Families and Friends in Late Roman Cappadocia

"Van Dam's exploration . . . makes for fascinating reading and should provoke fruitful debate."—Choice

Families and Friends in Late Roman Cappadocia

Raymond Van Dam

2003 | 272 pages | Cloth $69.95
History / Classics / Religion
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Table of Contents


1. Adopting a Father: Basil and Basil the Elder
2. "Sigh Like a Lover, Obey Like a Son": Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory the Elder
3. Forgotten Brothers
4. "The Father Was Always the Father"

5. "Hollow Out a Stone": Nonna and Gorgonia
6. Her Mother's Cloak: Emmelia and Macrina
7. Was God the Father Married? Virginity and Social Extinction

8. "Your Soul in Your Letter": The Emotional Life of Letters
9. Best of Friends: The Friends of Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus
10. Worst of Friends: The Friendship of Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus

Epilogue: A Fourth Cappadocian Father

Editions and Translations
1. The Cappadocian Fathers
2. Ancient Authors and Texts

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


"I will start my story a bit in the past." During his later years Gregory of Nazianzus was searching for meaning in his life. As he looked back, all he could see was grief for the loss of loved ones, dismay at unexpected misfortunes, and regrets for broken relationships and unwanted obligations. A good story could change all that. In his attempts at writing an autobiography he hoped to find a consistent trajectory of beliefs, commitments, and values that would link his past and his future life in a single unwavering arc. We modern historians should readily sympathize with this commitment to retrospection. Like Gregory, to move forward we must look to our own past. The introduction to a series of historical studies can preview their contents only by recalling their making.

* * * * *

The lives of the Cappadocian Fathers and their known ancestors stretched from the later third century to the end of the fourth century. The grandparents of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa and the father of Gregory of Nazianzus were born in a Roman empire that was finally beginning to recover from the near breakdown of the mid-third century. Insecurity on the frontiers had led to political fragmentation and the rapid turnover of emperors. Christianity was still a minor religion in the Roman world, and Basil's grandparents in Pontus endured persecution under some of the last pagan emperors. The reign of a Christian emperor changed everything. Gregory of Nazianzus' father in Cappadocia was an obscure municipal magistrate, until he saw how the emperor Constantine patronized Christian bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325. He quickly converted and soon became bishop of his hometown. Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus were born at about the time Constantine was dedicating his new capital of Constantinople, and Gregory of Nyssa at about the time of Constantine's death. All three Cappadocian Fathers were students of classical Greek literature and philosophy. All three served as bishops in Cappadocia. All three contributed extensively to the development of Christian theology. Basil died a few years before the Council of Constantinople in 381 reaffirmed the orthodoxy of Nicene Christianity. By the time Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa died, the emperor Theodosius had declared orthodox Christianity the sole legitimate religion of the empire.

The renewal of the Roman empire, conversion, orthodoxy and heresy, Christianity and classical culture, the foundation of Constantinople as New Rome, the evolution of cities, the rise of bishops: the Cappadocian Fathers were participants in all these grand transformations, and the reigns of Constantine and Theodosius were the parentheses that enclosed their careers. Within their lifetimes the empire had gone from the first Christian emperor to a ruler with such a reputation for piety that he would be lauded as "less an emperor than a servant of Christ."

A study of Cappadocia in late antiquity provides a vantage point from which to survey these consequential transformations. High on the plateau in central Asia Minor, cut off from the Mediterranean by rugged mountains, Cappadocia had long been a marginal region in the ancient world, dismissed as unruly and cold, maligned for its cultural backwardness, hardly registering in historical texts, seemingly little affected by the great political and social changes in the Mediterranean world and the Near East. The whole region seemed stagnant, almost petrified, as if it had been dipped in the mythical lake between Caesarea and Tyana that was thought to turn reeds into stone.

