Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.45
Christopher Kelly (ed.), Theodosius II: Rethinking the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xv, 324. ISBN 9781107038585. $99.00.
Reviewed by Jan Willem Drijvers, University of Groningen (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Theodosius II (408-450) has gone down in history as an ineffectual ruler whose court was dominated not only by his eunuchs but also his sisters, in particular Pulcheria, a woman who had adopted a life of Christian asceticism. The Theodosian court is said to have resembled a monastery, although the emperor himself, apart from being a devout Christian and an intellectual, also had keen interest in sports and horses. Scholarship has generally considered the reign of Theodosius II as a period of significant weakening of imperial authority and also as a period of little importance, apart from the introduction of the Theodosian Code, some religious controversies and important church councils. Scholars have only recently started to become interested in the reign of the longest reigning Roman emperor. Fergus Millar’s A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II (408-450), published in 2006, offers a valuable reevaluation of the rule of Theodosius. The book under review here offers a fresh and valuable revision of Theodosius and his reign. It has its origin in a conference held in Cambridge in 2011 entitled “Theodosius II and the making of late antiquity”. Ten papers presented at this gathering are published in this volume.
The book is divided into four parts. Part I is a substantial chapter entitled ‘Rethinking Theodosius’ by the editor; part II entitled ‘Arcana Imperii’ focuses on the aspects of Theodosius’ reign and the workings of the court; part III, labelled ‘Past and Present’, is about the integration of the past into the present as exemplified in the literary and cultural activities of the Theodosian era; ‘Pius Princeps’ is the title of part IV and contains contributions about aspects of power and piety of Theodosius’ emperorship.
The book opens with a learned introduction of some sixty pages by Christopher Kelly. He eloquently discusses, summarizes and connects with one another the various contributions in the volume. He also augments the discussions in the different contributions by including valuable insights of his own, offering an interesting perspective on Theodosius’ reign which gives impetus to the rethinking his period of rule.
In her contribution, which bears the telling title ‘Men without Women’, Jill Harries argues against the predominance of female influence at the Theodosian court as, for instance, had been argued by Kenneth Holum in his Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity from 1982. Female influence was just the projection of a dynastic image, but the real authority rested with a group of imperial advisors and a self-sustaining bureaucracy. Harries emphasizes the role of the consistorium, which as the main advisory body protected and controlled the emperor and guaranteed the stability of the government. Because members of the consistorium and other officials were stakeholders in the imperial administration and were appreciated and honoured by Theodosius, there seems to have been little opposition to the emperor’s position. It is one of the explanations why Theodosius ruled for more than four decades.
The contribution by Doug Lee about Theodosius’ generals fits well with the views of Harries. Lee discusses the strategies the emperor and his advisers used to keep in check the ambitions and power of the military leaders. He explains why Theodosius’ generals – the emperor himself was not a military man – never seemed to have made attempts to usurp imperial power despite the fact that they had considerable influence because of their wealth in association with their patronage. The aspiration for imperial power by the generals was pro-actively and adequately constrained by way of promotion, by bestowing patrician status and the prospect of being granted a highly prestigious consulship. Moreover, Lee has the interesting suggestion that many generals owed their position to the fact that they were religious outsiders (pagans, Arian Christians) and therefore were less acceptable as candidates for the emperorship.
Thomas Graumann analyses two sacrae and a letter to Cyril of Alexandria about the preparation by Theodosius and his court of the First Council of Ephesus (431). Remarkably, these communications lack specific references to doctrinal controversy and instructions on the expected outcome of the council, but deal predominantly with correct procedures during the conference. In particular the bishops were expected to demonstrate consensus for the benefit of the state of affairs within the Church as well as the empire. The emperor’s stepping back from interfering in the doctrinal matters of the council has been seen as a weakness in Theodosius. Yet, as Graumann observes, late-antique emperors found themselves often in a no-win situation between establishing concord and eradicating heresy. The focus on procedures and non-intervention beforehand on the wished-for outcome of the council, may therefore have been a reflection of political wisdom of Theodosius and his advisers.
The lost work by the easterner Olympiodorus of Thebes which had offered an account of the affairs in the West in the years 407-425, is the topic of the paper by Peter van Nuffelen. The contents of Olympiodorus’ work, which has not been preserved, are known from Zosimus, Photius and the ecclesiastical histories of Socrates and Philostorgius. Contrary to the current scholarly vision that Olympiodorus can be read as a reliable source conveying a western perspective and western sources, Van Nuffelen presents a most interesting and convincing alternative point of view. Olympiodorus depicted a “triumphant reassertion of control over the West by the eastern court after years of animosity” (p. 134). Olympiodorus emphasizes the stability of the eastern imperial family contrasting it with the instability of the western court, the exclusion of outsiders in the East whereas the western court included to its detriment outsiders as Stilicho and Constantius, and the eastern successes against barbarians whereas the western empire suffered defeats against barbarian forces (e.g. the Sack of Rome in 410). In short, Olympiodorus sets out his history of the West as a mirror image of the East.
