BMCR 2021.07.18

Social control in late antiquity: the violence of small worlds

, , Social control in late antiquity: the violence of small worlds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xiii, 380. ISBN 9781108479394 $120.00.


Social Control in Late Antiquity: The Violence of Small Worlds is the edited volume we all wish we could produce. Each of its 15 essays are sharply delineated, eminently engaging, and strongly conversant with important debates in their respective fields. While each is a fascinating read on its own, they all also participate in a remarkable coherence that is sometimes lacking in anthologies. Editors Kate Cooper and Jamie Wood should be commended for producing (and contributing to) such a superb and tightly focused volume.

The essays are organized into four sections, concentrating on four different “small worlds”: (1) the world within the ancient household; (2) the worlds made through the institution of slavery; (3) the worlds that were generated through Christian pedagogical practices; and (4) the world of experiences of female Christians, whether real or imagined. These “small worlds” are exercises in microhistory and typically involve mundane social figures, face-to-face interaction, and ordinary forms of power struggle, rather than the intensely public and political situations that we see in so many social and political histories. All contributors keep in view the theme of violence that is regularly, sometimes necessarily, involved in negotiating and maintaining these small words. In the interest of space, I have chosen to discuss one essay that engages with each of these four small worlds in order to highlight the kinds of questions that are pursued in the volume, though other essays are mentioned in passing later (a complete Table of Contents is listed at the end of this review).

On deck first is Jonathan Tallon’s essay “Power, Faith, and Reciprocity in a Slave Society: Domestic Relationships in the Preaching of John Chrysostom,” which demonstrates well the institutional violence that could play out in the small world of the household. Tallon explains how Chrysostom’s discussion of faith offers him the space to explore relationships of obedience within the ancient household, which acted as metaphors for faithfulness to God. Indeed, his writings suggest that “asymmetrical power relationships here on earth could—and should—make visible a crucial aspect of the divine relation to humanity” (61). The asymmetrical relationship between husband and wife is critical for Chrysostom’s goals. Faithfulness was a well-known virtue for married women, who were expected to obey and trust their husbands, while comporting themselves with proper modesty self-control. The result of this finely tuned spousal relationship would (ideally) be a well ordered, well-functioning household. For Chrysostom, this relationship illuminates the role of the church vis-à-vis Christ, for the former is “like a sensible wife” (63) who ought to show singular devotion, loyalty, and obedience to Christ. The father-son relationship also provides purchase on humanity’s relationship with the divine. Crucial for this metaphor is the awareness that in Roman society, the father held legal power over everyone in his household, including his adult sons. In this way, the father could significantly limit the power and independence of his sons. For this reason, Chrysostom deploys the father-son metaphor in order to emphasize obedience and deference to God.

 The final household metaphor that Tallon analyzes in Chrysostom’s writings is the master-slave relationship. Already in the writings of Paul, the slave/servant metaphor had been used to describe the ideal devotee to Christ. Chrysostom’s utilization of the slave metaphor partially reinscribes ancient ideals of slavery: while his “radical side” promotes an ethic of equality in the church, his “conservative side” shows “no hint that society should change” (69). Tallon rightly notes that this engenders a “challenging tension between the spiritual and legal status of the slave” (71). As in the metaphors of the wife and the son, faithfulness and loyalty to a master were praised in domestic slaves, which maps well onto the relationship that Chrysostom was encouraging his congregation to have with God. Tallon concludes that the asymmetrical relationships of the household provide Chrysostom with the ideal metaphors for encouraging faithfulness to God. Even so, these metaphors also reinscribed the inequality and thus the social violence that played out in everyday life.

The themes of slavery and its accompanying violence emerge in numerous places elsewhere in this collection, most notably in the second part, which is devoted to the violence entailed in ancient slavery. Illustrative of this section is Maria Chiarda Giorda’s thought-provoking essay “Discipling the Slaves of God: Monastic Children in Egypt at the End of Antiquity.” Despite some ancient sources that say children were not allowed in late antique monasteries, Giorda finds that there is rather strong evidence that many children were abandoned to monasteries and grew up within their walls. There was, moreover, often an unspoken agreement between monks and local families that abandoning a child to the monastery was a mutually beneficial action: “The child has an increased chance of survival and the family has one less mouth to feed, while the monastery receives a new member into the community” (159). While in the monastery, children received education and other moral discipline in order to fit into the monastic community. In order to make them conform, however, children could be subject to physical punishment, just as the resident monks were.

