BMCR 2013.02.18

The Formation of Papal Authority in Late Antique Italy: Roman Bishops and the Domestic Sphere

, The Formation of Papal Authority in Late Antique Italy: Roman Bishops and the Domestic Sphere. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xv, 323. ISBN 9781107001060. $99.00.


This important and provocative book is nothing if not ambitious. Kristina Sessa proposes a new framework for understanding the developing authority of the bishops of Rome from the mid-fourth to the late sixth centuries, one that rejects traditional narratives of a ‘rise of the Papacy’ expressed in institutional, political or doctrinal terms in favour of a domestic perspective. Sessa’s central figures are anything but capitalized Popes, as they struggle to impose themselves upon a teeming metropolis, where the dazzling palaces and pedigrees of senatorial aristocrats continued to outshine their own stolid respectability, and where their notional subordinates remained frustratingly beyond ready reach, whether the presbyters who governed the titular churches of the city itself or the hundreds of suburbicarian bishops who were their responsibility without being in their power. The increasingly ambitious claims made by successive pontiffs to the obedience both of Italian bishops and of senators therefore need explanation; and Sessa, emphasizing the lack of any institutional underpinning to these claims, argues that papal authority had begun at home, and that a carefully fostered reputation for expertise in the management of their own Christian households gradually enabled the bishops to gain purchase on the domestic spheres of others. The book is carefully structured and attractively written, and the case is constructed with an advocate’s zeal. Sessa proceeds primarily through the unpacking of case studies, and marshals a most impressive range of material as she moves confidently between the fourth and seventh centuries.

An initial chapter introduces the late Roman household, and in particular the enduring centrality of classical conceptions of home and patrimony both in the lived experience of the propertied elite and to the shaping of their values. The key concept here is oikonomia, into which are bundled such diverse elements as property management, household and family discipline, moral example and religious responsibility; Sessa emphasizes the continuities of established values and practices into the later period, persuasively rejecting the thesis that there was an enhancement of authoritarianism.

Chapter Two explores the application to the household, in Christian theory and practice, of the New Testament language of stewardship which Sessa identifies as Christianity’s most important contribution to domestic discourse. She traces the implications of this subversion of conventional ideas about property and mastery, in particular as worked out by Jerome and Leo, before exploring the practical consequences, the chief of which she sees as the evolution of a heightened sense among householders of spiritual responsibility for their dependents, and concomitant developments (notably the vogue for private ecclesiastical foundations) in the exercise of religious patronage.

With Chapter Three the bishops of Rome take centre stage. Hippolytus’ invective against Callistus and Ambrosiaster’s observations on the qualifications of the Christian rector are adduced as evidence for a recourse to ‘ oikonomia as a new and especially suitable discourse of episcopal authority’ (p. 90); various adaptations of the theme are then traced, with successive bishops offering examples of domestic leadership by their cultivation of austere lifestyles, acknowledgement of quasi-servile accountability, proclamation of a Petrine primacy in labour, and (above all) by their presenting themselves as the safest possible pair of managerial hands. This leads to a discussion of the actual operation of the bishop’s household, with valuable investigation of basic questions such as where he lived and with whom, where the church had its property and how he administered this.

Chapter Four discusses the involvement of Roman bishops in lay households, which is presented as a development which occurred gradually through the period, and which reflected the successful cultivation of ‘a distinct and new type of domestic expertise’ (p. 129). The examples discussed concern the veiling of brides-to-be, the status of wives who have returned from captivity to find their husbands remarried, the treatment of slaves who had been ordained, and the regulation of private estate churches; the emphasis is on the cautious conservatism of the bishops in their dealings with landowners on these matters.

Chapter Five examines the supervision of clerical households, both in Rome and throughout suburbicarian Italy, with particular emphasis on the enforcement of sexual discipline and financial probity, and on responses to attempts by suffragan bishops to engineer dynastic succession. Here the Roman bishop appears in a more activist role, constantly seeking ‘a more exacting and invasive form of control’ (p. 206).

Chapter Six explores resistance to the bishops’ claims, with the dossier generated by the Laurentian schism as the key witness; Chapter Seven is a complementary examination of the Gesta Martyrum, as fictional expressions of an idealized relationship between churchmen and householders. In both chapters, close textual readings yield a number of valuable insights.

Each of these chapters delivers fresh and thought-provoking conclusions; there is no question about the value of the book. But however beguiling the central contention, that the bishops of Rome sold themselves successfully as agony uncles to an initially sceptical constituency, it ultimately fails to convince. Above all, the casual deployment throughout of the central category of oikonomia causes uneasiness. The lack of a Latin equivalent (the transliteration oeconomia, invoked at p. 5 n. 12, never caught on beyond the narrowly technical sphere) must surely raise questions about the straightforward applicability of the concept to the specifically Roman culture being analysed here; the argument would read much less convincingly if at each occurrence of the key term, one of the Latin approximations (each either more specific or more general), administratio, dispensatio or cura, were used instead. The term is very useful to Sessa, for it allows her both to conflate (as none of the Latin alternatives would) the management of a household with that of an estate, of people with property, of children with chattels, and at the same time to exclude the public and pastoral authority that her bishops exercised (pp. 20- 22). The texts adduced to establish the connection seem insufficient: the Tacitus passage ( Agr. 19.2) cited three times to illustrate the link between household and public administration (pp. 8, 35, 77) refers specifically to the personnel management required of a serving provincial governor, and although Augustus certainly pioneered the promotion of ‘family values’, Suetonius’ biography does not present any obvious showcasing of ‘domestic expertise’ (p. 8); nor again do Seneca’s observations in De Clementia on the connotations of pater patriae or the excesses of Vedius Pollio (p. 79 n. 66) seem to employ ‘ oikonomia as a discourse of authority’. Similarly, her papal patresfamiliae are too easily assimilated into the landed elite. The biography of Gregory I is duly cited in this regard (p. 15), but Gregory, at the very end of the period, might in fact mark a fresh departure. When Justinian exempted bishops from paternal authority ( Nov. 81.3; pp. 45, 193) he emphasized their spiritual paternity—his bishop was more ghostly father than a ‘householder in the legal sense of the word’ (p. 193). Likewise, Ambrosiaster’s characterization of the rector draws a clear distinction between the good housekeeping that had qualified him to become bishop and the office itself: ‘tunc potest idoneus rector futurus probari, si prius domum suam recte gubernaverit’ ( Comm. I Tim. 3.5; p. 90).

