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Mapping the Christian Community: The Shifting Boundaries of Public and Private Spheres

The terms "public" and "private" have the advantage of a certain familiarity and intuitive comprehensibility. Thus, the general editor Georges Duby, in his foreword to the first volume of the History of Private Life , can avoid lengthy definitions of the private by simply appealing to the "obvious fact" that "at all times and in all places a clear, commonsensical distinction has been made between the public—that which is open to the community and subject to the authority of its magistrates—and the private."[20] Indeed, as terms of "ordinary discourse" evoking "unreflectively


held notions and concepts" that shape day-to-day lives,[21] "public" and "private" may not appear in need of interpretation at all. But it is doubtful whether the dichotomous categories with which so many operate are in fact either as universal or as transparently "commonsensical" as is sometimes claimed. Indeed, I would suggest that the public-private distinction is most fruitfully applied to the study of the Priscillianist controversy precisely because it is an artifact of the very Mediterranean cultures that shaped the terms of the late-ancient controversy. Having received its classic articulation in the works of Athenian philosophers, it became part of the cultural koine of hellenistic Greece and of Rome, whence it has seeped so deeply into Western consciousness that the dichotomous construct seems to reflect some "obvious" aspect of all social life. The public-private distinction remains useful as an analytical tool that resonates not only with our own habits of thought but also with the self-understanding of the late-ancient cultures with which we are concerned. But at the same time it is itself a cultural construct, which must be contextualized and interpreted in its particularity.[22]

Briefly summarized, the classical elaboration of the public-private distinction rests on the assertion that human society is typically organized into households and political states, social units that can be distinguished by group, function, physical space, and hierarchical relationship to one another. "The household is the community established by nature for all daily needs," writes Aristotle; it includes free men and women, children, slaves, and additional property required for the production of food, clothing, and other necessities of life. The political state, composed of all free male heads of households, provides an overarching structure that both unifies and subordinates these individual households, while serving as the locus of higher culture. Whereas the household supplies basic needs for living, the political state exists "for the sake of living well " and thereby constitutes the final cause and goal of all human social organization. It is in this sense that the human being—or more accurately, man —can be defined as "a political animal."[23]

The seemingly neutral and descriptive terms of this formulation should not obscure the fact that such a conceptualization of the public-private dichotomy crystallized within a very particular and highly charged context—namely, the fragile democratic polity of classical Athens. Articulated from a public, male perspective, the classical public-private distinction undergirded a political ideology that strained to defend the privileged status of public life by restricting public access to a limited group of male citizens, while at the same time weakening the pull of the private sphere on those men. As part of a publicly centered dis-


course, the public-private dichotomy inevitably constructed the private sphere as the realm of the "other," defined in relation to a public, political "self."

The political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain suggests that "politics is in part an elaborate defense against the tug of the private, against the lure of the familial, against evocations of female power."[24] Her statement illumines certain dynamics of ancient Greek texts, which frequently depict the quintessentially "familiar" and nurturing sphere of the household as paradoxically alien and threatening. Various rhetorical strategies of control and defense were pursued in relation to a private sphere thus construed. One strategy was to depict the private sphere as a microcosm of the political sphere, thereby transferring the explicitly articulated hierarchical relations of the political arena to the private sphere.[25] Such an approach reflected the universalizing impulses of male theorists for whom public life was the only life worth living. Additionally, it constituted an attempt to exert control over an arena in which social relationships could seem disturbingly fluid and vaguely defined in comparison with the articulate social structures of the public sphere. For the domestically centered private sphere did not always closely resemble a miniature patriarchal state. Rather, it constituted a social arena in which distinctions of gender and office carried relatively little weight in and of themselves; authority was calculated instead by a complex and flexible equation in which class, age, wealth, education, personal talent, and influence accrued within the networks of kinship and patronage relationships all factored significantly.

