Crisis of Empire: Doctrine and Dissent at the End of Late Antiquity

Crisis of Empire: Doctrine and Dissent at the End of Late Antiquity

by Phil Booth

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Ancient World | Ancient History

This book focuses on the attempts of three ascetics—John Moschus, Sophronius of Jerusalem, and Maximus Confessor—to determine the Church’s power and place during a period of profound crisis, as the eastern Roman empire suffered serious reversals in the face of Persian and then Islamic expansion. Situated within the broader religious currents of the fourth to seventh centuries, this book shines new light on the nature of not only the holy man in late antiquity but also the Byzantine orthodoxy that would emerge in the Middle Ages and remains central to the churches of Greece and Eastern Europe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520296190
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/07/2017
Series: Transformation of the Classical Heritage , #52
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Phil Booth is A. G. Leventis Associate Professor in Eastern Christianity at the University of Oxford.

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Crisis of Empire

Doctrine and Dissent at the End of Late Antiquity

By Phil Booth


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95658-2


Toward the Sacramental Saint

At some point in the 350s A.D., an ecclesial council was convened at Gangra in Paphlagonia. The disciplinary canons that that council produced were the first to legislate on the nascent monastic enterprise and constitute a classic expression of the anxieties that that enterprise engendered among clerics. The council had been convened to examine the activities of the Eustathians, a monastic sect whose leader had been the erstwhile ascetic mentor of Basil of Caesarea. The charges leveled at the Eustathians at the council can be categorized to constitute three central purported abuses: first, the introduction of ascetic innovations against established practice; second, the disparagement or active dissolution of conventional social relations; and third, the marginalization or denigration of the hierarchical and sacramental structures of the Church. From our perspective (and perhaps that of the presiding clerics) it was this last accusation that was most salient: "If anyone teaches that the house of God and the liturgies performed there [tas en autoi sunaxeis] are to be despised," one canon proclaimed, "let him be anathema." Another legislated that "If anyone holds private assemblies outside the Church [para ten ekklesian idiai ekklesiazoi] and in his hatred of the Church wishes to perform ecclesiastical acts [ta tes ekklesias etheloi prattein], when the priest in accordance with the bishop's will has refused permission, let him be anathema." This assumption of clerical privilege, and with it the repudiation of the structures of the Church, represented a fundamental challenge to episcopal notions of a Christianity formed within, and mediated by, the episcopate. The Gangran legislation sought to reinforce those same notions through subordinating monks to clerical authority and ritually orienting the entire Christian community around the assemblies of the Church.

Despite sporadic legislative measures against monastic groups at both the local and imperial levels, the tensions between monks and clerics evident in the Gangran legislation nevertheless recurred throughout the late-antique Mediterranean. Clerics responded to such tensions through two principal (and quite discordant) means. The first such approach was to blur the intellectual and institutional boundaries between the two institutions, incorporating and redefining ascetic principles within the clerical ideal, and thus both clericizing monasticism and asceticizing the episcopate. The second approach, however, was not so much to blur as to strengthen the boundaries between the two vocations—not so much to bring ascetics within the world but rather to force them from it. As Daniel Caner has demonstrated in a seminal monograph on monasticism in the period up to 451, ecclesial authorities across the Mediterranean responded to the emergent monastic enterprise through attempting to impose paradigms of proper ascetic practice that were more congenial to clerical claims to leadership, and thus also economic support, within Christian communities. The monastic model enshrined in episcopal sermons, letters, and hagiographies emphasized that real monks were not those who wandered in cities and begged for alms—ascetic practices that in fact had a long and illustrious pedigree, in particular in Syria—but rather those who remained in the deserts and were self-sufficient, a model associated with Egypt and enshrined, of course, in Athanasius's Life of Antony. Practices through which ascetics encroached upon the social and economic jurisdictions of clerics were thus stigmatized as impious; and in successive controversies involving the conflict of monks and ecclesiasts, those who did not conform to these normative paradigms of monastic practice were branded as heretics and relegated from the religious mainstream.

Caner regards the canonical legislation of the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451) as the apogee of this process, for here the ideological reorientation of monasticism anticipated at a more local level throughout previous decades was reinforced with universal episcopal and also imperial approval. Crucial in this regard is the council's famous Canon 4, which summarized the monastic abuses of which the assembled bishops disapproved—meddling in ecclesiastical and even civil affairs, wandering in cities, and founding monasteries without clerical approval—and instead promoted a paradigm more congenial to the preservation of clerical privilege, in which the economic oversight of monastic communities was made an episcopal prerogative. The canon thus attempted to effect the full legal and economic subordination of monasticism to the clerical establishment, presenting the former, for the first time, as a lesser institution of the latter. Caner contends that the legislation of Chalcedon marked a significant watershed in relations between clerics and ascetics, not least because it implicated their economic interests. It is indeed true that the post-Chalcedonian period witnessed a distinct shift in monastic practice: in tune with episcopal demands, monks themselves began to promote models of monastic practice emphasizing that individual, withdrawn asceticism could be legitimized only by an extended period of sustained communal discipline; and in turn the power of individual ascetics went into decline, with spiritual authority increasingly the preserve of the leaders of sizable, largely coenobitic communities. If both these developments proved apposite to episcopal attempts to delimit ascetics' sphere of influence and operation, we must nevertheless be cautious not to overstate the extent of reconciliation between monastic and clerical imperatives. Significant tensions remained.

