BMCR 2024.03.16

Patriarch Dioscorus of Alexandria: the last pharaoh and ecclesiastical politics in the later Roman empire

, Patriarch Dioscorus of Alexandria: the last pharaoh and ecclesiastical politics in the later Roman empire. Oxford early Christian studies. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2023. Pp. 240. ISBN 9780192871336.



Patriarch Dioscorus of Alexandria: The Last Pharoah and Ecclesiastical Politics in the Later Roman Empire is, as the title implies, a biography of Dioscorus of Alexandria (d. 454 CE) with a special emphasis on his role as an ecclesiastical political actor. Dioscorus does not have a particularly positive reputation in older scholarship: the moniker “Last Pharoah” is meant to denote the fact that he ruled the See of Alexandria with an iron fist. Despite his brutality, Dioscorus is seen as a less politically adept bishop than Cyril, since Dioscorus was found to be a heretic at the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE). In this book, Menze argues that Dioscorus’ reputation as a tyrant-bishop is undeserved. Rather than a power-hungry politician, Menze depicts Dioscorus as a bishop who, while upholding Cyrillian theology abroad, set in place domestic reforms that put an emphasis on good church governance (in contradistinction to Cyril’s administration). Through Menze’s narrative, Dioscorus is successfully rehabilitated, though the reader may come away thinking that Dioscorus was a relatively toothless figure in wider Church politics.

The first chapter, “Cyril’s Legacy: Between Bankruptcy and Sanctity”, gives the background of the Alexandrian Church which Dioscorus inherited from Cyril. Cyril had built up Alexandria’s status as a theological authority by being a strong theologian and a spectacular politician. Menze pays most of his attention to the political aspects of his career. By utilizing texts preserved in the Collectio Casinensis, Menze quantifies the scale of bribery Cyril was engaged in. Sent to government officials, such gifts, either in raw financial payments or high-quality goods, were essential for buying the support of the imperial state. However, these practices also put the Church of Alexandria into dire financial straits because it likely wiped out its savings. In addition, the Church of Alexandria owed a debt of approximately 1500 pounds of gold to the comes Ammonius. This chapter does a good job of laying out the mechanisms by which Cyril could turn money into political influence, as well as establishing the troubled state in which Dioscorus would find the See of Alexandria once he succeeded Cyril as bishop.

The second chapter, “Wind of Change? Dioscorus and the See of St. Mark”, examines Dioscorus’ ascension as bishop of Alexandria. Menze makes an admirable effort at reconstructing Dioscorus’ early career by laying out all the available information, however limited, on the office of archdeacon, the last position held by Dioscorus before becoming bishop. Dioscorus emerges as someone intimately familiar with the administration of the Church itself. Menze reconstructs the circumstances surrounding Dioscorus’ election on the basis of later testimonies from the Council of Chalcedon: Cyril had embezzled money from the See of Alexandria to his own family’s financial benefit, all the while putting the Church into debt in order to further his political ends. Dioscorus was elected as a means of turning away from the Cyrillian legacy. Dioscorus is presented as a reformer, who rid the Church of Alexandria of the Cyrillian leeches and set the churches back on the road to self-sufficiency. Menze may stray a bit too far into speculation when reconstructing Dioscorus’ popularity with the Egyptian clergy: his claim that “The patriarch might have been brusque with priests and bishops who did not take their tasks as seriously as he did. He likely took swift action against clerics who were negligent (or whom he believed to be negligent) but failed to articulate his intentions properly to remedy shortcomings” (p. 73) lacks supporting evidence. Nevertheless, Menze’s goal in overturning the scholarly consensus that Dioscorus ruled the Egyptian bishops with an iron fist is successful.

The third chapter, “The Emperor’s Henchman: Dioscorus and the ‘Robber-Council’”, is an analysis of the Second Council of Ephesus and the events surrounding it. Traditionally, Dioscorus is seen as the main force behind the council who rams Cyrilian theology down the throats of the attendees. To argue against this consensus, Menze looks at the relationship between Theodosius II and Dioscorus. Dioscorus comes off as the “henchman” of the emperor, a tool in Theodosius’ quest to impose a singular vision of orthodoxy. The most interesting portion of this chapter is Menze’s explanation for the labeling of the Second Council of Ephesus (449 CE) as the “Robber Council” (latrocinium). Menze argues that Dioscorus was portrayed as a tyrant-bishop in the sources in order for him to be set up as a scapegoat. Many of our sources, such as the letters of Leo and the Acta of Chalcedon, assign blame for the Second Council of Ephesus to Dioscorus. Menze argues that blame was assigned to Dioscorus in order to provide cover for Theodosius II (who was the one who really called the Council) and for the one hundred other bishops present at Chalcedon that had signed onto Ephesus but then condemned it as heretical. This is an excellent reading of our extant source material which recognizes that the surviving Church acta are not straight descriptions of what actually occurred but are political documents in themselves. By focusing on the performativity of the Council of Chalcedon, Menze provides a new understanding of Dioscorus’ role in running the Second Council of Ephesus that I think has great importance for understanding the nature of imperial intervention into ecclesiastical politics.

The fourth chapter, “The Black Swan of Chalcedon and Dioscorus’ Deposition”, examines Dioscorus’ condemnation by the Council of Chalcedon. Menze argues against the prevailing consensus that Dioscorus’ condemnation was a pre-formulated goal of the council. Instead, his deposition was a byproduct of a failure on Dioscorus’ part to co-operate. Instead of presenting himself as a repentant sinner and participating in the Council’s narrative that the Second Council of Ephesus was invalid, Dioscorus condemned Leo’s Tome and stood up for his beliefs. As admirable as standing by his principles may have been, such an uncompromising position spelled doom for him at Chalcedon. The book ends with a look at Dioscorus’ legacy: while he was remembered as a heretic in western Christianity, anti-Chalcedonian easterners took him up as a saint and a symbol of resistance.

Menze successfully rehabilitates Dioscorus in a moral sense: the testimonies of Dioscorus’ tyrannical running the Second Council of Ephesu can no longer stand under the weight of Menze’s close reading of the acta. I am less convinced by the arguments for Dioscorus’ role as a domestic reformer, because they rely too heavily on a speculative reading of inflammatory remarks from the same acta, but there is room for others to reasonably agree with Menze.

Structurally the book follows a logical chronological path. However, each chapter could use more explicit signposting. Each chapter is a political narrative, which should be easily understood by the non-specialist, but each is punctuated by philologically based scholarly debates that non-specialists in east Roman ecclesiastical politics will struggle to follow. While each scholarly digression is necessary for the overall story Menze wishes to tell, the reader risks getting lost in the details until suddenly they find themselves at the end of the chapter only to then realize why they went through the whole narrative of the chapter. Being more explicit about the argument of each chapter right at the beginning would help the reader understand and digest the importance of the more specialist sections.

This book is essential reading for those interested in state intervention in Church politics, how Councils actually functioned, and how bishops of large and prestigious sees navigated the trials and tribulations of their positions. Because of the issues noted above, I do hesitate to recommend it to non-specialists, but anyone willing to put in the work will find their effort rewarded with an intriguing new reading of a towering figure from the past.