This article seeks to define a theoretical framework for the study of the relation between religion and the political community in the Roman world and to analyze a particular case in point. The first part reviews two prominent theories of religion developed in the last fifty years through the combined efforts of anthropologists and classicists, arguing for their complementary contribution to the understanding of religion's political dimension. It also provides an overview of the approaches of recent scholarship to the relation between religion and the Roman polity, contextualizing the efforts of this article toward a theoretical reframing of the political and institutional elements of ancient Christianity. The second part focuses on the religious legislation of the Theodosian Code, with particular emphasis on the laws against the heretics and their performance in the construction of the political community. With their characteristic language of exclusion, these laws signal the persisting overlap between the borders of the political community and the borders of religion, in a manner that one would expect from pre-Christian civic religions. Nevertheless, the political essence of religion did also adapt to the ecumenical dimension of the empire. Indeed, the religious norms of the Code appear to structure a community whose borders tend to be identical to the borders of the whole inhabited world, within which there is no longer room for alternative affiliations; the only possible identity outside this community is that of the insane, not belonging to any political entity and thus unable to possess any right.
Broadly speaking, this article focuses on religion in ancient Rome as a mode of constructing the Roman political community. The first part of the article looks at theoretical issues and definitions, while the second is devoted to the analysis of a particular case in point.
The main objective of the first part, which is further subdivided into two sections, is to define an adequate theoretical framework for the analysis of religion's political dimension. After an overview of some of the most common biases and misconceptions that have historically jeopardized the appreciation of the practical and political complexion of the cults of ancient Rome, the first section turns to two prominent theories of religion, those of Clifford Geertz and Talal Asad, through which recent scholarship has already begun to achieve a systemic reevaluation of said complexion. Often contrasted with one another—for Asad's theoretical approach is indeed born out of a critique of key features of Geertz's definition—these two theories can also be understood as complementary in effecting the full rehabilitation of the political as a core element of the religious.
The next section looks at how recent scholarship has envisioned the relation between religion and the Roman polity. Despite some criticism, the role of pre-Christian religion as a mode of constructing the political community remains generally acknowledged. Whether ancient Christianity may have played an analogous role is more controversial, owing to a number of scholarly traditions that, until recently, have vigorously and influentially asserted the extraneousness of true Christianity to the field of politics. While expressed through a number of different perspectives, this assertion reflects an underlying and widespread understanding of the Christian religion as chiefly pertaining to the inner, personal, and spiritual dimension of human experience, which has led to the disqualification, variously motivated, of the elements that escape said understanding. Interestingly, as shown in the first section, this characterization of Christianity is the same as had also been retrojected into a definition of religion tout court, leading to the misappreciation of Roman religion altogether by reason of its seemingly practical and political nature. Therefore, the adoption of a definition that, on the contrary, follows on the tracks of Geertz and Asad not only allows for the effective subsumption of the Roman experience under an analytically sound notion of religion but also demands the reframing of the political and institutional elements of ancient Christianity, which were either left out or overshadowed by earlier theories of religion.
Following these theoretical premises, the second part of the article focuses on a particular product of ancient Christianity, that is, the religious legislation of the Code of Theodosius II and attempts to read it as a social practice that produces a particular political meaning and reality. By reason of the magnitude and assortment of the laws included in its sixteenth book (On Religion), the Theodosian Code offers an ideal field to fathom how ancient Christianity could contribute to the constitution of the political community. While this analysis focuses on a precise product of fifth-century religion, numerous elements of this infrastructure reach both backward and forward in the histories of Christianity and Roman religion more generally.
The second part is subdivided into three sections. The first section focuses on a fundamental law from the opening title of the Code's sixteenth book, the Edict of Thessalonica (CTh 16.1.2), which provides an outline of the political community in its entirety through the religious construction of the ruler, the ruled, and the alien. The analysis of the Edict is particularly useful in illustrating the mechanisms for the construction of the ruler, which is accomplished not so much descriptively as by means of the ruler's performance in appropriating the nomothetic function and uttering the law on the matter of religion.
With regard to the ruled, the Edict defines them not only through their categorization as “Catholic Christians” and followers of the Nicene Creed but also by means of their differentiation from another grouping of people, the heretics, who are concomitantly characterized as “demented and insane” and targeted by a number of punitive arrangements. Included in this fundamental text of law and prevalent throughout the sixteenth book of the Code, the normative construction of the heretics as “demented and insane” appears to be central to the constitution of the Theodosian community; the meaning and purport of the construct, however, are not immediately intelligible. The second section is therefore absorbed in the contextualization and decodification of the Theodosian charges of insanity, which, contrary to widely-held assumptions that reduce them to empty rhetoric, are shown to presuppose a precise scientific paradigm of mental illness. In turn, the third and last section focuses on the different sanctions levied against the heretics, of which two prominent types are identified: expulsion from the territories of the empire, and exclusion from the applicability of Roman law. In a similar fashion to the construction of the ruler, the alien—and therefore the boundary of the Theodosian polity—is not defined through a mere description but normatively constructed through the criminal provisions of the law.
The focus of the law on spatial and legal exclusion, the Conclusion argues, is complementary to the conceptualization of heresy as mental disease. The disclosure of this connection opens up an overarching definition of the Theodosian polity, which, in keeping with the theories of religion detailed in the first part of the article, appears as a product of the essentially practical and political engagement maintained by religion throughout the history of ancient Rome.
