Second Advisory Workshop in Sheffield, 8th of January 2016

Our second advisory board workshop took place here at the Humanities Research Institute in Sheffield on the 8th of January. As with last year, we were pleased to host a number of distinguished scholars, working on databases, the late antique clergy and/or social network analysis from countries such as Austria, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Spain and the UK.

In the first part of this workshop, we had the chance to become acquainted with a range of complementing projects currently undertaken throughout Europe. Margarita Vallejo Girvès (Alcalá) presented some of her own work on exile, both secular and clerical, up to 711 AD, including a data collection for internal use, compiled by herself and her research group. It concentrates on dates and exile types rather than on relationships of people in exile, which is central to our own research question on clerical exiles. Stanislaw Adamiak (Warsaw) gave an insight into a database project on presbyters in the Early Church, including translations of pertinent texts, currently ongoing as a team project at the University of Warsaw. Bryan Ward-Perkins (Oxford) directs a Cult of the Saints project, including a database on early saints. His presentation focused specifically on the smell of dead saints. It included useful insights into tagging and categorisation of key words.

In the late morning session, Julia Hillner and myself presented the current state of our own database, currently comprising around 250 exile cases, roughly the same amount of locations and 500 people or groups in total. We introduced the current search surface (including a highly developed map search involving several layers) and the admin version of the database model, along with the research questions pertinent to this project.

After lunch, all of the participants kindly tested the current state of our database search function. In the process, we received valuable feedback, for example, concerning free-text categories to browse and considerations on the possible target group of these search tools.

Our guest-speakers concluded the day with a diverse range of topics on social network analysis, which is central to, and informs, our own research questions. Our own Julia Hillner gave a paper on social networks associated with exiles, including a range of quantitative approaches to identify and analyse these, ranging from the reconstruction of ‘real’ networks to that of ‘imagined’ ones. Máirín MacCarron (Sheffield) talked about her project on mapping interpersonal relationships in early medieval hagiographies, with special emphasis on the role of women. Johannes Preiser-Kapeller (Vienna) presented sophisticated slides of computerised social network graphs related to conflict in the medieval Byzantine world. All presentations that day included time to discuss and to ask questions.

We were delighted to invite the group to two communal dinners, involving internal discussions on research questions, and we all look forward to the next meeting of this kind to be held this time at the University of Halle (Germany).

Cherchez la femme: Visiting ‘Egypt. Faith After the Pharaos’

Yesterday I visited Egypt. Faith after the Pharaos, an exhibition at the British Museum curated by the brilliant Elisabeth O’Connell, who is, of course, also a member of our advisory board. Elisabeth came up to Sheffield to our second advisory board workshop recently (on which more soon), and I realised then that the exhibition will be over in a few weeks, and that now was the time to go!

Egypt looms large in the history of late antique clerical exile, as both a region of departure and of arrival of exiles. It was great, therefore, to take the opportunity to learn more about the material world clerics would have left behind (and missed) or encountered when exiled. Yet, this being the weekend and hence, by definition, family-time, I visited the exhibition not just as a late antique historian, but also as a mother, for I took my eight-year old daughter (henceforth called D).

The exhibition charts the religious transformation of Egypt in the first Millennium, from a predominantly pagan to a predominantly Muslim society, as well as the co-existence of religious communities (some pre-existing, such as Jews) within this framework. This is a complex topic and not one easily grasped by eight-year-olds. I was reasonably confident that D would understand the difference between religious groups – she personally knows people identifying as Christians, Muslims or Jews (though not as Pagans!) – but I wasn’t sure how far she’d get the dimension of time (and hence religious change) and space (although it helped that one of her friends had just been on holiday at the Red Sea). In addition, D is naturally suspicious of anything to do with History, for fear of her mother launching into lengthy lectures. Luckily, however, she is also a little feminist, endlessly interested in female experience (a big Jaqueline Wilson fan) and very good at pointing out the lack of female voices in (hi)stories. To keep us both entertained (and also to fuel my own interest in women affected by clerical exile) I therefore came up with a mission of cherchez la femme: we would find the women in this exhibition, and hence in Millennium Egypt.

I also – probably against rules; apologies to the British Museum and Elisabeth! – gave her my phone so she could photograph the objects that interested her (this also explains the quality of the images below). As a true eight-year-old with a phone she ended up enthusiastically photographing almost everything, so I intermittently had to take it off her. On one level, she was right though: once you started looking, the women were (as always) almost everywhere.

First up, divine women. D wasn’t too interested in representations of Isis, though she took a photo of this stela showing Isis (and Dionysos) with a snake body:

IMG_0161On our way back home on the train I showed her in the excellent exhibition catalogue that Isis had also been venerated as Demeter, for I knew she had been learning about Greek myths at school, including the story about Hades and Persephone. She still wasn’t impressed, because clearly Isis-Demeter did not look like she imagined Persephone’s mother.

In terms of divine female images, she much preferred these beautiful silver figurines (actually, furniture-fittings) representing the four major cities of the Roman empire as women:

IMG_0160These are from the late antique, so-called Esquiline Treasure, found in Rome in the 18th century, and are in the exhibition because one of them represents Alexandria (the others are Constantinople, Antioch and Rome). Having researched the treasure as a graduate student working on late antique ‘family-houses’ in Rome (the treasure comes supposedly from a house of the Turcii on the Esquiline) I thought it was an excellent choice and we also enjoyed discussing Constantinople’s distinct ‘wall’ headgear.

