BOOK REVIEW: The Bishop of Rome in Late Antiquity–Review by Zachary Porcu

Geoffrey D. Dunn [editor]. The Bishop of Rome in Late Antiquity Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2015. Pp. xi, 273. $124.95. ISBN 978-1-4724-5552-9

Geoffrey Dunn, senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University, begins his collection with an optimistic question. “Is it possible,” he asks, “for us to read the late antique evidence from the Roman bishops themselves in its own context, without the influence of later history?” (2). The perils of prochronism, personal bias, and the inevitable influence of one’s own predispositions pose a challenge to any such project, but Dunn is confident he and the other contributors are up to the task. Dunn and his collaborators aim to examine the letters of the bishops of Rome in their historical context, and from such an analysis reach some conclusions about the evolution of the Roman episcopacy, especially its self-understanding of its own authority. Dunn is especially concerned with a kind of “neutral” methodology, since “good scholarship should avoid looking at events in one period through the prism of later developments” (5), and it is clear that he and his colleagues “would all assert that [their] findings come from the evidence itself and not from later considerations” (2), even though many of the findings, from chapter to chapter, do not agree with one another.

The particular question, for Dunn, who heads this investigation, is the degree to which the bishops of Rome lay claim to a special authority or universal primacy, and how early on that claim was established. Had it always been made, right from the inception of the Church, or is it something that developed over time? Why did it develop the way it did, and how did it develop with relation to other bishops, the civil authorities, and its own church in Rome? The chapters go on to tackle one or more of these issues, as well as a few others. They are arranged chronologically, spanning the early fourth century to the late sixth century.

Chapter Analysis
The first part of the book contains three essays concerned with locating the initial causes (if any) for the bishop of Rome’s rise in primacy and its self-understanding. The collaborators take various approaches to this topic. Glen L. Thompson correlates the rise in papal authority with the transition from private places of worship (so-called “house churches”) to public places of worship, which established “a clear spiritual and administrative authority for the bishop of Rome within the city and region” (19) and which would go on to extend to greater Christendom. Marianne Saghy, however, argues that the bishops of Rome appropriated the charisma of the martyrs in order to carve out a new, greater understanding of their power and authority. Christian Hornung, meanwhile, finds that Roman primacy appears to be something that developed over time, does not begin uncontested, and that the evolution of papal letters, specifically the way that the pope addresses those letters, provides evidence of this gradual change. “At first,” he explains, “they are composed as responses, but then they become small compendia of early ecclesiastical law and develop into general norms.” (71)

Part two tackles the middle years of the study, and these chapters expand on a number of different elements. Alberto Ferreiro looks the decretal of Pope Siricius (r.384-399), which he thinks “marked an important advancement of Petrine ecclesiology and the authority of the Roman see in the Latin West” (85), noting that the surrounding bishops often sought apostolic guidance from the Bishop of Rome without Rome’s imposition or instance on itself. Similarly, Geoffrey Dunn finds that, in the eyes of other bishops, “Rome was the point of legal appeal for those who believed they could not or did not receive a fair hearing at first instance” (106), which definitely amounts to a certain sense of primacy.

Several chapters also suggest that papal primacy was born out of a Roman desire to be efficacious in Christendom, especially at times when it was not. George Demacopoulos looks to viewing the international claims of the bishop of Rome through the lens of the local issues and conflicts that helped shape the bishop of Rome’s larger perspective, in which Demacopoulos views the papal assertions of authority not as the ecclesial realities but “instead testify to a discourse of papal ambition born from frustration by a bishop who, at the moment of writing, enjoyed little tangible authority either at home or abroad” (142). A minor, though relevant point about the actual nature of the developing episcopacy, as Michele Renee Salzman points out, is to reconsider the accepted view that Prosper of Aquitaine was Pope Leo’s ghostwriter, which she thinks ascribes a level of efficiency and centralization of power to the episcopacy that was not at all present at that time.

Other contributors in this section do seem to find that a shift takes place at some point toward a sense of primacy more in-line with what we expect today from the Roman episcopacy. Philippe Blandeau examines the Liber Pontificalis and finds it valuable for its “sharp awareness of the transformations underway during the decades separating Leo’s pontificate from that of John II” (140). Blandeau sees this writing as central to understanding the relationship between Rome and Constantinople at the time, while also being valuable for not concealing the “growing pains” (140) of the episcopate’s primacy. Bronwen Neil also notes how the reign of Pope Gelasius was fraught with a variety of different kinds of conflict, and that his letters demonstrate “a major shift occurring at the end of the fifth century in the production, function and preservation of papal letters” (141) which seem to mark a very clear transition in Rome’s understanding of its own role in the greater church.[1]

Part three concludes with two chapters. In the first, Dominic Moreau investigates the causes of the double papal election of September 22, 530, concluding that it “was the consequence of an attempt by part of the Roman clergy to counter the solution found by the Gothic king and his Roman ministers such as Cassiodorus to avoid a new clash between Roman citizens” (194), which gives a sense of the broader political significance of the Roman primate’s role in the greater political landscape of Europe at the time. In the final chapter, Christopher Hanlon examines Sicily as a “microcosm” of papal rule which forecasts the ways in which later Roman bishops would administer the greater western world. He sees Gregory’s relationships with the Sicilian bishops as being a critical paradigm for papal interaction in the greater church. His use of “administrators to manage the affairs of the Sicilian patrimony of the Roman church” (198) was a precursor to church governance throughout the middle ages. Hanlon also sees this microcosm in the letters themselves, which he feels demonstrate a kind of “abridged” version of his concerns found in the Register” (214).

Strengths and Weaknesses
Perhaps the principle weakness of the book is its focus, which ends up feeling somewhat methodologically predetermined. Throughout the collection, there emerges a general theme that the understanding of the bishop of Rome’s primacy was indeed something that developed over time in certain specific ways. However, the way Dunn uses this question as a framework for the collection as a whole seems to pinch the research into a corner where it finds exactly that. It is unclear whether there would have been a different consensus, given how this question was framed.

A second issue is that it is not clear that whether all the contributors were able to succeed in letting the evidence and its historical context speak for itself. Chapter two, authored by Marianne Saghy, is perhaps the best example, which seems supported by the assumption that the moral and theological conviction of either the lay people or the ecclesiastical hierarchy could not possibly be their primary (or even secondary) concern. The narrative presented here seems to be that the shift to a greater papal supremacy was strictly a function of power negotiations and not much else. For a collection that claims independence from modern concerns as one of its primary goals, this chapter smells far too much of Foucault.

In spite of these concerns, the overall thematic diversity of the collection turns out to be its greatest strength, and the reason it is so recommendable. The detail with which each of the authors makes their respective inquiries is excellent and stimulating. For those with an interest in papal letters in late antiquity, it offers a wealth of insights and careful observations of great value. One gets the sense of the contributors approaching their evidence with a fine-toothed comb, and the result is very informative. Indeed, this collection provides innumerable opportunities for expansion into further scholarship in any of the directions which the contributors suggest, making it quite an engaging collection.

Zachary Porcu

Zachary Porcu is a doctoral student in the Church History department at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. His research interests include 4th– and 5th-century theology, Eastern Orthodoxy, John Damascene, and medieval philosophy.


[1] Neil has co-authored an expanded text on this topic with Pauline Allen, in which they discuss the increasing importance of the episcopal class: Crisis Management in Late Antiquity (410-590 CE): A Survey of the Evidence from Episcopal Letters (Brill, 2013).