Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.01.03

Jeremy M. Schott, Christianity, Empire, and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity. Divinations.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.  Pp. 254.  ISBN 9780812240924.  $59.95.  

Reviewed by Heidi Marx-Wolf, University of California at Santa Barbara (
Word count: 3292 words

In Christianity, Empire and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity, Jeremy M. Schott makes an important contribution to the ongoing discussion of the construction of Christian identity in the late third and early fourth centuries, a discussion that focuses, in large part, on the role that the polemical, apologetic, and historical writings of key Christian intellectuals played in the formation of this identity. Schott's stated aim is to focus on a specific moment in time, namely the Great Persecution and the reign of Constantine, because, he argues, this was a period of intense polemical exchange between Christians and "pagans," a conflict that "proved instrumental in the production of Christian identity and, in turn, the construction of a specifically Christian imperial ideology" (5). Schott eschews from the outset any static or essentializing understandings of the terms Christian, "pagan," monotheism and polytheism. (I myself put the term "pagan" between quotation marks because of its pejorative connotations and the fact that the individuals who are denoted as such by Schott would not have used this name for themselves.) Instead of using the foregoing terms in any fixed way, he aims to investigate processes of identity formation which, according to the post-colonial literature that informs his approach, is a process of constant negotiation and renegotiation. This theoretical approach proves helpful as Schott traces the process by which Christians moved from a subjugated minority within a "pagan" empire to, if not oppressors under Constantine, at least imperialists of a certain stripe, colonizing as they did the centers and instruments of power and knowledge. The strength of this book is that it clearly plots the ways in which Christian imperial ideology grew out of earlier imperial discourses, in particular those of a number of late Roman philosophers. In this respect, Schott's book depicts Christian intellectuals using the instruments and discourses of empire first to challenge and subvert the prevailing political order and its ideological producers and adherents, and subsequently to co-opt empire for Christianity post-Milvian bridge. Indeed, as Schott masterfully demonstrates, "on both sides of the Constantinian divide. . .the need to conquer, restrain, and supervise ta ethne, 'peoples,' remained the central ideological basis for imperial rule of the Mediterranean" (13). For the most part, Schott is successful in what he sets out to do, and I have few substantive criticisms to offer.

In Chapter One, Schott moves earlier in time to explore what he sees as the roots of the kind of universalizing discourses that are at the center of the book. By investigating the works of such early imperial intellectuals as Posidonius, Cornutus, Plutarch and Numenius, Schott demonstrates that many thinkers in the second century worked comparatively across the disciplines of ethnography, universal history, and figurative interpretation in order to read the sacred texts, iconographies, and ritual practices of ethnic others. Ultimately, these endeavors constituted an attempt to recover a lost wisdom. The corollary of this perspective was that the more ancient a source, the closer it was to the truth. This led to the construction of ethnogenetic accounts that located groups of people chronologically in relation to each other, a chronology that translated into varying degrees of proximity to an Ur-philosophy. The main goal of these thinkers, then, was to "distill a universal philosophy that transcended ethnic and cultural specificity" (11). Schott goes further to demonstrate that this sort of project was an intellectual correlate to the way Roman imperial administration conquered peoples and territory. Indeed, he very convincingly argues that imperial expansion, the fact of empire, was a necessary condition for the flowering of such discourses. And in spite of the ability of empire to create a new polity for its inhabitants, one that supposedly subsumed local identity to a more universal one, the intellectual syncretism that flowered under Roman imperial administration did not necessarily lead to or even intend the erasure of difference. In the case of the universalizing discourses of these Stoics and Platonists, despite their attempts to highlight points of comparison, their final portrayals of various ethnic groups within the empire were not isometric. Rather, in all cases, as Schott demonstrates through careful textual analysis, a Greek center was always revealed and difference reiterated. Schott then traces the methods, philosophical techniques, and impulses characteristic of these thinkers into early apologetic writings of Christians such as Justin Martyr and Tatian. Some of these techniques can be traced through Jewish participants in the Hellenistic "war of books" such as Philo, and they include euhemerism (demythologizing other groups' deities), and chronographical arguments for the greater antiquity of key Hebrew holy men such as Moses. By demonstrating that these early apologists adopted discursive modes that were both made possible by the fact of empire and served to affirm the political reality of imperial conquest and rule, Schott lays the groundwork for his later chapters that trace the trajectory of this philosophical mimicry into the founding discourses of Christian imperialism. Chapter One ends with a discussion of Celsus' On the True Doctrine in which Schott argues that Celsus was involved in debunking the meta-narrative of the early apologists in which they claimed that Christianity was the Ur-theology, the ecumenical "ancient doctrine."

