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Gregory of Nazianzus' De vita sua (Poema 2.1.11): Tragedy's Emotion and Historiography

Suzanne Abrams-Rebillard

Gregory of Nazianzus (329–390 CE) asks in his diatribe against the dead emperor Julian: "Who might grant me the erudition and tongue of Herodotus and Thucydides, in order that I pass on to
future times his malignance and inscribe on a stele for posterity these events?"(Discourse 4.92)
Yet he does not follow in Herodotus' or Thucydides' prosaic footsteps; and it is not in his orations
or letters that he writes most explicitly as historian or historiographer, but in his poetry. Gregory's
self-acknowledged classicism has been a focus of recent scholarship in Elm, contributions in
Beeley, Faulkner, Besharasvili, and Prudhomme; but while these studies have revealed the
complexity of his literary accomplishment, particularly in light of his theology, as Lieggi's, they
rarely, excepting Abrams Rebillard and Trisoglio, consider his literary projects as
historiographical. I argue that in his monumental De vita sua, Gregory echoes Classical tragedy to
exemplify the historiographical principles outlined in the poem's proem, thereby portraying
emotional verse as ideally suited to his humanistic purpose for historical writing.

De vita sua is comprised of 1945 iambic trimeters, like a terrifically long messenger speech. It
recounts the major events of Gregory's life, but three quarters of it is devoted to his two years of
political strife as Nicene bishop of Constantinople (379–381 CE; lines 556–1945). Jungck argues
the poem defies generic identification (27); but its historical purpose is clear in the fifty-line
proem: "Why I undertook to bequeath this to the ages (since vain lengthy rhapsodizing displeases
me), let all hear, my contemporaries and posterity."(40–43) The opening sentence claims
Gregory's intent is to "explore the path of my ills, or maybe my blessings; they seem the former
to some, the latter to others, depending, I believe, upon their inclination. But surely proclivity is
weak grounds for judgment."(1–5) The proem characterizes the historical project as moral and
emotional, and requiring verbal control.

This is exemplified at seven key moments in De vita sua where Gregory punctuates his entrance
into the narrative in his authorial voice with allusions to emotional moments of moral questioning
in Sophocles' Ajax, Philoctetes, and Antigone. For example, before telling how his father forced
him into the priesthood, the betrayal that begat all his ills, Gregory writes: "Do not vaunt, to put it
simply, being mere man [Μηδὲν μέγ᾿ εἴπῃς] ... consider my story."(333, 336) This echoes Ajax
386, when Ajax proposes revenge against Odysseus, Agamemnon and Menelaus for their
betrayal; the Chorus demands of Ajax, "Do not vaunt; don't you see you're in trouble [Μηδὲν μέγ’
εἴπης ... ]?" To whose story does Gregory direct us in line 336 -- his own, Sophocles', or Ajax's?
Poet, tragedian, historical actor, and mythical figure overlap. Another example is when Gregory
describes the sun breaking through the clouds upon his installment as bishop in Constantinople
(νέφους ὑποδραμόντος ἡλίου κύκλον [1354]); it resembles Antigone 416, where the guard
describes the sun before a dust devil masked Antigone's approach to Polyneice's corpse (μέσῳ
κατέστη λαμπρὸς ἡλίου κύκλος). Gregory's story, and the allusion, is introduced by his address to
the poem itself: "O my book, you proclaim to this life / lest posterity forget grace of such
magnitude."(1351–2) Again we see an intertwining of poet writing history, tragedian, historical
actor, and mythical figure, while natural phenomena highlight human conflict.

Uniting these voices with his own poetic voice, Gregory telescopes history, myth, and his own
experience to focus on the dilemmas and emotions that drive events. The allusions support his
questionably objective authority with Sophocles' and enhance his portrayal of emotion. Emotion,
for Gregory, is the stuff of history because it is essentially human, not limited by one's times; and
given that "the language of emotion ... is the language of tragedy" (Strauss, 8), Gregory turns to
tragedy as his ideal historical model.

Session/Panel Title

Historia Proxima Poetis: The Intertextual Practices of Historical Poetry

Session/Paper Number


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