Peter Brown on Christianization, Part II: Narratives of Christianization

The previous post (very) briefly introduced the historian Peter Brown and offered a summary of a lecture by him on Constantine I and Eusebius of Caesarea. In it, Brown asked what the horizons of possibility were for the two men regarding Christianization. This sense of the horizons of possibility changed during the course of the fourth century. The fact that Brown felt he needed to clarify what was distinctive about the Constantinian age and its hopes indicates something about how later history and later narratives were afterwards projected onto earlier times within the same century, making it difficult to see the world of the early- and mid-fourth century for what it was apart from these narratives. What can be said about the history that resists being assimilated by the narrative of Christianization we have inherited today?

The Problem of Christianization

In “Christianisation: Narratives and Process”, the first essay of his short book, Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianization of the Roman World (New York: Cambridge, 1997), Brown asks this very question. Today, when asked what “Christianization” is or was, we would tend to define it as overcoming “the weight of the pagan past within [what was then] the Christian present” [xi] — and we tend to define it this way regardless of what our religious commitments are. Soon after opening his essay, Brown announces that

the notion that a relatively short period (from the conversion of Constantine, in 312, to the death of Theodosius II, in 450) witnessed the ‘end of paganism’; the concomitant notion that the end of paganism was the natural consequence of a long-prepared ‘triumph of monotheism’ in the Roman world; and the tendency to present the fourth century AD as a period overshadowed by the conflict between Christianity and paganism — all this amounts to a ‘representation’ of the religious history of the age that was first constructed by a brilliant generation of Christian historians, polemicists and preachers in the opening decades of the fifth century. By means of this representation, Christian writers imposed […] a firm narrative closure on what had been, in reality, […] a ‘Wavering Century’. [4]

As before, Brown reminds us that 4th- and 5th- century Christians presented the Christian-pagan conflict “as having been fought out in heaven rather than on earth.” [4-5] Exorcism was the lens: the gods passed from regions just as demons left the bodies of the possessed, both restoring health. The passing of the gods was a narrative that pagans could also tell — they would retreat to heaven, offended by so much blasphemy. [6] (The pagan regard for Christians might not even be this dramatic. In the curse tablet recovered from the shrine of Sulis Minerva in Bath, a man asked the goddess for the return of stolen coins from the thief, “whether man or woman, slave or free, […] whether a Gentile or a Christian, whomsoever” [3]. To this pagan, Christianity merely introduced another group, over whom the goddess held sway.) Unlike the simple passing away of the gods, and the corresponding rapid transformation of societal habits through the leavening of a new religious group, Christianization at the very least lacks immediacy — if it is not, in fact, endless.

Altogether, we tend to approach the problem of Christianization as a matter of charting the impact of Christian belief and practice on the whole range of late antique religion and society. We tend to ask, ‘What difference did Christianity make?’ […] Christianization, if it happened at all, must be a slow process, doomed to incompleteness […] [like] “[a] state which is always receding, like full employment or a garden without weeds.” [7]

Ramsay MacMullen is the one to propose this question, “What difference did Christianity make?” (Brown cites him in an early footnote.) MacMullen’s presentation of this question about Christianization:

The point (or at any rate my point) is rather to discover how broad patterns of secular life changed as a result of the population being now believers. Inquiry promises interesting results because Christianity is known to us as a religion, along with Judaism and certain others, that offers powerful prescriptions for living this secular life. There is a Christian morality, in short; and the introduction of the new faith should thus have had historical impact. [“What Difference did Christianity Make?”, Historia, 35 (1986), 322]

MacMullen is clear: we need to see “Christians not just talking but doing; and it must show them in some opposition to evidently accepted standards” [“Difference”, 324], because “if we cannot demonstrate doing as a consequence of reading, we have reduced the whole of moral literature to the compass of a pastime.” [“Difference”, 323] After looking at the fourth century record of sexual norms, slavery, gladiatorial shows, judicial penalties, and corruption, with the first through third centuries in full view for potential contrast, MacMullen concludes that “society was in fact very far from completely converted” [“Difference”, 338], and that “[i]f we look to deeds […] and try to see patterns of action in the population at large that clearly reflect Christian preaching, we are hard put to find anything very significant.” [“Difference”, 342]

Brown is addressing what MacMullen, and we, assume about what Christianization must mean. In a language MacMullen might not use, this is Christianization as “a slow, heroic struggle on earth against the unyielding, protean weight of an unconverted ancient world” [26]: Brown would “like to step aside from this way of looking at the problem of Christianization” [7], following a cue set by Robert A. Markus [16], to ask what Christianization would have meant to fourth- and fifth-century Christians, and what the measure of success would be to them.