As I learned later from the catalogue, we could potentially have continued the ‘divine’ theme, because the exhibition also traces the morphing of Isis into the Virgin Mary during late antiquity, but we somehow missed this and, in any case, D didn’t take a photo.

We missed this perhaps because we got drawn into looking at ‘real’ women. These included women commemorated after their death in Roman Egypt, for the exhibition features some lovely ‘mummy portraits’, portraits of the deceased painted on wood and placed like a mask on a mummified body’s head, like this one:

IMG_0164D already knew about mummy portraits from the magnificent Manchester Museum collection, but she liked this one especially for its clever display next to the jewellery she thought was the same as the one represented in the painting (the earrings were found in Italy, actually, but D didn’t want to hear about it). Later in the exhibition we found another woman mourned by her family, from Medieval Egypt: Fatima, daughter of Ja’far, son of Muhammad, who is commemorated on this splendid stela from 1021:

IMG_0181There is of course much to be said about the expense that went into these objects of burial practice, and whether they meant ancient or medieval women (and girls) were ‘loved’ (there is also in the exhibition a mummy portrait of a little girl, but D thought she looked like a boy), a questions that truly transcends ethnicity and historical periods. However, I already had had this conversation with D when we had come to see the British Museum’s Ancient Lives exhibition last year, and she very adamantly did not want to revisit it this time.

The exhibition not only narrates the death of women, but their lives, too. Here, the Egypt context really comes into its own, because, of course, due to the climate so much has been preserved which has perished elsewhere: textiles (there are some childrens’ clothes from Medieval Egypt, incidentally also from Manchester, from the Whitworth Gallery Textile Collection), wooden objects, and, above all, papyri, the documents from which we derive so much knowledge about daily life and social practice in antiquity and late antiquity. I thought D would find these boring, but was pleasantly surprised. She looked with some interest at least at some of them where I pointed out the ‘female connection’ (and the excellent object labels helped too):

IMG_0165An early imperial contract about the freeing of a Jewish slave and her children (D asked whether the woman had to pay her rescuers back the purchase price – 14 talents of silver – a good question!)

IMG_0166A libellus (the papyrus in the middle) by which a man, his mother and sister received a certificate that they had sacrificed to the Pagan Gods following the edict of emperor Decius in 250 that required just that from all citizens of the empire. This was actually quite hard to explain, not because of the historical debate about how comprehensive Decius’ policy was or whether it was targeted just at Christians, but because D simply asked: ‘What do you mean by ‘sacrifice’? (she actually said it in German: ‘Was meinst Du mit ‘Opfern’?’) Mmmh. Luckily we had been to an archaeological park in the summer, the wonderful Archeon near Leiden, where we had taken part in a re-enactment of a sacrifice to Nehalennia led by a priestess (!) so I could remind her of that. We had made little votive figurines and sacrificed flowers and it had been a lot of fun, so D didn’t see a problem with sacrificing. Perhaps the family who received the libellus hadn’t either. It’s worth asking though how much say the women of the family would have had in the matter.

And there was D’s favourite, a long spell by which a man, Theon, tried to get a woman, Euphemia, to fall in love with him:

IMG_0179 IMG_0178The spell had been placed in a pot and then buried, together with two wax figurine embracing, presumably representing Theon and Euphemia in the way Theon imagined them after the spell had worked.

For my own benefit, I also found two late antique women who provided some context for clerical exile. The papyrus below is a rental agreement by which a Jewish man leased part of a house from two female ascetics, Aurelia Theodora and Aurelia Tayris:

IMG_0202Feisty, and well-off, female ascetics from Egypt appear in some exile stories, such as Eudaemonis, a nun from Alexandria who for six years concealed Athanasius of Alexandria in her house during his third exile, 356-362: feeding him, washing his clothes and taking out books for him. She was allegedly later tortured for this (Palladius, Historia Lausiaca 53; Festal Index 28, 30, and 32; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 5.6). It was interesting to see some of this urban ‘household-asceticism’ in action and the two nuns of the papyrus taking in a man on their own terms, as business women. They probably didn’t do his laundry either.

After a bit over an hour, D’s concentration was clearly in decline, so we decamped to the shop, where I bought the catalogue and D bought a sticker book on Greek myths. D would probably claim that this was the highlight of her visit and I refrained from asking her to explain her impressions in too many words. This means, of course, that I can’t measure the immediate ‘impact’ the exhibition had on her, but she had a good time. Perhaps because she is a child, and hence possibly less cynical about the supernatural, she definitely was relaxed about the religious dimension of the show. She’s certainly taught me to look at the women of late antique Egypt with different eyes.


The Clerical Exile Database and the ‘Imaginary User’

We haven’t blogged in a while, but that doesn’t mean that our project hasn’t made any progress! Quite the contrary: Jörg, Jakob and I have signed a contract with Peter Lang to publish the contributions to our workshop at Oxford Patristics 2015 in an edited volume that will appear in the series Early Christianity in the Context of Antiquity (ECCA) and both the project team and the other speakers are at the moment busily drafting their chapters. More on the content of this volume soon!

But also our database is progressing nicely. As of today we have recorded 223 exile cases, involving 468 individuals or groups and 652 relationships. As the database is becoming very substantial we have started thinking about how best to construct search facilities, so the extraction of data can support the widest range of research questions possible. For this reason  our IT technicians have given me and the team the task to impersonate an ‘imaginary user’ and come up with a list of research questions around clerical exile that we would hope the database would support. This is the list that we produced:

Possible User Questions

What was the legal and practical nature of clerical exile?


