BMCR 2019.07.32

Civitas confusionis: de la participation des fidèles aux controverses doctrinales dans l’Antiquité tardive (début IIIe s. – c. 430)​

, Civitas confusionis: de la participation des fidèles aux controverses doctrinales dans l'Antiquité tardive (début IIIe s. - c. 430)​. Paris: Nuvis, 2017. 405. ISBN 9782363670328 €27,00 (pb).

Doctrinal conflicts loom large in late antiquity. Typically considered the purview of theologians and bishops, the book under review aims to widen this perspective by analyzing the participation of all Christian faithful in these debates and controversies from the third century to the death of Augustine in 430 CE. This, for Perrin, is the beginning of the phenomenon that Santo Mazzarino had called “the democratization of culture” in late antiquity (286-7). Perrin is careful to separate people’s interest in these debates and their ability to follow and comprehend them throughout (e.g., 168, 213, 292). Yet he concludes (following Origen Contra Celsum 1.9-10) that, even if most ancient people did not use their reason very often, the Christian theological debates and controversies gave many of them an occasion to do so, to the point that they constitute the widest extent of popular participation in what can be considered “philosophical” debates in the ancient world.

The book is divided into three main chapters, along with a prologue in which Perrin explains the scope of his investigation and covers the older historiography of the topic; an epilogue; a list of sources; an 80-page bibliography (which is nevertheless missing important titles, see further below); and an index. The first chapter focuses on what Perrin called the “heresiological ethos” that Christian leaders systematically attempted to instill in the faithful as soon as they embarked upon their journey toward salvation, starting with catechumens. This was done through every possible means, including preaching, public debates, lectures, and hymns. Perrin especially underlines the oral nature of all of the ways deployed in order to make the faithful aware of the controversies and to be able to discern between the self-described orthodox, catholic church, and alleged heretics. The crucial question that is left out of this discussion, however, is “for whom?” Whose interests were being advanced and defended through such means? For the deployment of so much energy in preparing the faithful for spiritual warfare seems to show the imposition of a specific agenda, rather than illustrate a wide participation of the faithful out of their own interest.

Similarly, chapter two (“arts of persuasion”) focuses on sermons and instruction via preaching, which once again originated mainly from bishops and others leaders. But Perrin insists that the preacher’s audience was wide and he finds evidence of their passion for debates and polemic in sermons. Here again, Perrin cautions the reader that we must distinguish between audiences’ interest in disputes and their ability and competence to discuss or judge the arguments presented to them. Yet evidence from John Chrysostom shows that Christian audiences liked to judge whatever they heard, despite their lack of competence to do so (185). For Perrin, third-century disputes were mainly held in counciliar settings, whereas fourth-century debates were held in wider frameworks, including public disputes. As such, he considers them akin to earlier philosophical debates in which the laity participated (190). This included the writing of books, letters that were often read out loud, and public lectures. He concludes this chapter by asserting that considerable efforts were deployed in controversies that aimed at the widest possible audiences, and that the attention and curiosity of onlookers and listeners were always on alert for these (215). The latter point, however, seems more asserted than demonstrated.

The third chapter aims to assess the impact of all this activity. For Perrin, the sources are not only prescriptive (222) and clerics did not have a monopoly over doctrinal controversies and debates (223-38). He muddies the waters, however, by including monks in this discussion, justifying it by the fact that this was before their formal inclusion amongst clerics in the fourth century (232). Whatever the truth of this argument, it is an unfortunate one, for clearly monks were among the religious experts, along with “formal” clerics, and we would expect them to be active participants in theological controversies and debates of the time. Indeed, Perrin highlights the importance of social elites in several of the late antique controversies (243), although it would have been more interesting to know in which of the controversies social elites did not participate or were not an important factor. He also emphasizes the role of women in these debates (244 ff.), and once again adds that their involvement seemed determined by their social standing. One important counter-example to this last point is the role of curiales in enforcing anti-heretical laws (262), but once again they were part of the social elites, albeit municipal ones. Unsurprisingly, Perrin also underlines the role of bishops as the main source of doctrinal choices for the faithful (278), before presenting his conclusion (already mentioned in the opening paragraph, above).