ROMAN RELIGION AND POLITICS: THEORETICAL AND HISTORIOGRAPHICAL ISSUES; RELIGION AS PRACTICE AND POLITICS
The study of the relation between religion and the institutions of ancient Rome is witness to an ambiguous history. Due to a number of distinctive features spanning from its pervasive formalism to the exemplary interconnection between priesthoods and magistracies, the Roman tradition has conventionally been one of the most commonly explored fields for the study of the relation between spiritual and secular matters. However, this peculiar interest has often been developed by sacrificing the specificity of the religious phenomenon and by reducing it to mere politics. This tendency has resulted from the concurrence of several factors, including the prejudicial understanding of religion as mere instrumentum regni; this seemed to be supported by the opinions of the ancient jurists and intellectuals, themselves quite prodigal in handing down an impression of Roman religion as political fraud employed by nonreligious ruling classes for the purposes of controlling the illiterate masses and maintaining power.1 These individual interpretations were likewise understood within the general context of an ancient historiography that concerned itself with religion and the humanities only insofar as they interacted with political and military events.2
Furthermore, the religious traditions of ancient Rome were observed through the filtering lenses of a religion—Christianity—that modern history had tried to expel from the public sphere in the course of a millenary process that, from such events as the investiture contest and the collective trauma of the European wars of religion,3 derived the main stimuli toward theoretical redefinition and institutional experimentation. Hence, religion in itself was reconceptualized through its confinement to the transcendent dimension of metaphysical questions4 and the subjective, innermost dimension of feeling,5 thus preventing the full appreciation of what were perceived as the most relevant dimensions of the religious experience of ancient Rome—the ritual and the political.6
This picture is no longer current. Indeed, the inadequacy of these paradigms has already been signaled by the individual contributions of numerous scholars of ancient Rome, among whom Georges Dumézil, who was as sensitive to the practical and material aspects of Roman religion7 as he was hostile to the overexaggeration of its supposed political manipulations,8 stands out as one of the most sympathetic exegetes of ritual. Nevertheless, the common understanding of Roman religion can change only through the employment of new ways of thinking about religion tout court, and through the development of theoretical tools apt to allow reconciliation between the notion of religion and those elements—practice and politics—that the modern history of Christianity has tried to expel from its own experience and self-understanding. These tools, then, may only come from the lively dialogue that traditionally connects classical studies with anthropology sensu stricto.
Classical scholars managed to achieve the first step of this long-overdue reconciliation on the ground of one of the most tenacious strongholds of the mutual alterity that divided religion from politics—that is, the phenomenon of the so-called ruler cult. Wielding the theoretical framework provided by Clifford Geertz and adapting his definition of religion as a symbolic system (thus leaning toward the sphere of communication and intersubjectivity),9 a pioneering study by Simon Price introduced an understanding of the imperial cult as an intersubjective system of symbols employed in conceptualizing the world.10 By removing, or at least containing—with the adaption of Geertz's theory—the relevance of subjectivity, belief, and feeling, Price's account of the imperial cult achieved an understanding of religion as an intersubjective phenomenon, which is thus inherently political and yet analytically distinct from politics. Ultimately, owing to Geertz,11 Price argued for “the basic similarity between politics and religion: both are ways of systematically constructing power,”12 while subsequent advancements in his footsteps tend to argue for a different arrangement of the relation between the two phenomena by observing that these distinctions belong to a modern view of the world, but not to the Greco-Roman milieu.13 Nonetheless, Price's monograph is indeed regarded as the foundation stone of what is now a flourishing line of scholarship that has overturned the conception of the ruler cult as an essentially political phenomenon.14
But the theoretical convergence of Geertz and Price was not yet sufficient to beget the full redemption of Roman religion and its distinctive features. After all, as Talal Asad points out in his critique, the definition of religion as a system of symbols is still unable to frame the specificity of practices, as it tends to understand religious symbols—and thus practices—as mere vehicles for preexisting meanings.15 Asad suggests moving “from reading symbols to analyzing practices,”16 that is, analyzing practices as performances with an individually produced meaning, rather than as mere representations.17 These theoretical developments are echoed in the research of other classical scholars; through his meticulous analysis of some of the best-documented sacrificial rituals of the Romans, John Scheid understands ritual as a sort of nonverbal utterance that—through a culturally significant molding of space and time—defines and qualifies the human and the divine spheres, in both their mutual and internal relations.18
In short, the aforesaid theories—two of the major hermeneutical advancements of the last fifty years which concern the connections between classical scholarship and anthropology sensu stricto—have impacted the understanding of two aspects of religion—the practical and the political—that were previously marginalized and overshadowed by the modern history of Christianity. In other words, while the Geertz-Price axis allows the historian of Rome to relocate the notion of religion from the inner and subjective dimension of feeling to an appreciation of the outer and intersubjective dimension of symbolic discourse, the Asad-Scheid axis allows for the full rehabilitation of practice, placing it at the core of religious experience and stressing its independence from systems of explicit belief.
