Exiling a Christian cleric in Late Antiquity—something that happened hundreds of times between the fourth and the sixth centuries—was like throwing a stone in a pond. It often generated a spectacular splash that served to make a statement about the rightfulness and agency of the exiler through an act of deterrence, humiliation, but also mercy. It separated the cleric from his previous surroundings, immersing him in an unfamiliar and at times unpleasant environment. Yet, exiling a cleric also often created an enormous ripple effect that was felt by people and in places far removed from the initial rupture and a long time after it had subsided.
Over the last decades our understanding of the first two aspects of clerical exile in Late Antiquity has made significant advancements. We now know exile was the main method emperors and bishops employed to suppress religious dissidence during Late Antiquity, fostering unprecedented collaboration between, but also struggle over, imperial and ecclesiastical legal spheres. Those who suffered exile—either as banishment proper or as flight from arrest—connected their experience to specific Christian understandings of cosmopolitanism, asceticism, and imagined wandering, and attempted to reinsert their stories into a Christian trajectory of persecution, martyrdom, and salvation. The study of clerical exile therefore has opened a window into the institutionalization of the Christian Church, the changing relationship between ecclesiastical and imperial law, the construction of sanctity, and the quest for Christian orthodoxy amidst religious conflict.
The third aspect—the “waves across the pond” that clerical exile generated—has so far remained relatively unexplored. Scholarly efforts to illuminate the legal dimensions of late antique clerical exile, its usefulness as a form of conflict management, and its generation of a type of holiness and Christian leadership mean that the emphasis has mostly been on those who exiled and those who were exiled. This has, perhaps unwittingly, reconfirmed an impression that clerical exile, above all, violently, disrupted by spatially separating and isolating troublesome clerics from their followers. In individual cases, there has been some suspicion that the exiling of clerics in Late Antiquity was not always the resounding success it was planned to be. Yet, beyond highlighting anecdotal or regional evidence, especially concerning Nicene Christians in Vandal Africa, there has been little appreciation of how deep and formative for late antique Christianity the impact of clerical exile has been.
To understand this impact, we must direct our attention also to those who did not exile or were not exiled themselves, but still directly affected: communities exiled clerics had to leave behind, those who accompanied a cleric into exile, supporters and enemies around clerics in exile, the immediate audiences of an exiled cleric's writing. We must also turn our attention to those who commemorated exiled clerics throughout Late Antiquity by telling, retelling, perusing, and in some cases re-enacting stories of exile. Above all, we must avoid treating all these groups in isolation from one another, but must redirect our gaze to the relationships between exiled clerics, their contemporaries, and future audiences of their experiences. Such relationships between an exiled cleric and others could be physical, in the form of interlopers between different spatially separated supporter groups, a role often taken on by an exiled cleric's companions; they could be textual, in the form of the transmission of writings passing on information about clerical exile between different audiences, separated by space or time; or they could in fact be imagined relationships, sometimes even constructed a long time after the event and in different places to repurpose the memory of exiled clerics for new contexts.
The contributions in this special issue emerge from the research project The Migration of Faith: Clerical Exile in Late Antiquity (325-c. 600), based at the University of Sheffield and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Many of the primary data underlying the articles, as well as graphs and maps featured, derive from this project and its digitally available database, which catalogues around 500 cases of clerical exile between 325 and the end of the sixth century (www.clericalexile.org). The database collects prosopographical information not just about exiled clerics themselves, but also about their recorded social connections both leading up to and during their time of exile. As a result, it includes data about c. 1200 individuals and groups, as well as connections between them. It therefore allows not only for more conventional “attribute analysis,” where clerical exile is studied according to its own properties, to identify, for example, legal forms of exile or the number of exiled clerics who returned or died in exile, but also for the analysis of the impact of exiled clerics’ networks.
The aim of the Migration of Faith project is to broaden the scholarly perspective on clerical exile through experimenting with quantitative approaches to exiled clerics’ social relationships and connections, and especially social network analysis. This method has been adopted, firstly, to understand more precisely whether clerical exile had the effects intended by exiling authorities, and often complained about by some exiled clerics: to shut down particular sources of influence, to isolate and to humiliate troublemakers. Theories of social network analysis caution us against rashly assuming that this was so, for they postulate that ideas, norms, practices, and types of behaviour are disseminated or even forged through social interactions, and, in particular, through social interactions that happen “outside the box,” where individuals meet new individuals outside their comfort zones and have to engage with unfamiliar surroundings beyond their more natural networks of like-minded people. Far from being isolating, late antique clerical exile had the potential to be an unusually fertile ground for the dissemination of ideas because it exposed clerics to exactly these kinds of situations.
