Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.06.07

Johannes Hahn, Gewalt und religiöser Konflikt. Studien zu den Auseinandersetzungen zwischen Christen, Heiden und Juden im Osten des Römischen Reiches (von Konstantin bis Theodosius II). Klio Beihefte N.F. 8.   Berlin:  Akademie Verlag, 2004.  Pp. 348.  ISBN 3-05-003760-1.  €69.80.  

Reviewed by Mischa Meier, University of Tübingen (
Word count: 2123 words

The sources for the history of Late Antiquity offer a lot of evidence concerning violence motivated by religion. This evidence has led scholars to assume that the process of Christianization in the Late Roman Empire from the beginning of the 4th century was marked by various acts of religious violence. In his Habilitationsschrift (written at the University of Heidelberg), Johannes Hahn has reconsidered this assumption, and the results are remarkable. His main conclusion is that "der in unseren Quellen häufig aufscheinende, von christlichen Autoren zuweilen regelrecht beschworene religiöse Konflikt in den untersuchten Gesellschaften (aber nicht nur in diesen) nicht den Regelfall darstellte, vielmehr die Ausnahme war -- zudem eine Ausnahme, die kaum ausschließlich auf religiösen Gegensätzen beruhte, sondern auf tieferliegende und anders gelagerte, oft auch über Generationen gewachsene gesellschaftliche und ökonomische Ursachen zurückging" (p. 292).

Hahn draws this conclusion from some source-critical analyses of events which occurred in four cities within the period of about AD 312-425: Alexandria (pp. 15-120), Antioch (pp. 121-189), Gaza (pp. 191-222), and Panopolis (pp. 223-269).

When discussing religious violence in Late Antiquity -- especially that practiced by Christians -- scholars often take Alexandria as an outstanding example since some famous events took place in this city, such as the destruction of the Sarapeion or the murder of the philosopher Hypatia. However, Hahn is able to demonstrate that the circumstances of these and other eruptions of violence in Alexandria must be assessed from a more critical point of view.

His analysis shows that initially the Christians, Jews and pagans of Alexandria lived peacefully together. The local elite in particular derived its social distinction not so much from specific religious confessions as from the reverence for Greek paideia, and this was a common feature of Christians and pagans (p. 31). However, during the 4th century the Christian bishop of Alexandria became more and more powerful. One of the most famous bishops of 4th century Alexandria was Athanasius, who made himself the most influential person in the city and an important factor in imperial politics. The conflict between Athanasius and the Roman emperor was crucial in the history of Alexandria. Athanasius had so many supporters in the city (not only among the Christians) that the local Roman magistrates were unable to proceed against the bishop, and so the emperor used force. The acts of violence culminated in the year 356, when imperial forces stormed the Theonas Church, where Athanasius and some followers had taken refuge. Athanasius, who escaped, described these events as an attack against the Christians of Alexandria, but Hahn shows that the soldiers had orders to arrest only the bishop. The author's conclusion is that this was essentially a political -- and not religious -- eruption of violence: "Ein Vorfall, der als beweiskräftig für ein spannungsgeladenes Zusammenleben von Heiden und Christen in Alexandria zu gelten hätte, liegt hier jedenfalls nicht vor" (p. 64). This is, undoubtedly, a convincing interpretation of the events of the year 356, but one should not forget that the underlying conflict between the emperor and the bishop resulted from a specific religious problem. Admittedly, this problem cannot be separated from political implications, but this seems to me characteristic of most conflicts among Christians in the 4th century.

Another example is the murder of bishop Georgius of Cappadocia in 361 by the rioting people of Alexandria, an eruption of violence which was not merely religiously motivated, as Hahn demonstrates. Of course, Georgius had aroused the Alexandrians' hatred because of his harsh measures against pagans, but this was not the only reason for his murder. He was unscrupulous in enriching himself and showed himself to be the accomplice of the hated emperor Constantius, and in this regard he fueled the Alexandrians' anger against himself -- the anger of both Christians and pagans. However, Georgius also contributed to the deterioration of the relationship between Christians and pagans in Alexandria by implementing Constantius' measures against paganism. From this point of view the gradually increasing conflict between Christians and pagans can be seen as a problem that was brought into the city from outside (pp. 66-77).

Under the episcopate of Theophilus the peaceful coexistence of the various religious groups came to an end, culminating in the famous destruction of the Sarapeion in 392 (p. 81). However, Hahn demonstrates that our sources (especially Rufinus) offer a highly distorted description of this eruption of violence. In reconstructing the events Hahn comes to the conclusion that the riots began with the revolt of some pagans. This occasion was then used by Theophilus and the imperial magistrates, who intended to destroy the entire infrastructure of the pagan culture in Alexandria while pretending to put down the beginning of a civil war (p. 91). The destruction of the Sarapeion was an event of great importance because now it was clear that the Christians wanted to abolish paganism and make Alexandria a purely Christian city (p. 97). Cyrillus, the nephew and successor of Theophilus, followed this course and, in addition, gradually intervened in secular affairs. Thus the initial cooperation between the Roman magistrates and the bishop was developing more and more into a competition, in which the bishop came out on top, clearly demonstrating the weakness of the Roman government. Under the episcopate of Cyrillus Hypatia was lynched, and again Hahn is able to demonstrate the various religious and political motivations for this act, since it seems that Hypatia was very influential with the anti-Cyrillian opposition in Alexandria.