During the fourth century, however, Cappadocia flourished. The three most important reasons for the sudden renown of the region were Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa. Their prominence made others take note of central and eastern Asia Minor, and they themselves composed many sermons, treatises, letters, and poems. The writings of these Cappadocian Fathers were voluminous, and coming to terms with them already then required a lifetime of disciplined commitment. As part of her ascetic regimen Melania the Elder read millions of lines of Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil, sometimes seven or eight times each week! Every scholar of late antiquity would like to have her as a research assistant.

* * * * *

I started reading too. Today Melania would probably have to skim the ancient authors only once a week, in order to find time to cope with all the modern scholarship. Much of this scholarship on the Cappadocian Fathers and their era is magnificent. New editions, translations, and commentaries have made their texts more accessible and more readable. Some of the best of these editors and translators include Werner Jaeger (for initiating the ongoing edition of the writings of Gregory of Nyssa), Pierre Maraval (for his editions of Gregory of Nyssa), Paul Gallay (for his biography of Gregory of Nazianzus and editions of his letters), Jean Bernardi (for his study and editions of the orations of Gregory of Nazianzus), and Wolf-Dieter Hauschild (for his translation of and commentary on Basil's letters). For a historian of the Roman empire like myself this combination of extensive ancient writings and equally extensive modern scholarship about the Cappadocian Fathers and about central and eastern Asia Minor in general presented a unique opportunity to study culture, society, and religion in one locale during a short time period. In fact, it provided such a panorama for a series of regional studies that it motivated three books on different themes, Kingdom of Snow on Roman rule and Greek culture, Becoming Christian on the impact of Christianity, and this one on families and friends.

Some of my reading also left me a bit disheartened. The revival of the study of Late Antiquity has been one of the great success stories of the modern historical enterprise. One conspicuous monument to this success is the recent publication of a magnificent handbook whose subtitle is a subtle pun on our postmodern times: "A Guide to the Postclassical World." But the seasoning of the field has come with a price. Increasingly scholarship seems to be taking place in parallel universes that coincide but do not often overlap. Family history, gender studies, administrative history, prosopography and aristocratic careers, doctrinal studies, literary criticism, textual criticism, the history of asceticism and spirituality: the fragmentation of scholarship in the field begins to resemble the fragmentation of the later Roman empire itself. This segmentation of methods and interests has reduced the value of some of the scholarship on Cappadocia and the Cappadocian Fathers too.

The details require more scrutiny. So much of our basic chronology and prosopographical identifications still rests on the "inimitable accuracy" of that "sure-footed mule," the eminent seventeenth-century antiquarian and church historian Louis Sébastien LeNain de Tillemont, in the ninth volume of his monumental Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire ecclésiastique des six premiers siècles. Tillemont's conclusions survive in common circulation, even if often unknowingly filtered through subsequent studies. These results now require updated examination; an excellent model is Marie-Madeleine Hauser-Meury's meticulous prosopography of the writings of Gregory of Nazianzus.

At the same time our methods and interests need updating to take into account both new research in Roman history and comparative studies from other fields. Some of the topics that have jumped forward in recent scholarship on Roman studies are demography and family, gender studies, body and society, literary analysis, rhetorical strategies, and authorial self-representation. The chapters in this book, as well as in the companion volumes Kingdom of Snow and Becoming Christian, hence try to combine some of the new interpretive approaches necessary for understanding the Cappadocian Fathers, with the patient erudition necessary for understanding their writings.

Perhaps most important is the need to rid ourselves of the deference and piety that still inspire many studies of Church Fathers. Too often the study of early theology and theologians, or at least of orthodox theology and orthodox theologians, is muffled by a sense of delicacy and discretion, or a reluctance to discuss personal foibles and disagreeable behavior. We need instead to become more candid, more respectfully severe, in our evaluations of Church Fathers, their ideas, and their actions. Biographies in particular are often too reverential, too patronizing, to be successful critical studies. For all their reputations as bishops, theologians, or ascetics, churchmen and churchwomen were still men and women, hardly immune to the passions and frustrations of ordinary life.

