Origen on the Limes: Rhetoric and the Polarization of Identity in the Late Third Century,” by Elizabeth DePalma Digeser
  • 10. “A Stranger Consensus: Daemonological Discourse in Origen, Porphyry, and Iamblichus,” by Heidi Marx-Wolf
  • 11. “Torah, Torah, Torah: The Authorship of the Pentateuch in Ancient and Early Modern Times,” by Paul Sonnino
  • “Conclusion,” by Elizabeth De Palma Digeser & Robert M. Frakes

In the opening essay Eric Fournier examines the welcome given to Julian at Sirmium, during the civil war with Constantius II, and how it was portrayed by Ammianus Marcellinus. According to Ammianus, this welcome was a formal adventus given by the city which would have basically amounted to formal recognition of Julian as Emperor. Fournier discusses Sirmium and whether it might have been expected to so readily support Julian. Fournier tells us that Constantius may have been born in Sirmium. Additionally, “The emperor also resided there for most of the 350’s and continually from 357 to 359.” (24) Despite this, Fournier believes Ammianus to have been basically truthful in his account. He discusses some issues, in particular Constantius helping depose Photinus, Bishop of Sirmium, which may have turned the city against him. (270 Ultimately, Fournier cautions that one must be careful in assessing Ammianus’ use of rhetoric when discussing Julian but believes that, while certain elements may be exaggerated “… the overall description of the event was not too far from what might have happened.” (29)

In “Butheric and the Charioteer,” Robert M. Frakes takes a look at the events which led to Theodosius I’s massacre at Thessalonica. This massacre of civilians was in response to the killing of a Roman General, Butheric. Frakes takes a close look at the various sources and concludes that Butheric unlawfully arrested a popular charioteer, either in response to an insult or due to homosexual jealousy. The detailed investigation of the sources is interesting as well as this closing statement, “It is insightful that no pagan source, even ones hostile to Theodosius, mentions the episode of Butheric and the charioteer, or even the massacre. To non-Christian writers, an emperor punishing his own citizens for killing a general might simply have been business as usual.” (53)

Michael Blodgett examines the embassy of Pope Leo I to Attila following the Hunnic invasion of Italy in 452 and its impact on the Huns’ decision to abandon the invasion. Through an examination of Hunnic losses due to disease and famine and an exploration of Hunnic beliefs, Blodgett believes that Leo may have been viewed as something of a shaman by the Huns and that his embassy provided Attila with the justification he needed to call off his Italian campaign, a decision he wanted to make anyway.

The essay by Michael Proulx examines methods by which Ambrose helped transform the role of bishop while revising his own role in events. In examining his Letter 30, Proulx discusses how Ambrose assigned to himself a far larger role than he actually had in the embassy to the usurper Maximus in 383, in particular his claim to be protector of Valentinian and basically fabricates a confrontation between himself and Maximus in 386. Proulx believes that rather than looking at this letter for an accurate representation of the embassies of 383 and 386 it should be looked at as a means by which Ambrose strengthened the relationship between himself and Valentinian’s court. Along with his funeral oration for Valentinian in 392, Letter 30 provided an opportunity for Ambrose to construct his image and role in the events of the late 4th century. Very interesting essay.

Thomas Sizgorich provides an essay which is absolutely fascinating to me. In it he examines how early Islam likely looked on the Romans as kindred in their struggle as monotheistic believers against the polytheist Persians. Sizgorich provides Arab sources which describe sorrow at the initial Roman defeat, as they are a people of the book. However the Arabs believed that due to their monotheism, Rome would eventually triumph. (109-10) The early Islamic texts repeatedly show respect for the Romans and attribute the eventual Arab triumph to a combination of Roman arrogance and a lack of understanding regarding their place in the course of human events.

The essay by Jim Tschen Emmons explores an area which is both familiar and unfamiliar to me. He discusses the Irish “desert” in hagiography. I am fairly familiar with this literary convention however I am not well versed in Irish hagiography. Using the Life of Martin and the Life of Antony as well as the writings of John Cassian as background, Emmons examines the Vita Aidi to discuss the use of forests and swamps as deserts in Irish hagiography.

Daniel the Stylite’s Vita is examined fairly straightforwardly by Miriam Raub Vivian. She takes us through various aspects of this life and believes that it can reveal much about Late Antique Roman society. I found this essay to be interesting but I am concerned that Vivian goes too far in accepting aspects of the vita. I’ve argued myself that many aspects of society can be revealed through this type of literature however looking at this, for example, to present an accurate depiction of the relationship between a monk and Emperor Leo may take this too far.

