Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.02.33

Christopher Kelly, Richard Flower, Michael Stuart Williams, Unclassical Traditions. Volume II: Perspectives from East and West in Late Antiquity. Cambridge Classical Journal, Supplemental Volume 35.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. 162.  ISBN 9780956838100.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Geoffrey Nathan, University of New South Wales (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This book is a continuation and completion of a two-volume study exploring the way in which both individuals and groups in Late Antiquity interacted, used, altered and ultimately negotiated with the heritage of Graeco-Roman traditions. The first volume focused primarily on those who were geographically, politically and/or culturally at the centre of the late antique world;1 this volume extends this exploration by considering those on the conceptual, social and physical periphery of that same society. For that reason, this is perhaps a more difficult endeavour than the previous publication. The simultaneous refutation of the classical past and its use by the authors and communities covered here raise a number of basic questions, not the least of which is better defining what “classical authority” (p. 4) is. True, to some degree, these issues were treated in some depth in the previous volume. Nevertheless, the rather treacherous task upon which these eight quite disparate essays embark becomes also an exercise in redefining classical culture, its shared cultural vocabulary and norms, and ultimately how that tradition was understood in the late ancient world.

Taken individually, each of the studies contained here is of a generally high quality, but each also displays the difficulties in assessing the issue of rejection/use of the past. The following synopses are discussed not in the order the contributions appear in the collection (see table of contents at end), but roughly grouped by topic.

Two of the contributions contest the past in an overtly political and often public way. John Curran’s opening piece on the Jewish Patriarchate and Tom Kitchen’s closing essay on diplomatic rhetoric in Theodoric’s Italy both explicitly examine the importance of status and legitimacy within the rubric of the Roman state. In both cases, the authors explore how Rome as a concept was something by which peripheral communities could contextualise their own political ends. In the first essay, the concept of “classical” applies not only to Graeco-Roman traditions, but to Jewish ones as well. Curran notes how the place of the Jewish Patriarchate (a much understudied institution in the context of the Empire)—as an official and powerful mediator between Rome and the scattered Jewish communities for three centuries—could become marginalised by both the state and the Diaspora on the basis of its unclassical nature. Kitchen, in contrast, wishes to demonstrate how Ennodius and Cassiodorus constructed the concept of a Roman Empire as one that had broader application than simplistically referring to an emperor ruling from Constantinople. In other words, he notes how writers in Theodoric’s Italy created legitimacy for the Ostrogothic king by essentially making him Roman. While convincing, Kitchen might have made a stronger case by concentrating more of his study on Cassiodorus’ Variae (and the Eastern reaction to his letters); papal epistulae might also have been used to good effect here. But both of these essays argue that, in meeting the political needs of those not in the “centre”, the marginalised did not simply use the past as a means of negotiating power, but sought to redefine Rome both as an idea and as a functioning state.

Four contributions explore the equally contentious battleground of religion, not surprising when focusing on Late Antiquity. But these essays are considerably less cohesive as a group. Three (Gwynn, Michaels and Merrill) might be termed political in that they do not deal with the spiritual or intellectual concerns found in late antique theological debates, but are concerned with the classical tradition as it related to establishing power and status. All, however, tend to construct Roman political authority and the Graeco-Roman cultural past as somewhat synonymous—another basic (and unresolved) question raised in this volume.

The first two of these essays focus on the Eastern world. First, David Gwynn’s discussion of Coptic, Syriac and Armenian accounts of Athanasius’ episcopate offers some insight as to why the cleric’s reputation and influence has remained important. In contrast to the Greek ecclesiastical historians, who as a whole offer a decidedly mixed reaction to the Alexandrian bishop’s place in the Nicene and Post-Nicene church, the less widely read narratives offer a different view. The “oriental” historical tradition is considerably more positive, and Gwynn argues persuasively that Athanasius’ legacy is closely related to these accounts. Second, Richard Flower’s piece on Epiphanius of Salamis’ Panarion (Against all Heresies) shows how Christian authors often sought to place their new religious interests within well-established literary and scientific traditions. His heresiology, argues Flower, was in fact consciously constructed in both language and organisation to mirror classical epistemological and scientific orthodoxy. He draws strong connections between Epiphanius’ relatively original work and that of earlier encyclopaedists, Pliny the Elder in particular. The authority and place of Rome is replaced with the authority and place of Nicaea. To this reviewer, it is probably the strongest contribution in the collection.

