BMCR 2002.03.27

The Hungry Are Dying: Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia

, The hungry are dying : beggars and bishops in Roman Cappadocia. Oxford studies in historical theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. 1 online resource (xvii, 231 pages) : map.. ISBN 1423762304 $49.95.

“Open your hands to your poor and needy brother in your land.” This injunction from Deuteronomy was already both an exhortation to show compassion and a hint of how the wealthy could turn such an indictment to their advantage. The poor might have had a claim on the generosity of their communities, but in return the wealthy had an opportunity to display their munificence and acquire more supporters. Susan Holman’s book is an excellent study of this dialogue between wealth and poverty in fourth-century Cappadocia and of the power available through the disturbing presence of great poverty. The impact of her book is not just a consequence of her meticulous analysis and translations of sermons by Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa, who all served as bishops in Cappadocia. It also derives from a deep sympathetic involvement with modern concerns over hunger and poverty relief. Her image of these churchmen as champions of the poor is all the more effective for seeming to represent a personal advocacy of public health and relief efforts.

In the introduction Holman makes a careful distinction between the “voluntary poor,” that is, ascetics, and the “nonmonastic poor” whose destitution was a consequence of “economic, involuntary poverty.” Since indigent outcasts might readily become social outsiders, these involuntary poor were furthermore on the political margins of their communities, or excluded entirely. Holman then introduces her formative themes of leitourgia and gifts, paideia and rhetoric, and theological doctrines of Christ’s incarnation. Since bishops in particular might become civic patrons, public preachers, and theologians, they also became advocates for the poor.

Holman elaborates on the ancient tradition of leitourgia in the first chapter. Both Greeks and Romans had encouraged public generosity, but primarily “to strengthen the city, not support the weak within it” (p. 42). In these longstanding traditions gift giving was a civic virtue, and not necessarily a consequence of compassion or obligation to the poor. Through their gifts patrons merely seized the opportunity “to assert social power” (p. 32) and enhance their own standing and honor. Even early Christian authors were reluctant to acknowledge the true needs and misery of the poor themselves. Instead, generosity benefited the donors, who were able to ensure their rewards in heaven through “redemptive almsgiving” (p. 54). In Holman’s summary of these earlier traditions and practices, both classical and Christian, the poor seemed to exist primarily to benefit patrons and donors.

The core of the book is the important analysis in Chapters 2-4. In the later 360s Cappadocia suffered from an intense food shortage. Drought contributed to this shortage; so did hoarding by local notables and merchants. Since Basil was then a priest at Caesarea, he responded with a series of public sermons. In his Homily 8 he highlighted the plight of the starving poor. According to Holman’s analysis, not only did Basil present them as hungry; in addition, through their suffering they were performing penance for sins that others had committed. “He never separates the liturgical images of repentance from an emphasis on social order and the role of the civic patron. Both penance and patron imply a standard of justice and social morality” (p. 82). The hunger of the poor was “an indirect moral indictment against those who had the power to provide relief and refused” (p. 91). The adoption of such a moral perspective on hunger put Basil in an awkward spot since he was criticizing the wealthy for their miserly hoarding while encouraging them to become benefactors. His suggestion that they could alleviate the hunger of the poor by sharing their resources was perhaps not enough of an incentive, and he instead offered them the chance to reclaim their moral authority. “The…fed body of the poor…becomes a symbol that reinforces the community power of the rich” (p. 96).

In other sermons Basil located the poor in the context of loans, debt, and usury. However marginalized they were in political and social terms, the poor were still part of the natural order of things. Because the natural world provided its fruit for everyone, the wealthy should likewise share their resources. “The disorder of poverty…is therefore a disordering of the natural state” (104). In this perspective the just distribution of wealth might become a form of redemption as the wealthy earned the rewards of compassion. Basil also warned the wealthy against impoverishing people through the extension of excessive credit. Since debt was another “disordering of the natural world” (p. 120), he encouraged lenders to write off the interest and cancel the loans. In this case, however, even Holman has to concede that such advice was probably ineffective. The relationship between lenders and debtors was as much about social influence as about financial investment. Even if lenders were prepared to forgive the payments, they were not willing to forego the social obligations that debts created. “Basil advocated a practice which would…completely undercut the existing dynamics of power” (p. 133).

Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus also delivered sermons about the treatment of the poor and other social outcasts. Both referred to these outsiders as lepers. Since Christ had once assumed a human body through His incarnation, Gregory of Nyssa was able to argue that even a leper was “a sacred physical representation of divinity” (p. 163). Lepers possessed a divine holiness. If generosity to the poor was redemptive for benefactors, then assistance for the ill or, better, actually touching the leprous was a form of spiritual healing for the physically healthy. “The leper’s body becomes a healing agent in homeopathic spiritual therapy that is able to absorb the spiritual diseases of the rich who lay their hands on them to help” (p. 166).

Holman’s readings of these sermons are very sensitive and perceptive, and she introduces to good effect comparisons with food shortages elsewhere in the Roman East and insights from modern studies about hunger and famine. In her conclusion she rightly stresses that sermons about the poor, the hungry, and the sick were implicit discussions about the nature of power in Cappadocian society: “it was this very lack of power that characterized the negative space in which the poor dwelt” (168). Such a statement might seem to imply that the churchmen who became their advocates, such as the Cappadocian Fathers, possessed the power to reform the attitudes of the wealthy. In fact, bishops too were often ineffective, especially in the face of the abiding influence of landowning notables. Through their control over resources like grain and access to water local notables were of course able to generate a reliable income for themselves; but in order to derive huge profits, they had to take advantage of the increased demand and high prices resulting from shortages. Involuntary poverty was often the inverted reflection of voluntary hoarding. Local notables benefited from food shortages several times over, by enhancing their own incomes and wealth, by making the poor and dispossessed beg for benefactions, and finally by earning public acclamations with their generosity.

In contrast, the Cappadocian Fathers had few tangible resources of their own. Unlike emperors and imperial magistrates they could not impose price controls or flog uncooperative merchants and landowners. Since the emperors of the mid-fourth century were either pagan or heterodox Christians, these bishops could not bring themselves to appeal for imperial assistance. And their churches did not own enough land to produce grain and food that they could distribute on their own. Unable to resort to physical threats, unwilling to appeal for imperial patronage, and restricted by their limited means, bishops too, like the poor they championed, did not have much leverage over the behavior of the wealthy. In a panegyric Gregory of Nazianzus once compared Basil to Joseph, who had saved Egypt from famine by managing the pharaoh’s granaries. But he also conceded Basil’s fundamental haplessness when he pointedly declined to compare the bishop to Moses, who made food fall from the sky, or to Elijah, who made small jars of food replenish themselves, or to Jesus Christ, who fed a multitude with a few loaves. Unlike these miracle workers, bishops were not able to produce unlimited food. In their concern for the poor and dispossessed all they could do was rely upon appeals to morality and the persuasive force of their rhetoric.