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The Birth of a "Byzantine" Senatorial Perspective†

From: Arethusa
Volume 33, Number 3, Fall 2000
pp. 363-377 | 10.1353/are.2000.0024

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Arethusa 33.3 (2000) 363-377



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The Birth Of A "Byzantine" Senatorial Perspective

Alexander Skinner

The main concern of this paper is the emergence of a political perspective among the eastern aristocracies of the Roman empire during the fourth century. It is a perspective illuminated for the historian by its connection with both the efflorescence of the imperial bureaucracy and the development of Constantinople as an imperial capital. For it is possible to trace the social character of the senate of Constantinople (and of the upper echelons of the bureaucracy with which it overlapped) more extensively than could once have been expected in practice. 1 As a result, one may gauge more convincingly than before the extent to which men of paideia from the civic elites of [End Page 363] the east had come, early on, to be involved as full participants in the increasing "visibility" of Roman imperial power. 2

The opportunity to explore in this way the relationship between the eastern, civic aristocracies and the expanding imperial administration is one to be grasped with both hands. For the predominant tendency has been to emphasise that the rising incidence of imperial government (and the foundation of Constantinople as a part of this phenomenon) had provoked the appearance of "two opposing currents" among the eastern provincial elites (Penella 1990.134); that the centralisation of imperial power had caused a "fracturing of the elite" (Brown 1992.19); and that there was direct competition between the duties and opportunities of civic life, on the one hand, and those of a career in the imperial bureaucracy, on the other (Millar 1983). Instructive as the study of these tensions has been, historians have emphasised, within this broad characterisation, those voices among the eastern aristocracies that may seem, most forcefully, to have expressed a mood of grievance at the corrosion of civic autonomy and of the vitality of traditional, civic institutions.

Thus, in a seminal treatment of the problem of eastern political perspectives by Professor Dagron, the differences between Themistius and Libanius were considered to furnish a clear characterisation of a "crise politique de l'hellénisme." 3 In contrast to Libanius, Themistius would cultivate a lasting role at Constantinople, not only as an imperial spokesman but also as the advocate of a unification of Hellenic and Roman political ideals. It was a role allegedly marked out for him in programmatic fashion by Constantius II, who recommended him to the eastern senate in terms that hailed his adlection as a merging of Hellenic wisdom with Roman dignity. 4 On this account, Julian stood for the repudiation of such a policy, and the relative abeyance of Themistius during Julian's reign acquires, as a result, a radical significance. Their polite disagreement over the role of the philosopher in relation to public life, and over the proper philosophy of kingship, becomes the reflection of a profound divergence over the "vocation" of Roman power. 5 [End Page 364] Their differences, in other words, amount to a split over the challenge presented by the prospect of a "synthèse de l'hellénisme et de la romanité" (Dagron 1968.65-74, quotation 65).

Such an approach has encouraged a sense that what we are dealing with is "non tanto il problema della cristianizzazione quanto quella della romanizzazione" (Forlin Patrucco 1993.762). An analogy has even been offered between Hellenism and Christianity. Where Christianity experienced a conflict between "orthodoxy" and "heresy," Hellenes could be considered to have experienced a comparable split: "In the case of paganism (and not for it alone) in the east in the fourth century the counterpart to orthodoxy was Hellenism, and the heresy was the political Romanization which Constantine the Great had inaugurated by the foundation of Constantinople" (Lemerle 1986.56 = 1971.54). On these terms, one may say of Libanius that "he is 'orthodox' in terms of cultural and political tradition," whereas Themistius is "orthodox as regards culture . . . but heretical in as far as he preaches the Constantinian tradition of political Romanization of the East" (Lemerle 1986.56).

By analogy with Themistius, the effect of this treatment is to...