Scholars of Late Antiquity have long recognized that bishops played an influential role in the formation and execution of Roman law. Such was the case even in the Syrian realm, traditionally considered the exotic hinterland of the Roman Empire. Fifth- and sixth-century sources, such as the Syro-Roman Lawbook, early exemplars of canon legislation, and homilies and hagiographic narratives, point to a considerable preoccupation with matters of law and justice for Syrian clergy. This article examines a particularly well-attested slice of this data surrounding Rabbula, the fifth-century bishop of Edessa. Rabbula's background in imperial administration and his post-conversion pursuit of asceticism make him in many ways the prototypical late ancient bishop, combining monastic charisma with civic acumen. A collection of rules for clergy and ascetics attributed to him focuses closely upon priests' and bishops' function in the Roman legal system, their collaboration with Roman magistrates, and the ways in which clerical judicial processes reflected and sought to distinguish themselves from their magisterial analogues. Drawing upon the evidence of the Rules and roughly contemporaneous texts addressing legal practice in Edessa suggests that, Syria's reputation as sui generis notwithstanding, in their judicial capacity Syrian clergy bore striking resemblances to their Western counterparts.
If somebody hassles members of the clergy with a lawsuit on a Sunday, even if it is only on account of some minor matter, he will owe one denarius because he has hassled him, and if [he has hassled him] because of a great matter (lit.: much), double will be asked of him.1
This provision appears in the so-called Syro-Roman Lawbook, a fifth-century compendium of Roman civil law, and is later reiterated in a number of Syrian Christian canon law collections.2
The offense it identifies and punishment it threatens raise a number of practical considerations, including the question of how a priest who finds himself beset by legal claimants might go about enforcing such a penalty. While no record exists of fines being meted out to over-eager litigants, the law in question nevertheless reveals a profoundly practical anxiety: clergy, particularly bishops, might find themselves deluged with requests for legal assistance, even in the midst of performing their churchly duties.
Evidence from Late Antiquity suggests that such concerns were well-founded. Clerical accounts from the Greek- and Latin-speaking parts of the Roman Empire brim with complaints about the onslaught of disputants approaching their bishop for resolution and redress. Writing at the turn of the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo, for example, lamented the hours he spent each week addressing such requests. How much rather, Augustine writes, “I would … do some manual labor … than to endure the very confusing perplexities of the problems of others in regard to worldly concerns, which must be eliminated by our judgments or curtailed by actions.”3
Aspects of these obligations were, no doubt, part of Christian leaders' responsibilities almost from the very beginning: already the apostle Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians encourages his audience to let wise men in their own, Christian community resolve disputes, rather than taking them before Roman magistrates.4 Christians of later centuries evidently took Paul's exhortation sufficiently seriously to generate rules for intra-communal adjudication, typically at the hands of a bishop. The Didascalia apostolorum, a third-century “church order,” for example, instructs bishops to set aside Mondays for sitting in judgment over disputes between members of their communities, and contemplates the possibility of bishops' being approached by non-Christians for judgment as well.5 Under the Emperor Constantine, Christian judicial practices received the imperial seal of approval. The so-called episcopalis audientia, the “bishop's hearing” features prominently, if ambivalently, in Roman law from the fourth century onward, with provisions addressing the uncertainties surrounding bishops' (and, by extension, lower clergy's) role in the Roman legal system.6 By the Syro-Roman Lawbook's era, in other words, Christian clergy across the Empire had become central participants in the Roman legal system—or were at least perceived (and beleaguered) as such by their communities.7
The role of bishops and other Christian leaders in, and in conversation with, Roman law has been the subject of extensive scholarship among Greek and Latin historians in recent decades. By contrast, these topics have received considerably less attention in the context of Syriac sources,8 in part perhaps because the specter of the “Holy Man,” the ascetic solitary, resolving communal conflict by positioning himself beyond human communion, continues to loom large in these narratives.9 This article aims to examine a different aspect of Syrian Christians' engagement with law and justice: that surrounding the urban bishop and the monastic and ecclesial institutions under his authority. To do so, I draw on a selection of texts and narratives surrounding an exemplary ecclesiastic: Rabbula, the influential fifth-century bishop of Edessa, modern-day Urfa. A couple of sources among Rabbula's considerable literary remains particularly commend themselves to this study: his vita, composed quite shortly after his death, as part of the Edessene community's struggle over Rabbula's heritage; and the “Commands and Admonitions of Mar Rabbula, Bishop of Edessa, for the Clergy and the Qeiama” (hereinafter: Rules10), a set of ecclesiastical regulations allegedly composed by Rabbula and emerging, in any case, from his historical surroundings.
