Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 December 2011
In late antiquity, excellence in household management was construed as a mark of holiness in a bishop. Nowhere is this axiom more apparent than in Gregory's Dialogues, the late sixth-century bishop's account of sanctity and the miraculous in contemporary Italy. In the Dialogues, we meet saints such as Boniface of Ferentino, who produced enough wine for the poor and the bishop's household from a lean harvest of grapes picked from his church's small vineyard. Boniface's supernatural estate management evidently also included pest control. When the garden was infested with caterpillars, the bishop commanded the bugs to “stop eating these vegetables!” and they obeyed. Elsewhere, Gregory extolled Frigdianus of Lucca and Sabinus of Piacenza for redirecting the swollen rivers of their dioceses away from the church's fields. The presence of episcopal householders in the Dialogues with ascetic superstars such as Benedict of Nursia and the bearded widow Galla was not accidental. For Gregory and his predecessors, acts of domestic administration could signal saintliness in a bishop.
Roman bishops regarded the elite domus as a model of good government. To lead the church, they had to be seen as expert estate managers, men who could be trusted with the orderly and ethical oversight of property and people. The fact that bishops were religious leaders, men associated with heightened spiritual (even miraculous) authority, does not mean that they were not also masters of oikonomia. Household management offered prelates a system of ethical and practical knowledge applicable to the mundane tasks of running a major ecclesiastical institution and to the harder job of forging moral preeminence. Its historical significance equals (and perhaps even surpasses) more familiar paradigms of Roman episcopal authority, like Petrine primacy and apostolic succession. In late Roman Italy, Peter was not only the princeps apostolorum but also the primus cultor, God's “first caretaker,” who solicitously cultivated the Lord's lands and souls.