It Made Most Sense in Greek.

I have to pass along another quote from Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome (see this post); he’s been describing the series of church councils that were intended to reconcile differing positions but usually wound up creating better-organized heresies (the ecumenical council at Constantinople in 381 “paradoxically … caused ‘Arianism’ itself to crystallize as a worked-out religious system, in effect”), and the impossibility of eradicating Monophysitism because it had grass-roots support, and then comes this sensible and delightfully written paragraph:

It is impossible to characterize these conflicts accurately in a few words, for the theology at issue is amazingly intricate, depending on tight definitions and Platonist philosophical developments of concepts which would take many pages to set out in English (it was, furthermore, a debate which made most sense in Greek even then; Leo I was the last Latin-speaker really to grasp and contribute to it). Such detailed characterizations do not belong here. But it is important to stress that they did matter. Pagan observers found these debates ridiculous, even insane, as well as amazingly badly behaved, but having an accurate and universally agreed definition of God became increasingly important for Christians between 300 and 550, not least because the political power of bishops steadily increased. It is relevant that they mattered more in the East, where technical philosophical debate was longer-rooted in intellectual life, but with the ‘barbarian’ conquests Christological issues came to the West as well, and Arian- Catholic debates were bitter there, too; anyway, the Augustinian problematic which dominated theology in the West, centred on predestination and divine grace, was no less complex, even though it sidestepped Christological debate. It is of course impossible to say how many people properly understood the issues at stake at, say, Chalcedon; perhaps only a few hundred, although one should not underestimate the theological sophistication of the citizens of the great cities, exposed as they were to the sermons of some high-powered thinkers. But the problem of the real divinity of a human god, who had even died, at the Crucifixion, was at least an issue that would have made sense in the late Roman world, where the cult of the emperors as gods was still remembered (indeed, it was still practised by some) and the divine being was not, in the fifth century at least, as distant from humanity as he (or they) would be in some versions of Christianity.

It is all too easy to make fun of the subtle distinctions insisted on by the various factions (I’ve certainly done so); he does a good job of explaining why they were seen as important. And in the next paragraph he mentions the Circumcellions (“ascetic peasants or seasonal labourers”)! He calls them the armed wing of the Donatists, and goes on to say “Monks from the countryside were also used as shock troops, usually on the Monophysite side; Jerusalem was a dangerous place because of the number of monasteries around it, which could quickly be mobilized…” Not the way we usually think of monks!


  1. Bathrobe says

    Your comment on the monks made me think of the warrior monks of mediaeval Japan.

    I was about to link to the Wikipedia article on that (at Sōhei) but found that Warrior Monk had its own disambiguation page (Warrior Monk), so you can read about the various flavours of warrior monk in a few different civilisations.

  2. Yes, I thought of them too. It was a real shock to my system when I first learned about them in college: those sweet unworldly Buddhists, hacking each other up?!

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    Fisticuffs in Jerusalem between monks of different Christological opinions is a phenomenon that has endured into the present century:

  4. To anyone who might be thinking of buying the Kindle version: The book sounded interesting, so I followed your link to Amazon and bought the Kindle version. Unfortunately it doesn’t have any maps or illustrations. And even though it has Real Page Numbers, the Index of People and Places doesn’t have page numbers, or links back to the text. I guess one is supposed to use search to find the name in the text. Anyway, I returned it. Maybe my library has the hardcover.

  5. Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword covers some of the same period, and does delve a bit into some of the schisms because he recognises traits of some of them in early Islam.

    Michael Peppard’s The Son of God in the Roman World looks into how Christological debate was (maybe) shaped exactly by the cult of the divine emperor.

  6. I honeymooned in Chalcedon, Kadıköy these days; not as strong in its religion as are other parts of Istanbul, no trouble getting alcohol even if a mosque is close by. There are a few Armenian churches remaining, a token Protestant one and a large Catholic graveyard, but no Greek church I could see.