Both sets of sources demonstrate a thoroughgoing preoccupation with law and legal culture. The vita accordingly seeks to position its protagonist as judicial authority over both spiritual and civic matters, in competition with ecclesiastical and Roman judges. In a similar vein, the Rules assume clergy's role as arbiters and advocates on behalf of their congregations; delineate both permissible and impermissible scenarios for these functions; and issue commands for clergy's comportment in the course of performing their judicial duties. In the process, the canons attend to the parameters of Roman law and practice, as well as to the potential these processes held for complementing or compromising ecclesiastical dignity and ascetic holiness. At times these considerations even coalesced, as in instances of a case's transfer from the clerical to the magisterial realm. The canons thus provide a glimpse into the practice—familiar from both Latin West and Greek East—of the episcopalis audientia in the Syrian realm, as well as into the complex web of other legal duties Edessene clergy might assume. As will become apparent, the emerging vision of the Syrian bishop at law is one that shares considerable commonalities with Western contemporaries.
SYRIAN CLERGY AT LAW: THE EVIDENCE OF RABBULA'S
Rabbula of Edessa is one of the best-attested figures from the early stages of Syriac Christian development.11 As bishop of one of the major Syrian metropoleis in the first half of the fifth century, his literary remains include, inter alia, a fragmentary homily,12 a selection of letters allegedly authored or received by Rabbula, and a canon collection, already mentioned above and discussed in greater detail later. Rabbula's life-story is, moreover, attested by an anonymous biography composed in the politically fraught decades after his tenure as bishop.13 Its proximity to Rabbula's lifetime suggests at least a modicum of historical reliability, even if its record is undoubtedly tinged with hagiographic flourishes.14 As such, it may tell readers as much about the kind of judicial persona Rabbula and his followers sought to cultivate, or about the era's judicial ideal, as about Rabbula's actual legal practice.
The vita in many regards presents its protagonist as a hybrid creature, part prototypical “holy man,” part savvy politician. Upon his conversion to Christianity, Rabbula thus divests himself of his considerable possessions and sets out into the desert to do battle with demons in imitation of Christ.15 His fame spreads, and while he is initially successful in concealing himself from the people who seek him out as “a man who left the world and loved the wasteland,” he is ultimately carried off to ordination in Edessa.16 Even as bishop of a metropolis, however, Rabbula's profile retains the impress of the ascetic superstar. His lifestyle remains abstemious, his sanctity causes even his own household to stand in awe of him, and he wields the power of heaven vis-à-vis Edessa's wealthy elites as the Roman authorities. By the same token, however, Rabbula brings to bear upon his episcopal leadership not only the charisms of the desert, but also his pre-Christian background. The son of an elite, religiously mixed family, Rabbula, according to his vita, prior to his conversion enjoyed an education in “Greek letters” before embarking upon a career in the Roman imperial administration.
