Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.06.04

Michele Renee Salzman, The Making of a Christian Aristocracy.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2002.  Pp. xiv, 354.  ISBN 0-674-00641-0.  $49.95.  

Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pensylvania (
Word count: 1375 words

The Romans of Rome (in John Matthews' felicitous phrase) deserved a Proust but had to settle for Ammianus Marcellinus to chronicle their world. The effort of imagination that would find analogs to Symmachus in the Prince de Guermantes and to Ammianus in Professor Brichot would restore useful perspective to a domain of history generally treated with the utmost seriousness. Students of the later Roman empire don't laugh enough.

Their seriousness has a worthy purpose, for the making and transformation of the late Roman aristocracy had a considerable impact on the development of western society and on the fortunes of the fashionable new age religion of the fourth century, Christianity. Two main lines of interpretation have succeeded one another -- 'high pagan' and 'low pagan' perhaps can label them. The 'high pagan' approach took a few texts (notably Symmachus' speech pleading with the Christian emperor to restore the altar of Victory to the Senate house) and painted a romantic story of fading allegiances and declining standards in a world overrun by barbarians and the wrong sort of people generally. This view prevailed from Gibbon to the nineteen seventies, more or less. It is still sturdily upheld by many, but with most of the romantic coloring leeched out of it. The 'low pagan' view has arisen among scholars less impressed with the cultural achievements of the fourth century's Faubourg Saint Germain and siding instead with the upstarts -- not Madame Verdurin's little clan, but provincial worthies, monastic innovators, and literarily ambitious bishops.

But muddle remains. Michele Salzman's austere and disciplined study seeks to bring order into muddle by focusing a very precise methodological analysis on a very limited set of data. She has winnowed from the pages of the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire 414 senatorial aristocrats from the western empire. Her selection is confined to those of whom it can be said with certainty or near-certainty that they were 'Christian' or 'pagan'. Each category is taken very broadly -- any form of identification by self or others with a Christian organization for the former, any form of identification of non-Christian religious association for the latter. (Jews don't count -- excluded because Roman aristocrats were not inclined to take up circumcision and its sequelae.)

The purpose of this selection is to attempt the most rigorous quantitative study possible in view of the evidence to determine career trajectories, dates of transition, and the like. In many respects this is itself a classic exercise in prosopography, illuminated by the late antique scholarship of the last two generations particularly. Three topics emerge as significant for Salzman's interest: the role of women in conversion, the role of the emperor in conversion, and the role of the aristocrats themselves in shaping Christianity.

On the oft-discussed role of women, Salzman is soberly skeptical. Women do not convert before men in point of time, she finds; they do not intermarry (Christian women with 'pagan' men); and they seem to have little influence on the religious affiliations of their children. The influence of the seminal work of Elizabeth Clark and Gillian Clark is strong here; I would have welcomed more discussion of the recent and reinforcing work of Kate Cooper, but The Virgin and the Bride is both too recent and too little concentrated on Salzman's aristocrats to win substantial engagement. Salzman is surely right in what she says in her best and most important chapter and the continuing discussion will be fruitful and illuminating.

A similar but less elaborately demonstrated skepticism emerges from her treatment of the role of the emperors as well: another assumption of a generation ago punctured by detailed analysis.

The last pages sketch what is the work of the next generation of students of late antique ecclesiastical history, the way in which the traditional organs and functions of society found expression in a Christian dress. Here Salzman complements neatly the work of Charles Hedrick, particularly his recent volume on the rehabilitation of Nicomachus Flavianus, History and Silence. Old essentialisms fade, and both 'Christianity' and 'paganism' turn out to be ways of thinking about the world that make it hard to see that world. 'Christianity' in particular was a work in progress in these decades, being worked in different ways in different places. That the brand of Christianity that associated itself with Roman aristocrats and eventually with Roman bishops proved to be so influential in later years was hardly a necessary or obvious outcome, but a development of great significance. That those bishops and their successors somehow acquired and used into our own times the title of 'pontifex maximus' (it seems now to have yielded to the perhaps grander 'summus pontifex') may be taken as a sign of Christian acquisition of the Roman past, but is equally a sign of the persistence of that past.

This is then a good and serious book, but that does not mean it cannot be disagreed with. I will raise one caution and one more substantial point.

The caution is that the confinement of the discussion to the western aristocracy of a certain rank risks detaching one fragment of the cultural conversation from its context. And though 414 cases make a useful body of evidence, it is not clear just how much statistical weight the conclusions here can take. What emerges best here is what reinforces and explains conclusions and trends seen elsewhere by other scholars and in other texts, and must be read in that context.

More problematic is the fundamental dichotomy, 'pagan'/Christian. This is an old topic for disagreement in this field, so I can signal it briefly. Salzman's defense of her practice deserves quotation (270-1,n7): "I use paganism as a synonym for polytheism throughout this book, following the convention of most ancient historians who, like G.W. Bowersock, Hellenism in Late Antiquity (Ann Arbor, 1990), p. 6, use it to signify an 'alternative expression of piety.' Although 'pagan' is a label crafted by Christians to denigrate polytheists, I do not intend it negatively."

I do not see a word there with which to agree. 'Polytheism' describes many practices in many cultures, highly discontinuous with each other, highly dissimilar. 'Christianity' by contrast is intended to denote a coherent body of doctrine and practice and, for all the dissonances of the Christianities of the fourth century, it was far easier in that time to identify a 'Christian' than to put a single identity around the non-Christian non-Jews of the time.

But such an identity was crafted, and crafted by Christians. The important point is not whether the use of this term implies pejorative intent, but whether it implies theological assent to a Christian view of division in society. I do not see how it is possible to use the word at all without implicitly accepting that the Christians had it right about the world and its organization. Bowersock's quoted words give away this curious willing subjugation by modern scholars -- for to make the ancient pieties of the Romans into an alternative expression of piety assumes the normalcy of Christianity, assumes that Christianity is the benchmark of comparison that defines what piety is. For generations, to explore the complex religious geography of late antiquity while using such rebarbative and partisan terminology has meant that the worthiest scholars find themselves fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. The usual recourse has been to seek to magnify and ennoble the 'pagan' consciousness of the upper classes, but that effort has been increasingly abandoned, not least by Salzman (here and in her marvelous earlier book on the codex-calendar of 354, On Roman Time [Berkeley 1991 -- see my review at]), in the last decades. The late fourth century was a world in which the normal, ordinary human welter of forms of religious expression was challenged and set upon by a single community seeking first to create the appearance of an all or nothing choice and then to force people and societies to make the choice. Everywhere the word 'pagan', with or without scare quotes, appears in our scholarly texts, the success of that endeavor is tacitly endorsed. The work that Salzman and others have done to illuminate the thickets of late Roman religiosity will be well and fairly done when we can stop using this word.

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