  • who was involved/responsible?
  • what legal type of exile was usually imposed and for what kind of (alleged) offenses?
  • what locations were exiles sent to? Where did they actually go? How did they travel there (i.e. by which locations & means)?
  • Were synods involved in the imposition of exile, or return of exiles?
  • How did return of exile come about?
  • Did all of this change over time?

What kind of experiences for exiles and what kind of (new) communities did clerical exile create?


  • How isolated, socially and geographically, were clerical exiles?
  • Which individuals or groups were affected by exile?
  • Which geographical locations were affected by exile (of origin, destination, location along journeys, cult sites, locations of contacts etc)? Were there exile ‘hotspots’ and if so, why? Were some regions particularly affected and why? Is there a relationship between the choice of exile locations and exiles’ ‘attributes’ (e.g. status, office, location of office) or the legal context of exile (exile type, whether also deposed by synod, whether preceded by asylum etc)?
  • Who did clerical exiles meet and what kind of relationships did this create? Were these ‘physical’ relationships, or relationships maintained by ‘correspondence’? i.e were communities ‘space’ based, or ‘institution’ based?
    • who accompanied clerical exiles? What was their experience?
    • who funded their travel/maintenance?
    • What was the role of women in the creation of exiles’ communities and their experiences?
  • Did clerical exile lead to new saints cults/cult sites?
  • Did all of this change over time – during exile (how did an exile’s contact change), and over the course of the period studied?

What was the impact of these new communities and relationships? Did they cut across institutional structures? Did they influence individual behaviour? Did they bring about significant ‘events’?


  • How close did these new communities get clerical exiles to decision makers, e.g. about law and doctrine?
  • Did exiles’ networks help to spread information e.g. about theology, or other; were exiles central to their networks, were they brokers? Who was central in exiles’ networks?
  • Were exiles central to conversion (to Christianity, or a particular brand of Christianity)
  • Did exiles still manage to influence affairs ‘back home’?
  • Did exiles’ networks help to secure exiles’ return?
  • Did clerical exile create communities and contacts that would otherwise not have existed? Did this influence certain kinds of behaviour?
  • How did an exile become a saint? Compare e.g. people/groups responsible for cult, cult locations
  • How did an exile’s activities influence other people’s thinking about theological doctrine (or their own)?

In addition, our IT technicians also asked us to come up with a number of desiderata for how we would like searches to be able to be constructed and how we would like to data to be visualised, so they best support the kind of research questions detailed above.

On the basis of what we told them this is the overall search and visualisation model they developed :


 Users will be able to start searches either by a key word search or by combining a number of data categories, such as exile cases, names of individuals, locations (by specific locations, or supra-regions such as late antique dioceses or post-Roman kingdoms), person attributes (office, gender, religious status, religious affiliation etc) or by browsing A-Z lists of all our data categories, as shown here:


Results from a key word or data category search can then be ordered and manipulated further in a number of ways. Users can choose to see full exile case records, but they can also narrow down results by filtering out certain categories, and through faceting (most internet users will be familiar with this from sites like ebay: it’s a column on the left hand side where boxes can be ticked or unticked to refine searches – only that here users are ‘shopping’ for late antique clerical exiles!):


If a user chooses to see the full record of an exile case, it will contain information as shown here, with the possibility to follow links to related records (other exile cases, or information on individuals involved in this exile case) and, crucially, to a map of locations related to this exile case, or a route map of an exile’s journey:


The record of an exile case will also allow visualising the data as graphs. For example, individuals’ names will include a link to the network diagram of their relationships, which will include the following information:


Of course, these are early days, but we’ve already seen some prototypes of search results that look very promising. For example, here is the top of the table that shows a list of all our 223 exile cases (the top result is slightly misleading, as we haven’t actually entered data on Athanasius’ exiles yet; what you see here is just our very first test entry – of course Athanasius returned and not just once!):


As you can see, the facet on the left hand side allows us to refine this search by gender. If we narrow our search down to just female exiles, this is what the database comes up with – eight interesting cases of clerical or ascetic women sent into exile (or women becoming ascetics when in exile):


And finally, here is a map of locations currently in the database that have played a role in clerical exile – as places of office, departure, arrival, return, or contacts of exile – with the Isles of Scilly highlighted!



We’ll be testing the interface at our next project workshop in early January 2016 to which we have invited colleagues who run similar digital projects, such as Presbyters in the Late Antique West, Cult of the Saints, and Mapping Medieval Conflict. For this event our search facilities have to be in good shape, so there is still much to do!

Oxford Patristics Conference August 2015

The Seventeenth International Conference on Patristic Studies was hosted in Oxford in August 2015. Our research group presented the Clerical Exile project in the afternoon workshops on three consecutive days in the Examination School. Our workshop presenters (Jennifer Barry, Jakob Engberg, Eric Fournier, Uta Heil, Julia Hillner, Harry Mawdsley, Hiltrud Merten, Dirk Rohmann, Jörg Ulrich, Margarita Vallejo) arrived from five countries (Denmark, Germany, Austria, the USA and the UK – this is all in alphabetical order). Workshop 1 focused on methodological approaches, while workshop 2 and 3 concentrated on specific topics in a chronological order.


Primarily attended by Theologians, the Oxford Patristics conference is huge compared to similar events for Historians or Classicists. This surely has to do with the fact that Patristics and late antique studies in general are pertinent to a range of academic disciplines. It may also show that Patristic Studies are comparatively well funded. More than seven percent of contributors reportedly arrived from Germany (this statistical information reportedly came from a publishing house that was represented at the conference).