On this theoretical basis, we can now work on a model of Roman religion as a system of practices19 whose nonverbal utterances are capable of manipulating the meaning of things. This results in a given ordering of the natural and the social worlds through the institution and qualification of the relations between its inhabitants, whether humans or gods; as such, while religion incorporates inherently political elements—that is, elements which pertain to the definition of human relations—it is not solely political. Building on this understanding, the present article will focus especially on the Theodosian Code's repression of religious deviance to show the ways in which this specific area of religious practice20 participated in constructing the identity and extent of the Roman polity.21
It may be noted that, even though the interest of this article lies in a classic type of political relations, the foregoing notion of religion goes beyond the limits of the so-called civic model—the model according to which, “the polis provided the fundamental framework in which … religion operated”22—inasmuch as it frames the suitability of religion to structure a plurality of relations within the fabric of the civitas, rather than solely focusing on the macro level of government and constitutional identity. Indeed, a recent critique of the Greek counterpart of the civic model noted that, “the weaknesses … spring from its too narrow and problematic promotion on [sic] the polis as the primary discourse of power relevant for the study of ancient Greek religion.”23 The Asad-Scheid axis, on the other hand, is well suited to explore the diffuse and circulating power relations of the type theorized in the philosophy of Michel Foucault.24
Religion, the Roman polity, and recent scholarship: an overview
Nonetheless, among the many networks of intersubjective relations that can be shaped by religious practices, there is also the fabric of the city-state. That religion may have a role in the construction of the political community is an old and enduring idea which reaches at least as far back as the works of Fustel de Coulanges and Émile Durkheim, among the first scholars to comprehensively explore the religious foundation of various forms of sociopolitical organization.25 As far as ancient Rome is concerned, the notion of a structural connection between religion and the civitas—better still, the centrality of religion to the construction and self-understanding of the city-state—is essentially undisputed. Indeed, while the notion of civic religion has received some criticism,26 the critiques are mostly formulated from the point of view of religious history in an attempt to dispose of the impression “of an embedded and undifferentiated religious system,” which essentially mistook “the religious discourses of an aristocratic elite” for “the religious life of ancient Rome in its entirety”—as the model of civic religion was dubbed by Andreas Bendlin in a review article of the early 2000s.27 However, as indicated by the arguments of both proponents and detractors of the model, the notion of a religion that contributed to defining the city-state is not incompatible with the existence of other identities and religious networks equally open to be pursued by the individual;28 the matter of debate—which does not concern us in principle—regards the relative weight of the religion of the city-state vis-à-vis other manifestations of the religious, both collective and individual.
In short, the relation between religion and the Roman polity is generally acknowledged, while an ample and lively body of scholarship continues to address the role played by the religious in both the constitution and self-definition of the city-state.29 While the scholarship in question is mostly concerned with the republican era, especially middle to late, the same mechanisms were likely to be already at work under both the monarchy and early republic—and perhaps in earlier times still.30 Notwithstanding, the state of the evidence suggests caution31 and certainly does not allow for treatments and debates similar in breadth to those developed about later epochs.
The study of religion in the Roman empire has been shaped by similar developments to those involving republican Rome—often at the hands of the same scholars. Much as this innovative strand of scholarship began to look at the Roman empire as an arena of religious exchange shaped by the initiatives of local networks and individual actors,32 imperial Rome has also remained the focus of intense reflection on the matter of the structural connection between religion and the state. A prominent example of this line of inquiry concerns the already mentioned case of the cult of the emperor—that ensemble of religious practices that have been shown to work in connecting the different parts of the empire through the sense of a shared identity, structuring the relationship between subject and ruler, and, in short, constructing “the reality of the Roman empire.”33 By focusing on a product of the Christian empire in the fifth century CE, the present article explores the enduring role of religion—in continuity with the pre-Christian milieu—as a mode of constructing the political community.
This aspect of ancient Christianity has not always been favored in scholarly research. Indeed, as documented by Elizabeth Clark in nineteenth-century Germany and the United States, Protestant scholarship has often understood the institutional developments of ancient Christianity as an essential betrayal of the inward concern that allegedly characterized Christian origins.34
An explosion of interest in the political and communal facet of earliest Christianity was documented in 1992 by an article in The Journal of Theological Studies, which attributed the change, among other factors, to the growing unease with the exclusive focus on the inner, personal, and spiritual dimension that had long been promoted by the existential hermeneutic of leading Lutheran theologian and New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann.35 In this regard, Bultmann's theology can be regarded as an extreme, for not only did it focus on the religion of the individual but also, through an endorsement of the early Christian claims to universalism and otherworldliness, explicitly advocated an image of Christianity as wholly removed from the field of politics. “In the Christian community,” Bultmann argues, “there are neither Jews nor Greeks, neither slaves nor free men, neither men nor women, for all are ‘one in Jesus Christ’ [Gal 3.28]. … At the same time, this means the absolute isolation of man before God.” Of course, those who belong to Christ are members of his body and therefore “connected to the other members in the unity of the community,” but this community, the church, established by the Spirit, is “invisible in the world”; this world “is foreign to man,” and Christians know that their “‘citizenship’ is in heaven [Phil 3.20].”36
Pace Bultmann, recent studies have convincingly argued that, far from framing the essentially nonpolitical vocation of early Christianity, both universalism and otherworldliness were rhetorical topoi mobilized in the construction of much worldly and particular forms of collective identities.37 Denise Buell, in particular, has argued that the universalizing claims of early Christians were not mutually exclusive with their self-representation in terms of peoplehood—whether defined through “ethnoracial” reasoning (which is the specific focus of Buell's analysis) or through the language of civic association.38 (Consistently, as shown by Todd Berzon through a number of studies, ethnic and ethnographic paradigms would soon become organizing principles through which heresiological literature conceptualized heresy and managed the erection of borders within the Christian world.)39 In sum, universalizing discourses could function “both to distinguish Christians from non-Christians and to manage diversity within Christianity.”40 The interest of the present article lies in a similar matter, in that it shows the ways in which the Theodosian Code addressed the apparent conflict between the universalizing pretense of Christianity and the inevitable presence of boundaries; indeed, as recently observed, it is at least doubtful that any manifestation of Christianity “can be completely universalistic in the sense of including all people. At some point, a defining factor must distinguish between outsiders and insiders.”41
