BMCR 2020.05.38

Self-portrait in three colors: Gregory of Nazianzus’s epistolary autobiography

, Self-portrait in three colors: Gregory of Nazianzus's epistolary autobiography. The Joan Palevsky imprint in classical literature. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019. ix, 261 p.. ISBN 9780520304130. $95.00.


Gregory of Nazianzus is the first author of the Greek East of the Roman Empire who is known to have published his letter collection himself, which naturally leads to questions as when, why, and how Gregory shaped his collection. Bradley Storin convincingly argues that the letter collection must be read as part of Gregory’s autobiographical writings of the early 380s. He analyses the ensemble of letters as a lens into his life and self-presentation. Storin expands on the research of Neil McLynn, who has published widely on Gregory’s letter collection,[1] and combines his reflections with a separately published English translation of it.[2]

The programmatic letters addressed to his great-nephew Nicobulus (ep. 51-54) must serve as the starting point for any investigation of the potential shape of the collection. Accordingly, Storin rightly provides the context for Gregory’s publication in his introduction. When in 383/84 Nicobulus presumably asked for a few samples of Gregory’s letters to improve his own epistolary style (ep. 52), he was a young student of rhetoric in Caesarea. He would have hardly expected his great-uncle to respond to his request with a collection of most likely more than 240 letters. Gregory, so it seems, seized the occasion to publish a carefully curated selection of his correspondence aimed at a far wider audience than just his great-nephew. Storin convincingly demonstrates that the collection has to be interpreted in light of Gregory’s peculiar position at the time of publication. Gregory had left the episcopal see in Constantinople after the turmoil at the council of 381. He returned to Cappadocia where he briefly oversaw the congregation of his hometown Nazianzus before he decided to retire from church office altogether. Since Gregory did not have an official church position at the time of the publication of his letters, Storin interprets Gregory’s work as an attempt to restore his authority within the provincial church and Cappadocian society. Gregory selected some of his previously written epistles and arranged and published them in a collection to proclaim a certain image of himself. Storin deems three intertwined aspects—or ‘colors’—of self-presentation especially important to Gregory: eloquence, philosophy, and his friendship with the late Basil of Caesarea (p. 26).

Following the introduction (chapter 1), the book is organized in four interrelated chapters. Storin first analyses the composition of the collection (chapter 2) before looking at the three different ‘colors’ in the three successive chapters (chapters 3-5). A short epilogue, an index of Gregory’s letters, and an index of subjects conclude the main text.

In Chapter 2, by far the longest chapter in the book (pp. 29-100), Storin tries to reconstruct the “Architecture of the Letter Collection”. He rightly points to the fact that the now-standard numerical organization of the collection (according to an uncertain chronological order) has little to do with the original arrangement of the letters. To reveal as much as possible of the original structure, Storin analyses the ordering of the letters in the six main manuscript families and provides extensive comparative tables.[3] The manuscripts dating to between the tenth and fourteenth centuries differ significantly in their ordering and therefore attest to medieval rearranging of the original collection. Storin nevertheless extracts certain similarities that seem to be attributable to Gregory’s own design. As Paul Gallay has shown, the manuscripts seem to confirm the arrangement laid out in the letters to Nicobulus (cf. ep. 53).[4] These epistles were most likely located at the beginning of the collection and immediately followed by selected letters to and from Basil. Most manuscripts arrange the bulk of the correspondence according to their addressees, but the sequence of the dossiers and the order of the letters within the dossiers vary considerably. In addition, there is a thematic cluster of twelve letters written during Gregory’s lent silence in 382 which are kept together in most families, though at different places within the collection. However, Storin himself acknowledges that the original shape of the collection cannot be deduced with certainty from the manuscript tradition. As he concludes, it can only be assumed that the letters were arranged in either addressee-based or thematic dossiers without specific attention to chronology.

In the second part of the chapter, Storin addresses the question of how Gregory chose the addressees and the letters for his collection. He attempts to investigate the design of the collection by “retaining the manuscript’s basic organizational principle of addressee-based dossiers while looking for textual cohesion elsewhere, among the social connections of friendship, intercession, recommendation, consolation, instruction, and so on between Gregory and the roster of addressees and couriers” (p. 82). Due to his focus primarily of prosopographical links between the addressees, Storin identifies two “primary clusters of dossiers”: one centred around Basil and another around Nicobulus. In addition to these two person-based clusters, Storin postulates two minor interrelated thematic clusters in which Gregory distances himself from Constantinople.

It is clear from the programmatic letters to Nicobulus (ep. 52 and 53) that his great-nephew and Basil both play important roles in the collection. However, it is hard to follow Storin’s argumentation when he groups nearly all the letters into just two clusters with connections that often seem artificial. For example, under the heading of the Nicobulus-cluster, Storin groups not only addressees to whom Nicobulus or his father were recommended, but also all addressees who were linked to recipients of these recommendations (p. 91f.). Furthermore, he also includes letters that he considers to be exemplary epistles based on Nicobulus’ request for guidance (p. 94). One can hardly imagine an ancient reader trying to relate all the letters in such a way. By building these artificial clusters, Storin overemphasises two prominent figures of the collection, thereby undermining the importance of the principle of organization of the addressee-based approach that he presented in the first half of the chapter. Nowhere does Storin state it explicitly, but one can assume that he derives the subsequent chapters from these clusters. Each of his ‘colors’ is associated with a specific cluster and analysed accordingly: the Nicobulus cluster for eloquence, the two thematic anti-Constantinopolitan clusters for philosophy, and the Basil cluster for Gregory’s relationship with Basil.

