Ramsay MacMullen on Christianization, Part I: What Difference Did Christianity Make?

Ramsay MacMullen begins his essay “What Difference did Christianity Make?” by citing a question from E. A. Judge:

“What difference did it make to Rome to have been converted?” Self-evident changes like basilica-building or people’s attendance at churches instead of temples are surely not what the question is getting at. 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 looks at the period from A.D. 312 to about A.D. 410 for evidence to marshal in the answering of this question, as he suggests that Christian influence upon society, to be relevant to Judge’s question, must be visible prior to the religion’s becoming a majority, when there is no longer something else it can easily be said to resist and change.

The sources themselves are too often “bookish” (such as Clement of Alexandria), drawing much on pagan themes, while we have no idea to what degree said authors (and preachers) influenced their hearers and readers. If influence on action cannot be demonstrated, moral literature reduces “to the compass of a pastime.” [“Difference”, 323]

Doing, and not just talking, and doing “in some opposition to evidently accepted standards”, is the litmus test of difference. ‘Without opposition [Christianization] cannot have produced any difference.” The standards for what constitutes difference must come from this time. [“Difference”, 324] MacMullen looks at five areas of potential change: (1) Slavery, (2) Attitudes to Sex, (3) Theatrical and Gladiatorial Shows, (4) Judicial Savagery, and (5) Corruption.


No Christian emperor attempted to “abolish” or “even mitigate” slavery “beyond the measures that flowed naturally from prior models.” [324, 325] Constantine forbade senators to have sexual relations with slaves, but the goal was to force them to marry and have legitimate heirs to “continue the line of service to their communities.” [324, fn.7] Constantine banned the splitting up of slave families, but seemingly only on his estates, and trimmed back slave rights.

Life was probably not easier for slaves in Christian times. The Church as an institution, priests as individuals, its heroes and wealthier members all “continued to own, buy, and sell men, women and children.” [325] Penalties for “peccant” slaves were worse. This is no change in Christianity, no cooling of fervor. From the second century we see Athenagoras writing that some Christians have “many slaves”, and Thecla, in the Acts of Paul and Thecla is “followed about by a large retinue of slaves.” [325, fn.9]


Sex was a prohibited subject in Clement’s world for pagans and Christians, “censured only through its secondary or tertiary connections” [326] like dress and social habits. The acceptable customs of a region were observed by pagans and Christians alike. The population addressed in these exhortations is largely upper-class.

Codes of propriety varied from place to place. [327] Thus, women were veiled in third-century pagan Syria, and Lycian Christian women could express suprie that their hostess isn’t wearing makeup.

“High life has its own code.” [327] Upper classes stick together. Pope Victor secured the release of arrested upper-classfolk through the “God-loving concubine of Commodus, Marcia.” Divorce and remarriage sometimes happened among the elites as well, Christians included, despite Jesus’ teachings (Jerome defended one such case).

Regardless of any difference in pagan and Christian mores on slavery and sexuality, there was much overlap, and no consistent regional and class inflection. There were still special protections of and expectations on upper-class women regarding sex. [328]

Homosexual love (an upper-class phenomenon?) was unusual, and Dio Chrysostom gently poked fun at it; yet claims to the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality by pagans like Dio lacked the sense that there was a divine intention behind nature. Nonetheless, the demise of this as an open possibility is not Christian in origins: in Roman society, open homosexual relations cannot be found “after Hadrian”. [329]


Pliny wrote against “clowns, ballet-boys, and mimes”; a noblewoman he knew had “her own private troupe”, yet would dismiss her son before they performed, because she did not entirely approve. Games have an ‘ill effect” on citizens, Pliny argued, and should be abolished. Dio Chrysostom notes the “common ruin [they bring] to whole cities”, both emphasizing the effects that spectacles have on the spectators, the former infecting the latter with an “utter lack of dignity and decency.” [330] Clement writes in the same vein on these issues. Nazianzen and Basil write similarly on theatrical shows. “Clearly the views [of such] […] had not yet prevailed” after four centuries. “Critics remained […] a censorious minority”. The Christian emperors supplied these shows, as did the pagan Symmachus. “Christianity in this respect had thus made no difference.”