Part III opens with Giusto Traina’s contribution about a Latin poem celebrating the achievement of an annotated map presenting geographical realities for the occasion of Theodosius’ fifteenth consulate. Although a map is primarily a work of art intended to summarize the orbis terrarrum, Traina rightly stresses that a map also has an ideological meaning by representing a visualization of imperial power in geographical terms. Imperial power, as had been a long-standing Roman tradition, was linked to geography. The map represents Theodosius’ concern with the unity of the East and West. In that sense the maps reflects the same ideological meaning as the Theodosian Code and the Notitia Dignitatum with its eastern and western sections.
In a most interesting contribution Richard Flower discusses CTh 16.5.65 De haereticis from 428. This law issued by Theodosius II and Valentinian III is directed against a large number of heresies. The catalogue of heresies in the law has remarkable resemblances with the Panarion by Epiphanis of Salamis, the De haeresibus by Augustine of Hippo as well as a work against heresies by Filastrius, bishop of Brescia. By the time these three wrote their works, heresiology had become a new branch of scholarly study. The compilers of CTh 16.5.65 – Nestorius is mentioned as the inspiring source behind the law – were probably familiar with these heresiologies when setting down the law. Nevertheless there are, apart from resemblance also remarkable differences between the law and the heresiologies. The law does not mention the heresies in chronological order and deals overwhelmingly with eastern heresies. Moreover, the heresies in CTh 16.5.65 are divided into four different groups which are punished in different ways; Manichaeism is considered as the worst deviation from orthodoxy and is therefore punished in the most severe way. The law should, according to Flower, be read in the context, not only of earlier rulings against heresies, but also and foremost in the context of heresiological literature. By presenting an elaborate list of heretical sects “it engaged with the model of heresiology as a form of technical literature and thus a source of secure and reliable knowledge” (p. 191).
Mary Whitby deals (not exhaustively) with literary developments in Greek writing of the first half of the fifth century concerning interaction with classical genres and new trends associated with the growing importance of Christianity. Whitby discusses the genres of the lives – the polemicizing Funeral Oration on the Death of John Chrysostom but also the Historia Lausiaca, for instance, are reviewed –, the genre of the florilegium, dialogue and encyclopaedism (Philip of Side) are being considered, and of course the biblical paraphrases (e.g. Nonnus’ Paraphrase on the Gospel of John), centos and ecclesiastical histories. The reign of Theodosius II was a rich period for Greek writing both in Constantinople itself as well as elsewhere in the Greek East. In particular Greek biblical poetry became a popular genre. Theodosius’ wife Eudocia was one of the foremost poets of the period; she composed hagiographical paraphrases (on Cyprian and Justina) and Homeric centos. This was a world, as Whitby observes, which was both comfortable with its classical past as well as with its Christianity and which managed in a flexible and creative way to integrate its new religious outlook into the literary genres of the past.
The fourth part of the book – Pius Princeps – opens with a highly interesting paper by Christopher Kelly on humility and imperial authority. At the center of Kelly’s discussion are two ceremonies of imperial humility: the transfer of martyr’s relics from Constantinople to a shrine on the shores of the Propontis in the presence of the empress Eudoxia who had put aside her purple robes and was leading the procession while dancing; the procession headed by Theodosius walking barefoot Constantinople to the Hebdomon, a distance of seven miles, in order to do penance for a devastating earthquake. These carefully orchestrated displays of imperial self-effacement in which religion, ceremony and imperial ideology come together bring about on the one hand closeness to the citizens and on the other hand emphasize the imperial claims to piety. Referring to Pliny’s panegyric for Trajan, Kelly argues convincingly that these dramatic demonstrations of humility bridge the gap between the emperor/empress and their subjects but at the same time stress the distance between rulers and ruled, and thereby justify, sanctify and legitimatize the imperial autocracy.
Luke Gardiner deals with the panegyrical passages about Theodosius in the seventh and last book of Socrates’ Church History. Writing contemporary history about a ruling emperor is a dangerous affair but in doing so Socrates followed his example Eusebius who wrote about Constantine. According to Gardiner Socrates’ use of panegyrical assessments is to disguise his failure to discuss openly the inconsistencies of Theodosius’ reign. By giving many examples and comparisons Gardiner demonstrates persuasively the complexity of giving a valuation of the reign of an emperor who is still in power.
In the final contribution of the volume Edward Watts deals with the reception of Theodosius’ reign as represented in four texts from Egyptian origin and dating between the fifth and eighth century: the Plerophyries of John Rufus, Ps. Theofistus’ History of Dioscorus, the Chronicle of John of Nikiu, and a Coptic Synaxary as preserved in a fifteenth-century Arabic translation. These texts demonstrate that shortly after the Council of Chalcedon Theodosius was portrayed as the representative of anti-Chalcedonian sentiments; his reign represented the pinnacle of the Christian empire and was considered as an ideal orthodox paradise, in contrast to the rule of his successor Marcian.
This volume presents a diverse and fascinating collection of papers dealing with different subjects and themes concerning Theodosius’ reign. In spite of the variety of contributions, they all present a clear and revisionist impression of the first half of the fifth century. What becomes most evident is that Theodosius’ reign is still firmly established in the tradition of the past, but at the same time is an era in which considerable transformations took place. That makes this an important book which has definitely succeeded in its main aim “that the reign of Theodosius II should not be too quickly dismissed, simplified or partitioned” (p. 64).