Rhetoric and realities in the late Roman Empire

Imperial and ecclesiastical discourses of control and religious dissenters in the years 300 to 450” (RHEREA)

(Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki)

The objective
The research project “Rhetoric and realities in the late Roman Empire: Imperial and ecclesiastical discourses of control and religious dissenters in the years 300 to 450” (RHEREA) explores the transformation of late Roman society in the period 300 to 450 CE.

RHEREA focuses on the interdependencies between the rhetoric of power and the changing conditions of religious minorities in the melting-pot of the late Roman Empire. The rhetoric of authority and control include both imperial and ecclesiastical discourses.

The religious dissenters in late antiquity were polytheists, who were called ‘pagans’ by Christian writers, as well as those Christians who were labelled as ‘heretics’ by the mainstream church. In addition to pagans and heretics, there were other minority groups such as Jews, Samaritans and Manichaeans.

The aim of RHEREA is to examine the interaction between the rhetoric and the realities, to survey both the discursive transformation and the religious minorities in the daily life of the period 300 to 450. What is innovative about this project is its combination of research on discourse with social historical research.

The significance of the research
RHEREA contributes to the research on the religious, ideological, social and political transformations that occurred in the Roman world in the course of the fourth and fifth centuries. The so-called Constantinian turn in the year 312 CE has been seen as a turning point both in Christianisation of the Roman Empire and in the history of western civilisation.

RHEREA investigates how the gradual Christianisation and the construction of normative ‘orthodox’ Christianity affected religious minorities in the Empire. It examines the ways in which religious diversity was treated in rhetoric and in reality. The foundations of Christian Europe were laid in Roman antiquity. To a great extent this Christianity was based on the vision of religious unity and the exclusion of dissenting diversity. Stereotypes and enemy images and the articulation of intolerance used in disputes in late antiquity are seen as re-emerging in the present-day rhetoric of fear and hatred of minorities. Consequently, RHEREA also contributes to the research on modern European society and cultural conflicts, enhancing the historical awareness of the unities and diversities of present-day European culture.

RHEREA continues and develops the significant achievement that has been attained in late antique studies in recent decades. After the linguistic turn in late antique and early Christian studies, the late Greco-Roman world has, to a growing extent, been studied from the rhetorical viewpoint. Much has been written in the wake of Foucault’s analysis of the power of discourse, although much still remains to be done.

RHEREA endeavours to widen the perspective further, from the research on texts to the research into social contexts. The challenge is to combine rhetoric and realities. In late antique and early Christian studies, the research on discourses and the research on social practise have often been separate, with each impervious to the other. The purpose of RHEREA is to bridge this gap between these two avenues of research.

The research project RHEREA addresses two aspects, rhetoric and realities. Both are necessary for understanding the Christianisation of the late Roman Empire, particularly the shifting position of deviant religious groups. The first level of research focuses on the analysis of discourse used in late antique sources, moving principally in the text world of the writers. The second level is social historical research, which delves into the practical circumstances of religious minorities in late Roman society.

This approach does not mean an epistemologically naïve distinction between the ‘text world’ and ‘historical reality’. On the contrary, RHEREA works on the idea that our knowledge of the constructed reality and lived reality in late antiquity is based on the same sources. By constructed reality is meant the discourse that conveys what is considered normal and what is abnormal, whereas lived reality reveals the social life in all its complexity. Thus, extreme caution is needed about the possibility to excavate and find ‘the historical reality’ from the sources. The only thing one is able to do is to converge on ‘the historical reality’ and create a plausible interpretation of the past.

The interplay between the manifest ideologies and daily life
Considering that late antique writers often conveyed a simplified and codified perception of their lived world, RHEREA studies the interplay between the manifest ideologies and daily living. While the analysis of power discourses draws attention to the writers and their mentalities, the research into social practise emphasises the groups and their circumstances. How were religious dissenters and outsiders represented in rhetoric? And how were they treated in practice? The practical circumstances and complex religious atmosphere can be determined not only from literary sources, but also from archaeological evidence, inscriptions and papyri.

Two examples will illustrate the complexities and possibilities of the source materials. The first concerns the contradictions between the triumphalist declarations of the demise of ‘paganism’ manifested by church leaders and the factual continuance of polytheistic religious practises in the areas of the same ecclesiastical leaders. For instance, in the 430-440s, Isidorus, a presbyter of Pelusium, magnanimously proclaimed that Hellenism (that is, ’paganism’) had vanished. At the same time, the very same Isidorus was caught up in disputes with ‘pagans’ as his letters addressed to his ‘pagan’ opponents reveal; moreover, he is known to have written a treatise (no longer extant) entitled Against the Pagans.

