Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.03.31 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.03.31

Richard Flower, Emperors and Bishops in Late Roman Invective.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  Pp. xvi, 294.  ISBN 9781107031722.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Tom Hawkins, Ohio State University (


Richard Flower’s important new study of late antique invective literature begins with a deceptively typical martyrological scenario: three Christians are brought before a local official, interrogated, beaten and driven out of town. The kicker here is that the persecutor is not some flinty Roman magistrate intransigently opposed to Christianity but Germinius, the bishop of Sirmium. The conflict, that is, centers on matters of orthodoxy and heresy rather than Christian vs. non-Christian. Flower labels this ‘hook’ text (the Altercatio Heracliani, fully translated in Appendix 1) as ‘both apology and invective, since the implication was that Germinius and his clergy would also find themselves defeated and replaced by God’s chosen people’ (5). From here Flower draws us into a story about the Christianization of late antique invective as the flip side of ceremonial panegyric, and he makes his case primarily by persuasively analyzing a set of proof-texts composed by the Nicene bishops Athanasius of Alexandria, Hilary of Poitiers and Lucifer of Cagliari all written against the Christian but Arian-leaning Emperor Constantius II (ruled 337-61). These documents form a neat and cohesive bundle in the tiny genre of invectives against living emperors by named figures (as opposed to the more numerous posthumous attacks or anonymous lampoons).

Before examining the book more closely, it may help some readers to know two things that this project does not take up (neither of which is necessarily a flaw). First, Flower focuses tightly on invective as a literary genre, and thus he does not engage with theories of insult or how Constantius himself participated in the contests of authority activated by these texts. This is fitting enough, since it is quite probable that the emperor never encountered these invectives at all (87-88). For this reason, Flower is amply justified in devoting the majority of his project to literary matters of authorial construction and the presentation of Constantius-as-target to the reading audiences of these texts rather than on the social experience of invective performances. Second, he works thematically, often dexterously juggling all his texts at once with the consequence that Athanasius, Hilary and Lucifer sometimes end up feeling like a more homogenous group then they actually were (though Flower does frequently highlight important points of difference). Flower provides scant contouring of their texts as unique and complete works, and this impression is furthered by the fact that the appendices offer translations of several fascinating and important texts other than the ones that are most critical to the bulk of his own project. For anyone familiar with the people and documents under discussion, this should present no problem, but specialists in, say, Ciceronian invective or the abusive banter of Old Comedy (who, in my opinion, ought to be part of the target audience) may wish for more basic biographical and textual orientation than Flower provides.

Chapter 1 provides a broad and accessible overview of the rhetorical landscape of late antiquity and the place of invective in that world. Far from being a wholly new genre, late antique Christian invective follows a traditional classical form in which praise and blame represent two sides of the same rhetorical coin. Yet even though Hermogenes’ close pairing of the laudatory and disparaging extremes of the rhetorical spectrum suggests that invective is simply inverted panegyric, Flower uses Pliny’s career to show that panegyric presents a problem that does not apply to invective, namely the difficulty in demonstrating sincerity. While the experienced flatterer’s praise can too easily sound canned, the speaker of invective instills confidence because his abuse gains him nothing from his target. This is particularly true when the target is a powerful figure in an autocratic regime against whom verbal abuse involves personal risk. Flower emphasizes the boldness of his authors by situating their invectives against Constantius vis-à-vis less daring examples. It is one thing for Libanius to have a go at the long-dead Philip of Macedon or second-tier Roman officials or for Lactantius to discuss imperial shortcomings in philosophical terms that avoid ad hominem attacks, but it is something else altogether for Athanasius, Hilary and Lucifer to inveigh against a sitting emperor. Flower also discusses several closer parallels, such as the Philippics of Demosthenes and Cicero (though I would contend that Philip, living in a different polity, represents a very different type of target from Antony, who was Cicero’s peer among the Roman senatorial elite); Claudian’s In Eutropium, which attacks a leading figure in Arcadius's court but which was written from the safety of Honorius's; and Synesius's De regno, which abuses Arcadius; I was surprised to find no mention of Philo’s Legatio ad Gaium in this list. Flower concludes the chapter with a discussion of how imperial panegyric reflects and shapes the categories and values through which subjects understand their rulers. Whereas someone like Eusebius provides a template for the good Christian emperor in his praise of Constantine, invective texts effectively do the same by focusing on the negative space, as it were, of imperial virtue and thereby help shape ‘an overtly Christian vocabulary of kingship’ (19).

