BMCR 2020.08.14

Gregory of Nazianzus’s letter collection: the complete translation

, Gregory of Nazianzus's letter collection: the complete translation. Christianity in late antiquity, 7. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019. 248 p.. ISBN 9780520304123. $34.95 (pb).


Bradley K. Storin has made accessible for the first time in English the complete letter collection of Gregory, bishop of Nazianzus (ca. 329-390 CE).[1] Those interested in late-antique epistolography, literary culture, Christianity, and Cappadocian society will find much of value in this compact volume. Storin presents his translation as a companion to his 2019 study in the same series, Self-Portrait in Three Colors: Gregory of Nazianzus’s Epistolary Autobiography (p. 12). While his own arguments are well-explored there, this translation, along with its introduction and notes, bears witness to many of Storin’s key insights: Gregory’s strategies of self-presentation, the significance of his original arrangement, and the subtleties of his epistolary style.

The introduction is short but rich with detail. After a brief biography of Gregory (pp. 1-4), Storin argues that the entire collection was addressed in 383 or 384 to Gregory’s great-nephew Nicobulus, who was ostensibly looking for epistolary models at the start of his education and whose teachers may have been an intended audience for some letters (pp. 4-6). Storin then succinctly argues that a prosopographical arrangement better reflects Gregory’s original project than the traditional chronological order of the Maurists, the Benedictine editors of the collection. Although the six main MS families do not agree on the sequence or grouping of letters, they share similar contents (“228 letters appear in four or more manuscript families, while only 13 appear in three or fewer”) and an “addressee or episode-based” structure (pp. 6-7). As an example, Storin points out that a “discrete dossier” of twelve related letters is kept together “for the most part” in the MSS (Ep. 107-14, 116-9). He contends that such overlapping clusters in the extant MSS “reflect an approximate version of Gregory’s original” (p. 7), and he explains some personal and thematic threads that tie together the collection (pp. 7-10).

Storin chooses the “u-family,” due to its near completeness and organization into addressee-dossiers, as the basis of his own arrangement.[2] He deviates from its order by adding six letters missing from u and moving some stray or misidentified addressees into their own or related clusters (pp. 10-11). He omits three categories of letters: letters from Basil, which were originally in the collection but on which the MSS do not agree; Gregory’s “theological letters” (Ep. 101, 102, and 202), which were transmitted with his orations; and four additional letters that he considers inauthentic: one spurious (Ep. 88), one by Basil (Ep. 241), and two by Gregory of Nyssa (Ep. 243 and 249) (pp. 11-15).

From the very beginning of the translation, Storin’s arrangement renders individual letters more significant. He opens with Gregory’s four missives to Nicobulus, which offer programmatic statements about the merits of epistles (Ep. 52.3, 51), the importance of brevity (Ep. 51.1-3, 54), and the value of maxims, jokes, and rhetorical figures (Ep. 51.6). Gregory wryly remarks that he should not be bound by his own advice on letter-writing (Ep. 51.8, p. 57), and this invites the reader to question the general applicability of Gregory’s generic standards. The second letter to Nicobulus (Ep. 53.1) includes the only statement concerning the order of the collection, flagging for the reader the importance of Gregory’s letters to Basil, which appear after those to Nicobulus.[3] This placement “romanticizes and publicizes” their friendship (p. 5), and it suggests how central prosopographical groupings were to Gregory’s epistolary project.

Throughout the collection, Storin’s arrangement emphasizes Gregory’s carefully managed relationships and reveals strategies of self-presentation. To give but one example, two letters ask for help from Jacob, a provincial official, on behalf of Simplicia, Alypius’ widow (Ep. 207-8). Under the traditional arrangement, these letters come well after the letters to Alypius himself (Ep. 82-6), but Storin places the letters on behalf of the widow immediately before Gregory’s many requests of Alypius.[4] This order highlights Gregory as a model friend, honorably returning favors even after his patron’s death. Storin’s text allows readers to see how an unchronological editorial arrangement highlights important values and relationships in an epistolary self-portrait.