A second common strategy pursued by Greek political theorists was to represent the private sphere as a woman's world, downplaying any male connection.[26] This rhetorical ploy served to feminize and devalue domestic pursuits as trivial and "basic" in the interests of cultivating male loyalty to the state, while also addressing fears of women's power by symbolically compartmentalizing and diminishing its scope. Again, the gap between rhetoric and social experience here appears to widen, for however dim our view of the private sphere may be, it nevertheless seems clear that the household constituted an arena of shared male and female interest and participation.[27] There were, then, dual and somewhat contradictory distorting tendencies toward both the politicization and the feminization of the private sphere in the public discourse of classical antiquity, tendencies that persisted into late antiquity and beyond. The common thread was the insistence on the subordination of the private to the public sphere and of the female to the male, a theoretical move that established the fundamental hierarchies on which the internal ordering of the public sphere was


grounded. Thus the subordination of women to men was closely linked to, and indeed provided the foundation for, the construction of the public hierarchy of office.

This complex classical conceptualization of public and private proved remarkably tenacious. At the same time, the public-private dichotomy was significantly transformed, in rhetorical function at least, when transferred from the speeches of Athenian citizens to the rhetoric of the Latin-speaking provincials of the late Roman empire. By the fourth century of the common era, certain aspects of "private life" were receiving considerably more attention than in classical times,[28] whereas the "public sphere" had contracted into the machinery of a highly centralized and autocratic government, leaving a vast ambiguous social territory stretching between the household and the state. Criss-crossed by the networks of patronage and friendship, this expanse of late-antique social life, however hard to see from the perspective of the idealized public-private distinction, was nonetheless the central stage on which urban landowners, retired imperial officials, Christian ascetics, and bishops jostled for position.[29] The paradoxically liminal centrality of this social space gave particular weight to the implicit negotiations that ensued when speakers and writers invoked the categories of household and state, or private and public spheres. For invoke them they did, and with a rhetorical effect often seemingly enhanced rather than undercut by the imperfect correspondence between the classical formulation of the public-private dichotomy and the actual structures of late-ancient social life.

One pattern of late-antique appeal to the public-private distinction can be discerned in the rhetorical habits of the fourth-century western aristocrats who routinely wrote of their desire to avoid politics in preference for the life of otium , or leisure. This literary convention has often been interpreted as an indication of the moral decadence of the aristocracy; however, it is probably more helpfully read as a sign of the degree to which aristocratic identity and activity had come to be centered on private life, focused above all on the meticulous administration of relationships of patronage or friendship.[30] Such an emphasis by the elite on private life reflected in part the real exclusion of the traditional senatorial aristocracy from the governance of the empire, which under a ruler such as Valentinian I (364–75) was overwhelmingly dominated by a nonaristocratic imperial bureaucracy.[31] However, the rhetorical contrast of otium with officium , or political office, also created a misleading formal distinction, which masked the large overlap of public and private concerns and the continuing political influence of the aristocracy.[32] From the time of Gratian (375–83), the aristocracy regained significant influence over even the imperial


court, and by the fifth century the western aristocrats had again become the primary bearers of Roman tradition by virtue of an authority grounded, not primarily in political office, but rather in the more enduring private resources of landed wealth and patronage. In this sense, notes John Matthews, "the government of the western empire seems progressively in these years [of the late fourth and early fifth centuries] to fall from public into private hands."[33]

If elite writers of the late fourth century consistently appealed to the public-private distinction in a political situation in which distinctions between the public and the private were not, in fact, easily made, the pressing question becomes how this public-private rhetoric functioned. Indeed, published expressions of reluctance to take up public office often seem to invoke the public-private dichotomy only to further the entanglement of supposedly distinct spheres: ancient authors publicly praise the private life of otium precisely in order to demonstrate their peculiar fitness for political office. A privately centered sense of identity, however real and "sincere," functioned paradoxically to enhance the public status and career of one who thereby eluded accusations of a grasping or overweening ambition while presenting himself as superior to less restrained rivals.[34]

We here reach a point of significant contact with the Priscillianist controversy. My proposal is that Priscillian and his supporters, like other members of the western aristocracy to which some of them belonged, grounded their identities and their understandings of community and authority in the private sphere. They did not, however, thereby abandon their claims to status in the public sphere. Indeed, when Priscillian chooses to represent himself as a private person, it is in a rhetorical context shaped by the need to demonstrate his fitness for the office of bishop. At the beginning of his Apology , probably written shortly before his ordination to the episcopacy, Priscillian alludes to his former position in the world—a position "not obscure," he assures his readers—only in order to emphasize his rejection of such public "glory"; this renunciation is, however, clearly to be parlayed into still higher status in the Christian community.[35] In the closing lines of this same document, Priscillian hints that his opponents are to be seen as ambitious and grasping in their envious and slanderous attacks, by implied contrast with his own controlled and disinterested behavior. Intriguingly, at this very point he turns the tables and portrays his rivals—the bishops Hydatius and Ithacius—as men who are inappropriately mired in the private sphere, "pursuing domestic enmities [domesticas inimicitias ] under the name of religious matters."[36] This momentary negative privatizing of his opponents foreshadows Priscillian's subsequent readiness to defend his own claim to the episcopal office,[37]