In Chapter Two, Schott turns to Porphyry, the third-century Platonist and biographer of Plotinus, who was also engaged in anti-Christian polemic, particularly in the period immediately prior to the inception of Diocletian's persecution. Although it is not vital to Schott's argument that Porphyry was the anonymous Hellene in Lactantius's account who attended Diocletian's Nicomedian court with Hierocles to offer speeches that in the end helped to provide the rationale for persecution, he does seem to be convinced that Porphyry was in fact the Hellene in question. Schott's appendix clearly lays out the evidence for this position marshaled by a number of scholars to date such as Elizabeth Digeser and Richard Goulet. Using Porphyrian fragments from Augustine's City of God in which the Bishop of Hippo purported that Porphyry sought a via universalis but failed to ever find one, Schott very cleverly places this fragment within the lineage of universal discourses he is tracing. He writes, "By admitting that the universal way of salvation is not found in any one particular group. . .Porphyry implies that the via universalis is only discernible when one's pursuit of philosophy is sufficiently ecumenical" (57). This fragment has bedeviled scholars for some time, and Schott's explanation goes a long way to making sense of Porphyry's philosophical project despite Augustine's obvious aim to muddy the waters. Schott also constellates Porphyry's On Abstinence from Animals as part of the philosopher's cross-cultural project. Indeed, he demonstrates quite clearly that this project is one perspective from which scholars can investigate most of Porphyry's non-polemical writings. But he also claims that, like Plutarch and other second-century Greek intellectuals before him, Porphyry's treatment is not isometric, and his engagement with "barbarian wisdom" is thoroughly Greek-centered. Schott follows up on this point by discussing the way in which participation in Greek paideia was the way for Porphyry to make the journey from province (in this case Tyre) to metropolis (i.e. Rome). His vantage point as a universalizing philosopher allowed Porphyry to engage in an anti-Christian polemic which, Schott rightly points out, was received by its targets as one of the most dangerous and venomous. Where Schott makes his contribution to the ongoing multi-nodal debate over Against the Christians is by tracing out Porphyry's ecumenical logic even in this polemic. The main bone of contention for Porphyry, as Schott sees it, was Christian attempts to pass off a culturally-specific tradition as an ecumenical and universal wisdom, an Ur-theology. "Christians, who by their own admission claimed to possess a universal philosophy, based on a set of barbarian texts from the edges of the Greco-Roman world, were disrupting Porphyry's carefully constructed hierarchical world" (71). Schott is very good at depicting the kinds of issues and concerns that would have led a philosopher like Porphyry to enter the fray of late third-century anti-Christian polemicizing and perhaps even to marshal reasons to proceed with oppressive measures. Whether or not he actually participated in the deliberations at Nicomedia, we may never be able to definitively prove.

Chapter Three reads Lactantius's Divine Institutes as a response to Porphyry's polemics. In this chapter, Schott does three things. First, he shows how Lactantius imitated Porphyry's hermeneutical approach to sacred texts, in particular oracles, in order to establish Christianity as a universal philosophy. Then Schott demonstrates that Lactantius was also engaged in crafting a history of religions. This history posited an aboriginal true religion, an Ur-monotheism, that had declined and devolved into a multiplicity of false religions. And he excavates this true religion out of his "pagan" sources. Schott also demonstrates the way in which Lactantius tied this discourse to the language of imperial geography. In the end, Lactantius argues that all traditional religions are really forms of ancestor worship and asserts a set of theological principals that are authentic because they transcend these cultural differences. Finally, Schott discusses the changes Lactantius made to the Divine Institutes after the rise of Constantine to power, changes which lent a "new, imperial timbre to his historical geography" (12).