Although ancient letters can at times seem formulaic and stilted, this translation brings to life Gregory’s prose for the modern reader. Storin incorporates colloquialisms, contractions, and idioms without compromising accuracy. In doing so, he not only produces a highly readable text for the modern reader, but also captures the epistolary conceits of casual composition and personal familiarity. “ἡμᾶς…μικροῦ τὰ ἴσα κακοπαθοῦντας” is rendered as “I’m in just as bad of shape” (Ep. 35.1, p. 130; cf. Ep. 80.2, p. 132), and “ἐγὼ περιττός…σε…ὀτρύνων” becomes “I’m going all out in pushing you” (Ep. 175.1, p. 122). Sometimes, English idioms effectively stand in for Greek expressions. “ἐν ἡμετέροις” colorfully becomes “in my neck of the woods” (Ep. 70.1, p. 144), and Storin adroitly adapts a reference to ancient athletics, “ἀλείφειν,” into a modern sports-metaphor, “watch from the sidelines” (Ep. 166.3, p. 188, with n. 268). On the other hand, Storin does not shy away from archaisms and difficult words, producing an effect approximating Gregory’s Atticisms and pleonastic diction. He offers “like kith and kin” for “φιλικῶς τε καὶ συγγενικῶς” (Ep. 203.4, p. 193), “most attractive and diaphanous” for “ἐυπρεπεστάτην καὶ διαφανεστάτην” (Ep. 197.5, p. 103), and “into a beautiful, pellucid mirror” for “ἐν ἐσόπτρῳ καλῷ τε καὶ διαυγεῖ” (Ep. 76.5, p. 102).

In grappling with the Greek text, Storin is attentive to the assonance and playfulness of Gregory’s prose. “τῶν σεμνῶνὀνομάτων,” for instance, becomes “august appellations” (Ep. 4.3, p. 59; Ep. 10.9, p. 191), and “τὸ προεορτάζειν” is rendered as “prefestival” rather than the LSJ’s cumbrous “to celebrate before” (Ep. 115.1, p. 97). In the notes, Storin reminds the reader of puns: Basil is like the biblical Bezalel (Ep. 19.6, p. 65, with n. 31), and he is “kingly” (Ep. 6.5, p. 61, with n. 20). Some wordplay is left unexplained, but the translation leaves it available to the reader. For example, Storin’s translation of a letter to Philagrius allows the recipient’s name to pun on his dual earthly and heavenly pursuits: “I neither wish nor suppose that it’s good for you—being Philagrius and eminently trained in divine things—to suffer in the same way as the masses.”[5]

The text is free of errors,[6] and I have only a few quibbles with Storin’s translation. The rendering of “κλῆσινσυνοδικὴν” as “synodical subpoena” gives the somewhat misleading impression of a legal threat of punishment rather than a less binding summons (Ep. 50.6, p. 71). Likewise, the choice of “spiritual leisure” for “ἀσχολία πνευματικὴ” perhaps does not capture the valence in context (Ep. 205.1, p. 139): Gregory is busily engrossed in spiritual pursuits, not at leisure in the modern sense of the word. Finally, Storin often translates στρατεία, στρατεύω, and στρατιώτης as only pertaining to the army itself. Sometimes, the context is straightforwardly martial (Ep. 232.3), but in many cases the word could denote a quasi-militarized bureaucratic post (Ep. 91.5, 7.3, 128.3, and 140.3).[7] A more ambivalent translation—for example, “serve the state” rather than “serve in the army” for στρατεύεσθαι (Ep. 7.3, p. 110)—or an explanatory note might convey this ambiguity.[8]

Letter collections lend themselves to selective reading, and Storin’s translation offers useful paratextual tools to ease navigation and reference. A heading before each letter gives each recipient’s name, the traditional letter number, and a proposed date. Two tables provide cross references and page numbers for the Storin and Maurist enumerations, although the lack of column headers after the first page of each is somewhat inconvenient. A prosopographical aid, organized alphabetically, describes the cast of characters in the collection, not only the recipients of Gregory’s letters, but also those mentioned in passing.[9] By using a separate prosopography and in-text parenthetical citations of ancient texts, Storin avoids excessive notes, while his endnotes themselves offer valuable insights on difficult passages, textual discrepancies, and points of historical and literary interest. The list of abbreviations and the index of biblical, apocryphal, pseudepigraphical, and classical texts are helpful, but some authors are left out.[10] A general index might have also benefited readers interested in particular aspects of society, such as asceticism or marriage. Despite these minor difficulties, the structure of the book makes it easy to navigate for both deliberate research and casual reading.

