The Medieval Review 10.08.09

Cooper, Kate and Julia Hillner, eds. Religion, Dynasty, and Patronage in Early Christian Rome, 300-900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xv, 327. $99 ISBN 978-0-521-87641-4. .

Reviewed by:

Thomas Noble
University of Notre Dame

The editors of this exceptionally lucid and important collection of essays propose on the one hand to stir things up and on the other hand to set the record straight. They succeed on both counts. A recurrent theme of the Introduction and of many of the essays is that, after the Constantinian Peace of the Church, it has been too easy to assume that the only real story in Rome is about the inevitable and inexorable rise of the papacy to urban leadership. The contributors to this volume do not argue that this is not what happened--indeed they acknowledge that after the Gothic Wars the papacy was in charge and that a papally sponsored "media revolution" both constructed and articulated the new situation. Their concern, rather, is to show that the process was not inevitable and that it proceeded along a twisting road. Where the contributors stir things up is in their effort to restore the traditional emperor-bishop-aristocracy triad and in particular to recover a role for the aristocracy. The scholarship, judicious and current, is impeccable. The prose is almost always agreeably readable. The arguments presented are fascinating and, on the whole, convincing. No serious student of the late antique world can afford to miss this book.

Mark Humphries, "From Emperor to Pope? Ceremonial, Space, and Authority at Rome from Constantine to Gregory the Great" (21-58), begins with the arrival of Phocas's images in Rome in 603 and asks how the emperor remained important and a presence in Rome. Actually, he includes Theodoric, too. Humphries's special focus rests on the ceremony of adventus but he also looks at the arrival of images, coins, and law codes. He is able to demonstrate that the emperors had many ways of making their presence felt in Rome whether they were there or not. The collapse of the Ostrogothic realm and, worse still, the destruction of the economic base of the senatorial class in the Gothic Wars deprived Rome of the people and resources necessary to sustain the significance of the emperor on the local scene. Kate Blair-Dixon, "Memory and Authority in Sixth-Century Rome: The Liber Pontificalis and the Collectio Avellana (59-76), launches from the opening of the Avellana with its bloody account of the election of Damasus in 366. Her point is that this set of letters was never very successful as a canonical collection but that it may be extremely revealing as a sixth-century specimen of papal self- fashioning and memory making. The Avellana has been little studied and is not well known. It is a collection of 243 papal letters written between the fourth and the sixth centuries. It is probably a body of materials not otherwise available in the papal archives. The Liber Pontificalis, a product of the 530s in its initial stage (Dixon provides a remarkably clear and concise review of the major arguments about the Liber's emergence) takes a very different line on some key issued than the Avellana does. For instance, Avellana treats Damasus as too dependent on imperial support and tries to enhance the moral standing of Vigilius while at the same time upholding Rome's adherence to strict orthodoxy. Dixon's point is that whatever we think about the rise of the papacy, in the sixth century there were different ways of telling the papacy's story inside the papal government itself.

After two papers that invite reflection on the rise of the papacy, Kristina Sessa, "Domestic Conversions: Households and Bishops in the Late Antique 'Papal Legends'" (79-114), shifts the focus from bishops to householders and from ecclesia to domus to see how Roman householders might have resisted, accepted, or even welcomed the bishop's participation in household affairs. Her inquiry rests on a close study of two texts from the gesta martyrum, a large body of poorly edited and little known material. She concludes that bishops sometimes intervened in coercive ways and sometimes in collaborative ways. There was no single pattern. Hannah Jones, "Agnes and Constantia: Domesticity and Cult Patronage in the Passion of Agnes (115-39), looks at households in a quite different way. The sources for the erection of the church of St. Agnes manage to conflate Constantine, Constantia, Constantina, and Agnes herself is various ways. In the Passio the theme of imperiled virginity serves to show how civic, ascetic, virginal, and matrimonial ideals could flow together to affirm the civic community. The key point is that by means of a careful reading of the Passio Jones uncovers interesting details about lay patrons. Also making use of texts from the gesta martyrum, Conrad Leyser "'A Church in the House of the Saints': Property and Power in the Passion of John and Paul (140-62), studies the church of Sts. John and Paul in the Clivus Scauri. This complex text reveals the only two saints martyred and buried in their own house along with the story of the senator Byzantinus and his son Pammachius who supposedly found the bodies, erected the church, and founded the cult. In its various strains the text reveals an attempt to isolate John, Paul, and their house perhaps to stress monastic stability and flight from the world; a struggle between lay donors and the imperial government; and finally a contribution to the papal-imperial quarrels of the sixth century. In all the text constitutes a "triumph over earthly justice and a ferocious vindication of property" (162).

