Peter Brown on Christianization, Part III: “Tempora Christiana”

The previous post covered another essay by Peter Brown on the modern narrative of the Christianization of the fourth and fifth centuries that we have inherited. There, Brown was replying to Ramsay MacMullen. In our modern narrative, MacMullen writes, any alleged process of Christianization ought to show “Christians not just talking but doing; and it must show them in some opposition to evidently accepted standards” [“What Difference did Christianity Make?”, Historia, 35 (1986), 324]. That is, there must be widespread socio-moral (and legal) change, or there is no manifest Christianization.

In the first essay of Authority and the Sacred that we earlier summarized, Brown notes three areas in which the Roman world did begin to change under the influence of Christianity, though “with the slowness of a glacier” [Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World (New York: Cambridge, 1997), 9]. The third of the three areas of Christianization concerned the heritage of the past as the inheritance of pagan habits to be overcome by Christian habits.

This is what concerns us here, the idea that history and a heritage can be divided into chronological epochs with their own moral worlds. I mentioned in a somewhat-recent post about how people began to divide time based on the birth of Jesus in the sixth century. There are roots in the fourth century for dividing history this way. After the sack of Rome in A.D. 410, pagans began to speak disapprovingly of the times in which they lived as “Tempora Christiana“, “Christian Times”, by which

they meant, not the stability of the Constantinian order, but a new age, overshadowed by a crisis of authority which led to renewed barbarian raids throughout the Roman provinces of the West. [Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000, Tenth Anniversary Revised Edition (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2013), 86]

Christians in the late fourth century thought that the times had changed. The Apostolic period had passed. This was a new era. The empire was now conceived of as an instrument of divine providence, as part of sacred history that would advance the purposes of God in the world, and this lead to a sense that, in this era, things were both permissible and prescribed that were not before. Christianization had ushered in a new age in sacred history. What is the trajectory that enables this to be possible, and which made this a problem for those who lived through this period of alleged Christianization? (We will look more closely at this in the coming weeks, as we cover R.A. Markus’ Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, but what does Brown give us as a background in chapters two and three of The Rise of Western Christendom?)


We saw before that Eusebius claimed that both empire and Church come “from the same pool”. Before approaching Brown’s work on Tempora Christiana, it is helpful to cover several themes regarding this in the Christian Bible that lie in the intellectual background of the history that Brown covers. The first of these are the ideas about the God-born nature of political authority in the New Testament writings, and the second concerns the earlier trend in the Hebrew Bible towards unified divine supervision / patronage / governance of the nations, ensuring justice. If we are to ask, “how did the empire become conceived of as part of sacred history?”, we need to look at these.

First, political authority. Generally speaking, there are two positions that writers in the New Testament take concerning the origins and character of rulers or ruling powers. The first of these is found in the letters of Paul of Tarsus (Romans 13:1, “let every soul be subject to the authorities; there is no authority except by God, those [authorities] that are having been instituted by God” — so that both the Church and the ‘State’ have their origins in God), the second in the later New Testament writings, in the Revelation to John (where “Babylon” is a beast, and is almost certainly Rome, as it likely is in 1 Peter 5:13), reminiscent of the beasts in Daniel. These respective attitudes can be synthesized to form a single one, but the act of synthesis must first occur in the interpreter, as the unity is not found in these texts.

Second, the demotion of the gods that had been appointed to various peoples. In section V of another post we saw that, for ancient writers, a particular set of gods and religions was apportioned by the High God to each people (Deut. 32:8), and cited some texts in the Hebrew Bible showing the transition to the idea that God, the god of the Hebrews, had demoted these gods for their injustice, and would take up direct rule of the nations (Psalm 82). There are other Psalms that echo similar sentiments (86:8-10):

 There is none like thee among the gods, O Lord,
    nor are there any works like thine.
 All the nations thou hast made shall come
    and bow down before thee, O Lord,
    and shall glorify thy name.
 For thou art great and doest wondrous things,
    thou alone art God.

This unification of the nations under God, instead of under their various sets of gods, parallels –we might even say it ends up prefiguring– the unifications of both Church and empire in the course of the third century.


