A Year of Empresses

As this year is drawing to a close I start to realise that, for me, it has been a year of late Roman empresses, both with regard to Clerical Exile and to other research projects. It has also been a year of understanding better how research works. I have learned it is very much about making and enjoying connections: connections between the various strands of my own research and connections across the research community.

My interest in late Roman empresses actually dates from some time ago, when I was in Frankfurt on a Humboldt fellowship and writing up Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity. I was at a stage with the book where I could see the end of the tunnel and very cautiously started to think about what to do next. I stumbled over some references to late Roman imperial women residing in Rome which caught my interest, particularly when I realised that there had been quite a few. I can’t remember how I came across this, but it was possibly while preparing an article on Anicia Iuliana for submission to an edited collection on the Collectio Avellana (which still hasn’t been published, but that’s another story!).

I thought this was odd – late antique Rome isn’t usually researched under the perspective of imperial women – but I didn’t really have the time to pursue this any further. However, I did have, for the first time in my life, research assistants, courtesy of the wonderful Humboldt foundation and my host Hartmut Leppin. So while I was reading Plato on punishment, my assistants were scouring the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire and the library for references to connections between imperial women and Rome. The results are three hefty folders of primary and secondary sources which I brought back to England. (Many thanks to Maximilian Becker and Timo Christian!)

I was looking forward to this project and to (mentally, if not physically) returning to Rome, my first research passion. I felt I needed some relief from having spent nearly ten years with Roman prisons. In the event, my ‘research trajectory’, as it’s now so managerially called, turned out differently. While in Germany, I also had got to know my delightful co-investigators Jörg Ulrich and Jakob Engberg and together we set out on the journey of Clerical Exile, a logical step from Prison, Punishment and Penance.

Yet, there were those three folders sitting on my shelves and it seemed a shame ‘wasting’ all this material. So, while managing Clerical Exile in the daytime, late Roman empresses became a bit of a hobby. I started to give papers on this topic, often – because the topic is an accessible one – to more general audiences up and down the country, such as local branches of the Classical Association. But empresses also started to creep into my work on Clerical Exile (if that isn’t too weird an image), perhaps true to the maxim that once you start looking for something you find it almost everywhere.

Collecting all data on clerical exile and submitting them to network analysis is a very ‘democratizing’ process: every connection mentioned in the primary material counts for the algorithm. You hence have to read texts with a different eye and many individuals become more visible (if you want to find out more come to our book launch next week, where you can also meet the incomparable Máirín MacCarron without whom I would know much less about networks). It turns out, empresses are all over late antique exile stories, as either scheming enemies of clerics, responsible for their exile, or as supporters, helping with their return. Sometimes, they appear in both roles at once in the same story. Take, for example, the case of the deacon Theophilus ‘The Indian’, who was exiled around 354 by Constantius II for treason. According to the sympathetic Philostorgius (Hist. eccl. 4.1, 7, 8), Constantius recalled him when his wife, Eusebia, fell ill and it was said that only Theophilus could heal her, which he did. However, back at court, Constantius’ women, who must have included Eusebia, turned against him, supporting his enemy Basil of Ancyra in influencing Constantius to banish Theophilus again, this time for his Anomoean beliefs. Here’s how this story can be visualised as a network graph:


I haven’t quite figured out what Eusebia’s u-turn means yet (why upset a man who’s just cured you from deadly disease?), but I suspect late antique authors found imperial women ‘good to think with’ about proper legal procedure (or the absence of it) surrounding clerical exile.  Aelia Eudoxia, Arcadius’ wife and John Chrysostom’s nemesis, springs to mind here as well.

My previous and initially somewhat thwarted interests in empresses in Rome induced me to think about clerical exile differently. But it also works the other way around: knowing more about clerical exile induced me to think differently about empresses, too. Probably due to giving all these papers on late Roman empresses there now seem to be a lot of kind people across the research community who think I can contribute to the field. As a result, this year I was flooded with opportunities to extend my knowledge: through reviews of new books on late Roman empresses, through examining a PhD thesis by the brilliant, now Dr Belinda Washington (who I immediately made to give a paper on empresses and exile at our September workshop), through writing dictionary entries for the Oxford Classical Dictionary, and through gaining an amazing new PhD student working on female spaces in late antique Rome (who, incidentally, has blogged here).

What I found out in the process is how often we know something about late Roman empresses because they were remembered in texts and collections that were not about them, but about clerical exile (or more broadly, religious conflict): take, for example, the fifth-century Church historians’ obsession with Constantia, the sister of Constantine, for her alleged support of the exiled Arius, who I have blogged about here.