For our purposes, the most important such tensions were those that we have seen within the canonical legislation of Gangra: that is, tensions between the competing demands of individual cultivation and submission to the spiritual improvement conferred through the rites and sacraments of the Church, in particular the eucharist. Although monks themselves in the post-Chalcedonian period began to promote forms of ascetic discipline that were more congenial to the vision of their clerical superiors, and although monastic and clerical institutions were indeed ever more implicated, a significant tension remained that the Chalcedonian legislators had, in effect, ignored: that is, the discordant imperatives of the ascetical and sacramental lives. Thus, despite a heightened degree of legal, economic, and institutional integration, the relative indifference to the structures of the Church witnessed within the Gangran legislation had still not been overcome.

This chapter first outlines the striking eucharistic minimalism of the earliest ascetic biographies and anthropologies before tracing the attempts of various post-Chalcedonian commentators—and, in particular, anti-Chalcedonian commentators—to renegotiate that same tension. In part this renegotiation represented an extension of previous attempts to reconcile the monastic and clerical vocations, in particular in a context within which the boundaries between the two were becoming more porous. But it was also driven in the disintegration of dogmatic consensus accelerated through the Chalcedonian settlement, as anti-Chalcedonian communities began to elevate the eucharist as the central, aggregating icon of the orthodox faith and participation in its rites as the central expression of anti-Chalcedonian identity. This assertion of ritual integrity occurred at a time when sixth-century anti-Chalcedonian communities had become more alienated from the imperial Roman Church, and it was destined to be replicated within their seventh-century Chalcedonian equivalents, when foreign incursion and the perceived doctrinal deviation of Constantinople encouraged others to attempt a comparable, and indeed more comprehensive, renegotiation of the competing demands and theologies of the ascetical and ecclesial lives.


It has sometimes been observed that the Eustathian practices condemned at Gangra intersect with a heretical sect described in the texts of later authors as Messalianism. It is clear that in its earliest stages the heretical profile of Messalianism gathered together the various deviant monastic practices that clerics despised—wandering in cities, begging, refusing to acknowledge clerics. Messalianism, however, had a further dimension that should be emphasized: that is, a perceived disengagement from the sacraments of the Church. According to Theodoret, one of the first to describe in detail the Messalian sect, their theological convictions rested on notions of inherent but displaceable sin and the possibility of restoration only through assiduous prayer. Thus, he claims, the Messalians saw no benefit in baptism; but also "declared, though not separating from ecclesiastical communion, that the divine food, about which Christ the master said, 'He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood shall live into eternity' [Joh. 6:54–58], neither benefits nor harms [oute oninanai oute lobasthai]." Little wonder, then, that some commentators—both ancient and modern—have thought of the Eustathians as Messalians.

For centuries it has been recognized that the various errors that Theodoret and others ascribe to the Messalians contain numerous correspondences with the corpus of Pseudo-Macarius, a late fourth-century Syrian theologian who is counted, alongside Evagrius Ponticus, as a progenitor of the late-antique mystical tradition. Comparison of the two corpora indicates that Pseudo-Macarius operated within an ascetic milieu similar to, but not interchangeable with, one that observers identified as Messalian. Thus he corrects the antisacramental leanings of the Messalian profile in dwelling upon the parallels between the ascetic life and the eucharistic rite, above all in Logos 52 of the so-called Collection I. It begins with the statement "The entire visible dispensation [oikonomia] of the Church came about for the sake of the living and intellectual essence of the rational soul, which is made in the image of God, and which is the living and true Church of God." Because "the entire Church that we now perceive is a shadow of the true, rational man within," God granted that the Spirit be present at the altar and in baptism, and the Savior that it preside over and participate in (epipolazein kai koinonein) the Church's services (leitourgia), so as to act on "believing hearts." Here, "the dispensation and service of the sacraments of the Church [he oikonomia kai diakonia ton musterion tes ekklesias]" have an emphatic spiritual effect, leading the faithful to the cultivation of the inner man represented in the structures of the Church. Pseudo-Macarius presents the Church's services as an illustration of the workings of the Spirit within the heart of the ascetic, and emphasizes in no uncertain terms the presence of the Spirit within the sacraments, perhaps as a direct defense against accusations of an antiecclesial Messalianism. Nevertheless, even in that defense, it is clear that his focus remains on the cultivation of the spiritual life and that, for the advanced ascetic, the outward structures of the Church are subordinated to the development of the inner man—in the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar, "at once something indispensable and something that must be outgrown."

