Late Antique church historiography has long been regarded as a mere quarry of information without being of any interest itself. In recent years though the genre has become fashionable,1 with a new consensus emerging among specialists: Although the so-called “synoptic” church historians (Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret) treat more or less the same time span, have many sources in common and are all Nicenes writing under Theodosius II (408-450), they represent different conceptions of history. Thus, they are also important sources for intellectual processes and for the diversity within the Orthodox Church of the fifth century A.D.
Peter van Nuffelen (= N.), who has already published a number of articles in this field, follows this trend, but offers several significant new insights. Focussing on the Constantinopolitan church historians Socrates and Sozomen, he sets himself five central themes: the social and political context; the historical theology; the concept of church historiography; the historical method; finally the tradition (to be understood in the sense of their respective treatment of various episodes of church history).
The first chapter ( La carrière et le milieu social) sets out to show how different the milieus were in which the church historians lived and worked. Rightfully, N. stresses the generation gap between the two authors, Socrates being born about 380-390 and Sozomen between 403 and 427 at the very latest, according to N.’s reconstruction. Another difference lies in their social background: Socrates was of Greek origin and born in Constantinople, Sozomen had Semitic relatives and grew up near Gaza. Yet they have much in common: both dwelt in Constantinople when they were writing down their works, and neither of them was a member of the political elite, although N. believes that Socrates probably belonged to the so-called circle of the sophist Troilus — which is much more difficult to grasp than N. imagines. More important, previous interpretations of the church historians as voices of the court are refuted again and with new arguments.
In addition, both were laymen and, although being pronounced Nicenes, not involved in the ecclesiastical conflicts of their time, which gives them a special place among Late Antique church historians. There is a difference in their attitude to the schismatic group of the Novatians: whereas Socrates shows evident sympathies for them and, as N. holds, was probably a Novatian himself, Sozomen clearly thinks of them as heretics. This also explains their divergent attitude towards John Chrysostom, who was an enemy of the Novatians and is regarded as a trouble-maker by Socrates (which does not exclude the fact that he recognizes the former’s qualities), while Sozomen is among the admirers of this bishop. Less convincingly, N. argues that Sozomen and Socrates undervalue the theological struggles of their time (mainly 85f). Here N. seems to take their utterances literally, which is not advisable, especially when they speak about their own time, because they were not in a position to stress contemporary conflicts, thus criticizing the emperor at least indirectly.2
The second chapter ( La théologie de l’histoire) tries to show that the positive image of their own time drawn by the church historians is to be seen in the context of their theology of history, which is based on the concepts of Origen and Eusebius. Obviously, N. is right in underlining the weight of those theologians, who without doubt influenced the theological concepts of the church historians, and he makes sensible observations on this relationship. The main point of difference seems to be that Socrates and Sozomen integrate the empire in their concept of history. But in this respect N. himself admits that the theologies of history of Socrates and Sozomen are not very complex, calling them théologies en germe (88).
Socrates is regarded as being nearer to Eusebius because he puts emphasis on the concept of peace at the beginning and at the end of his work, but N. finds the need to further qualify this statement since peace does not feature prominently in the rest of Socrates’ church history, which is actually mainly a history of conflicts (124). The difference between Socrates’ and Sozomen’s theology of history, however, is brought out well: whereas Socrates’ main theme is peace, Sozomen describes the growth of the church. N. ascribes optimism to both church historians; according to him they both see a progress in history, which is not limited to the church but includes the empire. N. convincingly identifies Origen’s influence here, but what about contemporary influences, e.g. about imperial representation?
Chapter three discusses the literary genre “church historiography”. N. sets himself the task of demonstrating that Eusebius has been overestimated as the model of the genre, placing ancient church historiography as a whole in the context of classical historiography and of other genres of Christian literature. This chapter is in my judgement the weakest in the book. It suffers from the fact that N. entertains an extreme narrow concept of literary genre. The problem may be illustrated by his chapter 1.2.5 Les documents : N. criticizes the communis opinio that the inclusion of documents is characteristic of church historiography. N. underlines that there are exceptions in classicizing historiography (overlooking the fact that the case of documents in Thucydides is extremely complex) and in church historiography (with here Rufinus being a very special case). And, even if his examples were good, exceptions are always possible. Definitions of literary genres have to look at the typical, and it is obvious that use of documents is unusual in classical historiography yet customary among the main representatives of church historiography. In a next step, N. declares that for the church historians the documents are more reliable than the narrative because of their orientation towards the verity. This is certainly true, but why should this be la raison plus fondamentale (191) as compared to Eusebius’ influence? Eusebius had cited documents (which very few historiographers had done before him), the church historians expressly refer to his work, and he was as much claiming the stand for truth as they did. Therefore, the two reasons are complementary.
All the same, N. makes some important points in this chapter. He is clearly right in underlining that the relationship between church historiography and other literary genres on the one hand and the diversification of church historiography in the fifth century on the other merit more attention, especially as Late Antiquity is an epoch in which many literary genres were contaminated.
