Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.07.52

Peter Norton, Episcopal Elections 250-600: Hierarchy and Popular Will in Late Antiquity. Oxford Classical Monographs.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2007.  Pp. xi, 271.  ISBN 978-0-19-920747-3.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Richard Lim, Smith College (
Word count: 2252 words


According to church historians who subscribe to the theories of Max Weber, the early church's spiritual power became routinized into a form of hierarchical authority represented by office-holding bishops who were more bureaucratic functionaries than charismatic leaders. With the growing involvement of the Roman state in church affairs after the conversion of Emperor Constantine, the process further accelerated with the result that local Christian communities more or less lost their ability to shape their own destinies, squeezed as it were between interventionist Christian Roman emperors and equally imposing metropolitan bishops who single-mindedly pursued their own agenda. Thus most historical narratives of late antique Christianity focus upon the interactions between these two groups of powerful actors, with local communities outside the metropolitan cities frequently relegated to a secondary or tertiary role. The result is that, for moderns who regard the effective autonomy of local communities and democratic practices on a grassroots level as signposts of societal health, the converging authoritarian trends in the late Roman state and church serve to indicate a deeply-set malaise.

Against such an image of a society that was moving inexorably towards greater autocracy in respect of both imperial power and ecclesiastical authority, Norton offers his fruitful book as a riposte as well as a cause for hope. Episcopal Elections closely examines the specific circumstances by which bishops came into office as well as the types of interventions and obstructions that continued to threaten or undermine the ability of local communities to elect their own religious leaders. While the scope of the study appears at first sight to be quite narrowly circumscribed, this project has direct relevance for our broader understanding of the evolving relationship between local Christian communities, ecclesiastical hierarchies, and the late Roman imperial state. Through an appraisal of the forms of agency that determined the (s)election of late antique bishops and their efficacy, Norton presents a well-crafted argument against a set of widely-shared assumptions regarding the extent to which the rise of imperial Christianity in the later fourth century onwards repressed the effective autonomy of local Christian communities.

The individual chapters in this book take on topics and themes that have long been deemed worthy of study by specialists such as historians of the church, ancient historians and classicists. The volume introduction is followed by Chapter Two, "Legislation and Theory," which addresses the formal prescriptions stemming from Christian churches and the Roman state regarding the election of bishops. Drawing upon conciliar and synodal canons as well as imperial pronouncements on the subject, the author articulates the principal rationales and means by which ecclesiastical and state authorities sought to regulate the procedures and, to a certain extent, impose a set of minimal criteria for those who sought the office of bishop. Chapter Three, "The Electorate: Local Communities and Public Disorder," parses the composition and competence of those who cast the vote for bishops, namely the local Christian congregations. After reviewing particularly well-known cases of disputed episcopal elections, Norton concludes that the "popular will" of Christian "electorates" by and large prevailed not only in theory but also in practice even in the face of attempted imperial interventions in favor of rival candidates. The ensuing chapter (ch. 4) logically expands on the prevalence and effectiveness of imperial meddling in episcopal elections. It posits and then goes on to provide evidence for a categorical difference between elections to the most important sees, such as Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria by Egypt, and Rome, and those to smaller and (both symbolically and juridically) less important ones, concluding that the emperors only showed significant interest in the outcomes of the former. At this particular juncture, the study expands its scope beyond the frontiers of the late Roman imperial state by describing royal interventions in episcopal elections in the post-Roman west: Vandal Africa, Visigothic Spain and Frankish Gaul; it provides, however, no treatment of the important Christian communities within the Sassanian Persian Empire.

Chapters Five to Seven are devoted to the institutional and power structures of the church, including the relations between the metropolitan bishops and bishops of other sees. A succinct narrative traces the rise of the concept of the five patriarchal sees of Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Antioch and surveys the roles played by their respective bishops. Given that elections to these metropolitan sees attracted the preponderance of attention in our surviving sources, this discussion underscores what can be known in evidentiary terms and cautions against the extrapolation of conclusions based on such examples to the less elevated sees. In examining the effective power that bishops of the patriarchal sees had in shaping the election of suffragan bishops, the author concludes that the preëminence of the metropolitan bishops was mainly manifested in their role as the consecrators of the elected bishops rather than in their actual ability to determine the outcome of particular episcopal elections.

Chapter Eight, "Corruption, Constraint, and Nepotism," offers a useful examination of the varieties of practices by which men sought to influence the course of episcopal elections. By pointing out that the later fourth- and fifth-century churches accrued increasingly sizeable patrimonies and therefore became valued prizes that were thought worthy of capturing at almost any price, the stage is set for understanding the growth in the practice of simony. As Christianizing aristocratic dynasties sought to secure church offices for family members by whatever means possible, including offering monetary bribes to the right persons, such practices would in turn provoke anti-simony rhetoric and measures. The book is rounded off with an appendix ("Greek and Latin Texts of Canons Relating to Episcopal Elections"), a bibliography and an index of cited names and main topics.

The present book originated in an Oxford dissertation written under the supervision of G.E.M. de Ste Croix. Its genesis in a 1980s academic and intellectual milieu has greatly informed its choice of topic, structure and approach. In the book, the popular sovereignty of the plebs christiana is used as a barometer of the fundamental health of the church and the society at large. Thus the author's well-intentioned desire to give due weight to the agency of the non-elite, which underpins the book's central intellectual premise, turns the investigation into how "sovereign" communities resisted the impositions placed on them by powerful "outsiders." In short, Norton has been motivated by the scholarly desire to highlight the success of the "voiceless masses" in maintaining their agency and autonomy, especially during an age that many have characterized as being marked by the rising authoritarianism of a centralizing state and ecclesiastical hierarchy. A similar intellectual outlook has guided a number of other studies that attempt to discover traces of the continued functioning of conciliar bodies and civic institutions well into the late Roman period and, more generally, seek to underscore the practical limits of imperial autocracy during this time. Norton's proposal that the will of the Christian plebs continued to play a central role in determining the outcome of episcopal elections, especially outside of the major centers of power where imperial intervention was less common, offers thus a reassuring message.