It is therefore incorrect to regard Pseudo-Macarius as antisacramental; but at the same time, he conforms to a pattern in which the earliest ascetic theorists marginalized a developed sacramental, and in particular eucharistic, discourse in favor of a focus upon personal, ascetic transformation. Indeed, if the Pseudo-Macarian corpus constituted one prevailing strand of late-antique ascetic thought, the other was formed through the Egyptian monk and Origenist Evagrius Ponticus. Within the Evagrian corpus, spiritual progression is on occasion conceived in sacramental terms, with practical virtues corresponding to Christ's flesh, and contemplation corresponding to his blood. Thus the famous tract To Monks:

Flesh of Christ is practical virtues [Sarkes Christou praktikai aretai]; he who eats it shall become passionless [ho de esthion autas gensetai apathes].

Blood of Christ is contemplation of creation [haima Christou theoria ton gegonoton], and he who drinks it will thereby become wise [kai ho pinon auto sophisthesetai hup' autou].

Although in passages such as these Evagrius appears to point to the spiritual benefits conferred through communion, we should be cautious not to overstate the extent of Evagrius's eucharistic orientation. Contained within his quite vast corpus, there are but few comments on the eucharist; and even then, those comments are quite ambiguous as to the need for continuous submission to the rites of the Church. Evagrius's approach, like that of Pseudo-Macarius, is perhaps best appreciated as a eucharistic minimalism.

It should be noted that this minimalism does not reflect a more general ambivalence toward the eucharist within Christian thought of the period, for contemporaneous with the ascetical speculations of Pseudo-Macarius and Evagrius there were various Christian intellectuals who devoted far greater attention to the eucharist and to the interpretation of its rites—Ambrose of Milan, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Cyril of Jerusalem, to name but three. In the precise same period that the great ascetic pioneers developed their complex, introspective anthropologies, so too, therefore, was there a veritable explosion of contemplation on the nature of the eucharist, the significance of its rite, and its spiritual effect on the communicant. Within that tradition—which admits a remarkable degree of variation in terms of emphasis—one sometimes encounters a concern to elevate the need for moral pureness when receiving the sacrament (in particular in the homilies of John Chrysostom); but there was nevertheless little interest in accommodating the complex spiritual anthropologies developed in monastic circles. In turn, developed contemplation on the eucharistic rite remained the preserve of the episcopate.

Throughout the period before Chalcedon, therefore—and thus coterminous with the continued separation of ecclesial and monastic institutions—these two great Christian discourses remained quite distinct. The effects of that continued intellectual separation can indeed be measured further, for in the hagiographies of the same period that describe anchorites or semianchorites, the ritual structures of the Church, and in particular the eucharist, are to a large extent absent. As noted above, Athanasius's Life of Antony has been seen as the classic expression of the episcopal vision for proper ascetic practice: withdrawn from the world, self-sufficient, and obedient to episcopal power. But as various scholars have observed, the same Life is also notable for its hero's total absence from the demands of the sacramental life. There were of course practical difficulties for those who engaged in more singular or more withdrawn forms of asceticism in ensuring regular access to the eucharist, so that its absence might be explained in an actual indifference to communion. But one must also nevertheless wonder if the emphasis upon monastic extrication from urban contexts within clerical hagiographies such as the Life had not also encouraged a relative ideological indifference to the regular submission of ascetics to the eucharist, which may also have demanded a regular infringement of those ascetics within the episcopal sphere.


Excerpted from Crisis of Empire by Phil Booth. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents




1. Toward the Sacramental Saint

Ascetics and the Eucharist before Chalcedon  

Cyril of Scythopolis and the Second Origenist Crisis

Mystics and Liturgists  

Hagiography and the Eucharist after Chalcedon


2. Sophronius and the Miracles

Impresario of the Saints 

Medicine and Miracle 

Narratives of Redemption 

The Miracles in Comparative Perspective


3. Moschus and the Meadow

The Fall of Jerusalem 

Moschus from Alexandria to Rome 

Ascetics and the City 

Chalcedon and the Eucharist 

4. Maximus and the Mystagogy 

Maximus, Monk of Palestine 

The Return of the Cross 

The Mystagogy 

5. The Making of the Monenergist Crisis 

The Origins of Monenergism 

The Heraclian Unions 

Sophronius the Dissident

6. Jerusalem and Rome at the Dawn of the Caliphate 

Sophronius the Patriarch 

Jerusalem from Roman to Islamic Rule 

The Year of the Four Emperors 

From Operations to Wills 

Maximus and the Popes 

7. Rebellion and Retribution

Maximus from Africa to Rome 

The Roman-Palestinian Alliance 

Rebellion and Trial 

Maximus in Exile



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