"Manichee!": Leo the Great and the Orthodox Panopticon
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Leo the Great and the Orthodox Panopticon

“There is no one who does not feel hatred when hearing about the pseudo-bishops and the Manichees.” 1 Priscillian of Avila’s comment is perhaps no place more true than in Rome in the years immediately following the Vandal invasion of North Africa, when, after the collapse of Carthage in 439, amongst the refugees who flooded into Italy were Manichees. Once arrived, these established their own conventicles, presumably in abandoned regions of the city. 2 By 443 Leo was urging his Christian listeners to keep an eye out for them. Over the course of 18 months, in what has been called “le premier monument de l’histoire de l’Inquisition,” 3 he promoted a programme to identify, extract confessions, try and exile his heretical opponents, and to burn their books. Much attention has been given to Leo’s campaign as evidence of robust papal authority, resolute christianized romanitas, in the midst of profound social disintegration. 4 But little study has been devoted to the social function of Leo’s persecution of the Manichees, nor to a close analysis of the strategies and rhetoric deployed [End Page 441] by Leo to ensure that the “catholic” population would actively cooperate in an anti-Manichaean campaign. The following seeks to move beyond the more traditional doctrinal assessments of Leo’s anti-heretical writings and to place his persecution of the Manichees in a larger anthropological, social and political framework, as part of what one might call, following Michel Foucault, the “microphysics of power” in the dispute. 5 We are interested in determining how the hatred of Manichees in Rome led to accusation, denunciation and betrayal, as well as its place in a watchful, disciplined care of the Christian self.

Denounce, Betray, Renounce

By the 440’s Manichaeism had become the favored target of imperial persecution. 6 Suppressed by successive waves of anti-heretical legislation and vilified by Christian theologians in the pre-Constantinian period onward, it had, by the time Leo encountered it in Rome, come to embody all that was antithetical to the ideals of a Christian society. Charged with secrecy, sorcery, the use of magical arts, and the practice of sordid ritual, its crime was not so much that it was a heretical perversion of Christianity—more dramatically it was depicted as a whole other religion, quintessentially antithetical to the Church. Those Christians who were seduced into Manichaeism were, according to its detractors, worse then heretics; they were apostates. 7 It is in this long tradition of anti-Manichaean zeal and fear that Leo’s polemic finds its place. In six sermons and at least one letter 8 the [End Page 442] bishop denounces Manichaeism as a superstitio (Serm. 76.6; cf. Val. Nov. 18.1, 18.1.4), its adherents as guilty of impietas (Serm. 16.4, 34.4, cf. 42.5; Ep. 7.2). 9 A plague (morbus, Ep. 7.1), contagion (Ep. 7.1; Serm. 42.5, 34.4) and pestilence (pestis, Ep. 7.2; Serm. 16.5), they pollute or contaminate unsuspecting souls by their diabolical presence, sacrilege, and filthy acts (Serm. 16.5,6, 24.4,6, 34.4, 46.1; Ep. 7.1; cf. Val. Nov. 18.1, 18.1.4). Mad, blasphemous, and profane (Serm. 16.4, 24.4, 42.5) they are “most savage enemies of souls” (saevissimos animarum hostes, 179B) against whom all vigilance is to be deployed (Serm. 16.5,6; cf. Val. Nov. 18.1). As an execrable and sacrilegious heresy (Ep. 7.2; Serm. 16.5, 24.4, 76.6; Val. Nov. 18.1, 18.1.1) the Manichees are to be shunned, publicly exposed, betrayed and exiled (Serm. 9.4, 16.6, 34.5, 42.5; Ep. 7.1,2).

Of particular significance in this “repertory of defilement” 10 are the passages where Leo accuses the Manichees of being deceivers who infiltrate catholic worship and mislead unwitting souls by masquerading as showpieces of ascetical piety. Leo must remind his flock of proper ascetic discipline: catholics rightly fast on Wednesdays and Fridays and are not to be duped by the diabolical ascetical innovations of the Manichees...