Self-Portrait in Three Colors

Gregory of Nazianzus's Epistolary Autobiography

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Bradley K. Storin
Christianity in Late Antiquity
  • Berkeley: 
    University of California Press
    , September
     298 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Self-Portrait in Three Colors: Gregory of Nazianzus’s Epistolary Autobiography, Bradley K. Storin argues that the collection of more than 240 personal letters that Gregory of Nazianzus sent to his great-nephew Nicobulus was “designed and published . . . according to explicit self-presentational principles'' by means of which Gregory sought to establish or even memorialize himself as the eloquent “father of philosophers'' and a faithful devotee and close friend of the eminent Basil of Caesarea (4). These overlapping features of the identity Gregory wishes to project for himself through his collection (rhetorical eloquence, philosophical acumen, and Gregory’s status as devoted to Basil) constitute the “three colors with which Gregory paints his epistolary self-portrait” (26).

Storin’s account of the situation surrounding the collection's publication is vivid and compelling. Nicobulus had requested some of Gregory’s letters to serve as exemplars or models of a proper epistolary style (1). Gregory’s reply to Nicobulus indicates that “the theologian” felt himself to be past his prime: in his words, a “flower from the meadow in late autumn” (1). Only three years earlier, Gregory’s claim to the episcopate in Constantinople was contested by a group of bishops present at the council in 381. At that point, disappointed, Gregory resigned from his position on the council and returned home (9). Despite his “retirement,” Gregory was obliged to send along some letters—perhaps more than his nephew felt he asked for (1, 29). The overkill with which Gregory responded to Nicobulus is suggestive in itself of the existence of ulterior motives on the part of Gregory; so too do the additional “clues” (i.e., indicators of intended audiences beyond just Nicobulus) strewn throughout the collection imply that Gregory intended to influence and imprint his autobiographical vision upon a broader audience (2–3).

Storin’s second chapter considers the “architecture” of the letter collection itself. One difficulty when reconstructing the letter collection is the chronological distance separating the earliest instances of the collection as a self-contained literary entity in our manuscript tradition, from the autographs themselves (30). Modern critical editions of Gregory’s letter collection have “jumbled the earlier manuscripts’ contents and structures, rearranging the letters according to supposed chronology and inserting spurious letters” (30). As a consequence of such editorial strategies, the collection’s inherent unity—“a single literary text shaped by authorial design”—has been obscured (30–31). Storin is to be commended for his work of restoring much of the collection’s original cohesion, and thus the collection’s own literary and artistic quality, as a translator and editor.

An “organizational logic” is perceived to operate within each of the six manuscript families that have come to us, wherein letters are grouped into “dossiers” according to addressee (30). Storin’s contention is that when this “organizational logic” is applied to the available literary data, “prosopographical and thematic interconnections emerge” that were “previously impossible to notice” (31). Extensive treatment of the modern critical editions and the manuscript families is provided by Storin (this treatment comprises most of the second chapter, with a “dossier-based” chart of the collection’s architecture on p. 100). His analyses convincingly show that while Paul Gallay’s critical edition seems largely correct in terms of content (i.e., the letters included), they leave much to be desired regarding organizational structure.

The last three chapters unpack each of the three “colors” of Gregory’s self-portrait, though readers less interested in the specific details of Gregory’s life and literary practices and more interested in the milieu he and his contemporaries inhabited will be pleased to find informative discussion on the general contours of late antique literary culture. Storin writes, for instance, of the cultural importance of eloquence as a product of rhetorical education designed to produce and reproduce a political, social, and intellectual image of Roman imperial culture in the “schoolboy” (103). Gregory’s self-awarded status as the “father of philosophers” presupposed an advanced training in rhetoric, since philosophy was one of a number of disciplines that students could pursue after graduating from their courses in rhetoric (3–5, 103, 121). Philosophers were integral to the social structure of late Roman society and became, in essence, a distillation of “all the eloquent learning and behavior that late Roman elites idealized” (122).

Unsurprisingly, Gregory appropriated these culturally embedded attitudes and assumptions about philosophers when he crafted his epistolary autobiography. Moreover, the definition of “philosopher,” especially in urban Christian environments, had begun by the middle of the 4th century to reflect the growing culture of the Christian intelligentsia: the category of “philosopher” was now reconfigured and applied to those Christian elites whose lives magnified their God as the source of their virtue (124–125). Storin shows how Gregory’s “animosity toward and suspicion of the church’s institutional edifice” reached a boiling point during his time in Constantinople, and that after returning to Cappadocia, the previously strong link between “the priest” and “the philosopher” had shattered (134).

The last “color” is Gregory’s relationship with Basil of Caesarea, or perhaps equivalently, his status as a “Basilist” in the context of protracted Nicene controversy. Basil died in 379, two years before the Council of Constantinople, but the legacy he left behind was powerful and, as it turns out, useful: various bishops and leaders in the late 4th-century pro-Nicene community, including Basil’s own brother Gregory of Nyssa, aligned themselves with Gregory of Nazianzus for the purposes of political opportunism (146–147). Autobiographically curating, editing, and then publishing a collection of personal letters enabled Gregory, first, to bypass the obvious rhetorical limitations associated with out-right apologetic or panegyric literature, for these methods would have shown his hand too easily to his competitors, and second, it gave him the chance to rewrite Basil’s relationship with those conniving bishops as superficial and blighted by careerist intentions; these relationships formed the backdrop against which the jaded ex-bishop’s “indelible friendship” could emerge in stark contrast (149).

Self-Portrait in Three Colors adds nuance and depth to our understanding of the life and times of Gregory of Nazianzus. The central argument of the book is that Gregory’s “post-Constantinople social reality” drove him to engage in a project of literary self-fashioning with the intent of portraying himself as a master of eloquence, a philosopher of philosophers, and a true embodiment of Basil the Great’s heroic legacy (179). While the exact “architecture” of the letter collection remains speculative, as Storin himself acknowledges, nothing in the central argument hangs on a precise reconstruction of the collection. Storin’s work refrains from straightforward biography and chooses to spotlight Gregory’s own autobiography, his textualized representation of himself. Ironically, however, a focus on Gregory’s epistolary autobiography edges us closer towards a true understanding of Gregory’s mental life and aspirations—at least in his later years—than do most modern biographers of Gregory, who have tended to anachronistically import their own cultural and ideologically specific concerns into their readings of his life.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jerome Falk is a graduate student in religion at the University of Manitoba.

Date of Review: 
October 18, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bradley K. Storin is assistant professor of the history of Christianity in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Louisiana State University.


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