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Vox Populi: Violence and Popular Involvement in the Religious Controversies of the Fifth Century A.D.

"It was one of the most characteristic if puzzling phenomena of the later Roman Empire that the man in the street commonly engaged in open and heated debate of complex theological questions that seemingly had no immediate relevance to his daily life. According to one contemporary commentator, Gregory of Nyssa, “If you ask the price of bread, you are told, ‘The Father is greater and the Soun inferior.’” And the passionate arguments that raged in all the cities of the East did not, in every case, end with mere words, but led often to acts of anger and violence. Church4es were burned in the night, and cities were drenched in blood. The emperor himself was frequently forced to turn aside from political and military affairs to put down factionalism within the cities, where, on one occasion alone, over three thousand lives were lost in a single assault.Ancient authors, borrowing their models, perhaps, from Thucydides or Tacitus, recognized the danger inherent in urban upheaval and popular unrest; but with a general disregard for the substantive issues that provoked dispute, they were inclined to attribute them simply and wholly to a natural perversity on the part of crowds that caused them to resort to violence and foster rebellion for their own sakes. Consequently, judgments of the motives behind insurgent acts of the sordida plebs were summarily reached on the basis of a single criterion. If, as usually was the case, the crowd did something of which upper-class literary observers disapproved, its incentive was condemned as base. But if, as it rarely did, an action of the populace gained approval, its inspiration was praised as a rare instance of collective wisdom and the love of truth.Historiographic progress beyond this rudimentary scheme, Professor Gregory finds, was not made in the centuries that followed, when it remained the prevalent view that the powerful in society were the proper subjects of historical inquiry. It was not, indeed, until the beginning of the present century that, largely as a result of the influence of Marxist thought, historians began to pay serious attention to the role of the crowd in antiquity.After discussing the reasons serving to explain why individuals accepted one theological position over another, Professor Gregory turns to the complex question of why the inhabitants of the late Roman cities became involved in religious disputes in the first place and gained thereby some measure of political force. He concludes that the uneducated populace of, for example, Constantinople, could not possibly have understood either the nature of populist power or the philosophical basis of a dispute over complex theological questions concerning the unity of divine and human elements in the person of Christ. But what the sailor and the shopkeeper who participated in that formal debate did understand was the personal importance of the controversy itself. They took sides in it, not because they were recalcitrant by nature and simply like a good fight, but because they recognized that on its resolution depended their personal salvation.Timothy E. Gregory is professor of history at The Ohio State University."

Author(s):  Gregory, Timothy E
Format:  Book
Publisher:  The Ohio State University Press
Publication City:  Columbus
Date:  1979