The question of when to begin can be read in several ways, for example: when to begin this blog?
The use of so-called ‘social media’ to broadcast research is now fairly widespread within the academic community. The promise of blogging, tweeting, instagramming and the like to reach as wide an audience as possible has also become a standard fixture in academic funding applications, including the one that led to the existence of this project. Nonetheless, although I have blogged before, I am still anxious about the immediacy of this form of presenting and the much larger circle of potential readers, which both demand a rethink of writing style. It involves a lot of soul searching.
Yet, I have learned once again that the benefits far outweigh the doubts and taking up the challenge is worth the while: the response to the launch of our project website and its communication via twitter has already generated new collaborations, for example for our planned workshop on late antique clerical exile at the Oxford Patristics Conference. What a result! Furthermore, with academic projects like this one, where the end products (books, articles, databases) are usually promised for the distant future, every possibility to allow for early insights into research findings – and also their potential relevance beyond the particular academic field or even beyond academia – must be welcomed.
A perhaps more vexing way to read the question is: when to begin this project? This is of course not meant in the practical sense (since we are already truly underway), but in the specific, historiographical sense of dating: how best to define the historical framework for an analysis of late antique clerical exile?
Now, our start date, as specified in our project title, is the year 325 AD. I had thought that was a safe and obvious date: surely everyone working on late antiquity would recognise it as the year in which the council of Nicaea – the subject of our lovely header image – was held and would immediately understand? Yet, I was recently invited to reflect again by a discussion I had with the incomparably perceptive Olivier Hekster. Everyone who is familiar with Olivier’s work – and everyone interested in the second, third and fourth centuries should be familiar with Olivier’s work – knows that he is not one for lazy periodisations. He reminded me that Christian clerics had been exiled by public authorities long before 325 as it had been a method of Roman persecutions of Christians throughout the third century with some potential repercussions on how later Christians thought and wrote about exile in a post-persecution context. The story of Cyprian of Carthage, exiled possibly following the Valerian edict of 257 and one of the most influential writers of the Latin west, is of course a case in point.
If anything, this conversation showed me once again how transparent we need to be as historians in our motivations to single out certain dates as iconic and as ushering in profound change. Yet, I do think that 325 as a start date holds, beyond my grumbling defence against Olivier’s points at the time that ‘one has to start somewhere’. Nicaea certainly marked a beginning of collaboration between emperors and church councils in settling inner-Christian conflict, and in developing a way to enforce Christian council condemnations of wrong belief through a public penalty of exile. But it is also true that we need to take into account continuities and be honest about a certain arbitrariness of dating. I am delighted to report that my co-investigator Jörg Ulrich has already spotted the gap in our project and has begun to investigate the context of third-century clerical exile as reported by Eusebius of Caesarea. Perhaps as a team we also need to have a conversation, as our research associate Dirk Rohmann suggested to me, whether we want to push back our database start date to 311, the year of Galerius’ edict of toleration. Toleration of Christianity certainly made it much more possible for Christians to bring their internal conflicts to the attention of emperors. For example, the condemnation of the Donatists at the synod of Arles in 314, followed up by Constantine’s anti-Donatist edicts, was a direct result of this and may have already led to the imposition of an imperial penalty of exile on Donatist clergy in North Africa nearly a decade before 325.
What I have learned from all this is that there should always be room for revision, however well defined a project seems to be. Given the large and diverse group of collaborators we have I suspect there will be many more challenges to ‘perceived truths’ to come, which is, of course, the whole point of the exercise.
And I do not even want to think about how to define our end date, ‘c. 600’ – but this is for another blog.