Database presentation at ‘Poena aut venia? Attitudes to Emigration in Rome, Byzantium and Beyond’, part II

At the Poena aut Venia workshop Ekaterina Nechaeva asked how emigration (in our case, the exile of clerics) shaped the communities they came from (or ‘sending societies, as Ekaterina put it).

It was great having such as specific research question to work on, because it is important to our project that the database will be able to help a wide range of users who will have very different questions about clerical exile that the original project team. Nonetheless, I had to think a bit about how to extract meaningful data, as the database was of course not constructed with this particular question in mind. It is reminder that all databases have a human factor and are determined by the work of the researchers behind their construction, as well as technical limits.

It turned out that, with the help of the database, it is reasonably easy to see that one way in which clerical exile affected ‘sending societies’ was that the exiled clerics often took a lot of people with them. The database is able to list all exile cases where the exiled cleric had companions, which was the case for about a fifth of our recorded cases (78/409).  The category of companions also encompasses when bishops or other clerics were exiled together to the same place, but in about half of the cases the companions were a bishop’s own subordinate clergy. Interestingly, we have most information about this phenomenon from Vandal North Africa, where lots of bishops were allegedly banished under Huneric. Some of the numbers of accompanying clergy that derive from this scenario are astonishing (and perhaps fantastical), such as 4966 African clerics accompanying Cyprianus of Unizibira and other bishops to a desert region near the cities of Thubunae, Macri, and Nippis in south east Numidia in 483-484 (Victor of Vita Historia Persecutionis 2.33). But other sources also record high numbers of clerics moving with their bishops, such as 300 clerics accompanying the banished Theodorus of Alexandria in 536 (John of Ephesus, Life of Z’ura (PO 17, 35) and Life of John of Hephaistopolis (PO 18, 528s.).

It looks like these clerics were not exiled themselves, that is, technically they moved ‘voluntarily’. However, I would say that ‘voluntarily’ is an ambiguous concept here. Rather, this phenomenon tells us something about the tight patronage structures ruling the late antique clergy: if a bishop was exiled particularly for doctrinal reasons, often there was a rival successor. Would such a successor have kept on the clergy of their predecessors? And even if the successor wasn’t hostile, we can not be sure whether this would happen or whether such clerics were made redundant. I am not aware of sources that tell us. Chances are that clerics moved with their exiled bishops because they were vulnerable and had more opportunities with than without their bishop. Chances are also that successors of exiled bishops had their own dependants who’d move into the posts so vacated. If there were no successors, these lower clerical posts must also have stayed vacant. Either way, if some of the numbers that appear in late antique sources are only approximately to be believed, for ‘sending’ communities this must have meant an utter transformation of pastoral care (not to speak of power structures).

Some sources do not only give us numbers, but also some insight into the identity of an exiled bishop’s companions. For example, the sources reporting on the exile of Mare of Amida, who was banished in 521 for his Miaphysite believes, first to Petra and then to Alexandria, report that he was accompanied by his ‘sisters’, the deaconesses Shmuni and Marutha (or Nonna) and by three notaries, as well as the bishop of Kenneshrin, Isidore, who was also banished. This is how our database visualises his network in exile (based on John of Ephesus, Lives of the Eastern Saints 13, Zacharias, historia ecclesiastica 8.5  and Chronicle of Zuqnin, Third part, 517-518, 525-526):






We should pause to ask why such companions taken from home were mentioned in our sources at all. I think one of the reasons was to underscore an exiled bishop’s continuing authority, on a universal level, but also in the community back home. Exile was meant to end a bishop’s career particularly if they were also deposed by a synod (though not all were). However, exiled bishops did of course usually not accept their condemnation and neither did sympathetic chroniclers. It was important to show that these bishops still had a following and the infrastructure and personnel to perform their episcopal activities. This was particularly important if bishops had not been legally exiled, but escaped arrest, as they could be seen as ‘deserting’ their community.

Margarita Vallejo Girvés has eloquently written about the duties and activities of clergy accompanying exiled bishops in our recent edited volume Clerical Exile in Late Antiquity. One of these duties was to act as links between bishops in exile and the home community. This could involve carrying letters of exiled bishops during their lifetime, but it also could involve taking care of his memory, and crucially body, after his death. This is what happened in the case of Mare of Amida: after he had died in Alexandria in about 529, his deaconesses, with the help of the empress Theodora, brought his relics back to Amida and buried them in a church he himself had built outside the city. John of Ephesus writes how when they reached Amida with Mare’s body ‘the magnates and their kinsmen and the whole city had come out to receive them’. This implies that his memory had been kept alive among the inhabitants of the city, but John does not explain quite how this had been accomplished.

One has to bear in mind that the rejoicing city or the city clamouring for the return of a banished bishop may be a hagiographical topos. A similar scene occurs in the Life of Eutychius, written by his pupil Eustratius after 580 (who was also with him in exile). Eutychius, twice patriarch of Constantinople, had been banished by Justinian to his old monastery at Amasea in 565 for refusing to subscribe to the emperor’s edict on the incorruptibility of Christ’s body (aphthartodocetism). In Amasea he preformed many miracles, but after his successor’s death in 577 the people of Constantinople demanded his return from Justinian’s successors Justin and Tiberius, which was granted (Vita S Eutychii Patriarchae 38-71 (PG 86:2317-56). Here is his social network in exile as described by Eustratius:

The brown lines indicate Eutychius’ relationships with people he performed miracles for and on in Amasea (and a couple in Euchaita on his way back to Constantinople). They form the majority of his social relationships. There are very few links with people in Constantinople and they all date to the beginning or end of his banishment. Again, it is unclear what exactly kept his memory alive in Constantinople during his twelve year absence to the extent that his community wanted him back so desperately as Eustratius describes.

When looking into Ekaterina’s question regarding the attitudes of ‘sending societies’, this is generally what I found: while it is easy to count and even name people who went with exiled clerics from their original communities, it is less clear how many exiled clerics were in touch with their original communities. This may be due to a real oversight on our behalf when we constructed our database. While we do specify where contacts of exiles were located, we did not record whether this location was the home location of the exiled cleric. Therefore, we cannot quantify these data, even though we can recover it for individual exiled clerics via their location maps. Consider, for example, the locations connected with Athanasius of Alexandria’s ‘ third ‘exile’ (actually, escape, 357-362) which he spent in various locations around Egypt. On this map, generated by our database, we can see that five of his contacts were situated in Alexandria (whose identities can then be researched further):

From Athanasius and other examples, particularly of exiled clerics who kept correspondence, we know that it was not uncommon to keep in contact with ‘home’ communities, but, as it stands, the database is not able to quantify this phenomenon, even though it is able to reveal this information on a case by case basis. Yet a quick (though by no means exhaustive!) look at some of the bishops who wrote home reveals that often their letters are addressed at a rather diffuse set of people, such as ‘brethren’ or ‘the orthodox’. These letters may have been circulars, and it is difficult to gain an understanding of the actual addressees from them. Such vagueness is rather similar to the examples described above, where ‘the people’ demanded or welcomed the return of banished bishops. Even in the case of Athanasius, which looks so promising, his ‘contacts’ date to the beginning of his exile, before he left Alexandria (users will be able to access those details from the map).

