We now turn to chapter three.
Robert A. Markus died of cancer in 2010, at the age of 86. Together with Peter Brown (who cites Markus often in his own works, and contributed the Epilogue to Markus’ Festschrift), Markus was responsible for fleshing-out the territory of the study of Late Antiquity — generously speaking, between Imperial Rome in the third century A.D. and Charlemagne.
Of Romanian Jewish parents (who left Romania in 1939, settling eventually in England), yet later a convert to Catholicism, Markus studied medieval philosophy at Manchester University together with figures like Alasdair MacIntyre, had a stint as a Dominican, and then settled down to marry. He taught at Liverpool, then at Nottingham, taking early (though quite active) retirement.
Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, Revised Edition (New York: Cambridge, 2007) was his first significant book (a helpful list of Markus’ publications can be found here). Originally published in 1970, it was eventually revised for a second edition. Markus’ thesis in Saeculum is only slightly slippery: whether we claim (with Thomas M. Parker) that its center is found in “Augustine’s conception of the relation between sacred and secular history”, or in “Augustine’s secularization of political institutions” and his “views on the nature and purpose of human society” (John Dillon), we still come very close to the heart of the book. (The subtitle “History and Society” should suggest as much, since the pair is related, but not totally unified.) In a manner, these senses may be reconciled in Gerard A. Reed’s review, where the book’s heart is to be found in “Augustine consider[ing] [that] Christian society [is] eschatological rather than terrestrial, rejecting any socio-political notions which denied the non-temporal, trans-historical dimensions of his City of God”, though, despite this eschatological acknowledgement, the crux of the book is in the way that Augustine secularized conceptions of history, society (including the “state”), and the Church, by evaluating them all through this-worldly terms and/or ends. The chapters that follow flesh this out. Continue reading
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?)