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Chapter Three "Sorcerer" Alliances, Enmities, and the Death of Priscillian
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Chapter Three
"Sorcerer" Alliances, Enmities, and the Death of Priscillian

Priscillian presents himself in the role of a learned teacher and bishop responding indignantly to the damaging accusations of certain "schismatics." A somewhat different portrait emerges from the works of his detractors, on which the history of the controversy after Priscillian's first departure from Avila largely depends: here we encounter head-on, not only Priscillian the Manichaean, but also Priscillian the sorcerer and sexual profligate, the pseudo-Christian whose very privacy connotes secrecy and duplicity. Simultaneous with this shift in the perspective or angle of vision comes an enlargement of its scope. In this chapter, the view expands beyond Spain and indeed beyond the orbit of Priscillian himself, reaching to encompass the other contexts that conditioned the responses of those members of the Gallic and Italian elites who were drawn into the controversy.

Severus is the primary guide for unraveling the strands of the social networks that lead into other nexuses of conflict in Bordeaux, Milan, and Rome. Rome truly represented the end of one journey for Priscillian, insofar as its influential bishop closed the doors on the possibility of a purely ecclesiastical resolution to the conflict. However, Bordeaux and Milan—sites significantly not merely visited but revisited—had a more ambiguous import for Priscillian. In both cities, the hostility of the local bishop—


a hostility almost necessitated by his assertively public construction of episcopal authority—was in tension with, and indeed held in check by, the support of other powerful members of the elite. Ultimately, it was the influence, not of the more aloof Gratian, but of the aggressively orthodox usurper Maximus that interjected the simplicity of autocratic power into these complicated urban contexts in such a way as to dissolve the tension in favor of Priscillian's episcopal enemies. Thus, the second journey to Bordeaux was redirected to the imperial capital of Trier, which produced a secular version of the solution already hinted at in the finality of Damasus of Rome's uncompromising refusal to "see" Priscillian.

Priscillian ended his life as the focus of a public gaze that rendered him paradoxically both private and obscure. The violence of the strategies by which Priscillian was thereby refashioned as the "other" stemmed in part from the relatively open accessibility of imperial power, the progressive intensification of enmities and resentments, and the alien context in which the conflict came to be played out. Even before Priscillian's episcopal consecration, Bishop Ithacius had begun to insinuate that Priscillian was not merely a Manichaean but, still worse, a dabbler in magic. Now, as the center of conflict shifted away from the local Spanish communities in which Priscillian and his associates must have been known personally by most Christians, this label of sorcery gained prominence in the accusations against Priscillian: it was as a sorcerer that Priscillian was executed at Trier. Attached to the labels of both Manichaeism and sorcery was the stereotype of the sexual profligate, and charges of sexual deviance eventually contributed significantly to the overall characterization of Priscillian as a demonic outsider who was so morally abhorrent and utterly alien to the Christian community that even his violent death could be justified.

It has already become clear that the sexualization of Priscillian also had another motivation and function as early as the Council of Saragossa. By hinting that ascetic teachers like Priscillian might have had illicit sexual relations with their female associates, Christians like Hydatius and Ithacius expressed their continuing discomfort with the relatively free social relations of women and men within Priscillian's circle. In other words, to talk about sex was also to talk about gender, and while this later stage of the controversy may appear to be centered more on issues of authority than on issues of gender, conceptions of gender and sexuality are once again intertwined with attitudes toward authority, and indeed are spectacularly showcased in Severus' account of the trial and sentencing of Priscillian and his companions.



Severus' concise report supplies most of our information about the journey made by Priscillian, Instantius, and Salvianus following their departure from their Spanish churches. The three bishops apparently crossed the Pyrenees through the western passes and followed a route "through the interior of Aquitaine."[1] In Aquitaine they campaigned actively and successfully for support. They seem to have directed their course toward Agen and Bordeaux, perhaps hoping to obtain letters from bishops Phoebadius and Delphinus confirming that they had not been condemned at the Council of Saragossa. Along the way the travellers stopped at Eauze, where they made a favorable impression: Severus reports that Instantius, Salvianus, and Priscillian "with depraved speeches perverted the people of Eauze, who were indeed at that time good and devoted to religion."[2] This passage indicates that the Christians of Eauze had not formerly been supporters of Priscillian; there is no evidence that Priscillian had followers in Aquitaine before his departure from Avila.[3]

From Eauze the travellers continued on to Bordeaux, where they likewise met with a strong, although by no means universally favorable, response. Indeed, if the Spaniards had hoped for Delphinus' support, they were disappointed: according to Severus, Priscillian and his companions were driven out of town by the bishop himself.[4] This seemingly dramatic gesture of hostility invites comparison with the previous reception of the ascetic bishops in Merida; there, as we have seen, they were met by a crowd of Bishop Hydatius' supporters, who barred them from the pres-bytery and beat them with sticks. The situations at Merida and Bordeaux were by no means identical: Priscillian and his friends presumably approached the bishop of Bordeaux as supplicants, rather than as mediators or ever accusers, as had been the case in Merida. However, Delphinus' action suggests that the presence of the Spanish bishops in Bordeaux, as in Merida, was perceived as a sufficiently serious threat to the unity of the local Christian community and to the authority of its bishop to require a public gesture of repudiation. Here again, we need not hypothesize some early "Priscillianist" influence in Bordeaux to explain either Delphinus' original motivation for attending the Council of Saragossa or his response to Priscillian's subsequent appearance in Bordeaux. Not only is such a hypothesis poorly supported by the sources; it also seems misleadingly to externalize the causes of Delphinus' defensiveness, which must finally also be explained in terms of the dynamics of the local community.