Remarkably, the claimed otherness of Christianity—which the previous section described as an outcome of an actual historical process—could also be projected onto the institutional arrangements of the Christian empire, as in the thesis proposed in 1935 by German theologian and Protestant convert to Roman Catholicism Erik Peterson, a contemporary of Bultmann. Peterson famously argued that the definition of the trinitarian doctrine in the fourth century had dissolved the possibility of establishing an analogy between the divine sphere and the political order, thus producing “the break with every ‘political theology’ that misuses the Christian proclamation to justify a political situation.”42 Naturally, it is necessary to understand the historical moment in which Peterson developed his argument, which was essentially directed against the new Catholic Reichtstheologie that had been flirting with the Nazi regime.43 Nonetheless, through Peterson's theory, the political dimension of Christianity was disqualified as pertaining to allegedly false religions—that is, not only the Arian heresy, but also paganism and Judaism.44
Most interestingly, the essential otherness of true religion could also be maintained by analyses from leading Italian jurists of Catholic persuasion, who attempted to offer a more favorable assessment of the undeniable overlap between Christianity and the institutions of Rome. This was achieved by recasting the pervasive interaction between religion and the state that characterized the Christian commonwealth of Late Antiquity as an interaction between two non-homologous fields of human experience. In the words of legal historian Giulio Vismara, the assimilation of Christian values in the early medieval kingdoms “operates within the individual conscience and, at the same time, causes the emergence of new institutions”;45 in the perspective of another classic—Biondo Biondi's voluminous treatment of Christian Roman law—the Christian revolution operates within the individual conscience, and the results of this process are eventually accommodated within the law.46 The commencement of this new mode of interaction could be conveniently located in the so-called Edict of Milan (313 CE)—misrepresented as differentiating, for the first time in Roman history, religion from the legal system of the state.47 In short, through these interpretations—developed throughout the twentieth century and even prior—the institutional framework of late antique Christianity could be conceived of as nothing but an afterthought of the inner and spiritual dimension that allegedly pertains to true religion.48
The present study moves away from these orientations and instead, building on the two axes detailed in the previous section, considers the institutional arrangements defined through the Theodosian Code as an expression of religion's primary field. In other words, the religious legislation of the Code does not come under consideration as reflective of any particular set of religious (or political) ideas, but for its own performative contribution to the construction of a sociopolitical reality. This is not to say that religious practices in general, or the laws of the Code in particular, operate in sheer isolation from systems of belief.
THEODOSIAN CODE AND RELIGION
Constructing the ruler, the ruled, and the alien
In the year 438, in the city of Constantinople, the emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian III promulgated the legal compilation that became universally known as Codex Theodosianus.49 In its sixteen books, the Code regulates the matters that traditionally concerned the Roman legislator, culminating with a final book—further subdivided into eleven titles—on the matter of religion.50
While the central nine titles of the sixteenth book dictate detailed rules on the diverse partitions of religious matter, the first and the last one—“On Catholic Faith” and “On Religion,” respectively51—are more ambitious, displaying definitional concerns52 and incorporating the text of the so-called Edict of Thessalonica (380 CE).53 In this edict, emperors Theodosius, Gratian, and Valentinian decreed that all the peoples under their rule should practice the religion taught by Peter the Apostle and followed by Pope Damasus and Peter, the bishop of Alexandria. The religion was subsequently defined through a simplified wording of the Nicene Symbol, lacking any reference to the consubstantiality of the divine persons; “That is, according with the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, we shall believe in the one deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, equal in majesty and together in a Holy Trinity.”54 (As observed by Caroline Humfress, this cautious formula was meant to prevent the law from becoming the subject of theological quarrels, and thus preferred redirecting to external sources of authority for the proper definition of the creed.)55
While the creed was defined only vaguely and rudimentarily, the legislator carried on with a more adequate and detailed characterization of the political community:
We command that those who follow this law shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians [Christianorum catholicorum nomen], while the remaining people—whom we deem demented and insane [dementes vesanosque]—shall sustain the infamy of their heretical dogmas; their places of assembly shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be punished first by divine vengeance [divina primum vindicta] and then also by the reckoning of our own initiative [post etiam motus nostri … ultione], which we shall take in accordance with the celestial will [quem ex caelesti arbitrio sumpserimus].56
This brief text renders an outline of the political community in its entirety by defining—normatively—its composing elements and their interrelations.
First and foremost, the text focuses on constituting the figure of the sovereign, here framed in the exercise of his nomothetic function. Since it concerns the matter of religion, the definition of the nomothetic activity establishes a relation between the emperor and the divine by associating them in terms of an actual contiguity. In fact, the sovereign will—here seen in its punitive moment—is defined as uttered in accordance with (divina primum vindicta, post etiam motus nostri … ultione) and inspired by (quem ex caelesti arbitrio sumpserimus) God himself.57 In other words, the sovereign who rules in the matter of religion is intrinsically defining his relative position within the system of the relations between the gods and humanity. Accordingly, we can also interpret the customary rhetorical juxtaposition of the imperial laws with the divine norms, as it is often featured in the Theodosian Code: “All heresies—forbidden by both divine and imperial laws—shall forever cease”;58 “They shall pay the most severe punishment—according with the previous decrees—both to God and to the laws.”59 These laws reflected a conception of emperorship that was consistent with the traditional Roman understanding of the sovereign as curator of the relations between the gods and humanity, as it had also been supplemented through the encounter with the Greek and with the Christian tradition.60 However, the material context of this conception—as we shall see—was quite far from that of the origins. But let us return to the text of the Edict of Thessalonica.