The—no doubt not entirely unusual—conjunction of urban and eremitic, civic and ascetic in the vita presents Rabbula, in Han Drijver's assessment, as “at the one time a humble monk and a cruel and shrewd civil servant of the imperial administration.”17 Rabbula's hybridity is particularly apparent in the vita's depiction of his judicial persona. The latter is a central theme for Rabbula's hagiographer: one of his first descriptions of Rabbula is that of him “valiant in the arena of righteousness”18—a phrase reminiscent of the Pauline and deutero-Pauline depiction of the Christian life as a quasi-Olympic struggle, but also a foreshadowing of Rabbula's own, continued combat as a champion at law. Indeed, Rabbula's first act as a bishop is one of just judgment—judgment over his own soul. The son of a wealthy pagan father and a Christian mother, conversion came late for Rabbula, and involved, as for some of the more conspicuous Christians in Late Antiquity, a conversion not just to Christianity but to asceticism. The combination of Rabbula's reputation for self-denial and, perhaps even more prominently, his enthusiasm for divesting himself of all family property made him a viable candidate for the see of Edessa. And yet, here the vita depicts Rabbula as breaking with an almost uniform feature of late ancient hagiography: the refus de pouvoir, the rejection of the episcopacy that in so many other vitae shows a future bishop, much like future emperors, as truly worthy of the honor he is about to receive. Instead, Rabbula is said—twice!—to have judged his soul and found it … not wanting: “Nothing has compelled my intellect out of desire, nor does [desire for] property hold sway in my heart. I believe without hesitation that all is truly from God.”19
This remarkable feat of self-judgment prefigures Rabbula's career as judicial arbiter for the people of Edessa, a capacity in which he showcases both his ascetic and his worldly pedigree. In the guise of the former, he, like other “Holy Men,” could speak candidly to conflicts between individuals as well as between communities.20 In the guise of the latter, Rabbula could enter effectively into dialogue with the Roman Empire's expansive legal apparatus. From the reign of Constantine onward, imperial legislation had recognized bishops' privileged function as arbiters for their communities; bishops thus addressed matters pertaining to the church and its clergy by rights, on the basis of the principle that only like could judge like,21 and addressed civil lawsuits by the consent of the parties involved, a scenario known to students of Late Antiquity as “episcopalis audientia.”22
The latter role did not, strictly speaking, parallel that of the Roman iudex, the judge and magistrate. Within the legal system of the Roman Empire, however, iudices were far from the only actors. Instead, Romans in need of conflict resolution could (and frequently did) make use of the more informal channels of arbitration or mediation by agreed-upon authority figures. Indeed, one and the same person could assume different functions, depending on circumstances and petitioners' needs.23 Bishops' and clergy's roles held clear and obvious connections with each of these practices without conforming neatly to any of the models; ancient writings accordingly refer to bishops variously as iudices and arbitri, and clergy's own accounts of their activities make clear that they were prepared to be quite flexible in their approach in order to effect resolution. Those who engaged in such conflict resolution for their petitioners nevertheless did not hesitate to think of themselves as judges—a line of discourse that later imperial legislation sought to counteract—and did not shy away from writing about the judicial office as a quasi-sacred profession.24
By the end of the fourth century and perhaps well before then, bishops acting in judicial or quasi-judicial capacities had thus entered a realm that, while closely connected to the practice's scriptural and ecclesiastical origins, was also increasingly hedged about by Roman law and the Roman legal apparatus. Rabbula's vita—despite its hagiographic gloss—captures well the dual nature of the episcopal judge. On the one hand, Rabbula is portrayed as brimming with biblical virtue: he is gifted with intelligence and wisdom equal to Solomon;25 his discernment permits him to trample the proud, while lifting up the poor and lowly.26 On the other hand, however, the vita aligns Rabbula with late ancient descriptions of Roman judges by depicting him as striking terror into the hearts of the people of Edessa. Indeed, so great is the fear Rabbula inspires that “[e]veryone hastened to transact his business with his neighbor with an honest accounting so as not to be reproved before Rabbula in a lawsuit.”27
Portrayals of judges as terrifying proliferate in Late Antiquity. As Rabbula's contemporary, Theodoret, observed, “[i]nfants are scared of sorcerers, children of pedagogues and teachers, while grown men are especially thrown into a panic by judges, tribunals, heralds, beadles and those who execute the sentence”.28 Such a fearsome reputation could even become a boon for magistrates who needed to induce terror at least in order to preserve the public order.29 Rabbula's awe-inspiring presence, the vita claims, moreover obviated many of the otherwise essential features of a trial: instead of requiring the testimony of witnesses or the persuasion of torture (ubiquitous in the Roman judicial system), Rabbula's discernment penetrates all attempts at deception, such that “the mind[s] of those before him seeking a judgment were utterly disquieted by the spirit of the wisdom of God that was in him. When their argument became confused by their fear, in their mouth[s] they spoke the truth though unwillingly; and even the witness who was bringing the charge sought his own condemnation.”30
Despite Rabbula's hybrid judicial persona, however, his practice, the vita suggests, was circumscribed by the practices of other, competing authorities. In Rabbula's era, a bishop's verdict, unlike that of a magistrate, was final. As with other forms of arbitration, the parties to such an action had consented to be bound by the bishop's pronouncement.31 Rabbula's vita nevertheless suggests that, in practice, clergy's decisions could be second-guessed by other authorities, even if it does so to emphasize Rabbula's prowess: “who was among the judges in the district who were alive in [Rabbula's] lifetime,” Rabbula's anonymous biographer asks, “thought to go against his word, and God did not seize him swiftly … with a terrible punishment so that he suffer because he had gone astray?”32 Rabbula's judgments, in other words, stand because he enjoys divine patronage, whose authority silences conflicting voices. In the absence of supernatural intervention, ordinary clergy, by contrast, might find themselves overruled.
