Theodoret's People: Social Networks and Religious Conflict in Late Roman Syria

Theodoret's People: Social Networks and Religious Conflict in Late Roman Syria

by Adam M. Schor

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520948617
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/17/2011
Series: Transformation of the Classical Heritage , #48
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 360
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Adam M. Schor is Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Carolina.

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Theodoret's People

Social Networks and Religious Conflict in Late Roman Syria

By Adam M. Schor


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94861-7


Traces of a Network

Friendship, Doctrine, and Clerical Communication, 423–451

It was a moment of complicated emotions as the clerics of Syria remembered their fallen godfather. Acacius, bishop of Beroea for nearly six decades, died in 437. Several clerics expressed admiration for the departed. Theodoret did so by commemorating him in the History of the Friends of God. Acacius had been a monastic student to great Syrian holy men. When the Nicene church needed him, however, he le. his cell for the contentions of the urban clergy. It was then, according to Theodoret, that Acacius shone, revealing his "civic and ascetic virtues." "By taking the exactness (akribeia) of the latter with the flexibility (oikonomia) of the former, he put the extremes together in one."

The memorializing of Acacius provides an entry point into the social world of fifth-century bishops. Theodoret had known Acacius for at least two decades. Like many Syrian prelates he claimed Acacius as a spiritual father, rivaled in memoriam only by Theodore of Mopsuestia. While alive, Acacius had o. en courted controversy. After his death, he symbolized brotherhood under consensual leadership.

The most intriguing aspect of this celebration of Acacius, however, has to be Theodoret's choice of words. When he spoke of Acacius's akribeia and oikonomia, it meant more than prudence and discipline. Oikonomia recalled the dispensation of the Lord, the heart of Christological teaching. And akribeia signi6 ed doctrinal precision, to which Theodoret and his friends aspired. With these words Theodoret did more than praise a shared hero. He called to mind a shared cultural experience.

Theodoret's praises of Acacius were powerful because they were part of a system of socially resonant communication. In late Roman Syria, as in any social setting, people demarcated relationships by performing certain cultural cues. Theodoret sent cues in published books, like the History of the Friends of God. He sent cues all the more in conciliar statements and letters. Theodoret employed varied signals, tailored to a range of relationships. But some he kept for a special network of doctrinal allies and friends.

This distinct, mostly clerical network represents the focus of part one of this book, for it contended in the Christological dispute as the "Antiochene" party. Subsequent chapters in this book map the Antiochene network and chronicle its development prior to and during the controversy. Before we can trace this network, however, we need to identify it. Thus this chapter scrutinizes the records of clerical communication, in search of relevant cultural practices and an "Antiochene" set of cues.

As we shall see, certain clerics exchanged a key set of phrases and gestures that we can treat as idioms of an Antiochene network. These allies sent signals of emotional attachment and signs of doctrinal harmony. Thus they demonstrated intimate friendship and shared orthodoxy. To reinforce their mutual bonds, the clerics joined in rituals of cooperation. To verify bonds, they collected records and conducted surveillance. All this they did informally without declaring a special identity. All that was needed was regular communication, configured to show special affection and ask it in return.


When ancient Christian leaders imagined the church, they usually envisioned a tight, affectionate community. If clerics hoped to cooperate, they needed to communicate their emotional attachments, great and small. Greek words for attachments varied, from agape (Christian familial love) and adelphotes (brotherhood) to philostorgia (affection), eros (desirous love) and philia (friendship). Longer statements of affection also varied, though many Christian letters end with the farewell, "To you and whichever members of the brotherhood are with you, I and those with me send our highest regards." These words o. en inspire scholars to seek precise definitions, which have remained elusive. The statements raise questions about emotional sincerity, which have proven difficult to resolve. Such issues, however, matter less to this study than how clerics used their emotional terms. Every cleric offered certain words for attachment as basic social cues. Theodoret, and other Syrian clerics, employed the full Greek vocabulary to distinguish a variety of meaningful relationships.

The first touchstone of clerical affection in our sources is basic Christian terminology. Christian texts spoke of the love (agape) that united believers as a single body or family (Romans 12:4, 12:9–10, I Corinthians 13:8–14:1, Colossians 3:14–16). The language of "love" pervaded quasi-normative guides, such as the Apostolic Constitutions. It also pervaded clerical letters, including Theodoret's. It could be expressed directly, or by the corollary of requesting mutual prayer. These emotional expressions were common, but it was, in some sense, their commonness that gave them meaning. By declaring love, clerics signaled a shared moral ideal.