Given the number of workshops and short communications presented at the conference, it inevitably was difficult to work through the schedule. The conference program was also structured according to location rather than time, and workshops were listed separately. It is obvious that any conference of this size poses significant challenges for its organisation. Some of the talks seem to have been cancelled on short notice, but again I found that the application process, the range and arrangements of topics was open, transparent and covering a diversity of topics and presenters. The conference locations were well chosen and provided a suitable atmosphere for this event.

While I for one, primarily as a classicist and historian, found some of the topics presented of great interest, I also felt that other topics were of much greater interest to an audience with a specifically theological education. This made it somewhat difficult for me to navigate through the panels. Nevertheless, it is clear that the coming together of so many scholars led to many illuminating chats during and outside conference hours and it also gave the opportunity to meet again several scholars whom I have last met somewhere else in the UK or overseas.

Interview with our PI

Our PI, Dr Julia Hillner, has been interviewed by Dr Richard Flower from the University of Exeter about crime and punishment in the Roman and late Roman world (including exile). You can listen to the interview here.



Forced Ascetic Conversion and Ascetic Networks in Late Antiquity

[This is a paper delivered by Julia Hillner at IMC 2015, Leeds, on 7 July 2015; altered and amended for this blog post]


This paper looks at a momentous change in the late antique penal landscape that occurred in the course of the sixth century: the introduction, into written legislation, of the penalty of forced residence in a monastery. Sometimes, but not always, this also involved taking up the ascetic lifestyle permanently.

The change mentioned was momentous because, before the sixth century, no secular or ecclesiastical legislation had included a comparable penalty, at least not for elite criminals  Of course, Roman law knew the penalty of exile and ecclesiastical law that of excommunication – and both underpinned the emergence of the penalty of forced residence in a monastery – but, even where they might have included forced residence at a particular place before the sixth century this never went as far as prescribing spatial seclusion.

What I will do in this paper is the following: I will begin by discussing the legal norms, i.e. those legal texts that introduced forced monastic residence as a penalty. Then I will look at what one might call ‘anecdotal evidence’ – evidence of incidents of forced monastic residence that might have actually happened. As I will discuss in this section, however, there is at times a mis-match between legal prescriptions and practices in the sense that not all of the actual incidents seem to have come about as a consequence of judicial decisions (although it should be stressed, some did). To be sure, this is not always easy to ascertain – mainly because of the rhetorical elaborations of such incidents. Here, however, it helps to use a tiny bit of social network analysis.

Let’s start by having a look at legislation.


NB: this is just 6th c legal evidence. We should note that more of this can be found in the seventh century and later, particularly in the Visigothic council legislation, but also in Visigothic law. So we are really dealing with the beginning of a phenomenon here.

What do we learn?

To begin with, that monasteries were institutions on which bishops and emperors were confident enough that they could be incorporated into their agendas. Secondly, that this was a prescription that appeared in both Eastern and Western legal texts, but that there were regional differences between who was pulling the strings. In the east, it was the emperor and he could extend the measure to lay people, although we should note that in the ecclesiastical legislation the measure also over time got extended to clerical families. But what can we say about the purpose of the penalty? Apart from the few hints in some of the texts that the measure was to facilitate ‘penance’ or ‘to improve’ the offender in question, it’s perhaps best to look at who it was envisaged for. Notable is the proposed use, firstly, for deviant women. It seems to have been meant as a measure to protect male honour and safeguard the continuity of the family. For example, ascetic conversion of the adulteress and the wife who filed for divorce, as in the Justinianic legislation, had the potential to free the remaining spouse to remarry, which usually would have been more controversial due to the rising idea that marriage was indissoluble. Notable is also the proposed use of the penalty for clerics. Here we should note that sometimes permanent stay in the monastery was proposed (although it is not entirely clear whether it included the taking of monastic vows) and sometimes a short stay. In the latter case, the stay in the monastery – a widely recognized penitential space by the sixth century – paved the way for clerics to return to their office afterwards. Here, we are arguably in front of the solution to an old problem: clerics were to be deposed (not excommunicated) and excluded from return to office according to more ancient prescriptions (e.g. Statuta ecclesiae antiquae 84 (68)). There was an increased expectation that they would retire to an ascetic life as a consequence, but at the same time this led to an increased possibility that they could return to office afterwards. Notable is also the proposed use of the penalty for ascetics in other monasteries for offences such as stealing or fornication: this can be directly linked (as Albrecht Diem has shown) to the rise of irreversible monastic vows, which meant that expulsion from the monastery wasn’t really an option anymore.

All of this gives us some insight into how imperial or ecclesiastical lawgivers envisaged the role of monasteries in safeguarding the social order and the integrity of some social institutions (clergy, marriage etc) in the sixth century. But did forced residence in monasteries really happen?

Well, yes. Here are some sources mentioning forced residence in a monastery:


The image shows the first page of Appendix III of my book Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity. As a disclaimer I would like to add that relevant data from this Appendix are currently being fed into our clerical exile database which will be available online from, hopefully, 2016/17.