That Delphinus had some reason to fear lack of support from powerful members of the local community is confirmed by Severus' report that certain well-placed Christians of the region readily patronized Priscillian's circle in spite of their bishop's strong repudiation of the Spaniards. Indeed, Euchrotia, widow of the well-known rhetorician Attius Tiro Delphidius, received the Spanish ascetics hospitably on her estate, where they remained for at least a brief period.[5] It was probably also at this point that a certain Urbica of Bordeaux became a supporter of Priscillian. A Priscillianist Urbica is known to us from an entry in Prosper's Chronicle (c. 433): "At Bordeaux a certain disciple of Priscillian by the name of Urbica was stoned to death by a mob on account of her obstinacy in impiety."[6]

This Urbica is probably to be identified with the aristocratic Pomponia Urbica who was related by marriage to the poet Ausonius and who is commemorated by the same poet in his Parentalia .[7] Pomponia Urbica seems to have died in the mid 380s after a brief widowhood;[8] thus the date of her death, as well as her name and provenance, supports her identification with the Priscillianist Urbica. Moreover, Ausonius' portrayal of Pomponia Urbica reflects personal ambivalence and an apologetic intent, which could plausibly derive from Pomponia Urbica's embarrassing association with Priscillian and her unseemly death at the hands of an anti-Priscillianist mob in Bordeaux.

Ausonius opens his brief poem by praising his subject in stereotypical terms for her high birth and old-fashioned morals, emphasizing her identity as the wife of the respected Julianus Censor. He acknowledges the strength of her innate qualities, but moves quickly to emphasize the influence of her husband's teaching and example:

Strong in inborn virtues and enriched also by those that her spouse, that
      her father and mother taught—
That Tanaquil, that the Pythagorean Theano possessed, and that
      perished without copy in the death of her husband.[9]

The coupled allusions to Tanaquil and Theano, both known for their close partnerships with their husbands, are double-edged. Although each could be interpreted as a symbol of traditional Roman wifely virtue, contributing to Ausonius' positive depiction of Pomponia Urbica as a devoted wife and virtuous woman, both Theano and Tanaquil were foreigners, one Greek, the other Etruscan, and both took on social and religious roles unusual for a woman, one being a Pythagorean philosopher, the other an interpreter of omens and a powerful queen.[10] It is thus possible that, as one scholar has suggested, the "novelties of the Priscillianists" may be alluded to in the comparison of Pomponia Urbica to Theano, wife of Pythagoras


and member of a sect known for its secrecy, asceticism, and tolerance of female participation.[11] The reference to Tanaquil, who was skilled in both divination and politics, may function similarly to evoke Pomponia Urbica's disturbing religious activities, as well as her notable courage and independence, particularly since Ausonius seems to use the figure of Tanaquil elsewhere to imply Priscillianist leanings.[12] Final support for the identification of Prosper's Priscillianist Urbica with Ausonius' Pomponia Urbica is found in Ausonius' emphasis on Pomponia Urbica's readiness for death.[13]

And if fate had allowed you so to exchange, Censor would still live now
     in this time of ours.
But you were not tormented for long by widowhood, joining your
     husband immediately through your desired death.[14]

In these lines, poetic reinterpretation seems to transform an unseemly martyr's death into a classical manifestation of wifely virtue.

Severus does not mention Urbica by name, whether out of ignorance of her story or because he, like Ausonius, had some reason to be embarrassed by her death. He does, however, report that Euchrotia and her daughter Procula joined Priscillian, Instantius, and Salvianus on their journey to Rome. He refers sarcastically to the "disgraceful and, to be sure, modest company, including wives and even unrelated women" who accompanied the bishops.[15] Although the group may have included married couples, it is more likely that Severus simply knew that Priscillian was criticized for travelling with Euchrotia and Procula; from this seed he grew his "company" of women, who included not only wives—which, he implies, might have been scandalous enough—but even "strange" or "unrelated" women (alienis etiam feminis ). The bishops at Saragossa had used the same term—alienus —to object to the mingling of women with "strange" men in the Priscillianist study groups, thereby implying the scandal of both heresy and sexual promiscuity.[16]

Severus adds that it was the "common talk" that Euchrotia's daughter Procula had become pregnant through the "violation" (stupro ) of Priscillian and used herbs to abort the pregnancy.[17] Ausonius seems to offer independent confirmation of the existence of such a rumor when he refers to the "mistake" (errore ) of Delphidius' daughter.[18] The report probably stemmed originally from local outrage at Priscillian's having left Aquitaine with "strange" or "unrelated" women, particularly younger women. We are reminded that the bishops at Saragossa had been particularly concerned to limit and control young female ascetics.[19] The choice of older women like Euchrotia to lead an ascetic life was more easily accepted than


were their daughters' vows of celibacy.[20] Indignation at the young girls' rejection of conventional social roles—above all, the duty to procreate—combined with heightened suspicions of sexual immorality in the young.[21]

The motivations of the Gallic women who accompanied the Spanish bishops on their journey are unknown. Perhaps Euchrotia hoped to use her money and influence to aid Priscillian's cause in Italy. Possibly she and the others were taking advantage of the opportunity to hear the famous bishop of Milan preach or to make a pilgrimage to the holy shrines in Rome.[22] Severus makes no further reference to Procula and mentions Euchrotia again only in the context of her execution at Trier. The understatement and ambiguity that characterize Severus' representation of Priscillian's elite female supporters evoke the multiple interpretive possibilities available to the late-ancient historian and his readers. The familiar and all-pervasive relationships of patronage and friendship might always be made suspect, becoming tinged with the conspiratorial and the effeminate by their hinted dislodgement from the public sphere of legitimate masculine governance.


The travellers apparently stopped in Milan after leaving Gaul.[23] Although Severus fails to mention a Milanese visit prior to their stay in Rome, his reliability is here compromised by complicated polemical motives: by suggesting that Priscillian and his companions appealed first to the Roman and Milanese bishops and only subsequently sought the support of the secular authorities at the imperial court, he intends to contrast them favorably with their opponents, who—like members of an opposing faction in his own time—rashly involved secular judges from the start.[24] Priscillian's letter to Damasus, in contrast with Severus' account, seems to posit at least a brief sojourn in Milan prior to the Roman visit, during which the letter was presumably composed, since it makes it clear that Priscillian and his companions had already made attempts to appeal their case at the imperial court.[25] Priscillian protests to Damasus that his opponents have prejudiced the quaestor, who, "although he said the requests were fair, was slow to respond."[26] Chadwick's suggestion that the quaestor mentioned by Priscillian might be identical with the Gregory who was praetorian prefect of the Gauls in 383 is intriguing, inasmuch as this same Gregory subsequently intervened in the conflict on behalf of Ithacius.[27] Another fragment of the social networks within which this controversy played itself out seems to emerge into view here.