while still consistently preferring to present himself in the private role of ascetic scholar and exegete.

A rather different strategy was pursued by Priscillian's opponents, who argued that it was precisely Priscillian's "privacy"—including his purported predilection for meeting in household space—that demonstrated the illegitimacy of his public role and indeed unmasked his true identity as a heretic or sorcerer. Here again a glance at patterns of social exchange and rhetorical practice outside the ecclesiastical context may prove suggestive for our understanding of how appeals to the public-private distinction functioned in late-ancient Christian polemics. Peter Brown maps the high incidence of sorcery accusations brought by members of the late-fourth-century imperial bureaucracy against "the holders of ambiguous positions of personal power . . . based largely on skills, such as rhetoric, which, in turn, associated the man of skill with the ill-defined, inherited prestige of the traditional aristocracies."[38] Imperial officials, functioning as members of a highly fractured elite, seem to have attacked rivals outside the bureaucracy by drawing the boundaries of the public sphere in such a way as to delegitimate the social influence exercised by traditionally educated elites. The Antiochene rhetorician Libanius, for example, could be discredited by being represented as a private individual who influenced events in the public sphere only by the illegitimate wresting of power involved in invoking the "magic" of words; by this means, the rhetorician was accused of sorcery.[39] Brown suggests that such sorcery accusations "reach[ed] a peak at a time of maximum uncertainty and conflict in the 'new' society of the mid-fourth century" and subsided when stability was reestablished in subsequent centuries.[40] They can thus be read as indicators of levels of social and political instability.

The tense rivalry between the fourth-century bishop Hydatius and the ascetic scholar Priscillian echoes the uneasy competition of the imperial bureaucrat with the pagan rhetorician and aristocrat. Within the fourth-century church, as within secular society, both "systems of power"[41] were momentarily held in balance during a period of transition and uncertainty, as church and empire struggled to absorb the impact of the fundamental political, social, spiritual, and cultural shifts traditionally associated with the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine. Confronted by the "disturbing intangibles"[42] of private-sphere authority and the more informally negotiated relationships characteristic of the Priscillianist Christians, the opponents of Priscillian—much like the imperial officials studied by Brown—claimed to have detected an imbalance in the relationship of public and private, thereby justifying the need to reestablish the dominance of the public sphere by asserting their own authority. Their attacks


on Priscillian followed conventions of polemical rhetoric, which in turn reflected the underlying biases and anxieties shaping public attitudes toward the private sphere. They portrayed the Priscillianist Christians as anarchic or rebellious, members of a subversive and immoral secret society who not only disdained the authority of public office but also ignored the fundamental hierarchy of genders. In this manner, Priscillian's opponents implicitly transferred the structures and values of the political sphere to the realm of private life, and by these standards judged the Priscillianists lacking. Depicting Priscillian as a seducer of women, they furthermore exploited threatening images of women's power, while at the same time trivializing the ascetic movement as "effeminate."

Ultimately, such arguments were successful in defining the followers of Priscillian as dangerous deviants. This success in part reflects the effectiveness of the more aggressive rhetorical strategy pursued by Priscillian's opponents; moreover, the polemical campaign drew strength from a faint yet significant correspondence between actual social dynamics and the stereotypes of subversion. Eventually, the progressive overlapping of spheres traced by Matthews in the secular arena contributed to the resolution of the western ecclesiastical conflict in a manner perhaps more in line with the blurred representation of public and private implicitly favored by Priscillian. But the late fourth century was a period of ecclesiastical history characterized more by an awareness of problematic disjunction than by an acknowledgement of the convergence of public and private structures of authority, and a particular rhetoric of opposition was to prevail before the subsequent reassimilation of public and private forms of authority could take place.

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