BMCR 2023.11.27

Christianity and the contest for manhood in late antiquity: the Cappadocian Fathers and the rhetoric of masculinity

, Christianity and the contest for manhood in late antiquity: the Cappadocian Fathers and the rhetoric of masculinity. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022. Pp. 350. ISBN 9781316514764



The book under review will be highly useful for scholars interested in the cultural, religious, and intellectual history of late antiquity. In this admirable study, Nathan Howard examines the use of agonistic rhetoric to assert classicizing masculinity as an emblem of moral and doctrinal authority in the letters and hagiographic writings of the Cappadocian Fathers. Presenting epistolary sociability in the fourth-century Greek East as an economy of honor (timē), Howard presents the Cappadocians as performers of paideia (pepaideumenoi) sparring in a “virtual agōn” with fellow literati, pagan and Christian, who collectively confirmed their common Hellenic heritage and training through competitive displays governed by the protocol of genteel comportment and reciprocity befitting men initiated in the Muses. In his study of the Cappadocian hagiographic biography, Howard reveals the quest for aretē in “zero-sum” agones with anti-Nicene interlocutors, pitting pro-Nicene representations of diverse figures (ranging from Gregory Thaumaturgus to Basil’s and Nyssen’s sister Macrina) as paragons of Hellenic masculinity against invalidating portrayals of doctrinal rivals as effeminate and uncultured. As such, these discourses wielded classicizing rhetoric to assert the aretē of the pro-Nicenes vis-à-vis their competitors. Lobbying for traditional Hellenic models of authority for Christian prelates in a Christianizing empire, the Cappadocian Fathers strove through rhetorical battle to authorize a masculine pro-Nicene leadership. Howard’s study illuminates the role of Hellenic learning in a marketplace of reputation among provincial Greek literati in epistolary and oratorical contests. In this view, the patrimony of paideia furnished the arsenal of rhetoric marshaled for managing social influence and furthering the cultural and religious objectives of ecclesiastical leaders.

A lengthy introduction preceding four main book chapters defines this volume’s focus on the Cappadocians’ competitive display of masculinity used to accrete honor and build models of moral and aristocratic ecclesiastical leadership in epistolary exchange and doctrinal debate. Howard locates this performative masculine ethos within a cultural heritage pervading Homeric, classical Greek, Cynic-Stoic, and Judeo-Christian texts which concatenate competition (agōn) with excellence (aretē) and courage (andreia) as well as the strategies of asserting masculinity preserved in texts of the Second Sophistic (most notably, Philostratus of Athens [c. 170-250] and Lucian of Samosata [c. 120-85]). Critical to Howard’s argument is the contention that the most salient virtue associated with maleness in antiquity was its fundamental link to moral probity (p. 19ff). In contradistinction to studies pointing out the subversion of gender roles in Christian literature, Howard argues throughout his study that the Cappadocians continued to draw upon highly traditional discourses of masculinity, even applying these themes to Biblical figures in hagiographic biographies, and thereby affirmed the ideal of classical manhood within pro-Nicene Christian leadership. Emphasizing the roles of the Cappadocian bishops as civic leaders actuated by a traditional curial ethic of euergetism, Howard builds upon the scholarship of, among others, Susanna Elm, Arthur Urbano, and Adam Schor to demonstrate how the Cappadocians deployed the currency of Hellenism as soft power in the dialogues of provincial administration. By means of these exchanges, the Cappadocians exhibited their moral virtue and elaborated upon the role of masculinity among provincial elites in the Greek East steeped in paideia. Continual agones in letters and oratory emerge as an aristocratic habit confirming shared membership of cultivated urban leaders, archaizingly cast as Lyric Age agathoi. Thereby, Howard argues for cultural continuity in a Christianizing society by demonstrating how Hellenic idioms and mentalities continued to format Roman patronage. Drawing upon identity theory and its application in recent scholarship, as in Eric Rebillard, Kendra Eshleman, and Isabella Sandwell, Howard contributes meaningfully to recent scholarly emphasis on the common aristocratic mentalities shared by men possessed of paideia, regardless of religious affiliation.