Storin has succeeded in making “the earliest author-designed letter collection in Greek” available to academics, students, and the general reader (p. 10). By crafting a streamlined translation to accompany a monograph, Storin offers a model for other scholars who deal with difficult texts without readily available translations, and his book will hopefully inspire other affordable translations of late-antique letter collections, many of which have never been fully translated into English or any modern language. Just as Storin’s excellent translation shows, these texts deserve to be appreciated as epistolary and editorial projects whose full meaning depends on context, audience, and arrangement.


[1] Storin bases his text on Paul Gallay’s 1969 critical edition, Gregor von Nazianz: Briefe, GCS 53 (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1969). Aside from the Latin of the Patrologia Graeca 37:21-387, the only other complete translation of the text is Gallay’s French, Grégoire de Nazianze: Lettres (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1964-7). Translations of some select letters have appeared in English: 98 in Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, “Select Letters of Saint Gregory Nazianzen,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 7, ed. Schaff and Wace (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1894): 437-82; 11 in Brian Daley, Gregory of Nazianzus (New York: Routledge, 2006): 172-83.

[2] The u-family is based on two eleventh-century MSS, Marcianus graecus 79 in Venice’s Biblioteca Marciana and Mutinensis α-o-4-15 in Modena’s Biblioteca Estense. For a full account of the different MSS and their order, see Storin, Self-Portrait in Three Colors, 37-82.

[3] For the priority of the letters to Nicobulus and Basil, see Gallay, Les manuscrits des lettres de Saint Grégoire de Nazianze (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1957), 9-14.

[4] Storin #166-172, pp. 152-5. This sequence roughly reflects the pattern in all but one MS family (Storin, Self-Portrait in Three Colors, 38-43).

[5] Ep. 31.2, p. 131: “οὐ βούλομαί σε, οὐδέ γε καλῶς ἔχειν ὑπολαμβάνω, Φιλάγριον ὄντα καὶ τὰ θεῖα διαφερόντως πεπαιδευμένον, ταὐτὸν πάσχειν τοῖς πολλοῖς” (emphasis my own). Cf. Gallay 1964-7, 1:38-9: “je ne veux pas et je considère qu’il n’est pas bien que toi, Philagrios, excellemment instruit des choses divines, tu éprouves les mêmes sentiments que le vulgaire.”

[6] The only exception I can find is a typo in Ep. 154.5, p. 180.

[7] For the military terminology and accoutrement of the bureaucracy, see A.H.M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1964), 1:566. Military trappings of office appear elsewhere in Gregory’s letters to civilians: Ep. 224.3 mentions the “sword and belt” of the official Africanus (p. 133, with his career on p. 19), and Ep. 86.1-3 describes Alypius as a “cloak wearer,” on the military associations of which, see Storin, n. 189 and Marie Madeleine Hauser-Meury, Prosopographie zu den Schriften Gregors von Nazianz (Bonn: Hanstein, 1960), 27n14.

[8] The prosopography is also too certain in deriving military identifications from this same vocabulary: Anthimius 2, “soldier or military officer” (p. 21) vs. Hauser-Meury 1960, 33: “im Militärdienst oder im Dienst der Staatsbureaux,” and PLRE 1:70: “officialis?”; Aurelius (p. 22), “soldier who deserted retinue of Olympius” vs. Hauser-Meury 1960, 37, in “Bureaudienst,” and PLRE 1:131, “officialis.”

[9] Hypatius, the recipient of Ep. 96 (p. 189), is missing from the prosopography (see PLRE 1:448-9, Flavius Hypatius 4).

[10] There are no patristic or late-antique authors in the index, and the index of classical authors misses Callimachus, Josephus, and Lucan. Due to a formatting error, the Iliad is erroneously listed under Hesiod, and the Odyssey and Mantissa proverbiorum appear under Isocrates.