Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.15

Robert M. Frakes, Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, Justin Stephens (ed.), The Rhetoric of Power in Late Antiquity: Religion and Politics in Byzantium, Europe and the early Islamic World. Library of Classical Studies 2.   London/New York:  Tauris Academic Studies, 2010.  Pp. xii, 287.  ISBN 9781848854093.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Richard Flower, Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge (

(Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.)

This volume, a collection of twelve essays covering a range of topics within a broadly-defined late antiquity, is dedicated to Hal Drake. While Drake is best known for his significant contribution to the study of the emperor Constantine, the pieces collected together here are not restricted chronologically to the early fourth century, but instead, as the Introduction states, are loosely bound together because they “share a fascination for late antique rhetorical and religious traditions” (6).1

The first four chapters are brought together under the title of ‘The Image of Political and Episcopal Authority’, opening with a piece by Eric Fournier examining the adventus of the emperor Julian into Sirmium in 361, as described in book 21 of Ammianus Marcellinus. While acknowledging that Ammianus is far from an artless reporter of events, Fournier seeks to extract from this account a clear sense of Julian’s reception in the city. He argues that “even if Ammianus does indeed feature a high level of rhetorical elaboration in his presentation of Julian’s arrival at Sirmium, this representation should not be considered as fanciful and contrary to the spirit of the event it purports to describe” (13). Widening out from an examination of the historicity of Ammianus’ description of Julian’s reception at Sirmium, the article has at its core a discussion of the presentation of Julian across book 21. It also provides some examples of the portrayal of his cousin and rival, Constantius II, for comparison.

Robert Frakes’ brief chapter similarly explores the motivations behind a fourth-century event, this time looking at the riot in Thessalonica which led to Theodosius I’s even more notorious retaliatory massacre. Frakes therefore sets out to re-read the source material, particularly Sozomen, in order to derive from it a clearer picture of the causes of the civil disturbance. He focuses some of his criticism of earlier interpretations on an error in the Nicene and Post- Nicene Fathers translation of the key text. The chapter then surveys a variety of Roman laws which could have served as the legal basis for the general Butheric’s inflammatory arrest of a charioteer who had propositioned his cup-bearer, before dismissing each of them as insufficient explanations for the action. Frakes’ suggestion is therefore that the cup-bearer was Butheric’s beloved and that the general imprisoned the charioteer out of jealousy: this suggestion is, however, then supported with the testimony of Ammianus that “some barbarian tribes practiced homosexuality with their youths” (53), a statement which seems neither reliable nor necessary for the argument.2

Michael Blodgett also contributes a brief piece that considers the circumstances surrounding the withdrawal of Attila’s forces from Italy after the Roman embassy of 452, which included Pope Leo among its ranks. The main contention of the piece is that the embassy allowed Attila to save face when his position was being undermined by plague, famine and assorted military problems. Drawing on both a fragment of Priscus of Panium (drawn from Jordanes) and the work of Otto Maenchen-Helfen, Blodgett then produces some inventive conclusions about Attila’s presentation of this event to his followers. He firstly claims that Attila’s policy was driven by his status as the possessor of “the sword of Mars” and secondly that the encounter with Leo could be spun to the Huns “to make the struggle in Italy one of shaman versus shaman” (70).3

The first part of the volume is rounded off by Michael Proulx’s useful exploration of Ambrose of Milan’s place in court politics during the usurpation of Magnus Maximus. Taking a close reading of Letter 30 as its centrepiece, this essay provides a clear analysis of Ambrose’s self-presentation as an important ambassador and protector of the young Valentinian II. This includes some interesting comments on Ambrose’s actions (or, rather, inaction) during Maximus’ brief reign in Italy, a topic which could fruitfully be explored further. The chapter also engages critically with earlier presentations of Ambrose, particularly Palanque and Homes Dudden, although McLynn’s insightful discussion of this period could have been addressed a little more directly.4

The second part of the book opens with an excellent exploration of uses of the pre-Islamic past in early Islamic literature by the late Thomas Sizgorich. The chapter echoes Hal Drake’s work on early fourth-century Christianity in its illumination of a variety of different conceptions of history, and particularly Roman history, that were created during the early Islamic period. After considering contrasting ways in which the jahiliyya – the earlier time of idol worship in Arab history – was interpreted, this piece then explores a broad range of sources that treated the Romans as, inter alia, a fellow monotheistic ‘people of the book’ who fought the idolatrous Persians, or arrogant descendants of Esau who failed to comprehend their position in the divinely-ordained narrative. In demonstrating the breadth and variety of engagement with the past in this literature, the chapter displays a clarity of thought and expression that will make it comprehensible and fascinating to a wide range of late-antique scholars.