Caring for a child in the monastery was more than an act of charity, though; children brought benefits to the monks as well, because they provided labor and became a new generation within which to reproduce the monastic structure. In many cases, they were, for all intents and purposes, domestic slaves: “they belonged to the monastery” (167). Though their presence could have potentially distracted, and thus disrupted, the monks’ pursuits of piety, their value as domestic laborers and servants seems to have outweighed the problems they caused. So, whereas Tallon had highlighted the asymmetrical power relationships in the household, Giorda here does so similarly in the monastery, exposing yet another small world that relied in the inherent violence of inequality to maintain its order.

Turning now to “Coercing the Catechists: Augustine’s De Catechizandis Rudibus” by Melissa Markauskas, we catch sight of the third small world under examination in this volume: the world of Christian pedagogy, which was infamous for its rigor and discipline. Markauskas provides important nuance to a conversation that usually emphasizes primarily the demands that religious leaders imposed on individual believers. Instead, she centers the catechists, the “middlemen in this teaching process” (259), who were themselves on the receiving end of training for how they were meant to produce converts. In particular, she focuses on Augustine’s guidance in De catechizandis rudibus, which came in the midst of the conflict between Donatists and Caecilianists. Reading this work carefully, Markauskas finds two major challenging that catechists were evidently facing in their efforts to convert others: those associated with potential converts who questioned, critiqued, or otherwise resisted their methods, and those that inevitably followed from their frequent lack of success winning converts (in Markauskas’ clever phrasing, their “employee dissatisfaction” [266]).

The catechists that Augustine was addressing do not seem to have used any sort of physical violence to coerce converts. Instead, Markauskas’s point is that that catechists were subjecting themselves to violence in how they disciplined their behavior and disposition. In the face of apathetic audiences, for instance, they were told to “make oneself cheerful and just do it” (270). When they encountered rude or skeptical audiences, they were supposed to subject themselves to the harangues and to trust that God would guide the situation. If the catechists themselves felt dejected about their own levels of success, they “should thank God for offering up the sight of someone wanting to become Christian” (270). In short, Markauskas’ essay helpfully complexifies the small world of pedagogical training, attuning us to the layers of instruction and coercion that took place in the process of education.

And finally, in David Natal’s “Family Heroines: Female Vulnerability in the Writings of Ambrose of Milan,” we see an example of the last theme of the book, which centers the small worlds of Christian heroines in late antiquity. This essay examines how Ambrose features his female relatives, Marcellina and Sotheris, in his writings. Natal argues that rather than treating these relatives as living, breathing women, Ambrose uses them metaphorically for rhetorical ends, namely, “to strengthen his legitimacy as a bishop and to depoliticize his interventions in imperial politics” (300). For instance, he maintains that Ambrose reworks the concept of martyrdom so that it becomes an outcome of male authority figures in Christian communities, not an outcome of Roman oppression. Put differently, martyrdom in his writings was “not presented as a conflict between the Christians and the empire, but between the ascetic and the family way of life” (306). In this way, Ambrose dislodges the Empire’s role in creating Christian martyrs, and thus discourages any possibility that he, as a one-time “imperial bureaucrat” (304) could be seen as complicit with Rome’s violence against Christians. In addition, Ambrose seeks to convince readers that both Marcellina and Sotheris embodied the ideals of female asceticism. By championing his relatives who represent such virtue, Ambrose simultaneously heightens his own prestige and status, bolstering his authority in the church.

In private letters with Marcellina, Ambrose recounts his conflicts with other prominent figures, such as Emperor Theodosius I, and he uses the epistolary form and space to promote his own version of the conflict. Natal almost seems to suggest that Ambrose knew that the “private” letters would not stay private and that they were perhaps deliberate attempts to influence the historical record. In these letters, Ambrose emphasizes not only his authority, but also the danger that he felt he was in when he boldly clashed with powerful figures—both of which no doubt improved his social and religious clout. Thus, in addition to claiming proximity to their virtue and maneuvering their triumphs to get himself off the hook for perceived complicity in imperial persecution, Ambrose uses his female relatives in another way: he exploits the intimacy of their relationships with him to communicate an ideal version of himself, in a sense, for posterity.

