Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.10.17

Judith Perkins, Roman Imperial Identities in the Early Christian Era. Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies.   London/New York:  Routledge, 2009.  Pp. x, 209.  ISBN 9780415397445.  $110.00.  



Reviewed by Melissa A. Rothfus, Dalhousie University (melissa.rothfus@dal.ca)
Word count: 2440 words

Table of Contents

Perkins's book considers the construction of common identities by two groups in the Roman Empire, Christians and pagan elites, who were otherwise divided by such variables as geographic location, ethnicity and gender, among others. The first two centuries C.E. saw both early Christians and scattered local elites vulnerable within the power structure of the empire which threatened to usurp local political and social privileges and cast a greater number of the population into the general ranks of the humiliores. In response to these threats, both groups rallied around those identities that offered the most power and protection. For those elites within their local communities, their access to wealth and education allowed for assimilation with those who ruled from Rome. Christians, on the other hand, were comforted by the knowledge that they, as Christians, were ultimately immune to the power wielded over them by earthly authorities.

The construction of these identities in evident in literature of the first two centuries CE, both pagan and Christian, and it is striking that the two groups Perkins considers, who cast themselves so differently in their relationship to Roman power, articulate that relationship through exploration of similar themes, in particular the vulnerability of the body. Indeed, beyond her exploration of the way the two groups provide parallel responses to threats from Rome, Perkins's book addresses and seeks to correct the division in modern scholarship between the study of Christianity's early development and the pagan Roman imperial world. Perkins reminds her readers that the division is artificial, and unnecessarily circumscribes the issues and evidence available.

In keeping with her goals, Perkins provides much of interest to both researchers of early Christianity and classicists. She does not aim at a comprehensive picture, but instead provides a series of detailed studies. Though weighted in favor of the available evidence -- Perkins's use of the ancient novel, for example, results in greater attention paid to the eastern, Greek world, as she herself acknowledges -- the results of the assembled studies are effective. She supplies detailed analysis of both Christian and non-Christian texts and her broad bibliography includes much recent work. The very careful organization of each chapter and use of English translations makes the text accessible to scholars working outside their comfort zones as well as students, though some may wish that the original languages were consistently provided.

Perkins begins her study with the contention that the Christian community and the imperial elite community of the first centuries C.E. constructed their identities in response to much the same issues. Both groups had to determine their places in a world dominated by Roman power. This process of identity formation is evident in the cultural production of each group, such as the fiction of the ancient novel or martyr texts of the early Christians. In examining the issue of identity, Perkins makes use of the work of cultural theorists who understand identity as multifaceted and variable, in contrast to the human habit of defining power relations in terms of simplistic fixed binaries of self and other: male/female, Greeks/Barbarians, Romans/Christians. Perkins argues that the variable and subjective nature of identity is consequently flexible and subject to deliberate manipulation within constructed binaries. This means that "elites" were able to suppress their differences in favor of an identity based on their common access to power and education and resultant prestige within their communities. For the Christians, this meant that the sense of being Christian united one with fellow Christians and suppressed other identities based on other variables.

In the first chapter, Perkins shows that emphasis on education and wealth served to separate local elites from the local masses and unite them with those of similar status throughout the empire. The Roman habit of using native elites for local administration fostered a sense of connection to Roman power and an investment in its success. A sense of common connection and shared plight was also fostered in the Christian community by proselytizers and writers. The use of ethnic language to describe Christians as the "New Rome" fostered the sense of a single identity, while the notion that Christians were "sojourners" in their homelands and that their true home was in heaven discouraged a sense of local connection. Perkins shows that using this kind of language to establish themselves as "Other" in the Roman world was a rejection of the dominant culture of Rome which placed the Christians outside the power of the empire's elites. As is explained in 1 Peter 2.10 in a letter addressed to "sojourners" and "exiles," the Christians are a "chosen race, a royal people, a holy nation, God's own people" (39). As such, they did not truly belong to a place where those Roman elites exerted control.