Christianization and the Heavens (& the Earth)

When we “look up into the sky”, we “tend […] to find it empty. We no longer see there a mundus, a physical universe as heavy as a swollen cloud […] with the presence of invisible beings.” [8] Pagans saw the world, “the visible universe, pulsing with the energy of life eternal” [8, citing the Consultationes Zacchae et Apollonii]. The world was a cascade of divinities, emanating from the One, the “highest divine power”, whose “benevolence” is “enjoyed […] largely through a host of lower spirits, who brushed the earth with their ministrations.” [9] Lay Christians would engage these lower gods by magical or other means, even at the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth century, often enough at the encouragement of Christian holy men, who were taken to be “best informed […] about the turbulent lower reaches of the mundus.” [10] The Egyptian Shenoute of Atripe recounts one such case of a provincial governor wearing a jackal’s claw on his right toe [10]. The High God was far away, and the lower gods were here, presiding over the day-to-day affairs of the mundus, the world. (This attitude is attested centuries later in Byzantium. [18]) Augustine spells this out, in a sermon in Carthage on the Psalms:

There are those who say: ‘God is good […] it is He who will give us eternal life and […] the resurrection. But these things of the physical world and of our present time […] belong to the daemones [i.e., the lower gods].’

They leave aside God, as if these things did not belong to Him; and by sacrifices, by all kinds of healing devices, and by the expert counsel of their fellows … they seek out ways to cope with what concerns this present life. [9]

As he is ever the master rhetorician, we should mention that Augustine is here describing Christians, not pagans, and describing the ” ‘cognitive majority’ of [his] fellows” [11], not a minority clique. If not eliminated in widespread practice, the boundary between the High God and the lower gods was ruptured at least in the elite Christian preaching of the late fourth and early fifth century, as Christians were encouraged to call upon Jesus in all the affairs concerning this worldly life, rather than default to seeking out the lower powers; still, the process of “Christianizing” this image of the world never quite finishes, and the redrawing of this two-story map of the heavens-and-earth proceeds “with the slowness of a glacier.” [9]

Christianization and the Symbols of Public Life (& Power)

The “set of symbolic forms expressing the fact that [the governing elite] are, in fact, governing” [11] “[…] owed little or nothing to Christianity.” [11] They redeployed the traditional forms (mosaics, rituals, court ceremonials, styles of poetry, of letter writing, and of rhetoric) to express solidarity among the upper classes [11], affording a public culture shared by both Christians and pagans [12], and these could be found together with Christian ones (e.g., the labarum); when joined, the two sets were not merely a jumble, but formed a coherent whole [12-13]. The gods now appear as “emblems of power and prosperity”, and of “the opulence of a mundus, whose lower reaches […] had not yet paled beneath the presence of the One God.” [13]

A mid-fourth century ring engraved with the labarum

A mid-fourth century ring engraved with the labarum

These are symbols of a world restored and at ease in the wake of the Constantinian peace. The labarum appears on monuments, cutlery, pavements, and slave collars, among other things. This loaned “cosmic validation to the rapid […] emergence of a new style of imperial rule and a new ethos of upper-class life.” [8] “[T]he saeculum had, for a moment, become, for an influential group of persons […] a surprisingly comfortable place.” [14]  The symbols and ceremonials used

aimed to sink the Roman order into the refulgent stability of the heavens, thereby making of the Roman saeculum on earth an image of that high region of the mundus, through which the magical energies of eternity pulsed with palpable splendour. [15]

So ca. 100 years later, in the 440s, in Ravenna, during the public feast of the Kalends of January (New Year’s),

the majestic décor of the ancient gods […] was mobilised to relive a moment of cosmic euphoria. Men dressed as the mighty planets […] swirled solemnly through the Hippodrome of Ravenna, bringing to earth the promise of renewal, in yet another effulgence of the eternal energy of Rome. [15]

This was very Constantinian. There were no sacrifices to the gods, so the secularized images of them were not thought to pollute. Yet “the previous consensus” of the earlier Constantinian era “depended on a shared prosperity that no longer existed.” [16] Christianization of the Constantinian variety had a rather limited scope and set of aims as it was largely concerned with avoiding explicitly pagan sacrifice and, occasionally symbolically destroying a temple to visibilize Christ’s conquest of the gods. The existence of pagan rites did not make Christians of this age “feel polluted” [18], even if these rites were increasingly proscribed in the legislation of emperors after Constantine. (Before Constantine, in the Council of Elvira, Christian landowners were not expected to prevent the pagan offerings of their slaves. Avoidance was enough.) The bifurcation of the cosmos into the upper reaches of the High God on the one hand, and the lower regions of the mundus and the lower gods on the other hand, helped to reinforce the sense of the permanent difference between pagans and Christians, and to give the sense that both were there to stay. The taboos about sacrifice encouraged avoidance, which helped keep a degree of peace between the communities.