An interesting example of concrete members of a home community working for the return of a bishop and keeping his memory alive is that of Liberius of Rome, banished after the council of Milan in 355 for refusing to condemn Athanasius. Liberius would return two years later. Here is his exile network:



Liberius’ return was clearly down to him subscribing to the creed of Sirmium sponsored by the anti-Nicene emperor Constantius II., which he advertised in several letters to several other bishops of influence. Later stories, however, in particular the fifth-century Church historians who were trying to turn Liberius into a Nicene hero, also talked about his popularity in Rome. His contacts in Rome are shown in the bottom right corner of the network graph. It may indeed have been the case that the ‘people of Rome’ also had demanded his return, as this is a fairly early tradition. Yet, in the church histories – particularly in Theodoret of Cyrrhus (historia ecclesiastica 2.17) – a range of women in Rome pop up in Liberius’ support, including the wife of Constantius, resident in Rome at the time, and the wives of influential Roman nobles. A later story also claims that Liberius first lived with the sister of Constantius when he returned from exile. Some of this may be true, most, I would say is an invented tradition. The problem that Liberius had was that he had caved into a ‘heretical’ emperor’s demand . This created huge problems for this memory and was acerbated by the fact that while in exile he had been replaced by another bishop, Felix, so there was a schism when he returned to Rome. Accounts of his popularity in Rome, and in particular support of women served to bolster Liberius’ authority. These women went against their husbands’ convictions for Liberius’ sake; i.e. they were ready to subvert established authority to promote Liberius’ return. It may therefore be that we know most about a bishop’s relationships with his home community in such cases as that of Liberius, where the reputation of the exiled bishop was tainted and had to be continuously defended. That in turn means that we have to approach such stories with caution.

Yet, there is some statistical information that the database can generate which may help to contextualise the importance of home communities in the lives of exiled clerics. These are data pertaining to return and to the development of saint cults. Of all exiled clerics recorded in the database we only know of about a quarter who returned from exile. To be fair, we only know positively of about a fifth who did not return, but the remaining clerics’ fate is unknown and it is therefore likely that they also did not return (see graph)

Did exiled clerics return from exile?

If we now turn to the reasons why exiled clerics returned from exile we can see that they were varied. It could happen because the people demanded the return of a beloved bishop, but this was certainly not the main reason. Often bishops were allowed to return at the beginning of a new imperial reign. The edict of amnesty by Julian in 362 is only the most prominent of such recalls, but as we can see from the graph below accounts for a sizeable chunk of returns of exiled bishops in the period covered by the project:

Reason for return from exile.


When we look at whether exiled clerics were venerated as saints during the late antique period (whether they had returned from exile or not) the result is again mostly negative:

Were exiled clerics venerated as saints in late antiquity?

As with ties to home communities generally, it is difficult to extract quantitative data on how many of these attestations of saint veneration refer to an exiled cleric’s home community. Our best bet, in this regard, is to look at evidence for the translation of relics or the establishment of other forms of cult in the places that the exiled clerics came from. Of relic translations back to the cities the exiled clerics had come from the database only has records of nine (Dionysius of Milan, Paulinus of Trier, Flavian of Constantinople, Dioscorus of Alexandria, Mare of Amida, Eustathius of Antioch, Paul of Constantinople, Meletius of Antioch, John Chrysostom) and of veneration generally, without evidence of relics, only a few more (Eusebius of Vercelli, Hilary of Poitiers, Liberius of Rome). There are others who were venerated elsewhere (e.g. Nestorius), but the results on veneration ‘at home’ are meagre.

What to make of all of this? One thing that is becoming clear when looking at clerical exile quantitatively is that it was a relatively successful strategy for those who imposed it, whose aim, we must assume, was to severe links between a troublesome cleric and his home community. We are easily blinded by some spectacular cases, where clerics were influential despite being exiled, established new communities, kept in contact with home, successfully lobbied the (often new) emperor for return and/or managed to turn themselves into saints. But the truth is that we know very little about the majority of exiled clerics beyond their names (and sometimes not even that). Often we do not even know where they went to. It does not seem then that the majority of  late antique exiled clerics were very good at keeping their memory alive in their home communities or elsewhere.

But of course, some of them were, and some had been influential enough  both in their home communities and abroad for later church historians and chroniclers to tell stories about them and to keep them ‘present’. As modern historians, we need to ask where these stories derived from. From the data we have, it does not seem that we should look at actual home communities of exiled clerics as the source, but at the men and women from these home communities who moved with them. Because these were free to come and go as they pleased, they must have been instrumental in creating an exiled cleric’s network, including with the home community (e.g. as messengers of letters), in circulating exile stories, including about the continuing popularity of exiled clerics at home, and in curating a cult. Sometimes they did this also to cement their own authority: we know of a few companions who became bishops at their exiled bishop’s see later (Honoratus, Eusebius of Vercelli’s companion, in Vercelli, Petrus Mongus, Dioscorus of Alexandria’s companion, in Alexandria) and precisely because they could put themselves in continuity with an exiled bishop. These men and women are, in social network terms, the ‘weak link’. With the database we are now in a position to name, describe and analyse their role.

Database presentation at ‘Poena aut venia? Attitudes to Emigration in Rome, Byzantium and Beyond’, part I

I’ve recently returned from a fantastic workshop at the American Academy in Rome, organised by Ekaterina Nechaeva. Ekaterina, a EURIAS fellow at the Collegium Helveticum, works on a decidedly understudied topic, refugees from the late Roman empire. The workshop in Rome looked at emigration in a wider sense, for Ekaterina had managed to assemble a group of scholars ranging from ancient historians to historians of the 19th century. To keep this wide chronological scope manageable, Ekaterina asked us to focus on what emigration meant to ‘sending societies’, rather than to the societies that received émigrés. For example, did governments of states from which people migrated try to encourage or prevent emigration? What effect did emigration have on those who stayed behind? How did emigration shape public opinion in ‘sending societies’?

When Ekaterina asked me to participate, I was at first a little sceptical on what the project could contribute. Exile is of course not the same as emigration, and, in addition, late antique clerics were rarely sent, or went, to outside the Roman empire. But giving a paper in Rome is too good an opportunity to miss, and I also thought this would be a great occasion to put to work our database and see whether it could come up with a few statistics that would help answering some of Ekaterina’s questions. The database now contains a wealth of material that can be explored quantitatively (some figures below). More importantly, over the last two months or so, our IT technicians have made some great progress with the database’s functionality. If anything, the workshop was an opportunity to showcase this work. For my presentation I began with demonstrating a few of the most striking visualisations that our database can do, which I will also cover in this blogpost. A second blog addressing more specifically the attitudes towards clerical exile in ‘sending societies’ can be found here.

Before the talk…many thanks to Ekaterina for the invite, and for taking this picture!

 As mentioned before on this blog, we are of course recording not just an exiled cleric’s personal circumstances, but also the individuals and groups they were in contact with. One of our main aims is to visualise and analyse these connections, to test the hypothesis that these (at times forced) interactions disseminated ideas, practices and types of behaviour. The image below shows all connections that we have recorded so far; a ‘global’ network of clerical exile in late antiquity. There are clearly some distinctive clusters of connections, which can be inspected further, such, as, for example, the social network of John Chrysostom, circled in red (who, as is well known, was in contact with over 200 people while in exile)


As ever, it is of course important to remember that the network graph does not show all social connections created through clerical exile, but only those that are remembered in our sources. What we are actually mapping in our database is the textual commemoration of exile. We cannot assume that exile cases that just appear as a single dot in this network did not generate social relationships (and that these clerics were hence solitary or isolated figures). We must always assume that for some reason the recording of social relationships (and the subsequent transmission of these records) may have been more important for some exiled clerics and for some periods of time than for others. This is important to bear in mind always when applying social network analysis to historical data, although as I tried to explain in my presentation in Rome as well, applying network analysis to our data can help us to understand patterns of discourses as well. More on this in the next blog post.

The global network graph shows quite nicely as well that, even though this is a network that spans c. 300 years of history, there were connections that bridged generations. This is above all the case where clerical exile generated rival successions of bishops and distinctive lines of authority which then generated even more exile cases down the years. This was the case, for example, in sixth-century Egypt, as this table from Stephen Davis’ The Early Coptic Papacy, adorned with my additional comments, shows.

