Jace T. Crouch

title.none: Conti, The Life and Works of Potamius of Lisbon (Crouch)

identifier.other: baj9928.0003.025 00.03.25

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jace T. Crouch, Oakland University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Conti, Marco. The Life and Works of Potamius of Lisbon. Instrumenta Patristica, XXXII. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1998. Pp. iv, 190. 48.34 EUR. ISBN: 2-503-50688-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.03.25

Conti, Marco. The Life and Works of Potamius of Lisbon. Instrumenta Patristica, XXXII. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1998. Pp. iv, 190. 48.34 EUR. ISBN: 2-503-50688-7.

Reviewed by:

Jace T. Crouch
Oakland University

Although considerable attention has been given him by French, Italian and Spanish scholars during the past century, the English speaking world has not been particularly well served with scholarship on Potamius of Lisbon (fl. 357), an enigmatic Iberian bishop who was a figure of some importance in the Arian controversies of the mid-fourth century. Potamius has not been the subject of any published monographs in English, and the short articles on Potamius that have appeared in reference works during the past quarter-century, such as the Garland Encyclopedia of Early Christianity or the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church usually treat with him in a few curt and matter-of-fact sentences that elucidate very little concerning this intriguing and problematic Iberian churchman. Even older texts such as Berthold Altaner's Patrologie dismiss the surviving literary works of Potamius as negligible, and more recent works such as the third edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary and Bowersock's Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Post-Classical World do not devote any articles to Potamius. Little wonder that the career and writings of this first-known bishop of Lisbon have been relegated to near obscurity.

The appearance of Marco Conti's excellent The Life and Works of Potamius of Lisbon rescues the "still unjustly little- known" (4) bishop from this scholarly limbo, proposes solutions to many of the puzzling questions concerning Potamius' role in the Arian crisis of 351 to 360, and offers a Latin text with English translation of the surviving Potamian corpus. Appearing as volume 32 of Brepols' Studia Patristica series, this study is designed not only to introduce readers to Potamius and present them with an edition and translation of his works, but also to provide a bibliographic guide to and critique of recent Potamian scholarship. Conti succeeds admirably in these endeavors.

In his Preface, Conti introduces his reader to the main difficulties in Potamian scholarship: 1) the historical testimonies about Potamius, which universally condemn him as an apostate to Arianism by 355 and a signatory to (or even co- author of) the Arianizing second Formula of Sirmium in 357; 2) Potamius' own orthodox writings, which were misattributed to other Church Fathers as early as the fifth century, perhaps because of Potamius' reputation as an Arian; and 3) his excessive and often gruesome literary style, which Conti is usually polite enough to describe as "hyper-realist and baroque" (4) or "extremely original with regard to style and literary taste" (1). Having set out the scope of his investigation and presentation, Conti then proceeds to a rigorous and systematic analysis of Potamius' historical career and the remains of his literary testament.

In Part One, "The Doctrinal Career of Potamius and his role in the historical events of the Arian controversy," Conti sets out a brief description of the situation of the Church in Iberia through the middle of the fourth century as well as a concise but useful historical overview of the Arian problem up to the time of Potamius' apostasy in 355. More importantly, Conti also presents a critical analysis of the historical testimonies concerning the life and works of Potamius, particularly those concerning Potamius' actions at the Arianizing second Council of Sirmium (14-19). Conti concludes that Potamius "played an important role" at this council (15, 27), not only subscribing to its Formula, but perhaps even contributing "to the theological and doctrinal formulation of the Second Sirmian Creed" (18). In an uncharacteristically hesitant passage, Conti suggests that stylistic differences between the text of the second Formula of Sirmium and the surviving writings of Potamius, as well as certain infelicities in Hilary of Poitier's naming Potamius as co-author of the second Formula of Sirmium "has suggested to scholars ... that Potamius subscribed to the formula and made a contribution to its formulation but did not write it." (27) Given the elegance and forcefulness with which Conti makes his points in the commentary on Potamius' writings in Part Three of this book, I wish that Conti would stick his neck out a little more often in Part One and occasionally say "I think" or "this suggests to me" rather than rely on overly cautious phrases such as "has suggested to scholars". Perhaps this approach is in keeping with the bibliographic and synthetic nature of Part One and Part Two, and in keeping with the expressed purpose of the Instrumenta Patristica series. Nevertheless, I respect Conti as a Potamian scholar, not least because of his new critical edition of Potamius in CCSL 69A, and if Conti is convinced of something concerning Potamius, or if he strongly suspects something, then I want very much to hear him say it outright.

