BMCR 2014.03.18

The Role of the Bishop in Late Antiquity: Conflict and Compromise

, , , The Role of the Bishop in Late Antiquity: Conflict and Compromise. London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013. x, 270. ISBN 9781780932170. $130.00.


This book presents the proceedings of a conference held in September 2001 at the Universidad de Granada. The chapters are very short (most are 10-11 pages of text, the longest 15), which seems to indicate that they are the mostly unchanged text of the conference papers. It is not, as the title might seem to indicate, a collection of essays on the role of bishops specifically, nor an update of the famous Berkeley conference on The role of the Christian bishop in ancient society.1 In fact, as the subtitle ( Conflict and Compromise) indicates, the main theme running through these essays is the political role of late antique bishops (as the editors acknowledge on p. 8). The “Late Antiquity” of the title is also slightly misleading in evoking a wider geographical span than the book actually covers, with its decidedly western focus (only chapters 1, 4, 9, 10, and 11 also include eastern material). The volume includes chapters well worth reading on topics of interest to scholars of Church history, religious studies, Late Antiquity, and relations between Church and State, but the poor editing of this book makes it a disappointing work, particularly considering its hefty price ($130).

Following the editors’ introduction, a useful historiographical survey of the scholarship on bishops from the Reformation to recent times, Juana Torres and Ramón Teja analyze Peter of Alexandria’s attempt to take control of the Constantinopolitan see of Gregory Nazienzen through Maximus “the Cynic,” a supporter of the Nicene doctrine. They make insightful use of Gregory’s own words to situate this specific episode within the wider imperial and ecclesiastical politics of the period.

José Fernández Ubiña’s contribution on the “Donatist conflict” opens a triad of chapters on North Africa. Fernández Ubiña contrasts the polarizing attitudes of Donatists and Catholics with Constantine’s tolerant policy. Carlos García Mac Gaw presents a lucid discussion of the connections between the theological and legal views of the contending groups at the conference of Carthage of 411. Covering a wider geographical spectrum and making good use of Augustine for specific examples, Maijastina Kahlos looks at the tension for bishops between their instigation of their flock against religious enemies and their duty to maintain the civic peace by exhorting fellow Christians to respect the law and private properties.

Focusing on the decretals of Damasus and Siricius, Teresa Sardella examines ecclesiastical rulings on sexual matters in the fourth century. She argues that these decretals were political maneuvers from the bishops of Rome to gain the support of Western allies after the execution of Priscillian tore the Church apart, and Gallic bishops in particular. In tune with the theme of the book, her chapter highlights the political and ecclesiastical conflict looming behind ecclesiastical regulations of sexual matters.

The following two chapters also focus on North Africa. Victoria Escribano Paño investigates the interactions among bishops, judges, and emperors to understand the issuance and enforcement of laws, paying special attention to Sirmondian 14. Purificación Ubric Rabaneda’s analysis of Augustine’s Divjak Letter 11, the story of the monk Fronto who pretended to be a heretic in order to unmask them, showcases an example of bishops willing to compromise when they chose the well-being of their community as a whole over orthodoxy. Here, readers will find a narrative going against the grain of most late antique accounts, which typically privilege orthodoxy over all else. Scholars already familiar with previous scholarship on these topics, however, are not likely to find much that is new in either of these chapters.

Mar Marcos’s contribution on Pope Zosimus’ dealings with the western churches opens a pair of chapters on the papacy. Paying careful attention to the legal procedures, Marcos focuses on the political forces behind the preeminence of the bishopric of Arles in the Gallic Church of the fifth century, and Zosimus’s interventions in Africa. In a similar manner, Evers documents how Pope Hormisdas seized the political moment at the accession of Justin I and how it enabled Hormisdas to regain ascendency by imposing his theological (Chalcedonian) views and asserting the primacy of Rome.

In one of the best chapters, Alberto J. Quiroga Puertas discusses the transformation of rhetoric in Late Antiquity under the influence of Christianity. He shows clearly and succinctly that the rhetorical construction of orthodoxy involved a performative aspect, through which Christian authorities attempted to regulate the form of Christian oratory and manner of delivering it. By depicting their “sophist” enemies as going beyond the norms of proper rhetorical performance, Christian writers attempted to attack their legitimacy and cast them as heretics. In this regard, the figure of Paul of Samosata rapidly became the archetypal heretic.

The last group of chapters can be loosely grouped under the heading of “bishops and barbarians.” Andrew Fear explores the role of bishops outside the confines of the empire once Roman and Christian imperialism converged toward global conquest under Constantine. Looking at the absence of conflicts between Nicene bishops and Homoean rulers in sixth-century Spain, Pedro Castillo Maldonado focuses on the councils of bishops and takes the active participation in these gatherings to indicate tolerance motivated by political considerations, which, he asserts, followed the model established by Theoderic in Italy. Francisco Salvador Ventura, in the last chapter of the book, uses case studies of five Spanish bishops (including Leander and Isidore of Seville) to illustrate the process by which local elites sided with the Visigoths against the Byzantines in the seventh century.

