Sunday, October 6, 2019


Callie Callon, Reading Bodies: Physiognomy as a Strategy of Persuasion in early Christian Discourse. Library of New Testament studies, 597. London; New York: T & T Clark, 2019. Pp. 173. ISBN 9780567684387. $114.00.

Reviewed by Phillip J. Webster, Williams College (

Version at BMCR home site


In this book, Callon makes the case that broader studies in ancient physiognomy have not been applied to early Christian texts. Her goal is demonstrate the presence and effects of physiognomic reasoning in early Christian texts of rhetorical persuasion.

After reviewing the logic of ancient physiognomy and the scholarship on it in the first chapter, Callon examines the ways in which early Christian authors deployed physiognomy against alleged heretics and apostates (Chapter 2), used it to promote Christians as fulfilling—or being encouraged to fulfil—moral ideals as manifest in the body's comportment and appearance (Chapter 3), and relied on it in depicting the piety of Christian martyrs (Chapter 4). In the final chapter (Chapter 5), Callon considers the surprising emphasis of some early Christian authors on Jesus' physical unattractiveness and addresses how such a tradition intersected with the logic of ancient physiognomy.

The book is not meant to be an exhaustive treatment of physiognomics in early Christianity. Callon notes that she only has limited discussion of astrological, zoological, or ethnographic forms of physiognomy, since early Christian authors rarely deployed those types of physiognomic reasoning. Nevertheless, she covers a wide range of texts and authors. For example, in Chapter Two alone, she looks at Simon Magus as depicted in Acts of Peter; the followers of Valentinus as depicted by Tertullian and Irenaeus; Arius as depicted by Constantine and Epiphanius, Pelagius and Jovinianus as depicted by Jerome, two of Ambrose of Milan's clergy, or would-be clergy, and Julian "the Apostate" as depicted by Gregory of Nazianzus.

The book reads as a very direct translation of a dissertation. Its argument and analysis are clean, crisp, and largely convincing, but its focus and payoff are quite narrow. Callon nicely highlights and interprets the presence of physiognomic signs in early Christian texts, but, in these interpretations, she largely avoids considering the wider systems of thought and power that made ancient physiognomic rhetoric intelligible and effective.

There is much to commend in the book. It is a useful guide for interpreting what perhaps would otherwise seem to be either gratuitous references to the physical appearance of persons (e.g., "ruddy cheeks") or peculiar admonitions regarding comportment and appearance (e.g., instructions on laughing properly) in early Christian texts. If we see such references, Callon warns us to pay attention. Physical descriptions oftentimes had precise physiognomic meanings about the person's character—ruddy cheeks meant a "maidenly modest blush or a youth of robust composition," unless they referred to "an individual who imbibed too much liquor" (147). Laughter, on the other hand, could signal a lack of self- control or an unrestrained self (93). In this way, Callon presents ancient physiognomics as a type of ancient code, with her book (among others) providing the keys to unraveling the secret meanings of references to bodily appearance. If one come across a passage that gives seemingly unnecessary details about a person's appearance or instructions regarding appearance, I heartedly recommend referring to this book to find out either what that reference meant, or at least where to go to find out what it might have meant.

The Introduction serves as a useful primer on ancient physiognomy, providing the reader with a good understanding of its scope and pervasiveness as well as a sense of the major scholarship. A fuller review of the four physiognomic handbooks surviving from antiquity would have been useful, but Callon's attention to physiognomy as a rather diffuse practice of knowledge that extended far beyond its depiction in the extant handbooks helpfully highlights the regular presence of physiognomy well outside the confines of the handbooks.

Callon explains that physiognomic rhetoric was particularly appealing in situations of persuasion. Since physiognomy was considered to be a technical art, it could be used to produce authoritative knowledge (even if, as Callon notes, not everybody fully believed in physiognomy). Vilifying a person's appearance was not, therefore, merely an ad hominem attack, it was (allegedly) technical knowledge about the person's character. Christians could therefore try to use it as an objective measure for delegitimizing opponents or praising insiders.

In Chapter Two, "The Physiognomy of a Heretic: Physiognomic Polemic as a Component of Persuasion in Demarcating' Insiders' and 'Outsiders,'" Callon argues that studies of heresy have yet to pay enough attention to the rhetorical effects of physiognomic reasoning in arguments against "heretics" and "apostates." She demonstrates the physiognomic meanings and effects of, for example, descriptions of voice, gait, ethnographic appearance (as used against Simon Magus); gait (as used against Valentinus); and simply negative physical description (as used against Arius). This chapter is the book's clearest articulation of how attention to physiognomic reasoning can help us read ancient texts better.

In Chapter 3, "The Physiognomy of the (Ideal) Early Christian," Callon connects early Christian prescriptions for self- comportment, especially as found in Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Jerome, Ambrose of Milan, and Basil, with physiognomic principles to show how bodily comportment could have been an effective means for displaying moral superiority. Callon's aim is to draw attention to "the role that physiognomic thought played in these early Christian groups' rhetoric of self-definition, self-presentation, and their claims of superiority over their contemporaries as a component of persuasion to visually demonstrate this superiority" (80). This chapter and the next both exemplify the need to integrate physiognomic reasoning into wider issues of bodily appearance and representation. Callon tries to stay focused on physiognomy alone, but, as I think this chapter itself shows, physiognomy was inextricably tied to broader dynamics of bodily appearance.