I would like to say a few things about these sources recording episodes of forced residence in a monastery that in the book have perhaps not received sufficient attention. In particular it is important to point out how utterly diverse these episodes are. Apparently the measure was imposed on heretical groups (although it should be noted that at least the earliest evidence, from the Liber Pontificalis, is doubtful). It was also apparently imposed on deposed and/or banished clerics. It is quite interesting to see particularly numerous episodes of forced residence in a monastery of such individuals at a time when Justinian also legislated about the ascetic conversion of deposed bishops (see previous image). Justinian certainly had much trouble with some dissenting clerics, in particular during the so-called Three Chapter Controversy, and a number of bishops and other clerics (Victor of Tunnuna among them) ended up interned in monasteries in Carthage, Alexandria and Constantinople. It is tempting to see a connection between norms and practices here, but it is also important to note that none of the individual clerics actually sent to monasteries under Justinian that we know of were meant to stay there permanently, as was envisaged in the emperor’s law – rather, the most important aspect seems to have been that of coercion, making dissident clerics subscribe to the emperor’s will. Clerics sent to monasteries for life, with direct reference to legal norms, were more numerous where this happened following an ecclesiastical decision, but again, this isn’t clear-cut: for example, in late sixth-century Italy Gregory the Great had some problems with his sub-deacons releasing clerics from monasteries, but also imposed short-term monastic stays on some clerics himself.

The other big group of individuals apparently being forced to reside in monasteries upon misbehaving were women. It should be noted that this group is extremely diverse. We have: women who supported the Miaphysite side of religious conflict; several nuns being moved around monasteries to allow for stricter discipline; a slave woman who had formed an illicit relationship with a deacon; an adulteress (married to a tenant of the church of Rome); the widow of a subdeacon in Catania who had remarried; and some royal women both in the eastern empire, and in Merovingian Francia. Contrary to clerics, however, most of these women were to be sent to monasteries for life; and it’s quite clear that this often happened in the same spirit as Justinian’s law on divorce and adultery had been promulgated, to safeguard male honour or the honour of institutions, the Church or a monastic community. The case of royal women is a bit more complicated, as they were of course also carriers of dynastic legitimacy, and ascetic conversion shut down their route to remarriage and worldly power. In the east, we have one very specific context in which royal women ended up in monasteries in this period, a conspiracy against emperor Zeno. This conspiracy had allegedly been led by the dowager empress Verina, Zeno’s mother-in-law, in 478. Verina (so the later chronicler John of Antioch reports) was made a nun in Tarsus, though other sources report she was held in confinement at a fortress in the Tauros mountains (as we shall see later, these might have been subsequent scenarios, though). In any case, Marcian, the son of the former Western emperor Anthemius and husband to Verina’s daughter Leontia, Zeno’s sister-in-law, took her confinement as a pretext to revolt against Zeno in 479. In the course of the suppression of this uprising both Marcian and Leontia ended up in monasteries, in Caesarea in Cappadocia and in Constantinople respectively.

What we see, then, in the anecdotal evidence is that there is sometimes, though not always, a relationship between the legal norms and some episodes of forced monastic residence. Forced stay in a monastery could hence according to many sources be imposed from above, and collaboration from monasteries might be explained by their opposing doctrinal views (in case of dissident clerics), financial benefits envisaged by laws, and tight patronage relationships with those imposing forced monastic residence, emperors or bishops.

It may also be noted that monasteries may have, in fact, provided a spatial framework that aided the control of movement, at least if we take the monastery at Mount Sinai, later called St Catherine as a guide: like other monasteries it was heavily fortified by Justinian, the sixth-century walls surviving to this day (but note that this particular monastery is not recorded as having hosted unwilling residents, although another of Justinan’s fortified monasteries, Mandracium in Carthage, did):

st catherine

So this is quite a nice, tidy scenario in which monasteries appear almost as proto-prisons. This appears a little differently, however, if we look at the evidence from another perspective:


What I have done here is to feed the evidence from the fifth- and sixth-century Eastern Roman empire on relationships between monasteries, those who were forced to reside at them, and those who allegedly imposed this forced residence, into a software tool that allows for social network analysis (NodExl, an add-on to Excel).

Just to be clear: this isn’t really social network analysis. Most importantly, what is presented here is a diachronic scenario, displaying evidence from the mid-fifth to the late sixth century. Network analysis would for example look for density of networks, to assess how the connectedness of certain people impacts on their action, or how the action of people impacts on the creation of social networks in real time. For example, one could measure the distance it would take for everyone in the network to reach an important player. Because most of the network agents in what is presented here did not overlap in lifetime this is mostly meaningless here, and of course the graph only represents relationships created for or through forced monastic residence, so does not display other relationships agents might have.

I still think displaying the evidence as a network graph is a useful thing to do because, firstly, the software allows to break the network into components that I think are meaningful. To arrive at this graph I have asked the software to look for the agents with the most connections and to group the network accordingly. Not surprisingly, it has come up with components grouped around emperors who imposed forced stays in monasteries on certain individuals, which allows us to see at what times the measure was particularly frequently used (by Marcian, Justinian, and Justin II, less so by Leo and Zeno, and there are no records at all for Anastasius).

