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Intimations of a Massacre: Thessalonica, Theodosius I and Self-Ironization in Socrates Scholasticus’s Historia Ecclesiastica

  • Luke Gardiner (a1)


From the vantage point of Constantinople in AD 440, under the rule of the orthodox Theodosian dynasty, Nicene Christianity may have appeared unassailable. Many of the most challenging of the heresies that had emerged in the century since Constantine’s conversion seemed to be receding. Even the devastating Christological controversies that had erupted in the early 430s may (understandably, if wrongly) have looked, with Nestorius’s deposition and the Formula of Reunion (433), to be under control. And yet Constantinople retained its confessional diversity, with members of numerous Christian sects – penalized by law theoretically, but often still visible and vocal in practice – living alongside members of the mainstream Nicene church.

The reimposition of a Nicene hierarchy over the major churches of Constantinople had happened only from the 380s onwards. It had been a process fraught with difficulties – not least the survival in large numbers of groups polemically labelled as Arian, and the persistence of their intellectual, theological and historical traditions, even as their hopes of political or theological hegemony faded. From this milieu had come the Eunomian Philostorgius (c.368–439), and his highly sectarian – and anti-Nicene – Church History of the fourth and fifth centuries.



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1 See Snee, Rochelle, ‘Gregory Nazianzen’s Anastasia Church: Arianism, the Goths, and Hagiography’, DOP 52 (1998), 15786 , esp. 157–8.

2 On Constantinopolitan Nicene anti-Arian propaganda, see Snee, Rochelle, ‘Valens’ Recall of the Nicene Exiles and Anti-Arian Propaganda’, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 26 (1985), 395419.

3 For Socrates’ Church History [hereafter: HE], I use Sokrates. Kirchengeschichte, ed. Günther Christian Hansen (Berlin, 1995); for the Church Histories of Rufinus and Eusebius [hereafter also: HE], Eusebius Werke 2: Die Kirchengeschichte, ed. Eduard Schwartz and Theodor Mommsen, 3 vols (Berlin, 1999).

4 On Socrates, see Urbainczyk, Theresa, Socrates of Constantinople: Historian of Church and State (Ann Arbor, MI, 1997); Wallraff, Martin, Der Kirchenhistoriker Sokrates: Untersuchungen zu Geschichtsdarstellung, Methode und Person (Göttingen: 1997); Van Nuffelen, Peter, Un héritage de paix et de piété. Étude sur les histoires ecclésiastiques de Socrate et Sozomène (Louvain, 2004). On Socrates’ supposed Novatianism, see n. 29 below.

5 e.g. Socrates, HE 1.6.41, 7.13.20.

6 e.g. Socrates, HE 1.8.24-8.

7 Socrates’ text begins (HE 1.1.1-2) by noting the need to retell the origins of Arianism, as Eusebius’s narrative was deformed by political, panegyrical concerns.

8 See ibid. 1.23.6. At 2.21, Socrates, at perhaps telling length, cited sections of Eusebius’s Contra Marcellum to prove his orthodoxy.

9 e.g. Socrates, HE 7.26.

10 Nuffelen, Van, Héritage, 163242, 26279, 290303, 30712 ; Wallraff, Sokrates, 135–207.

11 Eusebius, HE 1.1.3.

12 e.g. Socrates, HE 3.1.41.

13 e.g. ibid. 6.19.8.

14 e.g. ibid. 1.10.4.

15 See, most recently, Urbainczyk, Socrates, 161–70; Washburn, Daniel, ‘The Thessalonian Affair in the Fifth-Century Histories’, in Drake, Harold, ed., Violence in Late Antiquity: Perceptions and Practices (Aldershot, 2006), 21524 ; cf. Van Nuffelen, Héritage, 388–9.

16 McLynn, Neil, Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital (Berkeley, CA, 1994), 31530.

17 Kolb, Frank, ‘Der Bußakt von Mailand: zum Verhältnis von Staat und Kirche in der Spätantike’, in Geschkhte und Gegenwart: Festschrift für K.-D. Erdmann, ed. Boockmann, H., Jürgensen, K. and Stoltenberg, G. (Neumünster, 1980), 4174.

18 Frakes, Robert, ‘Butheric and the Charioteer’, in idem, Digeser, Elizabeth DePalma and Stephens, Justin, eds, The Rhetoric of Power in Late Antiquity: Religion and Politics in Byzantium, Europe and the Early Islamic World (London, 2010), 4762.

19 McLynn, Ambrose, 323.

20 Ibid. 328.

21 Washburn, ‘Thessalonians’, 222.

22 Cf. McLynn, Ambrose, 322–3.

23 Washburn, ‘Thessalonians’, 218.

24 Cf. Wallraff, Sokrates, 188–90, 254–5; Leppin, Hartmut, ‘The Church Historians (I): Socrates, Sozomenus, and Theodoretus’, in Marasco, G., ed., Greek and Roman Historiography in Late Antiquity (Leiden, 2003), 21954 , at 227.