The Church did not begin as a worldwide, organized institution, but as a family of local congregations. It was in the course of the second century that the earlier figure of bishop became central to the organization and affairs of the churches, especially the Roman church, and it was in the third century, “after A.D. 250” [Rise, 62], that the Church “had changed” together with the empire, had “developed a recognizable hierarchy with prominent leaders”, became “a veritable ‘city within the city’ ”:

It was no longer a low-profile constellation of tiny groups. It had become a universal Church, claiming the loyalty of all believers, at just the same time as the Roman empire had become a true empire, with ideological claims on all its subjects. [Rise, 62]

The Roman empire was also changed. Previously, it had been maintained “horizontally” [Rise, 55], through collaboration with the local elites of the cities, who “exercised virtually unimpeded control over their locality, in exchange for” [Rise, 55] civic peace and regular tax delivery.  Cities were central to maintaining local identity, which they did through civic traditions and civic cults. In the third century, however, “the empire was no longer a ‘commonwealth of cities’ “, and cities would only thrive if they “stressed […] what all cities had in common with all others”, that is “if they remained closely connected with the central government”, remaining loyal “to the emperor and his servants.” [Rise, 57] As we saw in the first essay of Authority and the Sacred, the new empire had become a true empire, conquering distance by centralization, rather than relying on the now-exposed weaknesses of delegation to, and collaboration with, the upper class of local civic officials. This new centralized empire “bypass[ed] the upper class” [Rise, 58] The centralization of the cities corresponded to a centralization of cult, first with Diocletian, and then under Constantine and his heirs, which was

the opposite of the colorful variety of religiones, of religious festivals each happening in its own place at its own time, which had characterized the empire when it had been a polytheist “commonwealth of cities.” [Rise, 61]

There were universal elements in Christianity that allowed for this. “While the religiones of the gods were subject to the vagaries of local custom, and were seldom written down, it was only necessary to open a codex of the Scriptures” [Rise, 63] to discern the religio that was correct; this codex also combined the older sense of religio –as simply ritual worship– with what we would call morality and philosophy. [Rise, 71] (The codex, unlike the scroll, was used by “bureaucrats” and administrators.) The law of this scripture claimed to draw upon a source higher than any emperor. Likewise with the concept of sin: it “made sense of the world in terms of a single, universal human condition.” [Rise, 67] The reparations for sin that almsgiving represented were likewise universal, for almsgiving “made present on earth” God’s “boundless” love for all. [Rise, 69-70] (And, as Brown makes clear in Through the Eye of a Needle, almsgiving comes to erode the boundaries between the citizen poor who’re on the civic dole and the non-citizen poor who are merely hosted by the cities, all on the basis of a universal that transcends civic boundaries.) Administratively, there was a “demand” from the whole of “upper-class society for firm guidelines, from above, on issues which had previously been left to local law and to local public opinion” [Rise, 75], further bringing the Church and the Roman empire together. It is no surprise to find that Constantine had also expected the bishop to act as judge in inter-Christian cases, even between Christians and non-Christians, when “civil litigation had become prohibitively expensive.” [Rise, 78] A universal empire and a universal religion seem to move toward one another, even if they do not end up playing nicely together.

Just as Roman cities had been constructed as an “argument in stone” to “showcase” and “make visible the power and beneficial effects of the Roman empire” [Rise, 55], so too the “churches” built by the emperors “were sermons in stone”, speaking of “the providential alliance of Church and empire” [Rise, 77].


This alignment was not a simple state takeover of the Church. Nor was it a matter of joining a ruling class to a lowly, simple, peasant Church. The ranks of the Church were quite varied, and neither Constantine’s conversion nor his sense of what Christianity meant came out of nowhere, discontinuous with the Christian population that had come before. Brown states how there

is little room for the myth that Christians were a perpetually hounded minority, literally driven underground by unremitting persecution. Nor is there any truth in the more modern myth which presents the advance of Christianity as due to the spread of a religion of mercy and equality among the underprivileged. Christianity was by no means the religion only of slaves and of simple folk. Rather, the third century was an age of surprising Christians, of whom the emperor Constantine was only the last. [Rise, 64]

Brown tallies, in the third century, Christian wrestlers, imperial concubines (a “God-fearing” concubine, as MacMullen cites St. Hippolytus naming her!), (possibly) kings (Abgar VIII), courtiers, imperial librarians, town councilors, slave-owners, and in Asia Minor, a Christian gentry. Correspondingly, the Church “was not unlike a miniature version of the new empire.” [Rise, 64] In the gatherings of such persons, “[s]ocial differences were not expunged […but] handled with an elaborate and pointed courtesy.” [Rise, 65]


To say that Christians were not “driven underground” is not to say that they had not been persecuted. Certainly, the earlier, local persecutions were different than the empire-wide persecution that became possible in the third century under Diocletian, but it was mostly institutional representatives (bishops) who were the targets of the latter.

To say that Christians were not “driven underground” is also not to say that they were perfectly happy with the surrounding environment. “Christians made sense of their world in terms of a clash of gods.” [Rise, 73] They had been”tensed against the outside world” [ibid.] for centuries.

