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Tertullian's Chameleon

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 September 2019

Blake Leyerle*
University of Notre Dame


Tertullian's treatise De pallio is the briefest and most difficult of the North African's works. Its purpose, ostensibly, is to advocate for a change in clothing from the toga to the pallium. This sartorial shift functions, in turn, as a metaphor for conversion to the philosophical life, which, at the end of the treatise, is revealed to be the Christian life. Towards the centre of the work, Tertullian turns to nature to support his argument, citing the example of five different animals. This essay analyses his description of the chameleon, arguing that it is a riddle: drawing on the natural historians, Tertullian paints a realistic picture of the small lizard, but at the same time, skews the description of these features to depict the philosopher. The purpose of this central sketch is to alert listeners to the nature of the speech as a guessing game, and to point to the complex identity of the speaker.

Copyright © The Author(s) 2019. Published by The Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies 

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Earlier versions of this paper were given at the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2017 and of the North American Patristics Society in 2018, and I thank those audiences for their interest and encouragement. I also offer thanks to the Editor and to the anonymous readers of JRS for their generous, yet exacting comments. It is a pleasure to acknowledge how greatly I benefited from their suggestions on many specific points as well as on the argument as a whole. My greatest debt of gratitude is to Patrick Martin, who first introduced me to the work of Michael Riffaterre and then cheerfully read multiple drafts of this essay.



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