In the edict, the people who follow hanc legem—that is, those who practice religion as it was defined in the preface of the same law—are normatively named “Catholic Christians,” and this name is conferred with a pick of words (amplecti) that evokes highly inclusive images; the remaining ones—the leftovers (reliquos)—are normatively named “demented and insane” (dementes vesanosque). The norm is also supported by the threat of imperial and divine chastisements, which will be discussed later in this article.
The division between Catholic Christians and the insane is prevalent throughout the sixteenth book of the Theodosian Code.61 The characterization of non-Catholic Christians as insane presents some difficulties, given that, aside from associating mental illness with heterodoxy and the need for punishment, the Code also incorporates laws in which the insane are decreed unaccountable for their actions and even “deserving sympathy”62 because of their medical condition. Thus, undermining the capacity for self-determination, insanity could not be associated with full criminal accountability. While not surprising in itself—as the laws of the Code do not always obey mutual consistency—the contradiction has made some scholars speak of “authentic insanity and insanity so to speak”;63 perhaps mentions of heretical madness can be traced to a long-established tradition of language aggression that seemingly employed the vocabulary of mental illness non-technically, as an invective.64 How can the notion of heresy be otherwise reconciled with the notion of an illness that—by legal definition—hampers the capacity for αἵρεσις (that is, “choice”)?65 The legal paradigm, however, did not constitute the only notion of mental illness available to the postclassical legislator.
Mental illness and the heretics
The previous section analyzed the political community charted in CTh 16.1.2 and argued that—in both the Edict of Thessalonica and CTh 16 more generally—the ruler in particular is constructed through the appropriation of the nomothetic function for the utterance of the law on the matter of religion. The remaining two sections will focus on two other elements of the Edict that similarly pervade the entire sixteenth book and contribute to the definition of the Theodosian community; these are the equation of heresy with insanity and the provisions of the Code for the punishment of the heretics. The chief objective of the present section is showing that the charges of insanity directed against the heretics are not to be understood as empty rhetoric but as grounded in a precise scientific paradigm of mental illness. This will be argued by tracing the origins of the Theodosian understanding to its immediate precursors in the works and thought of the Church Fathers and, further backwards, to the origins of the model in pre-Christian Greco-Roman antiquity. The Conclusion will suggest that the employment of this paradigm underpins and contributes to a particular configuration of the political community.
Our evidence for the origins of the fourth- and fifth-century model of mental illness reaches at least as far as back as Plato. In the sections of the Timaeus dealing with human physiology, the Athenian philosopher speaks of ἄνοια—that is, the lack of νοῦς, thus “unreason,” further subdivided into “frenzy” (μανία) and “ignorance” (ἀμαθία)—defining it as “a disease of the soul.”66 Although this disease of the soul is also caused by a condition of the body,67 the diseased are partly responsible, since “people must care—as best they can, by means of education, by their habits and studies—to flee the evil and to choose its opposite.”68 It must be stressed that Plato is not treating the disease of the soul as an analogical or metaphorical category, but is indeed attempting to define mental illness.69 Furthermore, this notion is not incidental nor marginal within the context of Plato's psychology and political theory, being connected, on the one hand, with the characteristically Platonic conviction that people have the prime responsibility to care for their soul, and, on the other hand, grounding and justifying the intricate penal code that is given in the Laws.70 Therefore, people are responsible for their own insanity. This is not surprising coming from Plato, nor is it unexpected when he connects the matter of impiety to his notion of an accountable folly: in the Laws, the Athenian Stranger asks, “Is there anybody that agrees with these premises”—that is, with the demonstration of the existence of the gods—“who will deny that all things are full of gods?” Clinias answers: “There is nobody so senseless, Stranger.”71 And what is the right punishment for the impious who deny this? Whenever imprisonment did not correct him, “let him be punished by death.”72 In short, Plato's approach to the relation between religion and politics, as well as his notion of mental illness, is similar to that found in Late Antiquity.73
Plato's theory on the therapy of the soul chiefly influenced the thought of that Church Father honoris causa, known as Philo of Alexandria,74 who often argued for the importance of education and exercise in the treatment of the diseased soul.75 Moreover, Plato's psychology and therapeutics infiltrated late antique medical theory and are found in the thought and works of Galen,76 who also authored a compendium of the Timaeus and a commentary on its sections dealing with human physiology.77 A moral approach to the therapy of the diseased soul was also developed by the Stoics, who equated ignorance and the passions with madness,78 perhaps under the influence of Plato himself,79 or at least under the influence of their common Socratic milieu.
