Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.10.50 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.10.50

John Moorhead, Popes and the Church of Rome in Late Antiquity.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2017.  Pp. 322.  ISBN 9781138305779.  $44.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Matthew Hoskin, Durham University (

Interest in the late antique bishop of Rome as an object of study apart from any concern for the ‘rise of the papacy’ has lately been increasing. 2015 saw two contributions to the study of the Roman episcopate in Late Antiquity, this volume and The Bishop of Rome in Late Antiquity, the latter a collection of articles.1 Moorhead’s contribution highlights Late Antiquity’s new place in periodisation in the 39 years since Richards, The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages, 476-751. 2 Both volumes have the same terminus and Moorhead’s starts only thirty-six years earlier in 440.

The book is arranged chronologically, opening with Rome embedded in the Mediterranean world, largely facing East to Constantinople and South to Carthage, and closing with a new Carolingian orientation North. Each chapter contains one or more topical excurses. Thus, besides Roman bishops from Leo I to Zacharias I, there are the following separate discussions: ‘The Number of Titular Churches’ (43-44), ‘The Liber Pontificalis’ (76-78), ‘East and West’ (81-84), ‘Rome and Its Church’ (114-120), ‘Women’ (120-128), ‘Deacons and the Clerical Establishment’, ‘A New Kind of Pope’ about the accession of what may be thought of as ‘oblate clergy’ (203-206), ‘Laity and Martyrs’ (213-218), ‘Rome As Centre: Relics and Preachers’ (218-222), ‘Rome As Centre: Pilgrimage and Peter’ (222-225), ‘Rome As Centre: Books, Privileges, Liturgy’ (225-230), ‘Spain’ (230-232), ‘England’ (232-235), ‘From the East to the North’ (258-261) ‘Papal Liturgy’ (281-283), and ‘Non-Christian Rome’ (284-288). Given the general un-navigability of this book, including long paragraphs and endnotes with obscure references that are difficult to decipher, I would like to have seen these highlighted in the table of contents, and the excursuses on women and the laity would have done well to have interacted more fully. Nevertheless, the excursuses are most welcome and seek to bring nuance to what would otherwise feel like a series of biographies.

The first chapter starts with an introduction to Christianity in ancient Rome and the role of the Roman bishop (1-19). This discussion roots the popes not only in the wider Christian world but in the world of ancient Rome. Such embedding prevents any divorce between ecclesiastical and Roman history. Some connections that could easily be missed in a volume so small that covers so much are drawn, such as the relationship between the bishop’s cathedra and succession and the cathedrae of philosophical schools and the succession of their leaders (9-10). However, the importance for martyrs and the episcopal takeover of the catacombs by Damasus is not plumbed as deeply as it could easily have been without adding too much to the length of the discussion (pp. 4-5). That said, Moorhead rightly does not imagine lay martyr-piety being in competition with the clergy.

After setting the scene, Moorhead treats the popes from Leo I (pope, 440-461) to Zacharias I (741-752) in six chapters, each covering roughly fifty years and bound chronologically by the episcopates of the popes under discussion, although the final chapter closes a year before Zacharias’ death because the accession of Pippin III as the first Carolingian king is the terminus of the study. Overall, the narrative is appropriately paced. The space devoted to each pope is determined by the amount of evidence we have, his long-term significance, and the length of his episcopate. Ultimately, the book is useful for the information it provides in detailing the history of these men and, less so, their office.

One of the chief problems related to this brevity throughout the book is that many arguments are not developed deeply. Instead, one is given a reference in the endnotes to a primary or secondary source. Thus, when one disagrees with Moorhead’s interpretation, there is not always a fight to be had. For example, on page 44 there is a discussion of the decline of the city of Rome and urban decay in the fifth and sixth centuries. However, the evidence for this, especially Jerome, is itself problematic; 3 Moorhead does not cite or engage with any divergent voices, and the reader who is new to this material will take at face value, with no idea that, say, Rutilius even exists.

The most commonly cited source in the whole book is the Liber Pontificalis (LP). This choice is understandable for chapter 2 onwards, but not for the first. While Moorhead makes some good use of other sources for the narrative of 440-498, they are rarely cited as explicitly as LP; this practice diminishes their significance for the latter half of the fifth century. One needs to flip continually to the endnotes to learn who exactly provides the narrative, with no idea how reliable they are. The discussion of apostolic succession (14-17) is unnecessarily convoluted because it starts with LP, a text that could have been avoided altogether. This use of LP is also an issue because of LP’s problematic nature before the early 500s—and Moorhead’s valuable source criticism of LP is delayed until that point (76-78). It is more important in the episcopate of Leo, for example, to give source criticism of Prosper, the Acts of Chalcedon, and Leo’s letters and sermons, if we are to grasp the import and progress of his episcopate.

To conserve space, I shall consider Leo as indicative of the rest of the book before highlighting a few other points of interest. In the introduction to Leo’s episcopate, Moorhead gives a good corrective to overreading the use of imperial style and bureaucratic norms by popes (18-19), a necessary consideration in examining a pope who left around 140 letters. However, the ongoing problem of conflating Rome with her empire emerges twice on page 20, referring first to Leo’s sermon on the feast of Sts Peter and Paul in 441, ‘Made as it was during a difficult period in the history of the city’ and then, ‘a time when [Rome’s] outlook was not bright’. Did people in Rome in 441 think they were living in a ‘difficult period’? Indeed, the empire in the West was in having trouble, but thirty-one years after Alaric’s sack, with an active Senate and multiple imperial visits, was Rome itself in a bad way? Do we too easily collapse city and empire by turning the period from the sack of 410 to that of 455 into one of unremitting grimness in the City?