From these isolated snapshots of Rabbula's judicial activities emerges a picture of the bishop as an (exceptionally effective) arbiter of justice for his community. Indeed, the vita limns Rabbula's life and labors with just such a narrative: having begun his episcopal career with a just judgment, Rabbula at the end of his life is commemorated accordingly. At his funeral, the vita reports, all of Edessa mourns Rabbula not only as a giver of good gifts but “as one who was concerned about justice.”33 Rabbula's justice here becomes not only the bishop's most salient characteristic, but the means for transcending boundaries between ascetics and lay persons, Jews and Christians, civic and ecclesiastical functionaries, implicating the entire city in the bishop's performance of righteousness.
Such an unwavering emphasis makes for a distinctive episcopal portrait, no doubt shaped by the battle over the bishop's legacy in the years following his death.34 Rabbula's literary legacy suggests, moreover, that the bishop sought to transmit both his investment in judicial practice and his skillful execution thereof to other members of the Syrian Christian elite. Already the vita accordingly celebrates the fact that under Rabbula's guidance, the monasteries surrounding Edessa were governed by Rabbula's “just canons”.35 A set of “admonitions” (ܙܘܗܪ̈ܐ) for monks attributed to Rabbula indeed survives, as do his Rules for priests and a group of ascetics apparently affiliated with local churches, known only as the Bnay qyāmā.36 The latter, perhaps unsurprisingly, provide the reader with tantalizing glimpses into the framework of clerical justice in Edessa.
SYRIAN CLERGY AT LAW: THE EVIDENCE OF THE CANONS
Compared to the scarcity of manuscripts witnessing to Rabbula's vita, evidence for the canons is extensive: the earliest sources date back to the sixth century, suggesting that within a few decades after his death, Rabbula's name was associated with them.37 As already noted, the idea that Rabbula composed such writings is supported by his vita, although the excerpts presented by his hagiographer are not necessarily of a piece with the rules ascribed to him in the manuscript tradition. Whether their attribution indeed reflects historical reality has been a subject of scholarly dispute for some centuries now. Horn and Phenix, the editors of the Rabbula corpus' recent edition, while providing a survey of the arguments, declare “the problem of authorship of the canons … probably intractable.”38 For purposes of this essay, however, firm attribution of the canons to Rabbula's pen is secondary to a matter that has been established: unlike another, far later collection of canons similarly attributed to the bishop, the Rules emerge from Rabbula's geographic and temporal proximity—that is, from a fifth-century Syriac Christian milieu.39
As might be expected, the Rules cover many of the ideological, liturgical, and particularly behavioral aspects of clerical existence. Clergy are instructed concerning the living arrangements proper to each group (Rules 2, 10, 22, 42), the rhythms of prayer (20, 27), and the need to “know the true faith of the holy church that the heretics may not lead them astray” (1).40 More so than the expected categories of sexual ethics or doctrinal purity, however, the Rules evince a preoccupation with law and civic affairs.41 The Christian “professionals” of the city are thus warned against entangling themselves unduly with worldly matters: they must not become anyone's guardian (ܐܦܛܪܘܦܐ)—a position of great fiscal and legal responsibility42—(26) or serve as surety for another person (41). In the same vein, no man currently involved in a law-suit could be designated for ordination (13): the claim which such a suit, even in the absence of a verdict, imposed upon a person was akin to the yoke of slavery, the Rules suggest, and as such did not leave a person sufficiently free to accept a clerical calling.
