Ancient History & Civilisation


Biographies were in vogue in late antiquity. Whereas the earlier classical tradition of biographical writing, represented above all by Plutarch, used the lives of prominent men to illustrate general truths about human character, the genre was increasingly used after the third century to reflect the aura of charismatic individuals. The subjects are represented as possessing divine or semi-divine status, and this was often demonstrated by their supposed supernatural powers. It is no coincidence that these works began to appear during the most important period of change from pagan polytheism to Christianity, since they served as ammunition in the propaganda war between rival religious and philosophical camps. Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Porphyry's Life of Plotinus, and Iamblichus' Life of Pythagoras, written in praise of philosophical heroes, as well as Eunapius' Lives of the Sophists, show that such charismatic biographies could serve the pagan cause.2 Eusebius' Life of Constantine, the most important single source for the first Christian emperor, an extraordinary collage of panegyric, documentary history, and hagiography, is a hybrid work that belongs to this period of literary experimentation and intense religious competition. Like his Church History (see pp. 33–4) it incorporated many contemporary documents verbatim, notably several letters from the emperor himself. Critical engagement with the Life is essential to any modern reappraisal of Constantine's religious views and political achievements. The major problem lies not with the veracity of what Eusebius says, but in appreciating the context of his claims and gaining a good perspective on how much he omits.3

Christian hagiography is arguably the most distinctive literary genre of late antiquity. By definition hagiographies were written by Christians about Christian heroes, usually martyrs or ascetics. The era of the persecutions from the mid-third to the early fourth century provided writers with vivid subject matter, and the stories of heroic Christian deaths inspired the early church with extraordinary confidence. As Tertullian had rightly anticipated when persecution was inflicted on the Christian community of Carthage around 200, the blood of martyrs would be the seed of the church. Eusebius' Martyrs of Palestine, a record of the impact of the persecution of Maximinus on his home region, was a pioneering work. Some of the earliest saints' lives, however, relate not to martyrs but to heroic figures of the pre-Constantinian church or leading ascetics. The most influential of these was the Life of Antony, written around 357 and generally attributed to Athanasius of Alexandria. Antony, inspired by reading the gospels, foreswore a secular career for a life of increasing asceticism and seclusion. Worldly goods were traded for holiness; the comforts of a suburban existence in the Nile valley for a bleak hovel in the eastern desert. By resisting temptations and mortifying the body through fasting Antony acquired talismanic power. The story was rapidly translated, perhaps from a Coptic original, into Greek, Syriac, and at least twice into Latin. Augustine in his Confessions famously recalls how two imperial civil servants of the emperor Gratian were converted at Trier after a reading of the Life. This work was enormously influential and provided a hagiographical template which was replicated many times over in narratives of less famous saints. Hagiography was a popular genre that was produced for the edification of local congregations and communities. Although saints' lives routinely invent or distort much of their material, they often preserve valuable information about local religious practices, topography, and even church politics.4 The lives of Symeon the Stylite in northern Syria, Daniel the Stylite in fifth-century Constantinople, Nicholas of Sion in Lycia, and Theodore of Sykeon in late sixth-century Anatolia, for instance, have been quarried for detailed local information about the places and regions where holy men exercised their influence.5 Again a word of caution is in order: the writers' gaze in these works was always firmly fixed on their saintly heroes, and the background may be blurred and distorted.

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