Secondly, I have also required the software to display the quality of relationships, where known. The graph accordingly displays relationships of conflict where our sources talk about the imposition of forced monastic residence; support, where our sources talk about concrete measures of help (such as food or lobbying imperial authority); or allegiance where agents had some other, but less directly defined positive relationship. And this brings out something interesting: in some instances, in fact, the monastery that came to host a certain individual, supposedly forcedly, also had a relationship of allegiance with it. For example, Peter the Fuller, the Miaphysite bishop of Antioch, banished to Oasis in Egypt for having forcibly expelled his predecessor in 471, instead resided at the fiercely Chalcedonian monastery of the Acoemetae, or Akoimetes (‘Sleepless Monks’), outside Constantinople. However, this monastery probably had been Peter’s original community, so also had a relationship of allegiance with him. Might the monastery hence have offered Peter sanctuary, even though he was a doctrinal rival? In fact, while a contemporary source described Peter’s stay at the monastery as exile (Liberatus), a much later sources, the chronicler Theophanes, reported that Peter ‘hid’ at the monastery. Interestingly it is the same monastery, Leontia, the wife of the usurper Marcian, fled to in 479, which induced the emperor Zeno to treat her like an exile and confiscate her property (so John of Antioch, who reported the incident, confusingly presented this event as both voluntary and imposed). Yet, if this was true for Leontia, there are some chances that also the forced monastic residences of her husband, Marcian, and her mother, Verina, were actually incidents of sanctuary (particularly as both were later moved to other scenarios, Verina to a fortress and Marcian apparently was forced to become a cleric).

And the graph draws attention to another interesting thing. It is in fact notable that some monasteries repeatedly appear in our sources that describe forced residence at a monastery (the monastery called Canopus near Alexandria, the monasteries of the Acoemetae, of Dios, in the Palace of Hormisdas, of the Abramites, all in Constantinople). To return to social network concepts: if we think about these monasteries as agents within our network, they are indeed the only ones that have a lifetime throughout the period covered, so had the potential to connect certain communities over time. This is exactly what the graph shows: These institutions are the nodes that connect the whole network, acting (if this was real time) as brokers between the scenarios of forced monastic residence under a number of emperors (they are, in social network analysis language, ‘in between’). The reasons why this might be so, can be myriad: it might come down to accident of survival of the evidence which just happens to record these institutions; it might be their location; it might be their patronage relationships with the emperors in question (which was true, certainly, for the monastery in the Palace of Hormisdas); their doctrinal position; or in fact their particular commitment to providing sanctuary.

Looked at this way, the evidence for forced monastic residence as a general top-down strategy is somewhat starting to crumble. However, even where patterns emerging from the bigger picture allow us to raise doubts, every case has to be looked at individually: some may present a scenario of sanctuary and others reflect state- or church-enforced control; and in fact it should be noted that even where forced monastic residence may have started as a sanctuary movement, it became an imperial and ecclesiastical penalty, so could at least in theory be imposed. But we should also not file a ‘sanctuary’ situation completely under the label of ‘benign’ – it might not be direct, subjective violence, but more of what recent sociologists call ‘objective’ violence, more hidden from view and diffuse, violating individual agency, rather than the body itself. Think Julian Assange in the embassy of Ecuador! However, it’s also worth noting that Julian Assange has of course not become an Ecuadorian purely by being in this embassy. Neither did everyone forced to reside in a monastery by whatever circumstances join the monastic community. On the contrary, particularly where clerics were concerned they seemingly were able to zoom in and out of monasteries. It seems that full ascetic conversion in the sense of taking vows was mostly envisaged, and practised, for women.

Mapping Exile

[This blog was written by Harry Mawdsley, PhD student on the project.]


Last Wednesday I gave a paper at the Sheffield PGR showcase, an event organised by the History Department where 1st year PhD students were invited to speak about their research. I’ve recently become very interested in the topography of exile; in particular, how the places of banishment can tell us something about the nature of exile, as well as the motivations of state authorities. Consequently, my paper attempted to chart and explain exile movement in one particular barbarian kingdom – Vandal North Africa.

With such an emphasis on space and motion, I thought that it was important – for the sake of the audience – to try and represent this visually. Exile maps (i.e. maps showing the direction of exile movement) are the perfect tool for this: they show the data in a clear and coherent way, and if several are presented together they encourage comparison. Our website already has some good examples, which can be found here. For my paper, I used Google Earth to create a series of maps that exploited the Vandal evidence.[1] This was a relatively straightforward procedure, as my database already contained a wealth of relevant geographical information. With this I was thus able to map exile movement:


Figure 1: Vandal Exiles 429-509

By itself this confusing mess of arrows illustrates very little, other than the fact that exile was a fairly common phenomenon in the Vandal Kingdom.[2] But, by adding additional components, I was able to manipulate this basic image; for instance, including the date of exile to investigate change over time:

Vandals2 Figure 2: Vandal exiles, 429-450


Figure 3: Vandal exiles, 480-509

Clearly, these two bursts of exile produced two very different geographical profiles, and in my presentation these maps were used as jumping-off points to discuss how and why the application of exile developed over the period.[3]

Of course, an argument cannot be made from maps alone; rather, they should be seen as a visualisation tool that complements standard source analysis. Having said that, for me the very process of creating these maps has thrown some aspects of Vandal exile into sharp relief. To provide one example, historians have already suggested that the Vandal ‘persecution’ was limited in geographical scope to the region around Carthage (mod. Tunis, Tunisia).[4] However, when you can actually see the places that Nicene clerics were exiled from, the concentration of sites in Africa Proconsularis becomes all the more apparent. This is without even mentioning the sophisticated statistical information that can be derived instantly from these maps, for instance the average distance of sites from Carthage (36.5 miles if you’re interested).

Hopefully then, I’ve convinced you of the value of digital mapping. We plan to include similar visualisation tools within our clerical exile database, allowing the user to generate their own maps according to their own research interests. These will be more refined than the examples shown above, including additional features such as provincial boundaries and the Roman road network. At the moment we’re still some way off that stage, but I’m glad that my paper gave me the opportunity to explore some of these exciting possibilities.