The termination of gladiatorial combat began in “Gaul, Germany, and Britain in the course of the 200s.” [331] Mostly it seems to have resulted both from shifting tastes in entertainment and the poor return-on-investment of training gladiators (who were expensive, and only survived ten fights on average). Thus, the “role of Christianity [in abolishing] […] gladiatorial combat was nil.” Despite a law from 325, contests were sponsored and/or approved by Constantine, Constantius and Theodosius. Not until the 430s were they finally outlawed, seemingly from “some other force” than Christianity.

There “seems to be no clear pagan-Christian difference” [332] in the objections of critics; interestingly, neither pagans nor Christians express any “pity for the combatants.”

Judicial Savagery

Despite this absence of expressed pity, there is hardly a mention “of criminals sentenced to the games” [333], even with the rise of “judicial savagery.” This savagery “represented and produced” changes in career-paths and the way people approached the government.

Examples of this savagery: those who persuaded a young girl to have sex with one who desired her had their throats filled with molten lead; “venal bureaucrats” are warned, then their hands are cut off; kidnappers are stabbed and sent to the amphitheatre; some criminals are consigned to leather sacks full of snakes and drowned; if women owing taxes are treated opportunistically by men they are to be killed by “exquisite tortures”; slaves who snitch on their masters are to be crucified. These laws are “fairly representative” [334]. This trend begins with “the legislation of [Constantine’s] immediate predecessors” (on display in the “Great Persecutions”), though Constantine does “extend” this. The number of capital crimes increases, usually by decapitation. No contemporary of this time ascribes this to a religion, “nor should we.” [335] It is difficult to find a cause for this savagery in Christianity. The “developing Christian vision of purgatory” [336] is the “only evidence” [335] proposed, as it is “the only sadistic literature he is “aware of” from that period, in which a connection is drawn between the elaborate infliction of pain and the will of God.” [336] Both for pagans and Christians, “cruelty” was produced “in the service of zeal.” As Christians saw cult and morality as elements of religion, the death penalty “spread over many new categories of offense.”

Christians do “display a moral defiance toward law which pagans do not.” Religion “rises above law”, contesting it, but also justifying some kinds of violence and theft.


It is silly to place “responsibility for everything” [337] at the feet of the Church on the assumption that the Empire became “officially” Christian after 312. There were forces that 312 set in motion, but “we cannot expect a Christian world in the moral sense where there happened merely to be a Christian emperor and widely prominent churches.” The administrative corruption of the fourth century –“a luxuriant jungle of shakedowns, bribes, intimidation, perquisites and privileges”– “traced a line entirely independent of ecclesiastical history” [337], although all of this was forbidden by the moral standards of earlier centuries. [338] The emperors had to set “legal limits” to this — but not outright prohibition. After all, it was not seen as an evil. Bribery, for instance, was seen as “good for everybody and good for God, too”, as one Egyptian soldier put it.

This corruption did not only occur among the nominal and the half-converted. One of Pachomius’ disciples was sent to find grain during a famine. He got a deal by buying it “illegally from the public tax stores of a nearby village” [339], but Pachomius’ only upset was that the disciple bought more than necessary. Basil of Caesarea and the bishop of Iconium were shopping for the best person to bribe to release someone from civic duties. The bishop of Laodicea sought to bribe “high courtiers”. Petronius Probus took offices often to appoint his relatives and friends to posts — including Ambrose of Milan.  Augustine looked to secure powerful friends, and his words appear to suggest that bribery was needed for a word of recommendation from these friends. Later, in his sermons, he would endorse bribery for public appointment as fine. He drew “the line at buying the judge and the witnesses” [340]. The bishop of Antioch “involved other bishops in the routine purchase of church office[s].” John Chrysostom excused the bishops of Asia who bought their office, because of how difficult the purchases were on them personally. Christianization made no difference, here. John, Basil, Ambrose and Augustine were all against corruption, in principle. [341] At least the bishops were wroth with their priests when the latter were guilty of extortion. [340]


In these areas, “non-Christian moral history runs parallel to Christian. Or the two are one.” [341] MacMullen cites the bishops at the Council of Serdica cutting each other up with swords, and other examples of monastic or clerical violence. [342, fn.71]There were individuals who rose above the “everyday norms of actual behavior. We know them by their words, which inspire. If we look to deeds, however, 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. Of that most aspiring virtue, charity to the point of loving one’s enemies — hardly a sign.” [342]


9 thoughts on “Ramsay MacMullen on Christianization, Part I: What Difference Did Christianity Make?