Though I have only discussed four essays, the others are exemplary as well and pinpoint intentional efforts to maintain the hegemonic social order in these various small worlds. They expose how bodily, physical, mental, and spiritual discipline enact violence against individuals and groups in order to construct social boundaries, produce hierarchies of inequality, and craft the identities of individual social actors. In this way, the contributors draw attention to often overlooked, small-scale “technologies of control” (12) that operated in late antique society.

I want to return again to the striking coherence of this volume, since the editors clearly worked hard to keep the volume unified. The four chosen themes themselves do much to create the collection’s coherence. Some chapters even manage to engage with multiples themes at once; for instance, Chris L. de Wet’s essay on Christian monasticism touches on the small worlds of both slavery and Christian pedagogy, while James Corke-Webster’s contribution looks at how stories of early Christian heroines differently imagine the relationships within the household. There is also unity in the early Christian thinkers that the contributors spotlight in their pieces; for instance, both Blake Lyerle and Jonathan Tallon attune their respective analyses to John Chrysostom, while Kate Cooper and Melissa Markauskas take on Augustine, and James Corke-Webster and Vasiliki Limberis opt for Gregory of Nyssa. Even at the theoretical level, several contributors draw upon the same critical theorists, which further tethers the essays together. Both Jamie Wood and Chris L. de Wet, for example, use Pierre Bourdieu to guide their discussion, while Michel Foucault’s work animates, both implicitly and explicitly, much of the discussions about discipline that cut across numerous essays.

One is hard pressed to find flaws with this volume. My only minor critique is that I would have appreciated a concluding chapter by the editors. The essays mapped such a dense and fascinating terrain that it would have been helpful to tie them together with some closing remarks. Yet, the absence of a conclusion could be largely a stylistic choice, especially since the editors had already offered their framing thoughts in the introduction. As for readership, Social Control in Late Antiquity will certainly be a challenging read for non-specialists or undergraduates, but those scholars with a robust background in late antiquity, early Christian monasticism, Church fathers, inter alia, will find much to appreciate in its pages. Many thanks for Kate Cooper and Jamie Wood for producing this fine volume.

Table of Contents

Kate Cooper and Jamie Wood, “Introduction. The Violence of Small Worlds: Rethinking Small-Scale Social Control in Late Antiquity,” 1-12.

Part I: Women and Children First
1. Julia Hillner, “Female Crime and Female Confinement in Late Antiquity,” 15-38.
2. Vasiliki Limberis, “Holy Beatings: Emmelia, Her Son Gregory of Nyssa, and the Forty Martyrs of Sebasteia,” 39-58.
3. Jonathan Tallon, “Power, Faith, and Reciprocity in a Slave Society: Domestic Relationships in the Preaching of John Chrysostom,” 59-75.
4. Kate Cooper, “A Predator and a Gentleman: Augustine, Autobiography, and the Ethics of Christian Marriage,” 76-102.

Part II: “Slaves, Be Subject to your Masters”
5. Chris L. de Wet, “Modeling Msarrqūtā: Humiliation, Christian Monasticism, and the Ascetic Life of Slavery in Late Antique Syria and Mesopotamia,” 105-130.
6. Lillian I. Larsen, “Constructing Complexity: Slavery in the Small Worlds of Early Monasticism,” 131-150.
7. Maria Chiara Giorda, “Disciplining the Slaves of God: Monastic Children in Egypt at the End of Antiquity,” 151-170.

Part III: Knowlege, Power, and Symbolic Violence
8. Blake Lyerle, “John Chrysostom and the Strategic Use of Fear,” 173-187.
9. Jamie Wood, “The Fear of Belonging: The Violent Training of Elite Males in the Late Fourth Century,” 188-212.
10. Aaron P. Johnson, “Words at War: Textual Violence in Eusebius of Caesarea,” 213-231.
11. Blossom Stefaniw, “Of Sojourners and Soldiers: Demonic Violence in the Letters of Antony and the Life of Antony,” 232-255.
12. Melissa Markauskas, “Coercing the Catechists: Augustine’s De Catechizandis Rudibus,” 256-274.

Part IV: Vulnerability and Power
13. James Corke-Webster, “Reading Thecla in Fourth-Century Pontus: Violence, Virginity, and Female Autonomy in Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Macrina,” 277-298.
14. David Natal, “Family Heroines: Female Vulnerability in the Writings of Ambrose of Milan,” 299-317.
15. Thomas Dimambro, “Women on the Edge: Violence, ‘Othering,’ and the Limits of Imperial Power in Euphemia and the Goth,” 318-336