Writing about Violence in a Realm of Peace and Piety - A study on Violence in Sozomen's and Socrates Scholasticus' Ecclesiastical Histories

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: Classics


In the fourth book of his Ecclesiastical History Sozomen reports the story of Martyrius and Marcianus. Found guilty of having murdered a Roman general and instigating a revolt in order to get rid of the heretic bishop of Constantinople, both were executed. Although Sozomen is aware of the wickedness of this deed he does not try to justify its rationale or to clear the accused of any charges, but rather acknowledges their status as martyrs and proceeds to describe the miracles that occurred at their grave (IV, 3). By narrating a story in which the personal strive for justice clashes with laws on treason, Sozomen seems to put religious vigilantism above the reason of state. This hardly fits the prevalent picture of an author who endeavoured to propagate peace and unity between church and state within the Roman Empire. Instead this anecdote introduces us to a complex landscape of violence and legitimacy ripe for further study.
Due to a lack of a complete extant historiography for the 4th and early 5th centuries the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen and the same-titled work of his contemporary Socrates Scholasticus form crucial sources of information for historical events, not to mention for the study of violence in Late Antiquity, which has recently flourished. Whether one analyses the rationale behind violent acts of religious zealots or the destruction and conversion processes of pagan cult sites, almost every examination of violence in this time-period has to make use of the church historians' works. Despite this, their writings have rarely been the primary subject of any sustained investigation. The greater part of the limited bibliography on Sozomen and Socrates is devoted to their portrayal of single emperors or their stance on orthodoxy, while the church historians' treatment of violence has not yet received any prolonged attention. The aim of this research project is to analyse the handling of violence within the Ecclesiastical Histories of Sozomen and Socrates. With the above anecdote in mind, the guiding question will be what role both authors ascribed the contested legitimacy of violence in the formation and decomposition of conflicting legal, traditional and charismatic authority within the Roman church and state.
The types of violence to be addressed mainly emanate from religious controversies and cover bloody clashes between Christian and pagan laymen, verbal confrontations between bishops at synods and coercive measures used by emperors and officials in matters of faith. Church historians selectively compiled numerous sources, especially hagiographies, letters and laws, either quoted verbatim or rephrased. Contrasting the original documents' approach to violence with the new, manipulated narrative of the church historians will allow me to pin down, compare and contextualise both authors' attitude towards violence. The outcomes of my project will not only be of great benefit to current research teasing out the individual literary agenda of both authors, which is crucial for our understanding of the two key historical "gatekeepers" of this period. It will also contribute to the ongoing discussion on shifting patterns of authority formation in Late Antiquity, during a time when the course was set for a new, Christian concept of violence and legitimacy, only challenged in the Age of Revolutions and thus forming the background against which modern society has been shaped.


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