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21.04.20 Storin (trans.), Gregory of Nazianzus’s Letter Collection

The Medieval Review

21.04.20 Storin (trans.), Gregory of Nazianzus’s Letter Collection


The letters of Gregory of Nazianzus (329/330-ca. 390 CE) represent the "earliest author-designated letter collection in Greek," as Storin is right to emphasize (10), so this translation--the first of the whole corpus into English--is a major scholarly achievement that will be welcomed among the fields of Late Antiquity, Early Christian Studies, Patristics, Classics, and Byzantine studies. [1] The volume accompanies Storin's monograph on Gregory's letters, which was published in the same series, and both are based on the author's doctoral dissertation. [2] Storin states explicitly in the introduction to the translation volume that its notes and bibliography "have been kept to a minimum in the hopes that the reader will engage with <the> exegesis and argumentation" of the monograph (12). However, the many conveniences of the translation volume make it an indispensable resource in its own right.

A Cappadocian Father who served as Bishop of Constantinople during a brief but crucial period in which he made a lasting mark on Trinitarian theology, Gregory enjoyed the status of a cultural hero in Byzantium. [3] However, before he became known as "the Theologian," Gregory was a trained rhetor who had studied extensively in the schools of Caesarea Maritima, Alexandria, and Athens, and who had the entire Classical tradition at his fingertips. His literary legacy, in the form of orations, poems and letters, played a decisive role in the development of a variety of genres in Byzantium, as well as in the formation of reading tastes among generations of Byzantine audiences.

One of the great services provided by Storin's translation is the way he has made it possible for us to observe Gregory in the process of curating that very legacy. The standard ordering of the letters, an artificial attempt to arrange them chronologically (a vain task, since many are undatable anyway), was made first by Gregory's 17th-century Benedictine Maurist editors, whose text was reprinted in Migne's Patrologia Graeca (37.21-388). That ordering was subsequently followed by both critical editions of Paul Gallay, the text for the second of which forms the basis for Storin's translation. [4] Instead of reproducing that "chronological" order, which has no ancient or Byzantine authority, Storin has rearranged the 242 letters (not including four spurious letters and the three so-called "theological letters," which were included not in manuscripts of the letters but of the orations) so as to reflect the patterns and sequences in which they are transmitted in the manuscript tradition (the Maurist numeration is also indicated for ease of reference). These patterns and sequences in turn reflect, Storin argues, "an approximate version of Gregory's original," (7). Thus, the reader can follow how Gregory oversaw the creation of his epistolary persona by grouping letters not chronologically, but into what Storin calls "episodic" and "prosopographical dossiers" (7), so that what we experience is "an autobiographical text whose authorship resides as much in the editorial act of compilation as in the individual acts of epistolographic composition" (10). Thus, for example, the programmatic letters to his protégé Nicobulus--including Ep. 51, one of the most important testimonies to ancient theories of epistolary style and a key document in literary history--have pride of place at the very beginning of the collection. The famous correspondence with his friend Basil of Caesarea--which helped to ensure that Gregory's name would forever be associated with a figure who enjoyed far greater renown during their own lifetimes--is reunited with a series of letters that Gregory wrote to other addressees on behalf of Basil, but which are scattered throughout various points in the Maurist ordering. Storin has opened up new opportunities for engaging with Gregory's letters, both individually and as parts of larger groupings that develop different aspects of his authorial persona.

The reader will notice that Gregory has been given an aggressively folksy idiom here. Before adapting a line from tragedy, he announces that he will "change it up a bit" (192); he writes of a tyrant "on the lam" (177); he asks a correspondent "How's it going with respect to your virtue?" (123); he is "going all out" in support of a friend (122); and on two occasions he appeals to the wisdom of everyone "with a lick of good sense" (102, 174). The studied informality of the translation makes for easy and refreshing reading, but it can go too far at times. One of the reasons Gregory became one of the most widely studied and imitated authors in Byzantium was his ability to manipulate different styles and registers of discourse in order to suit any given occasion. For example, a commentator of the late 10th or early 11th century on the standard textbook for the theory of literary and rhetorical style used passages from Gregory's works to demonstrate the various forms and sub-forms of style, replacing the examples drawn from Demosthenes--the acknowledged paragon of stylistic versatility--that had been used in the original textbook. [5] Gregory and his readers appreciated the difference between the "conversational quality" (τὸ λαλικόν) and the "grace" or "charm" (χάρις) that were expected of letters on the one hand (cf. Gregory's own recommendations in Ep. 51), and a homespun folksiness (aspects of which they might have associated with the stylistic quality of ἀφέλεια or "simplicity") on the other. A word like "copacetic" (115) does indeed evoke a certain conversational quality, but it is not one that reflects the conversation of Gregory and his correspondents, who in letters like this were participating after all in what Storin calls an "elite literary culture" (12).

