Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.10.24

Ramsay MacMullen, The Second Church. Popular Christianity A.D. 200-400. Writings from the Greco-Roman World Supplements 1.   Atlanta:  Society of Biblical Literature, 2009.  Pp. xii, 210.  ISBN 978-158983403-3.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan ( )
Word count: 2446 words

This fascinating book presents us with a picture of popular Christianity in the third and fourth centuries, that is, Christianity as it was lived by masses. These were the vast majority of the Christians, as opposed to intellectuals, bishops, and upper classes in general. Their faith expressed itself in ways that are recoverable not only from hints in Patristic writings, but also through alternative channels, especially archaeological. MacMullen, a Roman historian, allows a great deal of everyday Christian life and cult throughout the empire to emerge from darkness.

In the preface (vii-xii) the author indicates three obstacles to the reconstruction of early Christian history that generally emerges from historians' accounts. One is that often there is too much focus only on Rome and Italy, and in general Latin provinces, even though Patristics is dominated by Greek, and even in Rome and Italy most Christians spoke Greek, which was also for a long time the liturgical language. Another obstacle, related to this, is that scholarship in languages such as Russian or modern Greek is usually overlooked. The third obstacle is that attention has been paid to outstanding figures of Fathers and theologians, while Christian masses have been entirely neglected. The written record, which privileges elite Christianity, can be tested, and if necessary corrected, mainly by archaeology. Of course I should warn that the interpretation of archaeological data is crucial in turn, and requires a good deal of competence, but this requirement is certainly met by the author.

MacMullen's analysis proceeds through geographical areas. The first (chap. 1, 1-32) is the Roman Near East, not beyond the Euphrates, which marked approximately the Eastern border of the Roman empire. So, for instance, Edessa, Osrhoene and Adiabene are not included, even though Edessa submitted to Rome in the third century and its royal dynasty, that of the Abgarids, was deprived of its reign (recent historical research has demonstrated that this happened, not with Caracalla's conquest, but somewhat later, still during the first half of the third century).1 The first, careful treatment within this area is devoted to the archaeological findings of Doura Europos, among which the most important is surely what MacMullen describes as "the only clear and uncontested example" of a house-church (3). From what remains many inferences are skillfully drawn concerning the manner of baptism and the number of people assisting celebrations, no more than seventy-five persons. These amounted to less than one percent of the local population. Larger gatherings, however, were possible in cemeteries just outside cities, which may have been the case also with Doura (the area surrounding the small city has not been excavated yet).

A survey is also devoted to early Masses, on the basis of testimonies from Justin, the Didache, the Didascalia Apostolorum, and the Traditio Apostolica. The church of Tyre, built up in 313-315, can be reconstructed thanks to the detailed description provided by Eusebius; it seems to be the most ancient known to us. MacMullen also analyzes the phenomenon of churches built by landowners, encouraged by bishops (such as John Chrysostom) to do so. Special attention is paid to the banquets that were organized in cemeteries or martyr churches and shrines to celebrate both martyrs and the dead. Pagan rituals underlaid such celebrations, not always liked by bishops. Sarcophagi and mensae were equipped with holes and pipes to allow the dead to receive libations and offerings, as a form of participation in rituals. Many broken vessels for cooking, eating, and drinking were found in cemeteries and burial chambers as evidence of these practices. The saints' relics were often placed in the precincts of a pagan temple, as was the case with St. Babylas'. Exorcisms were also performed near martyrs' tombs. John Chrysostom and the Cappadocians testify to the feasts in honor of martyrs, which also involved dances. Rural populations outnumbered the urban and were attracted by great festivals.

Greece and the Balkans are the subject of chap. 2 (33-50), which first addresses the theme of churches in Constantinople whose construction was promoted by Constantine. When it was first built according to Constantine's plan, the Sophia basilica was much smaller than today's Hagia Sophia. Trieste's martyr church is also outlined; Philippi has a suburban church and a cemetery dedicated to Paul the presbyter, the healer of the Philippians. MacMullen also highlights how veneration of local heroes persisted even among Christians, and how depositio ad sanctos was particularly desired. Many mensae, often equipped with a hole for libations to the dead, were found in the area of Salona.