The highlight of my year was a paper I was invited to give, once again, about the Collectio Avellana, that curious imperial-episcopal letter collection compiled in the sixth century (check out the interview by TGRMedia with Rita Lizzi Testa, who organized the event!).  I have been involved with the enthusiastic ‘Banda Avellana’ for some years now. When they invited me again this year, I wasn’t quite sure what I could still contribute. But then I remembered that Collectio Avellana contains letters by Galla Placidia, sister of Honorius, about the expulsion of dissenting bishops from Rome after a schism broke out in 418, and that the letter collections emerging from the Council of Chalcedon contained more letters by the same empress and her daughter-in-law, empress Licinia Eudoxia, about the exile of Flavian of Constantinople in 449. So once again, clerical exile led me to think about empresses differently, and I spent almost all summer fretting about the ‘female imperial voice’ in late antiquity. What a treat!

While at the beginning of this year I felt a bit torn between the various strands of my research, I’ve now come to understand that everything is, after all, connected, true to the premise of Clerical Exile. I still have to decide what that means for developing and, crucially, publishing the various bits of my research, but  I am blessed to be surrounded by so many inspiring people who can help me figure that out. In the end, networks matter!

Head of an unidentified late Roman empress, Museo dell’Alto Medio Evo, Rome, inv. 2547.


To give a taster of our book and film club the Film Unit at the University of Sheffield is going to show Gladiator on 23 November, in collaboration with The Migration of Faith and the Sheffield Classical Association!

Gladiator masterfully illuminates the themes of centre, periphery, captivity and forced movement in the Roman empire — all themes which will also underpin our conference in London in April 2017! Postgraduate students connected to the Migration of Faith project, and Dr Daniele Miano from the Department of History, a specialist on ancient mobility, will be on hand to answer questions.



To book your free tickets click here


Now on: Clerical Exile Book Club!

From March 2017, The Migration of Faith sponsors a book club in Sheffield, exploring early Christianity, the world of the Church fathers, mobility and exile. We’ll be reading modern novels with a unique and inspiring take on these themes that will throw an alternative light on our research. The novels show that the issues at the heart of our research – the intense theological debates that underpinned early Christianity and often led to clerical exile, as well as the personal and cultural encounters they generated around the ancient Mediterranean – still have the power to move us today.

On deck are:

Emmanuel Carrère, The Kingdom

Topping the French bestseller lists in 2014 and freshly translated into English this year, this novel follows the apostle Paul and the evangelist Luke in their quest to spread Jesus’ teaching and a unique idea of social order around the Mediterranean.

We will meet on 23 March, 5-7pm in the Bath Hotel, Sheffield.




Evelyn Waugh, Helena

By popular vote, our second novel will be Evelyn Waugh’s Helena, his only historical novel. Helena, mother of Constantine, was an avid traveller: most famous of course for her trip to Palestine which, according to some, set in motion Holy Land tourism. She also toured the Eastern provinces meeting some of the bishops investigated by The Migration of Faith project (one was allegedly banished for insulting her). Waugh traces all this and much more with humanity and humour, presenting Helena as intensely interested in the History of Christianity and its mythical spaces.

We will meet on 10 May, 5-7pm, venue tbc. Please email Dominik Kocbuch at DFKocbuch1@sheffield.ac.uk for more info.


Frank Spinella, Heresy. A Novel

Investigates how something that started as an intellectual debate of the early fourth century became a ‘heresy’ and how the networks between clerics contributed to the condemnation of the priest Arius’ teaching at the Council of Nicaea in 325, leading to his and many other late antique clerics’ exile around the Mediterranean.





Youssef Ziedan, Azazeel

Awarded the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2010 (among some controversy) and set in the world of the Eastern Mediterranean, this novel describes the journeys of a fifth-century monk: an external journey that takes him from Southern Egypt to Eastern Syria, and an internal one exploring his humanity, triggered by an encounter with Nestorius of Constantinople, soon to be exiled for his views.






The book club is open to anyone who is interested and will take place in an informal setting in a local Sheffield pub. Our next meeting is on 10 May.

The book club will be accompanied by the screening of a number of iconic films narrating stories of ancient mobility, early Christianity and (some) of the characters of the novels. Our next and last film is Agora, on 25 April, 6pm at the Film Unit in the Students’ Union. Book your free tickets here.

Please email Dominik Kocbuch at DFKocbuch1@sheffield.ac.uk or Julia Hillner at j.hillner@sheffield.ac.uk if you are interested in receiving further information.