The most important insights in the book—above all as they concern the need to look to non-traditional areas to explain the development of Roman ecclesiastical authority—would in fact only be strengthened by removing the artificial distinction between a domestic sphere and public authority. Sessa’s bishops are at their least convincing when she foists motives upon them to explain their alleged domestic interventionism. Innocent thus ‘took it upon himself to do the dominus’ household business’ in the case of Ursa (p. 145); Leo found ‘an opportunity to perform his expertise’ in resolving a matrimonial conundrum reported by a Gallic correspondent (p. 154); when confronted with illicit ordinations of slaves Gelasius and others ‘treated such conflicts as opportunities to exercise their emergent domestic responsibilities’ (p. 159); Pelagius ‘turned a difficult situation into an opportunity’ when the Syracusans flouted convention in their choice of bishop (p. 197). All this begins to look suspiciously schematic (cf. p. 206); but a more nuanced evaluation of the stakes in such episodes could be achieved by considering them in conjunction with the more obviously political issues which have dominated traditional narratives. For Roman bishops had already, at the beginning of Sessa’s period, advertised their availability to the righteously aggrieved, and some of the great houses of Rome were already offering hospitality to various malcontents determined to obtain a hearing. Many of Sessa’s cases, too, involve complainants and petitioners who can usefully be juxtaposed with the likes of Palladius of Helenopolis and Antoninus of Fussala—as they will have jostled with them for attention from churchmen and prospective patrons. The same oracular sententiousness with which Roman bishops deflected their more awkward appellants might in fact be detected in some of Sessa’s cases: it is difficult to resist the suspicion, for example, that Innocent brought Ursa’s case to Probus not because she belonged to the latter’s household but from a determination to pass along a particularly hot potato.

Sessa gives headline treatment to statements much less conspicuous in their original context. Gregory’s response to Augustine’s questions about the liturgical implications of sex, pregnancy, birth and menstruation is the eighth of nine items in a miscellaneous list, buried too deep to serve convincingly as demonstration of ‘the Roman bishop’s fluency in these particular areas of estate management’ (p. 129); equally low-profile is Rusticus’ question to Leo about the enduring legacy of an informal liaison, which (when taken with the other issues discussed in the letter) might be a scenario invented to tax the ingenuity rather than a ‘particular domestic crisis’ (p. 154). Enthusiasm for her thesis too often leads Sessa to foreclose alternative interpretations. If the owner of an inscribed lamp is indeed Valerius Severus, his ‘lawgiving’ is as likely to relate to his tenure of the urban prefecture as to his ‘domestic authority’ (p. 58). The discussion of the language of accountability, similarly, too easily assumes the model of slaves presenting themselves for manumission (p. 94, following p. 82); Leo’s educated audience will have had more elevated models to hand, especially since his reckoning was to be rendered in the singular—Tacitus’ Tiberius, for example, had earned a stern lesson in the squaring of the imperial account ( Ann. 1.6). It is also misleading to treat Macarius’ mission in Rome as a domestic operation (pp. 164, 212), since the text emphasizes ( Coll. Avell. 2.79-80) that a house was being used only because churches were not available. Sessa puts Fabiola’s penance at the Lateran rather than the Vatican, and ‘presumably under the direction of Damasus’ (p. 133); but there is no hint of any such supervision in Jerome’s account, and St Peter’s is elsewhere attested as a laboratory for pious aristocratic experimentation.

There is occasional carelessness, in the rendering of modern names (an apostrophe is misplaced in ‘John Matthew’s’: p. 43) and ancient, with Macarius becoming Marcarius twice on p. 212. Latin is slipshod throughout: Cato’s ‘virum bonum’ becomes ‘viram bonum’ (p. 8), Tertullian’s ‘apud ecclesiam’ ‘apud ecclesiae’ (p. 133); forms such as ‘corporem’ (p. 70 n. 32) and ‘sub quaedam procuratione’ (p. 77 n. 69) appear; a short citation from Siricius Ep. 1.5 (p. 135 n. 38) has ‘posit’ for ‘possit’ and ‘cuiusdem’ for ‘cuiusdam’; and at p. 201 Leo’s genitive ‘imparis … haeredis’ spawns the nominative ‘inparis haeres’. Some translations are questionable, notably the last sentence of Hilarus Ep. 15.4 on p. 200, with implications for the conclusions drawn from the text. The English too sometimes goes wrong, with a surplus verb at p. 5 n. 16, and ‘a young women’ on p. 210; at p. 173 n. 269 read ‘guardians’ for ‘wards’.

These are minor irritations. The book is a significant contribution, and its invigorating thesis will help shape future discussion of a topic of central importance.