BMCR 2005.02.37

Families and Friends in Late Roman Cappadocia

Raymond Van Dam, Families and friends in late Roman Cappadocia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. 256 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0812237129 $45.00.

This book is second in Raymond Van Dam’s trilogy that also includes Kingdom of Snow and Becoming Christian. After reading all of them, one can understand why the author chose to write three books rather than one, as they situate the Cappadocian Fathers and their families in the larger context of geography, politics, kinship, and religion. There simply is too much to be said about the Cappadocians for one book, and the trilogy shows that Van Dam has succeeded in filling a true need in contemporary scholarship. His second volume is a skillful exploration of the familial relationships and friendships of Basil of Caesarea, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, their sister Macrina, and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus. What is best about the book is how clearly the author states his goal for his work and why. Although Van Dam characterizes the revival of studies in late antiquity as a success story for “the modern historical enterprise” (p. 3), he bemoans the fact that scholarship is so “fragmented.” Recent scholarship on the Cappadocians ranges among a wide variety of fields such as gender studies, historical theology, administrative history, literary criticism, textual studies, and church history. Yet the majority of the work on the Cappadocians is still done by those scholars with a pious, sectarian viewpoint. Van Dam’s book has called into question scholars’ almost willful reluctance to take seriously other methodological approaches to Cappadocian studies and to integrate them into their own work. By-and-large Van Dam has made a successful attempt in this book to bridge the gaps in contemporary scholarship by utilizing gender studies, prosopography, literary criticism, doctrinal studies, and scattered insights from psychology.

The book is organized in three sections, which are further divided into chapters: “Fathers and Sons,” “Mothers and Daughters,” and “Friendship.” The simplicity and clarity of the chapters belie the vast amount of reading and meticulous historical reconstruction on Van Dam’s part. The arrangement of the chapters — and thus the families — along gender lines introduces the reader to a new perspective on the Cappadocians. The most convincing chapter in part one is “Forgotten Brothers.” Interestingly, Gregory of Nyssa is included among these brothers! Naucratius, Peter, Caesarius, and Gregory of Nyssa come to life thanks to Van Dam’s painstaking reconstruction, as he pieces together a reference from an epitaph, a line from a letter, and combines them with a fleeting allusion in a theological tract. Who would remember that a certain painting of the Sacrifice of Isaac haunted Gregory of Nyssa so that he broke into tears each time he passed by it (p. 72)? Van Dam is able to “find” Caesarius, a layman, in Gregory of Nazianzus’ rhetoric, despite his ambiguous status as neither a churchman nor a husband. We see Caesarius, Gregory of Nazianzus’ brother, as a real, cosmopolitan young man, full of ambition for a career at the imperial court in Constantinople.

What remains unconvincing in this section is the hypothesis that Basil’s troubled relationship with his own father led him on a lifetime search for substitute mentors who would act as fathers (pp. 27-37). Van Dam leads up to this conclusion with a well-documented case that Basil did have conflicts with his father, with his father’s family in Pontus, and eventually with each authority figure whom at first he routinely would trust. Rather than his conclusion, the evidence suggests instead that Basil simply bridled at all authority figures, and little else can be surmised about his psychological desire for a father figure.

The three chapters of part two, “Mothers and Daughters,” delve deeply into the relationships of Nonna and Gorgonia, and Emmelia and Macrina, their households, the changing roles they took on during the different stages of their lives, and the way that the ideals of ascetic Christianity conditioned each of them. In addition, Van Dam achieves something quite remarkable. Even though the sources for their lives are their brothers and sons, these men recede from the central focus at this point in the book, allowing their sisters and mothers to come to the fore. Yet the reader never forgets that Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Basil were constructing the identities of these women for a reason, to memorialize their kin as pious saints.

The last chapter, “Was God the Father Married? Virginity and Social Extinction,” will probably cause controversy, since gender, sexuality, and religion seem programmed to do just that. This chapter is quite speculative. Van Dam does not carry through his equitable views on gender when he discusses gender and asceticism. Although he begins with a balanced approach, “Remaining unmarried, becoming a virgin and an ascetic, was for both men and women the deliberate initiation of a long process of self-representation” (p. 115), he does not end up there. He concludes, “Because women’s traditional roles were defined within families, women who did not become wives and mothers seem to have lost their gender” (p. 119). But men, because they could still “participate in other public roles outside families” did not. Yet evidence from Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Macrina shows quite the contrary. All the roles and tasks of the household performed by women were duplicated in the monastic routine of Macrina’s monastic household: baking bread, cleaning, weaving, caring for weary visitors, giving hospitality to travelers, dispersing charity to the community, and “mothering” younger monastic sisters and even biological brothers. The “seclusion” of the ascetic life that Van Dam suggests caused women to lose their gender was really no different from the seclusion of any proper woman in her own household of the fourth century. Women did not “work” outside the household, but they certainly did within. Rather, what was relinquished by both men and women when they chose celibacy was sexual relations with a spouse and biological reproduction. The social responsibilities of running a household, of “mothering and fathering” those of the household, and the daily work defined by gender continued unabated for both sexes, despite the vow of celibacy.