Whether or not they also attempted to see Ambrose during this probable first stop in Milan, Priscillian and his companions must have concluded that his support was not going to be forthcoming. The Milanese bishop had been "completely deceived" by Hydatius' story, Priscillian writes to Damasus, and indeed he seems to imply that Ambrose had been instrumental in procuring the rescript directed against Priscillian and his circle.[28] Although Ambrose never mentions Priscillian by name in his extant writings, Severus' report seems to confirm the bishop's early opposition to Priscillian, which thus appears to be a crucial factor in the unfolding of the controversy—a factor that must be contextualized, not only in terms of the extralocal networks of alliance and opposition in which the aristocratic bishop of Milan was embedded, but also in terms of the dynamics of the local Milanese community, whose pressures conditioned the bishop's relationships with other powerful men and women.[29] Fortunately, the Christian community of late-fourth-century Milan is significantly better known than that of contemporary Bordeaux, and here it is possible to discern still more clearly points of overlap or resonance between the Spanish conflict and the conflicts in the local communities visited by Priscillian and his friends. Particularly striking is the manner in which the rhetorical and topographical manipulation of public and private space shaped the ecclesiastical politics of Milan and set the terms for the reception of Priscillian by that community and its bishop.

Perceptions of the Milanese Christian community and of Ambrose's position within that community have shifted significantly as the bishop's aura of invincible authority has begun to dissipate in recent scholarship; both the strength of the anti-Nicene community and the consequent vulnerability of Ambrose's episcopacy in the late 370s and early 380s have sprung into sharp relief. Indeed, it now seems fairly clear that the first two books of Ambrose's early treatise On the Faith , probably written in the winter of 378–79, constitute an apologetic libellus responding to a pointed request that Ambrose defend himself against damaging accusations of heresy.[30] In other words, the basic rhetorical context of this work is not unlike that of Priscillian's own Apology , demanded and produced some two years later. The request for self-defense in this case came directly from the emperor Gratian, mediating opposition both from local opponents of Ambrose and from the Homoian bishops of Illyricum with whom they were allied.[31] The situation was thus structurally parallel to the one that emerged in the Meridan conflict, although Gratian took both a more cautious and a more active mediatory role in relation the bishop of Milan, a city obviously of central importance to the western emperor. Indeed, by the spring of 379, Ambrose had received a letter from Gratian indicating


his favorable receipt of the defense and inviting a further development of Ambrose's arguments on the Holy Spirit.[32]

Gratian's signal of cautious support for the Milanese bishop came as a great relief to the beleaguered Ambrose; nevertheless, little progress had been made toward the resolution of the Milanese conflict. Before Ambrose could respond to the new imperial request, he found himself again facing attacks, which necessitated extending his apologetic On the Faith with three new books, probably sent to the emperor sometime during the autumn of 380 and therefore closely contemporaneous with the Council of Saragossa.[33]

It is significant that these last three books of On the Faith , like the first two, were addressed to the emperor during a period when he was resident at Sirmium and in conversation with the Homoian bishops of Illyricum, above all Palladius of Ratiaria, author of an attack on the initial books of Ambrose's On the Faith . Given the fragile position of the Nicene community in Milan, Ambrose perceived himself to be directly threatened by any show of sympathy for the rival party. He thus employed an aggressive rhetoric, whose intent was to erode a relatively tolerant imperial religious policy. In a period of military crisis, Ambrose suggested that any openness toward the theological enemy was a sign of either a traitor's betrayal or a coward's flight: if Gratian was not with him, the bishop insinuated, he was against Christ. Conflating his Homoian opponents with the Goths advancing on Italy, Ambrose moved boldly to construct an image of Gratian as the champion of orthodoxy. "This emperor has no slippery mind, but a firmly fixed faith," he proclaims at the end of book 2, seemingly contrasting Gratian with the pro-Homoian Valens, while praising him for his steady defense of Italy against "barbarian" attack. Sometime later, Ambrose takes up the same theme in book 3, here identifying his own position as bishop with Gratian's as emperor by noting that he had written the first two books hastily, "being like one on the eve of battle," but now writes at greater length, so as not to seem to have doubted and abandoned the defense of his earlier propositions—an implied challenge to Gratian not to prove himself "slippery" after all.[34]

If Gratian's relations with the Illyrican bishops were much on Ambrose's mind between 378 and 380, this concern was, as I have suggested, fueled by tensions within the local Christian community. Although Ambrose's unexpected election to the episcopacy in 374 came to be seen as a victory for the Nicene community of Milan, which had previously suffered almost twenty years under a bishop hostile to Nicea, the strength of the anti-Nicene party in this city was far from broken; nor was Ambrose's uncompromising allegiance to the Nicene cause a foregone conclusion at


the time of his election.[35] The late 370s had brought the Homoian bishop Julian Valens from Illyricum to Milan, and through both the ordination of followers and the cementing of alliances with powerful figures like Ursinus, formerly a contender for the Roman episcopacy, Valens seems to have established a strong local network.[36] Indeed, in the period immediately following the arrival of the anti-Nicene empress Justina in late 378, the Homoian community was emboldened to request a basilica for its own use. Gratian's response was carefully neutral: "sequestering" the basilica so as to remove it from Nicene control, he may even have made it accessible to the Homoians.[37]

Access to public space has recently been identified as a highly significant factor in the Milanese conflict, which is bracketed chronologically by two attempts on the part of the Homoian party to move out of private meeting places through the acquisition of basilical space: the effort in the late 370s resulting in Gratian's ambiguous "sequestering" of the basilica, and a later attempt in 386 that ended in a more conclusive defeat for the Homoian party.[38] Indeed, Ambrose's success at solidifying his episcopal authority in Milan can literally be "mapped" upon the surface of a city that included, on the one hand, a growing number of prominent basilicas built and occupied with ever-greater confidence by the Nicene party and, on the other hand, a contrastingly privatized network of Homoian meeting places.[39] Crucial to the establishment of a strong Nicene episcopacy in Milan was Ambrose's ability not only to control access to public space but also to enhance its power of authorization through sacralizing rituals. During the conflict over the basilica in 386, for example, Ambrose is said to have introduced novel liturgical practices to the Nicene community gathered within the walls of the disputed public building, including "antiphons, hymns, and vigils."[40] Despite the previously noted parallels between Ambrose's and Priscillian's positions in relation to the emperor Gratian, these strategies of episcopal self-authorization align Ambrose rather with Hydatius and the other bishops who gathered at Saragossa in order to undercut the authority of a privately centered asceticism by constructing an alternative, more centralized congregational "discipline" that would enhance the authority of a publicly defined episcopacy.[41] As Harry Maier notes, that Ambrose "devoted so much energy to establishing orthodoxy in a public domain is an indication of the danger of an Arian community which stubbornly survived for over a decade in private space, and the degree to which sacred space was coming to function as a source of legitimation and authority in the last decades of the fourth century."[42]

