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Lea Niccolai: Christianity, Philosophy, and Roman Power. Constantine, Julian, and the Bishops on Exegesis and Empire (= Greek Culture in the Roman World), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2023, XIX + 359 S., ISBN 978-1-00-929929-9, GBP 100,00
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Rezension von:
Harold Drake
University of California, Santa Barbara
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Harold Drake: Rezension von: Lea Niccolai: Christianity, Philosophy, and Roman Power. Constantine, Julian, and the Bishops on Exegesis and Empire, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2023, in: sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 2 [15.02.2024], URL:

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Lea Niccolai: Christianity, Philosophy, and Roman Power

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Of the many rapid changes that took place during the fourth century CE, few have received more attention than the effect of Christianity on the role of the Roman emperor. A substantial body of texts produced by players in these changes - from letters to orations to sermons and panegyrics - has been pored over for decades, if not centuries, leaving readers to wonder if there is anything more that can be said about them. In this book, Lea Niccolai shows how new questions and new methodologies can bring these texts back to life.

Niccolai's particular focus is on the criteria for selecting and evaluating emperors. Drawing on current interest in the relationship between philosophy, rhetoric, and power, she argues that the key to understanding the socio-cultural, political, and religious discourse of the age is to study the way Christians, especially after Constantine, appropriated the traditional system of education and values summed up by the term paideia, and the efforts spearheaded by Constantine's nephew Julian "the Apostate" to reclaim that ground for traditional philosophy.

In her account, Constantine's conversion to Christianity (traditionally dated to 312) disrupted the traditional language elites used to legitimate their power. Although commitment to the traditional values of paideia remained high, Constantine fueled a Christian argument that their faith was not just the truest but actually the only way paideia could be achieved. There followed a three-way battle in which emperors, philosopher/orators, and bishops all participated, each seeking to demonstrate a superior understanding of the divine will.

The stakes were high. In a world that believed divine support was a necessary prerequisite for success, those who could successfully spin the meaning of history and literature their way were simultaneously proving their own superiority as rational actors and de-legitimizing the claims of the opposition. This is what Niccolai calls the "politics of interpretation" (23), a methodology based on recognition that the way we now pigeonhole disciplines - and even more the way we define "rational" and "irrational" behavior - has kept us from seeing that, to these authors, reasoning and revelation were compatible modes of inquiry. Once this distinction is set aside, the real religious current of this century appears. Far from being a contest between reason and superstition (as Edward Gibbon famously saw it), it is one in which Christians successfully introduced changes in the way power was legitimized.

Julian is the lynchpin of this study. Each of the three parts into which the book is divided deals in roughly chronological order with a stage in Julian's career, in each case taking two chapters to examine the rhetorical strategy of works he produced during that time. Thus, Part I, "At Constantius' Court," discounts the "performative quality" of Julian's self-effacing claims of inadequacy in a letter he wrote to the philosopher Themistius, and instead points to his engagement with classical sources, especially Plato, as a tactic he used to project his competence in political philosophy. It shows "how knowledge legitimises authority and how sources and origins, when authoritatively handled, substantiate claims to political and intellectual primacy" (70). Similarly, the panegyrics he devoted to his cousin Constantius are not the arcane pieces they have sometimes appeared to be, but the work of a "skilled rhetorician, constantly challenging boundaries". (107)

Once he became sole emperor in 361, Julian abandoned all pretense and openly advocated a return to the old civic deities. In Part II, Niccolai looks at the large body of works he produced during this time. He wrote an attack on Christianity, Against the Galileans (the derogatory term he used for Christianity), to show that Christians owed everything to their mangled understanding of Greek philosophy, and a satirical work, The Caesars, that bitterly lampooned Constantine as a braggart and sheer hedonist. In a more positive vein, Julian wrote hymns to King Helios and the Mother of the Gods to promote his vision of a revitalized civic religion, which Niccolai describes as "essentially a cult of culture" (163) that sacralized core texts, such as Homer's Iliad, that were the basis of paideia.

Julian's reign was cut short by his death on campaign in Persia in mid-363. In Part III, Niccolai uses the struggle for control of his memory to open up a wider struggle between philosophers and bishops for the right of speaking truth to power, summed up by the term parrhesia.

Philosophers had claimed this privilege for centuries on the grounds that their advice was truly disinterested, but Christian bishops undercut their authority, first by aligning themselves with the urban poor, and then by adopting a counter-cultural subversion of the elite educational program. In doing so, they created a "crucial paradox," for it was their own paideia training that equipped bishops with the tools they needed to legitimate their role. They resolved this paradox by adding orthodoxy to the traditional criteria for a good king, a move that cemented their spiritual authority and even forced emperors to recognize that the right to speak for divinity was no longer exclusively theirs.

Niccolai views the fourth century as a "battlefield" (149), but her study is light years ahead of the "pagan-Christian conflict" model that prevailed for most of the previous century. Far from seeing this age as a life-and-death struggle from which only one winner could emerge, she portrays it as a "negotiation of intellectual authority". (225) Her battlefield is hermeneutics and, although it is not readily apparent from the short compass of this review, a major achievement is the way she has managed throughout to put the writings of bishops, emperors, and philosophers into dialogue with each other. Instead of the "towering isolation" (305) in which Julian has been habitually analyzed, Niccolai shows how he was responding to claims made by Constantine, particularly in his lengthy Oration to the Saints, and also to Constantine's biographer and panegyrist, Eusebius of Caesarea. What emerges is not a tale of Christian triumph so much as a study in the way the spiritual authority claimed by Christian bishops successfully destabilized the emperor's own traditional right to represent the divine will. Julian's aim, she argues, was not so much to create an alternate to Christianity as to re-assert the primacy emperors traditionally had exercised over religious matters.

There is something about Julian that makes him irresistible to academics, so it comes as no surprise that a book devoted primarily to philosophy and rhetoric understates how self-delusional and catastrophic his reign actually was. In Chapter 4, Niccolai shows how Constantine and Julian both used arguments based on their own success. A good argument, but not, as it turned out, a good one for Julian to make (30-plus years for Constantine versus 18 months for himself). And, when Niccolai calls Julian's religion "essentially a cult of culture" (163), she is putting the nicest face on what was a deliberately polarizing effort to turn the basic texts of paideia into Holy Writ.

Taken on its own terms, however, this book is filled with insight and fresh thinking that breathes new life into the study of kingship literature and the way Christians successfully adapted classical values to their own uses.

Harold Drake