Book announcement

My new book has just been published with De Gruyter. The title is “Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiqity: Studies in Text Transmission”. It has recently been endorsed by Forbes Magazine:


As Dirk Rohmann has written in his new book, Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity, early Christians often spoke of books as a kind of body that demons could inhabit. What better way to kill these demons than to burn them? (Sarah E. Bond, Forbes Magazine, 26/09/2016)


Here is a short summary:


It is estimated that only a small fraction, less than 1 per cent, of ancient literature has survived to the present day. The role of Christian authorities in the active suppression and destruction of books in Late Antiquity has received surprisingly little sustained consideration by academics. In an approach that presents evidence for the role played by Christian institutions, writers and saints, this book analyses a broad range of literary and legal sources, some of which have hitherto been little studied. Paying special attention to the problem of which genres and book types were likely to be targeted, I argue that in addition to heretical, magical, astrological and anti-Christian books, other less obviously subversive categories of literature were also vulnerable to destruction, censorship or suppression through prohibition of the copying of manuscripts. These include texts from materialistic philosophical traditions, texts which were to become the basis for modern philosophy and science. This book examines how Christian authorities, theologians and ideologues suppressed ancient texts and associated ideas at a time of fundamental transformation in the late classical world.


It took me quite a while to write this book, and I hope it sheds new light on an important question that to my mind has so far been understudied. I would like to quote a major passage that I find key to approaching the subject:


To Christian authors of Late Antiquity, the philosophers were wrong, for example, when they posited evolution, originating from the clash of atoms, instead of creation out of nothing. These Christian authors attributed many opinions of ancient philosophers to a demonic, devilish counter-world. For example, they considered natural forces, recognised by certain philosophers, as demonic because natural forces explained the movement of material objects without God. The atoms too were demonic as being independent entities, uncreated matter, impartible, moving automatically and by cohesion in varied order composing the objects of the material world, without divine providence. Other questions of doctrinal importance included predictions on the movement of the stars, the singularity, duration, size and shape of the universe and whether it was a miracle of creation or something that can be explained mathematically; whether human beings were informed about the material world through the various senses (for example, through optics and acoustics) or through the ideas of the soul. The various opinions of the philosophers could cause heretical thinking and had done so in the case of many heretics. Christian authors condemned much of the material which became the basis for modern philosophy and science as magical and heretical because it conflicted with the world-view, or universe-view, that they were promoting. (p. 22)




You can find a google preview here.

Exile in the post-Roman law codes

This blogpost was written by Harry Mawdsley, PhD student on the project.

Over the last couple of months I have been examining the so-called ‘barbarian’ law codes, as part of my research into the penalty of exile in the post-Roman period. Of particular interest are the three compilations of Roman law that were issued in the Ostrogothic, Visigothic, and Burgundian Kingdoms – the Edict of Theodoric (c.500), the Breviary of Alaric (506), and the Roman Law of the Burgundians (c.516). The editors of these works excerpted from earlier legal sources to provide judges with a practical handlist of Roman law. But they were not only mere copyists; they often omitted, reworked or commented upon parts of the Roman material, updating it to reflect the changed circumstances of the early sixth century. Such alterations thus provide a valuable insight into how far the penalty of exile had developed in the decades after the collapse of the Western Empire. We see this quite clearly in the context of three themes: forms of exile, exile and social status, and crimes punished by exile.

In the Roman Empire, exile was expressed through a number of different sentences, but the two quintessential forms of exile were deportatio and relegatio. As we can see in the commentaries of the second- and third-century jurists, deportatio and relegatio were technical terms distinguished on the basis of severity. Of the two, deportatio was considered the harsher sentence as, unlike relegatio, it impaired legal status through the removal of citizenship.

Interestingly, in the post-Roman compilations, references to deportatio or relegatio were often changed to exilium – a much more generic term for exile. This would suggest that deportatio and relegatio were no longer understood to be relevant concepts in the early sixth-century west. Such a development can plausibly be associated with the emergence of new legal identities in the barbarian kingdoms, as the free population was no longer solely defined by the possession of Roman citizenship. This undermined the precise significance of sentences of deportatio, since the removal of civic status no longer carried the same severe ramifications. Thus, it would have been rather meaningless to describe a sentence as either relegatio or deportatio, as in practice the effects of the two penalties were now not so distinct.

Along with deportatio and relegatio, other forms of exile also became outmoded in the barbarian kingdoms, such as exile as forced labour in metalla (mines or quarries) – a consequence of the disappearance of state-owned mining institutions in the west. This eroded the foundations of the so-called dual penalty system, established since the beginning of the second century CE if not earlier. In the Roman period, the dual penalty system had ensured that low status offenders received sentences of forced labour in place of deportatio and relegatio, which were traditionally reserved for members of the elite. In the post-Roman legal sources, however, the narrowing of the forms of exile meant that all offenders, regardless of social status, now received the same basic sentence of exilium.

At first glance, this development could be seen as representing a turn towards a more egalitarian criminal justice system. In practice, though, the experiences of offenders in the post-Roman kingdoms still varied dramatically according to their social status. One example taken from the literary sources occurred in 484, when the Vandal King Huneric (r. 477-484) closed all the churches of the city of Carthage and exiled around 500 members of the clergy. Eugenius, the bishop of Carthage, was quietly packed off to the city of Turris Tamalleni in southern Byzacena. His subordinate clergy, however, were only expelled after being publically flogged on the forum.