  1. Interesting.
    Each person in every age has to repent, most don’t? And those that do barely make a ripple, if that? Or they are thrust out of the fray?

    St. Gregory, in the Life of Moses, describes the infant Moses being placed in a pitch sealed basket and sent out on the water which pushes him to the side. He says the basket is constructed of education in virtue, and of discipline, unable to sink into the milieu, so pushed to the margins, by those who find virtue annoying.


    • The lone saint does not really appear in his model; only dramatic individual cases that buck the norm would be noted, but they would not be enough to “make a difference” without being the spark that catches fire to a whole population, altering their behavior in ways contrary to norms. Of course, I can imagine Ramsay asking, “what evidence is there for such a saint apart from homiletical exhortations to become one, and post-mortem hagiography claiming it? What difference did your preaching and literature make?” You are, of course, citing a theological text when you cite the Nyssen, and MacMullen is not known, from what I hear, to have much patience for theology, being a historian.

      It’s almost as though he wants Christianity to be a fast-acting virus. There is something in the way that he sets up the problem so that “Christianization” can only mean something like “cultural revolution” of the sort that only Calvinists (and Müntzerites) imagined — or Marxists (who did like Müntzer). There is something in Augustine that prefigures this, as I noted in my summaries of Brown. Of course, law is not at the heart of Christianity (grace is), and law and mores are the mechanisms MacMullen was looking at to effect transformation (law _is_ important for Calvin and Calvinism, though, and they are the group with better statistics for various “sins” than both Lutherans and Catholics, largely through regulating the elect via the social mechanism of law). (From what I understand about the heavy role of law in Islam, that religion would make a better case study for his criteria, as it is both universal and law-based.) So I think there is a degree of unnoticed anachronism in his framing of the problem. There are other examples he did _not_ look at, such as Augustine’s notion of pastoral-purgative(-punitive) measures against pagans for violence during already-illegal pagan assemblies.

      That doesn’t mean that the things he cites are not relevant, as they certainly incinerate lots of saccharine pictures of this period, and about what Christianity must mean in the sentimental imaginations of many pious Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox. They also show how slow cultural changes actually are, in most cases, even when there is a radical shift. It also reinforces that Christians and pagans shared a common cultural background, though MacMullen would, it seems, be inclined to call this “theft” on the part of Christians (you can imagine how ludicrous this interpretive standard would be were it applied to pop music). Further, MacMullen’s expectation that Christians have their own autonomous culture that is statistically noticeable enough to have left evidence of first difference, and then later transformative change, in the five areas mentioned is really a demand for Christians to have been sort of Amish from the start, were they to have “made a difference” through Christianization. It seems to reduce distinctives to certain behaviors.

      You’ll notice I titled this, “1”. I have another three books of his, aside from this article, and I hope to get to them eventually. One of them I plan to get to rather immediately, after Markus.

      I am very interested, however, in what this data may suggest about trends in secularization, and in potentially illuminating what secularity means.


  2. Every time the Eucharist was celebrated, or a desert father held vigil, or a martyr was slain, or other spiritual acts occured, these reduced corruption, improved public decency, and recreated the world, even if we can’t point to cause-and-effect.

    Of course the Enemy was at work as well, and improvement was not a straight line.



    • One of the questions that marks the modern period is: “how do you know?” –and how _do_ we know about anything, how do we account for our knowledge? What _is_ knowledge? Causality is a key way in which public knowledge is accounted for. Absent clear causal pathways, public knowledge about what-effects-what tapers off quickly. There are things I feel clearly that I know, but which I can give no public account for: I can only confess them. Pagans also confessed that the rites connected to the vestal virgins were responsible for the protection of the Empire and the fructiveness of the earth (and that their being defunded by Christian impiety toward the goddess Vesta was responsible for famine and the ruin of the Empire — see Symmachus).