In 6th century Egypt theological controversy (pro & anti-chalcedonian) led to the splintering of the church, but it wasn’t just theological controversy that did this: the problem was hugely acerbated by the exiling of bishops which created schisms in Alexandria, but also by the arrival of exiled clerics in Egypt (Severus of Antioch, Julian of Halicarnassus), which brought new ideas and followings. Davis’ table neatly (and very helpfully!) visualises these different groups as four distinct blocks, each with their own list of bishops and traditions. As I showed in Rome, the clerical exile database is able to visualise this complex situation differently, as network graphs, which instantly shows how much these different groups were in contact with each other (Severus of Antioch and Julian of Halicarnassus were famously living at the same monastery outside Alexandria). This is perhaps a helpful reminder that their respective ideas and teachings, even though often opposing, may have been developed in dialogue with each other. Importantly our network visualisations classify relationship types in much detail (e.g. whether someone was a companion, host or correspondent of an exiled cleric). Another category, not shown here, is relationship ‘quality’: whether someone was supportive of an exiled cleric or in conflict with him. This allows users to understand the nature, and perhaps also the effect, of different kinds of networks an exiled cleric was part of.

[Please note that the arrows all point in the wrong direction. The visualisation of different types of relationships through different colours is also not fully realised yet. These are just two of the many fiddly things we still need to sort out; the main reason why the database is not online yet].

Another general feature of the database that I demonstrated in Rome was the possibility to visualise the spatial aspects of clerical exile. This is important because exile divided people spatially, but it also brought people closer together. That is impressively demonstrated in the map below (where possible, we use the fantastic Pleiades Project data). The interactive map function of the database allows exploring the geography of exile in a number of ways. For example, users will be able to visualise locations as clusters (e.g. how many locations connected to clerical exile were in Egypt) or as points, select certain time spans, or explore locations according to so-called location ‘activities’, i.e. whether they were places of destination, arrival, places of return or places of exiled clerics’ contacts. The map here shows the departure and destination locations of exiled clerics in the years 355 to 362, between the council of Milan and the death of Constantius II, and the connections between them. During these years more than 50 bishops and clerics were exiled. The graph shows the immense mobility in the Mediterranean created by clerical exile in these years. In fact, these seven years see the most intense contacts between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean created by clerical exile (and exile generally) in the entire period that we are studying. They are more intense than the contacts generated in the twenty years after the council of Nicaea. This is also the last time clerics were exiled between East and West. After the death of Constantius and up to the time of Justinian no exiled cleric was apparently sent across the Mediterranean anymore. It can hence be argued that these seven years were a crucial window in terms of spatial mobility of theological ideas, and in this case specifically Nicene ideas (although of course ideas may have travelled through different routes afterwards, such as through trade, council attendance, pilgrimage or letter writing).
The database also allows users to create ‘ego-maps’ that track the movement of and locations connected with individual exiled clerics. The map below shows the ‘ego-map’ of Lucifer of Cagliari, exiled after the council of Milan in 355. The red arrows are actually my own subsequent manipulation of the powerpoint slide, but even without these it is easy to follow how Lucifer moved, because each location is assigned a colour that corresponds to a certain ‘activity’ (departure, arrival, return, location of previous office, and, importantly, locations of Lucifer’s contacts). Interestingly, for Lucifer, we can see some frenetic criss-crossing of the Mediterranean and he seems to have mobilised much contact as well. There are an astonishing 11 locations connected to his exile. This mobility is quite comparable to other Western bishops exiled in this period as well, who rarely seem to have stayed in one place (Eusebius of Vercelli, Hilary of Poitiers, Dionysius of Milan).

 We can assume then that Lucifer had ample opportunity to forge new relationships while in exile. However, when we think about the spatial aspects of exile and the opportunities of making contacts, it is important to understand the nature of locations as well: did exiled clerics reside in cities or on islands, in quarries or in oases? How well connected where these locations to other locations? Our map feature contains a layer of roads (again provided by the Pelagios Project) that will help users understand socio-geographical dynamics, but the database also contains much extra information about locations. The graph below is an example of another feature of the database, the ability to visualise data as charts, and shows the distribution of types of exile arrival places (we distinguish between ‘destination’, where clerics were sent, and ‘arrival’, where they actually went to, for these may differ). Interestingly, ‘city’ is the most popular type of exile arrival place.

After all these fancy forms of visualisations, it should perhaps be made clear that all our data will be able to be accessed in conventional forms too, through tabular listings of results. There is much information about each exile case, including biographical information, information on legal circumstances, writings in exile, doctrinal activities and so on (all database categories are listed here). Below you can see the top of the table listing all information the database contains on Arius’ exile.

We hope, however, that our users will be tempted to try out all the other features of the database too, be this displaying data as charts, maps or network graphs (you can see in the image above that users will be able to get to Arius’ network graph and also to his ‘ego-map’ from this tabular result). Network graphs, in particular, we believe have the potential to generate new insights into the effects of clerical exile, as I have already discussed in my contribution to Clerical Exile in Late Antiquity. Yet, as I have also already discussed on this blog, the biggest benefit of recording data on social connections for this project has been that we start to see people whose life was affected by clerical exile beyond the exiled cleric himself. That, as I hope to show soon in the next blog post, also allows us – at least to some extent – to say something about Ekaterina’s ‘sending societies’.

Sheffield Travels into Late Antiquity

This blog post was written by Dominik Kocbuch, MA intern on the project in 2016-17

Late antiquity remains an elusive label. Speak to people about the ancient times – the Egyptians, Caesar or Nero, and you are bound to hear something; similarly with the Middle Ages – but late antiquity, reflecting its nascent status in historical study, remains the great unknown albeit right on our doorstep. For it is hard to deny modernity’s cultural, social, political and religious debts to that fascinating period. Can we really imagine a European legal tradition without a Theodosius to first codify it? What of our universities, curricula and education without a Cassiodorus or a Gregory the Great? Perhaps unbeknown to many, late antiquity remains a tangible presence in the professions of the Nicene Creed, a late antique religious document, recited in Christian churches every single day. The truth remains – late antiquity is a fertile historical harvest yet to be appreciated and this project has been an ambitious attempt at giving Sheffield a one-way ticket to the world of late antiquity.

My involvement with the project began in September 2016, when – as a part of my Work Placement MA History module – I was assigned to Dr. Hillner’s Migration in Faith: Clerical Exile in Late Antiquity project. Clerical exile – movement and refuge, are crucial themes explored in the project. Pertinent to the current affairs and the plight of the refugees of war in the Middle East, the project rang loud by historicising a very human phenomenon – movement, often forced by a variety of factors.

The public engagement side of the project had a very simple and yet profound aim – to expose the public to the vibrancy and energy of late antiquity. It was also to demonstrate the strength of history as a discipline and its ability to create a coherent picture of a past based on sporadic and numerically scant evidence. Co-operation between Harry Mawdsley, Lewis Dagnall and Dr. Rohmann produced a brilliant database of late antique cases of exile, which was digitised and exhibited to the public at the Festival of Arts and Humanities Showcase in the Millennium Galleries in Sheffield. Many of the stall’s visitors remarked that they had never thought the study of religion would be approached through statistics and mathematical analysis – perhaps because religion and science are so often discussed as mutually exclusive? The database’s ‘official’ launch took place at an academic conference, also organised as a part of the project, in April 2017, in the German Historical Institute in London.

Our stall at the Festival of Arts and Humanities Showcase 2017


Back in Sheffield, the project created a friendly and approachable space in which people could explore late antiquity. One such forum were a series of film viewings – four in total, featuring films as disparate as Gladiator (2001) and Quo Vadis (1951). The events were enjoyable, group meetings often accompanied by a good dose of popcorn and some brilliant guest-academics as discussants, such as Kate Cooper, Meredith Warren and Richard Flower. Yet, they also raised serious questions about the intersection between the late antique past and the present world. For example, our screening of Agora, with its focus on Christian violence in late antique Alexandria, coincided with a time at which today’s Coptic Christians, in many ways the heirs of Alexandria’s late antique traditions, are themselves victims of violence in this very city.

Whilst my involvement in the project was relatively insignificant compared to the monumental work carried out by the project’s founders and leaders, it was nonetheless a fantastic experience. Compiling our findings allowed me to conclude that over the course of the project, over 300 individuals interacted with the project in some way, whether by attending a film, the book club, partaking in the conference or leaving a feedback form at an exhibition. The feedback we collected shows c. 80% of  our events’ attendees reporting they learned ‘a lot of new information’ and that the events ‘changed how they think’ about the early Christian Church or the Roman empire. Our public engagement activities hence served as a quick entry point into the exploration of a period that is undeniably close and yet so far away. For many, it will prove to be a platform into deeper exploration; for others, it has demonstrated the resilience of history and most profoundly, its continued relevance and the value of history as a living, modernising and fascinating science.

