Biography 25.2 (2002) 375-377
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This collection of eleven papers grew out of a 1996 symposium at the Centre for the Study of European Civilization at the University of Bergen. As a group, they tell us a great deal about the early traditions in which biography as an art is steeped, for better or worse. The authors discussed—Iamblichus (fl. c. 165-180), Porphyry (235-c. 305), Eusebius (c. 260-339), Athanasius (c. 295-373), Themistius (c. 317-388), Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389), Eunapius (b. c. 345), Jerome (c. 347-420), and the unknown author of the Historia monachorum—do not appeal to a wide readership, and in some cases are not easy to find in translation. Their influence, however, makes them a rewarding object of study.
We can be especially grateful, therefore, that these biographers and their contemporaries have been so well served by recent scholarship. Additional contributions to the field are to be found in articles collected by Mark Edwards and Simon Swain, Portraits: Biographical Representation in the Greek and Latin Literature of the Roman Empire (Oxford, 1997) and Mary Whitby, The Propaganda of Power: The Role of Panegyric in Late Antiquity (Brill, 1998).
The trend toward biography is such a marked development in the Greek and Latin literature of the Roman Empire that its features bear close examination for the stamp its authors left on the form. The present volume concentrates on two hundred years of cultural transition from pagan Hellenism into Christian Hellenism, c. A.D. 250-450. During this time, the craft of recording lives fell into two related genres: biography and panegyric. Both are rooted in the fourth century B.C. Biography, the more elusive and bookish form, allowed the author to disappear behind his narrative. Panegyric, which grew out of the encomiastic speechifying of Isocrates, was an openly epideictic, performative art in which the performer was as important as the person being praised—"your honor, my reputation," as Frederick Norris puts it in the title of his paper about Gregory of Nazianzus's funeral oration for St. Basil. Panegyric therefore had a double agenda; but biography too tended to have its hidden agenda as "a vehicle for ideas and the embodiment of ideals" (4).
Erotic imagery, as pointed out by Cox Miller, is one feature of the expressionistic manner of fourth century biographical sketches that links them to Neoplatonism. G. W. Bowersock calls attention to the metaphor of painting in the Syriac life of Rabbula. The vivid realism found in both biography and panegyric tempts the reader to see in them glimpses of ancient life, but such [End Page 375] flashes of color are more a matter of theatricality than of any wish to sketch the world as it was. In short, it is a mistake to look for social experience in these writings, or to seek in them anything more real than the designs of the authors and the ideologies of an era when learned paganism and Christian piety were vying for the sympathy of the reader. These are ideological, protreptic texts, using chosen personages as vehicles of persuasion.
In "a vocabulary of commitment common to both pagan and Christian" (Clark 48), the narration of lives seeks to show the philosopher or saint described as close to the divine—hagios in Christian terms or theios in pagan —thereby producing a "dazzle that substitutes a divine luminosity in the place of human features" (Miller 233). In the emotionally charged rhetoric that can be found in both Christian and Classical traditions, biography merges with hagiography, with the one honored represented either as approaching divinity, or like a finished work of divine art. One lasting imprint this left on the biographic imagination of later centuries was the freely-bestowed epithet "divine," used in referring to any past master. Writing in the mid-sixteenth century, the anatomist Andreas Vesalius refers to "the divine Hippocrates" and "the divine...