The authorities, thus, continued to treat non-elites more harshly for the same crimes, even though the abandonment of certain penalties, such as condemnation to the mines, meant that they could no longer precisely follow the norms of Roman legal practice. I think that this reflects how status considerations remained of crucial importance to judges in the socially stratified barbarian kingdoms. It also shows how the overarching justifications of punishment remained constant, in particular the belief that low status offenders should always receive some form of physical abuse.

In the three compilations, a rather diverse set of crimes was punished by exile, including offences against the person (violence, kidnap), offences against property (theft, arson, despoliation of tombs), and sexual and marital offences (adultery, unilateral divorce). This provides an insight into the types of offences that barbarian legislators still perceived to be a problem. It is perhaps more rewarding, however, to examine those crimes previously punished by exile that were omitted or hardly feature in the post-Roman sources, as this provides evidence of how society had changed in the intervening years.

One example is the large reduction in the number of provisions that prescribed exile for governmental misconduct. In the late Roman period, a raft of legislation had imposed exile on various delinquent officials; even those occupying positions fairly low down in the imperial hierarchy. The post-Roman compilers excerpted only a tiny fraction of these laws, most of which targeted negligent judges. It seems that other legislation was ignored because the relevant public official no longer existed. For instance, the compilers of the Breviary of Alaric completely overlooked a law of Valentinian II (r. 375-392), which prescribed relegatio for corrupt supervisors of the now defunct public post. The omission of such legislation, thus, allows us to trace the impact of the involution of the state following the collapse of imperial authority in the west.

An even more significant change was the cessation of exile in the context of heresy. This was a very characteristic feature of late Roman legislation, with emperors from Theodosius I (r. 379-395) onwards prescribing the sanction against various dissenting groups. Such legislation was based on the notion that Nicene Christianity was synonymous with orthodoxy. Barbarian rulers, however —at least outside of Merovingian Gaul— all adhered to Arian or more properly homoian Christianity. Still, this is not a totally adequate explanation for the absence of anti-heresy laws, as barbarian kings could have updated the legislation to reflect their own creedal positions. In fact, we see this in the one surviving legal document from the Vandal kingdom of North Africa: an Edict of Huneric, issued on the 25 February 484 and preserved in Victor of Vita’s History, which reworked the content of Roman legislation to threaten Nicene Christians with exile if they refused to adopt the homoian creed. Vandal Africa, however, was a special case, and elsewhere in the post-Roman west legislators simply ignored the issue of religion, supporting the picture of toleration that emerges from the contemporary sources. Of course, this was largely a pragmatic decision — barbarian kings were simply not in a position to adopt coercive measures against a religiously diverse population — but nevertheless it represents a significant departure from the policies adopted by late Roman emperors.

To summarise, the post-Roman legal sources clearly demonstrate that the penalty of exile had lost some of its earlier features and associations by the early sixth century. As suggested above, many of these developments can be explained in light of the political, social, and economic transformations that engulfed the west following the collapse of the empire. The significance of the study of exile, thus, extends beyond the narrow confines of legal history, as it provides a fresh perspective on the ways in which barbarian rulers interacted with their subjects. This is something I plan to study further by comparing how the actual incidents of exile, as reported in the literary sources, conformed to the principles set out in the legal texts.

Late Antiquity, Digital Humanities and our European Friends

Term has finished, so over the last month I’ve been jetting around Europe, repaying visits to some dear late antique colleagues who came to our January workshop in Sheffield, to have a further look at their fantastic digital projects.

First stop, Warsaw. This is the home of the Presbyters in the Late Antique West project, led by the brilliant Robert Wisniewski, also part of Oxford’s Cult of Saints project. Robert had invited me to take part in a meeting to discuss and test the presbyter project’s database; a similar format of workshop that we had tried for Clerical Exile in January 2015 and 2016 and found extremely productive.

Before we settled down to work, however, we were treated with a fantastic, three-hour-long walking tour of Warsaw. For a German, or at least this German, a visit to Warsaw can be a haunting experience. Our sure-footed guide, Stanislaw Adamiak, took care, however, that we understood Warsaw as a city of resilience. I was mightily impressed by the beautiful restored old town, glinting in the sunshine as if emerged from an 18th century painting, as well as by the newly opened Jewish Museum that puts as much emphasis on the memory of century-long Polish tolerance for Judaism as it does on the horrors that followed. It did all leave me with hope in humanity.