Clergy and ascetics of Edessa are, moreover, prohibited from offering certain kinds of legal assistance: priests in particular must not take on as advocates the lawsuits of their own relatives or of people who have a reputation for bribing judges (26). The specific nature of these prohibitions points towards a broader tolerance of clergy's serving as legal advocates for others, whose representation did not fall within such unseemly parameters. Indeed, bishops and monastics who assumed the role of judicial intercessors were not uncommon in Roman Syria. The late fourth-century canons ascribed to Maruta of Maipherqat, for instance, call for the appointment of a monk “who has the faculty of speech and with it frankness,” whose task was to visit and interview those who had been placed in the town's prisons, and to intercede on behalf of those worthy of release.43 Even where a priest's advocacy did not ipso facto raise the specter of impropriety, however, the Rules contain guidance for clergy's comportment. Priests in pursuit of legal resolution, accordingly, must not “keep turning up at the doorstep of a judge” (ܒܬܪܥܐ ܕܕܝܿܢܐ).44 An undue level of persistence in judicial affairs—even in the guise of continued intercession on behalf of another—could evidently compromise clerical detachment or at least popular perceptions thereof.
Yet while clergy evidently served as advocates in legal matters, their greatest popularity—and, the Rules suggest, greatest vulnerability—arose from their function as judges and arbiters. The Rules accordingly address procedural requirements for clergy sitting in judgment over the affairs of their fellow Edessenes. In theory at least, Christians' legal affairs were to be handled “in house”: Rule 36 thus echoes the Pauline dictum against taking community-internal grievances “before the unrighteous”—that is, before Roman magistrates (1 Cor 6.1). In the Eschaton, Paul avers, Christians would judge angels; deference to pagan, civic authorities was accordingly not only improper but a grave misunderstanding of their roles and capacities.45 In a similar vein, the Rules warn priests to “settle contentions,” and to avoid “going to the town”—and presumably the magistrate—for this purpose.
Not all clergy were qualified to sit in judgment: only those who “in the test, are known not to show favor” could be designated to hear cases (14). Once they had accepted a suit, however, clerical judges in Edessa apparently followed procedures that resembled those of a Roman magistrate. The Rules, for example, warn against taking bribes from those caught up in a lawsuit (5), and exhort their audience to avoid accepting a forged document that might lead them to “do [something] against justice” (35). The anxiety that a judge's failure to properly examine the deeds, sworn statements, or other documents, might lead to a false verdict, also elucidates the Rules' prohibitions against priests' scourging anyone—a decree, interestingly, that does not comport with Rabbula's own portrayal in the vita.46 At times, the Rules concede, clergy might indeed encounter situations compelling them to scourge. Under such circumstances, however, priests ought to use the whip “only to frighten”—or else to hand the matter off to the “judges of the world,” the Roman magistrates (35).
To understand the context of this set of instructions it is worth recalling that in Late Antiquity, the business of justice was also frequently the business of violence.47 The latter becomes apparent already at the outset of a trial before a Roman magistrate, during the evidence-gathering phase of a suit known as the quaestio.48 Human witnesses constituted one of the most significant resources for discerning disputed facts, yet their examination could prove challenging for both civic and ecclesial judges. Interrogations thus frequently required force to elicit the truth or ensure that the witness' report or party's assertion was, in fact, reliable. Indeed, the deployment of torture during this part of the trial was sufficiently pervasive in the minds of Roman legal experts that it came to designate the entire trial phase. In the words of the famous third-century jurist Ulpian, “[b]y the term ‘quaestio’ we must understand the use of torments and physical pain to establish the truth.”49
Rabbula himself, if the vita is to be trusted, did not need to take recourse to such approaches; his superior discernment revealed the veracity of a witness' testimony more effectively than a whip ever could. Ordinary bishops and priests confronted with a lawsuit, by contrast, might be tempted to test the reliability of a claim by following Roman magistrates' example. Indeed, in the episcopal courts of their Western contemporaries, beatings and other forms of violence were a known, if not always an uncontroversial, part of judicial practice.50 In these instances, the Rules suggest, the ecclesial judge had to restrain himself, scourging only “to frighten,” or, if that proved ineffective, to hand over the potential victim (and, by extension, the lawsuit) to the magistrate.