The year 381 was a crucial turning point in the conflict between the Homoian and Nicene parties in Milan. In the early spring of that year,


Gratian was in Milan and finally returned the sequestered basilica to the Nicene party, thereby demonstrating, if somewhat belatedly, at least a measure of openness to Ambrose's rhetorical construction of the orthodox imperial role. With Gratian present, Ambrose now published the treatise on the Holy Spirit that the emperor had earlier requested, praising Gratian's recent, seemingly spontaneous decision to return the basilica as a sign of the working of the Spirit itself.[43] A still more significant event was the Council of Aquileia, which Gratian convoked in September of the same year, not as the balanced "general council" the emperor had originally envisioned, but rather as a local gathering packed with Ambrose's pro-Nicene allies, who moved quickly to interrogate and condemn several of the Homoian clergy of Illyricum as "Arians."[44] The deep shock and anger of the condemned Homoians is reflected in the fragments of Palladius' Apology —yet another apologetic libellus almost precisely contemporaneous with Priscillian's work.[45] While there is evidence that the Homoians continued to press Ambrose both in Milan and Illyricum, and that Gratian was still far less adamantly pro-Nicene than his bishop, the Council of Aquileia remained a significant victory for Ambrose and the pro-Nicene party of northern Italy.[46]

This brief survey of the history of Milanese Christianity in the years leading up to 381 provides some insight into the religio-political climate that shaped Ambrose's response to Priscillian. The rescript seems most easily datable to the period of Gratian's sojourn in Milan in the spring of 381 or the months immediately following, when Gratian was living in northern Italy, while Priscillian's subsequent visit to Italy must have taken place somewhat later, in 381 or perhaps 382.[47] During this same period, both Ambrose's actions and his rhetorical self-presentation suggest the bishop's dominant preoccupation with his emerging role as the western champion of an anti-Arian orthodoxy. It was a time marked for Ambrose both by optimism, in the light of Gratian's increasing willingness to support the pro-Nicene party in Milan, and by the caution of one who had to consolidate gains carefully in the face of continued opposition from the Milanese Homoians, as well as of enemies further afield, such as Palladius of Ratiaria. We can easily imagine, then, that both Ambrose's own vulnerability to charges of heresy and his self-conscious orthodoxy would have inhibited him from risking the potential embarrassment of association with a Spaniard accused of heresy. Indeed, the timing of Priscillian's visit could scarcely have been worse.

In addition, it appears unlikely that Ambrose would have recognized in Priscillian a natural ally, whatever their similar commitments to asceticism. Ambrose's perception of Priscillian was probably shaped not only


by Hydatius' report but also by rumors transmitted through Gallic colleagues like Delphinus.[48] The heresiological catalogue of Ambrose's neighbor and pro-Nicene ally Filastrius of Brescia, generally dated to the early 380s, may well reflect what was "known" locally of the Priscillianists at this point.[49] Filastrius refers to certain heretics "in the Gauls, the Spains, and Aquitaine" who reject marriage and abstain from certain foods. Not sure who these heretics are, he calls them "abstinents, so to speak" and identifies them as followers of the gnostics and the Manichaeans and proponents of the doctrine that creation is the work of the devil. Apparently uncertain whether to classify the Gallo-Hispanic ascetics as Manichaeans or to place them in a category of their own, Filastrius elsewhere mentions Manichaeans "lurking in both Spain and Gaul."[50]

As a former imperial official who used language, ritual, and architecture to articulate a distinctly public orthodoxy in direct competition with a privatized rival bishop in Milan, Ambrose would have felt little sympathy for one introduced to him as a "pseudo-bishop" and associated with the subversive privacy and alienated asceticism of the Manichaeans.[51] Indeed, to accentuate the illegitimacy of the private, partly feminized networks that supported Priscillian would have far better suited the strategies of a bishop who, when she attempted to secure basilical meeting space for the Homoian Christians and their bishop, was later to compare a female patron—the empress Justina herself—to Jezebel and Herodias; "those temptations are more severe that arise through women," remarked Ambrose.[52]


After their initial failure to win support in Milan, the ascetic company turned to Damasus of Rome, Ambrose's most powerful colleague in the western episcopate, and a man who might be flattered by a strong appeal to his authority. Priscillian's Letter to Damasus was submitted to the Roman bishop—"you who are senior to all of us"—along with letters of communion from the clergy and laity of the churches of the three Spanish bishops. In the letter, as we have seen, Priscillian skillfully defends his orthodoxy and the legitimacy of his episcopacy, stressing that he has never been condemned by a council, and invoking the authority of a letter of Damasus "in which, in accordance with gospel laws, you had enjoined that nothing be decided against those absent and unheard." Priscillian emphasizes his preference for ecclesiastical rather than secular judgment in matters of faith and requests that Damasus call for the convening of an episcopal


council at Rome. Alternatively, suggests Priscillian, Damasus might use his influence to persuade the Spanish bishops to convene a council in their own territory. At such a council, Hydatius would be forced to substantiate his accusations, and Priscillian and his companions would be heard and judged fairly. Priscillian adds that Hydatius need not fear that Priscillian and his supporters would press charges against him.[53]

Priscillian's attempt to clear himself fell on deaf ears—or rather, blind eyes. Severus notes briefly that Damasus refused to see the supplicants: Priscillian and his companions were "not even admitted into Damasus' sight."[54] It is possible that Damasus, like Ambrose, had already been persuaded by Hydatius' claim that the Spanish bishops were Manichaeans. On the other hand, he may have been considerably less adamant in his judgment of the Spanish controversy. Jerome, who was closely associated with the Roman bishop in the years immediately following Priscillian's visit, still had a remarkably neutral opinion of Priscillian in 392, when he wrote from Palestine that, although Priscillian was accused by some of gnosticism, others considered him orthodox.[55] Particularly if Jerome's comment at this point reflects views shared by Damasus a decade earlier,[56] the Roman bishop's refusal to see Priscillian may have been motivated not so much by strong opposition to the Spanish ascetics as by the political concerns of his own position. Again, the paucity of our knowledge of Priscillian's visit to Rome is balanced by the relatively rich documentation of the local context that would have conditioned Damasus' response to Priscillian.