In suggesting that local communities continued to exert meaningful influence over the (s)election of bishops, the author is thereby also advancing a claim that the post-Constantinian church had been much less transformed by the rise of imperial Christianity than some scholars have previously supposed. Yet by conforming the book so much to the pursuit of its main thesis, the author may have missed an opportunity to lay out some of the very fundamentals regarding episcopal elections that most readers of the book would appreciate learning about. Still, this book opens the way into an important topic and invites further investigation into the nature of electoral practices in the ancient world, including the mechanisms of episcopal elections, the exercise of influence and patronage, the use of slogans and pamphleteering, and the role of cliques and claques in shaping the outcomes of episcopal and other elections.

On the whole, Episcopal Elections posits the communal or local popular voice as a relatively unproblematic category, whereas "popular will" is not only itself an object of contested representations but also a formulation that glosses over the many-faceted and multi-layered exercise of power and influence that went into shaping any given contest for office. The limited attention paid to the role of local notables in shaping the results of elections, and this only en passant in the conclusion (240-41), serves as a telling illustration of the book's tendency to present a dyadic juxtaposition of local congregation versus outside authority as the premise and framework for its analysis. In declining to address the admittedly complex issue of the constructedness of the "popular will," and the various competing rhetorics of power and community, the author in effect presents the local mechanisms and process of episcopal elections as analytical "black boxes" that are to be used to gauge the presence or absence of effective popular sovereignty rather than as explananda in themselves. In other words, he seems less interested in studying the processes that led to the (s)election of bishops than in engaging in a broader debate about the extent to which popular will was able to withstand outside challenges. The book therefore seems to take for granted that, where such elections were unopposed by outside ecclesiastical and imperial authorities, the popular will was allowed to prevail and, where they were interfered with, the local communities were effectively overruled.

Yet elements of compulsion, moral or physical, may be assumed to have been a fairly constant ingredient in contested elections as rival congregants could -- and historically did -- inflict violence on each other to bring about a particular outcome. Nor can the process that led to the shaping of "local" views be assumed to have been monolithic, benign or free from the practice of "bullying." By the same token, "outside" interventions might not have been all morally bad or by nature violent. Thus electoral results in which "outside" manipulation played little or no role may not be by nature more valid, either morally or intrinsically, than those in which "outsiders" played a significant role.

As the author evinces in his introduction, Episcopal Elections has been updated since the writing of the original dissertation with the inclusion of more recent scholarship, notably Claudia Rapp's fine study of the figure of the late ancient bishop. Even so, the book's engagement with issues and methodologies that have come into prominence in the past two decades remains selective. Among issues that would have benefited from closer scrutiny of these developments is the use of highly stylized literary texts as historical evidence for social realia. Ancient authors' references to mass participation in events such as the election of bishops have been accepted at face value even though the authors in question were invariably pursuing specific agenda as they gave voice to particular constructions of the nature of ecclesiastical authority. What historians have before them in the literary sources is therefore not so much a body of transparent or direct evidence for the participation (or non-participation) of the common people but rather elite views regarding their supposed roles. Averil Cameron, Elizabeth Clark and others have called attention to the need to give due weight to just such a consideration, an emphasis some choose to call the "rhetorical turn." Indeed, such a perspective has informed successful historical interpretations such as Peter Brown's pioneering studies on urban bishops' invocation of the "Christian poor" as their own special charge and Conrad Leyser's examination of the episcopal language of reticence and humility as an aspect of the self-representation of power-wielding bishops.

Lacking a requisite measure of attentiveness to the importance of rhetoric and representation, the analyses found in Episcopal Elections seem to offer instead descriptions of what happened in realia rather than narrative refracted through the lenses of elite Christian writers who were usually interested parties if not partisans in the controversies under consideration. And yet, even if the investigation is to remain focused on the presentation and analysis of historical realia, it might still have devoted some attention to a wider set of contextual issues such as both lay aristocratic and ecclesiastical patronage, the nature of communal violence in contested episcopal elections such as that in the Laurentian schism in Rome--admittedly out of the purview of this study given its metropolitan setting--and the relative importance of the possession of real and symbolic property (e.g., prestigious urban basilicas that conferred legitimacy and authority) to the assessment of the character of a given episcopal election itself.

Episcopal Elections represents a concise monograph that offers readers a helpful and intelligent introduction to an important subject. Even while its treatment of the topic may have been too severely restricted in scope to make a fully effective challenge to the prevailing paradigm, the book's investigation of the ongoing dynamism of popular sovereignty as a practice in late antique Christian communities still contributes in useful ways to the important ongoing conversations regarding the role and authority of the figure of the late antique bishop as well as the scope and effect of imperial interventions in ecclesiastical affairs. By cautioning against the prevalent view that makes the increasingly powerful bishop and Christian emperors the center-pieces of our historical accounts, in which local Christian communities in turn necessarily come to be relegated to the role of voiceless and passive agents, the book invites further discussion regarding the factors that limited the ability of even the most powerful actors such as the emperors in shaping the lives and experiences of their social and political inferiors.

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