Feedback form from one of our events.
Mission accomplished!

A Year of Empresses

As this year is drawing to a close I start to realise that, for me, it has been a year of late Roman empresses, both with regard to Clerical Exile and to other research projects. It has also been a year of understanding better how research works. I have learned it is very much about making and enjoying connections: connections between the various strands of my own research and connections across the research community.

My interest in late Roman empresses actually dates from some time ago, when I was in Frankfurt on a Humboldt fellowship and writing up Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity. I was at a stage with the book where I could see the end of the tunnel and very cautiously started to think about what to do next. I stumbled over some references to late Roman imperial women residing in Rome which caught my interest, particularly when I realised that there had been quite a few. I can’t remember how I came across this, but it was possibly while preparing an article on Anicia Iuliana for submission to an edited collection on the Collectio Avellana (which still hasn’t been published, but that’s another story!).

I thought this was odd – late antique Rome isn’t usually researched under the perspective of imperial women – but I didn’t really have the time to pursue this any further. However, I did have, for the first time in my life, research assistants, courtesy of the wonderful Humboldt foundation and my host Hartmut Leppin. So while I was reading Plato on punishment, my assistants were scouring the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire and the library for references to connections between imperial women and Rome. The results are three hefty folders of primary and secondary sources which I brought back to England. (Many thanks to Maximilian Becker and Timo Christian!)

I was looking forward to this project and to (mentally, if not physically) returning to Rome, my first research passion. I felt I needed some relief from having spent nearly ten years with Roman prisons. In the event, my ‘research trajectory’, as it’s now so managerially called, turned out differently. While in Germany, I also had got to know my delightful co-investigators Jörg Ulrich and Jakob Engberg and together we set out on the journey of Clerical Exile, a logical step from Prison, Punishment and Penance.

Yet, there were those three folders sitting on my shelves and it seemed a shame ‘wasting’ all this material. So, while managing Clerical Exile in the daytime, late Roman empresses became a bit of a hobby. I started to give papers on this topic, often – because the topic is an accessible one – to more general audiences up and down the country, such as local branches of the Classical Association. But empresses also started to creep into my work on Clerical Exile (if that isn’t too weird an image), perhaps true to the maxim that once you start looking for something you find it almost everywhere.

Collecting all data on clerical exile and submitting them to network analysis is a very ‘democratizing’ process: every connection mentioned in the primary material counts for the algorithm. You hence have to read texts with a different eye and many individuals become more visible (if you want to find out more come to our book launch next week, where you can also meet the incomparable Máirín MacCarron without whom I would know much less about networks). It turns out, empresses are all over late antique exile stories, as either scheming enemies of clerics, responsible for their exile, or as supporters, helping with their return. Sometimes, they appear in both roles at once in the same story. Take, for example, the case of the deacon Theophilus ‘The Indian’, who was exiled around 354 by Constantius II for treason. According to the sympathetic Philostorgius (Hist. eccl. 4.1, 7, 8), Constantius recalled him when his wife, Eusebia, fell ill and it was said that only Theophilus could heal her, which he did. However, back at court, Constantius’ women, who must have included Eusebia, turned against him, supporting his enemy Basil of Ancyra in influencing Constantius to banish Theophilus again, this time for his Anomoean beliefs. Here’s how this story can be visualised as a network graph:


I haven’t quite figured out what Eusebia’s u-turn means yet (why upset a man who’s just cured you from deadly disease?), but I suspect late antique authors found imperial women ‘good to think with’ about proper legal procedure (or the absence of it) surrounding clerical exile.  Aelia Eudoxia, Arcadius’ wife and John Chrysostom’s nemesis, springs to mind here as well.

My previous and initially somewhat thwarted interests in empresses in Rome induced me to think about clerical exile differently. But it also works the other way around: knowing more about clerical exile induced me to think differently about empresses, too. Probably due to giving all these papers on late Roman empresses there now seem to be a lot of kind people across the research community who think I can contribute to the field. As a result, this year I was flooded with opportunities to extend my knowledge: through reviews of new books on late Roman empresses, through examining a PhD thesis by the brilliant, now Dr Belinda Washington (who I immediately made to give a paper on empresses and exile at our September workshop), through writing dictionary entries for the Oxford Classical Dictionary, and through gaining an amazing new PhD student working on female spaces in late antique Rome (who, incidentally, has blogged here).

What I found out in the process is how often we know something about late Roman empresses because they were remembered in texts and collections that were not about them, but about clerical exile (or more broadly, religious conflict): take, for example, the fifth-century Church historians’ obsession with Constantia, the sister of Constantine, for her alleged support of the exiled Arius, who I have blogged about here.

The highlight of my year was a paper I was invited to give, once again, about the Collectio Avellana, that curious imperial-episcopal letter collection compiled in the sixth century (check out the interview by TGRMedia with Rita Lizzi Testa, who organized the event!).  I have been involved with the enthusiastic ‘Banda Avellana’ for some years now. When they invited me again this year, I wasn’t quite sure what I could still contribute. But then I remembered that Collectio Avellana contains letters by Galla Placidia, sister of Honorius, about the expulsion of dissenting bishops from Rome after a schism broke out in 418, and that the letter collections emerging from the Council of Chalcedon contained more letters by the same empress and her daughter-in-law, empress Licinia Eudoxia, about the exile of Flavian of Constantinople in 449. So once again, clerical exile led me to think about empresses differently, and I spent almost all summer fretting about the ‘female imperial voice’ in late antiquity. What a treat!

While at the beginning of this year I felt a bit torn between the various strands of my research, I’ve now come to understand that everything is, after all, connected, true to the premise of Clerical Exile. I still have to decide what that means for developing and, crucially, publishing the various bits of my research, but  I am blessed to be surrounded by so many inspiring people who can help me figure that out. In the end, networks matter!

Head of an unidentified late Roman empress, Museo dell’Alto Medio Evo, Rome, inv. 2547.

Exile in the post-Roman law codes

This blogpost was written by Harry Mawdsley, PhD student on the project.

Over the last couple of months I have been examining the so-called ‘barbarian’ law codes, as part of my research into the penalty of exile in the post-Roman period. Of particular interest are the three compilations of Roman law that were issued in the Ostrogothic, Visigothic, and Burgundian Kingdoms – the Edict of Theodoric (c.500), the Breviary of Alaric (506), and the Roman Law of the Burgundians (c.516). The editors of these works excerpted from earlier legal sources to provide judges with a practical handlist of Roman law. But they were not only mere copyists; they often omitted, reworked or commented upon parts of the Roman material, updating it to reflect the changed circumstances of the early sixth century. Such alterations thus provide a valuable insight into how far the penalty of exile had developed in the decades after the collapse of the Western Empire. We see this quite clearly in the context of three themes: forms of exile, exile and social status, and crimes punished by exile.

In the Roman Empire, exile was expressed through a number of different sentences, but the two quintessential forms of exile were deportatio and relegatio. As we can see in the commentaries of the second- and third-century jurists, deportatio and relegatio were technical terms distinguished on the basis of severity. Of the two, deportatio was considered the harsher sentence as, unlike relegatio, it impaired legal status through the removal of citizenship.

Interestingly, in the post-Roman compilations, references to deportatio or relegatio were often changed to exilium – a much more generic term for exile. This would suggest that deportatio and relegatio were no longer understood to be relevant concepts in the early sixth-century west. Such a development can plausibly be associated with the emergence of new legal identities in the barbarian kingdoms, as the free population was no longer solely defined by the possession of Roman citizenship. This undermined the precise significance of sentences of deportatio, since the removal of civic status no longer carried the same severe ramifications. Thus, it would have been rather meaningless to describe a sentence as either relegatio or deportatio, as in practice the effects of the two penalties were now not so distinct.