Very different from Alexandria was the situation in Antioch (Syria), where hard and bloody conflicts between Christians and pagans were a phenomenon of the period from the middle of the 5th century (p. 122). The bishop of Antioch did not succeed in gaining such a powerful position as the bishop of Alexandria did because the highly self-confident Antiochian elites were able to make use of the economic prosperity in this city during the 4th century. On the other side, the Christians of Antioch were a weak political group because of the ongoing conflicts within the local church. As in Alexandria, the Christians and pagans of Antioch initially lived together peacefully because the local elites had a common cultural identity and common economic interests (p. 137), and "der vorurteilsfreie, von gegenseitiger Wertschätzung getragene, konfliktfreie Umgang zwischen Angehörigen verschiedener Glaubensgruppen war in Antiochia [...] keineswegs auf die [...] dünne Schicht der führenden gesellschaftlichen Kreise der Stadt beschränkt" (p. 143). However, during the 4th century there were some critical situations, especially under the emperor Julian, and the most dangerous crisis took place when Julian came to Antioch to prepare for his war against the Persians. At that time there was a food shortage in Antioch, and right from the beginning this situation made the Antiochians suspicious of the emperor. In particular, his excessive sacrificial offerings in times of famine were disapproved (p. 167). Julian did not succeed in re-establishing the old pagan cults in Antioch because his plans did not meet with any response there (p. 173). In this context Hahn reaches some important conclusions: for example, his convincing argument that Julian did not initiate a persecution of Christians at Antioch but rather that his relations to the Christians were somewhat moderate (pp. 173-177). All in all Hahn shows that religious differences were not significant for 4th-century Antioch. A short episode from the reign of Jovian can be seen as characteristic of this situation: Jovian ordered the destruction of the Traianeum, which Julian had converted to a library, because he wanted to gain the favour of the Antiochians. However, he failed completely: not only the pagans but also the Christians interpreted this as a barbaric act (pp. 178-180). Thus, Hahn's main conclusion concerning Antioch is that the local paganism did not decline because of eruptions of violence against pagans and their monuments but rather because of the "Indifferenz der es vormals tragenden Bevölkerungskreise" (p. 189).

In the case of Gaza, the differences between Christians and pagans were mingled with the rivalry of two neighbouring cities: on the one hand Gaza, which cultivated pagan traditions, and on the other hand Maiuma, where the Christians were in the majority. In contrast to Antioch, Julian's measures in Gaza to support pagan cults were able to develop into a local persecution of Christians that found approval among the local elite (p. 197). Hahn can draw some evidence from the sources (especially from the traditions concerning the monk Hilarion) for his convincing conclusion that the pagans of Gaza fiercely resisted the Christians and that this resistance was initially successful. On the other hand, the reaction of the Christians was very cruel: they could repay the years of discrimination by the pagans with attacks approved by the emperor Arcadius (211sqq.). In this context the role of the local bishop Porphyrius is an interesting case because Hahn demonstrates that he proceeded in the style of an ancient aristocrat intending to consolidate his own position in the city through patronage and the gathering of a growing clientele. Thus Hahn interprets the bishop, who eliminated local paganism, not as a successful missionary, but as a political protagonist who was working in the local arena (p. 217). Gaza can be taken as another example for Hahn's main thesis that in most cases religious violence was mingled with other motives, such as the ambitions of local bishops.

In his last case study Hahn analyzes the activities of Shenoute, who was abbot of a monastery near Panopolis in Upper Egypt. The author focuses first on the structure of Shenoute's monastery, which he describes as extremely hierarchical and marked by the undisputed authority of Shenoute, whose theological thinking was very simple. Apparently, Shenoute successfully isolated his monastery from Graeco-Roman culture: the monks were recruited from the native people of the region. There is a lot of evidence for Hahn's conclusion that Shenoute's monastery played an important economic role and was also a place of refuge for the rural population, who often suffered from the pressures of the rich landowners. For this reason, Shenoute himself could work as a local patron, proceeding against pagan landowners in a very tough manner. On various occasions he interfered in the peaceful coexistence of pagans and Christians, and these interventions did not result from a fundamental conflict between the groups but only from Shenoute's violent character, his aggressiveness and his simple theological background. It is improbable that he found many supporters beyond his immediate followers.

The last chapter of the book is a systematic survey of the most important results drawn from the case studies. Hahn points out that the various local conditions of the cities and regions that were discussed shaped very different forms of coexistence and conflict. He can prove -- and this seems most important to me -- that religious conflicts were nearly always mingled with other problems: purely religious violence was not the norm but rather the exception in late antiquity. In most cases Christians and pagans lived peacefully together, and the pagans themselves were mostly responsible for the decline of their monuments and cults because of their indifference -- as in Antioch, for example. Hahn convincingly unmasks the Christian tradition that focuses on violence and religious conflicts as a "reduktionistische [...] Perspektive" (p. 275). Instead he points out the personal motives of the known protagonists (especially the bishops) and demonstrates that, in fact, these motives produced the reasons for eruptions of violence which only seem religiously motivated at first glance.

At the end of his book Hahn emphasizes the weakness of the Roman government, which is manifest in most of his analyses. The Roman emperors and their magistrates had great difficulty keeping control over large cities (Alexandria, Antioch) or remote regions. This is a structural problem of the Late Roman Empire that is important for more than religious aspects.

Unfortunately, Hahn did not also take Constantinople into consideration. This city, which developed into the permanent residence of the emperors in late 4th and early 5th century, would have offered a lot of material for Hahn's general question, and the role of the emperors within the field of religious violence in their own capital would be an interesting topic for investigation. However, Hahn has written an important study on the process of Christianization in the Roman Empire, and the conclusions drawn in this book are convincing. They correct our perspective and unmask the one-sided, stereotyped descriptions of the Christian sources. Instead Hahn rightly points out various aspects of a complex phenomenon and emphasizes the relevance of local and regional differences. Hahn's book is also a pioneering work in source-criticism, in which he offers new and plausible interpretations for well-known texts and also examines more remote evidence such as Coptic traditions.

This is an outstanding book on an important theme in the history of Late Antiquity.

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