- Families and Friends in Late Roman Cappadocia
After an impressive trail of published articles in peer-reviewed journals and a book on the saints of Roman Gaul (1993), Van Dam offers in a trilogy a study of Roman rule, Greek culture, Christian family life and friendship in the Roman province of Cappadocia (modern Kayseri, Turkey). Whereas the first two volumes dealt with aspects of the Roman rule, classical culture (2002), and the conversion of the province to Christianity (2003), the third is devoted to viewpoints on family life and nurturing of friendship, as revealed in the writings of Basil of Caesarea (c.330-379), Gregory of Nazianzus (c.329-c.390), and Gregory [End Page 303] of Nyssa (c.331-c.395). Justly alongside the material culled from these men, the author draws as well on the life of Macrina the Younger (c.327-372), sister of Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, to whom one of the works of the latter seems to appertain ("On the Soul and Resurrection").
No new material is uncovered, but the well-trodden method of theology is revitalized, nay utterly abandoned, through the skillful application of literaryanalysis, comparative demography, Roman-Byzantine law, gender studies, rhetorical strategies, and authorial self-representation. The application of such methodologies to documents produced in a far-removed time and environment yields unexpected results which, being in the past molded into theological categories, appeared devoid of historical and cultural information. One could refer to the lion's share of Trinitarian and Christological debates in which are cocooned most writings of the first five centuries and conclude that their authors never had time to experience the ties that bound them to earthly relations. However, such reading of past records is more the result of later tamperings with the texts—monastic scribes and copyists—rather than those who composed the originals. Although Van Dam never makes reference to the textual transmission of the texts he is using, thanks to the new method, he is still able to extricate from the theologically embedded discourse multiple glimpses of what it meant for the early Christians to be part of a God-created order. The stylistic differences notwithstanding—Basil and his brother, the bishop of Nyssa, wrote in prose, while the bishop of Nazianzus favored heavily poetry and rhetoric—in Van Dam's book all of these literary genres are properly handled and thus they provide the reader with a pretty accurate picture of the whole socio-cultural milieu in which they and their contemporaries lived. His style is lively and engaging, free of clichés that often pervade so-called hagiographical accounts of past Christian authors. If necessary, he levels criticisms, as for instance, with regard to Basil's harsh treatment of his younger brother and the cavalier ordination of him and his friend from Nazianzus to the non-existing sees of Nyssa and Sasima in 372/73. Basil even ended up in not being on speaking terms with Gregory of Nazianzus for most of his own episcopal career (371/72-379).
What one would have wished particularly in this volume is a more thorough grounding of the notions of family (better: household) and friendship in the Classical and Hellenistic sources to which the Cappadocians and other Greek-speaking Christians were indebted. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) is one of several authors who made a pretty significant contribution to the understanding of the family/household as the foundation of the city-state (polis) and for whom friendship played a significant role in explaining human relationships. However, he is barely mentioned in Van Dam's book. Neither are other authors such as Plato and the Stoics. Nor is there mention that in the case of Basil, the outgrowth of his family experience led him to the embracing and advocacy of the community-based lifestyle which he promoted in his ascetic brother/sisterhoods. Appealing to the natural tendency of humans to associate with each other, he rejected eremitism and proposed a model even more egalitarian than [End Page...