That said, Moorhead’s analysis of Leo’s Petrine sermons (20-21) provides us with important nuances to Demacopolous’ discussion of Petrine themes,4 in which he holds that Petrine supremacy is deployed when the Roman bishop is weak. Moorhead reminds us that Leo saw himself as Peter’s successor at moments of strength. The authority of the pope, underlined by the Petrine argument, is one matter where Moorhead’s bibliography falls short: the acts of Damasus’ synod of 382 are not only assumed to be genuine (a possible but not certain assumption), but they are also assumed to be a response to Constantinople 381, despite the ensuing decades-long silence on the canons from Rome (22-23).5

Moreover, much is made of Valentinian III’s arrival at Rome in 450 (23), but this is no sudden reappearance of a long-distant monarch, since Valentinian had issued laws at Rome in January and March 440, August 442, March and December 443, January, April, June, July, and December 445 (with no evidence of being elsewhere that year), October and December 446 (with no evidence of being elsewhere), and March, April, and June of 447 (no evidence of being elsewhere).6 These sorts of problems run throughout the book, from an overreliance on the LP overall and a lack both of recent bibliography and of some important older works.7

The lack of almost any bibliography later than 2012 is a weakness worth noting in a book published in 2015. To discuss Petrine supremacy without Demacopoulos,4 the origins of the stational liturgy in the fifth century without Salzman’s work on Leo’s sermons,8or the decay of Rome according to Jerome without Grig is to be three or more years behind in scholarship.3 Not knowing the arguments of 2014 publications, such as those for the genuineness of the acts of the 649 Lateran synod,9 is understandable. Writers and publishers have timelines. However, lacking this other material is unfortunate.

More positively, the book is strongest in chapters two and three where we enter Moorhead’s own period, from Theoderic to Gregory the Great.10 These chapters also benefit from LP entering into its own. More importantly, they benefit from Moorhead’s own strengths and deployment of source criticism. In the section on Gregory the Great, Moorhead acknowledges the unnatural quantity of evidence we have for him, arguing that this evidence makes Gregory seem even more important than he already is (112-113, 121). It also throws him and his time as pope into greater relief. Moorhead successfully uses Gregory’s writings, especially the voluminous correspondence, as windows into this period not simply for Gregory but also as cautious evidence for similar themes in other times.

In the latter chapters, a major theme Moorhead explores is the shift of the pope’s focus from the Mediterranean world of Late Antiquity to the northwestern world of mediaeval Europe (258-281). If Late Antiquity is the story of the ancient world’s end, then any diachronic study must grapple with how its end differs from its beginning. Change as well as continuity should be a theme. Moorhead has provided this in his account of the Rome-sponsored missions to the north and the rise of the Carolingian house.

In the end, the grand sweep of the late antique Roman episcopate is here, told through the stories of individual popes moving through the changing landscape of Late Antiquity. The sources are mostly used wisely. The relative importance of each pope is considered. And broader themes of the history of Late Antiquity are not lost in individual stories. This volume, then, can be read with profit by scholars both of the church and of Late Antiquity. It will also be a welcome addition for teaching, although I fear many undergraduates would find the endnotes impenetrable.

The book could have done with closer proofreading. For example, citing the King James Version, the Jacobean grammar fumbles, ‘thou shall bind … thou shall loose’ (17) rather than shalt. It seems that the original copy used the older anglicised ‘Columban’ and was edited at some point to ‘Columbanus’, given the number of times we read ‘Columban us’ – once even with the ‘us’ in a different font from the surrounding text. There is inconsistency on how to render the names of saints and churches; for example, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo is mentioned three times, each time differently: ‘Sant’Apollinare Nuovo’ (108), ‘S Apollinare Nuovo’ (136), and ‘San Apollinare Nuovo’ (173). Some names get confused, such as ‘Vigitis’ instead of ‘Vigilius’ (85), Sixtus II instead of III (19), or ‘Victorinus’ instead of ‘Victorius’ (254). Chadwick (1981) is not in the bibliography (n. 18, p. 95). 192, n. 55, cites p. 000. Page 95, n. 23 has typographical errors in the Latin, ‘perucssus’.


1.   Geoffrey D. Dunn, ed., The Bishop of Rome in Late Antiquity (Farnham 2015).
2.   Jeffrey Richards, The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages, 476-751 (London 1979).
3.   Lucy Grig, ‘Deconstructing the Symbolic City: Jerome As Guide to Late Antique Rome’, PBSR 80 (2012): 125-143.
4.   George E. Demacopolous, The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity (Philadelphia 2013). Not in the bibliography.
5.   The bibliography lacks Neil McLynn, ‘“Two Romes, Beacons of the Whole World”: Canonizing Constantinople’, in Lucy Grig and Gavin Kelly, Two Romes: Rome and Constantinople in Late Antiquity (New York 2012), 345-363.
6.   Otto Seeck, Regesten der Kaiser und Päpste für die Jahre 311 bis 476 n. Chr., (Stuttgart 1964), 368-384.
7.   For example, Sabine MacCormack, Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity (Berkeley 1981).
8.   Michel Salzman, ‘Leo's Liturgical Topography: Contestations for Space in Fifth-Century Rome’, in JRS 103 (2013): 208-232.
9.   Richard Price, The Acts of the Lateran Synod of 649 (Liverpool 2014), 59-68.
10.   See his titles Theoderic in Italy (Oxford 1992), Justinian (London: Longman, 1994), and Gregory the Great (New York 2005).

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