In Rome, as in Milan, the Arian controversy had created deep fissures in a Christian community that had long been characterized by extraordinary diversity, including in the late fourth century identifiable groups of Manichaeans, Donatists, and Luciferians, at the very least.[57] Here too, conflicts increasingly took the form of struggles to claim the authority of the public sphere and, correspondingly, to represent the opposition as suspiciously privatized. Damasus' election following the death of Bishop Liberius had been secured only by a series of forceful acts of imperial intervention, which ended two years of bloody fighting between local ecclesiastical factions whose allegiances had crystallized around the remembered rivalry between Liberius and Felix, the latter appointed bishop of Rome during the period of Liberius' exile (355–58).[58] Indeed, Damasus had not been the only man consecrated bishop of Rome in 366, and although his opponent Ursinus had finally been expelled from Rome in 368, both the letter of a synodal gathering in Rome in 378 and Ambrose's request for Ursinus' exile from Milan in 381 suggest that he was still actively agitating around the time of Priscillian's Italian visit.[59] In this intensely


competitive context, Damasus was unlikely to support Priscillian at the risk of alienating such a crucial ally, or offering an advantage to so serious a rival as Ambrose, no matter how benign Damasus' assessment of Priscillian's position may have been.[60] Nor could the Roman bishop afford to associate himself with a group of Spanish bishops whose asceticism and relationships with women left them vulnerable to the same privatized representation and accusations of sexual promiscuity with which Ursinus had attempted to discredit Damasus in 368, accusations that had seemingly resurfaced in the form of adultery charges as recently as 378.[61]

In the context of such factionalized heterogeneity, facilitated by complex networks of patronage, within which diverse competing movements flourished, Damasus—himself a most skillful broker of patronage relationships—had moved to consolidate a more centralized episcopal authority, which aggressively constructed itself as both public and orthodox over against opponents who were correspondingly hereticized and privatized.[62] As in the case of Ambrose, imperial support proved crucial to the solidification of Damasus' episcopal authority, and in 378 Gratian continued his father's policy of backing Damasus against Ursinus in Rome.[63] But imperial rescripts provided just one buttress for the structure of episcopal authority. In Rome, as in Milan, topography proves particularly revealing of a bishop's explicitly public articulation of ecclesiastical authority through the liturgical and architectural manipulation of space. Damasus is credited with having transformed the face of Rome in the period of its "second Christian establishment" through a building program that included the erection of at least three churches and the beginnings of one or two more, as part of a campaign to replace the private architectural forms of the old Roman "community centers"—the domus ecclesiae of the original tituli —with ostentatiously public basilicas.[64] Damasus' enhancement of the architectural space of the historic churches seems to have been matched by his development of the mobile liturgical practices that subsequently played a crucial role in linking Roman episcopal authority with the complex Roman Christian topography.[65]

The events surrounding Damasus' episcopal ordination further suggest that his manipulation of the existing topography was as important as his role as builder in the articulation of an explicitly public episcopal authority. When in 366 Ursinus was consecrated bishop in the Basilica of Julius, Damasus moved immediately to occupy Rome's cathedral, the sumptuous Lateran basilica—a product not of the "second" but of the "first Christian establishment" in Rome under Constantine.[66] It was in the Lateran that Damasus was consecrated soon thereafter, thus choosing to make his audacious bid for the episcopacy from a building whose very


architecture, setting, and history provided a metaphor for the ambiguous and complex process by which the Christian community and its leadership was moving to claim the public sphere. An unmistakably public edifice, the church founded by Constantine yet rose startlingly and somewhat incongruously from the midst of an upper-class residential neighborhood at the edge of Rome, on the site of a private villa formerly owned by Constantine himself.[67] The particular juxtaposition of the public and private architecture of the Lateran and its setting seems to mirror visually the social rise of the episcopal "seat" from private into public space under Damasus' leadership, while also hinting at the possibility that the bishop's locus of authority remained, after all, just one more Christian domus among so many potential competitors in Rome; indeed, we have seen that his rivals' jibes at Damasus' "womanizing" emphasize precisely Damasus' private networks of influence. If it was Constantine's power that initially defined the Lateran's publicity, imperial power continued to provide not only a direct source but also the closest analogue for the aggressively public construal of the authority of a Roman bishop whose own building projects harked back to the classical style of the period of the first Augustus.[68]

This brief glimpse into the historical context of Damasus' episcopacy provides a meaningful context—if not an "explanation"—for the Roman bishop's refusal to give Priscillian a hearing. Like both Ambrose of Milan and Delphinus of Bordeaux, Damasus struggled to maintain his authority over a diverse and factious Christian community. Like Ambrose and perhaps also Delphinus, he moved to strengthen his position both by monopolizing control of the church's public space and by enhancing the authority of that space through the skillful manipulation of architecture, ritual, and rhetoric. Here his strategies aligned him more closely with Hydatius than with Priscillian. Priscillian's own more private and ascetic techniques of self-authorization had been effectively turned against him through the accusation of Manichaeism. "Not even admitted into Damasus' sight,"[69] he now found himself further damagingly privatized by being denied visibility on the public stage of the Roman church.

