Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Bishops and Verbal Sparring in Early Byzantium

Nathan D. Howard

In today’s athletics, the message is clear: Win at all costs. In classical Greece, by contrast, competition was not just about winning. Yes, victors received lavish awards, but participation itself brought benefit to both contestants. The community, too, gloried in the rivalry. For it affirmed collective virtue (aretē), a communal ideal of manhood that in its purest form was expressed in athletics and combat. In the image above, both wrestlers accredited themselves worthy of honor. Their physical exertion showed that they had undergone the hardships of training and were worthy of showing off their skill. In short, they were the best of the best. They were to be revered, as even their bodies testified to their high-minded ethic. It is little wonder that Plato, himself a renowned wrestler, wrote extensively on the value of physical training for cultivating excellence of character.

In the late Roman empire, an alternative avenue allowed for such exhibitions of virtue. My book Christianity and the Contest for Manhood in Late Antiquity shows how bishops in fourth-century Byzantium asserted manhood through literary composition. These bishops (the Cappadocians) simulated classical contests through composing and exchanging letters with fellow literati. They took their cue from paideia, the classical training of elite eastern Romans that promoted masculinity in future civic leaders through study of philosophy and rhetoric. Using a repertoire of ancient Greek literary and historical references, the Cappadocians sparred verbally with their correspondents. No medals were handed out, or victors crowned with olive wreaths, but the participants claimed a greater prize: the esteem of their intellectual peers. For by taking part in a kind of sophisticated banter, the bishops and their colleagues exhibited the earmarks of a classical combatant. They had undergone the rigorous struggle of paideia that singled out those superior in body, mind, and soul. By managing these letter exchanges, the Cappadocians leveraged themselves as heirs of the classical contest. It was an identity that situated them as arbiters of manhood, while promoting ideals of honor shared by Christians and non-Christians.

Securing and maintaining a masculine image enhanced an individual’s influence in what may seem unlikely areas. These included the heated theological debates that dominated much of the fourth century. The second part of Christianity and the Contest explores this issue as it related to the Cappadocians’ claims on theological truth. It must be understood that in ancient Greece manhood was linked to virtue: namely, authority and courage, truthfulness, and wisdom. So as the Cappadocians took on variant roles in the networking of Byzantium, they remained committed to the issue of self-representation, to appear as Christian prelates rooted in the certitude of the classical Greek male. In discussions of the Godhead-particularly the nature of Christ-concerns about qualifications of the theologian held tremendous importance. Namely, did the individual postulating about God bear the same marks of toil and triumph that characterized the best: the athlete, the philosopher, the warrior. Only then could one be assured of his credibility. Persons untried by contests of virtue, therefore, were not worthy as theologians/philosophers. The Cappadocians’ influence in doctrinal disputes and Trinitarian Christianity was based partly on their abilities to posture as the classical male par excellence. In addition to staging virtue through letter exchanges, the Cappadocians also brandished the authority of their kindred saints, whose feats they celebrated in hagiographic verse. In these narratives, they reimagined acts such as virginity and civic withdrawal as forms of contest, thus recoding the asceticism of their Trinitarian subjects as a masculine enterprise.

The outcomes of these powerful self-presentations are hard to quantify, but in a society that treasured the authority of the hyper masculine, it was no small measure. We learn in this study that accentuating the masculinity of the Godhead was crucial to the Cappadocians and other Trinitarian bishops. So too was an ability to defend in philosophical argument how God the Son was both begotten and coeternal with the Father. But in these theological battles, the perception of gender in the theologian also played an instrumental role that should not be underestimated. In Byzantine doctrinal debate, “WHO taught about the Divine” carried weight in determining “HOW to think about the Divine.”

Christianity and the Contest
for Manhood in Late Antiquity
by Nathan D. Howard

About The Author

Nathan D. Howard

Nathan D. Howard is Professor of History at the University of Tennessee at Martin. His scholarship has been funded by Dumbarton Oaks, the American Philosophical Society, and the Na...

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