—Published in Fides et Humilitas, no. 3 (2016): 120–124

Almost twenty years separate Susanna Elm’s two monographs in the field of Late Antiquity. Her first, ‘Virgins of God’: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity, challenged reigning paradigms for understanding the character and shape of monasticism in the early Church, especially by highlighting the important role inhabited by female monastics. The way she constructed her argument was crucial: a meticulous reading of classical texts.

Trained in classics, and a professor of history and classics at UC Berkeley, Elm brings the refined tools this discipline requires to evaluate — in painstaking detail — the texts of Late Antiquity. The freshness of her readings and creativity of her judgments have demanded the attention of scholars from a number of interlocking fields, precisely because she has done the hard work of building an argument from the “ground up.” Such work does not come easily or quickly. It also requires time to ‘digest’; and now twenty years hence, as her conclusions in ‘Virgins of God’ have worked their way into the present operating assumptions of a whole field of study, she serves up another bahnbrechende work of breathtaking scope, the full tremors of which are still to be felt within the field of Late Antique studies.

Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church is conceived by juxtaposing two men who have traditionally been held apart in the study of this period: the Emperor Julian and the Bishop Gregory of Nazianzus. They have been held apart largely because one, Julian, was pagan and the other, Gregory, was a preeminent theologian of the Trinity. Yet, while this fundamental difference remains, Elm’s protagonists share much more than is often admitted — they are both “Sons of Hellenism.” Elm insists it is in exploring this shared background that the differences between the two men come into relief. Furthermore, through “micro studies” (Elm calls her work a “micro-social history of ideas”; p.9) of these two representative men one gains spectacles through which to view the larger picture of the monumental times in which they lived. Their very particular interactions provide the material needed to understand the more general transformations occurring within Roman culture: “Only by observing…the literary duels between Julian and Gregory may we see the adaptation and transformation of traditional Roman themes in Christian self-definition, theology, and political theory” (p.2).

The representative power of Julian and Gregory stems from their shared status as “elite” men (pp.7-8, passim). What made them elite can of course be seen in that they rose to prominence in their respective arenas. But behind their eventual status of position was an entire way of being brought up — of being “groomed” — within a common paideia. This is a comprehensive education access to which required family status and connections. It led both Julian and Gregory (and his friend, Basil of Caesarea) to study in Athens, the intellectual center of their day. While there was a certain baseline for access to such a place, one would attain prestige through mastering the elements of paideia and demonstrating that mastery through rhetorical power. Someone like Gregory, for example, stood out among his elite peers because “he was better than most at writing himself prestige” (p.9). Elm’s focus on Gregory and Julian, as elite men of influence trained within a shared paideia, provides an enriching interpretive lens that moves across her narrative, through which the reader is able to observe the many cultural entanglements of the time shared by both pagan and Christian alike.

After Elm sets-up the nature and subjects of her study in her “Introduction,” and gives a preview of the importance of a common paideia, she begins to meticulously march through the history and texts pertaining to Julian and Gregory. In “Part One” she takes three chapters to contextualize both men’s familial backgrounds and the roads that led them to their eventual public careers. Of particular interest within this section is the introduction of the theoretical foundations for how each man conceived of his leadership (pp.71–87, 103–5), wherein he sought the appropriate tension between the “practical life” (bios praktikos) and the “theoretical life” (bios theoretikos).

Parts Two and Three of the book are comprised of seven chapters that bring Julian and Gregory into close dialogue through examination of their relevant literature. Elm features Julian as a more powerful thinker and skillful ruler than is often recognized, especially within Christian writings. As the title of the book suggests, Elm goes so far as to call Julian a “Father” of the Church because, through his erudition and the deliberate consequences of his pagan rule for the Roman public square, he served as a mighty foil that definitively shaped the true Father of the Church, Gregory.

Indeed, well before the soaring heights of Gregory’s Trinitarian works of the 380s, Elm demonstrates, in close readings of his first six orations, that the die of his thought was cast in thinking through the wide-ranging implications of Julian’s pagan Roman rule from CE 361–363. For both men, no less than the order of the cosmos was at stake.

For the pagan Julian, he wished to order the politeia by linking it up with the pagan gods, with himself as emperor paving the way for the Roman populace to please the gods through proper sacrifice. Elm argues it was in Gregory’s equally strong concern for eutaxia (“good order”) that the universal character of his thought took shape — from the Trinity all the way down.

The result was a vision of Rome as Christian empire. For Gregory, the “intrinsic link between philosophy, theology, religion, and governance or politics” (pp.485–6) meant a vision big enough to encompass all of Rome and, because it touched all of Rome, it presented Christianity as a religion with universal claims. In the end, Elm depicts Gregory and Julian’s battle as one between “competing universalisms” (p.485), with Christianity’s longevity and dynamism credited to its ability to transform an existing Roman order.

Elm’s sweeping work deserves a sweeping audience: it should be read by every scholar who toils in the broad field of Late Antique studies. Historical events are illuminated to such a degree that our understanding of two of the most significant fixtures in Late Antique studies — the Roman Empire and Christianity — can only be deepened by interacting with this work. The fact that our windows into these times are intertwined biographies of two fascinating men makes the reading all the more compelling. While Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church should be read thoroughly and with patience, its layout, with many clearly labeled subheadings, and its index, which is stunning in its finely grained detail, make it conducive for frequent referencing. What is more, its nearly forty-page bibliography provides many inviting trailheads for further discovery. If it takes Dr. Elm twenty more years to produce a work of similar scope and depth, it will be well worth the wait. But scholars of Late Antiquity will certainly not complain if it is sooner.

Bibliographical Information

Susanna Elm. Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church: Emperor Julian, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Vision of Rome. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012. Pp. xvii + 553. ISBN: 978-0-520-26930-9. $35.95 [Paperback].
About the Author:
Rev. D. Blair Smith

Rev. D. Blair Smith is a Ph.D. candidate at Durham University and currently serves as Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.