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Greek Historiography, Roman Society, Christian Empire: The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Caesarea

  • Author(s): DeVore, David John
  • Advisor(s): Elm, Susanna K
  • et al.

"Greek Historiography, Roman Society, Christian Empire: the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Caesarea" addresses a major shift in Roman social, political, and religious history at the pivotal turn of the fourth century AD. When Christianity was legalized in 313, the Christian church of the eastern Roman Empire, where the pagan Licinius ruled as emperor until the Christian Constantine defeated him in 324, remained in an insecure position. The Greek-speaking eastern Roman elite of this period only admitted outsiders to their circles who displayed a civilized manner of life inculcated in the elite Greek educational curriculum (paideia), the kind of life embodied by Greek philosophers. It was, I argue, to depict this newly legalized Christianity as the models of the philosophical life that Eusebius of Caesarea wrote the first history of the church in the 310s AD. Whereas Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History is usually studied for its intra-Christian discourse, this study considers the History as a Greek text aimed at Roman elites. I demonstrate that the History's reconfiguration of Greek historiographical genres constructed Christianity as a civilized and educated institution whose leaders were worthy to educate and advise the Roman ruling classes.

The first three chapters present a reading of the Ecclesiastical History within the rich variety of Greek historiographical genres. The first chapter applies genre theory to show that Eusebius' History was a combination of the Greek genres of national history and philosophical biography. This combination of genres presented the church as a nation of philosophers ready to assume the standard role of philosophers in the Roman Empire, of teaching Roman elites a civilized manner of life and of advising Roman emperors. The second chapter scrutinizes the character of Eusebius' Christianity by studying eighty mini-biographies embedded into the History that echo Diogenes Laertius', Philostratus', and Porphyry's philosophical biographies. By highlighting Christians' homogeneous and universal intellectual prowess, these profiles represent the church as reliable educators and advisors. The third chapter argues that, in a riposte to the grand genre of Greek war history that valorized other nations' pasts, Eusebius transformed persecution and martyrdom from an orderly legal procedure into a violent struggle told in the manner of the great Greek historian Thucydides. As the church's enemy in the struggle martyrdom was Satan and not the Roman persecutors of Christianity, Eusebius could call martyrdoms "wars contested for peace in the soul," critiquing Greek war history with Greek philosophical discourse. His church emerges victorious by remaining steadfastly loyal to God, surpasses the warriors in Greek literature by its virtuous conduct of the wars, and, by scapegoating the demons, absolves the Roman Empire of any systemic flaw that would discourage Christians from supporting it.

The next three chapters complement my analysis of the Ecclesiastical History's genres by locating Eusebius' Christianity in the social structures of the early fourth-century Roman Empire. The fourth chapter introduces Eusebius' experience of living under Rome through a thick description of the archaeological remains of his home city, Caesarea Maritima. Caesarea was unmistakably a Roman creation, as the governor of Palestine resided there and the city's topography featured numerous monuments to Roman power, including monuments to philosophers who were respected in the city. The peaceful, prosperous and well-connected life that a wealthy man such as Eusebius could live there solidified Eusebius' loyalty to the Roman Empire. The fifth chapter shows how Eusebius integrated the church into the Empire: he delineated networks of bishops and intellectuals that stretched across the Empire from Mesopotamia to Gaul and Carthage. The geographically diffused church displays a variety of mechanisms for maintaining long-distance cohesion, and the cohesive and homogeneous philosophical church bound together by these ties attracts favor from Roman leaders throughout the History. Through these encounters Eusebius patterned the church's relationship with the Empire after that of Greek philosophers: philosophers typically stayed in contact with emperors and governors while maintaining a critical distance from imperial power, so as to provide impartial advice for imperial officials. Eusebius placed Christians into the beneficial imagined relationship that philosophers had held with the Empire, from which they would strengthen imperial governance. The sixth chapter contextualizes the History in Eusebius' larger literary oeuvre. He published the History when he was writing his long magnum opus, the Gospel Preparation and Gospel Demonstration, a comprehensive exposition and defense of Christian doctrine. Eusebius' simultaneous publication of the Preparation-Demonstration with the History emulated the combination of expository works with biographical narratives in Greek philosophical curricula. Eusebius' forging of a comprehensive program for training Christians to think and act as philosophers positioned the church to displace Greek philosophical schools as the premier intellectual institution of the Empire. From this position, the church could then reinforce the Empire's mission to civilize the inhabited world.

The History articulated a central role for Eusebius' church in Rome's imperial regime. Where the most prominent role of Greek philosophers was to educate imperial elites and advise Roman emperors, Eusebius' assertion of Christians' intellectual prowess claimed the church's superiority as a philosophical institution. Eusebius published his vision at a fortuitous moment, for when the Christian emperor Constantine conquered the eastern Roman Empire in 324, the History had already advertised church leaders' competence in the philosophical profession. By telling the church's history within the Greek historiographical tradition stretching back to Herodotus and Thucydides, therefore, Eusebius' History became a catalyst for the church's integration into the power structures of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.

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