Along with deportatio and relegatio, other forms of exile also became outmoded in the barbarian kingdoms, such as exile as forced labour in metalla (mines or quarries) – a consequence of the disappearance of state-owned mining institutions in the west. This eroded the foundations of the so-called dual penalty system, established since the beginning of the second century CE if not earlier. In the Roman period, the dual penalty system had ensured that low status offenders received sentences of forced labour in place of deportatio and relegatio, which were traditionally reserved for members of the elite. In the post-Roman legal sources, however, the narrowing of the forms of exile meant that all offenders, regardless of social status, now received the same basic sentence of exilium.

At first glance, this development could be seen as representing a turn towards a more egalitarian criminal justice system. In practice, though, the experiences of offenders in the post-Roman kingdoms still varied dramatically according to their social status. One example taken from the literary sources occurred in 484, when the Vandal King Huneric (r. 477-484) closed all the churches of the city of Carthage and exiled around 500 members of the clergy. Eugenius, the bishop of Carthage, was quietly packed off to the city of Turris Tamalleni in southern Byzacena. His subordinate clergy, however, were only expelled after being publically flogged on the forum.

The authorities, thus, continued to treat non-elites more harshly for the same crimes, even though the abandonment of certain penalties, such as condemnation to the mines, meant that they could no longer precisely follow the norms of Roman legal practice. I think that this reflects how status considerations remained of crucial importance to judges in the socially stratified barbarian kingdoms. It also shows how the overarching justifications of punishment remained constant, in particular the belief that low status offenders should always receive some form of physical abuse.

In the three compilations, a rather diverse set of crimes was punished by exile, including offences against the person (violence, kidnap), offences against property (theft, arson, despoliation of tombs), and sexual and marital offences (adultery, unilateral divorce). This provides an insight into the types of offences that barbarian legislators still perceived to be a problem. It is perhaps more rewarding, however, to examine those crimes previously punished by exile that were omitted or hardly feature in the post-Roman sources, as this provides evidence of how society had changed in the intervening years.

One example is the large reduction in the number of provisions that prescribed exile for governmental misconduct. In the late Roman period, a raft of legislation had imposed exile on various delinquent officials; even those occupying positions fairly low down in the imperial hierarchy. The post-Roman compilers excerpted only a tiny fraction of these laws, most of which targeted negligent judges. It seems that other legislation was ignored because the relevant public official no longer existed. For instance, the compilers of the Breviary of Alaric completely overlooked a law of Valentinian II (r. 375-392), which prescribed relegatio for corrupt supervisors of the now defunct public post. The omission of such legislation, thus, allows us to trace the impact of the involution of the state following the collapse of imperial authority in the west.

An even more significant change was the cessation of exile in the context of heresy. This was a very characteristic feature of late Roman legislation, with emperors from Theodosius I (r. 379-395) onwards prescribing the sanction against various dissenting groups. Such legislation was based on the notion that Nicene Christianity was synonymous with orthodoxy. Barbarian rulers, however —at least outside of Merovingian Gaul— all adhered to Arian or more properly homoian Christianity. Still, this is not a totally adequate explanation for the absence of anti-heresy laws, as barbarian kings could have updated the legislation to reflect their own creedal positions. In fact, we see this in the one surviving legal document from the Vandal kingdom of North Africa: an Edict of Huneric, issued on the 25 February 484 and preserved in Victor of Vita’s History, which reworked the content of Roman legislation to threaten Nicene Christians with exile if they refused to adopt the homoian creed. Vandal Africa, however, was a special case, and elsewhere in the post-Roman west legislators simply ignored the issue of religion, supporting the picture of toleration that emerges from the contemporary sources. Of course, this was largely a pragmatic decision — barbarian kings were simply not in a position to adopt coercive measures against a religiously diverse population — but nevertheless it represents a significant departure from the policies adopted by late Roman emperors.

To summarise, the post-Roman legal sources clearly demonstrate that the penalty of exile had lost some of its earlier features and associations by the early sixth century. As suggested above, many of these developments can be explained in light of the political, social, and economic transformations that engulfed the west following the collapse of the empire. The significance of the study of exile, thus, extends beyond the narrow confines of legal history, as it provides a fresh perspective on the ways in which barbarian rulers interacted with their subjects. This is something I plan to study further by comparing how the actual incidents of exile, as reported in the literary sources, conformed to the principles set out in the legal texts.

Late Antiquity, Digital Humanities and our European Friends

Term has finished, so over the last month I’ve been jetting around Europe, repaying visits to some dear late antique colleagues who came to our January workshop in Sheffield, to have a further look at their fantastic digital projects.

First stop, Warsaw. This is the home of the Presbyters in the Late Antique West project, led by the brilliant Robert Wisniewski, also part of Oxford’s Cult of Saints project. Robert had invited me to take part in a meeting to discuss and test the presbyter project’s database; a similar format of workshop that we had tried for Clerical Exile in January 2015 and 2016 and found extremely productive.

Before we settled down to work, however, we were treated with a fantastic, three-hour-long walking tour of Warsaw. For a German, or at least this German, a visit to Warsaw can be a haunting experience. Our sure-footed guide, Stanislaw Adamiak, took care, however, that we understood Warsaw as a city of resilience. I was mightily impressed by the beautiful restored old town, glinting in the sunshine as if emerged from an 18th century painting, as well as by the newly opened Jewish Museum that puts as much emphasis on the memory of century-long Polish tolerance for Judaism as it does on the horrors that followed. It did all leave me with hope in humanity.


And here is my favourite site: Columns on the Palace of Justice with quotes from Justinian’s Digest! (on the right the principle of self-defense: vim vi repellere licet; ‘it is permitted to repel force with force’ D 43.26.27)


Then we got to work. Why late antique presbyters? asked Robert in his introductory talk. Well, he argued, when you think about it, they do need a bit more attention than historians have given them so far. They were the main ‘workforce’ of the late antique Church, closer to the ‘ordinary’ Christians than other high clerics, such as bishops and deacons, more present in the countryside, and more numerous, too (in Rome, for example, there may have been 75 presbyters at the end of the fifth century, and only seven deacons). Yet, they seem to be less visible in the historical record than these other clerics, being eclipsed by the ubiquitous bishops, and at times deacons, who in many Christian centres presented the recruitment pool for bishops. The objective of the late antique presbyter project is therefore to establish the place of presbyters in the Church of the late antique West, but also their role in society, and, if possible, their mentality: was there a particular ‘late antique presbyter identity’?

The project sponsors two PhD projects, by Marta Szada, who works on the role of presbyters in conversion in the post-Roman kingdoms, and by Jerzy Szafranowski, who works on presbyters in late antique/early medieval monasteries. Both, together with Stanislaw, are responsible for data entry into the project database. But before we were allowed to work with the database itself, Robert and his team wanted to hear from the workshop participants what interests we have in presbyters, within our respective research fields. And so I was treated to a broad vista of current research on the late antique Church. From this emerged, for example, an uneven distribution of presbyters’ visibility in the sources.  From Isabelle Mossong I learned that there are 284 inscriptions from late antique Italy that mention presbyters, and that ‘presbyter’ is the second most mentioned clerical office in Italian inscriptions of this period; by contrast, Juliette Day explained that there is little mention of presbyters in late antique liturgical documents and hagiography (for example, in Paulinus’ Life of Ambrose, there is only one presbyter mentioned, and he’s heterodox!). I heard from Jakub Urbanik, Przemysław Nehring and Philippe Blaudeau about the diverse activities of presbyters in late antique society: from acting on behalf of others in economic transactions, to managing church property (an activity I had so far associated with deacons), to visiting church councils and emperors. Philippe Blaudeau also wondered whether a focus on the West only could really give justice to the more global role of presbyters in Church politics; this is a question I had myself when I contributed to the discussion with a look at data on presbyters arising from the clerical exile project: Among those clerics exiled in late antiquity, presbyters present the third largest groups (behind bishops and ‘unknowns’; n/a refers to people forced to become clerics only during exile), and they also appear frequently as companions, correspondents or successors in post:



It is, of course, the effects of this mobility, often between East and West, that the Clerical Exile project is interested in.  Crucially, as I describe here regarding the role of a presbyter in the recall of Arius (a presbyter himself!), contemporary commentators on exile seem to have known about and to some extent feared the power of mobile presbyters.