Chapter 1, “The Sweat of Eloquence: Epistolary Agōn and Second Sophistic Origins,” examines the Cappadocians’ epistolary exchanges as simulacra of the agōn, an agora for the display of manly aretē. Howard traces in this chapter the Cappadocians’ mimesis of oratorical performances of authors of the Second Sophistic, whose writings socialized the Cappadocians, associating rhetorical skill with bodily discipline and moral strength, who undertook rhetorical struggle to showcase their learning by means of letters. Viewing the letters as performances, Howard skillfully traces the time-collapsing rhetoric of dialogues with provincial aristocrats which forged social solidarity among interlocutors as they collectively identified themselves with the achievements and mentalities of Hellenes from Homeric and Classical Greece. By means of these interchanges, communicants affirmed their common cultural heritage and perpetuated an ongoing antiquarian conversation with the past. Highly significant to the intellectual history of the later Roman Empire, these letters forged pedagogical sites for competitive collaboration in a sort of literary workshop populated by former students of various lineages of teachers at educational capitals in the Greek East. Ultimately, the Cappadocians, perspiring to create eloquent rhetoric (Basil Ep. 24, p. 79), upheld in their epistolary exchange classicizing constructions of gender and the patrimony of paideia more generally as models for pro-Nicene leadership.

Chapter 2, “The Agōn of Friendship: Sensory Rhetoric, Gift Exchange, and the Aesthetics of Aretē,” focuses on how epistolary conversations furnished competitive arenas which remained prosocial because they circulated honor among participants and thereby confirmed masculinity among pepaideumenoi. In this context, Howard argues that Cappadocian letters simulated the reciprocal gift-giving of aristocratic friendship as early as the Homeric world. In this view, letters as prestige gifts ferried honor to both author and recipient. Missives broadcast the possession of both author and recipient of an expensive, long, and arduous educational training accessible to a highly privileged few. In Howard’s analysis, the Cappadocians, participating in an epistolary marketplace of the aretē of classicizing eloquence, drew upon a rich sensory vocabulary to forge emotional intimacy and virtual shared presence with their recipients. Especially noteworthy here is Howard’s engagement with erotic epistolary language in the Cappadocians—a topic often overlooked in scholarly treatments of Christian friendship—and in this context work on the role of same-sex desire as an implement of masculine authority in late antique homosocial relations might be useful.[1] In Howard’s analysis, this sensory language conveys the Cappadocians’ perception of the role of the senses and the body in ordering hierarchy and managing male identity.

Chapters 3 and 4 shift to discuss the hagiographic writings of Gregory Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyssa, reflections of identities formulated during the Christological struggles of 360-381. Most of these texts were written in the context of the Nicene victory at the Council of Constantinople (381), which by no means conclusively quelled Homoian or Heterousian fervor. Chapter 3, “Personifications of Sacred Aretē,” examines courage as a metric of holiness in distinctly pro-Nicene representations of Gregory Thaumaturgus, Basil, Macrina, and Gorgonia. Howard surveys how the selected sources drew upon athletic and martial language to present theological dispute as a manly contest. In this view, the authority of hagiographic subjects was guaranteed by their victories over laborious agones. These images forged models of holy and manly pro-Nicene leadership confirming paideia as marker of ecclesiastical hierarchy and doctrinal rectitude. Fashioned as pro-Nicene protagonist, Nyssen’s Thaumaturgus emerges as a confident athlete who proves his piety in repeated struggles with evil, and Nazianzen’s brother Caesarius displays intellectual refinement and holy boldness defending spiritual truth in disputations with adversaries and the powerful. Yoking their own piety to that of their sisters, Gorgonia and Macrina epitomize bodily aretē within the domestic sphere, a traditionally female space. For example, Gorgonia’s temperance, associated with manliness in Platonic dialogues, and her aristocratic decorum distinguish her fortitude in struggles with debilitating physical injury following a chariot accident.  Additionally, the Cappadocians grafted physical beauty, a characteristic associated with agathoi, onto the persons of holy men and women as an index of their breeding and masculinity within pro-Nicene tracts.