In order to highlight these passions, my trilogy of books has focused on interpreting texts and understanding people. There are so many texts and people to investigate. Too often books, articles, and conferences have concentrated on one or another of the Cappadocian Fathers and reduced the others to occasional cameo appearances. Yet their mutual relationships were some of their most important personal and psychological influences. Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus were inseparable for decades, as fellow students, close comrades, and then uneasy former friends. Gregory of Nyssa felt dominated by his older brother Basil, but found consolation with Gregory of Nazianzus.

Not only should the three Cappadocian Fathers appear together but they should also be studied in conjunction with some of their notable contemporaries, such as Libanius and Himerius, two of their teachers, Themistius, a famous orator at Constantinople who was a correspondent, Eunomius, a heterodox Cappadocian theologian who became a rival, Macrina, the ascetic sister of Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, Amphilochius, a cousin of Gregory of Nazianzus who became bishop of Iconium, and the emperors Constantius, Valens, and Theodosius. Perhaps the oddest acquaintanceship was with Julian, who was the same age as Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus and who had likewise grown up as a Christian in Cappadocia. But once Julian became an emperor and an open supporter of pagan cults, he also became an upside-down reflection of the Cappadocian Fathers, a learned pagan contrasted to learned Christians, a Roman emperor opposed to Christian clerics. The Cappadocian Fathers typically presented and defined themselves through their relationships, arguing with rivals, interceding with magistrates, remembering lost friends. As sons and brothers and friends, as patrons and correspondents, as preachers and theological polemicists, they found their identities in their personal interactions.

The texts and the people coalesce in their self-representations. Authors talked about themselves directly in their letters and orations and poems. They also talked about themselves indirectly in treatises nominally about other topics. So many of their writings presupposed unspoken agendas and implicit objectives. Gregory of Nazianzus examined his love for his mother in an oration about his sister. Gregory of Nyssa commented on his relationships with his sister and his brother in a treatise about virginity. Basil contemplated the breakdown of his friendship with an admired mentor in a sermon about the Forty Martyrs. In all of their writings these men were representing themselves, presenting themselves before others, simultaneously preening and apologizing. Their willingness to imagine themselves provides a license for us to do the same.

* * * * *

The format of each of the books in my trilogy about Cappadocia is a series of interlocking chapters, or rather of reinforcing layers of interpretation, that investigate various topics and themes that have become increasingly important for the social and cultural history of the Roman empire.

Families and Friends in Late Roman Cappadocia uses the Cappadocian Fathers and other members of their families to apply, and also modify, some of the recent research that has revolutionized the study of the Roman family. That research has typically employed the techniques and evidence of prosopography (the close study of biographical data and personal alliances), Roman law, and statistical sampling. For specific examples it has regularly highlighted the writings, and often the families, of Cicero at the end of the Roman Republic and Pliny the Younger in the early empire. The writings of the Cappadocian Fathers now offer a rare opportunity for a close investigation of two provincial families side-by-side. The chapters in this book utilize, and evaluate, some of the research on Roman families by focusing on personal and emotional experiences within the families of Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus.

The first section of chapters discusses fathers and sons. These chapters exploit the discrepancies between the expectations of demographic profiles and the restrictions of Roman law on the one hand, and the actual experiences of the Cappadocian Fathers and members of their families. Because his father died sooner than he might have expected, Basil spent his life searching for mentors and replacement fathers. Because his father lived much longer than anyone might have expected, Gregory of Nazianzus was constantly torn between his devotion to his father and his resentment at his father's meddling. Yet despite the tensions in their relationships with their fathers, both ended up assuming or imitating their fathers' careers. Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus were furthermore the oldest brothers in their respective familes, and both became substitute fathers for their younger brothers, such as Gregory of Nyssa. Since all three of the Cappadocian Fathers were at the same time pondering the theology of the Trinity, it is reasonable to speculate that their personal experiences might have influenced their thinking about God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son.