Questions of style aside, there are some inaccuracies in the translation, and at points the reader may still want to consult Gallay's French version. In the following comments the addressee of the letter in question is given when it is of particular interest.

Ep. 17, pg. 64: "But if you end up deciding that my epistle is that of a household slave and not that of someone obliged to look you in the eye..."This should be, "...that of a household slave who may not even look you in the eye."

pg. 64: "Or will I be held accountable for that too? Everyone but your reverence deserves to suffer that." This should be, "this is the sort of thing I'd sooner expect from anyone else but you."

Ep. 172, pg. 84: "I took pleasure in your letter, and why shouldn't I, since you too are remembering the dead?" This should be, "I took pleasure in your letter, and why shouldn't I, since you remember even someone <sc. like me> who is <all but> dead?"

Ep. 81 (to Gregory of Nyssa), pg. 100: "the planets, whose random wandering is harmoniously balanced"; The planets are named of course for the fact that they were understood to be "wandering" as opposed to fixed stars, but that wandering is anything but "random," and Gregory's Greek does not suggest that it is (indeed, the translation's "harmoniously balanced" implies precisely the opposite).

Ep. 76 (to Gregory of Nyssa, on the death of his brother Basil of Caesarea), pg. 101: "which left us in order to dwell with the Lord, having rehearsed for this his entire life. " Read instead "having made his entire life a rehearsal for this."

pg. 102: "I'm also robbed of this, among other things: rolling around in the holy dust." This should be: "among other things: embracing the holy dust <sc.: of the body of his friend Basil>."

Ep. 11 (to Gregory of Nyssa, according to most of the manuscripts), pg. 104: Gregory warns his addressee that he is getting too involved in the teaching of rhetoric, and that as a result their associates "are not commending your disreputable eminence (to speak like you)." The endnote (213) indicates that by the expression "to speak like you," Gregory means "with a sophistic paradox." The reader is not informed that the paradox behind "disreputable eminence" consists in the antithesis of two words with the same root (τὴν ἄδοξον εὐδοξίαν), which if the etymological connection were preserved might be rendered as "disreputable repute" or "inglorious glory."

pg. 104: "Defend the faithful and defend God, the altars, and the sacraments..." The verb (ἀπολόγησαι) is middle voice, so this needs to be "Defend yourself before the faithful; defend yourself before God, the altars and the sacraments."

pg. 105: "'If you don't,' he wrote, 'you're dead to me.' I won't yet say this next line about you: 'my friend has indeed become my enemy, despite the fact that he is still my friend,' as the tragedy says. To say it more moderately, it will deeply pain me..." This gets things backward, as it ignores the γὰρ and the coordinating ἐγὼ δὲ τοῦτο μὲν...ἀνιάσομαι δὲ sequence. We should read instead: "'If you don't,' he wrote, 'you're dead to me.' Ihowever (ἐγὼ δὲ) won't say that [τοῦτο μὲν; which here refers to what went before, not what comes after] yet for your sake. 'For though my friend has become my enemy, nevertheless (ἀλλ᾽ ὅμως) he is still my friend,' as the tragedy says. I will however be deeply pained..." (ἀνιάσομαι δὲ, which is coordinated with τοῦτο μὲν οὐκ ἐρῶ before).

pg. 105: "And agree with me..." This should be "And forgive me..."

Ep. 116, pg. 107: "For me, even Lamis was a site for quietude and a school for philosophy, a place that I imagined while I was silent and that I want to see now that I'm talking..." Read instead "a place that I visited while I was silent..." Gregory did not imagine his visit to Lamis; he was actually there in person. The whole point of the rest of the letter is that he wants to return in order to correct a misunderstanding that arose during his previous visit.

Ep. 7 (to his brother Caesarius), pg. 109 "What should I write to the person who knows best of all that we've even become distressed?" This should be, "As to the fact that I am also distressed, what need have I to tell you who know best of all?"

