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Kirchengeschichte: Alte Kirche, Christliche Archäologie


Allen, Pauline, and Bronwen Neil


Crisis Management in Late Antiquity (410–590 CE). A Survey of the Evidence from Episcopal Letters


Leiden u. a.: Brill 2013. XIV, 286 S. = Supplements to Vigiliae Christiana, 121. Geb. EUR 109,00. ISBN 978-90-04-18577-7.


Susanna Elm

In the opening sentence of this volume, which is the result of a three-year research project, the authors point out that »appropriate responses to environmental and social crisis – by individuals, communities, governments, religious and charitable organizations – are increasingly under focus in the twenty-first century« (1). Whether or not this focus has indeed increased in the last decade is not the point of this volume. Rather, the authors sought to find responses to a series of crisis, some singular occurrences, others recurrent and endemic, in the later Roman Empire and beyond. To identify such crisis and to chart the type of ancient responses is a formidable task given the nature of the surviving evidence. Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil chose as the basis of their research the letter corpora of bishops. Hence, the volume addresses specifically the role of bishops in identifying an occurrence as a crisis and their particular form of response. The time-frame is broad and includes East and West. The authors wisely excluded the work of the prolific and much studied John Chrysostom on one end of the chronological spectrum, and the equally well studied register of Gregory the Great on the other. The remaining corpora are substantial and require sensitive handling: ancient letters were at the same time private yet also intensely public utterances and they were usually collected on the basis of a number of criteria that must be identified in each case; that is, the methodological challenges are formidable and excellently addressed in Chapter 2. In Chapter 1, the authors offer a definition of crisis in the late antique context to conclude with three foundational characteristics: crises were dealt with on a local, regional basis; they emerge only into the epistolary consciousness if the letter-writer was personally in-volved; and they were in essence permanent and thus normal. These definitions and their consequences form the red threat of the entire volume and also organize the chapters that follow: population displacements, natural disasters, violent conflict that included reli-gious tensions, social abuses such as kidnapping, corruption, extortion through taxation and usury, and the breakdown of structures of dependence, as defined by Nicholas Purcell (8–9).
Each chapter offers a summary of the findings with helpful discussion of the secondary literature that includes works that address the topic from a modern, comparative perspective, and provides a series of highly illuminating case studies. For example, the authors have chosen the case of Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople from 428–43, to illuminate the fate of a man in exile in Egypt, where he spent twenty years, until his death in ca. 451, to show how high-profile exiles were treated and responded to their plight; Nestorius’s harsh fate prompted a crisis that went well beyond the personal and the local with lasting effects on the church as a whole. The cases of Fulgentius of Ruspe, Vigilius of Rome, Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Severus of Antioch complete the set of case studies for this section. In other words, the authors took great care to show cases from important sees around the empire, to highlight how high ranking exiled bishops sought to ameliorate the effects of their personal crisis, but also how they aided others who came to them for support, often from crisis points far removed from their own location.
In all instances discussed, it becomes evident that bishops relied on their epistolary networks to respond. However, the demands of style forbade bishops to discuss natural disasters such as earth-quakes. While other sources attest to series of devastating earthquakes especially in the East, the letters remain nearly silent. Here, sermons, homilies, chronicles and so on, often by the same author, offer deep insights that the letters conceal. Similar silence covers acts of violence such as the sack of Rome in 410 or the diversion of the Huns in 452: enormously significant events entirely absent from the letters of the bishops at the time, Innocent I and Leo the Great. All the more present, on the other hand, are references to heretics. Here, the letters chronicle perceived threats to the public order with meticulous detail. Likewise, the letters leave no doubt that bishops did not act alone. Contrary to other scholarly sugges­tions that the curiales, for example, played a minor and decreasing role, it emerges very clearly that they together with provincial governors, senators, and comites acted in concert with bishops to address crisis and resolve them as best they could. The imperial government and monks and abbots of monasteries also intervened to help. Here, spiritual aid, or perhaps better admonition – what the authors call the sin and punishment syndrome (80) – was the par-ticular purview of bishops, always, however, accompanied by practical forms of intervention though food and financial succor, but also through disciplining, social exclusion of powerful exploiters, and the occasional recourse to imperial troops.
The book concludes with a series of ancient author profiles and thus adds yet another valuable feature. It is brimming with important insights and a series of small revisions that add up to a nu-anced picture of the extent and limits of episcopal crisis management in the fifth and sixth century. The book is well-written, clearly organized and structured such that it will appeal to any who are interested in crisis, both natural and man-made, beyond the later Roman Empire and its successor kingdoms in the West.