25 Socrates, HE 1.12.10; 1.15.10; 1.19.10; 2.1.1; 3.19.8; 4.24.8.

26 Cf. ibid. 5.11-17; Rufinus, HE 11.11-22.

27 Cf. Washburn’s refutation of Urbainczyk’s suggestion that the absence depended upon the overriding importance for Socrates of presenting positive, balanced emperor-bishop relations (i.e. Thessalonica might show Ambrose with the whip-hand over Theodosius): ‘Thessalonians’, 221–2.

28 Washburn, ‘Thessalonians’, 223.

29 Socrates’ evasion of Rufinus’s penitential model is also attributed to his supposed membership of the Novatianists, a Nicene schismatic sect which denied the efficacy of institutional penance: Wallraff, Sokrates, 235–56. The evidence for Socrates’ membership is, however, not conclusive: cf. Leppin, ‘Historians’, 221–2. Indeed, in places Socrates may perhaps be seen as critical of the sect precisely because of their hostility towards institutional penance, e.g. in his giving prominence to Constantine’s criticism of this hostility: HE 1.10.3-4. Socrates’ attitude towards the efficacy of institutional penance elsewhere is far from being one of uncomplicated hostility.

30 Socrates, HE 5.18.

31 Ibid. 5.8, 10.

32 Ibid. 5.16.

33 Rufinus, HE 11.22.

34 For Socrates, Theophilus was highly objectionable (e.g. HE 6.2) – not an ideal figure with whom to associate.

35 Ibid. 5.16.11.

36 That Socrates was not committed slavishly to the Theodosian dynasty is clear also in his critical account of the relationship between Theodosius II and Nestorius: HE 7-29-33.

37 Rufinus, HE 11.18.1.

38 Socrates, HE 4.19.1.

39 Cf. Wallraff, Sokrates, 261 (esp. on HE 3.21.15).

40 Socrates, HE 4.19.

41 Listed consecutively (HE 4.15-22), with little attention paid to distinguishing chronological gaps and with the appearance of wilful distortion, are: Valens’s execution of a number of Nicene presbyters at sea; Valens’s persecution at Antioch of Nicenes, which can be dated to 370; next, the persecution at Edessa, implied as contemporaneous but most likely occurring in 375 ( Lenski, Noel, Failure of Empire: Valens and the Roman State in the Fourth Century A.D. [Berkeley, CA, 2003], 257); then the magic trials at Antioch in 371/2, followed by Athanasius’s death, here placed in 371 rather than the well-attested 373 (in Rufinus’s narrative, Athanasius’s death correctly precedes the Edessene massacres). Finally, there follows the judicial and extra-judicial violence in Alexandria under the Arian Lucius, an episode, like the purges, concerned with the chaotic, disruptive consequences of abrogating justice and rushing to judgement.

42 Socrates, HE 4.19.4.

43 Van Nuffelen, Peter, ‘Dürre Wahrheiten: zwei Quellen des Berichts von Socrates Scholasticus über die Versorgungskrise in Antiochien 362/3’, Philologus 147 (2003), 3526 , at 353; cf. idem, Héritage, 465 n. 15.

44 Socrates, HE 3.1.16.

45 Mirroring his portrayal of Theodosius, Socrates’ depiction of Valens was not, aside from this series of episodes, uniformly hostile. This suggests here also an attempt to simulate the appearance of sectarian tendentiousness (this time unalloyed hostility to a heretical emperor). Whilst Socrates was generally critical of Valens, he was, when compared with his sources, more willing to introduce episodes into the church historical tradition favourable to Valens. After this series of events, Valens moderated persecution, not cynically, but persuaded by good advice; he permitted settlement of the Goths with uncharacteristic kindness; before the Adrianople debacle he even won victories; and (unlike in other accounts) he did not die as the result of divine punishment; HE 4.32.5, 4.34.2, 4.38. Earlier on, Socrates had praised Valens, with Valentinian, for refusing apostasy under Julian; in temporal matters, Valens reigned as well as Valentinian for a time: ibid. 4.1.8–11. Furthermore, despite being generally in favour of Valentinian (ibid. 4.1.12-13, 4-29.1), and omitting his magic trials at Rome, Socrates could be more nuanced elsewhere: ibid. 4.31.10-18.

46 Ammianus, Res Gestae 29.1, on Valens’s trials; cf. ibid. 28.1 onwards for Valentinian’s.

47 Kelly, Christopher, ‘Crossing the Frontiers: Imperial Power in the Last Book of Ammianus’, in Boeft, J. Den et al., eds, Ammianus after Julian: The Reign of Valentinian and Valens in Books 26–31 of the Res Gestae (Leiden, 2007), 27192 , at 290.

48 Socrates, HE 4.21-2, cf. 4.24.

49 Ibid. 4.22.1.

Intimations of a Massacre: Thessalonica, Theodosius I and Self-Ironization in Socrates Scholasticus’s Historia Ecclesiastica

  • Luke Gardiner (a1)


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