Fortified by Claire Sotinel’s observation that it’s perhaps less contemporary sources, but modern historians who overlook presbyters, being, as they are, obsessed with the ‘episcopal model’ of the late antique Church, we proceeded to the discussion of the presbyter database itself, beautifully designed by the project’s IT officer Ernest Frankowski.


Let me just say: late antique historians are going to be in for a treat when this database goes online. It covers everything and more about individual presbyters (social origins, languages spoken, family life or even hairstyles!), but crucially the database is not just a prosopographical one. It also draws on texts idealising the role of presbyters (e.g. church canons), so eventually may well help us to understand the relationship between norms and agency of presbyters.

Thanks to Robert and his cheerful team for a great workshop that also left me with lots of new ideas for our own database and fabulous hospitality! Here they are (from left to right in the front: Marta, Jerzy, Robert and Stanislaw; in the background: the incomparable Ewa Wipszycka and Ernest Frankowski):


I returned to Sheffield briefly to do my marking and then was off again, this time to Alcalá de Henares, to catch up with Margarita (Marga) Vallejo Girvés.


Readers of our blog will know that Marga and her team in Alcalá are conducting a very similar project to ours, assembling a digital database on exile in late antiquity. Their focus is slightly different, as their data also concerns lay exile and they are very much interested in the legal aspect of the phenomenon (they also simultaneously maintain a database on late Roman law), while our project of course concentrates on the social and cultural impact of exile. The Alcalá database will also probably not go online, as its main objective is to support the research of Marga’s three PhD students Jaime de Miguel, Aitor Fernández and Noelia Vicent who all work on different aspects of late antique exile: investigating the relationships between paganism and clerical exile, the use of exile in diplomatic relations between East and West, and the legal conditions of exile, in particular with respect to locations.  Despite this difference in focus, however, we already noticed back in January in Sheffield the striking similarities of data categories between our two databases; a consequence, I think, also of the fact that I have been a long-standing admirer of Marga’s work and it is hence no surprise that her thinking about late antique exile has profoundly influenced my own. As proof, here’s a page from the bibliography of my recent book Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity, nearly hijacked by Marga’s publications:

Scan_20160625 (2)

The purpose of my meeting with Marga and her students was to discuss an issue that vexes everyone involved in Digital Humanities. As historians we are keenly aware of the contradictions, nuances and complexities within any primary sources, and of course, many of us make the very analysis of these eccentricities the object of our studies. Yet, when it comes to digital analysis, I don’t think we have yet found the ‘common visual literacy for representing uncertainty in maps, social networks, or other visualizations’, as is called for so well in this blogpost by Ryan Horne, of the Big Ancient Mediterranean Project. What we are struggling with in the clerical exile project right now are ways of ‘tagging’ the data that we have extracted from our sources. At the beginning of our project, we have made the strategic decision to be as detailed as possible with our data, as it gives us an understanding about the uniqueness of each exile case and, more importantly, how it was reported. What we now face are long lists of extremely comprehensive information which are, precisely due to this specifity, difficult to access in a quantitative manner. Take, for example, our list of offenses late antique clerics were accused of and exiled for or escaped prosecution of (the image only shows the top of the list we are building up):



We are currently in the process of finding meta-categories that will bundle some of these data together, allowing both for quantitative analysis and the visualisation as charts and graphs, while at the same time allowing retrieval of the underlying particular evidence. Marga and her team have already taken this step (partly because they are dealing with a smaller body of data, as they are not, like us, collecting data on exiles’ social relationships). We hence spent an enjoyable and productive afternoon checking the possibilities of comparing our approaches, aligning the ‘tags’ we are using and sharing our data. Many thanks to Marga and her team!


But, again, there was also time for a bit of sightseeing (and a beer on a terrazza at 33° C). While I was painfully aware of the history of Warsaw, I knew next to nothing about Alcalá before my visit. Marga has been a fabulous guide to her city, which, I learned, used to be a Roman foundation (Complutum) with a bishop attested from the fifth century, is home to hundreds and hundreds of storks and has the second oldest university in Spain (after Salamanca), which in the seventeenth century modelled its organisation on the Oxford college system, complete with introducing a court-yard based architecture. Most importantly, it is the birth place of both Catherine of Aragon and Michel de Cervantes whose house is right behind me and Sancho Panza here:



Since I have returned from this epic journey across Europe, and in fact, since I have started writing this blog post, the British people have voted to leave the European Union. All of a sudden, the world feels smaller, less connected and (let’s be honest) less sunny. My memories of these visits are already turning to nostalgia, even though I know that, of course, great research collaborations like ours will continue to exist, as they have existed even before the European Union came into being (minus the cheap airflights, though). For example, Marga and her students will be joining us in Halle in September for our next clerical exile workshop (on which more soon). As my own vice-chancellor says, now is the time for the international research community to keep even closer together. Still, politics do have an impact, if not on the strength and depth of the research community itself, then for sure on the ways it can be organised. Research meetings always create new ideas and networks and in this case, both in Warsaw and in Alcalá, there was much excitement around the possibilities of combining our efforts and, in particular, on finding ways how to integrate the iconic prosopographies of the pre-digital era (Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, Prosopographie chrétienne du Bas-Émpire) and the new technologies we are developing. We started dreaming big dreams of pan-European late antique digital platforms. But these need funding, European funding. While academics from British Universities will of course continue to be involved in and invited to these discussions, we may not anymore be able to sit at the ‘top table’, as it were. On a side note, when I was in Warsaw, I realised that the majority of the room would have conducted the conversations in French, if I hadn’t been there. At the time, it struck me as a rare experience. Now, I feel it was prophetic.

Clerical Exile in Late Antiquity: Strategies, Experiences, Memories and Community

We’re in the final stages of preparing the volume based on our workshops at the Oxford Patristics conference last August to the publisher. Here is a taster from the introduction:

“The chapters in this volume all engage to some degree with the central paradoxical tension between clerical exile’s value, on the one hand, as a method of civic and ecclesiastical control and conflict management,  and, on the other, as a fundamental element of Christian identity and authority. As Fournier, Mawdsley and Reis show, late antique political and ecclesiastical leaders created boundaries between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Christians, and excommunication as well as its spatial enforcement, exile, aided the establishment or at least the illusion of spatial, social and spiritual uniformity. As such clerical exile, as a cultural dividing practice, had the potential for destroying late antique communities. Whether such divisions worked in practice in every case may be doubtful, however, and certainly depended on the circumstances. In Vandal North Africa alone we see extraordinary freedom of movement of exiled clerics, able to maintain networks stretching around the Mediterranean, as Heil shows for the time of Thrasamund, as well as their tight control, as Mawdsley shows for that of Huneric.  Yet, exile could be destructive even beyond the time of clerical exile itself. Exile was, as Natal says, a ‘proprietary event’ that had the potential of being divisive long after, and often even due to the return of clerics from exile.

At the same time, clerical exile also had a creative force. As Vallejo Girvès, Heil and Rohmann show, exiled clerics were at the centre of lay, clerical or monastic communities, often all of these, and also may have attracted a local or global following. For some bishops, like Fulgentius, this presented an opportunity to influence the great theological debates of their age. This connectedness may even be true for exiled Donatists, discussed by Engberg, although the meagre evidence for exiled Donatists in Rome and Spain only allows us to speculate about their experience. Astonishingly, as Vallejo Girvès argues, ‘exile colonies’ do not seem to have been suppressed by civic authorities who expected exiled bishops to have a clerical or ascetic entourage. In some incidents, exiled individuals were even put in charge of (admittedly provincial) communities, as those subject to forced clerical ordination discussed by Rohmann. This should remind us that the concept of ‘loneliness’ is socially constructed, and in late antiquity may have been more associated with separation from power and peers than with physical solitude.