In chap. 3 MacMullen focuses on North Africa (51-68), where Christianity entered the chief centers rather early. Tertullian, Minucius Felix, and Cyprian are all to be located within the early third century.2 In addition to city churches, MacMullen focuses on funerary and cemetery churches, and on St. Salsa's small chapel in Tipasa. It was dedicated to a Christian girl who destroyed an idol and died as a martyr for this; local Christians then wanted to be buried as close as possible to her tomb. Thebessa's cathedral church was uniquely situated at the center of a cemetery. It was dedicated to St. Crispina martyr, on the spot of her tomb, and was provided with a mensa. St. Monica, Augustine's mother, used to go about martyr shrines with wine and cheesecakes, both to eat herself and to share with others, when she was young, in Africa, not far from Hippo. Ambrose, however, forbade eating and drinking in churches, and Augustine himself was against banquets in honor of martyrs and dead. But eating and drinking is also the core of Eucharistic celebrations. Repeated legislation against cultic banquets over many Christian centuries shows that these customs died hard.

The last area that is covered in the book is Italy and the Northwest (chap. 4, 69-94), beginning with Rome and its catacombs. The old thesis that these were places of worship in times of persecution has been replaced by the assumption that these were cemeteries, necessary for all the people who continually died in such a big city, where burial space not far removed was very scarce and had to be found underground. Catacombs, indeed, were organized in such a way as to fit as many corpses as possible inside. Class differentiations are illustrated for catacombs, too; only few could afford beautiful cubicula, whereas common people had mere loculi. The poorest catacombs remain largely unexcavated to this day. MacMullen also remarks that among paintings in catacombs scenes can be found representing Sabathius and Mythras cults, and that Christian funerary inscriptions often began with the letters DM, i.e., Diis Manibus. Indeed, I would like to mention the example of one of the first Christian funerary inscriptions in the Rome area, CIL XIV 566 = Diehl, Inscr. Lat. Chist. Vet. 3910, now kept in the "Lapidario del Museo Archeologico Ostiense" (Inv. N. 11020). This epitaph was dedicated by Marcus Annaeus Paulus to his son Marcus Annaeus Paulus Petrus. The association of the names of the two apostles who were regarded as the founders of the Church of Rome makes it extremely probable that this man was a Christian, and yet his epitaph began with DM. These letters, however, were engraved by a different hand than that of the rest of the inscription. It is likely that these funerary slabs were sold with the initial formula already engraved at their top. At Isola Sacra, together with mausolea, hundreds of stone coffins are still extant, many of which have a hole for libations, which further confirms the ritual practices connected with the refrigerium. Some mausolea also had burials under their floor with libation pipes which reached down to the head of the dead.

Special attention is devoted to the many basilicas that Constantine erected in Rome, beginning with that of the Savior, now San Giovanni in Laterano. This was an exception and was devoted to the pope and his clergy, but the other six were not furnished with built provision for religious services; they had no altar, no ambo, no baptistery, no sacristy, but were rather filled with burials, which covered their whole floor. Refrigeria were mostly celebrated in them, rather than Masses, as is also suggested by the discovery of many cooking vessels in and around them. On feast days, for the celebration of a saint or martyr, a portable altar could be put up. In the basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura, a mensa covered Paul's sarcophagus which was equipped with a libation hole. Toward A.D. 380, forty churches existed in Rome, attested by both literary texts and archaeology3. Well before Constantine, around A.D. 220, pope Callistus already had a basilica built across the Tiber. Next MacMullen considers memoriae and churches in Milan and Nola, where a cult center grew up in honor of St. Felix.

The Conclusions (95-114) are followed by a substantial appendix on churches that were built throughout the Roman empire before A.D. 400. Notes to chapters, a bibliography and an index complete the volume. In the appendix the churches are arranged area by area and, within each area, city by city in alphabetical order. Every entry has, when available, very useful bibliographical references.