Essay number eight presents some difficulties in evaluating as it consisted of two sections written by different authors. Frank J. Frost opens with a brief discussion of the portrayal of tigers and griffins in a Sicilian mosaic. I suspect art historians may find more in this however other than describing the images I found little of value. This contrasts to the second part of the essay regarding Choricius of Gaza by Roberta Mazza. Choricius is a figure worthy of study and I was fortunate to pick up Robert Penella’s book on him (including translations of his declamations) this year at Kalamazoo.1 Mazza uses Chrocius’ Oration 13 to briefly examine a variety of sixth century issues including the relationship between a peripheral Byzantine territory and the imperial court. An interesting aside is the discussion of the evolution of a Byzantine festival, the Brumalia.

Elizabeth DePalma Digeser provides an in-depth view of Origen by placing his Christian rhetoric within the framework of third century philosophical debate. She briefly summarizes the discussion of whether there were two Origens before concluding that there was likely only one. Following this she examines Origen and his role as a Christian philosopher. The most significant aspect of this is that Christianity appears to be another branch of philosophy prevalent in the third century. Disagreements rooted in divergent opinions of the fundamental natures of the deity between Christians and Platonists, while sometimes vehement, come across as rhetorical, philosophical arguments. However subsequent individuals such as Porphyry and Eusebius preferred to characterize Origen in terms of black and white, depending on their respective viewpoints; attitudes which point to an increasing polarization of society as the third century drew to a close.

It is always interesting to consider whether two complementary essays in a volume are included by choice or by chance. In any case, Heidi Marx-Wolf’s essay is an excellent companion piece to Digeser’s. Marx-Wolf looks at divergent opinions regarding blood sacrifice between Origen and pagans. I was struck again by how the Christian outlook appears to be one among several philosophical branches in existence at the time. For this period, discussions among these branches were conducted in a reasoned manner, as opposed to the hostility which would develop later.

I am going to cover the final essay by Paul Sonnino in a relatively cursory fashion. This essay analyzes arguments for whether Moses authored the Pentateuch and takes us from the fifth century BC to the 17th century AD. He discusses the various arguments and uses them to contrast ancient attitudes with those of early-moderns, to the point of characterizing the former as obtuse and the latter as perverse. (265) For me, his discussion of how the ancient Hebrews contributed to historical methodology and their adherence to law and emphasis on legal documents influencing us to this day was the most interesting aspect of the essay. (242) I will need to become more familiar with the extent to which their outlooks were adopted by Rome before assessing the validity of these statements.

This is a very good collection of essays and I expect that Professor Drake is pleased. Perhaps some of the authors have moved too far in the direction of peaceful coexistence in Late Antiquity however they all provide evidence for their assertions, such that their opinions will at least need to be considered in the future. While the essays by Frost and Vivian lack analytical depth, overall the quality was very good. The essays by Digeser and Marx-Wolf provide an excellent lens through which to view Christianity as a component of the vibrant philosophical debates of the third century. Thomas Sizgorich’s examination of Islamic opinions of Rome through an examination of Arab sources is something I would enjoy seeing more of. I would have appreciated a bit more of an effort to tie the entire volume together. The introduction was brief and largely consisted of a summary of the essays while the conclusion was even shorter. With these relatively minor caveats, I believe this book is a valuable contribution to Late Antique scholarship and I recommend it to those interested in the issues discussed in the essays.

1 Choricius, Rhetorical Exercises from Late Antiquity: A Translation of Choricius of Gaza’s Preliminary Talks and Declamations, Robert J. Penella, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2009). ISBN: 978-0-521-84873-2.
1 Comment

Posted by on November 17, 2011 in Books, Religion


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One response to “Book Review: The Rhetoric of Power in Late Antiquity

  1. Curt Emanuel

    November 17, 2011 at 11:38 am

    A quick FYI for those who care about such things – there are likely some minor typos in this, which I will not be fixing. I have no idea why but the unordered list code, which is how I listed the chapters, seems to have eliminated the coding below it, including paragraph and line breaks. I've manually inserted BR and P tags but whenever I go back in to edit those disappear and I'm left with a single massive block of text. If I see a major content error I'll go in but minor typos (which I typically fix a few hours after posting and where I've found one in the discussion of the 1st essay) will be left as is. And my screen's now wearing a sticky note telling me not to use the UL tag with blogger.


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