Van Nuffelen, Peter

Research Project
Ritualised Communication in Late Antiquity and The Letters of the Emperor Julian

Traditionally, the nature and the functioning of the later Roman state is defined with reference to its administrative machinery and law-making, thus generating the impression of a pseudo-modern bureaucratic state. The public exercise of power and the values expressed in it are then understood as ›representation‹ and ›ideology‹. The present project argues that we should take this public aspect seriously and proposes to study how power was exercised, disputed, gained and lost in public interaction between ruler and subject. Focusing on three phenomena, public petitions, processions, and riots, the project seeks to demonstrate that public ›rituals‹ mediated the communication between hierarchically superior and inferior, that is, for example, between emperor and subject, governor and subject, bishop and his flock. These rituals inscribed meaning in public space and generated a set of meaningful acts, which in turn could be exploited in spontaneous ›mirror rituals‹ by the people. Finally, the project argues that this communication was strongly morally valued: ritualized behaviour referred to, and interacted with, a public morality, that is, a set of rules and expectations to which the ruler had to adhere on the peril of losing his subjects’ sympathy. In such a
perspective, the traditional scholarly distinction between the exercise of power and an ideology that legitimises that power can be said to be misleading.

The letters of the emperor Julian, the so-called Apostate (A.D. 361-363), are a unique source for his policies and personality. At the same time, they present important problems: there never seems to have existed a single collection and many a letter may have circulated individually; many forgeries are to be found amongst the letters and it is often disputed if a letter is authentic; often used as historical sources, the letters have rarely been situated in the context of the rhetorical or epistolographical practice of late Antiquity. The present project combines a literary (L. Van Hoof) and a historical (P. Van Nuffelen) approach to produce an integrated study of the letters. Its aim is two-fold. On the one hand, the genesis and development of the ›collection‹ is to be revisited. This can only be understood against the background of competing stereotypical images of Julian in pagan and Christian circles, which explain the creation of forged letters from a very early date onwards. On the other hand, the individual letters need to be understood as rhetorically constructed, literary artifacts. In the ›collection‹ they are forced into a certain context, thus risking generation of a biased impression. Set in their literary and social context, their meaning may be different from what
it seems to be at first sight.

Selected Publications

Van Nuffelen, P. 2004. Un héritage de paix et de piété. Étude sur les Histoires ecclésiastiques de Socrate et de Sozomène (Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 142). Leuven – Paris – Dudley (MA): Peeters.

Mitchell, S. and P. Van Nuffelen (eds.) 2010. One God. Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire (1st-4th cent. A.D.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Van Nuffelen, P. 2011. Rethinking the Gods. Philosophical Readings of Religion in the Post-Hellenistic Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Van Nuffelen, P. 2012. Orosius and the Rhetoric of History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van Nuffelen, P. 2012. »Playing the ritual game in Constantinople under the Theodosian dynasty« in L. Grig and G. Kelly (eds.): Two Romes: from Rome to Constantinople. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 183-200.