Chapter 4, "The Physiognomy of a Martyr," examines how physiognomic rhetoric unfolds in the special case of representations of Christian martyrs. While recognizing the amount of work that has been done on the adjacent topic of the gendered representation of the bodies in Christian martyr texts1, especially on the Martyrdom of Polycarp and on the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, Callon seeks both to supplement that work as well as attend to the understudied issues of bodily representation in the Martyrs of Lyons, The Martyrdom of Pionius, and in Eusebius's On the Martyrs of Palestine. So, for example, while Callon notes that "the masculinization of Polycarp" has "been copiously discussed" and even "the role of physiognomic thought" in portraying this, she draws attention to the description of Polycarp's upward look during his final prayer. Against the view that this gaze would have been a "sign of impudence" as Robin Lane Fox argued, she notes that "an upward gaze toward the heavens or sky had a broad cultural understanding as a gesture of piety (regardless of which deity was being appealed to) from the Hellenistic period and beyond" (119). This kind of correction exemplifies much of the work in this and other chapters. It is a good reading and a fair corrective to previous interpretations, but, on its own, does little to alter or improve our overall assessment of this or other texts.

The fifth and final chapter, "'He Had Neither Form Nor Beauty': The Physiognomic Curiosity of the Negative Descriptions of the Physical Appearance of Jesus," examines the seemingly paradoxical early Christian tradition (and promotion of) a "physically unappealing Jesus." Noting both that early Christians were sometimes mocked because of this tradition and that early Christians themselves sometimes "mocked adherents of the Greco-Roman cults for the occasional unflattering physical presentation of these deities" (133), Callon explores the rhetorical benefits for some early Christians, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria, in drawing from the account of a homely Jesus. In one of my favorite parts of the book, Callon suggests that the traditions of an ugly Jesus might have been intended to draw a contrast between Jesus and the beautiful Antinoos, Hadrian's deified lover.

The presence and function of physiognomy in early Christian texts has been understudied, and Callon shows its presence and relevance in multiple genres of early Christian writing. Her reading of the primary texts is fine, and she regularly points to details missed by others (and occasionally corrects minor misreadings on the basis of these observations). That said, the way she frames her study of physiognomic rhetoric in early Christian texts has the unfortunate effect of understating physiognomy's importance for the study of early Christianity. As she notes, many physiognomic signs were ambiguous, meaning that we have to understand the general meaning of the text before interpreting the meaning of the physiognomic signs in the text. This leaves us in the position of seeing physiognomy as secondary, unable, on its own, to convey much meaning, either in antiquity or today.

On the other hand, many physical descriptions of bodies have such clear valence that specialist knowledge of physiognomy hardly seems necessary. For example, when discussing Eusebius's Martyrs of Palestine, Callon tell us:

In his longer recession of the work, Eusebius takes the time to itemize a host of flattering physical details about many of the martyrs he writes of: you men "perfect in stature and brave in person" turned themselves in as Christians [Mart. Pal., 10], Domninus was "tall of stature and handsome" and followed by three young men "of fine stature" [Mart. Pal. 24] . . . and Seleucus "surpassed most men in stature by the size of his person and his prowess. His appearance, too, was very handsome" [Mart. Pal., 43]. In the shorter recension, Eusebius includes even more praise of Seleucus's physical appearance: 'In stature and bodily strength, and size and vigor, he far excelled his fellow soldiers, so that his appearance was a matter of common talk, and his whole form was admired on account of its size and symmetrical proportions" (128).

Do we need, for example, in these instances to be told that, "Tallness was a prized physiognomic trait, as was having symmetrical proportions" (128) to know that these are positive descriptions of the people in question? Callon is right to note the presence of physiognomic reasoning here, and even in tying descriptions of height and symmetry to character. By failing to connect ancient physiognomic practices, on the one hand, with a broader economy of the visibility of ancient moral and religious subject positions, or, on the other hand, with ancient ideas regarding the soul's material relation to the body, Callon's study unfortunately makes too many of her keen observations seem trivial.

Nevertheless, the book is a handy guide for learning about physiognomy and its place in early Christian rhetoric. It offers a useful overview of many of the physiognomic conventions and how they were put to use by early Christians for the purposes of persuading their audiences, whether for or against somebody. Callon gives us a needed reminder that seemingly unnecessary references to bodily appearance and comportment were meaning-laden signs of character. For readers unfamiliar with the "physiognomic consciousness" in antiquity, it is a good source for starting the process of decoding physiognomic meaning.


1.   E.g., Karl Olav Sandnes, Early Christian Discourses on Jesus' Prayer at Gethsemane. Leiden: 2016; Matthiji den Dulk and Andrew Langford, "Polycarp and Polemo: Christianity at the Centre of the Second Sophistic," in The History of Religions School Today. Tübingen, 2014, 211-40; Stephanie Cobb, Dying to be Men. New York, 2008. ​

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.