Agape, however, could mean something narrower than universal love. Most obviously, the term was reinterpreted to accommodate the high status of the clergy. Such "clericalism" found scriptural support in the "special burdens" noted in I Corinthians 4, or the moral standards listed in the first chapter of the Epistle to Titus. It found expression in the letters carried by traveling clerics to certify their faith. Theodoret, for his part, never failed to recognize a cleric as "Your Holiness" (hagiotes), "Your Godliness" (theiotes) or "Your Piety" (eulabeia). Monks were famous for their heightened sense of brotherhood. But it was their duty to shepherd souls that led John Chrysostom to rank clerics above monks as lovers of God and humanity. Agape was further modified to fit the clerical hierarchy. The Apostolic Constitutions, for instance, called bishops the new "priests and Levites," the new "prophets, rulers, governors, and kings," even "the voice of God." By contrast, priests were declared stand-ins, and deacons, mere assistants. "Let the bishop be honored among you as God," the Constitutions read, "and the deacon as his prophet." Christian terms may appear to stand for "universal" love. But with each rank of clergy taking communion separately, all could see that the fabric of agape had seams.

A second touchstone of affection in our sources was the classical vocabulary of friendship. Pre-Christian Greek and Roman writers used philia to signal preferential attachment. Plato celebrated pair-bonding (called both eros and philia) as the keystone of happiness and the focus of personal desire (epithymia). Aristotle spoke more of shared goals and morals than desire, but he kept things personal. Philia, in his view, was grounded in intimacy and reciprocity. It reached its pinnacle among pairs of true philoi (friends), ideally those of equal status and virtue. Later Greeks and Romans continued to link philia with virtue, reciprocity, and desire. They merely added the medium of letters. Handbooks advised students how to write "Letters for Preserving Philia," based on philosophic definitions. Pseudo-Demetrius urged correspondents to praise shared virtues, express desire, and avoid extraneous details, in order to reveal true emotions. Late Roman elites clung to this philia tradition, especially in letters. Good letters encapsulated character (Greek: ethos), and as Synesius of Cyrene put it, "What possession is more beautiful than a friend who exhibits his pure character?"

Expressions of philia, however, were not limited to particularist bonding. For fifth-century clerics, the term carried gradations of meaning. From philosophers and sophists, philia acquired a communal aspect. Inspired by the shared imitation of a teacher, philosophic philia was supposed to be as intimate as erotic love—and just as strong. Philia acquired another meaning in elite circles, as a euphemism for patronage. Patrons might allow high-placed clients to call their bond a friendship, even though both knew that the implied "equality" was limited or non-existent. By the fifth century, Christian leaders spoke of the communal philia of monastic communities. They also spoke of their own philia with clerical subordinates (and superiors). Yet reciprocal friendship remained an important connotation, especially when bishops wrote one another. Notionally bishops were all men of elite rank, bound by shared morals and learning. Their geographical scattering required letters, which expressed the mutual goodwill central to Christian identity. Most Christians found few problems with the concept of philia. Some even declared philia a divine gift—an image of the ideal relationship between people and God. Conceptually, bishops were bound to the notion of philia in every ceremony and every letter—whenever they were called by the title "Most friendly with God" (theophilestatos).

When clerics of the fifth century expressed their social affinities, they used both Christian and classical terminology to craft shades of meaning. Some clerics preferred one set of terms. Firmus of Caesarea used philia almost exclusively. Others intermixed philia and agape to create tailored notions of affection. Consider, for example, one of Theodoret's letters to the clergy of neighboring Beroea. "I have come to know that it is with good reason that I am well disposed to Your Reverence," this letter began, "because the letter of Your Piety has reassured me that I love and am loved in return (agapon antagapomai)." Theodoret then furthered the familial theme, calling their former "father" Acacius his own father and the current bishop "my true soul-sharing brother." But when he summed up their relations, he shi. ed terms: "[All] this is sufficient to give birth to friendship (philia) and once it is born, to make it grow." This he then compared to the bond between teacher and pupils. By the time Theodoret got to his advice, he had cited nearly every aspect of friendship and love. The mix of terms signaled overlapping layers of affection, recognizing the complexities of distance and rank. Theodoret mixed terms with fellow bishops, with congregants, with governors and with generals. Each time he crafted a tailored expression that marked the grounds for a particular social bond.

Words of affection thus furnished a variety of cultural cues, which marked relationships. Philia, agape and their derivatives recur frequently in communication. The various terms signaled social position, level of attachment, and the type of affection. Still, these direct expressions were of limited value—widely expected and easily given. When clerics sought lasting bonds, they had to add something more.


Clerics marked out relationships by describing their mutual affection. They also signaled bonds by indicating their shared theology. When Theodoret conversed with other clerics, the "colophon of unity," he claimed, was "harmony of faith." But how could clerics know if they shared doctrine? Nothing was automatic; orthodoxy, like affection, had to be performed. To signal shared faith, Late Roman clerics turned to doctrinal cues, both theological terms and less obvious turns of phrase. Doctrinal signals were riskier than signals of emotion; they could cause serious offense. But it was these cues that enabled bishops to find kindred spirits in orthodoxy.

