Monday, May 1, 2023

Religion and Rhetoric at the Courts of the Theodosians, c. 379-404 A.D.

Kybett, Benjamin
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This thesis examines the process of Christianisation at the courts of the Theodosian emperors in a twenty-five year period at the end of the fourth century and the start of the fifth. It does so through the orations of two pagan orators who carved out successful careers for themselves during this period: in the Greek East, at the court of Theodosius I in Constantinople, the Aristotelian philosopher and rhetor, Themistius; in the Latin West, the poet Claudian, who delivered a number of orations in the form of epic poems at the court of Honorius, and the boy-emperor’s de facto regent Stilicho.

The central argument of the thesis is that the religious significance of the ‘classicising’ material in both Themistius’ and Claudian’s rhetoric have been underrated in recent scholarship. Both orators refer extensively to pagan gods, pagan mythology, pagan philosophers, and the literature of the pagan past. Most scholars however have preferred to play down, or even deny, that this has anything to do with pagan religious identity, observing that these orators delivered their speeches to largely Christian audiences, which had come to regard such material as aesthetic and antiquarian. I argue that Themistius and Claudian were able to use these references ambiguously and ambivalently; that is, in such a way that they could be regarded as irrelevant to religion by Christian members of the audience, while inviting the ‘activation’ of religious identity by pagan members. In doing so, Themistius and Claudian were able both to fulfil the epideictic purpose of their orations to unite the audience in praise of the emperor, and to represent pagan identity in the political sphere.

I also make the case that the Theodosian period has been overemphasised in the scholarship as a watershed in the process of Christianisation. While many have seen in these decades a turn towards a more aggressive and intolerant ‘imperial’ Christianity, I argue that pagan religious identity still had a significant role to play in both politics and culture, and indeed was accepted by the Christian regimes of Theodosius and Honorius. By comparing Themistius and Claudian, and arguing they played similar roles, and achieved similar effects, I suggest that the pace of religious change in these years was less dramatic than has been supposed.

The thesis is divided into three parts. Part I lays out the historiographical and methodological issues that underpin my argument. The first chapter offers a discussion of religious identity in late Antiquity, followed by an exploration of some key themes in the historiography of Christianisation in the fourth century. The second chapter presents my reading strategy for the orations of Themistius and Claudian, addressing the nature and role of epideictic rhetoric, and the relationship between literature, mythology, and religion in late-antique texts. Parts II and III are dedicated respectively to Themistius and Claudian. Each part has an introduction briefly describing the historical circumstances each orator faced, in particular the position and policies of the Theodosian emperors. I then provide a contextualising chapter, in which I address the main historical questions associated with each author and their work; this is followed by my analysis of the religious material in each set of orations (for Claudian, his carmina maiora; for Themistius, his orations delivered during Theodosius’ reign, i.e. Or. 14-19, 31 and 34). In the conclusion, I offer some discussions and observations about the consequences my reading of Themistius and Claudian has for our understanding of the process of Christianisation in the fourth century.

Kelly, Christopher
Late Antiquity, Religion, Rhetoric, Ancient History, Themistius, Claudian, Roman Empire
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge



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