Milan, Spain, and Bordeaux Revisited

Leaving a Christian Rome whose doors had remained closed to them, Priscillian and his companions returned to Milan. This time, Gratian's capital proved friendlier. Whether through bribery, persuasive argument or clever political maneuvering around Ambrose to reach his adversaries at court, the Spanish bishops were able to win the support of the powerful Macedonius, magister officiorum .[70] Macedonius procured a rescript direct-


ing that the Spanish bishops be restored to their churches—an act of legislative incoherence not unusual for a government that exercised power within the context of complicated networks of patronage relationships.[71] Subsequent to the issuing of the new imperial rescript, "Instantius and Priscillian returned to Spain (for Salvianus had died in the city), and then without any strife they took back the churches over which they had presided."[72]

Severus' report that Priscillian and Instantius experienced no opposition upon their return to their episcopal sees is remarkable and strengthens the suggestion that Priscillian had not technically been either deposed or exiled, although threatened with both. Priscillian's claim that he and his fellow bishops had the support of their churches and did not fear to argue their case before a Spanish council seems, moreover, justified. The majority of the Spanish Christians must have remained either neutral or supportive of Priscillian and his friends, despite—or perhaps partly because of—Hydatius' initial success in invoking imperial authority against them.[73]

The period immediately following the return of Priscillian and Instantius from exile is perhaps the most obscure stage of the controversy. Severus makes no mention of any conflict between Hydatius and Priscillian or Instantius following their return to Spain. Their dispute with Ithacius continued, however, for reasons that Severus either did not know or does not report. He merely remarks that Ithacius did not lack the spirit, although he did lack the power, to resist the return of the two bishops. Whatever the origins of this second round of conflict, a chain of political events similar to that following the earlier conflict at Merida was soon set into motion, as each party again appealed to the imperial court for support. The proconsul Volventius, governor of Lusitania, attempted to arrest Ithacius as a "disturber of the churches."[74] Ithacius was sufficiently alarmed at the prospect of a trial in Lusitania that he fled to Gaul, where he succeeded in gaining the ears of both Bishop Britannius of Trier and the praetorian prefect, Gregory. The latter, after determining to look into the affair personally, sent a report to the emperor Gratian—who was now probably residing in Gaul—in an apparent effort to persuade him to intervene directly and thereby to enforce a more consistent imperial policy in relation to the Spanish disturbance. Such direction and coherence on the issue was not, however, forthcoming from this emperor. Although Gregory now issued an order for Priscillian's party to appear in Trier, Priscillian and his companions again appealed to Macedonius, who arranged for the case to be transferred back to Spain and sent officials to escort Ithacius to the trial. Ithacius managed to elude arrest. Hearing rumors of Maximus Magnus' rebellion in Britain, he decided to remain quiet until it became


clear who would win the battle for imperial power. By August of 383, matters were decided: Gratian was dead, and Maximus entered Trier as emperor.[75]

Yet another round of conflict then began. Ithacius, still in Trier, succeeded in bringing his interests to the new emperor's attention with "petitions full of ill-will and accusations directed against Priscillian and his associates."[76] Maximus, in marked contrast to Gratian, eagerly seized this opportunity to portray himself as a staunch defender of orthodoxy and thus to win the powerful support of the western episcopacy—as well as of the ardently pro-Nicene emperor Theodosius in the east.[77] Accordingly, he sent orders to the governors of Gaul and Spain to escort all the parties involved to Bordeaux, where an episcopal council would judge the dispute; and this time, the orders were carried out effectively.[78] It has been suggested that Maximus' response was crafted to appeal to the two major episcopal constituencies of his realm. First, he appeased the majority of the Spanish episcopacy by acknowledging Priscillian and Instantius as legitimate bishops whose orthodoxy could be judged only by a council of their episcopal colleagues. Second, he appeased the bishops who supported Ithacius, seemingly a majority in Gaul, by ordering that the council be convened not in Spain but in Bordeaux, territory that we have seen was potentially less friendly to Priscillian and his followers.[79]

The council, which probably took place in 384, proved unfriendly indeed. No official records survive, but Severus' account implies that the principal matter at hand was to decide whether or not Instantius and Priscillian were guilty of heresy—probably, more specifically, of Manichaeism. Instantius spoke first, and failed to persuade the gathered bishops, who judged him "unworthy of the episcopacy." Priscillian perceived that he would not get a sympathetic hearing from the council and chose to appeal to the emperor rather than submit to the judgment of the bishops present.[80] He may have hoped, as did the Donatists and Athanasius in analogous situations, that the emperor would convene a new, more impartial council to hear his case.[81] The bishops allowed the appeal to go through and the case to be taken from their hands.[82] Meanwhile, there were outbreaks of violence in Bordeaux if, as seems most likely, the stoning of Urbica occurred in connection with the council.[83]


Even if this had been a "simple" case of heresy, the emperor Maximus might have felt justified in investigating it himself on the basis of Priscil-


lian's personal appeal and the council's acquiescence. The ambiguity of the accusation brought against Priscillian further facilitated the intervention of an emperor and, ultimately, the execution of a heretic in a case that seems in retrospect both shocking and ominous.[84] The charge of Manichaeism defied the neat boundaries separating "heresy" and "crime" and the respective jurisdictions of bishop and emperor. As we have seen, Priscillian felt strongly that matters of faith should be judged by bishops, yet he himself noted approvingly that the Manichaeans had been condemned by secular as well as divine judgments and urged that Manichaeans, like magicians, should be punished with the sword for their "turpitudes."[85]

This ambiguity inherent in the charge of Manichaeism was exploited by Ithacius' anti-Priscillianist propaganda in Gaul. Severus states specifically that Ithacius, like Hydatius earlier, attacked both ascetic practices and private reading as heretical or Manichaean: "His foolishness went so far that he labeled all—even holy men—who possessed a zeal for reading or were determined to struggle by fasting associates or disciples of Priscillian."[86] Even Martin of Tours was accused of Manichaeism on these grounds, and Severus protests the emptiness of the label. "For at that time judgments were based on appearances alone, since one was considered a heretic on account of pallor or dress rather than faith."[87]

