Negotiating Clerical Authority in Late Roman Italy

I spent part of the weekend finishing up Kristina Sessa brilliant new book on the formation of Papal authority in Late Antique Italy: K. Sessa, The Formation of Papal Authority in Late Antique Italy: Roman Bishops and the Domestic Sphere. (Cambridge 2012). As readers of this blog know, I have been fascinated with authority for years and Sessa’s book offers just the kind of sophisticated perspective to capture my attention. She outlined how expectations from the domestic sphere shaped and were shaped by the expanding power of the bishop. The book oozed with post-structuralism (although it was not explicitly framed this way) especially the work of P. Bourdieu. Domestic expectations formed the habitus within which episcopal authority negotiated its place in Late Roman society. 

The bishop drew heavily on the existing discourse of authority to position himself at the head of his flock in Italy. His efforts were manifest in his sermons, letters, and other texts which preserved the delicate dance between emerging episcopal authority and longstanding practices among the proud, if besieged, elite of the Late Roman West. The bishop partially defined his authority over his flock as the elite landowner and paterfamilias of the Christian community. This responsibility included care over the church’s resources, lands, and dependents as well as the involvement in the life of Christians in Italy. 

The bishop, however, did not merely adopt a traditional elite position in the Roman social order as if this kind of simple replacement was possible among elites understandably reluctant to cede authority. The Roman bishop adopted both traditional elite language of authority and subtly transformed it by replacing familiar familial social expectations with a new language of Christian stewardship over the earthly affairs. Stewardship emphasized the temporary character of earthly authority particularly over wealth. This required earthly elites to accept a demotion from absolute control over all his possessions to subordination to the bishop as the representative of the Christian God. Just as the bishop was God’s steward on earth, so the Roman elite stoop subordinate to the bishop at least in matters of salvation (and by extension many aspects of every day life). The intersection of the cosmic hierarchy and the earthly hierarchy placed the Roman elite in a position of authority, but also in a position of moral responsibility over their dependents and possessions just as the bishop carried out the work of God. Thus the bishop negotiated an important shift in Late Antique habitus by articulating key aspects of elite authority in Christian terms and locating social practice within a new set of cosmic relationships and expectations that, in turn, imposed new rules and obligations.

(Because this blog is all about me, I want to point out there that Sessa makes a far more sophisticated and clever version of the argument that I attempted to make in my dissertation. I attempted to show that the reorganization of social space within Early Christian basilicas both drew upon well-known rituals and social practices, but inscribed them within a new Christian cosmology. This enabled the rise of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Greece as Greek society renegotiated traditional forms according to a new set of rules.) 

The rest of the book is every bit as cool as Sessa described how the bishop of Rome put his newly articulated authority into use. Like so much scholarship these days, Sessa is deeply interested in understand how ecclesiastical authority penetrated longstanding elite patterns. She looks at how bishops became involved in marital issues, the relationship between landowners and slaves, and the family economy. As ecclesiastical elite exerted a growing influence over all aspects of religious practice, the traditional involvement of the paterfamilias over religions worship in the home eroded. This included some of the tricky issues surrounding worship at home that Kim Bowes treats at some length in her book  (my reflections on it here).

The control over the location and authority of the liturgy seems to have been central to ecclesiastical authority. If the liturgy was the primary means that the Christian community gained access to God, then the control over this mediating act was central to projecting authority over the community. 

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