The shift from this is nearly “imperceptible” [18]. Ambrose of Milan (337-397) is usually offered as a decisive figure, associated with the “change of mood” [18] to a “more exclusive” attitude [19]. The horizons of the possible had changed. The sphere of the Church’s concern was widened. In his Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), Brown notes the different attitudes of Ambrose and the older Pope Damasus I (305-384):

While Ambrose created bonds with the entire populus of Milan, Damasus did not reach out to the Roman people as a whole. Already marked out, in the 380s, as a man from an older generation, the prospect of the conversion of Rome as a whole lay beyond the imaginative horizon of Damasus. His principal appeal was to the ideal of a unified Christian congregation. He reached out only to the People of God already gathered within the Christian churches of the city and to their leaders — the Roman clergy. His principal concern was to build up the strength of his own profession.  [Eye of a Needle, 256]

Unlike with the Constantinian generation of Damasus, a “new model of power” [19] was presented to the elites from Ambrose and his colleagues (the model in the Ambrosian chapters of Eye of a Needle is far more nuanced than this). The emperor, and thus the elites, were on active service to God. “Wealth, culture and authority –the goals of the saeculum– ” [19] were no longer unproblematic gifts, but were “demystified” and rendered legitimate through service to God’s purposes, to God’s Church. The opportunities for lay participation among the wealthy are numerous here; yet at what point were these gifts rendered ultimately legitimate and stable through service? (The last question Brown does not even ask, only hints.) This service has no end.

Christianization and the Pagan Inheritance

The Donatist Church in Africa claimed authority because its founders had not polluted themselves during the Great Persecution by pagan sacrifices. [17] When Augustine of Hippo rejected that such avoidance was central to holiness,

he burst the dam that held back the waters of a stern Catholic moralism from sweeping down upon the city as a whole. There was no part of its exuberant life that could claim to stand outside an all-engulfing Catholic church. This torrent […] threatened to drag in its wake, also, a sizeable area of the profane ceremonial life of Carthage. […] Behaviour deemed inappropriate in a Christian came to include far more than participating in pagan rites […]. [21]

Pagan sacrifices could be made in moral ways, as well, without a pagan altar. [22] “A myth of the ‘decline of the Church’ began to circulate, especially in Latin ascetic circles.” [23] It was not hortatory, as in Origen and Chrysostom, but explanatory. Success, it was now said, had cooled the zeal of Christians. Paganism was historicized, and habits allegedly brought in by a flux of converts were identified (by the more ascetically-minded) as bringing an influx of pagan habits into the Church. More rigorous Christians were allocated the authority to identify which habits were allegedly from this pagan past, this illicit set of imported habits (like drinking and feasting at the gravesite of the martyrs — in fact, an early habit, cemented in the Constantinian era). But pagan worship

was not an exclusively supernatural matter. […] It showed itself not only in sacrifice, but also in centuries of misdirected habit, that had affected all aspects of ancient life. While pagan worship might be abolished, the past remained a pagan place. [24]

So believers were “poised […] between two cultures, even between two historical epochs” [24] just as they had been poised between “sin and salvation” earlier. These views “characterised a generation of mainly Latin writers” [25], unlike the 5th-century view prevalent among “Greek writers” such as Theodoret of Cyrrhus, who “chose to celebrate a mighty transmutation, by which the non-Christian past flowed into a triumphant Christian present.” [25] Most of Augustine’s contemporaries in the Latin west still understood “Christianization” as “the story of a stunning, supernatural victory over their gods.” [26] But antiquity, for writers such as Augustine, became a constant, dogged evil problem — one that will, by its internal logic, forever remain unfinished.

3 thoughts on “Peter Brown on Christianization, Part II: Narratives of Christianization

  1. Pingback: Peter Brown on Christianization, Part III: “Tempora Christiana” | Into the Clarities

  2. Pingback: Summaries: Peter Brown on Christianization | Into the Clarities

  3. Pingback: Peter Brown on Christianization, Part IV: The Death of the Gods and the Disenchantment of the World | Into the Clarities

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