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In this Element the author argues that genre deeply affects how early Christian female philosophers are characterized across different works. The included case studies are three women who feature in both narrative and dialogic texts: Thecla, Macrina the Younger and Monica. Based on these examples, the author demonstrates that the narrative sources tend to eschew secular education, while the dialogic sources are open to displays of secular knowledge. Philosophy was not only seen as a way of life, but sometimes also as a mode of educated argumentation. The author further argues that these female philosophers were held up in their femininity as models for imitation by both women and men.
Methodius of Olympus has often been relegated to unique status, somehow cut off from the wider trends of late Imperial literature. This is partially due to the difficult status of his corpus and the opaque nature of his biography, but also partially due to the period in which he lived. Because we do not know much about the late third century, scholars are often left to think about this period very quickly and as a transition. And while there have been many attempts to look squarely at it as a period of political transition, there have been fewer attempts to linger over this period as a holistic literary landscape. The despair of either well-known primary sources or ancient historical narratives to guide such a study has not encouraged scholars to dedicate much energy to such a task, and even those who have tried often ignore the writer who is the subject of this book. In neglecting Methodius, scholarship has also neglected the opportunity to create a fuller picture of the literary world of the third century.
Literature in the Imperial period often displays a love of collection and compilation. The miscellanies of Aelian (both historical and animal), the crazy quilt of Clement of Alexandria’s theological musings in the Stromata and the collected biographies of Diogenes Laertius are only a few of the Severan-era examples of miscellanies. Jason König and Tim Whitmarsh have gone so far as to say that “it is sometimes hard to avoid the impression that accumulation of knowledge is the driving force of all Imperial prose literature” (König and Whitmarsh 2007: 3). And while miscellany could find a home in a variety of genres, there was one genre that was found to be particularly welcoming to the addition of bit upon bit – the Symposium.
In 362 CE, Julian the Apostate issued his famous School Edict, which effectively forbade Christians from teaching pagan texts. Decried by pagan and Christian alike, it also led to a rush of creative writing from a Christian father and son of the same name who were already well known as rhetoricians, the Apollinarii. The church historians Socrates and Sozomen relate that they took to transforming the Christian scriptures into new genres, to provide substitutes for the traditional pagan texts that were now forbidden for Christian teachers to use. The historical books of the Old Testament were translated into a mixture of heroic verse and tragedy, the Psalms into dactylic hexameter. But the Gospels were transformed into Platonic dialogues. In many ways, the intuition of the Apollinarii was a natural one: Jesus, like Socrates, was a wise man who spread his teaching through personal conversation and interaction, sometimes in the context of celebratory meals, until suffering death at the hands of the state for his subversive teaching. However, the choice seems far from natural to other readers and thinkers, especially certain modern scholars. For them, the playful seriousness and genuine openness of the Socratic-inspired dialogues of Plato (and presumably the other Socratics) is antipathetical to the spirit of Christianity.
Writers of the Greek Imperial period believed that they were living in a great period of prose; it was an element of their self-conscious periodization. When a visitor to Delphi asks in Plutarch’s The Oracles at Delphi are No Longer Given in Verse why the Pythia no longer gives poetic prophecies, the interlocutor Theon explains that it is not only the Pythia that has moved from verse to prose, but a large number of other genres of literature have made the change as well, such as history and philosophy. Modern scholars tend to agree with this ancient assessment. The rise of the novel, the Gospels, the cultural capital of display oratory, even the emphasized innovation of Aelius Aristides’ composition of prose hymns is adduced by modern scholars as evidence of a change that was noticed by authors of the time.
Silence is a good thing … If you will learn and discover, silence is a friend and a fellow-worker. But seeking eloquence and aptitude, you will find it in speech and nowhere else, or in words and in their continuous practice.
If dialogues should lead to new dialogues, to the opening up of new topics to explore and discuss, then it is my hope that this book will do the same. In particular, I have had little room in this book to look at the other surviving dialogues of Methodius, although On Free Will, On the Resurrection and On Leprosy have had a certain role to play in the story that I have told. My hope is that future scholars interested in the literature of the transitional period of the Crisis of the Third Century will take up the challenge of reading and analyzing these fascinating and woefully understudied texts. Even more fundamentally, I hope that this book has contributed to two larger scholarly projects. I hope that it has convinced scholars of Imperial literature that they ignore Christian evidence to their own loss, and I hope that I have convinced scholars of Late Antiquity that interesting things are happening in the field of literature.
As driving instructors and philosophers alike tell us, where you look has a lot to do with where you end up going. Focusing on a billboard may result with you and your car in a ditch. And where your imagination lovingly lingers forms who you become. This book examines a moment when authors were struggling to redirect the gaze, and thereby the path, of a generation during the period of the “Crisis of the Third Century,” the tipping-point between the period typically referred to as the “Second Sophistic” and the period that has come to be known as “Late Antiquity.” Through the prism of a particularly creative author of the late third century, I will argue in this book that Greek Imperial literature can be read with more depth and subtlety as an aesthetic battle between a rhetoric of the old and a rhetoric of the new.
This book sheds light on a relatively dark period of literary history, the late third century CE, a period that falls between the Second Sophistic and Late Antiquity. It argues that more was being written during this time than past scholars have realized and takes as its prime example the understudied Christian writer Methodius of Olympus. Among his many works, this book focuses on his dialogic Symposium, a text which exposes an era's new concern to re-orient the gaze of a generation from the past onto the future. Dr LaValle Norman makes the further argument that scholarship on the Imperial period that does not include Christian writers within its purview misses the richness of this period, which was one of deepening interaction between Christian and non-Christian writers. Only through recovering this conversation can we understand the transitional period that led to the rise of Constantine.