Above all, however, late antique clerical exile created stories, stories of persecution, victimhood, redemption and heroism that sought to keep biblical and early Christian paradigms alive for contemporary listeners. Turning exile into a new paradigm of authority for Christian leaders, was, however, not straightforward. As several chapters in this volume show, during the third century and still into the fourth, exiled bishops had to work hard to justify their experiences as suitable models of Christian behaviour, particularly, but not only if they had fled rather than faced violent oppression or death. To do so, as Barry, Ulrich and Reis show, Athanasius of Alexandria and Eusebius of Vercelli dwelled on the suffering involved in exile, but also advertised the importance of bishops’ staying alive and safeguarding orthodoxy ‘in the middle of heretical territory’, perhaps implicitly drawing on the examples of Cyprian of Carthage and Dionysius of Alexandria who had already argued that exile allowed a bishop to fulfil his duty of conversion and pastoral care. Still, the merit of clerical exile remained ambiguous into the later fourth century, Natal demonstrates, when Ambrose of Milan could draw authority from celebrating that he had never ‘deserted’ and hence jeopardized his community through exile. At the same time, some Christian groups even seem to have rejected exile as a source of identity altogether, such as the ‘Donatists’, choosing instead to focus their self-conception on martyrdom and an old-testamentarian concept of the chosen people. Yet, Natal and Heil’s contributions to this volume also chart the utter transformation of exile’s symbolic currency over the fifth century, at a time when the fourth-century exiled champions of Nicaea had gained their equal place in the Christian hall of heroes. Fulgentius of Ruspe’s Vita dwells on its exiled protagonist’s foundation of monasteries, convening of synods and orthodox integrity, rather than the persecution aspect of his experience, even though Sardinia had an acknowledged past in the persecution of Christians, both remote and recent. Yet, by the early sixth century, the exiled bishop could unashamedly be presented as a superior community leader, rather than a victim, because, not despite of having been in exile. In fact, as Vallejo Girvès shows, by this time the prestige of the exiled bishop was so high that it began to rub off on his companions, who start to emerge from the shadows and in some cases are even seen as deserving hagiographies of their own.

This volume argues, then, that clerical exile was, and perhaps more importantly was narrated, as a community event, in the sense that it was a real or metaphorical mechanism of inclusion and exclusion, which both created relationships and drew the boundaries of late antique Christian society. It is therefore appropriate for the research project under whose aegis the volume has been assembled to continue to explore this community-building further, using, adapting and critiquing the most up-to-date methodology to do so: social network analysis.”


Fifth-century Church Historians: Social network analysts before their time?

One of the main aims of our project is to investigate whether clerical exile, and the related mobility and need to find alternative and often more informal sources of support outside institutional infrastructures, had the potential to lead to a particularly fertile environment for the diffusion of theological ideas, and other cultural products. In this regard, social network analysis can act as a theoretical guide. A particularly attractive network model here is Mark Granovetter’s famous model of ‘weak and strong ties’.[1] The theory behind the model argues that each individual has an intimate social network of strong relationships or ties, and a less familiar ‘acquaintance’ network of weak ties. A network of weak ties, however, is better equipped to diffuse information and ideas, because it connects disparate subgroups and ‘outliers’ (actors only connected to a social network through another actor), while a network of strong ties is more insulated and tends to share the same information. The most successful networks have a variety of weak and strong ties. The most important actors in this model are those who ‘sit’ on the weak tie, and therefore control the flow of information between different groups (also called brokers).

Reading recently about how fifth-century Church Historians reported on the spread of what they called ‘Arianism’ in the early fourth century I noticed a particular set of relationships that fit Granovetter’s model perfectly. According to the Ecclesiastical Histories of Rufinus, Sozomen, Socrates and Theodoret (all apparently drawing on the lost work of Gelasius of Caesarea), Arius – condemned at the Council of Nicaea in 325 for claiming Christ the son was created by God the father, and subsequently exiled by Constantine – was recalled by Constantine in 327 under influence of his favourite sister, Constantia.[3] The Church Historians relate how Constantia was persuaded by an unnamed Arian presbyter (according to Sozomen on instigation by the pro-Arian bishops Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea), who was a member of her household and her intimate confidant, that Arius’ condemnation at Nicaea had been unjust. While she never actively pleaded with Constantine for Arius on these grounds, she commended the presbyter to her brother on her deathbed, at which point he passed into the emperor’s household, where he could repeat his assertions and eventually arrange that Arius and his companion, the deacon Euzoïus, were granted an audience with the emperor leading to their recall. Theodoret elaborates on even further unfolding of events: The same presbyter (in Theodoret’s version without having revealed his Arian credentials to the emperor) was present also at Constantine’s death, and, with no immediate relatives at hand, the emperor entrusted his will to him, for delivery to his son Constantius II. As a result the presbyter, together with the will, now passed into Constantius’ household, where he (again on instigation by Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea) corrupted the new emperor’s mind against the champions of Nicaea.

Using a basic Social Network Analysis programme (NodeXL), the described social relationships can be calculated and visualised like this:



The size of the nodes in this graph is based on so-called ‘between-ness centrality’, the degree to which each actor connects other actors across the network. Those with the highest ‘between-ness centrality’ are the brokers who sit on the ‘weak ties’. The graph shows very nicely that the Arian presbyter is a broker between two strongly connected subgroups, via Constantia. What the graph cannot show is that the Arian presbyter both controls how ‘heretical’ information is passed on, and is himself the heretical ‘product’ being passed on.

Unfortunately, the Church Historians’ version of Arius’ recall is an obvious fabrication, and would not stand the test of ‘real’ social network analysis. What was true about it was Constantia’s acquaintance with a number of Eastern bishops who are also recorded as Arius’ supporters, first of all Eusebius of Nicomedia. Eusebius had become bishop of Nicomedia in 318, the same time that Constantia, then married to Constantine’s co-emperor Licinius, had moved to the imperial capital in Bithynia. Later, at the Council of Nicaea, Constantia seems to have persuaded Eusebius, Theognis of Nicaea and Maris of Chalcedon, to subscribe to its Homoousian formula, against Arius’ teachings, although they refused to condemn him. In 325 Constantine would probably have found his sister’s connections and familiarity with Eastern bishops immensely valuable, and of course they helped him at first to create unity at the Council of Nicaea. Constantia’s acquaintance with Eusebius of Nicomedia only became a problem after the Nicene triumph later in the fourth century and the transformation of Eusebius into an arch-heretic, as did Constantine’s volte-de-face, when he recalled Arius in 327.

The fifth-century Church Historians, looking to explain the apparent and to them puzzling inconsistency of Constantine’s dealings with the ‘Arian’ faction and his son Constantius’ ‘semi-Arian’ sympathies, therefore turned to the record of Constantia’s network and added some embellishment. Aside from the invention of the presbyter, it is remarkable how in their story the primary role of imperial women as transmitters of dynastic legitimacy and issue —  a role that was endlessly celebrated in late antique imperial imagery — is mirrored and subverted, by representing Constantia as a conduit of religious contagion and associated personnel to the next imperial generation. The presbyter’s anonymity conveniently also served to exonerate Constantia, but more so her imperial relatives, from willing or conscious complicity. In face of a strong female presence at the fifth-century Constantinopolitan court, Constantia’s example may also have served as a warning against a too close overlap between court affairs and ecclesiastical business, and of the role of (by virtue of their female nature gullible) imperial women as gatekeepers to the emperor.

Constantine’s wavering attitude to Arius and his supporters still puzzles historians today. What is significant is that fifth-century Church Historians, just like modern social network analysts, suspected that social relationships, and above all ‘strong’ links, such as kinship, and ‘weak’ links such as that presented by the clerical ‘interloper’, played a role in shaping the emperor’s actions. They also feared that through these social links informal power, such as that wielded by Constantia and her household, may cut across formally instituted power, such as that of emperors, another theory they share with social network analysts. Their ideas on how information circulated may hence well have been true, even though it was certainly a much more complex scenario than they imagined. Characteristically for their time, the Church Historians had a reductive view on the spread of what they thought of as ‘heresy’, blaming a woman and her anonymous and lowly household dependant, as such preserving the memory of the imperial men, above all that of Constantine, untouched.

