The Role of the Bishop in Late Antiquity by Andrew Fear

Book Review by Ian Hughes

After many years of neglect, recent times have seen an ever-growing production of books on Late Antiquity. A good proportion of these concern the rise of Christianity to be the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. This is understandable, as the transformation from a ‘Pagan’ to a ‘Christian’ Empire was surprisingly fast and many parts of the process can be hard to understand, not least the rise of the Bishop of Rome to the supremacy of the Western Church. The Role of the Bishop in Late Antiquity (RBLA) covers some aspects of the rise of the Papacy, as well as analysing several of the conflicts that arose within the Church and how these were dealt with by the bishops of the time.

This brief synopsis highlights one of the problems of the book: the first part of the title leads the reader to believe that the book will assess several aspects of the functions of bishops in Late Antiquity, including the pastoral side of their lives, but the second, Conflict and Compromise, only partially clarifies that in reality the book is analysing the manner in which bishops interacted with each other in a period when each region saw itself as autonomous, especially prior to the rise of the Pope to pre-eminence. The role of the bishop in the community is rarely covered, except where the community is involved in disputes largely caused by quarrelling bishops themselves.

The narrow focus of the book becomes evident when the Contents page is read:

A Dispute of Episcopal Legitimacy: Gregory Nazianzen and Maximus in Constantinople
Juana Torres and Ramón Teja

The Donatist Conflict as Seen by Constantine and the Bishops
José Fernández Ubiña

Ius et religio: The Conference of Carthage and the End of the Donatist Schism, 411 AD
Carlos García Mac Gaw

Pacifiers and Instigators: Bishops in Interreligious Conflicts in Late Antiquity
Maijastina Kahlos

Controversy and Debate over Sexual Matters in the Western Church (IV Century)
Teresa Sardella

Bishops, Judges and Emperors: CTh 16, 2, 31/CTh 16, 5, 46/Sirm. 14 (409)
Maria Victoria Escribano Paño

Bishops, Heresy and Power: Conflict and Compromise in Epistula 11* of Consentius to Augustine
Purificación Ubric Rabaneda

Papal Authority, Local Autonomy and Imperial Control: Pope Zosimus and the Western Churches (a. 417-18)
Mar Marcos

East and West, Emperor and Bishop: Hormisdas and the Authority of the See of Rome.
Alexander Evers

Preaching and Mesmerizing: The Resolution of Religious Conflicts in Late Antiquity
Alberto J. Quiroga Puertas

Bishops, Imperialism, and the Barbaricum
Andrew Fear

Conflict and Compromise: the Spanish Catholic Bishops and the Arian Kingdom of Toledo (from Vouillé to Leovigild)
Pedro Castillo Maldonado

The Bishops and the Byzantine Intervention in Hispania
Francisco Salvador Ventura (Universidad de Granada, Spain)

Once the limits of the book are understood, it is easier to assess its value. The early chapters deal with the situation in the fourth and fifth century, with later chapters analysing the actions of bishops in the late-fifth and sixth century.

Taken together, the contents illustrate the way in which the modern Catholic Church came to be organised, with a hierarchy ranging from the Pope down. Yet in the fourth and fifth centuries this was not the case. The Pope was simply one of the many bishops in the West, albeit one with a claim to supremacy due to the founding of the Roman church being attributed to Saint Peter. The first part of the book deals at times with the attempts of the bishop of Rome to establish his superiority. In this context the chapter on ‘Pope’ Zosimus is of particular interest. In may ways this was necessary, as without sole leadership there was a division of opinion between churches over several issues, a factor emphasised by the creation of different traditions in the main political divisions of the West; Gaul, Spain, Africa and Italy. It was the need to eliminate these divisions that was one of the major factors in the Pope becoming the leader of Christianity.

One of the issues dividing opinion was that many bishops tended to act within the traditional Roman patron-client system. The result was that there were occasions when powerful bishops were able to install their clients in important positions without the client having any relevant experience. This was anathema to those bishops who believed that the Church should follow a cursus honorum where individuals were expected to hold senior positions only after working their way up the promotion ladder. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in conflict and confusion.

Another was the existence throughout the Empire of many different Christian sects, such as Priscillianism, Donatism, Sabellianism and Manichaeism, each tending to dominate in specific geographical regions, highlighting the parochial nature of the Church in its earliest years: at one point, there were at least nine different Christian communities in Constantinople. Obviously, this caused great difficulty when it came to establishing a single Christian ethic that could be followed throughout the Empire. The book outlines several ways in which the majority of the different sects became outlawed and ‘Nicene’ Catholicism became established as almost the sole Christian religion in the West. It also describes the many ways in which the opponents of the Nicene creed countered Imperial attempts to crush them.

Later chapters change from analysing the ways in which bishops interacted with each other to ways in which they responded to changing political circumstances. For the uninitiated, these may be the most rewarding chapters, dealing as they do with political history rather than purely Church history. As the majority of the papers are written by Spanish academics, naturally these tend to focus on events in Spain, namely the conversion of the Visigothic Kings from Arianism to Catholicism and the manner in which the Catholic bishops of ‘free’ southern Spain reacted to the option of joining the Eastern Empire via its territories on the south-eastern coasts or of joining the expanding Visigothic kingdom with its barbarian traditions but its recent conversion to Catholicism. These are fascinating insights into the choices being made by people who were having to come to terms with the End of the Western Empire and the transition from a monolithic political entity to a multitude of smaller political units based on ‘barbarian’ tribal allegiances.

Throughout the book it becomes clear that most of the changes brought about within the Church were the result of individuals with great personal authority who commanded at least regional respect – a major example being that of Bishop Ambrose of Milan – rather than being the result of the ‘political’ domination of a single bishop. This in itself is deserving of study by those interested in Late Antiquity, explaining as it does many of the internal divisions of the Church.

There are a few caveats to any recommendation of the book. One is that it is obviously meant for a specialist audience, since many of the religious divisions – for example the Priscillianism, Donatism, Sabellianism and Manichaeism mentioned above– are difficult for the non-specialist to differentiate.

As a final note, the book is in need of copyediting/proofreading. There are many examples of poor English text in the book. It is probable that this is a result of the majority of the authors being non-native English speakers. It is fair to say that with the high cost of the book in its original, hardback form this is a problem that should not have arisen, as a native English-speaking copyeditor could have eliminated many of these mistakes. However, a new, paperback edition of the book is available and hopefully this has been edited to remove these slight faults.

On the other hand, to use this as a way of criticising the book is a little unfair. The fact that the (largely) Spanish authors have published work that would otherwise be unavailable to non-Spanish readers should be welcomed, as they provide a viewpoint that would otherwise be unknown to readers whose sole language is English. For that reason alone this book is recommended to those interested in Late Antiquity, giving as it does the opinions of scholars whose work is sometimes overlooked by English-speaking general readers.

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