Van Dam’s expertise as an historian is evident in the excellent section on friendship. His control of a sizeable number of sources, especially the Cappadocians’ correspondence, is impressive, as he analyzes a lifetime of experiences in the friendships of the three bishops. Because so much of their personalities come out of their intimate letters, and, in Gregory of Nazianzus’ case, his poetry, Van Dam succeeds admirably in presenting all three Cappadocians as inextricably imbricated in each other’s identity. In other words, Van Dam shows that none of them can be presented in isolation; and to do so would be an artificial exercise. By organizing the evidence primarily through the category of “friendship,” Van Dam’s extensive discussion of the topic is particularly effective in showing that not only was friendship personal, it was also political. Hence Van Dam’s approach to Basil’s problems with Eustathius of Sebaste is novel and more nuanced than is usually the case. Instead of branding Eustathius inevitably as the “heretic,” Van Dam allows for Basil’s sadness, tension, and ambivalence to come out in his break with his former friend.

The book ends with a very short (three page), yet intriguing epilogue, A Fourth Cappadocian Father. Gregory of Nazianzus’ cousin, Amphilochius of Iconium, and Macrina, sister of Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, are the most plausible candidates. In addition, Van Dam’s suggestion of Eunomius, a famous contemporary theologian, is somewhat justified, but putting forth Emperor Julian, an apostate, as a “Cappadocian Father” makes no sense, unless the meaning of the title is expanded to include its opposite. For better or worse, “Cappadocian Father” has traditionally been used to denote a theological/ideological mindset within Christianity of Late Antiquity. What the author is suggesting would require some major category shifts that perhaps are not crucial to our understanding of the fourth century. When Van Dam states, “Julian represented alternatives that the Cappadocian Fathers either rejected outright or struggled with all their lives. Julian was the Cappadocian Father who got away” (p. 186), he hints at some tentative reasons why he would add him. The chief one would seem to be geography; Julian spent formative years on an estate in Cappadocia. But he was not born there, nor was his family Cappadocian. Julian himself would have been horrified to be grouped with them. He would again be co-opted by the “Galileans!” Although he spent his university days with Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil, he dedicated the rest of his short lifetime to fighting everything they stood for, and Basil and Gregory reciprocated, giving as good as they got. So to seriously consider Julian a “Cappadocian Father” seems to be an academic exercise that violates the integrity of each man’s heartfelt position. The last paragraph of the book justifying Macrina as a “Father” rather than a “Cappadocian Mother” is much too simplistic. Where does one find justification in the Fathers for the statement, “Theology was masculine, involving a Father and a Son” (p. 187)? Scholars studying gender in Late Antiquity have indeed shown that gender was viewed hierarchically, and that women were “deficient” men (Theresa Shaw, Burden of the Flesh, 1998). But the statement,”By highlighting her theological prowess and spiritual leadership, Gregory thought of Macrina in terms of some of the ideals of manliness” (p. 187), is again ignoring what the enterprise of Christian asceticism promised both men and women in the fourth century. Among the benefits was overcoming the limits of male and female gender. And, as Gregory of Nyssa recorded Macrina stating in On the Soul and Resurrection, one’s body would remain recognizable at the Resurrection, and thus one would remain visibly female or male, vestigially, as it were. So Macrina could indeed remain a “Cappadocian Mother,” retaining the integrity of her gender while capturing the nuance of her ascetic transformation as her brother Gregory of Nyssa remembered her in Life of Macrina.

With regard to the production of the book, it would be much better for the reader if the University of Pennsylvania Press could break from the practice of publishers today and print footnotes rather than endnotes. In this era of agile, efficient, electronic technology, it would not be so difficult or expensive. Along with the other two books, Families and Friends in Late Roman Cappadocia has made a significant contribution to the study of the Cappadocian Fathers. Van Dam is a seasoned Roman historian, and his thorough scholarship combined with his elegant, meditative tone have opened a new approach for scholars of all fields of the period.