[1] M. Granovetter, Getting a Job, Cambridge, Mass., 1974.

[3] Rufinus, Ecclesiastical History 10.12; Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 1.25; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 2.27; Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History 2.3.

Second Advisory Workshop in Sheffield, 8th of January 2016

Our second advisory board workshop took place here at the Humanities Research Institute in Sheffield on the 8th of January. As with last year, we were pleased to host a number of distinguished scholars, working on databases, the late antique clergy and/or social network analysis from countries such as Austria, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Spain and the UK.

In the first part of this workshop, we had the chance to become acquainted with a range of complementing projects currently undertaken throughout Europe. Margarita Vallejo Girvès (Alcalá) presented some of her own work on exile, both secular and clerical, up to 711 AD, including a data collection for internal use, compiled by herself and her research group. It concentrates on dates and exile types rather than on relationships of people in exile, which is central to our own research question on clerical exiles. Stanislaw Adamiak (Warsaw) gave an insight into a database project on presbyters in the Early Church, including translations of pertinent texts, currently ongoing as a team project at the University of Warsaw. Bryan Ward-Perkins (Oxford) directs a Cult of the Saints project, including a database on early saints. His presentation focused specifically on the smell of dead saints. It included useful insights into tagging and categorisation of key words.

In the late morning session, Julia Hillner and myself presented the current state of our own database, currently comprising around 250 exile cases, roughly the same amount of locations and 500 people or groups in total. We introduced the current search surface (including a highly developed map search involving several layers) and the admin version of the database model, along with the research questions pertinent to this project.

After lunch, all of the participants kindly tested the current state of our database search function. In the process, we received valuable feedback, for example, concerning free-text categories to browse and considerations on the possible target group of these search tools.

Our guest-speakers concluded the day with a diverse range of topics on social network analysis, which is central to, and informs, our own research questions. Our own Julia Hillner gave a paper on social networks associated with exiles, including a range of quantitative approaches to identify and analyse these, ranging from the reconstruction of ‘real’ networks to that of ‘imagined’ ones. Máirín MacCarron (Sheffield) talked about her project on mapping interpersonal relationships in early medieval hagiographies, with special emphasis on the role of women. Johannes Preiser-Kapeller (Vienna) presented sophisticated slides of computerised social network graphs related to conflict in the medieval Byzantine world. All presentations that day included time to discuss and to ask questions.

We were delighted to invite the group to two communal dinners, involving internal discussions on research questions, and we all look forward to the next meeting of this kind to be held this time at the University of Halle (Germany).

The Clerical Exile Database and the ‘Imaginary User’

We haven’t blogged in a while, but that doesn’t mean that our project hasn’t made any progress! Quite the contrary: Jörg, Jakob and I have signed a contract with Peter Lang to publish the contributions to our workshop at Oxford Patristics 2015 in an edited volume that will appear in the series Early Christianity in the Context of Antiquity (ECCA) and both the project team and the other speakers are at the moment busily drafting their chapters. More on the content of this volume soon!

But also our database is progressing nicely. As of today we have recorded 223 exile cases, involving 468 individuals or groups and 652 relationships. As the database is becoming very substantial we have started thinking about how best to construct search facilities, so the extraction of data can support the widest range of research questions possible. For this reason  our IT technicians have given me and the team the task to impersonate an ‘imaginary user’ and come up with a list of research questions around clerical exile that we would hope the database would support. This is the list that we produced:

Possible User Questions

What was the legal and practical nature of clerical exile?


  • who was involved/responsible?
  • what legal type of exile was usually imposed and for what kind of (alleged) offenses?
  • what locations were exiles sent to? Where did they actually go? How did they travel there (i.e. by which locations & means)?
  • Were synods involved in the imposition of exile, or return of exiles?
  • How did return of exile come about?
  • Did all of this change over time?

What kind of experiences for exiles and what kind of (new) communities did clerical exile create?


  • How isolated, socially and geographically, were clerical exiles?
  • Which individuals or groups were affected by exile?
  • Which geographical locations were affected by exile (of origin, destination, location along journeys, cult sites, locations of contacts etc)? Were there exile ‘hotspots’ and if so, why? Were some regions particularly affected and why? Is there a relationship between the choice of exile locations and exiles’ ‘attributes’ (e.g. status, office, location of office) or the legal context of exile (exile type, whether also deposed by synod, whether preceded by asylum etc)?
  • Who did clerical exiles meet and what kind of relationships did this create? Were these ‘physical’ relationships, or relationships maintained by ‘correspondence’? i.e were communities ‘space’ based, or ‘institution’ based?
    • who accompanied clerical exiles? What was their experience?
    • who funded their travel/maintenance?
    • What was the role of women in the creation of exiles’ communities and their experiences?
  • Did clerical exile lead to new saints cults/cult sites?
  • Did all of this change over time – during exile (how did an exile’s contact change), and over the course of the period studied?

What was the impact of these new communities and relationships? Did they cut across institutional structures? Did they influence individual behaviour? Did they bring about significant ‘events’?


  • How close did these new communities get clerical exiles to decision makers, e.g. about law and doctrine?
  • Did exiles’ networks help to spread information e.g. about theology, or other; were exiles central to their networks, were they brokers? Who was central in exiles’ networks?
  • Were exiles central to conversion (to Christianity, or a particular brand of Christianity)
  • Did exiles still manage to influence affairs ‘back home’?
  • Did exiles’ networks help to secure exiles’ return?
  • Did clerical exile create communities and contacts that would otherwise not have existed? Did this influence certain kinds of behaviour?
  • How did an exile become a saint? Compare e.g. people/groups responsible for cult, cult locations
  • How did an exile’s activities influence other people’s thinking about theological doctrine (or their own)?

In addition, our IT technicians also asked us to come up with a number of desiderata for how we would like searches to be able to be constructed and how we would like to data to be visualised, so they best support the kind of research questions detailed above.

On the basis of what we told them this is the overall search and visualisation model they developed :


 Users will be able to start searches either by a key word search or by combining a number of data categories, such as exile cases, names of individuals, locations (by specific locations, or supra-regions such as late antique dioceses or post-Roman kingdoms), person attributes (office, gender, religious status, religious affiliation etc) or by browsing A-Z lists of all our data categories, as shown here:


Results from a key word or data category search can then be ordered and manipulated further in a number of ways. Users can choose to see full exile case records, but they can also narrow down results by filtering out certain categories, and through faceting (most internet users will be familiar with this from sites like ebay: it’s a column on the left hand side where boxes can be ticked or unticked to refine searches – only that here users are ‘shopping’ for late antique clerical exiles!):


If a user chooses to see the full record of an exile case, it will contain information as shown here, with the possibility to follow links to related records (other exile cases, or information on individuals involved in this exile case) and, crucially, to a map of locations related to this exile case, or a route map of an exile’s journey:


The record of an exile case will also allow visualising the data as graphs. For example, individuals’ names will include a link to the network diagram of their relationships, which will include the following information:


Of course, these are early days, but we’ve already seen some prototypes of search results that look very promising. For example, here is the top of the table that shows a list of all our 223 exile cases (the top result is slightly misleading, as we haven’t actually entered data on Athanasius’ exiles yet; what you see here is just our very first test entry – of course Athanasius returned and not just once!):


As you can see, the facet on the left hand side allows us to refine this search by gender. If we narrow our search down to just female exiles, this is what the database comes up with – eight interesting cases of clerical or ascetic women sent into exile (or women becoming ascetics when in exile):


And finally, here is a map of locations currently in the database that have played a role in clerical exile – as places of office, departure, arrival, return, or contacts of exile – with the Isles of Scilly highlighted!



We’ll be testing the interface at our next project workshop in early January 2016 to which we have invited colleagues who run similar digital projects, such as Presbyters in the Late Antique West, Cult of the Saints, and Mapping Medieval Conflict. For this event our search facilities have to be in good shape, so there is still much to do!