This erudite work, replete with quotations from a wide array of patristic authors, is plagued by a fundamental contradiction (as astute readers of this review might have already gleaned): while aiming to disprove the notion that late-antique theological disputes were the exclusive concern of bishops, clerics, and social elites, Perrin cannot avoid using their writings and perspectives. Indeed, these very same three groups authored nearly every single patristic source that survives from this period, and thus constitute the dominating, exclusive, and only perspectives to which we have access. While these authors often mention the lower classes, Christian masses, and generic faithful, it nevertheless does not follow that these constitute clear, untinted windows into lower classes’ participation in these controversies. The book’s main weakness is, consequently, its lack of attention to the conventions of the literary genres in which the abundant sources analyzed were written, the rhetorical nature of several of the passages adduced, and the lack of concern for these authors’ agenda. It seems obvious that Christian clerics depicted a world in which the great majority of the faithful were interested in their abstruse, hair-splitting, theological discussions and conflicts. Indeed, this would make sense given the same Christian clerics’ ultimate goal to have a thoroughly Christianized society, which they would lead by patrolling its theological and confessional borders, by determining who belongs, who is excluded, and to whom the anti-heretical laws issued by secular rulers (following their cues) should be applied. Such authors were deeply invested in turning this vision into reality in this period, and consequently we as historians should be extremely careful in taking these projected visions as unmediated expressions of a past reality.

While Perrin tends to take these authors’ words at face value, he also leaves out important evidence that seems to contradict his argument. The example of Synesius of Cyrene is a case in point. Elected bishop by the people of his city at the beginning of the fifth century CE, Synesius was mainly known for being a wealthy, powerful, highly educated, “pagan” philosopher who had studied with the famous Hypatia in Alexandria. He had also represented his city in an embassy to the court in Constantinople to obtain a tax remission. The latter seems to represent what his fellow citizens of Cyrene were after in selecting him as their bishop: protection by a powerful man with contacts in elite circles. The Christians of Cyrene selected Synesius in spite of his philosophical inclinations. Synesius’ letters reveal that he accepted the bishopric, but under amazing conditions: he would keep his wife, would continue to practice philosophy, and would not teach Christian myths he did not believe in, which included the Resurrection! This case of a Christian populace that willingly selected as their bishop a man who denied one of the central tenets of their faith clearly goes against, or at least seriously nuances, the notion of widespread popular interest in theological debates and controversies. Instead, it seems to point toward very practical reasons for selecting Synesius as their bishop, a position that they seem to have come to view as significantly involved with the material world and its corrupting forces. It would have been important for Perrin to include such examples in order to nuance his depiction of widespread fascination with theological Christian debates in late antiquity. But maybe Synesius was an exception. It would nevertheless have been better to address the exception than to ignore it, in order to analyze it for what it reveals about the Christian faithfuls’ participation in doctrinal controversies.

Another important issue is the lack of engagement with important recent scholarship on the topic. While Perrin covers much older historiography well, from the Protestant Reformation to the early twentieth century, he surprisingly does not engage with two recent significant works that specifically analyzed popular participation in religious conflicts and public disputation.1 This is especially surprising, considering that both works are listed in the bibliography. Furthermore, another recent book by Eric Rebillard on Christians’ identities would have helped bolster the argument.2

In the end, scholars of Church history and patristics may find this book of interest to them, although they are not likely to find much novelty or an original argument. Moreover, with several untranslated quotations in German, Italian, Latin, and ancient Greek in the text, it is difficult to imagine that it will find a wide audience among French readers, let alone English ones.


1. Richard Lim, Public Disputation, Power, and Social Order in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) and Julio Cesar Magalhães de Oliveira, Potestas Populi. Participation populaire et action collective dans les villes de l’Afrique romaine tardive (vers 300-430 apr. J.-C.) (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012).

2. Eric Rebillard, Christians and Their Many Identities in Late Antiquity, North Africa, 200-450 CE (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012). Other important omissions include: Timothy D. Barnes, Athanasius and Constantius. Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); David G. Hunter, Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity. The Jovinianist Controversy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Neil McLynn, Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). ​