If we move on to consider the immediate cultural premises of the anti-heretical legislation collected into the Theodosian Code, that is, if we question the thought of the Church Fathers of the fourth century,80 we find the same notion of mental illness. In particular, an understanding of the psychopathology of the Code can be aided through the works of John Chrysostom, who was as vocal in his contempt for the Greek philosophers81 as he was influenced by their theories, beginning with a concept of the soul dependent on Galen's anatomy and physiology and indebted to Plato for its adherence to the tripartite theory of soul.82 In his works, we additionally find the equation—not merely metaphorical—of mental illness with a culpable departure from right reason.83 This conception is particularly apparent in the text of the lengthy letter that John addressed to the monk Stageirios (380 ca.),84 said to suffer from ἀθυμία, literally meaning “lack of spirit” and likely to be some sort of depression.85 Although the bishop seems initially willing to acknowledge that the malady must be due to demonic harassment,86 there is yet another more fundamental etiology; indeed, “it is not the demon which causes despondency, but the latter which makes the demon strong.”87 What, then, is the cause of ἀθυμία? It is the vainglory of the monk, it is his culpable concern with his own worldly repute;88 in other words, the malady of Stageirios is ultimately equated with sin and its moral dimension. Inversely, sin happens to be defined as “a demon undertaken voluntarily and a self-chosen madness”: “For a demon will never rob us of Heaven … but sin will undoubtedly cast us out. For this is a demon undertaken voluntarily and a self-chosen madness; therefore, nobody should have pity on it, nor justify it.”89
Having identified existence and circulation of the aforesaid paradigm of mental illness, we can now turn to the nosology of heresy in the fourth-century Church Fathers. The association of religious heterodoxy with insanity is very common, especially concerning Arianism; the reference to the “Arian madness” (Ἀρείου μανία) constitutes one of the most typical topoi in the works that Athanasius of Alexandria wrote for the confutation of the doctrines of Arius.90 After all, the proper name of the latter, Ἄρειος, naturally offered itself to the association, given its perceptible tie with Ἄρης, the Greek god of war.91 Similar wordplays also suited Manichaeism and its founder Mani (Μάνης), whose name was fancifully associated with frenzy (μανία).92 However, the same charges of madness were also leveled against the Jews, the pagan traditions, and—ultimately—any other instance of heterodoxy.93
It is worth noting that these charges are common in the heresiological work of Epiphanius of Salamis,94 whose classificatory enterprise—following Richard Flower—must be counted among the premises of early fifth-century legislation.95 Epiphanius's Adversus haereses is entirely thought of as a medical enterprise, as a “basket or medicine chest”96 for the cure of those who have been infected by heresy. Formulated in the proem, this medical analogy is, by design, most strikingly sustained throughout the work through the likening of the different heretical sects to venomous snakes and other dangerous animals.97 These animal comparisons, however, also interact with the similarly frequent references to heresy as a mental disorder. Indeed, beyond the occasional—and rhetorically charged—denunciations of the poison of the heretical madness (as in, for example, the vivid depiction of “those whose mental faculty is drowsy from the poison of Arius's frenzy”98), the equation of the heretical doctrines with animal venoms and hazards is essentially underpinned by a preunderstanding of heresy as a perversion of the mind, which Epiphanius counters “by preparing a medicine, so to speak, made of refutations from both the divine words and right reasonings.”99 Predictably, as alleged in the second proem, the malady brought about by the “snake-like” (ἑρπετώδη) teachings of the heretics can be incurred not only “unintentionally” but also “willingly” (καθ’ ἑκουσίαν γνώμην καὶ ἀκουσίαν).100
Although this usage of the language of psychopathology by the Church Fathers certainly implies some degree of rhetorical fixation, a broader analysis will disclose the possibility of their dependence upon clear theoretical premises, cognate with the Stoic and the Platonic-Galenic paradigms of mental illness. Our first piece of evidence comes from the letter of Constantine on the date of Easter, allegedly written shortly after the Council of Nicaea and ordering all churches to abide by its ruling, that is, not to follow the Jewish system for computing the date of Passover. The letter asks, “What could they think correctly, when after the murder of their Lord and Father, being out of their senses, they are led, not by anything rational, but by uncontrolled impulse, wherever their inborn frenzy may drive them?”101 The “impulse” leading the Jews is ὁρμή, a word with multiple meanings but signifying “impulse” in the context of Stoic ethics; that is, as Chrysippus defines it, the “motion of the soul toward some effect,” where the motion is either rational or irrational.102 One of these impulses is passion (πάθος), defined as “an irrational motion, against nature, and as an excess in the impulses”;103 the notion of a disproportionate impulse is indeed the one expressed in the letter of Constantine, meant to qualify the madness of the Jews. The Stoic notion must have been known in the cultural environment that produced the letter on the date of Easter, as suggested by the unmistakable evidence of its circulation in the work of Clement of Alexandria, whose theory of sin incorporates the following remark:
Thus, while impulse is a motion of the mind toward or from something, passion is an excessive impulse that stretches out of the measures of reason, or an unconstrained impulse, disobedient to reason; thus, passions are a motion of the soul against nature and disobedient to reason.104
Therefore, the charges of madness leveled by the Church Fathers against the heretics cannot be simply regarded as empty rhetoric, for they also presuppose a precise scientific paradigm of mental disorder. Besides, far from merely being suitable for trivial or empty wordplays, “the unreason [τὴν ἀλογίαν] of the Ario-maniacs”105 could not denote anything other than a meaningful and substantive departure from that reason—λόγος—that is God.106
Before moving on to the next section, it may be useful to observe that the nonmetaphorical quality of the pathologization of sin and doctrinal dissent is likely to go unrecognized due to the impulse to consider these constructs in light of the objectivity and rationality we expect to imbue both ancient and modern science. Yet, although modern science has made enormous progress in the conceptualization and treatment of mental disorders, both the classification of mental disorders and the very notion of what constitutes mental illness or disorder remain exceptionally contentious.107 While controversies and paradigm shifts are common to every science (whether medical or otherwise), the field of psychiatry appears to be swept by more radical, persistent, and widespread critiques than other sciences.108 Last in a long tradition, the publication of the fifth and latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)109 has not quenched the debates; on the contrary, its development and implementation has been accompanied by an array of critiques, formulated not only by mental health professionals but also by philosophers, social scientists, and various groups of stakeholders.110
In the perspective of the present article one of the most interesting issues is probably represented by the enduring centrality of value judgements to the conceptualization and treatment of mental disorders;111 the issue also affects the latest version of the DSM, “a 1000 page manual listing 300 or so disorders … many of which have been argued to represent a medicalisation of common emotional and behavioural variants.”112 On these premises, the medicalization of heresy by the Church Fathers should appear in a different light and can indeed be better understood as an individual moment in the millennia-long and still ongoing process of conceptualizing and classifying mental disorder.113
Spatial and legal exclusion
The previous section has argued that the charges of insanity directed against the heretics in the Theodosian Code are effectively grounded in a precise scientific paradigm of mental illness, which was common to the medico-philosophical thought of both Christian and pre-Christian Greco-Roman antiquity. While it is not always possible to establish whether an individual bishop or lawmaker primarily intended to denigrate a particular person, or group of persons, or rather nurtured a well-pondered opinion about their actual insanity, it must be acknowledged that the understanding of heresy as a mental disease was profoundly coded into the cultural milieu within which the laws of the Code were produced and received. Before moving on to consider the role of this paradigm in the religious construction of the Theodosian community, the present section will discuss the different classes of punishments imposed by the Code on the heretics and introduce the problem of their particular contribution to the definition of the political community.