Perkins demonstrates in the second chapter that both non-Christian elites and Christians responded to similar threats of identity dissolution and disempowerment through the same theme: death and "resurrection". There is a discernable preoccupation with the body, mutilation, and gruesome death in both pagan and Christian literature in the first two centuries C.E. In the case of the Greek novel, threats to elite bodies involve not only death but also mutilation and being eaten. In Achilles Tatius' novel, the heroine Leucippe, as seen from a distance by her lover Clitophon, is apparently disemboweled as a human sacrifice and her intestines roasted and eaten. Later, it is revealed that the gruesome scene was a staged joke, and Leucippe was completely unharmed. Perkins asserts that these perils to the integrity of the elite body articulate perceived perils to the integrity of Greek elite identity in the Roman world. Fortunately for the characters thus threatened as with Leucippe, the deaths are always false and the elite always rise again to live with bodies intact and status undiminished. That these characters never suffer bodily dissolution of any kind, in contrast to the horrific experiences of people of low status, is a testament to the enduring strength of their identities. Perkins sees the increased preoccupation with bodily resurrection on the part of Christians as arising from similar concerns. While she concedes that fears about mutilation of the body in martyrdom were partially responsible, so too was disempowerment in a world controlled by Romans. Unlike the indestructible elites of narrative fiction, the Christians do suffer real bodily harm and death but the conviction of bodily resurrection allows them, too, to arise again unscathed.

Perkins's thesis that Greek novels demonstrate the enduring and privileged position of Greek-speaking elites within the Roman Empire might be challenged by their seemingly weak and unheroic male protagonists. The problem of the unheroic hero is addressed in the third chapter, and Perkins defends these passive figures as those whose methods should be judged on the basis of their success, not their manners. Achilles Tatius's protagonist Clitophon, for example, fails to defend himself against a violent attacker who threatens to rape his beloved, Leucippe (64). While modern scholars might scoff at Clitophon lack of a vigorous response to such circumstances, Perkins is quick to point out that Clitophon and Leucippe ultimately survive their adventures with bodies and status intact and thus provide a useful model of success for real people. Both the fictional protagonist and the local elite man living under Roman dominance face threats to their status, and both are forced to reconcile positions of subordination with their identity as elites. Perkins shows that the passive hero embodies principles embraced by the likes of Plutarch and Dio, who argue for the need to avoid civil strife caused by overly assertive and competitive local elites in order to enjoy a life of privilege by avoiding Roman intervention.

In chapter four, Perkins lays out the basis for discussion of the theme of the body in this and subsequent chapters, especially seven and eight. Perkins builds off the work of Douglas1 and Kristeva 2, which maintain that the body's fluid and permeable boundaries and changeable nature make it a problematic metaphor for the social body. Ancient philosophers certainly saw the body's changeability and potential for corruption as a problem. Educated elites too were disgusted by the body, and associated it and its functions with the lower classes. Perkins demonstrates that the Christian embrace of the body and belief in a physical resurrection was not only a rejection of the elite disdain for the body, but also a rejection of the social and judicial system that denigrated non-elites. The solidification of the honestiores /humiliores distinction in court had rendered most Christian bodies vulnerable to degrading and painful physical punishments. The Christian refusal to be disgusted by the body, justified by the corporeality of Jesus, and the belief in the resurrection of the flesh, was thus a rejection of their lowly status and a denial of the power of the elite truly to harm them.

The fifth chapter, "Place, Space and Voice," is more loosely organized than the others and elaborates on the theme presented in the previous chapter. Greek novels of the early imperial period reveal that it was not only Christians who noticed the judicial changes that left more people subject to corporal punishment. For the elites who produced and consumed the novels, however, their status and physical inviolability were confirmed by the different attitudes and treatment experienced by fictional elite characters. Heroes always remain unscathed while slaves and low-born characters suffer degrading physical traumas. Perkins then shows that the asymmetries that are accepted uncritically in Greek novels are also articulated in other forms of cultural production. For example, Perkins points out that the early imperial period witnessed an empire-wide building boom that saw emperors and local elites create monumental constructions that dominate space and demonstrate elite power. In a rejection of that power, Perkins asserts that martyr texts, told in the first person and set largely in jails, reclaimed space considered undesirable by the elite and in doing so presented a new, empowered voice.