And here is my favourite site: Columns on the Palace of Justice with quotes from Justinian’s Digest! (on the right the principle of self-defense: vim vi repellere licet; ‘it is permitted to repel force with force’ D 43.26.27)


Then we got to work. Why late antique presbyters? asked Robert in his introductory talk. Well, he argued, when you think about it, they do need a bit more attention than historians have given them so far. They were the main ‘workforce’ of the late antique Church, closer to the ‘ordinary’ Christians than other high clerics, such as bishops and deacons, more present in the countryside, and more numerous, too (in Rome, for example, there may have been 75 presbyters at the end of the fifth century, and only seven deacons). Yet, they seem to be less visible in the historical record than these other clerics, being eclipsed by the ubiquitous bishops, and at times deacons, who in many Christian centres presented the recruitment pool for bishops. The objective of the late antique presbyter project is therefore to establish the place of presbyters in the Church of the late antique West, but also their role in society, and, if possible, their mentality: was there a particular ‘late antique presbyter identity’?

The project sponsors two PhD projects, by Marta Szada, who works on the role of presbyters in conversion in the post-Roman kingdoms, and by Jerzy Szafranowski, who works on presbyters in late antique/early medieval monasteries. Both, together with Stanislaw, are responsible for data entry into the project database. But before we were allowed to work with the database itself, Robert and his team wanted to hear from the workshop participants what interests we have in presbyters, within our respective research fields. And so I was treated to a broad vista of current research on the late antique Church. From this emerged, for example, an uneven distribution of presbyters’ visibility in the sources.  From Isabelle Mossong I learned that there are 284 inscriptions from late antique Italy that mention presbyters, and that ‘presbyter’ is the second most mentioned clerical office in Italian inscriptions of this period; by contrast, Juliette Day explained that there is little mention of presbyters in late antique liturgical documents and hagiography (for example, in Paulinus’ Life of Ambrose, there is only one presbyter mentioned, and he’s heterodox!). I heard from Jakub Urbanik, Przemysław Nehring and Philippe Blaudeau about the diverse activities of presbyters in late antique society: from acting on behalf of others in economic transactions, to managing church property (an activity I had so far associated with deacons), to visiting church councils and emperors. Philippe Blaudeau also wondered whether a focus on the West only could really give justice to the more global role of presbyters in Church politics; this is a question I had myself when I contributed to the discussion with a look at data on presbyters arising from the clerical exile project: Among those clerics exiled in late antiquity, presbyters present the third largest groups (behind bishops and ‘unknowns’; n/a refers to people forced to become clerics only during exile), and they also appear frequently as companions, correspondents or successors in post:



It is, of course, the effects of this mobility, often between East and West, that the Clerical Exile project is interested in.  Crucially, as I describe here regarding the role of a presbyter in the recall of Arius (a presbyter himself!), contemporary commentators on exile seem to have known about and to some extent feared the power of mobile presbyters.

Fortified by Claire Sotinel’s observation that it’s perhaps less contemporary sources, but modern historians who overlook presbyters, being, as they are, obsessed with the ‘episcopal model’ of the late antique Church, we proceeded to the discussion of the presbyter database itself, beautifully designed by the project’s IT officer Ernest Frankowski.


Let me just say: late antique historians are going to be in for a treat when this database goes online. It covers everything and more about individual presbyters (social origins, languages spoken, family life or even hairstyles!), but crucially the database is not just a prosopographical one. It also draws on texts idealising the role of presbyters (e.g. church canons), so eventually may well help us to understand the relationship between norms and agency of presbyters.

Thanks to Robert and his cheerful team for a great workshop that also left me with lots of new ideas for our own database and fabulous hospitality! Here they are (from left to right in the front: Marta, Jerzy, Robert and Stanislaw; in the background: the incomparable Ewa Wipszycka and Ernest Frankowski):


I returned to Sheffield briefly to do my marking and then was off again, this time to Alcalá de Henares, to catch up with Margarita (Marga) Vallejo Girvés.


Readers of our blog will know that Marga and her team in Alcalá are conducting a very similar project to ours, assembling a digital database on exile in late antiquity. Their focus is slightly different, as their data also concerns lay exile and they are very much interested in the legal aspect of the phenomenon (they also simultaneously maintain a database on late Roman law), while our project of course concentrates on the social and cultural impact of exile. The Alcalá database will also probably not go online, as its main objective is to support the research of Marga’s three PhD students Jaime de Miguel, Aitor Fernández and Noelia Vicent who all work on different aspects of late antique exile: investigating the relationships between paganism and clerical exile, the use of exile in diplomatic relations between East and West, and the legal conditions of exile, in particular with respect to locations.  Despite this difference in focus, however, we already noticed back in January in Sheffield the striking similarities of data categories between our two databases; a consequence, I think, also of the fact that I have been a long-standing admirer of Marga’s work and it is hence no surprise that her thinking about late antique exile has profoundly influenced my own. As proof, here’s a page from the bibliography of my recent book Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity, nearly hijacked by Marga’s publications:

Scan_20160625 (2)

The purpose of my meeting with Marga and her students was to discuss an issue that vexes everyone involved in Digital Humanities. As historians we are keenly aware of the contradictions, nuances and complexities within any primary sources, and of course, many of us make the very analysis of these eccentricities the object of our studies. Yet, when it comes to digital analysis, I don’t think we have yet found the ‘common visual literacy for representing uncertainty in maps, social networks, or other visualizations’, as is called for so well in this blogpost by Ryan Horne, of the Big Ancient Mediterranean Project. What we are struggling with in the clerical exile project right now are ways of ‘tagging’ the data that we have extracted from our sources. At the beginning of our project, we have made the strategic decision to be as detailed as possible with our data, as it gives us an understanding about the uniqueness of each exile case and, more importantly, how it was reported. What we now face are long lists of extremely comprehensive information which are, precisely due to this specifity, difficult to access in a quantitative manner. Take, for example, our list of offenses late antique clerics were accused of and exiled for or escaped prosecution of (the image only shows the top of the list we are building up):



We are currently in the process of finding meta-categories that will bundle some of these data together, allowing both for quantitative analysis and the visualisation as charts and graphs, while at the same time allowing retrieval of the underlying particular evidence. Marga and her team have already taken this step (partly because they are dealing with a smaller body of data, as they are not, like us, collecting data on exiles’ social relationships). We hence spent an enjoyable and productive afternoon checking the possibilities of comparing our approaches, aligning the ‘tags’ we are using and sharing our data. Many thanks to Marga and her team!


But, again, there was also time for a bit of sightseeing (and a beer on a terrazza at 33° C). While I was painfully aware of the history of Warsaw, I knew next to nothing about Alcalá before my visit. Marga has been a fabulous guide to her city, which, I learned, used to be a Roman foundation (Complutum) with a bishop attested from the fifth century, is home to hundreds and hundreds of storks and has the second oldest university in Spain (after Salamanca), which in the seventeenth century modelled its organisation on the Oxford college system, complete with introducing a court-yard based architecture. Most importantly, it is the birth place of both Catherine of Aragon and Michel de Cervantes whose house is right behind me and Sancho Panza here:



Since I have returned from this epic journey across Europe, and in fact, since I have started writing this blog post, the British people have voted to leave the European Union. All of a sudden, the world feels smaller, less connected and (let’s be honest) less sunny. My memories of these visits are already turning to nostalgia, even though I know that, of course, great research collaborations like ours will continue to exist, as they have existed even before the European Union came into being (minus the cheap airflights, though). For example, Marga and her students will be joining us in Halle in September for our next clerical exile workshop (on which more soon). As my own vice-chancellor says, now is the time for the international research community to keep even closer together. Still, politics do have an impact, if not on the strength and depth of the research community itself, then for sure on the ways it can be organised. Research meetings always create new ideas and networks and in this case, both in Warsaw and in Alcalá, there was much excitement around the possibilities of combining our efforts and, in particular, on finding ways how to integrate the iconic prosopographies of the pre-digital era (Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, Prosopographie chrétienne du Bas-Émpire) and the new technologies we are developing. We started dreaming big dreams of pan-European late antique digital platforms. But these need funding, European funding. While academics from British Universities will of course continue to be involved in and invited to these discussions, we may not anymore be able to sit at the ‘top table’, as it were. On a side note, when I was in Warsaw, I realised that the majority of the room would have conducted the conversations in French, if I hadn’t been there. At the time, it struck me as a rare experience. Now, I feel it was prophetic.

Clerical Exile in Late Antiquity: Strategies, Experiences, Memories and Community

We’re in the final stages of preparing the volume based on our workshops at the Oxford Patristics conference last August to the publisher. Here is a taster from the introduction:

“The chapters in this volume all engage to some degree with the central paradoxical tension between clerical exile’s value, on the one hand, as a method of civic and ecclesiastical control and conflict management,  and, on the other, as a fundamental element of Christian identity and authority. As Fournier, Mawdsley and Reis show, late antique political and ecclesiastical leaders created boundaries between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Christians, and excommunication as well as its spatial enforcement, exile, aided the establishment or at least the illusion of spatial, social and spiritual uniformity. As such clerical exile, as a cultural dividing practice, had the potential for destroying late antique communities. Whether such divisions worked in practice in every case may be doubtful, however, and certainly depended on the circumstances. In Vandal North Africa alone we see extraordinary freedom of movement of exiled clerics, able to maintain networks stretching around the Mediterranean, as Heil shows for the time of Thrasamund, as well as their tight control, as Mawdsley shows for that of Huneric.  Yet, exile could be destructive even beyond the time of clerical exile itself. Exile was, as Natal says, a ‘proprietary event’ that had the potential of being divisive long after, and often even due to the return of clerics from exile.