Kate Cooper, "Poverty, Obligation, and Inheritance: Roman Heiresses and the Varieties of Senatorial Christianity in Fifth-Century Rome" (165-89), comes back directly to lay aristocrats by looking at the famous letter of Albinia to Augustine. At issue were the spectacular donations of Albinia's daughter Melania the Younger and her husband Pinian. Augustine believed that instead of huge one-off donations the couple should have founded and endowed churches and monasteries. Senatorials evidently preferred a conservative philanthropy that left them in a position to discharge their traditional responsibilities. The intricate relationships among wealth, asceticism, property, and family duty had not yet been resolved. There was apparently a great deal of generosity that did not result in permanent foundations of a sort that would have left records. The same kind of theme is broached by Anne Kurdock, "Demetrias Ancilla Dei: Anicia Demetrias and the Problem of the Missing Patron" (190-224). Demetrias was a well- connected woman known mainly from the letter Pelagius wrote to her, the letter Augustine wrote to her mother, and the letter Jerome wrote to her grandmother. The point of the essay is to establish a method for understanding how powerful men sought to gain the good will of key families through the women of those households. Women were not inert and invisible as patrons and as maintainers of the status of their domus if one knows how to look for them.

Julia Hillner, in what may prove to be the most controversial and important essay in the book, "Families, Patronage, and the Titular Churches of Rome, c. 300-c. 600" (225-61), surveys the contentious scholarship on the origin and structure of the title churches and offers a new and, to me, compelling interpretation. Briefly, titulus seems to have been a term used by the bishops of Rome to indicate that they had secured property justly. Personal names in the genitive attached to most title churches identify and honor the person who founded and endowed the church, although a titulus does not have to be understood exclusively as a church endowed by its original founder. The churches did not belong to collegia of priests. Hillner's essay supports Cooper's and Kurdock's in arguing that in pre-Christian and Christian times endowment donations were comparatively rare. Families preferred grand, one-off gestures that did not risk disinheriting heirs or permitting heirs of the original donation to use property for other than its intended purpose. The tituli were the property of the Roman Church. Problems abound: we do not necessarily know of all the tituli; not all the property of a titulus had to have been donated by its original founder; lay donors certainly did support the bishops church and did not prefer decentralized and personal foundations; aristocratic founders may not have trusted the popes. The most serious problem is that in the past the evidence for the tituli has been read selectively and tendentiously.

In the volume's last essay, "To Be the Neighbor of St. Stephen: Patronage, Martyr Cult, and Roman Monasteries c. 600-c. 900" (262-87), Marios Costambeys and Conrad Leyser open up the odd fact that while we can name some 100 Roman monasteries, we know almost nothing about them. We can resign ourselves to our ignorance or we can develop a new methodology to get at the social, spiritual, and institutional life of Roman monasteries. The authors trace the cult of St. Stephen, perhaps the patron saint of Roman monasticism, to show that traditional monastic history which emphasizes a charismatic founder and the institutionalization of his achievement in a rule, does not work for Rome and may not be an omnicompetent model for monasticism as a whole. The first church in Rome founded by a lay patron-- Demertrias, see above--and mentioned by the Liber Pontificalis was dedicated to Stephen. In the massive donation list included in the Liber's life of Leo III under the year 806/7 no fewer than six churches were dedicated to Stephen. At, perhaps, the end of the eighth century the Translatio of the relics of Stephen may have been a riposte to Frankish interest in the saint's cult. The text shows Rome mobilizing one of its main saints by expressing pride in Rome, the memory of Gregory the Great, hostility to the Greeks, and suspicion of northerners. From the mid-sixth century to the late ninth, by means of the Liber Pontificalis, the popes had a stranglehold on the fashioning of institutional memory in the city. Monastic identities in the city were more focused on cult. This essay is speculative, slightly rambling, and not entirely convincing on the importance of St. Stephen, but it is, as its authors claim, "good to think with."