    Edsger Dijkstra, a Dutch computer scientist, commented once (and I can’t find the exact cite) that he wasn’t happy with the quality of an idea until he could express it clearly in both English and Dutch. That approach back then might have made for a more peaceful few hundred years!

  7. Unfortunately it doesn’t have any maps or illustrations

    Huh, you’re right — I didn’t even notice. I have so many maps, usually better than the ones in modern books, that I don’t miss them, and I guess I don’t care that much about illustrations either, but I can see how it would bother people more visual than I.

  8. Fisticuffs in Jerusalem between monks of different Christological opinions is a phenomenon that has endured into the present century:

    All photos of the exterior of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher show a ladder. It’s first mentioned in 1757. Apparently a fight breaks out among the priests of the various denominations if anybody tries to move it. See also the Wiki entry Immovable Ladder.

  9. Unfortunately it doesn’t have any maps or illustrations

    I could have been clearer – it doesn’t have any of the maps and illustrations that are in the hardcover version. I feel cheated when content is dropped, usually without notice, in electronic versions. I agree, the illustrations are usually superfluous to the text, but I find maps are useful for showing places and territories important to the text without too much other detail.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    This truly is a sign that Wickham is a proper historian. It’s fatally easy for modern scholars, even those who are in their way very competent, to adopt a sub-Gibbonian sneer when writing about the great Christological controversies, and imply that the combatants were either just plain stupid, or that consciously or not, what *really* motivated them was something other than what they themselves said, maybe than what they themselves believed. It’s refreshing indeed to see Wickham taking on the past on its own terms here (again.)

    In fact it’s only once you’ve taken the imaginative step of accepting that the issues as stated truly were of life and death significance to individuals of great learning, intelligence and piety, that you can begin to appreciate just how shocking some of the low political manoeuvering was that some of those involved resorted to. Ends justifying the means at its most repellent …

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    I know it’s naughty to quote from a book you’re in the process of reading, particularly off-topic, but in this case I just can’t help it …

    “Above all, pilgrims went to Rome, something which becomes well attested in the late sixth century and developed substantially in the seventh and eighth. The Anglo-Saxons are particularly prominent in our evidence; Benedict Biscop and Wilfrid each went several times. The routes became well known, with the result that, as Boniface of Mainz said in 747, in many cities of Italy and Gaul all the prostitutes were English.”

  12. Ha! No problem, it’s not like you’re spoiling the plot for me.

  13. Bathrobe says

    I would LOVE to go back in time with a recording device and record the English used by those prostitutes! (The pilgrims, too, but it would be much more interesting to know how the hoi polloi spoke in those days!)

  14. A terrific book about this topic – When Jesus became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome

  15. Sounds like a great read, thanks!

  16. David Eddyshaw says


    “I would LOVE to go back in time with a recording device and record the English used by those prostitutes!”

    Some choice Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, I would think.

  17. “I would LOVE to go back in time with a recording device and record the English used by those prostitutes!”

    The first word out of their mouths when approaching a potential customer was “Hwæt!”

  18. “A shilling extra for þeodcyninga.”

  19. The Crusades gave us the Monks of War, ably described by Desmond Seward. (They have been much on my mind lately, if I may be permitted a self-plug. Coming in November!)

  20. Bathrobe says

    “A shilling extra for þeodcyninga.”

    I think “extra” is a bit out of place here. What is Anglo-Saxon for “more”?

    I had to look up þeodcyninga. Thought it was some kind of depraved sexual act.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    “I had to look up þeodcyninga. Thought it was some kind of depraved sexual act.”

    That is the Marxist view.

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    Quite possibly relevant …

    I have not seen this movie; it seems to me that it may fail to capture some of the nuances of the original work …

  23. That is the Marxist view.

    Gave me a good laugh, thanks!

  24. Wouldn’t that be þeodcyningum, anyway?

  25. David Marjanović says

    Well, yes. 🙂

    the issues as stated truly were of life and death significance

    Ha. Those weren’t matters of mere life or death. They were about eternity.

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