BMCR 2014.03.38

The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity. Divinations: rereading late ancient religion

George E. Demacopoulos, The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity. Divinations: rereading late ancient religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. 262. ISBN 9780812245172 $69.95.

This volume investigates the discourse used by three Roman bishops of late antiquity – Leo I (440-461), Gelasius (492-496), and Gregory I (590-604) and argues that most of the claims to authority issued by the Roman church during this period appealed to the figure of Peter most when that authority was called into question by other churches or political institutions. In other words, the more frequent the appeal to Peter in papal rhetoric the more powerless that Roman bishop was in reality. In Foucauldian terms, the discourse or topos about Peter was used in a way to exclude those who failed to agree with the Roman bishops.

The first chapter is an investigation of the way Peter appears in some Christian literature of the first centuries and his connection with Rome and with the appearance of the cult of Peter in Rome. Controlling the rituals associated with Peter and harmonizing different understandings of Peter’s authority and his place in Rome helped Roman bishops from the end of the fourth century cement their authority among competing elements within the Roman church itself.

Chapter two looks at Peter in the works of Leo. In his homilies Leo refers to Peter on occasions when other bishops are present, like the anniversary of his election and the feasts of Peter and Paul. Peter is portrayed as still active in the church and Leo portrays himself as an unworthy heir, but the inheritor of his authority nonetheless. In examining Leo’s letters Demacopoulos notes how Leo employs Petrine discourse in promoting the Serdican canons of 343 and the appellate jurisdiction of Rome. There is a geographically differentiated sense of the degrees of Leo’s authority: it is strongest in Italy and weakest in the East, and conversely references to Peter are fewest when he writes to those in Italy (but appear when the reception of his arguments are at their most uncertain) and more frequent when he writes to the East, particularly with regard to the Christological controversy with those bishops most likely to be opposed to his viewpoint. Conversely, in letters to Leo references to Peter are most frequent when the authors have most to gain from appealing to Rome.

The following chapter turns to Gelasius, whose assertion of the superiority of papal power over imperial is well known, but here it is investigated in terms of Gelasius’ weakness both in Rome and elsewhere caused by the Acacian schism. References to Peter’s primacy establish the argument for Gelasius’ authority in regulating the churches of Italy. In dealing with Emperor Anastasius, Gelasius claims that he is defending the orthodoxy taught by Peter, and he limits the term “Apostolic See” to the church of Rome alone and claims for it a universal jurisdiction.

The next chapter looks at the Laurentian schism in the years after Gelasius: how the Eastern emperor Justinian employs the Petrine discourse to undermine papal authority, and how papal propaganda itself appeals to Peter to disguise its humiliation during these years. We are informed that in the creation of papal biography in the Liber pontificalis as a tool to assert legitimacy, it was Symmachus’ side that made greater use of the appeal to Peter. Yet, apart from reference to Symmachus’ building agenda at St Peter’s basilica and the fact that the Liber pontificalis presents a sequence of biographies beginning with St Peter, the topic of the Petrine discourse seems to disappear and it is acknowledged that Petrine language is largely absent from Justinian’s legislation.

The final chapter considers Gregory I, who was able expand on the Petrine claims. In his theological works Gregory does not refer much to Peter at all except as an historical exemplar, particularly with regard to humility, but this is reversed in his correspondence. Of note here is the introduction of the ritual element of making the rectors of papal properties in Sicily swear allegiance to Gregory at the tomb of Peter. While the extensive discussion about Gregory’s much more limited involvement in the election of Sicilian bishops is interesting, the link to the Petrine discourse is limited. To understand Rome’s authority over the Sicilian church one would expect some investigation into the place of Sicily within suburbicarian Italy in the secular sphere and a thorough investigation into Roman involvement in Italian episcopal elections, but this is lacking. References to Peter are clearer in Gregory’s correspondence with the Lombards and Germans. As with previous Roman bishops dealing with the East, the Petrine discourse is prevalent in situations, like the debate over the use of the title “ecumenical patriarch” for the bishop of Constantinople, when Rome’s position was weakest.

The work finishes with an examination of the seventh-century uita of Gregory of Agrigentum, which contains a critique of the Petrine discourse, which although crucial to the story is remarkably brief. An appendix offers a translation into English of two of the texts relating to Gelasius.

I notice very few mistakes in the work.1 Some interpretations of the evidence are open to alternatives. The statement in the Liber pontificalis that Gelasius was born in Africa may make him not Roman or simply not local but this depends on understanding what participants in the debate understood being Roman to be. The bibliography is generally good.2

This is an insightful work, even within its limited horizon. It opens up for the reader one aspect of the late antique Roman church, a reality still surprisingly little studied.


1. One occurs in n.63 of chapter 2, where it is stated that Victricius of Rouen travelled to Rome to see Innocent I in 424 instead of 404. Another is the claim that portraits from the time of the Laurentian schism are to be found in the basilica of St Paul’s (Outside-the-Walls) (p. 115). The basilica was mostly destroyed by fire in 1823 and the originals that do survive (up until Innocent I) are in the monks’ private cloister not in the basilica itself.

2. Although it may have appeared too late for consideration, the chapter by Philippe Blaudeau in Two Romes: Rome and Constantinople in Late Antiquity edited by Lucy Grig and Gavin Kelly (2012) (or indeed any of his work on the papacy in the late fifth and early sixth centuries) on the topic of Petrine ideology would have strengthened the scope of this work.