Significantly, the excerpt from Clement's Stromata analyzed toward the end of the previous section proceeds with a remark on the compatibility of personal responsibility and accountability with the irrationality of the passions: “Revolt, distraction, and disobedience depend on us, as also obedience: therefore, voluntary actions are subject to judgment; should one analyze each one of the passions, he will find that they are irrational appetites.”114 As for a number of the authors surveyed in the previous section, so for Clement, insanity—that is, departure from right reason—falls within one's responsibility; thus, in principle, it is also punishable. The laws of the Theodosian Code proceed accordingly by detailing different kinds of punishments which concur in defining the Theodosian paradigm of mental illness and, with it, the structure of the political community.
As we have seen, the first title of the sixteenth book of the Theodosian Code programmatically establishes that heretics shall be punished by both the hand of God and the legal authority. Accordingly, the legal prohibition of heterodoxy is assisted by several sanctions, spanning from removal from offices and confiscation of property, to exile, and, occasionally, death. Two types of sanctions attract particular attention, due to the frequency of their provision and their weighing on personal rights directly, rather than on real rights: the deprivation of civil rights, and various forms of exclusion and expulsion from the community.
Provisions of exclusion and expulsion can employ a variety of rhetorical and legal formulas, also as a consequence of their connection to a variety of crimes. Thus, heretics, who are ordered to “cease … to assume the name of true religion,”115 are also forbidden from attending churches and from gathering together in an assembly: “Removed from the threshold of every church, they shall be thoroughly kept off, as we forbid all heretics to hold illicit assemblies within the towns.”116 Should a person contravene this order, there shall be further consequences: “If a factious outbreak should attempt anything, we command that their madness shall be expelled and that they shall be driven out of the very walls of the cities.”117 The violation of the prohibition of assembly is also elsewhere connected with similar consequences, phrased through the deployment of a multicolored rhetoric of exclusion:118 “If there should exist anybody who oversteps things so evidently forbidden, … he shall be expelled with the universal agreement of all good people.”119 It is decreed that the Apollinarians and the followers of other heresies “shall be kept off all places: that is, from the walls of the cities, from the gathering of honorable people, from the communion of saints. … They shall go to those places which will seclude them most effectively—like a rampart—from human company”;120 the ministers of the false doctrines especially ought to be expelled from their shelters within Constantinople: “Let them live in other places and let them be wholly severed from the fellowship of the good.”121 The same principle of exclusion is employed even more severely against the Manichaeans: they “shall indeed be expelled from the whole circle of the lands, but especially from this city.”122 Moreover, the diffuse fear of contagion prompted the use of medical language; the heretics had to be banished “from the sight itself of the many cities … so that they may not be polluted by the contagious proximity of the criminals.”123
Many other laws variously subjected the heretics to expulsion, deportation, and exile.124 Indeed, exile in its many forms appears as the punishment par excellence in the repression of heresy;125 not only did exile materially remove the adversaries of current orthodoxy from the main centers of the empire, it also constructed their marginality by inscribing it in geography itself—so much so that, as shown by Richard Flower in regard to a group of fourth-century bishops, its victims often reacted by elaborating competing narratives that attempted to restore their belonging and centrality to the Christian community stretching throughout the world.126
Other than by means of physical removal, the principle of exclusion also operated in the allotment of legal capacity by means of numerous dispositions that punished the heretics with the deprivation of their civil rights. Most dispositions were chiefly concerned with succession and inheritance law, as exemplified in detail by the following constitution, dated 4 May 389:
The Eunomian eunuchs127 shall not have the freedom to make a testament, nor to receive under it. … Following this order of our oracular word, they shall not have freedom of possession, nor freedom of petition, nor even freedom to leave an heir, whether as the first heir, or as beneficiary of a fideicommissum, or as legatee, or as beneficiary of a secret fideicommissum, or under any other name that the legal order has established for this kind of affairs: but all goods—once known that they belong to such people or that they are going to belong to them—shall be claimed as vacant among the riches of our fisc. In short, they shall have nothing in common with anyone else.128
Similar prohibitions also affected the transfers of property made under the title of liberality,129 and were sometimes extended to the capacity to enter into contracts of any kind: “We also want them to be barred from receiving any gift or inheritance, under any title. Moreover, we do not leave to anyone convicted of these crimes the power to make gifts, to buy, to sell, and finally to make contracts.”130
In connection with the production of the aforesaid effects, the heretics were also branded with infamia—that is, a comprehensive diminution of their legal capacity131 that, as a matter of fact, situated them outside the law of Rome: “Thus, under the perpetually assigned brand of infamy, we deprive them of the power to make a will and to live by Roman law.”132 Other constitutions contained yet more radical formulas, as they entailed the severance of the heretics from the laws and customs of humanity in general: “Thus, this breed of people shall have no customs and no laws in common with others.”133 An eloquent constitution from 389 is quite clear in displaying the conceptual overlap of their actual exclusion from the law and territories of the empire, as it was detailed by the multifold dispositions of the Code and the pompous rhetoric that preached their exclusion from the entire world:
Whoever shakes the world under the name of Manichaeans shall indeed be expelled from the whole circle of the lands [ex omni quidem orbe terrarum], but especially from this city, under threat of judgment. Moreover, their wills and even their very possessions—being confiscated to the people—shall not have the power to be made into testaments, nor shall it be licit to leave anything through them or to them. In short, they shall have nothing in common with the world.134
In other words, the exclusion from the law and territories of the empire was tantamount to an exclusion from the entire orbis terrarum and from having relations with the whole of humanity; two different images of community overlapped in the Theodosian logic of exclusion. The Conclusion will bring this thread together with the subjects of the previous sections and seek to illuminate the character of the political community structured through the concurrence of these different constructions of law and religion.