The Rules thus reveal a set of internal tensions, a readily perceptible conflict between biblical ideal and practical exigencies. In first-century Corinth, the distinction between Christian and pagan, communal judgment and civic judgment might have been readily perceptible— although Paul's letters suggest that the conclusions Christians drew from them were far from unanimous. By the fifth century, however, the Roman Empire, including Syria, had been very largely Christianized: the “judges of the world” were thus, for the most part, Christians who, much like the Byzantine Emperor, looked to their bishop and his men for the performance of the sacraments.51
The Rules' discussion of judicial interrogation and the limits set for clergy similarly point to a degree of quotidian interdependence between bishop and magistrate in this realm. The practice of ministry, especially its more “civic-spirited” manifestations, in an urban setting required compromises on the part of bishops and their subordinates, and evidently a measure of collaboration with the worldly authorities: better to hand over a suit to those who could extract necessary information than to expose ministers to the stain of torture and bloodshed. Both groups nevertheless shared many assumptions about the nature of justice and how it could be achieved. In the Roman Empire, this meant that at least some individuals were trustworthy only if their statements had been extracted by force.52 If not all of the means for achieving demonstrably just outcomes in a lawsuit were within the purview of clergy, for whom holiness was a fundamental consideration, deference to civil authorities could prove face-saving for all parties involved.
These sources, whether legal or hagiographical, provide glimpses into the world of fifth century Syrian Christians, their communities, power structures, and engagement with Roman authority. By the same token, however, Rabbula's justice, its theoretical underpinnings, practical manifestations, and rhetorical deployment, also anchor him and his surroundings in the broader narrative of episcopal identity and responsibility across the Roman Empire. A glimpse beyond the Syrian context reveals a set of shared discourses surrounding justice and judgment extending from Edessa to Milan, and from Rabbula to his Western contemporaries.
HOLY AND JUST: ROMAN CLERGY AT LAW IN SYRIA AND BEYOND
Perched on the eastern edge of the Empire, a constant point of negotiation between Rome and Persia until its Arab conquest in 638 C.E., the province of Syria continues to enjoy a touch of the exotic in the imagination of many modern-day scholars. “East of Antioch,” to borrow a phrase from Han Drijver's famous work on early Syriac Christianity, appears as the Wild West of the Roman Empire. Its ascetic movements, larger-than-life holy men, and violently executed theological controversies have all contributed to Syria's status as exceptional in late ancient Christian discourses. Rabbula, in many ways, is a case in point: his hagiographers portray him as a model of alimentary and material renunciation, his opponents as a violent and irascible tyrant.53 Between the two extremes, however, lies the picture of Rabbula as judge and judicial reformer reflected both in his vita and by his Rules for the clergy of Edessa. This facet of Rabbula's life and labors points to a somewhat less “exotic” profile for Syrian monks and clergy, and one that in many regards resembles those of other parts of the Roman Empire. The Rules and hagiographies, each with its own foci and limitations, showcase an urban clerus actively involved in judicial resolution for its constituents, working alongside and within the boundaries of the imperial legal apparatus, and grappling with both the opportunities and the challenges the latter's substantive and procedural assumptions presented.
In these regards, Rabbula's own profile as judge, judicial intercessor, and ecclesial administrator resembles those of his western episcopal colleagues. In these concluding paragraphs, I want to illustrate the continuities in approach, pedagogy, and presentation between Rabbula and one of his near-contemporaries from the Latin West, a Christian leader who, like Rabbula, enjoyed a reputation as ecclesiastical reformer, monastic patron, and skilled judge: Ambrose, the fourth-century bishop of Milan. The latter, despite a smattering of appearances in later Syriac sources, lacks all apparent ties to either Rabbula or his hagiographer.54 The correspondences between the two bishops' trajectories and emphases are nevertheless striking. Like Rabbula, Ambrose acceded to the see of a major metropolis on the heels of a career in the imperial administration.55 Both bishops evidently stood in a special relationship with their cities' ascetics, even capitalizing on a kind of ascetic charisma in their own ministries.56 By the same token, both Rabbula and Ambrose brought to bear their organizational talents upon the clergy under their care. Ambrose's version of the Rules is far more expansive and literary, adapting Cicero's De officiis to the formation of a new, Christian-clerical elite.57 Here, too, however, justice and its practical implications and applications for priests and other clerics stand at the center of the bishop's instructions.