The second case is about the representations of ‘pagans’ in fourth- and fifth-century Christian literature. Christian writers sometimes refer to ‘pagans’ in factual everyday situations. Different labels and stereotypes such as stupidity, rudeness and rusticity are projected onto these people who nonetheless form a point of reference in contemporary social reality. For example, in their sermons Caesarius of Arles, Augustine of Hippo and Maximus of Turin complained of people who adhered to their idolatrous practices and even enticed their Christian neighbours to attend ‘pagan’ festivities.

In addition to these pagans existing and acting in factual social contexts, it is possible to see that ‘pagans’ were also used as a theological construction. These theological phantoms function as a mirror image in which one’s theological views and moral conduct are reflected, tested and defended. They are used to strengthen Christian self-understanding as the mirror for being Christian. Thus, there are pagans and ‘pagans’ in the same way as there are Jews and ‘Jews’ in early Christian literature. In the early Christian writings (e.g., gospels) theological Jews were vital for the construction of Christian self-understanding. The most notorious theological creation was the hostile image of Pharisees in the internal debates of Christians.

It is often impossible (and useless) to distinguish between these levels of real and theological ‘pagans’ because there are different levels in these representations. The same image functions on many levels, both in making distinction from theological (real or fictive) opponents and in drawing the boundaries of correct ritual behaviour in a writer’s community.

RHEREA investigates the interplay between the discourse of control and the every-day reality of religious minorities. It explores what kind of impact imperial legislation and the works of ecclesiastical writers had on the living conditions of religious dissenters. Instead of distinctions of cause and effect, the project aims at a more profound understanding of the complex late antique networks of influence and correlation.

The relations between majorities and minorities
In late antique society, relations between the religious majorities and minorities fluctuated. In course of the fourth century, Christianity was shifted from a minority position to the majority one and became the mainstream church, often called the catholic church. Greco-Roman religions were gradually shifted to a minority position. The proportions of religious groups varied by area. The religious circumstances in the late Roman Empire were in constant flux between moderation and coercion in the relations between different religious groups, majorities and minorities, as well as between the imperial government and religious communities.

RHEREA uses socio-psychological approaches in the research on majorities and minorities and also contributes in turn to the on-going historical discussions of majorities and minorities. Late antique rhetoric and realities must also be set in the broad context of Greco-Roman and Christian attitudes towards the ‘other’.

As mentioned above, Christianity was to a great extent based on a vision of unity that implied the exclusion of dissenting diversity. This unity was increasingly proclaimed both in ecclesiastical rhetoric and imperial ideology. The idea of unity was especially enhanced in those periods when it was seriously challenged in political reality, for example, during the reign of Theodosius II. This is seen particularly in the Christian polemic against pagans and Jews as well as in the internal Christian polemic against ‘heresies’, which functioned as a tool of establishing and defining boundaries between Christianity and other religions as well as between ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’. For Christian identity building, pagans and heretics provided a good enemy.

Imperial authority and religious authority
RHEREA also discusses the relationship between imperial and religious authority. Who attains authority, how authority is built and by which means the position is continuously ‘updated’ and legitimized are the questions asked in the analysis of imperial and ecclesiastical discourses. The relationship of the emperor and religion is analysed in connection with the imperial discourse of control. The imperial regulation of religious life in the late Roman Empire was partly based on earlier imperial policies. It is therefore imperative to take the traditional role of the Roman emperor as the moderator of religious issues. This is seen, for instance, in the religious policies of Constantine and his successors.

The concrete co-ordinates of the research
The period under scrutiny, 300 to 450 CE, stretches from the era of the tetrarchs until the end of Theodosius II’s reign. The time span covers the most crucial years of Christianisation after the Constantinian turn and consequently the shifts in the relative power between religious majorities and minorities. The area under examination is the late Roman Empire, both east and west. Therefore, both Latin and Greek writers of the period are analysed within their cultural contexts.

