Some Thoughts on Eusebius and the invention of ecclesiatical history


The fourth century witnessed the birth of the genre of ecclesiastical history.[1] After Constantine’s conversion in 312, some Christian intellectuals found it necessary to find alternatives to the pagan Roman Empire’s reliance on secular history and its cadre of non-Christian heroes.[2] It is critical always to keep in mind that these early fourth-century Christian writers were attempting to persuade a still largely non-Christian governing class that needed convincing.  Michele Salzman summarises the situation: “A religion whose texts taught love for one’s neighbors and humility, with strictures on wealth and notions of equality, did not, generally speaking, appeal to aristocrats”. So, partially as a means of appeal to prospective or recent converts from the Roman upper-classes fourth-century Church leaders “fashioned the rhetoric of Christianity to make it pleasing to educated elite listeners”.[3]

We find evidence of this adaptation in Christian accounts of the martyrs. Since most Late Roman elites expected their heroes to be “unyielding and warlike”,[4] it helps to explain why idealised Christian had similar qualities— if, at times, only in a metaphorical sense. Against this background, we can understand why the seminal Church historian Eusebius (c. 260-339 CE), who essentially founded the genre of Church history, littered his writings with heroic Christians who showed his audience that through martyrdom Christians could act as gallantly and as bravely as any Roman legionnaire facing death on the battlefield.  It is of course notoriously difficult to know the popularity or to pin down the exact makeup of the readership for this type of Christian literature.[5] Though one might assume that Eusebius created his history primarily for fellow devout Christians, evidence from his introduction suggests that the bishop was addressing a more diverse group—one consisting of readers of more traditional secular history (1.1.6), potential converts, and even non-Christians critical of the genre of Church history (1.2.1).

Eusebius certainly found it important to emphasize in his account the writings of earlier Christian theologians who had sought to refute claims by those labelled the “heathens” that the Christians facing public execution were “ignoble and unmanly” [ἀγεννεις καì ανανδροι, 5.1.34.].  In fact, Christian peoples’ propensity for “piety” [ευσεβειας] and “self-mastery” [καρτερἓα βίου], in the eyes of Eusebius and his sources, contributed to their excelling in “courageous virtue” [καì ἀρετης ἀνδρεία],[6] the courage of the martyrs, he insisted, could be compared to any individuals immortalised for their ἀνδρεία “by Greeks or barbarians”. [7] Roman intellectuals had long seen one’s ability to handle pain with courage as a tell-tale sign of “true” manliness.[8]  So when Eusebius or his source emphasised the martyrs’ propensity to face dismemberment and worse with bravery typical of manly soldiers, they relied on an aspect of traditional hegemonic masculinity readilyunderstood by their Christian and non-Christian audience.[9]

In these spiritual battles, which Eusebius described as “the wars most peaceful” (5.1.4) even a woman could become a “noble athlete” [γενναιος ἀθλητῄς, 5.1.19] or behave like God’s “manliest warrior” [ὀ ἀνδρειότατος ὀπλομᾴχoς, 6.41.16].[10] Although, Eusebius followed the common discriminatory attitude of the time that perceived women as the inferior sex, in certain instances he believed that women’s zeal and faith in God could break down these gender barriers.  By suffering the same contests as men, Eusebius argued that female martyrs “showed themselves no less manly than the men”.[11]

Still, as Averil Cameron warns, there is a danger of looking for signs of “early Christian feminism” within texts composed by Late Roman elites like Eusebius that remain highly misogynistic and often demand that women “must deny their sex” or  “be like a man” to achieve sanctity.[12] As has been often times remarked, Roman intellectuals had long clashed over the idea that men and women possessed distinctive virtues. We find that particularly during the first and second centuries, many Stoic and Christian thinkers influenced by ideas of symmetry, concluded that women remained just as capable as men in cultivating essential and typically masculine virtues.  Despite these claims of gendered egalitarianism by these ancient writers, however, deeply engrained misogynistic attitudes remained difficult for these intellectuals to overcome. Recent evaluations of these supposedly more philogynist writers, have persuasively uncovered the dissonance between their idealistic philosophical claims, and the reality found in their texts.[13]

Moreover, there was nothing new or specifically Christian in Eusebius’ seeming rejection of “traditional standards of Roman masculine militarism”.  Early Christian intellectuals, like Paul, had long utilized the paradox where “weakness was strength and defeat was victory”.[14] These New Testament authors in turn followed Stoic intellectuals in the Early Empire who had embraced ἀνδρεία as a “quieter virtue” of “endurance and self-control rather than a perseverance of action”. In fact, many of these same Stoic writers maintained that a seemingly passive death could be seen as manly if undertaken for a noble or honourable cause.[15]


7Good basic surveys of the Byzantine Church historians are found in Glenn Chesnut, The First Church Historians: Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret, and Evagrius, (Macon, Mercer University Press, 1986); Treadgold, Byzantine Historians, 23-46, 121-75.


[2]Eusebius, HE 5.1.1-4.


[3] Salzman, Christian Aristocracy, 2, 201.


[4]Julian, Against the Galilaeans 116 A.


[5] The difficulty of pinpointing the size and the exact makeup of the readership of the Early Church historians is discussed by Urbainczyk, (Socrates, 64-7); she concludes that they were intended for a wider circulation than their secular counterparts.  Cameron (Procopius, 116)  and Kaldellis (Procopius, 235) suggest that Procopius had read Eusebius’ history, which gives us further evidence that not only devout Christians were interested in ecclesiastical history.


[6]Eusebius, HE 1.4.7.


[7]Eusebius, HE  8.6.1: “Παντων δὲ ὂσοι των πώποτε ἀνυμνουνται θαυμασιοι καì ἐπ ἀνδρεία βεβοημενοι ειτε παρ Έλλησιν ειτε παρα βαρβαροις”. We know too that Eusebius was familiar with these traditional models, see Eusebius, Vita Constantini 1.10.


[8]Conway, Behold the Man, 29-30.


[9]See e.g., Ammianus (Res gestae 22.10.11) where the former soldier, who could be critical of Christians, expressed admiration for the Christian martyrs’ courage.


[10]I have changed the translator Oulton’s “brave” for ἀνδρειότατος to the more literal “manliest”.


[11]Eusebius, HE  8.14.13.  Unlike, male martyrs, Eusebius often emphasized the heroism of women who sacrificed their lives in order to protect their chastity (see e.g., HE 8.14.14-18).


 [12] Averil Cameron, “Virginity as a Metaphor: Women and the Rhetoric of Christianity”, in History as Text: The Writing of Ancient History, ed. Averil Cameron (London: Duckworth, 1988), 184-92.


[13]The bibliography on this topic is vast. A good summary of the current debates and a bibliography are found in Bernadette Brooten, Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996), 328-332; McInermy, “Plutarch’s Manly Women”.


[14]Paul, 2nd Corinthians 12:10. For the appropriation of this ideology as well as the use of paradox in later Christian writers, see Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 208.


[15]Conway, Behold the Man, 77. For the influence of Stoic thought on Paul, see Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Paul and the Stoics (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2000).



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