BMCR 2022.01.12

The aesthetics of hope in late Greek imperial literature: Methodius of Olympus’ Symposium and the crisis of the third century

, The aesthetics of hope in late Greek imperial literature: Methodius of Olympus' Symposium and the crisis of the third century. Greek culture in the Roman world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. viii, 287. ISBN 9781108494175. $99.99.

This book concerns one of the most striking texts in early Christian literature, the Symposium by Methodius of Olympus (c. 270–90 CE). This extensive and ambitious dialogue shows awareness of Plato’s Symposium and symposiastic literature more broadly, but it also departs from Graeco-Roman symposia in important ways. The scene is a symposium held in the garden of Arete, daughter of Philosophia, in an afterlife (and symbolic) setting; this symposiastic dialogue is, in turn, the subject matter of a framing dialogue between two main female speakers. The drinking party (though without any reference to actual drinking) features ten female virgins who engage in a rhetorical contest as they each deliver a speech on the set topic of virginity (lit. hagneia “chastity,” which stands in contrast to Plato’s eros). In the close, the rivalry is set aside, and the hostess deems all participants equally victorious, but praises especially one of them, the martyr Thecla, who subsequently leads the group by singing an iambic acrostic hymn that closes the symposium.

In this engagingly written book, Dawn LaValle Norman takes up the challenge of placing Methodius’ Symposium in its historical and literary context, and re-evaluates its contribution to literature in response to past readings primarily concerned with Methodius’ theology and his engagement with Origen.[1] Methodius’ overt experimentalism does not make this an easy task, but the book is cohesive and makes a convincing case that “Methodius carved out a place for a distinct Christian aesthetic that took over many of the trends in third-century literature, both Christian and non-Christian, and experimented with a reorientation of focus away from the past and towards a more real reality to come. […] He experimented with creating an aesthetics of hope” (p. 2). The argument is expressed clearly and is incrementally built in each one of the chapters, which focus on different facets of the Symposium: the immediate literary context (Ch. 1), the use of the Christian dialogue form (Ch. 2), the engagement with earlier symposiastic literature (Ch. 3), rhetorical competition (Ch. 4), and the closing hymn in relation to the emergence of Christian hymnography (Ch. 5).

The first chapter aims to place Methodius’ Symposium in the context of the literature of the third century; at the same time, it offers an excellent survey of Christian and non-Christian literature that will benefit many readers (with excellent forays into Syriac and Coptic materials too). Squeezed chronologically between the end of the Second Sophistic movement and the rise of the golden age of patristic literature, a case is made that third-century literature has not been given the scholarly attention that it deserves. This literature was influenced by the legacy of Philostratus, Plotinus, and Origen and by the “polygenericity” that is best instantiated in Porphyry but evident also in Methodius. The period coincided with “a centrifugal moment in the Roman Empire’s intellectual life” (p. 28). While traditional centres such as Athens and Alexandria were touched by political turmoil, new intellectual centres emerged, such as Apamea, Edessa, Berytus, Palmyra, and Caesarea Maritima. The insistent Lycian settings of Methodius’ dialogues (or the references to Lycia, as in the Symposium) are convincingly explained as part of a broader strategy “to insert Lycia into the intellectual network both by advertising the high-level intellectual life there and also establishing literary connections with other major centres” (p. 51).

The second chapter uses the Symposium to explore continuity and change in the dialogues composed in the imperial period. Here, LaValle Norman builds on the recent re-evaluation of Christian dialogues by Averil Cameron and takes the right direction by moving away from a comparison with Platonic models alone.[2] The chapter takes issue with inherited views of decline and closure of Christian dialogues, and with the recent instantiation of these views in the work of Simon Goldhill.[3] It is argued instead that “Methodius’ Symposium uses the form of the philosophical dialogue in a genuinely philosophical and dialogic way” (p. 71). The author discusses some features of Christian dialogues that may appear striking to us (such as the presence of a judge, the power imbalance among the speakers, or the involvement of the author as a speaker in the dialogue): these are best understood in relation to developments in imperial dialogues (notably Plutarch, Tacitus, Lucian) or in relation to non-Platonic dialogues more broadly. At the same time, the dualism between “philosophical dialogue” (primarily concerned with method) and “erotapokriseis” (primarily concerned with content) is somewhat constrained (although it is also described as a “spectrum” between the two) and may run the risk of missing out on the extraordinary variety of this vast body of literature.

