Dialoguing in Late Antiquity

  Cameron, Averil. 2014. Dialoguing in Late Antiquity. Hellenic Studies Series 65. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_CameronA.Dialoguing_in_Late_Antiquity.2014.

Everything is in a way less deep and deeper than you think. You want a long explanation, but in the end your explanation repeats what you knew at the start. You said yourself it was like remembering.

Socrates to Plato

Iris Murdoch “Art and Eros: A Dialogue About Art”

Amongst the unhappy delusions of mankind is the belief that a dispute can be settled by a debate.

Steven Runciman, The Eastern Schism, 108


This book takes up an interest in the early use of the dialogue form by Christians that was first kindled over twenty years ago. The subject was subsequently overtaken by other pressures and other interests, until it was revived with the appearance of Simon Goldhill’s provocative collection, The End of Dialogue in Antiquity (Goldhill 2009). Since 1991, when I published an early paper on dialogues as well as my book, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire (Averil Cameron 1991a, 1991b), and in the light of the “linguistic turn”, there has been a veritable deluge of writing about early Christian literature, but not so far about early Christian prose dialogues. Neither the recent flurry of publications about the literature of “questions and answers” (erotapokriseis) nor the attention given, principally by Syriacists, to the verse dialogues in Syriac, which gave rise indirectly to my paper of 1991, have caused scholars to extend their range to consider as a group the large number of works written by Christians in late antiquity in the form of prose dialogues (though there are of course some excellent studies of individual works). There are indeed questions to be asked about possible connections between these different types of dialogue-writing, as well as with the many embedded dialogues contained in saints’ lives and martyrologies, but this book will be concerned with the dialogues in prose, which have been particularly neglected as a group among scholars of late antiquity.

This situation is surprising, given the growth of interest both in the literary aspects of early Christian writing and in the important role played in late antiquity by rhetoric. After all, whether genuinely Platonic or not, such dialogues formed opinion, advocated key positions in the development of Christian thought, and were part of the process of “Christianization.” Varied though they are, some certainly belong in any intellectual or philosophical history of late antiquity. But the actual number and range of surviving and known dialogues ought to make them an important subject of study in their own right. This short book, based on three lectures given at the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg in 2001, [1] and part of a larger project, aims simply to draw attention to the extraordinary richness and importance of this material, and to set out some of the main questions it presents.

I confine myself here to late antiquity, and mainly to Christian writing in Greek. I do not of course mean to suggest an artificial divide. Latin dialogues are important; but many, including those by Augustine, have been well covered by others. In a recent conspicuous development in the scholarship on late antiquity, the interdependence of Greek and Syriac writing has been more and more clearly recognized, and this also extends to the writing of dialogues, with a further history in Arabic. I also believe that the Adversus Iudaeos literature—dialogues which claim to be between Christians and Jews—and its equivalent, the debates and dialogues between Christians and Muslims, need to be brought within studies of Christian dialogues in their entirety. Finally, as I argue in the Conclusion and will also contend elsewhere, it is artificial and misleading to separate Christian literature in late antiquity from the long history of dialogues and debates in Byzantium. This is not in order to posit an unrealistic continuity. Rather, certain trends in late antique dialogues, for instance the increasing influence of Aristotle, can be better understood if we do not merely follow this thread as far as Baghdad, through the educational system of the Syriac schools, but also extend our enquiry to the Byzantine centuries, where prose dialogue-writing also had an important and even more neglected history. It is perhaps more plausible to suggest something of a break in the continuity of written dialogues in the early medieval west, [2] but dialogues remained a favored way of writing for Christians in Byzantium, which constituted a literary form that was pursued in some periods with exceptional vigor. [3] This is one case where the conventional disciplinary boundaries between late antiquity and Byzantium can be seriously unhelpful.

I am grateful to my friends Greg Nagy and Scott Fitzgerald Johnson for their enthusiastic agreement to publish a revised version of the original English of the Haecker Lecture in the Hellenic Studies series, and to Yannis Papadogiannakis (again) for the original suggestion. Greg Nagy was (re)encountered in the context of the Athens Dialogues held by the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation in Athens in 2010, and it is also a pleasure to publish this book with the editorial encouragement of Scott Johnson, who was my doctoral student in Oxford and who shares my interest in later Greek literature. Some of what follows draws on work done by Alberto Rigolio in Oxford as research assistant in the context of a Leverhulme Emeritus Fellowship I held in the Faculty of Theology and Religion, 2011–2013. I am also grateful to my colleagues at Heidelberg for their invitation to give the Haecker Lecture, and for their hospitality and kindness in many other ways; particular thanks should go to Christian Witschel, Johannes Quack and Andrea Jördens. Many others have been extremely helpful as I began to see the range of issues surrounding the topic of dialogue, including Virginia Burrus, then President of the North American Patristics Society, for her invitation to speak at the annual North American Patristic Society conference in Chicago in May, 2009, Gillian Clark and the Directors of the Oxford Patristic Conference 2011, Volker Menze for his invitation to the Central European University, Budapest, Niels Gaul, also of the CEU, for stimulating exchanges about the “dialogic”, Aziz al-Azmeh at the CEU, Margaret Mullett for her invitation to Dumbarton Oaks and for much else besides, Mossman Roueché and Richard Sorabji for answering my questions about Aristotle, Samuel N.C. Lieu for advice about Manichaeanism, Elodie Turquois, Ryan C. Fowler, and in Oxford especially Guy Stroumsa, Fergus Millar, Phil Booth and James Pettifer, sources of unfailing encouragement, generosity and advice. The picture of the baptistery at Nisibis which forms the frontispiece was taken while on a memorable visit to eastern Turkey with James Pettifer in September 2013, and I thank Elif Keser-Kayaalp for her invaluable help on this occasion. Alberto J. Quiroga Puertas read the entire text and Lucas Siorvanes of King’s College London was enormously helpful at a much earlier stage in this work. Finally, my friend Elizabeth Clark of Duke University pioneered the application of literary theory to early Christian literature, and for this, as well as for our friendship, sustained over more than thirty years, she is owed my profound gratitude. Oxford, July 2013


[ back ] 1. Averil Cameron, forthcoming c. I am very grateful to Prof. Andrea Jördens for her willingness to allow this revised English version.

[ back ] 2. Below, chapter 1.

[ back ] 3. Lucianic, satirical and verse dialogues were also important in Byzantium, and the line between these and the prose dialogues with which I am concerned can sometimes become blurred.