The Demonic in the Political Thought of Eusebius of Caesarea

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Hazel Johannessen
Oxford Early Christian Studies
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The recent renaissance of scholarship on Eusebius of Caesarea has led scholars to re-evaluate many consensus positions. As the scholarly gaze moves beyond Eusebius’s historical and “Constantinian” writings to the relatively-neglected exegetical, pedagogical, and apologetic works, the commonplace caricature of Eusebius as Constantine’s “court theologian” now appears inadequate and misleading. Recent re-appraisals, however, still tend to see Eusebius as a naïve political optimist, “complacently triumphalist in his vision of history” in the aftermath of Constantine’s conversion (204).

In The Demonic in the Political Thought of Eusebius of Caesarea, Hazel Johannessen examines the role of the demonic in Eusebius’s oeuvre in order to challenge this view. She depicts a Eusebius quite different from the triumphal optimist so familiar from previous portraits. This Eusebius inhabits a moral universe of stark polarities. Ever-wary of the ongoing demonic threat, he saw “the struggle against the demons was real and continuing. There was thus no room for complacency in [Eusebius’s] understanding of history and little space for triumphalism, which, from his perspective, would have been premature” (170). Eusebius’s view of the demonic offers a new lens through which to view contested issues, such as his understanding of kingship and his evaluation of the Roman Empire.

After an introduction that situates Johannessen’s project in conversation with recent scholarship, she develops her argument in six main chapters, followed by a concise summary of results and directions for future inquiry. The first chapter undertakes necessary ground-clearing for contested issues related to Eusebius’s works, such as revisions of the Church History and the authorship of Against Hierocles. Johannessen does not advance any novel positions here, but offers a fair summary of the current state of the field. This chapter also includes a methodological discussion of the problems of systematizing an ancient figure’s thought.

Johannessen then discusses Eusebius’s concept of the demonic (chap. 2) and his cosmology (chap. 3). In her discussion of cosmology, Johannessen construes Eusebius’s view of the world in a way that approaches dualism, a cosmos locked in an ongoing struggle between divine and demonic power. A considerable strength of this book is the way in which it juxtaposes Eusebius’s view of the demonic with the perspectives of contemporary “pagan” authors such as Plotinus, Iamblichus, and Porphyry. This is particularly insightful in the case of Porphyry, whose demonology resembles that of Eusebius in unexpected ways. Johannessen also contextualizes Eusebius’s demonology and cosmology with judicious reference to Philo, as well as a number of early Christian authors—especially Justin, Origen, and Lactantius. As Johannessen demonstrates, Eusebius located himself within a late antique world suffused by spiritual beings. Yet, this world was not inhabited exclusively by élite authors, whether Christian, Jewish, or “pagan.” If the landscape of late antiquity teemed with demons, technologies for negotiating the demonic also flourished. Eusebius himself, moreover, was well aware of such practices; see, for example, the Life of Constantine 1.36.1 (187). Johannessen’s monograph would have been greatly enriched by engagement with amulets, the so-called “magical” papyri, and other material and literary evidence on how individuals in late antiquity attempted to manipulate the demonic.

The remaining three chapters develop aspects of Eusebius’s thought related to the political order, including Eusebius’s view of history and his understanding of human agency. The fourth chapter focuses on the intersection of demonic influence with human agency. For Johannessen’s Eusebius, demons cannot override human προαίρεςις, but ensnare and manipulate humans both through deception and by taking advantage of moral weakness. Eusebius’s moral theology thus emphasizes the cultivation of virtue as the only secure defense against demonic attack. The fifth chapter, the heart of Johannessen’s argument, argues that Eusebius saw demonic power as an ongoing danger. The Empire’s turn toward Christianity had not established a stable eschatological era; rather, whatever gains had been made could just as easily be lost by a lack of vigilance against the continuing demonic threat. The sixth chapter reconsiders the role of the emperor, focusing on Eusebius’s treatment of Constantine. Johannessen argues that Eusebius saw the emperor as a “bishop” and a “teacher in virtue” (163–164), with correspondingly high requirements for conduct and “orthodox” belief—anything else was only tyranny.

There is much to commend in this study. Johannessen’s argument is articulate, well-organized, and in productive conversation with earlier scholarship. Her choice of the demonic provides a valuable lens through which to survey a wide range of Eusebius’s works. Most importantly, Johannessen’s re-appraisal offers a clear contribution to the ongoing discussions about Eusebius’s political thought, and is largely persuasive in problematizing views of Eusebius as a triumphal optimist.

Nevertheless, this reviewer found that the focus on the demonic sometimes distorts rather than clarifies. Johannessen exaggerates the role of the demonic in Eusebius’s political thought and perception of the world. For example, although she persuasively shows that Eusebius regarded envy (φθόνος) as a characteristic motivation of demonic activity, it is problematic then to read all references to envy in Eusebius’s corpus as masked references to demonic powers. Similarly, although Eusebius portrays tyrannical rulers as susceptible to, or enslaved by, demonic influence, Johannessen over-reaches by interpreting all vices and passions as the result of demonic influence (181).

Johannessen describes the demonic as the key to understanding all of Eusebius’s thought—political and theological. Yet other perspectives would also have been valuable. A more robust treatment of Eusebius’s views of salvation would have nuanced the discussion of human responsibility (chap. 4). A more expansive discussion of Eusebius’s ecclesiology would have illuminated the relationship between church and Empire (chaps. 5–6). At the end of the day, although the demonic provides a valuable lens through which to examine Eusebius’s political thought, its focal range is limited.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeremiah Coogan is a doctoral candidate in New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
July 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hazel Johannessen completed her PhD in Classics at King's College London, in 2014. Her research interests lie in the area of late antique history, with a particular focus on intellectual history and demonology.


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