In Chapter 3 entitled “‘The Most Eloquent Gregory'”, Storin discusses the importance of eloquence for partaking in elite networks. He rightly shows that Gregory was well versed in Greek literature and that he showcased his talents whenever the occasion arose. References to shared paideia were used to connect with addressees of different social standing and religious conviction.[5] Storin thereby assumes that the collection was meant to encourage Gregory’s great-nephew to pursue his rhetorical studies further and consequently ensure his position within elite society.

Chapter 4 analyses Gregory’s self-depiction as “‘Father of the Philosophers'” (ep. 174). This is an ambitious chapter as Storin sets out to analyse the Nazianzen’s philosophical views in about 25 pages. He argues that one can observe a shift in Gregory’s self-fashioning as a philosopher in his works following his return to Cappadocia and exit from the clergy. Whereas in earlier years Gregory depicted the priest as the true philosopher, he dissociated the two roles after he left Constantinople seemingly on the basis of his own experience. Storin draws this conclusion mainly from an analysis of Gregory’s orations and poems, thereby corroborating his argument that the letters should be read together with Gregory’s other literary works. Unfortunately, as Gregory’s letters are short communications they do not allow for a coherent picture of his view on and self-presentation as a philosopher. Storin is left analysing short topoi about philosophy and quite different themes such as parrhesia, allusions to illness and bodily hardship, ascetic exercises as the silent vow or the use of scriptural references under the heading of establishing philosophical authority in the letters.

Chapter 5 examines Gregory’s relationship with Basil and his self-presentation as a “Basilist”. Storin follows closely—and rightly so—the arguments set forth in McLynn’s important 2001 article.[6] McLynn showed how, a few years after the death of Basil, Gregory used the funerary oration on Basil (or. 43) and the letter collection (beginning with a selection of letters to and from Basil) to establish himself as the bishop’s closest friend, and therefore also as his legitimate spiritual heir. Storin convincingly expands on this argument, adding, among others, a fruitful discussion of Gregory’s letters to and about three competing aspirants to Basil’s legacy: Basil’s brother Gregory of Nyssa, his protégé Amphilochius of Iconium, and his successor Helladius of Caesarea. Gregory depicts all of them in more or less friendly terms, though he also points out their flaws and shortcomings. Storin persuasively demonstrates that the Nazianzen represents himself as their primary adviser to assume a position of superiority over his competitors.

Storin offers a thought-provoking analysis of three important aspects of Gregory’s self-depiction in his letters and successfully makes a case for looking at the collection as a whole. Unfortunately, he misses the opportunity to delve more deeply into the study of Gregory’s chosen network through in-depth analysis of the individual addressees whom the Cappadocian elects to include and why. The result would have probably been an even more colourful Gregory. This criticism aside, Storin’s book is a welcome addition to the scholarship on Gregory’s self-presentation and will certainly stimulate further discussion about the ways we read his letter collection.


[1] Cf. e.g. Neil B. McLynn, “The Voice of Conscience: Gregory Nazianzen in Retirement”, in: Vescovi e pastori in epoca teodosiana, Rom 1997, 299-308; “Gregory Nazianzen’s Basil: The Literary Construction of a Christian Friendship”, in: M. F. Wiles / E. J. Yarnold (ed.), Studia Patristica Vol. XXXVII: Papers Presented at the Thirteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies Held in Oxford 1999. Bd. 4: Cappadocian Writers, Other Greek Writers, Leuven 2001, 178-193; “Gregory’s Governors: Paideia and Patronage in Cappadocia”, in: L. Van Hoof / P. Van Nuffelen (ed.), Literature and Society in the Fourth Century AD, Leiden 2015, 48-67.

[2] Gregory of Nazianzus’s Letter Collection: The Complete Translation, Oakland: University of California Press, 2019. At the time of submission, I had not yet had the opportunity to consult this volume.

[3] For the history of the manuscripts cf. Paul Gallay, Les manuscrits des lettres de Saint Grégoire de Nazianze, Paris 1957 and id. (ed.), Gregor von Nazianz. Briefe, (GCS 53), Berlin 1969.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cf. on this topic the seminal work of Peter Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity. Towards a Christian Empire, Madison 1992. For the Christian use of paideia one should add to the works cited, Peter Gemeinhardt, Das lateinische Christentum und die antike pagane Bildung, Tübingen 2007.

[6] Neil B. McLynn, “Gregory Nazianzen’s Basil: The Literary Construction of a Christian Friendship”, in: M. F. Wiles / E. J. Yarnold (ed.), Studia Patristica Vol. XXXVII: Papers Presented at the Thirteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies Held in Oxford 1999. Bd. 4: Cappadocian Writers, Other Greek Writers, Leuven 2001, 178-193.