The second section of chapters discusses mothers and daughters. In both families the mothers were unconventionally strong figures, one because as a widow she controlled the family's patrimony, the other because her husband was so elderly and sometimes incapacitated. In Basil's family Macrina, the oldest sister, acquired a reputation for her ascetic piety. But despite their prominence, most of our information about these women is from texts composed by men, their sons or brothers. These chapters hence consider women as a medium, a rhetorical strategy, a means for men to reflect on themselves and their own concerns. They also consider the consequences of the heightened emphasis in Christianity on a life of asceticism and virginity. Choosing virginity was a statement about both religious preferences and social reproduction. Because sons might choose not to marry and produce more sons, entire families were extinguished. Both Basil's family and Gregory's ended with their generation.

The final set of chapters discusses friendships. Unlike family relationships, friendships were voluntary relationships based on personal choices. These decisions transformed friendships into conflicted relationships, simultaneously utilitarian and emotional. As a result, the letters that provide most of the information about friends essentially mimicked the relationships, since they too tried to combine deep feelings with the formalities of protocol. In their friendships with others Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus revealed their own, sometimes divergent, notions of friendship. Those contrasts were most apparent in their own friendship. As students sharing a passion for Greek culture, they were fast friends, but when they became ascetics, priest, and bishops, their friendship collapsed. Classical culture had kept them together, and ecclesiastical affairs had come between them. In an odd reversal of expectations, Basil, the son of a teacher, privileged Christian concerns in their relationship, and Gregory, the son of a bishop, gave priority to familiarity with classical culture. Gregory was left baffled as he tried to make sense of their earlier intimacy. At the end of his life he still cried when he thought about Basil. Their friendship had been one of the great love stories of the fourth century.

* * * * *

Even though the Cappadocian Fathers and some of their distinguished contemporaries are the main actors, this book is primarily a study of the dynamics and the emotions of family relationships and friendships. As such, it is an attempt to link ecclesiastical concerns more widely with social and cultural history. Ecclesiastical texts provide so much information about so many aspects of Roman society in the Greek East that the later Roman empire is much better documented than the early empire. Yet patristics scholars and church historians, the scholars who are most familiar with the texts, are often not much interested in, or not much familiar with, social and cultural history, and social and cultural historians all too often still do not approach ecclesiastical texts with any systematic thoroughness. Theological studies and cultural studies need to find some sort of accommodation.

Covering so many topics and texts and people in this and my other two books about Cappadocia in late antiquity can be overwhelming, for both author and readers. This comprehensiveness is meant to encourage some sideways reading by specialists. In this volume, patristics scholars interested primarily in the Cappadocian Fathers might read about the implications of demographic simulations. Historians of the family might read about the connection between friendships and personal identity. In addition, even though the discussions in this trilogy highlight Cappadocian topics, the analytical models should be applicable to other regions and other interests. We will all benefit by trying to make connections between different topics, different approaches, and different texts. This comprehensiveness is furthermore an attempt to raise the level of scholarly discourse, in detail, in interpretation, and in intensity. People are in the details: we will all benefit again from readings of the ancient texts that are both multidimensional and more careful.

In the later fifth century one law student at Beirut asked a fellow student whether he had "the books of the great Basil and the illustrious Gregory and the other teachers." This student did indeed have a large library of Church Fathers, with editions of many of Basil's treatises, sermons, and letters as well as of some of the sermons of Gregory of Nazianzus. "I replied that I owned many of their writings." These young scholars were already trying to make connections, not only among the writings of the Church Fathers but also between their own studies in Roman law and their interest in ecclesiastical affairs. We should follow their example. As historians it is our obligation to combine ecclesiastical texts with secular history, patristics with social history, theology with cultural studies, and meticulous erudition with interpretive speculation.