With the chapter by Jim Tschen Emmons, the reader is moved to the other end of the Roman empire, to consider the concept of the ‘desert’ in Irish ascetic hagiography. Taking the (possibly) eighth-century Vita Aidi as its primary focus, this piece seeks to position the text within a much broader monastic literary and cultural context by drawing comparisons with the Life of Antony and Life of Martin. The chapter brings out well the ways in which the forests and swamps of late-antique Ireland could perform the same function, both literally and figuratively, as the Egyptian ‘desert’ for the siting of ascetic practices and literature. In addition, Emmons also attempts to demonstrate the influence of “native Irish tradition” and stories of the ‘otherworld’, which “occupied a liminal space” (129), on ascetic hagiography. This is an interesting idea, although the offering of some concrete comparisons from Irish texts would help to make the argument more forcefully.

The first chapter in the section entitled ‘Civic Elites in the Byzantine East’ is Miriam Raub Vivian’s reading of the Life of Daniel the Stylite. The approach taken is reminiscent of Peter Brown’s seminal article on ‘The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity’, which also included some discussion of this text.5 Vivian dismisses concerns about the use of the Life as a historical source through comparison with the employment of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses for the study of social history, stating that the text “clearly praises its holy hero, but it also offers a wealth of information about eastern Roman society in Late Antiquity” (148). While this approach has much to recommend it, historians must always beware of the dangers posed by, in the words of Peter Brown, “following almost too closely the grain of our principal sources”.6 After its methodological statement, the chapter then explores the range of different roles performed by Daniel in the text, including healer, defeater of demons, diplomat and spiritual guide, whereby he dealt with people of all social ranks and showed himself to be “a man whose endurance and longevity made him a valuable figure in the social world of the east Roman empire” (158).

After Frank Frost’s short note on tigers and griffins in the Grande Caccia mosaic pavement from Villa Casale in Sicily, Robert Mazza’s chapter concentrates on Oration 13 of Choricius of Gaza, a text that celebrates the Brumalia of the emperor Justinian. This festival, which took place across November and December, assigned one Greek letter to each day, with participants hosting dinners on the day corresponding to their initial. Mazza states that a study of the oration “makes it possible to analyze how different levels of Byzantine society were relating to each other and how the empire’s identity was constructed as a result of these multiple interactions” (173). While the piece cannot explore this idea in depth within its relatively brief compass, it provides a very interesting description of the development of the Byzantine Brumalia, together with a clear and scholarly reconstruction of the career of the military commander Summus, who is praised by Choricius. A translation of Oration 13 is also included as an appendix.

The final section, ‘Addressing Challenges to Sacred Texts and Rites’, rounds off the volume extremely well with three thoughtful and engaging papers. Both Elizabeth DePalma Digeser and Heidi Marx-Wolf deal with the controversial third-century theologian Origen and his relationship with ‘Hellenic’ philosophy. Digeser, in a clear and well-argued piece, builds on the work of Thomas Böhm to argue persuasively that there was only one Origen, rather than two homonymous figures, one a Platonic philosopher, the other a pious Christian.7 Having made its case, the chapter then provides an intelligent analysis of the creation of different posthumous versions of Origen by Eusebius and Porphyry, when circumstances required that “the liminal area in which Origen lived and worked needed to be remapped in black and white” (206), or, perhaps, when the construction of new religious identities made Origen more “liminal” that he had been during his lifetime. Marx-Wolf’s paper then forms a neat pair with Digeser’s by thinking about Origen alongside the Neo-Platonists Porphyry and Iamblichus in order to explore the three authors’ conceptions of ‘daemonology’, particularly with regard to the contentious issue of blood sacrifice. Through consideration of a number of different writings, the chapter illuminates elements of harmony between Christian and non-Christian ideas by considering not only Origen and Porphyry on sacrifice, but also Origen and Iamblichus on salvation. This careful analysis, like that of the preceding paper, allows profitable conclusions that cut across religious divisions.8

The final paper, by Paul Sonnino, is a broad and engaging discussion of the acceptance and rejection of the attribution of Mosaic authorship to the Pentateuch. This chapter surveys an impressive range of attitudes. It first considers antiquity, taking in pagan, Christian and Jewish writers, before moving on to look at the more critical attitudes displayed in the seventeenth century, particularly in the work of Thomas Hobbes and Isaac La Peyrère, although Spinoza and Richard Simon also receive some discussion. While the chapter contains relatively few references to modern scholarship, it is an impressive exploration of its topic, handling a large amount of material well and presenting its ideas in a lucid and even entertaining fashion. While Sonnino states clearly that he does not believe that one can explain “why the ancients insisted on being so obtuse and why the early moderns insisted on being so perverse” (241), the piece does make some interesting remarks regarding the broader Enlightenment context, as well as looking in more detail at the intellectual circle of Marin Mersenne.9