      I can confess from my own personal reception of the Eucharist that public decency is, sadly, not always improved as a result of reception, nor is corruption always reduced, and sometimes the world feels even more worn out; receiving often –perhaps always– merely offers a foretaste of a hope, a hope that all my efforts seem to make further away, and remind me of the distance between what I am and what I love. Sometimes things are otherwise, and I am rejuvenated. Sometimes things are otherwise, and receiving makes the world shine, and seem as a cascade of divine light. I do not receive for the sake of something other than the Eucharist, however; I do not see it as a form of efficaceous technology, and I do not lose hope, even worldly hope, when it is absent from me or others.

      But this is not an apologetics site; I am not interested in persuading anyone of anything about what I believe. I want to understand secularity, our shared context, and not to celebrate my in-group. I have no shame in confessing, however.



      • “Absent clear causal pathways, public knowledge about what-effects-what tapers off quickly.”

        Yes, fair enough.
        Perhaps Providence works this way on purpose? Obvious divine causality minimizes the virtue of faith, or so I’m told. But per your other comment that this blog is about secularity, speculations about the course of Providence are probably off topic, so I won’t explore this further.

        “Pagans also confessed that the rites connected to the vestal virgins were responsible for the protection of the Empire and the fructiveness of the earth … ”

        The pagans’ intuition about divine supplication was sometimes in the right place, even if their cults were directed to the wrong deities.

        “I can confess from my own personal reception of the Eucharist that public decency is, sadly, not always improved as a result of reception … ”

        I was thinking more in line with how (if!) I understand St. Maximus, about how an individual’s holy oblation helps mystically re-create the world, not about the impact on the individual himself, so much.

        “But this is not an apologetics site; I am not interested in persuading anyone of anything about what I believe. I want to understand secularity, our shared context, and not to celebrate my in-group. I have no shame in confessing, however. Yes?”

        I didn’t think this was an apologetics site, although I am skeptical about the possibility and desirability of “setting aside” one’s perspective on the whole of creation in order to study one part of it. Analyzing a topic from a particular theological worldview doesn’t automatically “celebrate your in-group.”

        I can’t speak to the nature of secularity, unfortunately. Have you a working definition? I re-read some of your earlier posts, and have tried to figure out precisely what sense of the word you intend to explore.


        • This is a rather obvious oversight — the absence of a clear statement on secularity. A bit embarrassing, really. I had wanted to lay out a set of posts offering portraits of a variety of historically-important precedents and specific moments of particular areas of transition into secularity _before_ offering a bird’s eye view. I’d also hoped to offer several perspectives on what secularism means, from several thinkers.

          As for a definition, I had a post on Heidegger on Nihilism, which is likely as close as you’ll get. There is another post summarizing Charles Taylor on disenchantment, which is part of what secularism entails. I have written about this in the past, but none of what I’ve written is posted here. As soon as I’m done with this project on Christianization and the model of the “Saeculum” in Augustine of Hippo, I promise you I’ll post several pieces laying out what I mean by secularity and the secular. It is likely that the first shall be a summary of an essay by Charles Taylor titled, “What Does Secularism Mean?”.

          And although this is a blog focusing on secularity and secularism, that shouldn’t prevent you, or anyone, from talking about divine providence. It simply means that, given the focus, I will always endeavor to direct the conversation to something that anyone, regardless of their commitments (positive or negative), can both understand and find of interest on the basis of principles that are universal, and so shared.

          Regarding in-group celebration issues: as you can see from the frequency with which I treat religious and even theological topics, I do not think that secularity bars religious and theological discourse _per se_, nor does it render religion and theological discourse uninteresting to the general public. Secularity does require us to have public grounds insofar as we make theological claims, however. This is not simply true of when we appear in the public square. The consequences of not doing this (i.e., having public grounds) in our private circles are heavy and the cost is high, psychologically and socially, because of the conditions and measures that confessionalism requires.

          I spent an entire semester working through the Ambigua of Maximus Confessor with the translator of the Ambigua, so you may see something about him here in the future.


  3. Pingback: Peter Brown on Christianization, Part II: Narratives of Christianization | Into the Clarities

Start a conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.