After contextualizing late antique invective in this way, Chapter 2 begins to show how it worked in detail, with sections devoted to the treatment of such topics as the presentation of a target’s family history and the root of his vices. Somewhat surprisingly, it is also in these pages that we find the most concise biographical overviews of Athanasius, Hilary and Lucifer, material that might seem better suited to the introduction (82-86). To my mind, the most important arguments in this chapter deal with the primary difference between late antique invective and its more ancient predecessors, namely the move to replace classical exempla with an exclusively Christian cast of characters (a pattern that can also be seen in fourth-century panegyric, as Flower discusses briefly at the end of the preceding chapter). Yet it was not simply that Busiris could be swapped out in favor of Ahab or Pilate to play the part of a negative exemplum but, rather, that in this era ‘correct theological belief was assigned supreme importance in establishing legitimacy’ (81). That is to say that the exempla we live by come freighted with ideological import, and it is thus little surprise that in a Christian idiom a bad emperor is not just ruthless and dastardly in the mold of a Nero or a Domitian but, more specifically, he is portrayed as a heretic and an enemy of God. Conversely, piety and orthodoxy become the touchstones of overarching imperial virtue in a way that would have made little sense in the first or second century. This Christianization of rhetorical exempla fostered a different perspective on the past such that ‘the readers of these texts were invited to view contemporary events as the continuation of a narrative that ran back to Creation (112). This critical insight is unpacked in various ways in the two final chapters.

Chapter 3 deals with the implications of invective for the authors’ personas, specifically how ‘they sought to arrogate to themselves the same respect and authority accorded to those who had resisted earlier attacks on Old Testament Judaism and Christianity’ (127). The two primary models that Flower adduces here are those of the parrhesiast and the confessor/martyr, which work together to present the authors as heroes of their own texts and as equals to earlier champions of orthodoxy. He draws upon the example of Cicero’s attacks on Antony as a relevant model for this process, but Athanasius, Hilary and, most dramatically, Lucifer do something quite new in likening themselves to Christian martyrs who suffered horrific bodily torments for their adherence to their faith. Although it is true that these bishops all experienced exile (Athanasius, amazingly, was exiled five times during his career!), they had to promote a new understanding of the experience of martyrdom as hinging on the boldness to witness rather than physical suffering. And with this we can see a wonderfully clever feedback loop in which a bishop’s invective demonstrates his martyrial boldness, which increases his rhetorical and theological authority, which bolsters the persuasive power of his invective. The good guys spiral up toward saintly status, while the bad guys swirl down into the cesspool of heresy.

In Chapter 4 we pan further out as this entire apparatus comes together and sprawls beyond the invective texts that featured so prominently in the preceding pages. To my mind, this chapter was the most exciting, since it whirls together a great number of interesting insights about how Athanasius, Hilary and Lucifer ‘created an authoritative framework for understanding their ecclesiastical disputes’ (31). This framework contrasts sharply with Whitmarsh’s arguments about the strategies for dealing with the experience of belatedness among imperial Greek authors. To simplify: Whitmarsh shows that imperial authors react creatively to the diachronic experience of living and writing after the amazing literary and intellectual flourishing of classical Athens.1 For Flower’s authors, by contrast, the universality of the biblical narrative allows them to react synchronically, in a ‘biblical present’ (195), to their contemporary situations. In the timeless battle between true believers and those who oppose Christ, there is nothing new.

This model presents Flower’s authors as both writers and exegetes of a sacred history (esp. 181-82), and again we see rhetorical amplification through feedback. By claiming that their contemporary doctrinal issues (including but not limited to their interactions with Constantius) replay earlier Christian narratives, Athanasius, Hilary and Lucifer equate their rivals to easy targets whose fates have long been sealed, such as Pharaoh, Simon Magus and Judas; this, in turn, allows them to take the parts of various Christian heroes (as already discussed in Chapters 2-3). With this view of Christian history in place, Flower’s authors, particularly Athanasius, present a damning double-offensive against Arianism: this theological perspective was simultaneously new and therefore unmoored from the legitimizing force of tradition but also eternally predicted in such a way that various passages of Scripture, when properly decoded, foretell the rise and ultimate defeat of Arianism. All this then redounds to the rhetorical authority of the authors themselves. They are orthodox and pious because their part has already been determined on Biblical authority, just as their enemies have been condemned by scriptural witness.

An earlier generation of scholars could afford to marginalize the invective texts studied by Flower as ‘distasteful and embarrassing displays of coarse and vulgar calumny’ (8), in part because they also accepted categories, such as ‘Arian’, as they were depicted from the ultimately victorious Nicene perspective. Yet we now tend to view such concepts as hypostasized through discourse. Athanasius, that is, does not display Arianism for us by opening a window through the centuries but, rather, he constructs an image of Arianism that we can critically evaluate. Flower’s book convincingly shows the important role that Nicene invective played in the wider doctrinal wrangling of the fourth century. This is neatly highlighted in his final section, which deals with Hilary’s rivalry with Auxentius, the Arian bishop of Milan. Hilary used all the tricks of the trade to undermine Auxentius's position when the pro-Nicene Valentinian established Milan as his capital in 364-65. The time seemed ripe for Hilary to unseat Auxentius on the grounds that he was a heretic and a threat to Valentinian himself, yet the emperor did not buy into this high dudgeon and accepted the verdict of a board of experts whom he had appointed to adjudicate the case and who ruled in favor of Auxentius. The theological and ecclesiastical issues that drove Hilary to paroxysms of ardor simply did not rouse the excitement of the non-interventionist emperor.

Emperors and Bishops is a cleanly produced and solidly researched work of scholarship, and it will be a valuable resource for anyone who works on ancient invective or the literary and rhetorical culture of late antiquity.


1.   Whitmarsh, T. (2001). Greek Literature and the Roman Empire: The Politics of Imitation. Oxford.

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