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Reviewed by:
  • Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church: Emperor Julian, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Vision of Rome by Susanna Elm
  • Robin Darling Young
Susanna Elm
Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church: Emperor Julian, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Vision of Rome
Berkeley, CA, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2012
Pp. xviii + 553. $75.00.

Among Christians in late antiquity, the memory of the emperor Julian was bitter and enduring. Julian, like the emperors Diocletian and Constantine before him, had attempted to protect and foster the fortunes of the vast expanse of territory for which he, as Augustus, was responsible. Before leading the Roman army to victories along the northern and western frontiers, he had taken on the full freight of Greek paideia. In his own mind, he ruled as philosopher-king, like Marcus Aurelius; and in addition to military campaigns, he employed the full range of philosophical genres and legal means to guide the empire back into the true path—the mos maiorum prevailing before Christianity’s advance to legal status and imperial sponsorship under his predecessor Constantine.

Christians, particularly those of the eastern provinces of the empire, cultivated the memory of Julian’s brief reign (361–63) with vituperative hymns, sermons, biographical and historical accounts, and—two centuries after his death—a long narrative of his life and satisfying death known as the Julian Romance, in which the city of Edessa features strongly in foretelling Julian’s downfall and death on his Persian campaign. Recent scholarly studies of Julian’s reign and its opponents, and of his literary corpus, are abundant. His learned and vigorous opposition to Christianity has earned him admirers to the present day.

Of Julian’s detractors, however, Gregory of Nazianzus was the first. The ardent Christian writer, ascetic, bishop, and poet has been celebrated as the neo-Nicene theologian who made possible the decision of the Council of Constantinople and the triumph of Trinitarian orthodoxy. He wrote two elaborate invectives against Julian (Orations 4 and 5). Therefore, historians of the period, and in particular historians of Christianity, have traditionally regarded the two as enemies.

It is the brilliant insight of Susanna Elm to consider the two as a couple of sorts. Her monumental examination of their related careers has documented their similarity minutely and will make it impossible in the future to separate the [End Page 637] ambitions each one represents. In Sons of Hellenism, Elm has investigated the topic with such care, and proven her case at such length and with such convincing evidence, that the two have been removed from their customary scholarly categories and restored to their rightful context—the history of Hellenism in the Roman Empire of the late fourth century.

But the book centers on the career of Julian—primarily his literary career, with some attention to his military and administrative efforts—and the career of Gregory—primarily his early career, up to the time of his fifth oration, the second of two against Julian. Elm’s first operation is to pry each person loose from his (mostly Christian) reception-history. In the case of Julian, this means demolishing the narrative that has seen him as a second-rate philosopher and an apostate Christian, thus explicitly as a traitor to his family of origin, which had previously (with Constantine, or Constantine’s father Constantius Chlorus) favored Christianity. In the case of Gregory, the operation required demolishing the image of Gregory as a frail flower, only reluctantly entering the priesthood (allegedly pressured by his father, Gregory the Elder) and only out of necessity criticizing the actions of Julian. Elm demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that Julian was a serious philosopher, one who had examined Christianity and rejected it on rational grounds; and that he was a sober administrator and a successful army commander, at least in his early career. Elm also puts paid to the sentimental piety that holds Gregory to have been a sensitive soul, a withdrawn and delicate ascetic who resented his friend Basil of Caesarea’s bullying and only reluctantly engaged in combat with the emperor. In the course of her rebuttal of previous scholarly (and theological) traditions, then, Elm has removed the...


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