Ep. 228, pg. 120 "before it teems with blossoms...just before it's bundled into sheaves...a recently initiated soul just before it's beautified..." The word ἄρτι means not "before" but "just as" here. Translating it as "before" misses the comparison Gregory is making.

Ep. 178, pg. 125 "Bid farewell to thrones, positions of power, riches, distinctions, vanities, calamities, this cheap and expectorated little reputation by which someone, elevated rather than ridiculed, would dishonor the games and shows of this great tent!" This should be "...someone would lose their reputation (not "dishonor" for ἀδοξήσειεν, which picks up on δοξάριον before) if they were to take pride in all that rather than ridiculing the games and shows of this great stage!"

Ep. 136 , pg. 144 "Truly, were my race to imitate your excellence many times over..." This should be, "Truly, would that many of my race were to imitate your excellence..."

Ep. 145, pg. 175 "State executioners do nothing terrible, for they too are subject to laws." The verb ὑπηρετοῦνται means here "to serve," not "to be subject to."

There are a few typos: "Maravel" for "Maraval" (15, 224); "Berhard Wyss" should be "Bernhard" (15); ἐπόμενον is not the passive participle of εἶπον (210).

These are specific points, however, and they should not obscure the book's great usefulness as a whole. In addition to an introduction and a designedly brief but still helpful set of notes, it is equipped with an index locorum for references to Biblical and Christian literature, and another for Classical texts. Crucially, there are two keys to the arrangement of the letters, one listing them according to Storin's order and another in the standard numeration, so that the reader can see at a glance how in the new reconstructed order they form clearly discernible groups according to addressee, while also being able to easily locate where in Storin's translation a given letter can be found according to its standard numeration.

The reader will find especially welcome a brief prosopography of addressees and other individuals mentioned in the correspondence, which includes references to standard full-length prosopographies. [6] The list of addressees reads like a "who's who" of the cultural history of the Greek-speaking Eastern Mediterranean in the late fourth century (this is of course what Gregory had in mind). Besides a host of regional governors and other imperial officials, members of the clergy, professional sophists, and friends from Gregory's student days in Athens (categories that overlap in the case of several individuals), we find the other two Cappadocian Fathers, namely Basil and his brother Gregory of Nyssa, the great pagan luminaries Themistius and Libanius, Gregory's successor as Bishop of Constantinople, Nectarius, and even a Praetorian Prefect of the East, the number two man in the entire eastern half of the empire.

These are friends in high places indeed, as Gregory would have expected us to notice, and they alone make this collection required reading for anyone interested in Late Antique political, social, religious, or intellectual history. It is however the carefully constructed authorial voice of Gregory himself--who reminds us in the opening letter of the collection that every writer "has a signature style" (55)--that deserves to attract the attention of all students of ancient and medieval literature. Storin's work has made that voice more accessible than ever before.

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Notes:

1. A limited selection of the letters translated by C. G. Browne and J. E. Swallow appeared in P. Schaff and H. Wace, eds., A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series. Volume 7: S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1894).

2. Self-Portrait in Three Colors: Gregory of Nazianzus's Epistolary Autobiography, Christianity in Late Antiquity 6(Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019); "The Letters of Gregory of Nazianzus: Discourse and Community in Late Antique Epistolary Culture" (PhD. diss., Indiana University, 2012).

3. The Byzantine reception of Gregory is a vast topic; for an introduction see for example Jacques Noret, "Grégoire de Nazianze, l'auteur le plus cite, après la Bible, dans la littérature ecclésiastique byzantine," in J. Mossay, ed., II. Symposium Nazianzenum (Paderborn: F. Schöningh, 1983), 259-266, as well as Stratis Papaioannou, Michael Psellos: rhetoric and authorship in Byzantium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 56-63.

4. For the second and updated edition, see Paul Gallay, ed., Gregor von Nazianz: Briefe (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1969). For the earlier Budé edition with facing French translation, see Paul Gallay, ed., Saint Grégoire de Nazianze. Lettres. 2 vols. (Paris: Les Belles lettres, 1964-1967).

5. See T. M. Conley, "Demosthenes Dethroned: Gregory Nazianzus in Sikeliotes' Scholia on Hermogenes' Περὶ ἰδεῶν," Illinois Classical Studies 27/28 (2002/3): 145-152.

6. An important prosopographical reference work, especially for Gregory's circles, that could have usefully been included here: P. Janiszewski, K. Stebnicka, and E. Szabat, Prosopography of Greek Rhetors and Sophists of the Roman Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).