Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.12.63 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.12.63

Susanna Elm, Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church: Emperor Julian, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Vision of Rome. Transformation of the Classical Heritage, 49.   Berkeley; Los Angeles; Oxford:  University of California Press, 2012.  Pp. xx, 553.  ISBN 9780520269309.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by Bradley K. Storin, Indiana University (


Susanna Elm’s new monograph is a welcome and erudite study of Gregory of Nazianzus’s intellectual engagement with the emperor Julian. These two men had much to say to each other concerning the contributions of philosophy, education, and knowledge of the divine to the governance of the Roman oikoumenē. Indeed, each man’s understanding of virtuous leadership emerged out of the same cultural and ideological matrix: they engaged with the same Platonic and Aristotelian texts, operated on the same philosophical assumptions regarding the divinity’s interaction with materiality, prized affiliation with the divine as the goal of good governance, and understood the philosopher as central in maintaining that affiliation. Consequently, both are “sons of Hellenism” and simultaneously (thanks to the Apostate’s profound impact on the Theologian) “fathers of the church.”

The book proceeds chronologically from the reign of Constantius II through the aftermath of Procopius’s revolt. Elm’s introduction is followed by a survey of Constantian culture and its effect on Nazianzan ecclesiastical politics (Chapter One). She then turns her attention to Julian’s entrance into public life as Caesar and the first half of his reign as Augustus (Chapters Two and Three), Gregory’s entrance into public life as a priest (Chapters Four, Five, and Six), the conclusion of Julian’s reign (Chapter Seven), and Gregory’s literary responses to Julian and the usurpation of his cousin Procopius (Chapters Eight, Nine, and Ten). The choppiness of the book’s structure makes it difficult for this review to proceed chapter-by-chapter, but it does give the reader a sense for how intellectual development and interchange occurred in real-time. As Julian articulated his thought on the role of philosophy in public life, so too did Gregory.

Elm’s primary subject is Gregory and his first six orations, composed during the early and mid-360s. The Gregory that readers meet here is far more attuned to culture and politics than any other we have seen; he is ambitious, calculating, and combative, not an “opinionated bystander, a ‘philosopher’ standing at a critical and ascetical distance from the fray” (to use Brian Daley’s characterization in Gregory of Nazianzus [London and New York: Routledge, 2006], 59, quoted by Elm at p.155 n. 32), but rather someone who, from the earliest phase of his career, deployed the tools of his education and status to carve out a niche for himself at the center of Roman power. Chapters One, Four, Five, and Six demonstrate that, contrary to previous scholarship, Gregory’s entrance into the ecclesiastical hierarchy hardly came as a surprise. He was quite prepared for, and even aspired to, it. The context for his ordination in 361 was specific: his father-bishop Gregory had signed the Homoian creed of the council of Constantinople in 360. Consequently, a small but increasingly vociferous group of Homoousians in and around Nazianzus challenged Gregory the Elder’s authority and coalesced into an outright schism that lasted until 364. Recognizing his son’s theological and philosophical savvy as well as his rhetorical talent, Gregory the Elder ordained him priest and advisor to help restore unity to the local church (see p.42-59). Gregory would frame the ordination as an act of paternal tyranny from which he initially fled and to which he eventually submitted (the basis for the dominant but misguided view that he reluctantly entered the priesthood). However, Elm brilliantly situates his initial flight in the context of classical topoi of retreat (used by Gregory to announce his qualification for office) and his eventual submission in the context of patria potestas (exploited by Gregory to publicly and legally enter into “a reciprocal relation of honor” [p. 194] with his father). Furthermore, the office provided Gregory with an official platform from which he could intellectually engage Julian and competing Christians (namely, Eunomius of Cyzicus and Photinus of Sirmium).

Chapters Two, Three, and Seven attend to Julian’s reign and thought. Julian became sole Augustus in mid-361 (just prior to Gregory’s ordination) and he came to power with a distinct plan for the Empire’s security. As she does for Gregory, Elm offers a new portrayal of Julian: he was not the derivative philosopher or impetuous monarch of previous scholarship, but a philosopher-king who implemented, albeit briefly, a sophisticated and consistent vision for the Empire that linked governance with philosophy, mythology, education, and Iamblichean theurgy. Several of Julian’s letters, hymns, and treatises reveal his conviction that the gods had charged him with guiding the Roman populace to true knowledge of them based on theurgical practice and allegorical interpretations of the myths. Incorrect knowledge condemned the broader philosophical program, and ultimately threatened the Empire with disaster. The defeat of his predecessor Constantius at the hands of the Persians made this perfectly clear: what Constantius and his court took to be true knowledge of God and the true practice of philosophy was incorrect and the gods had punished him (and the Empire) for it. To right Constantius’s wrong, Julian instituted a consistent program of de-christianizing and re-paganizing the Empire with varied tactics: he protected the normative texts of paideia from the devastating effects of misinterpretation by blocking Christians from teaching them; he tried to show Christians that they perverted humanity’s natural inclination toward the gods; and he established a pagan “church” that would make divine philanthropia available to the populace. The goal of his vision and its policies was to restore the oikeōsis that Rome once shared with the divine, and thereby its security.