At the same time, clerical exile also had a creative force. As Vallejo Girvès, Heil and Rohmann show, exiled clerics were at the centre of lay, clerical or monastic communities, often all of these, and also may have attracted a local or global following. For some bishops, like Fulgentius, this presented an opportunity to influence the great theological debates of their age. This connectedness may even be true for exiled Donatists, discussed by Engberg, although the meagre evidence for exiled Donatists in Rome and Spain only allows us to speculate about their experience. Astonishingly, as Vallejo Girvès argues, ‘exile colonies’ do not seem to have been suppressed by civic authorities who expected exiled bishops to have a clerical or ascetic entourage. In some incidents, exiled individuals were even put in charge of (admittedly provincial) communities, as those subject to forced clerical ordination discussed by Rohmann. This should remind us that the concept of ‘loneliness’ is socially constructed, and in late antiquity may have been more associated with separation from power and peers than with physical solitude.

Above all, however, late antique clerical exile created stories, stories of persecution, victimhood, redemption and heroism that sought to keep biblical and early Christian paradigms alive for contemporary listeners. Turning exile into a new paradigm of authority for Christian leaders, was, however, not straightforward. As several chapters in this volume show, during the third century and still into the fourth, exiled bishops had to work hard to justify their experiences as suitable models of Christian behaviour, particularly, but not only if they had fled rather than faced violent oppression or death. To do so, as Barry, Ulrich and Reis show, Athanasius of Alexandria and Eusebius of Vercelli dwelled on the suffering involved in exile, but also advertised the importance of bishops’ staying alive and safeguarding orthodoxy ‘in the middle of heretical territory’, perhaps implicitly drawing on the examples of Cyprian of Carthage and Dionysius of Alexandria who had already argued that exile allowed a bishop to fulfil his duty of conversion and pastoral care. Still, the merit of clerical exile remained ambiguous into the later fourth century, Natal demonstrates, when Ambrose of Milan could draw authority from celebrating that he had never ‘deserted’ and hence jeopardized his community through exile. At the same time, some Christian groups even seem to have rejected exile as a source of identity altogether, such as the ‘Donatists’, choosing instead to focus their self-conception on martyrdom and an old-testamentarian concept of the chosen people. Yet, Natal and Heil’s contributions to this volume also chart the utter transformation of exile’s symbolic currency over the fifth century, at a time when the fourth-century exiled champions of Nicaea had gained their equal place in the Christian hall of heroes. Fulgentius of Ruspe’s Vita dwells on its exiled protagonist’s foundation of monasteries, convening of synods and orthodox integrity, rather than the persecution aspect of his experience, even though Sardinia had an acknowledged past in the persecution of Christians, both remote and recent. Yet, by the early sixth century, the exiled bishop could unashamedly be presented as a superior community leader, rather than a victim, because, not despite of having been in exile. In fact, as Vallejo Girvès shows, by this time the prestige of the exiled bishop was so high that it began to rub off on his companions, who start to emerge from the shadows and in some cases are even seen as deserving hagiographies of their own.

This volume argues, then, that clerical exile was, and perhaps more importantly was narrated, as a community event, in the sense that it was a real or metaphorical mechanism of inclusion and exclusion, which both created relationships and drew the boundaries of late antique Christian society. It is therefore appropriate for the research project under whose aegis the volume has been assembled to continue to explore this community-building further, using, adapting and critiquing the most up-to-date methodology to do so: social network analysis.”


Fifth-century Church Historians: Social network analysts before their time?

One of the main aims of our project is to investigate whether clerical exile, and the related mobility and need to find alternative and often more informal sources of support outside institutional infrastructures, had the potential to lead to a particularly fertile environment for the diffusion of theological ideas, and other cultural products. In this regard, social network analysis can act as a theoretical guide. A particularly attractive network model here is Mark Granovetter’s famous model of ‘weak and strong ties’.[1] The theory behind the model argues that each individual has an intimate social network of strong relationships or ties, and a less familiar ‘acquaintance’ network of weak ties. A network of weak ties, however, is better equipped to diffuse information and ideas, because it connects disparate subgroups and ‘outliers’ (actors only connected to a social network through another actor), while a network of strong ties is more insulated and tends to share the same information. The most successful networks have a variety of weak and strong ties. The most important actors in this model are those who ‘sit’ on the weak tie, and therefore control the flow of information between different groups (also called brokers).