In Chapter Four, Schott argues that the Lactantian ideology of empire and traditional apologetic topoi were taken up by Constantine in his speeches and letters and expressed in political actions that served to establish the difference between "pagan" and "Christian." Schott's reading of both Constantine's rhetoric and specific actions, such as Christian monumental building and measures that have been interpreted by some scholars as anti-"pagan", is compelling and innovative. For instance, he sees Constantine's clearing of traditional cult sites for Christian colonization as a "metonymic performance" of his universalizing mission. The difference between "Christian" and "pagan" produced by Constantinian ideology and rule was, according to Schott, one that both could and needed to be reiterated by subsequent emperors. In general, Schott's argument in this chapter is interesting and represents a new take on some of the Constantinian sources. In the end, however, it may not sufficiently countenance the very thing it is trying to establish, namely that Christian identity is in the process of being formed. Schott's explanation may not leave sufficient flexibility in Constantine's understanding of his religious affiliation to account for many of the emperor's actions such as the toleration of imperial cult, the construction of Constantinople and the gathering of "pagan" cultic icons in that city. Furthermore, while we are on the topic of Constantinople, Schott neglects to tell us what he means by "Rome" in the time of Constantine although he asserts that the emperor's reign "did not erase the classic distinctions between Rome and her provinces upon which Roman imperialism had been based for centuries" (133). My concern here anticipates a larger criticism I have of the book which I will raise later in the review. I believe that what Schott means is that Constantine, like Lactantius, associates the "provincial" with the "barbarian," culturally-specific practices of "pagan" cult. However, the geographic and political de-centering of the empire in this period should somehow be accounted for in Schott's analysis.

In the case of his discussion of both Lactantius and Constantine, Schott departs from the conclusions of scholars such as Elizabeth Digeser and Harold Drake who have argued that these two figures were attempting to establish common cause between Christians and other monotheistically-inclined individuals. For Schott, this apparently conciliatory stance actually reveals a developing rhetoric of Christian empire built upon the same philosophical lines of reasoning and the same imperial motivations, namely the need to conquer, restrain, and supervise ta ethne. The consensus theory of Lactantius is one more instantiation of a discourse that, despite appearances, establishes an asymmetrical relationship between center and periphery. By challenging the picture of both Lactantius and Constantine as consensus builders around monotheism, Schott highlights the way in which this theological position, namely ecumenism, ties into imperial ideologies with concrete political consequences.

Schott's final chapter concerns Eusebius's massive diptych, the Preparation for the Gospel and the Demonstration of the Gospel. Schott aptly shows just how thoroughly this work is a polemical response to and counterattack on Porphyry. Schott reveals that Eusebius's "complex intertext," which indeed it is, "dismantles and manipulates Porphyrian exegesis to resituate Greek philosophical practice as merely another native barbarism" (137). Here Schott is particularly strong as he adds a new and challenging perspective to an ongoing discussion about the way Eusebius constructs Christian identity in these two works. Schott disagrees with Aaron Johnson who recently argued that Eusebius was involved in constructing Christianity as a new ethnos. Instead, Schott argues that for Eusebius, Christianity's superiority lay in its transcendence of historically and geographically bound peoples. Schott also addresses Eusebius's efforts to wed the inception of Christianity with the beginning of imperial rule and demonstrates the way in which Eusebius's characterization of this association changed over time from the view that the empire was propitious for the spread of Christianity to the view that "empire and church proceed in lockstep" such that imperial conquest and conversion were two prongs of the same "offensive against native error and barbarism" (157).

In an elegant epilogue, Schott draws important parallels between the rhetorical and apologetic discourses under investigation in his book and theories about the history of religion that inform modern theoretical approaches. He also focuses on the way in which Lactantian, Constantinian, and Eusebian ways of thinking about religion were re-deployed when Europeans began to encounter new ethne in their colonization of the Americas, bringing home very poignantly the rhetorical potential of these discourses for the imperial projects of the early modern period.