Given such solid historical evidence that Potamius became an Arian after 355 and signed (or helped write) the Arianizing and anti-homousian second Formula of Sirmium in 327, scholars have had a bit of difficulty reconciling Potamius' unfortunate lapse into heresy with the surviving writings of Potamius, which (apart from one Arianizing fragment) are devoid of heretical elements, and which in two cases are aggressively pro-Nicene and vituperatively anti-Arian. Conti summarizes some of the older attempts to deal with this apparently contradictory evidence. Scholars such as Wilmart, Madoz, and Hanson have argued that Potamius' surviving orthodox writings date from before his apostasy. (23) More radically, other scholars, including Florez and Meceda in the eighteenth century have argued that Potamius never became an Arian, and that the denunciations of Potamius and the one pro-Arian fragment attributed to him constitute Luciferian falsehoods. (24) In the twentieth century, Vega and Domingues del Val have suggested that there exists no certain evidence that Potamius had been an Arian (24), and they suppose him to have been consistently pro-Nicene, or at least non-Arian. Following Simonetti and Moreira, a path that he calls the "moderate interpretation," Conti argues that Potamius was a Catholic at the beginning of his career, apostatized to Arianism from 355 to 357/358, and then returned to orthodox Catholicism. (24-26) Conti suggests that Potamius' pro-Nicene and anti-Arian writings are all from the period 358-380, which can be demonstrated by Potamius' refutation of certain Arian arguments, such as their assertion that the word substantia was non-scriptural, that did not appear until the second Council of Sirmium. (25)

Potamius of Lisbon thus emerges in Conti's presentation as a passible yet surprisingly sympathetic character, a bishop who wavered significantly in his religious orthodoxy yet who retained his episcopal seat, a Nicene Christian who embraced the Arian heresy at a crucial moment in his career (as did many churchmen in the fourth century), yet a man who saw the error of his ways and became an aggressive opponent of Arianism at the end of his life. As Conti so excellently puts it: "The writings of Potamius...are the product of a complex artistic personality who was involved in the Arian controversy and was profoundly affected by this crucial crisis of the Christian world.... [H]e expresses in his texts a tormented sensitivity and communicates to the reader a vivid image of his inner tension. Potamius is different from Athanasius, who was always consistent with his choices and as a result of the strength of his character, overcame the painful vicissitudes of the Arian crisis.... Therefore the works of Potamius can be regarded not only as an important testimony about the Arian controversy in the Western church, but also as the testimony of an indecisive and anguished spirit." (44)

In Part Two, "Potamius the Writer," Conti offers a detailed bibliographic and historical overview of how the previously misattributed writings of Potamius were identified gradually between 1657 and 1934 (29-33). He also presents a brief introduction to and summary of each of the surviving works (34- 40), wherein he examines the typology and structure of the texts, but also evaluates the relative orthodoxy of each work, and considers its possible literary antecedents. The Epistula ad Athanasium emerges as a pro-Nicene and anti- Arian work composed "immediately after 359" (34). Potamius' extremely morbid and gruesome De Lazaro "does not express precise theological positions" (34) and cannot be dated with any certainty, but Conti notes that Potamius may have been attempting "to symbolize the resurrection of Nicenism in his soul through the account of the raising of Lazarus ... [and] to assert, through his allegorical tale, the inevitability of the final resurrection and victory of the Nicene party after the difficult phase which followed the council of Ariminum." (35) The homiletic De Martyrio Isaiae Prophetae is similarly difficult to date, but Conti suggests that the work, which recounts the apocryphal story of the prophet Isaiah being sawn into two halves, may be an allegorical reference to the Arian attempt to divide the unity of the Father and Son, and therefore constitutes "a means used by Potamius to express to a popular audience his support of Nicenism." (37)

The Epistula de Substantia Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti is the most extensive work of Potamius' to have survived, and it constitutes a more extensive defense of Nicene theology than is found in his other writings. Following Madoz, Moreira, and Simonetti, Conti argues (39-40) that this treatise was written after Potamius' letter to Athanasius, that is, sometime between 360 and 382, because in the Epistula de Substantia Potamius mentions a superior tractatus on the substance of the Trinity, which is presumed to be a reference to the Epistula ad Athanasium. Again, the Epistula de Substantia was written in an extremely eccentric style, and the many allegories and examples used betray an obsessive interest anatomical and botanical comparisons. In Part Two's brief section on the style of Potamius in these four surviving works (41-42), Conti notes that Potamius writes with a complexity that usually "disconcerts the reader rather than helping him to comprehend the writer's arguments." (41) But Conti also points out that Potamius, like many early Christian writers, was faced with the problem of "harmonizing the plain and colloquial biblical syntax...with the rhetorical style of the pagan tradition." (43) Unlike other patristic writers, Conti argues, Potamius does not attempt to harmonize these very different approaches, but instead "emphasizes to an extreme limit the differences" between them. (43) This, Conti suggests, reflects Potamius' own inner tension and turmoil.