Reconstructing actual or “real” networks of exiled clerics is, however, only possible where the source base is reasonably numerous, comprehensive, diverse, and capable of being cross-checked with other evidence. This, of course, happens rarely with late antique sources. The Migration of Faith project therefore, secondly and more innovatively, adopts network analysis and other more attribute-based forms of historical data quantification to understand how late antique people themselves understood the nature and power of exiled clerics’ networks. The figure below shows all exiled clerics’ social connections that have been recorded in the project database so far (blue nodes represent individuals, either exiled clerics or their contacts; blue lines represent relationships between individuals).
This “global network” of clerical exile in Late Antiquity (in the sense of comprehensively based on all available primary sources) features some distinct clusters of connections, but also isolated individuals. The graph also shows clearly that some cases of clerical exile connected late antique people over time. It is, however, important to remember that the scientific aura such graphs radiate can be misleading. This network graph does not show all social connections created through clerical exile. What it actually maps is the subjective narration and commemoration of exile networks in Late Antiquity. We cannot assume that exile cases appearing as a cluster of individuals represent exile cases that generated a lot of social interaction, or that exile cases appearing as a single node in this network did not (and that these clerics were hence solitary or isolated figures). Instead, 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 time periods. The figure above shows us at a glance which incidents of clerical exile produced reflection on their underlying social relationships during Late Antiquity, and which did not. The graph itself is a reflection of such reflections.
Focusing our attention on an exiled cleric's social networks as described, reconstructed and sometimes fabricated by late antique people overcomes scholarly doubts as to the usefulness of the method of network analysis based on the fragmentary and tendentious nature of the sources. We are then working, in essence, with “complete” datasets whose limits are defined by late antique artefacts themselves. Yet, there is more than just a practical benefit in doing so. Comparing how sources reported on the networks of the exiled clerics also yields important insights about the memory of exile in Late Antiquity, as all contributions to this special issue show.
This special journal issue brings together four contributors from the fields of Classics, History, Theology, and Archaeology to investigate the impact of clerical exiles’ connections through the ways these were represented in late antique literature and material culture. Richard Flower examines how ”resistance texts” written by exiled champions of Nicaea in the fourth century narrated and often constructed relationships that situated the exiled cleric as the essential and controlling agent within vast and expanding networks of influence. While these networks may, in reality, not always have existed, they left contemporary and later audiences of these texts with the impression of an orthodox community that collapsed space and time and in which they were even enrolled themselves through consuming the exile's story. Julia Hillner similarly explores how real or imagined networks around exiled clerics were narrated in later ecclesiastical literature, with attention to the role of imperial women within them. Using the case of imperial female patrons of opponents to the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon as a case study, her contribution shows that gendering the personal connections of exiled clerics served late antique church historians to explain and warn against the spread of heresy.
Jennifer Barry investigates Nicene authors’ retelling of exiled clerics’ networks to define the boundaries between orthodox and heretical spaces, focusing on the case study of Eusebius of Nicomedia, exiled from Nicomedia for his opposition to the council of Nicaea, and later bishop of Constantinople. Barry demonstrates the endeavours of fifth-century church historians resident in Constantinople to virtually banish Eusebius once again in the minds of their readers, this time from the imperial city, and to reassign him back to Nicomedia, the site where they situate his heretical and persecuting community of supporters. In the final contribution, Elisabeth O'Connell shows how the memory of clerical exile had the power to affect the experiences, the organisation of space, and the production of objects by non-Chalcedonian communities in sixth-century Egypt, even if these were not exiled themselves. Choosing to reside in the caves and tombs of the Theban mountain range, the Severan church modelled its “orthodox” identity on the long line of exiled Egyptian bishops, repurposing them in the creation of their physical surroundings as non-Chalcedonian heroes.
Taken together, the articles in this special issue compel us to rethink late antique clerical exile's role in the formation of Christian identity and memory over the longue durée. Through the medium of textual and material artefacts, clerical exile had the power to shape and create community, not only at the time of a cleric's actual banishment, but also long after, and in places distant from an exiled cleric's original theatre of action. Texts and objects described the phenomenon of clerical exile as vibrant networks of positive and negative agents, inviting present and future readers and observers to make their choice who to join.