It may seem odd to deal with theological doctrine as a matter of verbal cues. Most doctrinal specialists have looked for ancient theological systems, or "schools." In the case of "Antiochene" doctrine, scholars have noted at least four common markers found in the ancient texts: claims to offer "literal, historical" exegesis, disdain for "allegory," efforts to match Old Testament "types" to New Testament "realities," and the recognition of two "voices," or "natures" (human and divine) in one "person" of Christ. Scholars vigorously debate the meaning of these markers and their cultural roots. Many have pondered whether these terms accurately describe what the authors were doing—just because a text claims that it interprets Scripture "literally" does not mean modern readers must agree. Some scholars have set Antiochene teachings in a broader context and questioned what, if anything, made them distinctly Antiochene. Nearly every scholar in these debates, however, has treated the terminological markers as indicators of deeper religious thinking.

Searching for doctrinal thinking has both advantages and shortcomings. It works best when scholars do close readings of particular works and authors. Scholars have agreed with ancient writers that language could never adequately express theology. Successful studies find not just surface words and images but underlying narratives and assumptions. The quest for "doctrinal thought" is less helpful when it comes to communities. Even intimate groups must share thoughts through gesture and language.

For the moment, then, let us set aside debates over the deeper meaning of terms such as "literal, historical" and "natures" (we shall return to them in later chapters). In order to explore the social dynamics of shared faith, let us instead treat doctrine as systems of symbolic communication. Such systems may include explicit verbal tropes, whether theological terms or analogies. They may also include references, watchwords, or generalities, with hidden connotations. Doctrinal meanings can even be encoded in non-verbal cues. People may share doctrinal tropes in part, or in full, without sharing the same line of theological thinking. In fact, the more widely a set of terms and images is shared, the more likely interpretations would diverge. Words and symbols may change over time or in different cultural contexts. The main requirement for sharing faith, on a social level, is a consistent call and response of recognized cues.

But what were these doctrinal cues and how could they be used? The sharing of faith was complicated; it was easy for signals to be misread or to reveal too much. Theodoret and his peers acknowledged one Nicene orthodoxy while nurturing various preferences. To bond effectively, clerics had to highlight only their common ground. Thus they conducted a careful ensemble performance. Each cleric read scripts of terms and references—just enough to signal orthodoxy without ruining the image of unity.

One basic source for communicating shared orthodoxy was the agreed set of Nicene terms. By the fifth century all official Eastern Roman clerics professed the Nicene Creed, augmented by the formula "one ousia" and "three hypostases." They also shared a list of doctrinal heroes, including Basil of Caesarea and Athanasius of Alexandria, as well as a list of heretics, including Arius, Marcion, and Mani. Clerics referred to all of these terms and figures in councils. With hallowed and ambiguous words, they inspired trust, while still allowing for silent interpretation. Clerics also used basic Nicene tropes in letters. For just as excessive details could interfere with true friendship, so they could obscure shared orthodoxy.

Nicene generalities pervaded fifth-century clerical communication. But doctrinal affinity in the midst of controversy o. en demanded more detail. This study seeks people with "Antiochene" preferences—those who somehow showed the four basic markers noted above (again, whether or not these tropes mark the same line of thought). But what did clerics say in company, or write in letters, to signal Antiochene preferences? As it turns out, we must look beyond the most commonly cited "Antiochene" doctrinal terms.

In fact, use of famous "Antiochene" doctrinal and exegetical markers was limited. Consider the familiar terms of Antiochene exegesis: "literal (kata ten lexin), historical (kata ten historian)," "sequence of thought (akolouthia)," and denunciation of "allegory." These phrases do appear in Diodore of Tarsus's fragmentary works and Theodore of Mopsuestia's commentaries. By the 430s, however, Theodoret and his associates employed these words only rarely. Consider also the matching of biblical "types" and "realities." Theodoret made use of these tropes in a variety of works. But his choices here were not distinctive—most Christian writers did similarly.


Excerpted from Theodoret's People by Adam M. Schor. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


Part I. Theodoret and His Antiochene Clerical Network
1. Traces of a Network: Friendship, Doctrine, and Clerical Communication, 423–451
2. Shape of a Network: Antiochene Relational Patterns
3. Roots of a Network: Theodoret on the Antiochene Clerical Heritage
4. Ephesus and After: Leadership, Doctrinal Crisis and the Transformation of the Antiochene Network
5. Forging Community: Theodoret’s Network and its Fall

Part II. Theodoret and Late Roman Networks of Patronage
6. Mediating Bishops: Patronage Roles and Relations in the Fifth Century
7. The Irreplaceable Theodoret: Patronage Performance and Social Strategy
8. Patronage, Human and Divine: The Social Dynamics of Theodoret’s Christology

Epilogue: The Council of Chalcedon and the Antiochene Legacy


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"Makes a major contribution to our understanding of late-antique Roman society."—Catholic Historical Review

"A pleasure to read. . . . A valuable contribution to scholarship."—Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies

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