Chapter four ( La méthode historique), which focuses on the practise of historiography, is stronger. It treats several central problems of historical method in a large sense: the use of sources, the composition of the church histories (showing that Socrates’ composition and his literary techniques are more elaborated than they have been thought hitherto) and the idea of causality in the authors. These passages are, in general, convincing and give a good idea of how Socrates and Sozomen wrote history.
Equally interesting is chapter five ( La tradition). This chapter contains several exemplary studies on Socrates’ und Sozomen’s treatment of certain phenomena of fourth-century history: the beginnings of Arianism, the history of Athanasius, Julian the Apostate, the councils of Constantinople in 381 and in 383 and the Jews. These studies are most important for specialists in church historiography because they illustrate how the church historians tackled the problems of their sources, but they are also relevant for the general history of the epoch, for the reason that they give a better impression of the value which the church histories have as sources for modern historiography. It becomes clear that they should be dealt with very cautiously as they tend to stylise the events to a high degree.
One asset of N.’s work is its clarity. Several bilans and conclusions are inserted; in the end a general conclusion gives a clear picture of the work. Other instruments help one utilise this book: following the example of Geppert and Schoo,3 van Nuffelen gives a table (455-497) indicating the respective sources of Socrates’ and Sozomen’s church histories chapter for chapter. Geppert and Schoo discuss certain passages with more detail; therefore they should still be consulted although they are mostly replaced by N. The indexes are excellent.
Moreover, this is a very intelligent, scholarly book, sparkling with brilliant insights into the history of ideas. My main reservation is that N. does not sufficiently take into consideration what it means that the church historians were writing during their own period of time, as subjects of Theodosius II. Their positions necessarily reflect temporary concerns. Above all, the theme of peace was an essential part of imperial representation. Taking what the church historians say at its face value, N. seems to presume that the authors could express themselves as independently as modern intellectuals claim to be able to do, and that their time was in fact a time of optimism. But they were members of a society which was not free. Although they were not court historians, they were living in the capital and needed protection. They could not afford to fall out with the administrative elite. It is symptomatic that in N.’s impressive index of sources, coins, the main medium of imperial propaganda, are missing.
The last chapter, which turns to contemporary circumstances, seems to contextualise the church historians better, but, typically, the political context, although familiar to N., is widely ignored in the interpretations.4 We have to keep in mind that the authors wrote in a time when the Huns were still threatening Constantinople, when it became clear that the council of Ephesus had not soothed the conflicts within the church, and when conflicts were tormenting the imperial court.5 Whether the authors simply ignored these problems or whether their claim that peace had come about was somewhat ironic against this background, remains to be discussed, not the least because recent research and N. himself have shown that the authors are much more sophisticated than had been previously realised. It is in my view perfectly possible that the church historians expected their public to read between the lines. The apparently uneven end of Socrates’ work could possibly be explained by his reservations.
Another problem is the style of intellectual debate N. prefers. He is often extremely apodictic6 and has a tendency to simplify, or even misrepresent the position of other authors to such an extent as to make them easily attackable. Thus, the book contains a lot of unnecessary polemic.7 This is sometimes annoying, but not uncommon in the first book of numerous gifted scholars and cannot distract from the importance of this very useful, innovative study, which is worth reading not only by specialists in church history, but also by those whose field of research is the age of Theodosius II.
1. H. Leppin, Von Constantin dem Groen zu Theodosius II. Das christliche Kaisertum bei den Kirchenhistorikern Socrates, Sozomenus und Theodoret (Hypomnemata 110), Göttingen 1996; M. Wallraff, Der Kirchenhistoriker Sokrates. Untersuchungen zu Geschichtsdarstellung, Methode und Person (Forschungen zur Kirchen- und Dogmengeschichte 68), Göttingen 1997; Th. Urbainczyk, Socrates of Constantinople. Historian of Church and State, Ann Arbor 1997; H. Leppin, The Church Historians I. Socrates, Sozomenus, and Theodoretus, in: G. Marasco (Hg.), Greek and Roman Historiography. Fourth to Sixth Century, Leiden / Boston 2003, 219-254.
2. This possibility is at least conceded for Sozomen (86).
3. F. Geppert, Quellen des Kirchenhistorikers Socrates Scholasticus (Studien zur Geschichte der Theologie und der Kirche 3,4), Leipzig 1898, 113-132; G. Schoo, Die Quellen des Kirchenhistorikers Sozomenos (Neue Studien zur Geschichte der Theologie und der Kirche 11), Berlin 1911, 135-155.
4. Some hints though can be found, for example on p. 416.
5. This is alluded to by N. on p. 405.
6. His preferred formulas seem to be “nous ne croyons pas, il est incorrect, il est faux” etc.
7. I myself was at many points surprised how much N. simplified my positions, cf. for example 121, n. 168; 129, n. 200, 145 n. 299, 192, n. 16.