Peter Brown on Christianization, Part IV: The Death of the Gods and the Disenchantment of the World

One of the central features marking the transition to the modern world is disenchantment. What disenchantment entails is suggested already in the word “disenchantment” itself: the word as it was coined in German –“Entzauberung”– literally means “de-magic-ing”. For us moderns, the world, specifically nature, is no longer shot through with innate meanings and magical powers. We do not take seriously suggestions such as that the forests are filled with mischievous brownies, and that our children thus ought not play there. We would not think to eat walnuts because of a headache: the symmetry between the shape of walnuts and the shape of our brains is no longer thought to cause anything through formal affinity (except through placebo). When we come across a glade that stirs us to wonder and lofty feelings, we do not seriously, publicly think that this marks the presence of a god who dwells there — at least, we do not think this simply and without consciousness of alternative views on the glade; we do not say a god dwells there without awareness that to say so publicly is merely to advance one exotic and embattled option among others that are more common, and which are more plausible to the vast majority of our cohort. There are indeed irrational and mistaken ideas about nature floating around, but they (and we) all fall on this side of disenchantment, and so their character is different from any pre-modern notions and modes of engaging the world.

A relatively intense sense of disenchantment may mark the modern world, but the processes of disenchantment do not begin there. They begin, instead, with Christianization. 

Firmicus Maternus, Ausonius, the Daemones

Peter Brown, whom we introduced in another post, and whose presentation of several themes we have earlier summarized, does not have a paper or even a chapter dedicated solely to the disenchantment brought about through Christianization (in some ways, chapter 12 of his book Through the Eye of a Needle comes the closest), though he has helpful things to say about it. Helpful comments on the topic are scattered throughout his books and essays.

In “Christianization: Narratives and Processes”, an essay in his book, Authority and the Sacred, Peter Brown translates a section of Firmicus Maternus’ Consultationes Zacchaei et Apollonii (strangely untranslated into English) where a pagan complains about the Christian attitude to the world:

[t]he mundus, the visible universe, pulsing with the energy of life eternal, they despise, as time-bound and of brief duration. [Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianization of the Roman World (New York: Cambridge, 1997), 8]

The author of this text, Firmicus Maternus, is most familiar to scholars of late antique literature because of a work he wrote on astrology, the Mathesis, which carried knowledge of earlier astrological practices to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Maternus belonged to an earlier Constantinian age’s sensibility about God and the world, and it is clear from the Constantinian context that this pagan charge did not carry the far more intense meaning of world-hatred and disenchantment we would intuitively read it as having.

There are seeds of disenchantment here. A gulf is (potentially) created between God and the world that the cosmic machinery cannot bridge. God, the God of the Christians, was spiritual, immaterial, and so “fashionably transcendental”,

[b]ut this was a transcendentalism that left the mundus –the physical universe– undisturbed. It revered Christ, but it kept Him out of this world. It limited His power to the ethereal realm to which He properly belonged. […] Christ was close to […] [the] emperor. But there was no reason why He should be close to [the nobility, such as Ausonius of Bordeaux].

By contrast, what was close to [figures such as] Ausonius was the mundus and all that went with it — the shimmer of the landscape, the sparkling variety of an ancient literature filled with delightful stories of the gods, the warm breath of the Muses on the hearts of poets like himself. Christ did not challenge Ausonius’ world. From a safe distance beyond the stars, He simply guaranteed it. [Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 202]

For the upper classes, this attitude encouraged the practice of astrology. Brown writes that Maternus

believed that a great God ruled the universe, but He had delegated “worldly” things to an intricate interplay of energies, which radiated from the planets and the stars within the universe itself. The farther from heaven and the deeper into the material world one went, the more powerful these influences became. [Eye of a Needle, 203]

The world was “full of gods“, in a sense more intense than Thales could have given to that phrase. The High God was a limit term, so to speak, moving and guaranteeing the cosmic clockworks: one would not engage him directly, any more than one would think to ask the President of the United States for help with an emergency run to the pharmacy when one’s family and neighbors were not available. The gods occupied every layer of the world, conceived by most of the learned as a series of increasingly large spheres, each enclosing and determining the ones it contains. The High God occupied the outermost limit and layer, holding sway over all through the intermediaries of the other spheres, and the gods respective to these spheres. The gods who held sway in this world were the daemones,  much more fickle powers than the immutable power of the High God.