The next two focus on writers in Western Christendom. Michael Stuart Williams examines terms of address in Augustine of Hippo’s Letter 23 to the Donatist bishop, Maximinus. Williams traces the complex and difficult balancing act of a master rhetorician, one who wished to establish his institutional and spiritual authority over his schismatic rival while at the same time to give no (overt) offence. Augustine’s means of address displayed an intimate knowledge of classical and Christian epistolographic conventions, but redefined them for his personal benefit as a young, new and catholic leader of a disputed North African community. Later in the volume, A.H. Merrills examines Victor of Vita’s Historia in the context of the Vandal state in North Africa and the social disruption it created. For Victor, the existence of the Vandal persecutions and the presumptions of power went hand-in-hand; they were indicative of a forced discontinuity with the Roman world, its past and its constructed traditions. Social martyrdom, as Merrill characterises it, was more than the Vandal’s physical imposition of political and religious will over North Africa’s (elite) population; it was the imposition of “barbari” over the splendour of Rome and the natural state of affairs.

The two remaining essays fit into the more nebulous and more complex category of intellectual thought and thus are perhaps harder to assess. Fotini Hadjittofi’s contribution on the geography of Nonnus’ lengthy poem, the Dionysiaca, in some ways provides the most direct study on the interaction of the late antique mind with the classical tradition. Hadjittofi argues that in narrating the “life” of the god Dionysus, Nonnus essentially favours marginalised (and romanticised) lands—and by extension peoples—over the “civilised” Greek world. Quite apart from the liberal interpretation of an established mythological corpus, the author implies that this rehabilitation of the foreign reflects a shift in the real world, where power and place has moved away from the old oikumene to new loci of power and authority. Here, the author’s conclusions might be rethought in the wake of Erich Gruen’s recent study on Graeco-Roman constructions of the other, which might suggest some quite different conclusions as to why Nonnus’ account focuses on the peripheral localities.2 Finally, Sergio Knipe’s contribution on the notion of sacrifice in the alchemical writings of Zosimus of Panopolis is perhaps the most challenging in the collection. As the author himself admits, the language and meaning of alchemical texts are not easily accessible, even to those expert in the fields of philosophy or philology. Instead, Knipe concentrates on placing Zosimus’ work in the broader context of fourth century spirituality. In the specific issue of sacrifice, the author argues that Zosimus, in redefining the concept as self-sacrifice, represents a break from the traditional pagan conceptualisation of worship. In that sense, the alchemist’s work is in fact part of a wider religious and intellectual framework.

Each essay taken individually here has considerable merit. On the collection as a whole, however, this reviewer is slightly less sanguine. The theme of “classical authority,” as I have suggested throughout, is not as rigorously defined as it might be; and in the wake of such varied contributions, takes on an extremely malleable quality. Fair enough: it is a useful exercise both in the first and the present volumes to illustrate not only the variety of use of the past (whether intellectual, political, religious or otherwise), but also the variety of response to tradition—real, imagined or reimagined. That said, however, the connections remain decidedly tenuous. One does not come away with a deeper appreciation of the themes explored here collectively; indeed, they seem to create greater confusion as to what those themes are. This perhaps more than anything else demonstrates the potential pitfalls of turning the proceedings of a conference, where such variety is welcome, into an integrated volume.

Table of Contents

pp. 1 – 13 Introduction
pp. 13 – 28 John Curran, “The Jewish Patriarchate: a state within a state?”
pp. 29 – 42 Fotini Hadjittofi, “Nonnus’ unclassical epic: imaginary geography in the Dionysiaca
pp. 43 – 58 David M.Gwynn, “Athanasius in the oriental historical tradition”
pp. 59 – 69 Sergio Knipe, “Sacrifice and self-transformation in the alchemical writings of Zosimus of Panopolis”
pp. 70 – 87 Richard Flower, “Genealogies of unbelief: Epiphanius of Salamis and heresiological authority”
pp. 88 – 101 Michael Stuart Williams, “’Beloved Lord and Honourable Brother’: the negotiation of status in Augustine, Letter 23”
pp. 102 – 115 A.H. Merrills, “totum subuertere uoluerunt: ‘social martyrdom’ in the Historia persecutionis of Victor of Vita”
pp. 116 – 130 Tom Kitchen, “Italia and Graecia: West versus East in the rhetoric of Ostrogothic Italy”
pp. 131 – 154 Bibliography
pp. 155 – 162 Index


1.   Christopher Kelly, Richard Flower and Michael Stuart Williams, Unclassical Traditions. Volume II: Alternatives to the Past in Late Antiquity. Cambridge Classical Journal, Supplemental Volume 34. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
2.   Erich Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

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