Rabbula's and Ambrose's vision for the day-to-day practices of judicial administration share much in common while retaining distinctive traces of their respective environments. Ambrose's epistolary corpus, for example, attests to his successful resolution of high-profile disputes and service as counselor to elite clients.58 No equivalent set of texts exists for Rabbula, and readers might speculate whether the irascible bishop of Edessa would have been able to parlay his elite upbringing into political capital with similar success as his Milanese colleague. By contrast, the ordinary suits that stand at the center of Rabbula's vita recede into the background of Ambrose's self-presentation.
Such differences notwithstanding, however, the author of the Rules and Ambrose sound similar notes in their instructions to fellow clergy. Both bishops, for example, worried about the appearance of partiality among clerical judges active in the socially mixed context of late ancient cities. The Rules, as already noted, sought to admit only those priests as judges who had demonstrated their even-handedness; to do otherwise threatened to jeopardize the church's image in the community. In the same vein, a speech attributed to Rabbula by the vita has the bishop exhorting his fellow clergy that “we are standing in the very high glory of the priesthood [so that] all the people that are standing below us look to us for guidance.”59 Priests and clergy accordingly must “as befits the beauty of true righteousness … set the example in our own actions, witnesses to those watching that our promise is true.”60 Such righteousness had to manifest itself practically in the judicial processes clerics undertook as well; the Rules accordingly echo the vita's message by urging clergy to abstain from receiving bribes and be wary of forged documents.61
Ambrose similarly recognizes the damaging potential of priestly partiality. De officiis thus champions the value of aequitas—treating everyone according to the same principles.62 Priests, accordingly, must not grant special treatment to better-heeled disputants when deciding a suit; the poor bear Christ's image just as much as, or indeed even more than, their rich accusers.63 In this vein, much as partiality might shame the church, just judgment could prove attractive to those who were still outside the Christian fold: sound advice and unbiased judgment, Ambrose averred, prepared for clergy a way into the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens. Like Solomon, a just priest will attract to himself clients and onlookers from all over the world.64 To do or neglect justice in private and individual matters promised to impact the perception of the Church in public and corporal ones.
The parallels between Ambrose's and Rabbula's careers and focus on judicial formation, while striking, are not as singular as they appear. A similar case might be made for correlations between, for example, Rabbula and Basil of Caesarea, Rabbula and Augustine, or even Rabbula and Shenoute of Atripe. What conclusions might one draw from these intersecting episcopal profiles? Many of the apparent connections between bishops' lives and careers might be a matter of coincidence, of their and their biographers' indebtedness to genre-specific conventions, not to mention the suggestion that certain shared traits or activities simply reflect the nature of the shared office. Bishops, in other words, could be expected to care for the poor, seek to educate lower clergy, and be concerned about the Church's reputation in their communities.
Rabbula's and Ambrose's emphasis on justice and on preparing clergy for the task of comporting themselves as judges within the parameters set by Roman law nevertheless is more than a mere artifact of the episcopacy's “natural” shape; rather, we might speculate, it attests to their shared background among the Empire's provincial elites, including, in Rabbula's case, those of Syria, and, in Ambrose's, those of his native Gaul, as well as their participation in the surrounding judicial discourses. These shared presuppositions could trump differences in language, in regional provenance, and theological emphases; indeed, they were designed to do so.65 Rabbula's heirs proceeded to preserve the Roman legal tradition with equal vigor as their Western contemporaries, as the great canon-law compendia of later centuries attest; the long arm of Roman law extended itself into regions that had never been or had long ceased to be part of the Roman Empire, lending a kind of coherence to a tradition that remained, especially in the Syrian realm, deeply divided over matters of faith and doctrine.