CONCLUSION: “TO EACH CITY-STATE ITS OWN RELIGION”
As Cicero put it, “there are many degrees of fellowship among human beings”:136
The first [principle] is the one that occurs in the fellowship of the entire human race, whose bonds are reason and speech, which by means of teaching, learning, communicating, disputing and deciding bring people together and unite them in a certain natural fellowship; in no other thing are we farther from the nature of beasts, in which there is strength—we often say—as in horses and lions, but we do not say that there is justice, equity and goodness; in fact, they have no part in reason and speech. Thus, this is the broadest fellowship that is attainable by humans among themselves and by all among all.137
Below this society of the entire human race, there are less inclusive fellowships, such as the one “of the same people, nation and tongue, uniting human beings in the highest degree.”138 Yet closer to us, there is the fellowship of the civitas—that is, what we may call the city-state:
Belonging to the same city-state is yet more intimate; in fact, citizens have many things in common: the main square, the temples, the porticos, the streets, the statutes, the laws, the courts, the suffrages; besides, the habits and the friendships, and the transactions and the pacts stipulated by many with many others.139
Thus, each civitas has its own law. As Gaius put it, “the law established by a certain population for itself is peculiar to it, and is called civil law [ius civile], for it is the law that is peculiar to the civitas.”140 And while Cicero spoke of a “fellowship of the entire human race” whose bonds were “reason and speech,” the Roman jurists theorized not only about civil law as “the law that is peculiar to the civitas,” but also about the existence of a law that is common to all people, the so-called ius gentium, “that natural reason indeed established for all people.”141
These ideas had been variously influenced by Hellenistic thought and by Stoicism in particular,142 and which depended on the notion of cosmopolis—that is, on the idea that, notwithstanding the plurality of nomoi established among the different nations, all people were united by their participation in the same logos:
Thus, since nothing is better than reason, and the same reason is both in humans and gods, the prime fellowship between humans and gods is given by reason. Inasmuch as they have reason in common, in common they also have right reason—that is, law: thus, we must believe that the fellowship between humans and gods is also based on law. Moreover, if they share law, they also share the same order. Thus, if they have these things in common, we must believe that they belong to the same city-state.143
While, in all likelihood, early Stoicism was uninterested in the practical application of its political fancies,144 the capacity to establish laws in accordance with reason might be appropriated by that sovereign who could assert himself as the special interpreter of the divine logos.145 This would be especially so if—as in the case of Alexander the Great according to Plutarch—he had also “changed the bestial dispositions of countless nations,”146 thus executing the project of the good philosophical order, about which Zeno had only written;147 in short, if he had established a supranational government like the one of Alexander.
As we may judge by the quoted passage of Cicero, this complex of ideas arrived in Rome during the formative decades of the empire—that is, when, “having subdued nearly the entire inhabited world [τὴν οἰκουμένην],”148 the city-state accordingly proceeded to rethink its own identity and institutions. Thus, in the field of religion, it happened that the old civic gods—embedded in the materiality and in the conceptuality of the local topographies149—were first accompanied and soon deprived of authority by cults that were better suited for universalization, such as the imperial cult.150 The religious identity of the divine emperor, which a lasting rhetoric began to designate as “ruler” and “pacificator of the world,”151 was the projection of the supranational dimension of the orbis terrarum, which the sovereign ruled as the homologous of his heavenly patron,152 spreading the effects of his salvific virtues throughout the entire ecumene.153
The legislation of the Theodosian Code belongs to the same religious landscape. At the apex of the Theodosian civitas there was the figure of a sovereign nomothete, legislating under the inspiration of God and in agreement with him. This proximity allowed for the bridging of the theoretical gap between civil law and natural reason. Emanating from the divine logos, the law of the Christian civitas was tantamount to reason, outside which the infringer of the law was coherently discovered. Thus, the result was the structuring of a civitas whose borders tended to be identical to the borders of the whole of humanity and within which there was no longer room for alternative affiliations. Indeed, the only possible identity outside that of Catholic Christians was the identity of the insane, dwelling outside any possible civitas and thus unable to possess any right.