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Hagit Amirav: Authority and Performance. Sociological Perspectives on the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) (= Hypomnemata. Untersuchungen zur Antike und zu ihrem Nachleben; Bd. 199), Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2015, 233 S., ISBN 978-3-525-20868-7, EUR 79,99
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Rezension von:
Richard Price
Heythrop College, University of London
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Richard Price : Rezension von: Hagit Amirav: Authority and Performance. Sociological Perspectives on the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2015, in: sehepunkte 16 (2016), Nr. 3 [15.03.2016], URL:

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Hagit Amirav: Authority and Performance

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Eduard Schwartz, the great editor of the earlier volumes of the Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicum (a series now after a century approaching completion), lamented that conciliar acts were not read. They have always been used by church historians, now a dwindling band, but secular historians have generally ignored them. This is now changing. The current production of a series of English translations with commentary by the Liverpool University Press has certainly helped. A major role has been played by the distinguished Roman historian Fergus Millar, who has taken every opportunity to impress on colleagues and students alike that these texts, particularly the Acts of Ephesus I (431) and Chalcedon (451), provide a wealth of material, unequalled in the secular sources, about how politics and social interaction were conducted in the late antique world.

Hagit Amirav was one of his students, and has now produced this study of the Acts of Chalcedon, concentrating on the use of language, whether formulaic or not formulaic, of movement, of crowd manipulation and control, during the sessions of the council. After a long preliminary section on the historical context of the council and on general linguistic theory, Amirav discusses three of the sessions of the Council (I, II and VI), providing above all a lively and perceptive narration of the very full record of the first session. At a few points her analysis could be pushed further. The session included an extended reading from the Acts of the Second Council of Ephesus (449) to discredit Dioscorus of Alexandria, who had played the main role at Ephesus and was now on trial at Chalcedon. This incidentally revealed that a hundred bishops who had been at Ephesus and were now at Chalcedon had supported Dioscorus. They tried to excuse themselves by claiming that at Ephesus they had been subjected to compulsion. It is important to observe that this claim was found unconvincing and that these bishops were reduced to confessing, "We have all sinned, we all beg forgiveness" (Acts I. 183). Another point where Amirav could be supplemented is on the deposition at the end of the session not only of Dioscorus but of five other bishops. These five were included because they had been co-chairmen at Ephesus. At the ecumenical councils from the fourth till the seventh century there was never a single chairman; see my article in Annuarium Historiae Conciliorum 41 (2009). One of the best points that Amirav makes is that conciliar sessions involved conflict only incidentally: their intention was to achieve a literally unanimous consensus, and decisions were never taken by mere majority vote. The number of bishops condemned (if any) was a minimum, which is why the five additional bishops deposed at the end of the first session were later reprieved.

Incidentally Amirav provides a valuable supplement to the commentary by Price and Gaddis in the Liverpool series by treating more fully than they did the shape and character of the church (St Euphemia's) where the council was held (38-40), the political aims of the emperor Marcian, who convened the council and dominated its proceedings (55-60), and the identity and past careers of the state officials who chaired most of the sessions (93-8).

Regrettably, the book is marred by incidental mistakes. To mention just two of the more significant slips, on the basis (it appears) of an acclamation (Acts I. 31) we are told repeatedly that the empress Pulcheria patronized the miaphysite, Alexandrian faction, while Marcian supported the dyophysite, Roman and Oriental faction, anticipating the same division of roles between Theodora and Justinian a century later. But we know from the letters of Pope Leo that Pulcheria was firmly dyophysite and a staunch ally of Pope Leo. And the reader is told that Cyril of Alexandria's Twelve Chapters were read out at the second session of Chalcedon (41), when in fact they were read out neither at that session nor at any other; and this is not a mere detail, for it was the ignoring of this contentious text in favour of Cyril's more pacific utterances that gave Chalcedonian Christology its particular character. Such errors do not mar the overall argument of the book, but they may sap the reader's confidence.

All students of this material need also to ask more probingly why and how conciliar acts were compiled and published. Amirav thinks of them as an impartial record which "was a result of a careful process which involved comparing the versions of different scribes and reaching a consensual agreement over the final text" (47-8). But in fact the Acts of Chalcedon were produced by imperial notaries as propaganda for imperial policy. Fortunately, this did not mean that the opposition to the imperial will at several points in the proceedings was deleted from the record (though it was reduced in precision and extent), but it did mean that the purpose of the record was to stress that all disagreements had been ironed out and that the conciliar decrees enjoyed unanimous assent. It should also be noted that the acts of the great majority of the sessions of Chalcedon offer only a selective and greatly abbreviated account. In all, conciliar acts are not like modern parliamentary records (such as Hansard in England) which seek to record impartially what every member said. The questions of who was free to speak and what criteria determined which statements were included in the published acts have not yet received analysis for any of the early councils, and any such analysis must in part be speculative. The acts of these councils remain a record of unique value - for we have nothing comparable for any senatorial meetings - and historians should make more use of them. Amirav's book illustrates successfully how this can be done.

Richard Price