Lastly, Chapter 4, “Agōn and Theological Authority,” examines the polemic of Nyssen and Nazianzen in rhetorical contests with doctrinal opponents in their hagiographical encomia of Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil, and Macrina. To authorize pro-Nicene discourse, invoking discrediting Second Sophistic topoi of false pepaideumenoi as effeminate, deceitful, immoderate, and uncultivated to denigrate theological adversaries, the Cappadocians cast their protagonists as fonts of authoritative and true speech, embodying aretē won through ascetic struggles framed as classical agones. These arduous feats authorized pro-Nicene discourse. Thus, Nyssen’s Macrina, composed in the same context as his Against Eunomius (c. 381-383), presents the eloquence and self-discipline of the pro-Nicene pepaideumenos, a marked foil to Nyssen’s portrayal of Aetius of Antioch, a charlatan pepaideumenos who had not undergone the proper agonistic education to use rhetoric and philosophy properly. Nyssen subsequently depicts Aetius’ protégé Heterousian Eunomius of Cyzicus as exhibiting his mentor’s shortcomings of counterfeit paideia who abuses language and manifests an immature and unmanly disposition. Similarly, Nazianzen’s biography of Athanasius claimed asceticism as pro-Nicene piety by presenting Athanasius as a champion of the Logos whose paideia was entrenched in devoted contemplation of Scripture against the sophistic crowd-pleasing Arians. As God’s athletes, Nazianzen’s Athanasius and Basil confirmed their piety through ascetic performances of mental and physical discipline. Such sacred aretē proved superiority over doctrinal rivals while appealing to aristocratic civic mentalities prizing the hard-earned excellence and moral bearing honed in years of pedagogical agōn. Indicting the gender, piety, and class of their enemies, Nyssen and Nazianzen persuaded elites of the Greek East to identify pro-Nicenes as courageous, eloquent, morally upright leaders tested in countless contests, the Archaic Greek agathoi of the late ancient city.

Decoding the writings of late ancient pepaideumenoi certainly requires gymnastic mental agōn on the part of modern readers, and some might find some of Howard’s interpretations of passages as specifically masculine as somewhat overdrawn in places. Howard’s treatment of gender tends to be undertheorized and instead focuses mainly on word study in ancient texts to delimit a linguistic and ideological field characterizing classical masculinity.

The volume is generally free from typos (one obvious exception is the Greek word aristos in the final paragraph p. 97, where the last letter appears as a zeta rather than a sigma). Additionally, the word gennadas (p. 170), “noble or well-bred”, requires a referent in the text to render the translation “noble warrior.” Lastly, after tracking down references in footnotes, it was occasionally difficult to discern how the selected source and pages supported specific points in Howard’s text (e.g., p. 9n31; 10n34).

Pedantries aside, this is a compelling and provocative study that demonstrates (once again) that the study of Hellenism in late antiquity is far from defunct. Scholars of Greek epistolography will find Chapters 1 and 2 highly useful, and these chapters are also of general interest for specialists interested in the culture of provincial administration of the late antique Greek East. Howard does much to place “Athens and Jerusalem” within the same historic world, including his examination of the Cappadocians and ecclesiastic discourse within the long afterlife of the Second Sophistic in late antiquity (ch. 1, especially pp. 75-77). Overall, this fascinating volume does much to deconstruct the high conceptual walls, an inheritance in large part from patristic sources, between pagan/Hellene and Christian, that sometimes beset modern scholarship. Howard’s opening discussion of Nazianzen’s outrage that Julian’s Teaching Edict (362) would bar him from manly contests in rhetoric is highly instructive; however, the author’s statement (p. 62) that, from the time of Julian’s death onward “the Cappadocians continued to rehabilitate paideia and its privileging of classical masculinity” may overstate Julian’s sway over the deep roots of classical culture among Roman aristocrats, regardless of religious affiliation. There are a couple of other passages which may unintentionally convey a teleological view of doomed paideia (e.g., p. 101, “The Cappadocians were attempting to conserve the culture of paideia”; p. 99, “The Cappadocians thus re-inscribed the heritage of agon”). Such a culture, as Howard emphasizes, was very much the sea in which the Cappadocians swam.



[1] Mark Masterson, Man to Man: Desire, Homosociality, and Authority in Late Roman Manhood (Columbus, OH: The Ohio University Press, 2014).