The beauty of Roman law and the Latin language
Gregory Thaumaturgus (the “wonder-worker,” from the Greek θαυματουργός, thaumatourgos) was born into a wealthy pagan family in around 213 CE, in Neocaesarea, Pontus (modern day Niksar, Turkey). Most of our information about him comes from what other Christian authors such as Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History VI.30, VII.14), Jerome (On Illustrious Men LXV, LXX.4), and Gregory of Nyssa (Life of Gregory Thaumaturgus; composed in around 379 CE) tell us, but it seems that having originally been named Theodore, he took the name Gregory after his conversion and baptism, and received his initial education in law and rhetoric in Neocaesarea. Subsequently, when he was just about to leave for Berytus in Phoenicia (modern day Beirut) with his brother to finish his studies, his sister’s husband became imperial governor of Palestine, and so he went to Caesarea in Palestine upon their invitation and studied under Origen for a number of years. Several years later, he was granted the position of bishop of his home town of Neocaesarea (see Johannes Quasten, Patrology, p. 123-124). Gregory is still relatively little known, however, and much about him remains the subject of debate among scholars due to our information being largely from external sources, particularly the dates of his major life events and the authenticity of some of his writings, which each bear an individual transmission history, and do not seem to have been collected together in any ancient corpus (see Michael Slusser, “Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus,” p. 573).
The present text (known in older scholarship as the Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen) was apparently delivered upon Gregory’s departure from Palestine in praise of his teacher, Origen. There is some debate, however; Pierre Nautin was a major critic of the notion that this work was in fact composed by Gregory, and instead attributes it to another student of Origen, a so-called “Theodore” (see his Origène, and for a detailed summary of his theory and its reception in later scholarship, Slusser, “Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus,” p. 574-577). More recently, scholars such as Christoph Markschies and Stephen Mitchell have countered Nautin’s claims, and it is still widely accepted that the Address of Thanksgiving to Origen can be attributed to Gregory (see Markschies, Origenes und sein Erbe, p. 59, n. 111; Mitchell, “The Life and Lives of Gregory Thaumaturgus,” p. 101, n. 11).
In the present passage, Gregory laments that his mind is struggling with the weight of learning Roman laws, which are composed in Latin rather than Greek. The Roman colony of Berytus, where Gregory studied, was the centre for the learning of Roman law in the eastern provinces (on Berytus, see Fergus Millar, “The Roman Coloniae”). In fact, it is Gregory who first refers to Berytus as a major centre of Latin learning in argument V of the present text. The increasing importance of Roman law in the education of eastern provincials in the latter half of the third century CE is also exemplified in Menander the Rhetor, II.397.17-20: “You will be your city’s champion in courts of law, in speakers’ contests, on embassies and in literary rivalry” (see Malcolm Heath, Menander: A Rhetor in Context, p. 277-321). In the fourth century, Libanius even complained about the sheer number of talented students sent to the law school in Berytus, claiming that they were neglecting the study of Greek rhetoric in favour of learning Latin in order to advance in the imperial service (see Oration LXII.21-23).
Gregory speaks highly of the intellectual complexity of Roman law and the wise men responsible for creating it. Despite the linguistic difference, Gregory compares the character of Roman law to the laws of the Greeks (they are “most thoroughly Grecian, Ἑλληνικώτατοι Hellēnikōtatoi”). He does not elaborate on precisely what he means by this, but from his preceding description of the Roman laws in the same sentence, his comparison is based upon the exactness (ἀκριβής, akribēs) of the laws and the wisdom (σοφός, sophos) involved in creating them. Moreover, Gregory praises the eloquence of the “Roman tongue” (the Latin language), which he views as perfectly fitting with the imperial regime (the term “royal authority” implying a high regard for the Roman government and its legitimacy), despite being difficult to master for a student such as himself.
In his French translation of this passage, Henri Crouzel renders the Greek term σύγκειμαι (synkeimai) as “concilier” (reconcile), but it can also mean either “compare” or “compose” (as in the above translation) in addition to describing something which is agreed upon by two parties (see Michael Slusser, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, p. 92). Crouzel’s translation, therefore, conveys more strongly that Roman laws are not simply written, but undergo a process of discussion before reaching their final form. Indeed, the fact that Gregory connects in this sentence the difficulty found in learning Roman laws, as well as composing them, emphasises the fact that they are not rudimentary, simplistic rules invented without thought, but are the product of a complex process undertaken by the wisest, most learned men. For Joseph Modrzejewski, the discussion of Roman law in this passage evidences its prevalence since the 212 CE edict of Caracalla (the Constitutio Antoniniana), which granted Roman citizenship to virtually all the free peregrine inhabitants of the empire, meaning that provincials formally without Roman citizen rights were granted this privilege. Modrzejewski argues that Gregory’s discussion is also indicative of the degree to which provincial local laws protected by Roman authority had persisted until 212, with the task of now having to take the time to learn numerous Roman laws in Latin proving a significant challenge even to a trained intellectual such as Gregory (see “Grégoire le Thaumaturge et le droit romain,” p. 321-322).
Gregory’s view of Roman law, as a student who had converted from paganism to Christianity, is very notably different from that presented by another third century pagan convert, Arnobius of Sicca, who in his Against the Pagans II.67-68 and VI.26 condemns Roman law as ineffective and only necessary due to the excessive criminality and impiety of the Roman people. Gregory’s intentions in his writing here, of course, are very different from those of Arnobius, who sought to prove his loyalty to Christianity to a cynical bishop by harshly critiquing his former pagan beliefs, and links Roman law specifically with the gods (see the discussion in the commentaries on the abovementioned passages). Gregory’s intentions here are to praise the virtues of education, and in this sense, his admiration for Roman law comes from his appreciation of its intellectual complexity—unlike Arnobius, he has no need here to condemn Roman culture in an attempt to prove himself a worthy convert. His situation was of course also very different in that his brother-in-law was a Roman governor. Interestingly, during Gregory’s episcopate in Neocaesarea, which commenced after he had given the present address to Origen in Palestine, he witnessed the breakdown of law and order in Pontus which came with the Gothic invasions of the 250s, and made clear his disgust at the disregarding of social order by local citizens who engaged in atrocities during the chaos (see the commentary on his Canonical Epistle VII for a condemnation of Christian involvement in the violence).
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