At this point, I might suggest two further explanations of Potamius' extremely unusual style. Is the frequent use of gruesome details and violent language somehow penitential? Does Potamius write not only with the zeal of a reformed apostate, but also with the heartfelt and soulfelt remorse of one who seeks to perform a public atonement or penance for his previous misdeeds? Perhaps in addition to seeking some apocryphal source (36) for Potamius' bubonic prose, one might examine penitential literature, particularly those aspects of penitential literature exploring the theme of "the wages of sin are death," which might provide exemplars for some of Potamius' morbid and often violent literary excess. Or perhaps these texts represent an attempt to appeal to a popular taste for the sort of entertainments that one could find in Potamius' diocese, for almost certainly the public spectacles and games that Tertullian denounced in the third century and Salvian decried in the fifth century were running at full force in fourth century Lisbon, and these games and spectacles will have included plenty of opportunities for people to watch executions and various other forms of state-sanctioned bodily mayhem.

The extensive "Commentaries" in Part Three (pp. 46-134) exhibit Conti's great understanding of the Potamian writings, not only as individual texts, but also in their larger historical and patristic context. The commentaries constitute an extended exegesis of Potamius' style, the internal organization of his writings, the difficulties of his language, his grammatical constructions, his neologisms, his apparent meaning, his allusions, and his sources, all of which Conti presents with elegance and insight, and with diligent reference to recent Potamian scholarship. Commentary of this sort is desirable and useful for any patristic writer, but with Potamius it is absolutely essential. Even when the reader has Conti's parallel Latin text and English translation before him, there are many many times when one wonders "what on earth is Potamius talking about and why is he talking about it this way?" For example, commenting on a troublesome and gruesome passage in De Martyrio Isaiae 2.1.6, Conti notes that: [t]he meaning of the third clause: ne venas vermiculatim pollice profanator intenderet appears to be extremely obscure. Since the lexical usage is quite unusual, we put forward a hypothesis which presents a large degree of uncertainty. In our opinion Potamius asserts that the discharge of blood caused by the torturer prevents him from clutching and pulling [out] the veins of the martyrs as if they were worms. Vermiculatim, which is another Potamian hapax, probably refers to the shape of veins, which are similar to worms. (79-80) As even this brief comment demonstrates, Potamius' writings contain frequent and graphic descriptions of absolute bodily mayhem, complete with gushing blood, dripping fluids, severed limbs, and eviscerated torsos. One might be forgiven for thinking of Potamius as the Bulwer-Lytton or Howard Phillips Lovecraft of the fourth century, for as Conti notes (41), these passages are more disconcerting than helpful to the modern reader, and they tend to obscure rather than to reveal the theological or moral points that Potamius is attempting to make. But again, Potamius may simply be appealing to the tastes of the Christian man and women in his diocese who frequented the arena and the theater, persons who might have thought Trimalchio's feast to have been a rather boring evening.

The useful "Latin Texts of the Works of Potamius with English Translation" appears in an appendix (135-177). The English translation is fluid, and conveys rather forcefully the peculiarities of Potamius' eccentric literary style. There seems to be a well-entrenched tradition of reviewers quibbling with details of translations, and there are a few places where I might have translated a text slightly differently, but Conti has performed yeoman service in rendering Potamius into fluent English. Those instances where Conti departs from a literal translation and offers a close paraphrase, or when he assigns an unusual meaning to one of Potamius' obscure words (or neologisms), are clearly explained in the elaborate commentaries that appear in Part Three. Conti's Latin text for this volume is based on the editions of Wilmart (1913, 1918) and Vega (1934), with some additions and emendations that correct misprints in the earlier editions. Since the this volume has appeared, Conti's new edition of Potamius' Latin text, with commentary and critical apparatus, has appeared as Potamius Olisponensis, Opera omnia, ed. Marco Conti, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 69 (Turnhout: Belgium, 1999).

The strict organization of the text does make for some repetition of material and arguments, particularly where Conti summarizes or lionizes the scholarship of Montes Moreira (passim). There is an index of Biblical quotations, an index of historical and literary Sources, and an index of names and places, but one wishes for an index of important theological and Christological terms such as substantia and homousios. There remain some minor mechanical infelicities that are not the fault of the author: "Epistulaad ad Athanasium" for "Epistula ad Athanasium" on p. ix, and "prefectly" for "perfectly" on p. 22.

All things considered, Conti has written a solid and satisfying book, one that makes an excellent contribution not only to the study of Potamius, but also to the the complex array of persons and issues involved in the Arian crisis of the mid-fourth century.