Though the various authors offer some interesting insights and new perspectives on some of the specific episodes they analyze, the volume appears to have been published without the care and attention that it deserved. It lacks, for example, a general conclusion or bibliography, and the Index includes names of people and places, but no subjects. It also suffers from numerous inconsistencies, infelicities of language, and other problems that diligent editors could have easily fixed. In chapter one, for example, the authors quote the Greek writer Gregory of Nazienzen in Latin. Chapter three uses “anabaptism” for repetition of baptism (48). While etymologically correct, this might confuse unwary readers by inviting unwelcomed connections to the modern period. In Chapters 6 and 12, names and terms are spelled differently on the same page, e.g., Julian and Iulianus (111), Hipona and Hippo (117), catholicos and catholicus (221), and Athanagild and Athanagildus (238).

Authors follow different bibliographic styles: fully documented endnotes, a mix of parenthetical references and endnotes, or parenthetical references with minimal endnotes.

Spelling errors and awkward sentences also litter the text.2 And the notes reveal numerous traces of Spanish throughout the volume (e.g. 23, n. 3: “25 y 26”; 45, n. 1: “Optato”; 61, n. 60: “estructures”; 120, n. 45: “113 y 115”).

More seriously, however, two chapters in particular tend to assert rather than demonstrate. In chapter two, Fernández Ubiña stresses the support of the plebeian masses in opposition to Caecilianus (34), the role of bishops as civil judges (34), the “falsified” nature of the letter included in Optatus’s Appendix V (37), and the role of Caecilianus’s “ruthless character” (40) as the cause of the violence of 317-21. The author, however, fails to present satisfactory evidence to support any of these controversial assertions. Similarly, in chapter twelve, Castillo Maldonado repeatedly claims that the apparent tolerance of Visigothic kings toward Nicene bishops was “political,” but provides readers no evidence to support this claim other than their participation in councils, which might have been coerced. The author, for example, mentions the exile of bishop Marracinus in Toledo (234), but provides no explanation of his exile. Did this punishment stem from a conflict with the Visigothic establishment? Does it support the author’s view of a political tolerance? Here and elsewhere the author fails to address these and other crucial questions.

Overall, this is a frustrating book. It does include valuable contributions on specific, narrowly defined topics. Bishops, however, were powerful figures among the rising new elite of the early Christian world. Given the plethora of exciting recent titles in this field, readers are entitled to expect much more. They also are entitled to expect that published anthologies receive careful editing of both form and substance. Sadly, this volume fails on both accounts.

Table of Contents

1. Juana Torres and Ramón Teja, “A Dispute of Episcopal Legitimacy: Gregory of Nazianzen and Maximus in Constantinople.”
2. José Fernández Ubiña, “The Donatist Conflict as Seen by Constantine and the Bishops.”
3. Carlos García Mac Gaw, “ Ius et religio : The Conference of Carthage and the End of the Donatist Schism.”
4. Maijastina Kahlos, “Pacifiers and Instigators – Bishops in Interreligious Conflicts in Late Antiquity.”
5. Teresa Sardella, “Controversy and Debate over Sexual Matters in the Western Church (IV Century).”
6. Victoria Escribano Paño, “Bishops, Judges and Emperors: CTh 16.2.31 / CTh 16.5.46 / Sirm. 14 (409).”
7. Purificación Ubric Rabaneda, “Bishops, Heresy and Power: Conflict and Compromise in Epistula 11* of Consentius to Augustine.”
8. Mar Marcos, “Papal Authority, Local Autonomy and Imperial Control: Pope Zosimus and the Western Churches (a. 417-18).”
9. Alexander Evers, “East and West, Emperor and Bishop: Hormisdas and the Authority of the See of Rome.”
10. Alberto J. Quiroga Puertas, “Preaching and Mesmerizing. The Resolution of Religious Conflicts in Late Antiquity.”
11. Andrew Fear, “Bishops, Imperialism, and the Barbaricum.”
12. Pedro Castillo Maldonado, “Conflict and Compromise: the Spanish Catholic Bishops and the Arian Kingdom of Toledo (from Vouillé to Leovigild).”
13. Francisco Salvador Ventura, “The Bishops and the Byzantine Intervention in Hispania.”


1. H. Chadwick, E.C. Hobbs and W. Wuellner (eds.), The Role of the Christian Bishop in Ancient Society: Protocol of the Thirty-Fifth Colloquy, 25 February 1979 (Berkeley: The Center for Hermeneutical Studies in Hellenistic and Modern Culture, 1980).

2. E.g. 90: “this should have made wary of”; 106: “which had been abridged or only partial preserved”; 133: “This was also as was the case”; 138: “The decisions of the bishops and sanctuary”; 223: “coertion”; 236: “the Franks whoe were”; 237: “It is can be seen,” and “On the other way hand”; 238: “He quickly undertook a war activity”; 240: “casuing” and “All this religious situation would be”; 249 (and 253): “Aryan”; 250: “waned still less more” and “was different to that”; 251: “one of whose most illustrious members,” “a verifiable influence,” “was clearly interested that” and “his character also contained a political aspect”; 254: “the southern zone changed the course of its gaze.”