[1] I am indebted to Hannah Probert, a fellow PhD student here at Sheffield, for her invaluable help when creating these images.

[2] Figure 1 depicts 51 separate exile cases. A third of my exile cases could not be represented in this way due to the lack of topographical information.

[3] This chronological division is dictated by the evidence, as there was a gap in documented cases during the middle years of the fifth century.

[4] See Modéran, Y., “La Notitia Prouinciarum et ciuitatum Africae et l’histoire du royaume vandal”, AnTard 14 (2006), pp.165-85.

Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity XI

The biennial „Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity“ is the largest conference for the history of Late Antiquity in North America. This year’s meeting, the eleventh of its kind, took place at the University of Iowa at Iowa City, IA. Iowa City is perhaps a fairly unusual place to host a big conference, but the University of Iowa frequently attracts visitors from around the world. The city is located in the middle of crop fields, which Iowa is best known for and has the typical size of an American college town. As a college town, it includes a town centre close to the campus (which covers most of the city) and a massive American football stadium – perhaps the most obvious building in town. To give some practical travel advice, the nearest international airport in Cedar Rapids does not always indicate the gate number either on a screen or through public announcement, but you can ask the captain to verify that your plane is about to take off, in case you are not a local or otherwise unaware of the specific gate assignment routine (while this is meant to be funny, I do admit I got nervous this time considering that I had two immediate connection flights).

Iowa City has also been awarded the UNESCO city of literature status as the second city of this kind after Melbourne, Australia, and along with Edinburgh, Scotland. This is largely due to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a university program in creative writing that has the nation’s largest number of Pulitzer prize-winning alumni, as well as to other literary events that often take place in the local book shop. The university has a number of representative buildings, as it has acquired the former governmental area, after the city ceased to be the capital of the state of Iowa, including the Old Capitol building, where one of the conference’s keynote lectures took place.

Presenters often arrived from international destinations, including South America, Canada, the UK and Europe, Asia and Australia. The theme of this year’s conference was the transformation of poverty, philanthropy, and healthcare in Late Antiquity. Recurring themes included snake-metaphors, Epiphanius’ Panarion (besides obviously important authors such as Augustine and Ambrose) and infestation by worms as divine punishment. While many papers stressed the role of the Christian church in providing welfare and healthcare to the poor, others argued that voluntary poverty was used a literary topos in the sources as wealthy Christians regarded their property indifferently rather than renouncing it altogether. Ramsay MacMullen’s interesting keynote talk, for example, suggested that Christian medical practitioners in Late Antiquity did often exorcise demons rather than cure diseases according to the ancient state of the medical art (a topic that I have addressed from a different angle in my talk as well). As always, the conference offered a plethora of interesting questions to apply to the history of Christian medicine, and beyond, for example, in the fields of Christian theology, late antique material culture and social history. I am therefore grateful that the Learned Society Fund awarded me a travel grant.

A Stone in a Pond?

One of the aims of our project is to move the focus away from top-down imperial or ecclesiastical motivations and justifications of imposing exile on dissident clerics in late antiquity, and also, to some extent, from clerics’ own strategies of (often literary) representation and constructions of the ‘suffering self’ in exile. Instead, we are interested in the many people whose life was touched by exile, building on the assumption that forced physical movement of some individuals did not only affect those individuals, but changed their community of origin, their new community, and perhaps many others along the way. Late antique clerical exile, we believe, may have had a ‘ripple-down’ effect, like a stone thrown into a pond, which could potentially be felt over years to come and in some unexpected (though in hindsight perhaps logical) places.

One way to help prove this hypothesis is to systematically collect information on an exile’s social contacts. We have built our database to aid us to do this and have just finished our first ‘test run’. Having entered data pertaining to the events that ensued after the council of Milan confirmed the condemnation of Athanasius of Alexandria in 355, leading to the exile of a number of Western and Egyptian clerics, we feel that we are on the right way. In this scenario alone we have already counted around forty actual cases of exiled clerics, but also circa seventy other individuals or groups in one way or another in touch with these clerics, and around two-hundred incidents of relationships between all these agents.

We are, however, within our team still debating what we should do with these data and what they really can show. The term ‘network’ – much in vogue these days in historical analysis – immediately springs to mind, of course, to describe an exile’s relationships. Yet, to fully understand whether any networks actually existed, how they operated, and what their effects, or indeed power, might have been, we need more precise analytical approaches. Social network analysis (SNA) or historical network analysis (HNA) is, again, fashionable these days, and has also already been applied for some years to the field of late antiquity and religious conflicts in this period (for example in A. M. Schor, Theodoret’s People: Social Networks and Religious Conflict in Late Roman Syria, Berkeley, 2011).