The ecclesiastical discourse is examined by analysing the writings of church leaders. The research is not limited to the most renowned ecclesiastical writers such as Augustine of Hippo, Ambrose of Milan, Prudentius, Eusebius of Caesarea, John Chrysostom and Athanasius of Alexandria, but rather focuses on the less familiar writers, such as Maximus of Turin, Zeno of Verona, Caesarius of Arles, Vincent of Lérins, Salvianus of Marseille, Gaudentius of Brescia, Victricius of Rouen, Synesius of Cyrene, Cyril of Alexandria, Isidorus of Pelusium, Asterius of Amasea, John of Ephesus, Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Zacharias Scholasticus. The sermons and letters of church leaders are particularly illustrative of the varying articulations of power relations in different contexts.

The imperial discourse is surveyed especially in the manifestations of the imperial legislation (seen in law codifications of the period, the Theodosian Code and Novellae). During the late Empire, laws were also moral proclamations as has been pointed out by Paul Veyne, ‘Clientèle et corruption au service de l’état: La vénalité des offices dans le bas-empire romain’, Annales 36 (1981). Imperial propaganda is echoed by the panegyrists such as Panegyrici Latini and the works of Claudian.

The voices of the religious minorities are heard in the surviving works of polytheistic writers such as Symmachus, Libanius, Themistius, Iamblichus, Eunapius of Sardis, Rutilius Namatianus, Damascius and Olympiodorus of Thebes as well as ‘heretic’ authors, such as the anonymous writer of Dissertatio Maximini and Nestorius. The problem of silencing alternative voices in late antiquity will be discussed (an interesting opening has been made by C.W. Hedrick, History and Silence, 2000). In addition to literary source material, relevant inscriptions, papyri and archaeological evidence are examined.

The themes
RHEREA has five overlapping themes: the authority, the past, the people, the practises and the divinities.

The authority
The first theme focuses on imperial and ecclesiastical authority, violence in early Christianity, mechanisms of segregation and discrimination, the relationship between the unity of the empire and that of the church, discourses of conviction and persuasion as well as discourses of control and discipline. How did totalising Christian discourse differ from the earlier legitimating discourses? How is the traditional rhetoric of public welfare used in relation to deviant religious groups? What is the role of divine peace (pax deorum, pax dei) in imperial rhetoric?

The past
The second theme considers the (ab)uses of the past in disputes over authority, for instance, in the legitimisation of power or in contesting the authority of a rival. One of the significant issues for RHEREA is the prestige of the past, both for Christian and polytheistic writers who competed for the antiquity of their beliefs, practises and institutions. Another issue is Christian triumphalism: Christian church leaders recurrently represented the past and present as a mighty conflict between Christians and others in which the Christian church emerged as the victor.

RHEREA examines the construction of the past in late antique historiography. In such a reading, the researcher does not judge whether the version argued in the historical writing is truthful or not, but rather observes the strategies that writers use in creating their concepts of the past and silencing alternative interpretations.

The people
The third theme to be discussed concerns religious groups and the rhetoric on these groups in relation to daily realities. It is worth noting that much of what we think we ‘know’, for example, about polytheistic religions or ‘heresies’ in Late Antiquity, has been conveyed by mainstream Christian authors in their polemical texts. The idea of polytheist religious views as morally, spiritually and intellectually bankrupt was asserted by ecclesiastical writers such as Maximus of Turin, Isidorus of Pelusium, Athanasius of Alexandria, John Chrysostom and Augustine of Hippo. The same applies to ‘heresies’.

The questions to be discussed include the discoursive construction of ‘paganism’ as an entity, the problem of naming ‘pagans’ or ‘heretics’ or ‘barbarians’, the construction of ‘heresy’ in polemics and legislation and its use as symbolic politics in doctrinal disputes.

The practises
The fourth theme concerns social and cultural structures and practises. One aspect is the normative writings of ecclesiastical writers who condemned polytheistic rituals and traditional community practices. Another is the imperial administration, which often allowed traditional festivals to continue. RHEREA investigates the relationship between the harsh rhetoric of church leaders and the reality of continuity. As is well-known, many traditional ‘pagan’ feasts and practises went through metamorphoses and continued for centuries as ‘Christian’ feasts and practises. RHEREA also discusses disputes in Late Antiquity about what was to be counted as Christian and what was not.

The fifth theme is to investigate divinities and sacralities in late antiquity. Here RHEREA examines the play of differences within the changes in sacrality. The focus is on disputes in Late Antiquity over monotheism and polytheism. Another important aspect is the connection between the propagation of monotheism and the imperial authority.


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