This volume, especially in its fourth and final part, thus provides some useful discussions which engage with Hal Drake’s thought-provoking work in late antique history. There are papers in this volume which continue to move away from notions of monolithic, uniform and mutually-exclusive beliefs, rejecting reconstructions of necessarily hostile relationships between belligerent and clearly-defined communities. These pieces, with their nuanced explorations of religious identities and affiliations, form a fitting tribute to such an innovative scholar.

Table of contents

Robert M. Frakes, Elizabeth DePalma Digeser and Justin Stephens, ‘Introduction’, pp. 1-9
Eric Fournier, ‘The Adventus of Julian at Sirmium: The Literary Construction of Historical Reality in Ammianus Marcellinus, pp. 13-45
Robert M. Frakes, ‘Butheric and the Charioteer’, pp. 47-62
Michael Blodgett, ‘Calming an Angry Enemy: Attila, Leo I, and the Diplomacy of Ambiguity, 452’, pp. 63-74
Michael Proulx, ‘“Patres Orphanorum”: Ambrose of Milan and the Construction of the Role of the Bishop’, pp. 75- 97
Thomas Sizgorich, ‘“Your Brothers, the Romans”: Early Islamic History as a Turn of the Classical Page in Early Muslim Thought and Literature’, pp. 101-123
Jim Tschen Emmons, ‘Spiritual Landscapes: The Late Antique Desert in Ireland’, pp. 125-43
Miriam Raub Vivian, ‘The World of St. Daniel the Stylite: Rhetoric, Religio, and Relationships in the Life of the Pillar Saint’, pp. 147-65
Frank J. Frost, ‘Timotheos of Gaza and the Grande Caccia of Piazza Armerina’, pp. 168-72
Robert Mazza, ‘Choricius of Gaza, Oration XIII: Religion and State in the Age of Justinian’, pp. 172- 93
Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, ‘Origen on the Limes: Rhetoric and the Polarization of Identity in the Late Third Century’, pp. 197-218
Heidi Marx-Wolf, ‘A Strange Consensus: Daemonological Discourse in Origen, Porphyry, and Iamblichus’, pp. 219-39
Paul Sonnino, ‘Torah, Torah, Torah: The Authorship of the Pentateuch in Ancient and Early Modern Times’, pp. 241-75
Elizabeth DePalma Digeser and Robert M. Frakes, ‘Conclusion’, pp. 277-79


1.   Drake’s two most influential works are his In Praise of Constantine: A Historical Study and New Translation of Eusebius’ Tricennial Orations, Berkeley, 1976, and Constantine and the Bishops: the Politics of Intolerance, Baltimore, 2000.
2.   Amm. Marc. 31.9.5.
3.   Priscus frag. 12 (ed. R. C. Blockley), from Jordanes Getica 35.183; O. Maenchen-Helfen, The World of the Huns, Berkeley, 1973.
4.   J.-R. Palanque, Saint Ambroise et l’Empire romain: contribution à l’histoire des rapports de l’église et de l'état à la fin du quatrième siècle, Paris, 1933; F. Homes Dudden, The Life and Times of St. Ambrose, 2 vols, Oxford, 1935; N. McLynn, Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital, Berkeley, 1994.
5.   P. Brown, ‘The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity’, Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971), pp. 80-101 (repr. in id. Society and the holy in late antiquity, London, 1982, 103-152).
6.   P. Brown, Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World, Cambridge, 1995, p. 59.
7.   T. Böhm, ‘Origenes, Theologe und (Neu-)Platoniker? oder: wem soll man misstrauen, Eusebius oder Porphyrius?’, Adamantius 8 (2002), pp. 7-23.
8.   On sacrifice and daimones in both Porphyry and late-antique alchemical literature, see also S. Knipe, ‘Sacrifice and self-transformation in the alchemical writings of Zosimus of Panopolis’, in C. Kelly, R. Flower and M. S. Williams (eds.), Unclassical Traditions, Vol. II: Perspectives from East and West in late antiquity, Cambridge, 2011, 59-69.
9.   While the book is generally well produced, there are a few typographical errors, particularly in the final chapter, where, for example, Origen’s dates are given as AD 18-254 (250) and Domitian appears in place of Diocletian (251).

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