SNA – based on the assumption that the behaviour of individuals is influenced not only by external events, nor just by identity ‘attributes’ (such as gender, ethnicity and age), but by the organisation and patterns of their social relationships – might be helpful to our project in various ways [I make no claim to the originality regarding any thoughts on SNA. Reading that has informed my reasoning can be found at the bottom of this blog post]. For example, it might help to answer the question whether and how the imposition of exile aided the spread of beliefs which had originally been intended to be eradicated through the imposition of the penalty. Were exiles brokers of information in this context? Or, it could help to understand circumstances that aided the recall of exiles. What role, if any, did the strength or weakness of an exile’s social ties play in negotiating a successful petition for recall? To go about answering such questions through SNA in a meaningful way, it is not enough to just show that an exile had social relationships. Much attention needs to be paid to their quality – whether they were ‘role-based’, such as those created by kinship or membership in the same religious community, ‘sentiment-based’, such as those generated through friendship or animosity, or ‘behaviour-based’, such as those produced by the exchange of goods. Each one of these would have created a different kind of network, or cluster within a network, with a different scope for action, as would have the intensity, direction, temporality and distance of relationships. SNA is of course also famous for its ability to visualise data in new and unusual ways, as we have tried to do in this (fairly rudimentary) graph, developed in the early stages of our project with the help of Johannes Preiser-Kapeller of the Austrian Academy in Vienna, who also provided me with much of the reading mentioned below (although I have to admit,the ability to read a network graph is an art in itself and I am still learning myself…).

Yet, there are a number of issues with social network analysis that might make its application problematic, at least to a project such as ours. To begin with, we have to decide whether we adopt it on a theoretical or ‘just’ on a methodological level, as an analytical tool among others. The former risks, perhaps, over-emphasizing the power of networks or indeed individual willingness towards conscious network building, at the expense of other factors that might influence behaviour such as, crucially, events or individual agency. For example, where the recall from exile during late antiquity is concerned, the evidence might show that a change of emperor and accompanying amnesties (such as Julian’s edict in 362) played a much bigger role in ending clerical exile. Still, SNA can, of course, also provide empirical evidence to debunk the ‘myth of the network’.

Equally problematic are the limits provided by our evidence base to successfully apply SNA, a model drawn from the social sciences, to the past. This does partly concern the tendentious nature of our sources, an issue we also generally struggle with in the construction of our database. Whether sources are contemporary or written long after the event, where the religious conflicts of late antiquity are concerned, we can expect a reasonable amount of (at least) streamlining narratives to suit particular agendas. Yet, it can be argued that subjectiveness is true of all historical sources, and indeed of data collected by social scientists as well. This is why sound SNA approaches tend to draw not only on so-called ‘realist’ approaches (where individuals are asked to identify their social relationships, something that historians often clearly cannot do), but also confront these with ‘reputational approaches’ (where other informants are asked about the quality of other people’s relationships) and on ‘affilitation’ approaches (where archival documents, such as membership lists are consulted). Historians are trained in critical analytical skills, in confirming hypothesis through investigating a range of evidence, which have to be applied to sources mined for social network data as well – and we always have to keep in mind that a neat table, graph or map, or any product of quantitative history, is based on much selection, interpretation, assumption and, to some extent, simplificaton of reality. In addition, SNA can only ever be a starting point for new questions and debates, but cannot replace qualitative analysis, and is to be used ‘humbly’, as my colleague Kate Davison so aptly put it to me recently.

A more vexing issue is, I would say, the question around so-called ‘network-boundaries’. Theoretically, there are virtually no limits to unearthing series of connections between individuals, and we could, if we wanted to, take clerical exile as a platform to write the entire prosopography of the late Roman world (following the famous six-degrees-of-separation theory). Perhaps, to answer some of our questions, we would have to. For example, within the ‘legal strand’ of the project, I am very interested in understanding how the behaviour and the community-building of exiled clerics influenced the development of laws on heresy and religious dissent. For example, was the increasing harshness of such laws that can be detected under some emperors, such as Theodosius, Honorius and Justinian, due to the continued activities and agitation by clerics in exile? Here, it would be useful to investigate the flow and brokering of information between the centre and the periphery of the empire. Whether we would be able to do this, however, relies of course, firstly, on the quality of our data. In our case, and that is true for all HNA, the boundaries of networks are first and foremost created by our sources: our evidence is simply too fragmented to retrace all social relationships in existence at the time. But we also have decided that, within the database, we will record social relationships as a series of ‘ego-networks’, i.e. as relationships of a certain exiled cleric, and the social ties between his contacts, mentioned in sources pertaining to this particular case of exile. If an emperor making a law about heresy was not directly among these contacts we would not record him. The reason for this is perhaps more pragmatic than intellectual, although this case-by-case approach reduces the level of interpretation somewhat – for example whether some relationships actually existed. And of course, nothing can stop the members of our ‘project team’ from building more extensive ‘global’ network models tailored to our own research projects within or across project ‘strands’ (or from ‘snow-balling’ as SNA pros call it). Where the database and their online end-users are concerned, however, it is important to make these ‘network-boundaries’ clear from the outset.

What our database can however do, and is doing already, is showing that clerical exile was a phenomenon that affected not just the elite male players historians so often focus on (Athanasius of Alexandria perhaps being the prime example). The removal of a troublesome bishop often meant that whole groups of people were uprooted, physically or mentally, including more humble clerics or, indeed, women. Putting a much needed spot-light on these is already an achievement. More on them here.


  • F. Everton, Disrupting Dark Networks (CUP 2012)
  • C. Kadushin, Understanding Social Networks (OUP, 2012)
  • C. Lemercier, ‘Formale Methoden der Netzwerkanalyse in den Geschichtswissenschaften: Warum und Wie?’ ÖZG 23 (2012), 16-41.
  • J. Preiser-Kapeller ‘Letters and Network Analysis’, forthcoming in A. Riehle (ed.) Companion to Byzantine Epistolography (Brill, 2015)
  • J. Scott, Social Network Analysis, 3rd edn. (Sage, 2013)

And for an inspiring HNA project see ‘Mapping the Republic of Letters’ (Stanford).