In 428 AD [sic], Giusto Traina has written a brief and engaging overview of the Mediterranean and Near East in the early fifth century.
Traina, an ancient historian with a strong interest in classical Armenia, chose to survey the events of that year owing to its pivotal importance for the political and cultural history of Armenia, which was absorbed by Sasanian Persia and thereafter ceased to exist as an independent polity for four centuries. The year 428 is not a well-known date in traditional chronologies, so it does not carry the baggage attached to canonical dates of periodization. At a time when many historians have become much more interested in long-term trends and processes, Traina reminds the reader of the centrality of events to the study of any historical period.
One of Traina’s objectives in this study is to demonstrate that the ancient Mediterranean world remained substantially united economically and culturally, despite the beginnings of political fragmentation in the Roman Empire. On the whole, he has succeeded, thanks to his synchronic approach and expansive coverage stretching from Mauretania to eastern Iran. By covering so much ground, Traina’s chapters are necessarily vignettes, but they are generally well-drawn and insightful ones.
The book centers on the story of Nestorius, the headstrong and combative patriarch of Constantinople who traveled from Antioch to Constantinople in 428 to assume his new role. Several of the chapters trace his journey from the diocese of Oriens, which would later provide so many of Nestorius’ most loyal defenders, to the imperial city and his relationship with the young emperor, Theodosius II. The legacy of Nestorius’ successors in Persia, and regions farther east, forms both the chronological and organizational end of Traina’s survey, capping an overview of a mostly Roman Mediterranean world with a glimpse of the history of its non-Roman Eastern Christian inheritors. If anything, Traina understates the importance of Nestorius’ ascension to the patriarchal throne by merely alluding to the centuries of doctrinal controversy in the Roman Empire that would result from the backlash against Nestorius, beginning in 428.
While the book breaks with the conventions of much late-antique historiography by focusing intently on the events of a single year rather than emphasizing strong cultural continuities over centuries, it does not view the fifth-century Roman world with a jaundiced “declinist” eye. Even though he anticipates the political dismemberment of the Western empire in his discussions of Goths and Vandals, Traina does not describe Italy and North Africa in the 420’s as mere preludes to the barbarian kingdoms they would shortly become, but as the important parts of the Roman world that they still were. However, fifth-century Gaul is deemed a “trial run” for the Middle Ages, portrayed by Traina through the gradual fusion of Gothic and Gallo-Roman populations and cultures already beginning to take shape and the introduction of Pachomian monasticism to the southern shores of Gaul at Lérins and Saint-Victor. Drawing on the success late-antique studies have had in paying attention to marginal and non-Roman cultures, Traina presents a more complete picture of Sasanian Persia than many longer monographs on the ancient Mediterranean offer.
Strangely, where Traina falters most is in his treatments of Nestorius’ own doctrine, the nature of religious identity in late antiquity, and the relationship between Church and state in Byzantium. These mistakes reinforce conventional misunderstandings of Nestorius, late-antique Christianity, and the religious and political institutions that regulated them. While the absorption of the Armenian kingdom by Persia is the event that lent such significance to the year 428, Traina seems uninterested in the subsequent religious and cultural consequences of this dramatic political change.
Invariably, studies of Nestorius have been bound up with scholarship on his bitter rival, Cyril of Alexandria. Whether modern scholars have been sympathetic to Nestorius or largely critical, their interpretations have tended to fall into two broad categories: context and rehabilitation, on the one hand, and more orthodox, pro-Cyril accounts, on the other. What all these interpretations share, and what Traina’s does not show, is considerable familiarity with both Nestorius’ doctrine and the accusations leveled against it.
Traina’s book also occasionally suffers from unfortunate anachronisms. Describing Egyptian Christianity’s relationship to enduring pagan cults, Traina argues that Coptic Christians saw paganism as “essentially Greek culture and therefore foreign,” and were thus “claiming a kind of national identity” by turning against it. Greek cults and Christianity were both equally non-Egyptian, but it is entirely misleading to think that late-antique Egyptians thought of a “national” identity in Traina’s sense of the word. Indeed, it is no surprise that the Coptic word for pagan is hellene, because this was the meaning of the Greek word as it was used by the end of the fourth century, and it seems likely that the noun entered Coptic with that meaning attached to it. Elsewhere, Traina explains the partnership of Theodosius II and Nestorius by saying that “imperial conduct was already displaying the features of Byzantine caesaropapism,” when it is now the general view of scholars that Byzantine emperors did not exercise such great authority over the Church as the word implies. On the contrary, there is now a consensus that the concept of caesaropapism is a pejorative, misleading one that does not correctly describe Church-state relations in Byzantium at any time.
The book’s errors regarding Nestorius are the most puzzling, since Nestorius looms large throughout the narrative and occupies such an important place in the history of Traina’s chosen year. It was also against the perceived errors of Nestorius that the Armenian Church, like the church in Alexandria, reacted so fiercely. As a result, after their acceptance of the rulings of the Council of Ephesus (431), Armenians defined their understanding of Christ in the most intensely anti-Nestorian terms possible, which, in turn, helped ensure that the Armenian Apostolic Church would remain at odds with the doctrine of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches until today. While Nestorius’ legacy in the West was largely negative, it was scarcely less influential in shaping the cultural and intellectual landscape of Christendom, and so it is especially important for such a brief volume to state Nestorius’ views as correctly and succinctly as possible.
According to Traina, Nestorius’ rejection of the honorific Theotokos (“God-bearer”) for the Virgin Mary derived from a belief that
this term dangerously confused the divine nature of the Father with that of Christ: his mystic sensibility found repugnant and idolatrous the very idea that the divine Word could be incarnated in a baby.
This badly misstates what was at stake in the Nestorian controversy, and it gives Nestorius far less credit than even a heresiarch deserves. Every Christological dispute in the fifth century was an argument not over whether Christ was both true God and true man, which all parties theoretically accepted, but over how the faithful should understand the relationship between Christ’s divinity and humanity. For all parties to the dispute, the Father’s divine nature and Christ’s divinity were the same; the question was how the assumed humanity related to the Son’s divinity. Only after all these qualifications is it possible to say that Nestorius believed that the title Theotokos implied confusion.
Nestorius did not deny that the Word became flesh, but he resisted calling the Virgin Mary Theotokos because he believed it was not fitting to say that God had been born. Nestorius’ theological view derived from the strict application of the idea that each nature required its own hypostasis, which is to say its own concrete and substantive manifestation, and this required that complete humanity and divinity could be realized only in two distinct hypostases. This was still clearly heterodoxy in the eyes of the Church, but it was a far subtler heterodoxy than Traina’s description suggests. The Third and Fourth Ecumenical Councils condemned Nestorius and his most radical opponents, respectively, because their formulations were insufficiently balanced and precise enough to maintain the fullness of both natures and the integrity of their union in the person of Christ.
Nestorius belonged to the larger tradition that Jaroslav Pelikan referred to in his monumental history of Christian doctrine as the tradition of the “indwelling Logos” opposed to Cyril’s tradition of hypostatic union. According to the latter, it was impossible to maintain that the Word had become flesh without being willing to say that God had been born in the Word’s own flesh, which therefore made it appropriate to say that the Virgin Mary was truly, and not merely figuratively, the Mother of God. Contrary to Traina, the debate over the term Theotokos was far from being “a side issue”—it was both the occasion and the center of the controversy for all of the reasons just stated.
In spite of these problems, Traina has effectively captured a moment in fifth-century history and presented it in a way that will be rewarding for the general reader and the specialist.
[428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire, by Giusto Traina (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 224 pp., $24.95]