This clash of the gods, however, produced no pagan martyrs. [Rise, 74] The clash was about pagan temples and public sacrifice. Orosius of Braga (+post-418), an acquaintance of Augustine of Hippo, could use the word “pagan” against “members of the Roman Senate, [who] were told by Orosius that theirs was a religion of countryfolk, of pagani, of men of the pagus […] — that is, a religion worthy only of illiterate peasants.” [Rise, 75] In the last piece by Brown, we saw how exorcism became the lens for Christianization: the gods / demons departed a region just as they might a person, bringing healing and freedom. This was “nothing less than a condensed lesson in the direction of world history.” [Rise, 66] Thus Martin, bishop of Tours (A.D. 316-397), “re-enacted, in the countryside of Gaul, the victorious rout of the demons, which […] formed the basic Christian narrative for the spread of the faith.” [Rise, 83]

This kind of victorious (or aggressive) language is only possible once it had become possible to think of Christianity as potentially a majority religion. In the last two summaries of Brown on Christianization, we already looked at some elements involved in this transition. What is worth noting is that the measures taken against pagan shrines and sacrifice were not terribly strong under Constantine I, not as the measures taken later under the emperor Theodosius I were. These anti-pagan measures became stronger once the ranks of the Church began to swell, and paganism was a tempting (or threatening) option for less firm believers. The measures were not intended to convert pagans. [Rise, 73, 74, 76-77]

Despite the fact of a Christian majority, which obtained only very late in the fourth century (and only in some places — Augustine of Hippo was the first “that we know of to think […] of making everyone a Christian.” [Rise, 91]), collecting taxes was more important than breaking statues. Collaboration with local elites was still necessary in the centralized empire. Should these elites and their cities be pagan, tax-collection took priority to the exclusion of pagan-shrine smashing, lest alienating the elites be risked. [Rise, 76] The shared culture of the upper classes could still be described as mostly ‘secular’ (“a strong, religiously neutral public culture”) by the middle and late fourth century, as we saw in the last summary. [Rise, 85-86]

As Augustine shows, the climate brought about by Constantine was, eventually, not enough for some. “[T]he conversion of Constantine only marked, at best, the beginning of the end of polytheism.” [Rise, 77] As the fourth century wore on, there was “a growing dissatisfaction” [Rise, 84] with the Constantinian status quo. So when Paulinus of Nola (355-431) took up the ascetical life during 389, breaking the ties of upper-class bonds that had held together both Christians and pagan, his old-guard Christian friend and former tutor Ausonius of Bordeaux (310-395) challenged him, to no avail. [Rise, 86-87] Paulinus took “pietas” in rather extreme terms, to refer to loyalty and service exclusively to Christ, rather than the sense it had had earlier of “loyalty to friends and to one’s homeland” [Rise, 87].

As Brown makes clear in his Through the Eye of a Needle, the redistribution of wealth that followed this kind of radical ascetical piety eventually seemed very threatening both to pagans and to many Christians during the instabilities that plagued the late-fourth century and early-fifth century. Super-rich Christian couples who would mobilize or even transfer their wealth to the poor and the Church were seen as creating economic and political instability through questions of dividing up and providing for estates. Pagans were wary that Christian blasphemy and sacrilege had angered the gods, and brought about the instabilities of the late fourth century. This economic instability only heightened the Christian threat to them.

We saw in the last two summaries of Brown that once Augustine and others looked to the horizons of a Christian majority, there were no ritual taboos, separating Christians and pagans, to protect pagans and civic life from the enjoining of an ascetical variety of Christian principles upon areas of public life that had earlier been shared by Christians and pagans (though it seems not many listened, as both Brown and MacMullen mention regarding the Kalends and other festivals). True, the African Augustine propounded a much more egalitarian empire of grace –and grace-born heroes– than the ascetical Pelagians who came from Rome, who enjoined a self-made perfectionist ideal upon all, taught the need for purification through the divestment by the wealthy of their own wealth (seen as politically destabilizing), and saw no room for mediocrity in the Church. Still, the kind of hostility to traditional civic piety found in both Augustine and in the ascetical movement seemed threatening to many pagans, who charged that, in the reported words of the pagan Volusianus,

Christ’s teaching and preaching must be incompatible with the ethics of citizenship. […] return no one evil for evil […] offer the other cheek […] Who would allow an enemy to steal something from him? Who would be unwilling to inflict evil, in the form of a just war, as recompense for the ravaging of a Roman province? [Augustine, Political Writings ed. E.M. Atkins & R.J. Dodaro (New York: Cambridge, 2001/2007), 29]

These are the questions brought about by Christian times, the contours of which we shall turn to next as we look at R.A. Markus’ Saeculum.

2 thoughts on “Peter Brown on Christianization, Part III: “Tempora Christiana”

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

  2. Pingback: The Flags of the Dead and the Promise of the Future, Part 2 of 5 | Into the Clarities

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