BMCR 2003.11.21

Kingdom of Snow. Roman Rule and Greek Culture in Cappadocia

, Kingdom of snow : Roman rule and Greek culture in Cappadocia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. viii, 290 pages : maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0812236815. $49.95.

Kingdom of Snow is the first book of a trilogy devoted to Cappadocia in the fourth century AD. It is about Roman rule and Greek culture, and it will be followed by Families and Friends which deals with the social life of the Cappadocian Fathers (this book was recently proposed by the BMCR for review)1 and by Becoming Christians. The three books were written together as the many footnotes referring to the two other parts of this trilogy attest, and it may be difficult to give a fair review of one part of the trilogy without having read the two others. Still, in my opinion, this first volume does not stand on its own and sometimes makes for frustrating reading as pages go by.

Despite his claim that “this book is primarily a study of a particular region in the eastern Roman Empire at a particular time. The focus is on Cappadocia, not the Cappadocian Fathers” (p. 5), Van Dam relies almost exclusively on Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil of Caesarea, without much criticizing their writings, and the landscape of Cappadocia progressively disappears throughout the book behind over-sympathetic accounts of the bishops’ activities.

It is possible that the other two volumes of the trilogy will solve these problems, and Van Dam must be commended for having offered readable and entertaining information on the Cappadocian Fathers, which otherwise might stay buried in the sometimes frightening field of patristics.

The first and best part of the book, Badlands, p. 7-69, is a general introduction to the region, its geographic characteristics and its history in relation to centers of power. It shows neatly how the limits of the administrative power of empires in antiquity and the weather and environmental difficulties of the region were exploited by local notables to keep some autonomy under different rulers. The chapter also makes very visible the heritage of the civic rivalries from the Roman Empire (“la gloire et la haine” described by Louis Robert) which survived under the guise of episcopal hierarchies. Chapter 2 is another example of longue durée : it shows different strategies adopted by bishops to promote themselves in their towns by vying with notables in generosity. Maybe Van Dam should have stressed a bit more how the vocabulary of evergetism had been reused and transformed by the bishops’ rhetoric. One feels that his conclusion that Basil founded an upside-down reflection of the classical city (p. 52) is exaggerated and should be tempered by lexical comparisons with honorific inscriptions for benefactors. Chapter 3 shows briefly that the imperial administration did not attract many Cappadocians, who had the alternative of opting for local preeminence or for a career in the Church.

The second part of the book, Empire and Province (p. 71-156), is divided into chapter 5 on relations between bishops and provincial governors and tax assessors, chapter 6 on relations between bishops and emperors (and the prefect Modestus) during their stay in Cappadocia, and chapters 7 and 8 on Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus traveling and meeting emperors outside of Cappadocia. Bishops had at their disposal classical pagan culture and Christian religion to engage in relations with authorities. Both aspects of their education were tools in negotiations and correspondence; the difficulty for them lay in the measure and the degree to which they used or referred to pagan or Christian elements, depending on their interlocutor. Approaching a Roman authority required subtlety and knowledge of the individual. Bishops had to build networks of informers to know whom they were dealing with and act accordingly. This chapter is the core of Van Dam’s book. Though it shows all the intricacies and the complexity of relations between men in power and the mingling of Classical and Christian cultures, it suffers from over-reliance on the writings from only one side of the story (the bishops) and from his lack of criticism of the bishops’ assertions. For instance, in a discussion of relations between Gregory of Nazianzus and pagan or Christian governors, it should be taken into consideration that we do not know the letters written by the governors. In the chapter on relations with tax assessors, one should be more critical of the evidence. Gregory’s speeches were rewritten and modified for the purpose of publication and should not be taken at face value. We do not have the tax assessors’ point of view. As for Julian, it seems to me that his own works should have been integrated more fully in the discussion. All the precious information collected by Van Dam suffer from this lack of elementary criticism. Too often, the reader is forced to ask him/herself what the other side of the story would be, what the history of Cappadocia would be if van Dam had taken the point of view of the bishops’ interlocutors. They are strangely absent from the Kingdom of Snow, and it looks like Van Dam has been overwhelmed by his sympathy for his main sources.

The last part of the book, Culture Wars (p. 157-204) deals with the different ways the emperor Julian, Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus conceived the relation between pagan culture and Christianity. It shows the opportunities offered to these men by the existence of different sets of values and the conflicts that resulted from their attempts to control culture and education. The choice of writing individual chapters for these three men has its advantages and defects. It illuminates how personal history, friends and rivalries affected the way they considered relations between Greek religion and Christianity, but for an uninformed reader the broad context is missing.

Writing a regional history is always a challenge, even more so if the author chooses to use mainly literary evidence. It is my opinion that one also needs a more comprehensive use of archaeology, art history, numismatics or legal texts. Van Dam’s book is a pleasant old-fashioned introduction to the Cappadocian Fathers; it cannot pretend to be a regional history.2


1. I apologize to BMCR readers for the delay.

2. Many thanks to Natacha Massar for helping to improve my English. All infelicities and mistakes are mine.