Geoffrey D. DUNN, ed.  The Bishop of Rome in Late Antiquity.   Surrey, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015.  xi + 273pp., ISBN: 978-1-4724-5551-2, $124,95, hardcover.  Reviewed by Patrick J. HAYES, Redemptorist Archives, Philadelphia, PA.


            The elasticity with which the term “late antiquity” is often regarded is a product of its coinage by Peter Brown (The World of Late Antiquity, 1971).  Consider the recent volume of John Moorhead, The Popes and the Church of Rome in Late Antiquity (Routledge, 2015), which surveys the pontificates of Leo the Great to Zacharias (440-751).  It contrasts with the present collection edited by Geoffrey Dunn, which confines itself to the tenure of Pope St. Sylvester (d. 335) and the time of Emperor Constantine to Pope St. Gregory the Great (d. 604).  This is an inordinately complicated period in church history, one in which the Church began to adjust to its newly declared freedom and not least because of the constantly shifting terrain occupied by various imperial rulers, invaders, and pretenders.  Our understanding of papal motivations and decrees is hardly made easier by the dearth of surviving documentation, but if the assembled scholars are an indication, we now possess some very closely argued theories for the development of the notion of papal authority and the accompanying responsibilities of those holding episcopal office in the most important city in Christendom.

            Four continents are represented among the eleven contributors.  This volume emerges two sessions of the 2011 International Conference on Patristic Studies at the University of Oxford.  Several, though not all, of the conference papers became book chapters.  As the editor notes, “every institution reinvented itself as it responded to the numerous challenges a new age presented” (6).  Three of the contributors focus their work on the relation between the Bishop of Rome and his local see.  Source material for these authors tends toward the epistolary, but for some the built environment offers a yardstick for measuring papal authority.  Thus, one can limn the reaches of papal power by examining the extent of the building programs then underway within Rome, particularly as these affected certain neighborhoods or families.  Pope Gelasius’ (d. 496) relation to the civil authority of the day comes in for special scrutiny.  Examination of the narrative structure of his letters suggests a master politician, even when in actuality his power was quite circumscribed.

            Among the more interesting ideas circulated is the making of Rome as a decidedly Christian city.  The cultural shift toward Christianity that accompanied its legal sanction was given legs, so to speak, through the papal reliance on martyr cults.  Inventing Rome as Christian was a matter forged through the approbation of its local bishop.  None were more creative in this regard than Damasus I (d. 384) who fueled saints’ cults as a means of exercising pagan gods from the city and bathing it in the blood of deceased heroic Christians.

            If the dead were used in aid of a rising sense of papal power, the living were also ready to lend a hand.  Popes could not always rely on the legendae of the saints, nor the bidding of their curiae; they had to persuade by the power of their own thought.  Among the more intriguing chapters in the volume is that supplied by Michele Renee Salzmann (University of California, Riverside) who discusses the supposed relationship between Pope Leo I and Prosper of Aquitaine, an acknowledged giant of theological wisdom.  Prosper has been the alleged amanuensis for Leo in one capacity or another (even some have suggested he ghostwrote all of Leo’s works), but Salzman’s problematizing of the pair’s points of contact lay waste to these claims.  In taking away Prosper’s role as secretary or notary to Leo, she suggests that the pope is far more at ease in the field of theological speculation than scholars have previously thought.  Such deep engagement on the intellectual plane (especially with anti-Pelagian arguments) places significantly more cache on his words.  That popes could be so pastorally learned and convincing tended to support the authority of their emissaries to places like Sicily or North Africa—locations which figure also in these chapters.

            We are a long way from connecting these early claims to authority to the much later developments of a papal monarchy (ably brought forward recently by Matthew Edward Harris, The Notion of Papal Monarchy in the Thirteenth Century: The Idea of Paradigm in Church History [Edwin Mellen Press, 2011] or Colin Morris, The Papal Monarchy: The Western Church from 1050 to 1250 [Oxford University Press, 1989]).  Yet that is a trajectory that is becoming more possible. 

The book has the benefit of a fulsome bibliography of ancient and modern sources.  Scholars of the papacy and church historians of the patristic and late antique periods will find much to draw out from these authors.  It is ideal for seminary libraries.