Meanwhile, the charges of sorcery and sexual immorality, originally secondary to the charge of Manichaeism, gained prominence in Ithacius' rhetoric as he addressed a Gallic populace not personally familiar with Priscillian. Ithacius' earlier accusations of participation in fertility rites seem to have been elaborated considerably at this point, if the story of Priscillian's youthful study of sorcery, known and partially discounted by Severus, originated during Ithacius' Gallic sojourn.[88] Charges of sexual immorality would have been particularly effective with those Aquitanians already outraged by the ascetic conversions of women like Euchrotia and Procula, and perhaps it was only during Ithacius' residence in Gaul that the rumors of Priscillian's sexual relations with Procula were coupled with charges of abortion.[89] Priscillian "the magician" might well be thought to command a knowledge of abortifacient herbs, whose use was part of both the magician's and the physician's lore. And many Gallic Christians would readily believe that Priscillian the "Manichaean" secretly indulged in promiscuous sexual relations and condoned the use of contraception or abortion, while publicly exhorting Christians to live lives of continence.[90]

The triple charges of Manichaeism, sorcery, and sexual immorality are highlighted in Isidore's summary of Ithacius' Apology , which was probably written several years after Priscillian's execution, in the face of serious attacks on Ithacius' role in the civil process against Priscillian.[91] "Ithacius,


bishop of the Spains, famous in name and eloquence, wrote a certain book in apologetic form in which he demonstrates the cursed dogmas of Priscillian and his arts of sorcery and his disgraceful acts of lechery, showing that a certain Mark of Memphis, expert in the magic art, was the student of Mani and teacher of Priscillian."[92] Although some details, such as the introduction of the figure of Mark of Memphis, may have been added after Priscillian's death, the summary of Ithacius' Apology confirms the general impression of the nature of his anti-Priscillianist propaganda in Gaul in the years prior to Priscillian's trial and execution.

The charge officially under investigation at Bordeaux and initially at Trier as well was almost certainly Manichaeism, but accusations of sorcery and sexual immorality must also have been in the air from the start of the process at Trier. Severus reports that Martin of Tours, who was present in Trier during the early stages of Maximus' investigation, immediately feared that bloodshed would result from the civil process the emperor had initiated:

He did not cease to rebuke Ithacius, urging that he cease from his accusation, or to beg Maximus to refrain from shedding the blood of the unfortunate ones; he said that it was enough and more than enough that, judged heretical by episcopal decision, they should be thrown out of the churches, and that it was a new and unheard of evil for a secular judge to judge an ecclesial case.[93]

As noted, no emperor since Diocletian had threatened to punish Manichaeism with death, whereas death was commonly the penalty for various practices of sorcery. Martin must, then, have known or suspected that sorcery accusations would surface in the investigation at Trier, although he himself insisted that the question about Priscillian was essentially a question of orthodoxy and heresy, appropriately judged by bishops. According to Severus, his protests had some effect on Maximus. The emperor hesitated, neither canceling the civil investigation and convening a new council, as Martin seems to have urged, nor proceeding with the investigation. Finally, Martin left Trier with a promise from Maximus that he would shed no blood. Severus reports, however, that bishops by the names of Magnus and Rufus "corrupted" Maximus after Martin had left.[94]

It was perhaps at this point that Ambrose visited Trier and, despite his earlier coolness toward Priscillian, claimed to have angered Maximus by holding himself aloof from "the bishops who were in consultation with [Maximus] and were asking that certain persons, having admittedly strayed from the faith, be put to death."[95] As in his initial convening of the Council of Bordeaux, the emperor seems to have followed a policy of com-


promise. He allowed the trial to proceed but withdrew himself from direct participation, placing the new prefect Evodius in his place as judge. Ithacius also seems to have seen the wisdom in withdrawal, and he was replaced by the secular official Patricius, fisci patronus , as prosecutor.[96] The trial was probably redefined at this point explicitly as a trial for sorcery rather than heresy or Manichaeism.

Under questioning, and perhaps torture, Priscillian "did not deny that he had studied obscene doctrines, held nocturnal gatherings even of disgraceful women, and prayed naked."[97] All three of the confessions recorded by Severus could plausibly derive from some documented or at least probable activity of Priscillian; and at the same time, their vague yet suggestive wordings seemed to confirm the essentially false triple accusations of Manichaeism, sorcery, and sexual immorality. The ambiguous phrase "obscene doctrines" recalled the suspicions of unorthodoxy provoked by Priscillian's private and extracanonical reading and at the same time hinted at immoral behavior. "Nocturnal gatherings" could describe either ascetic vigils or magicians' rituals performed by the light of the moon, while the modifying phrase "of disgraceful women" evoked the sexual promiscuity commonly assumed to accompany the meetings of both magicians and Manichaeans.[98] Finally, the practice of "praying naked" may, as Henry Chadwick has suggested, relate to the council of Saragossa's prohibition against going with naked feet and derive from an ascetic practice that could also have been perceived to have magical significance;[99] when "naked feet" became simply "naked" and was conjoined with a confession to nocturnal meetings with women, the phrase again evoked graphic images of sexual immorality. The essential reliability of Severus' report that Priscillian was convicted by his own confessions is strengthened by Maximus' letter to Bishop Siricius of Rome, in which he records that certain "Manichaeans" have been convicted after confessing to deeds "so foul and disgusting" that he cannot repeat them without blushing and must instead refer the Roman bishop to the minutes of the trial.[100] In Rome in the late 380s, Augustine also heard about certain "Manichaeans" in Gaul who confessed to deviant sexual practices (which included eating semen, he implies); his informant may have derived his report from the minutes sent to Siricius.[101]

On the basis of his confessions, Priscillian was, then, convicted of maleficium , or sorcery. He was imprisoned, and Evodius referred the case to the emperor for the pronouncement of punishment. Maximus determined that Priscillian and his associates should be condemned to death, and Priscillian was subsequently executed by sword, along with two clergymen—Felicissimus and Armenius—and two laypeople—Euchrotia and the


Spanish poet Latronianus.[102] Euchrotia's death received particular notice from the outraged Gallic rhetorician Pacatus, who rails sarcastically against Maximus in his panegyric to Theodosius:

Do I speak of the deaths of men , when I recall that he descended to the blood of women and raged in peace against the sex wars spare? But undoubtedly there were serious and odious reasons that the wife of a famous poet was seized with the criminal's hook for punishment. For the widowed woman's excessive piety and overly diligent worship of divinity was alleged and even proven![103]