By the time of his ordination, Gregory was familiar with the broad strokes of Julian’s program thanks to his connections at court and Nazianzus’s location along a major highway connecting Constantinople and Antioch (although Elm’s insistence on this latter point is controversial, given that learned guesses place the town some twenty miles southwest of Caesarea, and not on a major thoroughfare). She persuasively identifies the influence of the emperor’s vision in Gregory’s early triptych Orations 1-3. Of the three, Or. 2 is the masterpiece, containing detailed reflections on the role, conduct, and disposition of the Christian priest. Elm convincingly argues that this text constitutes Gregory’s entrance into elite public life by offering views on governance and philosophy that directly countered Julian’s. For Gregory, knowledge of the divine came from the Christian Scriptures read within the classical matrix of rhetorical and philosophical education and from the personal purity conferred to the priest by periodic philosophical retreat. Christian priests and bishops were the true philosophers (contra Julian) charged with guiding the less purified politeia toward assimilation with God (oikeiōsis pros theon). To Gregory, Julian’s program spelled only doom for the Empire (as Constantius’s did to Julian). His second oration also publicized this vision to other Christians, most notably, the Nazianzene schism and Gregory’s chief theological rivals, Photinus of Sirmium and Eunomius of Cyzicus, two prominent bishops in the mid-fourth century whose respective views on theology, epistemology, philosophy, and leadership were widely known. Thus, Elm persuasively argues that this text operated on several levels: it mapped out a vision of true philosophical leadership that countered Julian’s vision while helping Gregory to negotiate local and transregional theological conflicts.

Chapters Eight, Nine, and Ten argue that Gregory’s famous anti-Julianic orations (Or. 4 and 5) constituted a careful recasting of the emperor as the “Apostate” that shaped the way he and his vision were memorialized. In doing so, Gregory propelled his own vision to greater heights. Now he proclaimed that providence had preordained the Roman politeia to be Christian. Inasmuch as Julian tried to de-christianize the Empire, he opposed God’s will and revealed himself to be a genuine criminal. Elm takes quite seriously Gregory’s description of these texts as stēlographiai (see, e.g., Or. 4.20), public proclamations of the emperor’s crimes against God and humanity. Additionally, these texts constitute a “tour de force of classical learning, demonstrating that Gregory the Christian, inspired by Christ the Logos, was more Greek in his paideia and a better philosopher than the Hellēn Julian, who had declared by edict that logoi belonged to those who believed in the gods of the Greek and Romans” (p. 341). By arguing that Julian’s criminality invalidated his entire reign and its laws, Or. 4, composed in 364, counted as a plea for their repeal, especially Julian’s edict on teachers. Or. 5, composed in 365 or early 366, had a different political application. The text refuted point-for-point Libanius’s positive remembrance of Julian and endorsement of the emperor’s vision in the Epitaphius. The issue was particularly relevant in 365 or 366: Julian’s cousin Procopius, presumably an endorser of Julian’s vision, challenged the emperor Valens. Elm speculates provocatively that Gregory’s citation of Julian’s Misopogon as well as his reference to Julian’s beard and ascetic practice were condemnations of an emperor who would affect similar pretensions, namely, the usurper Procopius. For additional support, she reads the conflict between bishop Eusebius of Caesarea in Cappadocia and then-priest Basil as one based on Eusebius’s support for the Homoian Valens (for which, to my mind, there is no direct evidence) and Gregory’s advice to Basil that he reconcile with the bishop as support for Valens (against Procopius), despite his later condemnation of Valens as a second Julian.

There is little in this excellent book to criticize, and I only mention two minor points. First, one might wish to have seen more forceful arguments for dating Or. 1-3 to 363, a year later than their traditional date. The re- dating is certainly attractive in that it gives Gregory an extra year to digest and respond to Julian, but Elm’s case is made only on the basis of personal preference or the plausibility of her narrative rather than on evidence internal to the orations or contemporary letters. Second, readers familiar with fourth-century theological factions will salute Elm’s incorporation of sophisticated terminology (e.g., “Homoian,” “Homoiousian,” “Homoousian,” etc.) into her narrative, but may also be disappointed when, despite her promise to refrain from using them (p. 36), she slips back into the older, less refined designations of “Arian” and “Arianism” (see, e.g., pp. 48, 209, 228, 339, 342 n. 27, 483 n. 3). One particularly curious point is her regular, yet ill-fitting, designation of Eunomius as “Homoian”; most scholars would label him “Heteroousian” or, to use an older term, “Anomoean.”

Neither of these points affects the success of Elm’s argument and its major contributions to the study of Gregory, Julian, and the fourth century. The refined corrective she brings to the dominant portrayals of her two protagonists is itself noteworthy, but her book does much more. It insists that Christianity owes its success to its leaders’ exploitation of classical ideals and structures, a controversial but persuasive thesis. Paideia and its normative rhetorical, philosophical, and political texts were central to Christianity’s goal of universalism, itself borrowed from Roman political ideology. Her book also shows that the predominant dichotomies by which many historians have treated late antique Christianity and Roman culture—Christian/pagan, orthodox/heretical, political/theological, religious/philosophical, local/universal—cannot stand. Gregory, Julian, Constantius, Themistius, Libanius, Basil, and Eunomius, to name a few, all participated in the same culture and the same philosophical- political-theological debates regarding the best way to guide the Roman populace to security and salvation. Every university and college library should have this exceptional piece of scholarship on its shelves.

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