Chapter three addresses Methodius’ engagement with the tradition of symposiastic dialogues and his literary contribution to it. LaValle Norman maps the genre from the early models by Plato and Xenophon (“first-wave” symposia) to its later instantiations in Methodius and Julian (“third-wave” symposia), but she also takes into account the imperial symposia, such as those by Plutarch, Lucian, and Athenaeus (“second-wave”). A case is made that Methodius was very much part of this literary tradition, but he also strove to dissociate himself from “second-wave” symposia by moving away from a nostalgia of the past and refocusing instead on the future (his Symposium is not set in the past but looks ahead in the future, and it features speakers in the afterlife who are hoping to achieve resurrection). LaValle Norman rightly re-evaluates the role of Xenophon as an important model for “second-wave” symposia, as is most notable in their episodic structure, the discussion of sympotika such as wine, sex, and music, and the emphasis on humour. Conversely, Methodius inaugurates a “third wave” of symposiatic writing: he turns to Plato and away from Xenophon, as it emerges in the unified topic of conversation (chastity), the absence of interest in wine and sex (though prefigured in the wait for the Bridegroom), and an embedded narrative of ascent – these features are all shared with Julian’s Caesars less than a century later.

Chapter four centers on the rhetorical contest in Methodius’ Symposium and argues that this competition should be understood in continuity with the world of the Second Sophistic. The virgins compete for victory by delivering speeches on a set subject, but, at another level, Methodius develops “a parallel between the rhetorical activities of his virgins and his own rhetorical activity of writing and performing rhetorical dialogues” (p. 164). The language of competition is prominent in the text, particularly when contrasted with earlier symposiastic dialogues and Plato; at the same time, rivalry and antagonism are explicitly condemned and resolved in harmony in the Symposium: the virgins’ contest closes with the victory and crowning of all. The analysis moves onto Methodius’ engagement with female rhetoric, where the author is shown to defy “the erotic expectations of depicting a garden full of female symposiasts:” he removes drinking, emphasizes virginity, and masculinizes the women’s competition through the allegory of athleticism (p. 190, helpfully contrasted with Alciphron’s Letters of the Courtesans). At the same time, the choice of a garden rather than the more typical andron of a Greek elite house for a symposium plays with the audience’s expectations: Methodius eroticizes the virgins in their wait for the coming of Christ the Bridegroom, as is foreshadowed in the hymn with epithalamic motives that closes the symposium.

Chapter five focuses on the hymn that closes the main dialogue (i.e. the dialogue at the symposium but not the framing dialogue that conversely continues) and is sung by all participants. The hymn, made up of twenty-four stanzas and a refrain, brings together epithalamic motives and Scriptural subjects; it stands out as an early example of Christian acrostic and is characterized by performative and liturgical undertones. LaValle Norman does not exclude the possibility that the apparent metrical irregularities may indicate the influence of accentual poetry; still, she also makes a case that the variations could be intentional. More broadly, by putting Methodius’ hymn in relation to Second Sophistic examples of deceased people singing in the afterlife (the Isle of the Blessed in Lucian’s True Histories; and the spirits of Achilles and Helen in Philostratus’ Heroicus), it is shown that Methodius “uses the poetic expectations of his time to shift focus from a nostalgia about the past to hope in a future to come” (p. 19-20) and creates a “Christian non-nostalgic, liturgical experience of time [that] implies non-closure in the future” (p. 236, building on the work by Catherine Pickstock).[4]

In sum, this book is rich in sophisticated insights, and the contrastive analysis with earlier literature makes it a highly stimulating reading well beyond the immediate subject of Methodius’ Symposium. The book stands as an invitation to scholars of imperial literature to look at Christian materials and to scholars of Christianity to look at non-Christian literature. The comparison with imperial literature is exceptionally fruitful and stimulating; at the same time, the author rightly indicates that future work on Methodius should further investigate the links to Christian literature (p. 241). She calls for a systematic analysis of the other dialogues by the same author; similarly, this book is not primarily concerned with Methodius’ eschatology and exegesis, which provide so much of the text’s subject matter. Nonetheless, Methodius’ Christian reorientation towards the imagination of a future of possibility stands out as a feature common to early Christian literature – and one that deserves further attention: in this respect, Methodius’ Symposium, with LaValle Norman’s reading of it, is an important wake-up call for scholars of early Christianity and beyond.


[1] For instance, L. G. Patterson, Methodius of Olympus: Divine Sovereignty, Human Freedom, and Life in Christ (Washington, D.C. 1997); conversely, an excellent sample of recent approaches to Methodius can be found in K. Bracht, ed., Methodius of Olympus: State of the Art and New Perspectives (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017).

[2] Av. Cameron, Dialoguing in Late Antiquity (Washington, D.C. 2014).

[3] S. Goldhill, ed. The End of Dialogue in Antiquity (Cambridge 2008).

[4] C. Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Hoboken, NJ 1998).