Brown seems to suggest that there were basically two different Christian responses to the gods, each stemming from a common Christian conviction about the basic unity of divinity. Granted that there was not a plurality of gods reflecting the High God to the lower levels, and that sacrifices and offerings to the gods were forbidden. Beyond this, however, there were two directions:

(1) rejection of all the gods and the destruction of their dangerous cult statues as symbols of them, and

(2) rejection of all the gods and the inclusion of their statues as secular symbols.

rejection of the gods

The rejection model is easy to render an account of. In Christian preaching, the differences between the daemones, the local gods, and the allegedly more stable gods of the Roman Pantheon were erased.

In polytheist belief, the lower ranks of gods had been treated as ambivalent, moody creatures, capable of being spiteful and manipulable on some occasions and generous and powerful on others. Christians developed this division of the gods in a more radical direction. They ascribed to all gods without exception the unreliable qualities of the lowest gods. […] [They] were not just touchy. They were evil. [Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000, Tenth Anniversary Rev. Ed. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 65]

The Christian practice of exorcism contracts this attitude toward the gods, the daemones, whom the pagans thought to fill the world. The exorcistic model was universal. They were to be banished, driven away by the power of Christ, the world’s rightful king, and this banishment of the cruel, enslaving gods was seen to restore both health and freedom to the world, and to human persons. Instead of appealing to the daemones for help in mundane affairs, Christians were encouraged to appeal directly to the High God, especially his son (or Son), Jesus. (As Brown notes in the paper summarized in the previous sentence’s link, most late-fourth-century Christians –to say nothing of the generations after this period– would still consider the divide in the cosmos between the tiered “above” and “below” to suggest that “above” was for the High God, and “below” was for the daemones, whose power many would solicit through magical means, prompting the frustration of some ascetical clerics.)

Avoiding all things related to the gods may begin with avoiding meat that had been offered, but it did not necessarily end there. This attitude could grow to become rather extreme. Unless Augustine is rhetorically exaggerating (and he does not seem to be), then by the end of the fourth century some Christians rejected poetry because of its association with the Muses, and other arts because they were associated with this-or-that pagan god.


The gods were so well known by all, that the wealthy, even when they did not worship them, would employ them as symbols of their own greatness, adding a numinous quality to their lives. Images of the gods here no longer referred to gods, but were deployed to give depth and grandeur to the rich and their world. Venus could be used as a symbol of a young bride, and be depicted as both mirroring her and amplifying her in the act of mirroring her, etc. The gods became part of the “heraldry” of the great. [Eye of a Needle, 204ff.] The planets –who were the gods– could also appear in the Hippodrome during the feast of the Kalends of January, processing in ritually, so long as no sacrifices were offered to them. [“Christianisation”, in Authority and the Sacred, 15] The same might be said about works of art in antiquity, though this brings us to depart from Brown a moment. Constantine would gather beautiful statues of pagan gods from all over the Empire and adorn his new capital of Constantinople. Eusebius could not reconcile this habit with Constantine’s moves against pagan worship (though it has been argued that a secondary motive of Constantine’s was to deprive pagan temples of their statues, in which the gods were thought to be present).  The statues no longer referred to gods in Constantine’s mind, however: they expressed not Olympians, but “the grandeur of Rome” and “the might of Rome’s emperors” [Béatrice Caseau, “Sacred Landscapes”, In Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, Bowersock, Brown & Grabar, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Belknap, 1999), 34-35]. Civic pride, perhaps logically quite separate from Christian piety, wished to preserve the statues. “[T]he statues, once desacralized, were perfectly harmless and enhanced the monumental centers of the cities” [Caseau, 35], so thought civic officials, the emperors, and Christian writers such as Prudentius. (Though not all Christians agreed with this attitude to statues.) Some well-off Christians even initiated desacralization of pagan shrines in order to procure acquisitions for their art collections.

This exorcistic attitude toward the gods did not lead immediately to the full disenchantment of the world in either sense above, however. Another stage in the ascetical movement would be required for that.


Exorcism, the banishment of the gods, did not leave the world cold: it still reverberated with the shimmer and pulse of divine energy. When Ambrose criticized the wealthy for dividing up the earth that is bountiful and makes provision for all, there was a certain idea of nature he had in mind, an idea that he shared with “his contemporaries.”

