Coming to grips with late antique Christianity

Fifth-century mosaic from San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

I once heard an anecdote about a colleague who (I think) said that Constantine’s revisions of the imperial postal system were more significant than his conversion to Christianity. This may, in fact, be true, depending on how you define your terms. However, it is the case that, overall, coming to grips with Christianity will help you understand late antiquity better than knowing the imperial postal system.

If you begin with the Tetrarchy and Diocletian, you will need to have some grasp of who Christians are and why the Roman government disliked them for understanding the persecution.

If you begin earlier with the Third Century Crisis and are interested in Latin literature, the fact that we have so little Latin literature from the second century will throw you into the arms of Cyprian of Carthage and his letters.

Beginning with Constantine there is a conversion of the upper classes, and these are the people who produce or for whom are produced most of the stuff that survives from antiquity — fancy houses, poems, philosophical treatises. Their religion is thus not inconsequential. And they eventually do become Christians — we can learn about the last pagans of Rome (to cite the title of a book by Alan Cameron)

And if you are interested in Later Latin Literature, Christianity is all over the place. Some of the greatest poets of Late Antiquity write explicitly religious poetry. It would be a shame to study the world of late antiquity (to cite the title of a Peter Brown book) and miss out on Prudentius and the other Christian epicists. Likewise the Greek verse of Gregory of Nazianzus, or the sublime Syriac poetry of Ephrem and his luminous eye (to cite a Sebastian Brock title).

While the rise of western Christendom (to cite Peter Brown again) is a major feature of the study of the Mediterranean world in Late Antiquity (Averil Cameron this time), I admit one should be perspicacious. There is a lot to grapple with.

Consider the realm of texts: Augustine of Hippo is the ancient Latin author with the largest surviving corpus, for one thing. We have more Christian letter collections from Late Antiquity than the non-Christian ones from preceding centuries. Indeed, Christians love books — sermons, letters, poems, long theological tractates, canon law documents, apologies, polemics, biographies, hagiographies, liturgies, and so forth, flow forth in abundance in Late Antiquity in Latin, Greek, Syriac, and Coptic.

Material culture is also a big realm, from Spain and even Britain in the West to Mesopotamia in the East, the Roman Empire and its Persian neighbour has its fair share of physical remains, some of them the large, mosaic-encrusted churches of Ravenna, others the foundations of churches in Salamis on Cyprus. This is not to mention the myriad smaller objects of Christian origin — ivories, icons, Bibles, Bible covers, communion vessels, etc.

Moreover, Christianity is a complex phenomenon. Are we looking at the beliefs and writings and practices of the educated elite? What about the urban poor? What about different modes of belief amongst different Christian bodies? Bishops? Laypeople? Rome? Antioch? Nisibis?

In fact, there’s so much, whether you like Christianity or not, how could you help but take an interest in it if you’re interested in Late Antiquity?

4 thoughts on “Coming to grips with late antique Christianity

  1. honorthegodsblog

    Spent much of the last year immersed in Late Antiquity, studying the evidence for coercion in Christianization and the archaeology of religious violence. Became acquainted with Abbot Shenoute and his destruction of Hellenistic religious artifacts.

    Unfortunately, Christians didn’t love all books ; they burned or simply discarded as irrelevant the books they found incompatible with their beliefs, and we’ll never know what or how much was lost.

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    1. MJH Post author

      I would add nuance to the messy reality of ancient religious clashes — few books were actively destroyed (although people like Shenoute have always existed; Porphyry is a notable exception), most that are lost were not even discarded so much as neglected. And this was as much an economic consideration as a conscious decision — transferring a book from a papyrus scroll into a parchment codex (which is how most ancient literature survives) is costly in terms of materials and labour. What is noteworthy, then, is how much that is incompatible survives. Generally, in terms of active destruction of books, Christians were much more interested in destroying each other’s than those of the ‘pagans’.

      It is the messy realities that make Late Antiquity interesting, really — orthodox Christians in possession of gnostic texts, emperors ordering the destruction of certain pagan texts but the preservation of the physical remains of paganism because of artistic value, people like Shenoute who are anti-Hellenic, as opposed to the Cappadocian Fathers, those ‘Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church’ (to cite the title of Susanna Elm’s book). Jerome is uncomfortable being a Ciceronian, while Prudentius is clearly Vergilian. They copy Ovid, Virgil, Plato Latinus, Aristoteles Latinus, and even non-polemical works from anti-Christian writers such as Porphyry and the Emperor Julian. But then, when a Christian transgresses established boundaries, his works are consigned to fire and oblivion, so Evagrius survives either under another’s name or only in Syriac translation. But somehow Priscillian — who is much less interesting, in my opinion, than Evagrius — slips through!

      I am less versed in archaeology, but I know that it, too, is mixed. I heard a paper from one of the excavators at Aphrodisias that they preserved the temples and statues basically as art until an earthquake knocked everything down in the seventh century. But we have more than enough defaced ‘pagan’ statues to know that both pathways were taken.

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      1. honorthegodsblog

        I don’t think anyone can say whether more Christian writings or pre-Christian writings were destroyed, because some scrolls and books were destroyed by the owners, sometimes preemptively, to escape punishment. We also know of texts which were effaced to make material for copying works held to be of “greater value” at the time. There were also the works that were hidden or perhaps discarded, some of which have been discovered. Of course, some works were considered culturally important, necessary for education.

        I admit to being so shocked at the book burnings, though, that I had to set aside Rohmann’s “Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity” for a few days to process the despair.

        No matter what the regime or justification, the destruction of literary, scientific, philosophic, and artistic works is devastating to the soul of a culture.

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  2. MJH Post author

    “No matter what the regime or justification, the destruction of literary, scientific, philosophic, and artistic works is devastating to the soul of a culture.” — Indeed!

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