As I mentioned earlier, I have but few criticisms of Schott's project. My main concern is that Schott never clearly defines a set of terms which he regularly uses in the course of his post-colonial reading of his sources. These terms include "Rome," "her provinces," "Roman," "barbarian," "center," and "periphery." Schott appears to take a somewhat static view of these terms both culturally and politically. By this I mean that Schott's "Rome" appears to be the Rome of the early empire, but he neglects to take into account the changing political realities in the third century that made the empire a very different animal than it was during its first two centuries. A few examples suffice to make my point. First, Caracalla's decree of 212 CE granting universal citizenship surely changed what it meant to be Roman, an inhabitant of the empire, and the meaning of citizenship itself. Second, by the late third century, emperors had not come from the city of Rome for quite some time, and the city itself and its history and traditions no longer stood for the empire in the ways it had in earlier epochs. This de-centering necessarily had profound consequences for the questions and trends Schott is focused on. This oversight creates a couple of problems for Schott. For instance, in Chapter One, although Schott recognizes the fact that the philosophers he uses as examples are not themselves from the center and seeks to finesse this issue by attributing the ease with which such provincial elites gained access to the metropolis to the tendency of Roman imperialism to annex and assimilate these elites, he does not explain why Greeks (or Greek-speaking Syrians in the case of Numenius) might be producing discourses that, as Schott argues, reinforce the superiority of Greek-ness over other forms of "barbarity" while at the same time elucidating sameness. In other words, Schott has not really spoken to the question of the place of non-Roman intellectuals in relation to Rome. And there is a sense in which one cannot clearly identify Greek-ness with Roman-ness in the discourses of the philosophers he uses as examples. In fact, there very well may be something subversive about the maneuvers of these intellectuals. Indeed, if we place them next to the anti-Greek polemic of a Roman such as Juvenal, they may also turn out to be apologetic in some way. Schott is certainly on point when he asserts that empire is the condition for such Hellenocentric discourses, but more care needs to be taken about both the historical realities of Roman imperialism and Roman identity over time. This criticism in no way calls into question the importance of Schott's basic argument and key insights. However, his book would have been made all the more compelling for taking account of which Rome he had in mind as well as changing political realities on the ground for the period he is investigating.

The other main difficulty I have with the way Schott structures his overall argument is that, although he traces the roots of the universalizing discourses at the heart of his study to the second century, he neglects to consider third-century intellectual, cultural and political trends. The decision to ignore much of the third century has a number of important consequences. First, it leads him, in a number of places, to use the label "barbarian" to stand for Christian. Although I recognize that he is primarily following his sources here, there is no reciprocal recognition of the way in which many third-century Christian intellectuals would have also thought of themselves as Hellenes and heirs to the Greek philosophical patrimony. In other words, there are moments when one is not sure that "barbarian" versus Greek is not being taken by Schott as a reified sort of distinction. Furthermore, part of the reason why Schott's portrayal dwells on the conflict and polemical exchanges between Christians and non-Christians is, I believe, because he does not consider the nature of intellectual activity among and between philosophical schools and associations in the third century. Schott claims that third-century writers such as Clement and Origen continued to "offer challenges to the privilege of Greek philosophy throughout the third century" (51). But we might as easily say that these thinkers made contributions to Greek philosophy itself. This is likely the way Origen was seen by many of his contemporaries given the fact that his lessons were often attended by both Christians and non-Christians, and that he was called to Syria by the mother of Alexander Severus, Julia Mammea, to instruct her in philosophy. Recent scholarship has shown that the third century was actually a period of intense exchange across rather permeable and ill-defined religious boundaries between Christians and non-Christians. And in many cases, religious affiliation may not have been the primary identity category that determined the positions intellectuals took on specific issues. Pier Franco Beatrice, an author whose work Schott references often, has even argued that Porphyry studied with Origen because Porphyry saw him as a part of the Ammonian lineage, frequenting Origen's lectures in Palestine even before visiting Longinus in Athens and Plotinus in Rome. And although Schott acknowledges this flexibility in identity between Jews and Christians, relying for this point on the work of Daniel Boyarin, the lines between Christian and "pagan" seem to be far more clearly delineated and calcified for Schott. In other words, Schott's singular focus on conflict and hostile polemic may, in the end, over-determine what he finds in his sources at certain junctures. These criticisms in no way downplay the significance of "pagan" polemic for Christians during and after Diocletian's persecution, but they do suggest a more nuanced approach than the conflict model that seems to inform much of Schott's study.

Overall, Schott's book is a well-reasoned, careful work that sheds new light on a number of areas in late antique studies: the formation of Christian and "pagan" identity, the nature of apologetic and its relation to traditional philosophical discourses, the changing rhetoric of empire, to name but a few. He offers close, innovative readings of texts, readings which yield interesting and important insights on some very vexed and difficult questions in the history of religion.

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