 What Ambrose had in mind was no cold carving up of a dead and abstract “nature.” Behind his views on the common rights of nature lay an ancient person’s sense of the numinous fecundity of the earth, a view shared by Christians and pagans. Mother Earth had barely ceased to be divine; she can still be seen on a great fourth-century silver dish —the Parabiagio Plate— that was discovered in a grave outside Milan. It may have been connected with the suburban villa of a wealthy courtier or landowner. Propped up on one arm beside a full cornucopia, her naked torso lying wide open, Mother Earth gazes placidly at four cherubs who gather the fruits of the four seasons. A similar figure also appears at the bottom of the great silver missorium of Theodosius I, beneath the hieratic scene in which the emperor conferred high office on a courtier. This was how nature should be. For human beings to have divided up among themselves so luxuriant a source of common wealth, so teeming with life, was an act of hubris as absurd as attempting to measure out properties on the face of the heaving ocean. Human avarice had done the one and waas quite capable of trying to do the other. Ambrose wrote so as to remind his readers that their own cramped rights to the land were dwarfed by the abundance of nature. [Eye of a Needle, 132]

It does seem that the near-divinity of nature is something that seems sensible only to the wealthy, and only for a charmed period of time after Constantine, until just after the middle of the fourth century. In some ways, this representation of nature appears and dies together with an unproblematic model of wealth as granted by the generosity of fruitful and semi-divine nature herself.

Ambrose might claim that the abundance of nature was to be shared by all, but the mosaics of those who owned the land spoke in a different voice. They claimed that nature herself would provide the landowner with limitless resources. Significantly, none of these resources was shown as the fruit of human labor. Harvesting is rarely represented. The bitter incidents to which Ambrose referred in his sermons were passed over. Instead, sprightly peasants are shown bearing baskets filled with the good things nature provided with seemingly effortless ease.

At their tables, hosts made sure that their guests would not lack tokens of the unforced generosity of nature. […] They showed that the rich could reach out to the very edges of the known world so as to provide their guests with unexpected delights.

Hence the importance of the little gifts of food and fruit known as xenia. Ausonius, for instance, sent to his son, Hesperius, ducks from the marshes with legs of crimson red and rainbow plumage, along with twenty thrushes that had flown into the net as if “wishing to be caught.” Signs of the submission of nature itself, such xenia were also used as tokens of submission to those who owned the land. Carefully chosen items of food accompanied the rents of tenants to their landlords and the petitions and bribes of inferiors to those above them.

Eating, therefore, was more than a pleasure for the rich. It was an assertion of something bigger: it was a celebration of abundance. It ratified the unfaltering, cosmic energy of the natural world from which all wealth was thought to derive with an ease as ineluctable as was the unfolding of the seasons of the year. As in previous centuries, mosaics of the four seasons remained an essential element in the decoration of the floors and villas and town houses. Representations of the four seasons presented the natural world as charged, through the succession of the seasons, with the promise of perpetual, ever-recurring affluence.

In fourth-century mosaics, nature itself took on a muted divinity all its own. Individual gods and goddesses associated with fertility were no longer shown. Rather, a diffuse cosmic force was thought of as pulsing through the natural world. The world now danced, as it were, with its own divine energy, without help from the old gods. The mosaic of a recently discovered town house in Ravenna shows the four seasons as happy children, dancing in a ring. In a similar grand house at Ravenna (known as the “palace of Theodoric”), an inscription beneath the Seasons urges the reader, Sume!–“Take!”: “Take what Autumn, what Spring, what Winter and what Summer bring back again and again, and what good things come into being in the whole round world.” Derived from ancient themes, the theme of cosmic abundance (summed up in the dance of the seasons) was the new, more faceless but no less potent god of the new rich. [Eye of a Needle, 198-199]

Wealth here is unproblematic, almost Adamic: nature jumps at the chance to offer her overflow to the Adamic rich. There is something almost messianic about this image of the wealthy of themselves. Yet this charmed theme died with the rise of the ascetical movement in the second half of the fourth century, which displaced the Christianity of Constantine and Ausonius, replacing it with the tones of Paulinus of Nola, Jerome, and Augustine of Hippo.

The rich, pagan and Christian alike, still felt at ease in the world. But Ausonius and the many like him could not have foreseen the emergence of a new attitude toward wealth among a small but vocal section of their Christian peers. This new attitude cast a cold shadow over the mundus as a whole. For those who listened to the message of Christian ascetics, wealth could no longer be seen as the unproblematic overflow of the imagined abundance of the universe. The “world” was a dark place. Its beauties were a source of temptation. Wealth was “slime.” It was not an exuberant by-product of the semi-divine world of nature. It was a burden that had to be shed if the soul were to fly away from a world of dull materiality to join Christ “in the air.” Wealth could be tolerated only if it passed continuously upward (through pious acts) into a silent, unseen world, which lay beyond the stars. Like the Rich Young Man of the Gospels, the eye of the needle must be faced. Treasure on earth had to be renounced so that it could become treasure in heaven. [Eye of a Needle, 207]

Soon, I hope to look more closely at several related passages from Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine).

One thought on “Peter Brown on Christianization, Part IV: The Death of the Gods and the Disenchantment of the World

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

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