The sentiments of Pacatus' friend Ausonius were probably similar, though rather differently expressed in the understated congratulation offered to his former colleague Delphidius for a timely death that had enabled him to escape the ignominy of his wife's punishment.[104]


The local conflict at Merida stands at the beginning of the construction of Priscillian as a heretic. In the early 380s, the Meridan Christians appear to have been deeply divided over their self-definition as a community. The public liturgy and the hierarchy of ecclesiastical office provided the focus of communal identity for some. These Christians looked to Bishop Hydatius to embody their public definition of community and authority and, like him, were scandalized by the insubordinate men and women who implicitly challenged his leadership. Others defined the Christian community as the private gathering of men and women dedicated to Christ; they located authority primarily in the learning, eloquence, and exemplary life of the well-read ascetic teacher who might most appropriately be chosen to fill the office of bishop. These Christians looked to individuals like Priscillian to embody the authority of superior culture, talent, and discipline and, like him, were scandalized by the ignorant and worldly Christians who denied the legitimacy of his leadership.

The questions raised in the early stages of the controversy surrounding Priscillian were not easily answered, and the two perspectives persisted side by side for some time, championed with equal strength and tenacity within the Meridan community. Two developments ensued as the community searched for resolution to its internal conflict. First, labels were invoked in order to create consensus by associating the opponents with easily vilified enemies: hence, in an attempt to discredit both Priscil-


lian's learning and his asceticism, there arose the charge of Manichaeism and, some time later, the even more injurious accusation of sorcery. Second, the conflict moved beyond the boundaries of the local community, as both Hydatius and Priscillian sought to strengthen their own local prestige and credibility and weaken the position of their rivals by activating alliances with other leaders outside the community. This process of alliance and opposition between bishops and other elites proved difficult to limit or control, with the ultimate result that the Meridan dispute was settled by a usurping emperor who probably understood very little of the original source of disagreement.

As Priscillian sought the support of Christians in Aquitaine and Italy, his teachings as well as his personal influence seem to have tapped similar conflicts about the nature of community and authority among the Christians in those regions. There are indications that the local conflict may have run deep at Bordeaux. In 380, Delphinus was already concerned enough about the issues raised by Hydatius to cross the Pyrenees to attend the Council of Saragossa along with his neighbor Phoebadius. When Priscillian, Instantius, and Salvianus subsequently arrived in Bordeaux, he drove them out of town—a dramatic public act that may have been calculated to intimidate factions within his own community. Finally, we know that some of Priscillian's strongest support came from Euchrotia, a wealthy Christian woman of the well-educated circles of Bordeaux, who was eventually executed alongside Priscillian at Trier; some of the most virulent rumors were directed against her daughter Procula; and the most violent popular reaction against any of Priscillian's followers was directed against the well-born Urbica, who was stoned to death by a mob in Bordeaux. Clashes between the male-dominated public authority of office and the relatively ungendered private authority of education and aristocratic culture appear to have been central to the conflict in Bordeaux as in Spain.

In the more distant cities of Italy, the response to Priscillian seems to have been equally ambivalent, if less dramatically expressed. In Milan, Bishop Ambrose was unsupportive and the praetorian prefect, Gregory, prevaricated, while another powerful palatine official, the master of offices, Macedonius, finally procured for the Spanish bishops a rescript intended to prevent their persecution by Hydatius and his allies in Spain. In Rome, Priscillian seems to have had less success in winning support; Severus mentions only that the bishop refused to see him. In both Italian cities, as in Bordeaux, the opposition of bishops appears to reflect underlying conflicts in their own communities. I have suggested that Ambrose and Damasus responded negatively to Priscillian at least partly out of


awareness of their own vulnerability to similar charges and their own strong—and ultimately successful—personal interests in consolidating an episcopacy that would subsume the authority of the ascetic and learned teacher under a publicly defined authority of office.

For reasons that now seem impossible to recover, Priscillian's primary opposition in Spain shifted from Hydatius to Ithacius upon his return from Italy. With the entry upon the scene of Maximus as emperor, the focus of the conflict between Priscillian and his opponents similarly moved away from Spain again, and at the same time the labeling strategies of his opponents also seem to have shifted subtly. No longer, as in Merida, was the dispute carried out in a face-to-face community where accusations bore at least some remote resemblance to reality. In Gaul, Priscillian was an outsider, and Ithacius and his other detractors were correspondingly freer in their construction of a condemning portrait. The charge of Manichaeism was maintained, along with the issues of authority, education, and ascetic life that it evoked, and Priscillian was further used as an excuse to direct the charge of Manichaeism against problematic Gallic leaders such as Martin of Tours. But other accusations, with still less basis in fact, were also elaborated—namely, the charges of sorcery and sexual immorality.

Discomfort with the role of women in Priscillian's circle lent particular power to conventional charges of sexual immorality. In Spain, as early as the Council of Saragossa, there had been rumblings of unease with the mingling of the sexes and the lack of hierarchical distinction between men and women among Priscillianists and other ascetic Christians. Severus is probably conveying the views of Aquitanian contemporaries of Priscillian when he expresses similar discomfort at the mingling of ascetic men and women in Euchrotia's household and in the company that journeyed from Aquitaine to Italy. His work, together with Prosper's brief mention of the stoning at Bordeaux, documents strong disapproval of the behavior of particular Aquitanian women of prominence: Euchrotia, Procula, Urbica. Similarly, through the indirect medium of literary allusion, Ausonius casts aspersions on "Tanaquils" suspected of Priscillianist leanings. The private authority of women of wealth and social influence here stands in juxtaposition, not only to a narrowly public definition of authority, but also to the ambivalent attitudes of men like Ausonius and Severus, whose own lives and strategies of self-authorization located them ambiguously in relation to the public and private spheres.

The invocation of the label of sorcerer added an edge of violence to the message already implicit in the label of Manichaeism: Priscillian was an outsider, a dangerous manipulator of demonic forces, one completely


in opposition to the traditional virtues of Romans and Christians. When they succeeded in thus identifying Priscillian as a sorcerer, Ithacius and Hydatius did not merely achieve the death of a rival. They also constructed as private and subversive those models of community and leadership that competed with the particular public definition of church and office in which their own authority was embedded.


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