In chapter six, "Trimalchio: Transformations and Possibilities," Perkins addresses the response of humble pagans to the early imperial world. As fellow humiliores, were they concerned with the greater vulnerability of their bodies as the Christians were? In an attempt to discern the non-elite, pagan point of view, Perkins examines the problematic character of Trimalchio from Petronius's Satyricon. Because of the difficulty in reconstructing the freedman's perspective from a text produced by an elite author, Perkins's analysis relies on the thesis that Petronius made a concerted effort to recreate the opinions of non-elites. In support of this contention, she cites the work of Boyce on Petronius' accuracy in recreating non-elite speech.3 Perhaps not surprisingly, Perkins concludes that Trimalchio's opinions reveal an attitude more similar to that of humble Christians than pagan elites.

In chapter seven, Perkins considers two heterodox gospels presenting two different Christian views of the social hierarchy. The Acts of Peter emphasizes the physical aspects of the resurrection in a rejection of the prevailing social hierarchy, as interpreted by Perkins. In contrast, the Acts of John rejects bodily resurrection, emphasizing the spiritual instead. That this is an elite point of view is confirmed by episodes in the gospel that show elite people as more worthy of resurrection. For example, one episode in the Acts of John presents the restoration to life of three people, a wellborn man named Callimachus, an elite woman, and a slave. For the elites, the resurrection to life symbolizes a spiritual change. Callimachus had intended to defile the body of the woman in her tomb before his death, but his resurrection was his conversion. On the other hand, the slave, Fortunatus, does not repent his evil ways and his restoration is life is brief. Acts of John thus represents an attempt by some to reconcile the dual identities of those who embraced Christianity but continued to support the hierarchy of the dominant culture.

The split perspective on the body is particularly evident with respect to the issues of pregnancy, birth and breast-feeding, which are featured for discussion in chapter eight. These acts were cause for the denigration of female bodies and a reminder of the shared corporeality of all human beings, born of wombs and nursed at breasts. Christ's birth in human form from a womb was repugnant to those who disassociated themselves from the body. Tertullian and others who embraced the body and challenged the social hierarchy, however, adamantly asserted the bodily nature of Christ's birth and resurrection and in doing so claimed the dignity and importance of maternal acts. The Passion of Perpetua, which features a nursing mother and pregnant woman who gives birth in jail, promotes that point of view. The emphasis on birth and lactation is a reminder of all mankind's corporeal nature, regardless of juridical class and thus denies the privileged position of the elite who fashion themselves as somehow beyond the body.

In the final chapter, Perkins shows that both the Second Sophistic and Christian utopianism rejected the circumstances of the present in favor of another time. The Second Sophistic was rooted in the past and fundamentally inflexible, while for Christians the vision of the future opened up new possibilities, including a period of greater justice. Perkins ends this chapter by considering how all of this matters. MacMullen, who asked in a 1986 article "What Difference Did Christianity Make?" with respect to slavery and harsh penalties for humiliores, was asking the wrong questions, according to Perkins.4 Slavery and harsh punishment did not come to an end with triumph of Christianity over paganism, but selective application of cruel punishments did. The Christian identity was one that rejected the power structure of the first centuries and ultimately changed it.

With her discussion of local, primarily Greek-speaking elites and Christians, Perkins shows that both those identities were constructions created in response to the same circumstances of the early imperial period. Both groups were concerned about disempowerment under the Romans, and both groups articulated that concern in their writings using many similar themes, especially concerns about the violability of their bodies. For the local elites, their identity aligned them with Roman power which offered protection to their status and their bodies. For the Christians, their identity as outsiders was a rejection of the hierarchy and values of the dominant Roman culture. Insofar as Christianity ultimately prevailed as a religious and cultural force in the Roman Empire, the Christian identity formed during the first two centuries played an important role in realigning the dynamic of power. Furthermore, as a deliberate and constructed disassociation from the rest of society, it resonates to the present day and results in the academic divisions between Classics and early Christian studies that Perkins laments and with this study, hopes to correct.


Notes:


1.   Douglas, M. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Praeger, 1966.
2.   Kristeva, J. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
3.   Boyce, B. The Language of Freedmen in Petronius' Cena Trimalchionis. Leiden: Brill, 1991.
4.   MacMullen, R. "What Difference Did Christianity Make?" Historia 35 (1996) 322-43.

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