Reading recently about how fifth-century Church Historians reported on the spread of what they called ‘Arianism’ in the early fourth century I noticed a particular set of relationships that fit Granovetter’s model perfectly. According to the Ecclesiastical Histories of Rufinus, Sozomen, Socrates and Theodoret (all apparently drawing on the lost work of Gelasius of Caesarea), Arius – condemned at the Council of Nicaea in 325 for claiming Christ the son was created by God the father, and subsequently exiled by Constantine – was recalled by Constantine in 327 under influence of his favourite sister, Constantia.[3] The Church Historians relate how Constantia was persuaded by an unnamed Arian presbyter (according to Sozomen on instigation by the pro-Arian bishops Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea), who was a member of her household and her intimate confidant, that Arius’ condemnation at Nicaea had been unjust. While she never actively pleaded with Constantine for Arius on these grounds, she commended the presbyter to her brother on her deathbed, at which point he passed into the emperor’s household, where he could repeat his assertions and eventually arrange that Arius and his companion, the deacon Euzoïus, were granted an audience with the emperor leading to their recall. Theodoret elaborates on even further unfolding of events: The same presbyter (in Theodoret’s version without having revealed his Arian credentials to the emperor) was present also at Constantine’s death, and, with no immediate relatives at hand, the emperor entrusted his will to him, for delivery to his son Constantius II. As a result the presbyter, together with the will, now passed into Constantius’ household, where he (again on instigation by Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea) corrupted the new emperor’s mind against the champions of Nicaea.

Using a basic Social Network Analysis programme (NodeXL), the described social relationships can be calculated and visualised like this:



The size of the nodes in this graph is based on so-called ‘between-ness centrality’, the degree to which each actor connects other actors across the network. Those with the highest ‘between-ness centrality’ are the brokers who sit on the ‘weak ties’. The graph shows very nicely that the Arian presbyter is a broker between two strongly connected subgroups, via Constantia. What the graph cannot show is that the Arian presbyter both controls how ‘heretical’ information is passed on, and is himself the heretical ‘product’ being passed on.

Unfortunately, the Church Historians’ version of Arius’ recall is an obvious fabrication, and would not stand the test of ‘real’ social network analysis. What was true about it was Constantia’s acquaintance with a number of Eastern bishops who are also recorded as Arius’ supporters, first of all Eusebius of Nicomedia. Eusebius had become bishop of Nicomedia in 318, the same time that Constantia, then married to Constantine’s co-emperor Licinius, had moved to the imperial capital in Bithynia. Later, at the Council of Nicaea, Constantia seems to have persuaded Eusebius, Theognis of Nicaea and Maris of Chalcedon, to subscribe to its Homoousian formula, against Arius’ teachings, although they refused to condemn him. In 325 Constantine would probably have found his sister’s connections and familiarity with Eastern bishops immensely valuable, and of course they helped him at first to create unity at the Council of Nicaea. Constantia’s acquaintance with Eusebius of Nicomedia only became a problem after the Nicene triumph later in the fourth century and the transformation of Eusebius into an arch-heretic, as did Constantine’s volte-de-face, when he recalled Arius in 327.

The fifth-century Church Historians, looking to explain the apparent and to them puzzling inconsistency of Constantine’s dealings with the ‘Arian’ faction and his son Constantius’ ‘semi-Arian’ sympathies, therefore turned to the record of Constantia’s network and added some embellishment. Aside from the invention of the presbyter, it is remarkable how in their story the primary role of imperial women as transmitters of dynastic legitimacy and issue —  a role that was endlessly celebrated in late antique imperial imagery — is mirrored and subverted, by representing Constantia as a conduit of religious contagion and associated personnel to the next imperial generation. The presbyter’s anonymity conveniently also served to exonerate Constantia, but more so her imperial relatives, from willing or conscious complicity. In face of a strong female presence at the fifth-century Constantinopolitan court, Constantia’s example may also have served as a warning against a too close overlap between court affairs and ecclesiastical business, and of the role of (by virtue of their female nature gullible) imperial women as gatekeepers to the emperor.

Constantine’s wavering attitude to Arius and his supporters still puzzles historians today. What is significant is that fifth-century Church Historians, just like modern social network analysts, suspected that social relationships, and above all ‘strong’ links, such as kinship, and ‘weak’ links such as that presented by the clerical ‘interloper’, played a role in shaping the emperor’s actions. They also feared that through these social links informal power, such as that wielded by Constantia and her household, may cut across formally instituted power, such as that of emperors, another theory they share with social network analysts. Their ideas on how information circulated may hence well have been true, even though it was certainly a much more complex scenario than they imagined. Characteristically for their time, the Church Historians had a reductive view on the spread of what they thought of as ‘heresy’, blaming a woman and her anonymous and lowly household dependant, as such preserving the memory of the imperial men, above all that of Constantine, untouched.

[1] M. Granovetter, Getting a Job, Cambridge, Mass., 1974.

[3] Rufinus, Ecclesiastical History 10.12; Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 1.25; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 2.27; Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History 2.3.