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  • The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity by George E. Demacopoulos
  • Robert Louis Wilken
The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity. By George E. Demacopoulos. [Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion.] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2013. Pp. vi, 262. $69.95. ISBN 978-0-8122-4517-2.)

This account of the early history of the bishop of Rome has a provocative title. For George E. Demacopoulos, “invention” is not simply a metaphor; he understands [End Page 801] the term quite literally to designate a kind of discourse, what he calls the “Petrine topos” (p. 2), created by the early popes to shape and control events and to establish the unique authority of the successor to St. Peter. The term discourse does not, however, refer simply to words. Drawing on Michel Foucault, Demacopoulos uses it to designate, actions, institutions, and rituals as well as words.

A persistent theme is that claims of papal primacy were most forcibly asserted at times of papal weakness and insecurity. Rome’s hegemony “was intermittent and often contested” (p. 8). In contrast to earlier histories such as the works of Erich Caspar and Walter Ullman, Demacopoulos argues that the rise of the papacy is not an ascent from “strength to strength” (p. 8). This is most evident in the language chosen by Demacopoulos to depict how the bishops of Rome dealt with ecclesiastical, jurisdictional, and political challenges: “rhetorical performance,” “display,” “self-aggrandizement,” “anxiety,” “frustration,” “bluster,” and the like (pp. 2, 41, 42, 74, 75).

The Invention of Peter is not, however, a polemical work. Demacopoulos is a serious scholar with deep knowledge of the sources of papal history and an impressive command of the modern literature. In particular he makes good use of recent specialized studies of the social world of ancient Rome. Pope Gelasius, for example, had great difficulty, as bishop of Rome, asserting his authority over the religious practices in the homes of the senatorial elite in the city and the clergy who served them.

The central argument of the book rests on the analysis of three popes: St. Leo the Great in mid-fifth century, St. Gelasius at the end of that century, and St. Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century, with brief sections on papal dealings with the Gothic king Theodoric and the emperor Justinian. As is well known, Leo was the first bishop of Rome to identify himself with Peter. Demacopoulos calls this the “single most important rhetorical development in the history of papal self-aggrandizement” (p. 42). Significantly, Leo was less likely to invoke the “Petrine topos” when speaking to the laity or lesser clergy. In this pope’s dealings with the East and Christological debates, the “Petrine topos” appears most often when Leo’s authority was in question. The Petrine topos was a “marker of papal insecurity rather than ecclesiastical strength” (p. 71).

The tomb of St. Peter was a key factor in the celebration of papal authority and a “prime site for papal performance.” When Emperor Valentinian III visited Rome in 450, Leo made certain he took part in a vigil at St. Peter. A century later, when the Gothic king Theodoric visited Rome, Pope Symmachus saw to it that the king visited the basilica. One hundred years later, Pope Gregory required those who served as his agents to swear an oath at the tomb of St. Peter before taking up their assignments.

Leo used the term apostolic see to refer to the See of Alexandria and the See of Antioch. Gelasius, however, reserved the term for the See of Rome.

Gregory does not fit the pattern developed by earlier popes. In his writings the emphasis on Peter’s authority is muted. In Gregory’s theological works Peter serves [End Page 802] as a model of the Christian life. In fact, Gregory uses Peter’s shortcomings to highlight his humility. In dealing with affairs in Sicily, he rarely appealed to the “Petrine topos.” Gregory did, however, believe that Peter was “mysteriously active” (p. 150) in his day through miracles and relics at his tomb. On the other hand, Gregory was vigorous in...


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