Throughout the book, emphasis is placed on the division of men and women in congregations, on the greater honor of the right side, that of men, and of the clergy. The only women who are mentioned as honored in churches with particular seats are virgins, widows, and wives of honorabiliores, all of whom, however, are said to have entered the church through a lesser doorway and to have been "segregated in the less honored side aisle or perhaps to the rear of the nave" (15). It is never mentioned that both in the East and in the West in Christianity, despite the ancient ubiquitous prejudice concerning women's purported inferiority, women also belonged to the clergy as ordained deacons and presbyters (even one episcopa is attested) and were in the area of the altar during celebrations. It is precisely from archaeological and epigraphical evidence, in addition to literary attestations, that it is possible to recover at least a small part of this largely obscured and ignored presence in the ancient Church.4 For instance, it is precisely in one of the sites studied in this volume (52, 65, 129), Hippo Regius, that one of many telling inscriptions was found. Among the numerous funerary inscriptions inside the basilica, one -- not mentioned here, probably because it dates to the beginning of the fifth century -- belongs to "Guilia Runa presbiterissa" (AE 1953, 36, nr. 107; 1958, 72, nr. 290; 1962, 81). But already for the third and fourth century there are many literary and epigraphical sources on women deacons and presbyters in the East, and some even for the West, where they become more widespread in the fifth. For example, in Phrygia in the first half of the third century an Ammione πρεσβυτέρα is attested. Artemidora was a female presbyter in Egypt in the second or third century A.D., and likewise Ἐπικτὼ πρεσβύτις in an inscription on the isle of Thera, and καλὴ πρεσβυτέρα in a funerary inscription from Sicily from the fourth or fifth century. In the West, a marble slab from the cemetery of the Basilica of St. Paul in Rome (CIL XI 4339), dating to the fourth or fifth century, attests a venerabilis fem[ina] episcopa Q[, and CIL X 8079, from the fourth or fifth century, in Calabria, attests a Laeta praesbytera. In CIL XIII 1183, again from the fourth or fifth century, in Gallia, a Martia presbyteria is mentioned who offered oblations together with two men, probably presbyters as well; all three of them celebrated the Eucharist.

MacMullen is quite right to remark that, in general, epigraphical evidence does not seem to support overwhelming conversion to Christianity before Constantine, but he wisely adds that such evidence is open to question (8). Indeed, testimonies from Christians in a period of crypto-Christianity are not always immediately recognizable as such.5 Likewise, warning against easy inferences based on the argumentum ex silentio, he admits that churches surely existed in the time of Clement of Alexandria, even though archaeological findings from the pre-Constantinian age are almost nonexistent, for churches were razed in the great persecutions. MacMullen rightly postulates that "at least a dozen of the largest eastern cities" were "equipped with some building especially for Christian worship" (9). I personally adduce a significant and reliable example: even if no archaeological evidence is extant, it is certain that at the very beginning of the third century a Christian church existed in Edessa, as the Chronicon Edessenum records that a part of it was destroyed by a flood at that time. In particular, waters from the Daisan, the river of Edessa, inundated the area of this building that was reserved for laity during Masses. Similarly, the church initiated by Constantine in Antioch is attested only in literary sources but not extant. This, as the author himself acknowledges (12-13), does not mean that this church never existed. The same is the case with many early churches attested only by literary sources, such as Porphyry who testified to the erection of "great buildings" by Christians in the Seventies of the third century, in fragment 76 of Κατὰ Χριστιανῶν, or Eusebius in HE 8.2, 8.17, and 9.9a in connection with the destruction and re-building of many Christian churches during and after Diocletian's persecution. Also, the Constantinian cemetery church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople is known only from literary sources.

This volume is rich in photographs and illustrations, and is carefully edited. This is an outstanding contribution, which completes the picture of the early Christian church provided by literary sources and sheds much light on "the second" of "the two Churches," the Church of the masses, that in which the simple, the "half-converted," were the majority. This second Church represented about ninety-five percent of Christians. The persistence of pagan rituals in the veneration of the dead, with banquets at cemeteries or in roofed burial areas, is the aspect that most clearly and consistently emerges from this wide-ranging investigation, for most areas of the empire, together with the datum that Mass attendance was overall very low and involved one to eight per cent of the population. On the other hand, MacMullen opportunely mentions the perplexing question cited by Augustine in Conf. 8.2.4: Parietes faciunt Christianos? This was repeatedly asked by Marius Victorinus, already a Christian in his heart and an assiduous reader of Scripture, of Simplicianus, but finally the former did go to church in Milan, to be baptized and publicly profess his faith. However, when he finally converted from paganism and entered the Church, Victorinus certainly did not belong to the "second Church."


1.   See my "Edessa e i Romani tra Augusto e i Severi: aspetti del regno di Abgar V e di Abgar IX," Aevum 73 (1999) 107-143; "Abgar Ukkama e Abgar il Grande alla luce di recenti apporti storiografici," Aevum 78 (2004) 103-108; and Bardesane Kata Heimarmenes, Bologna: ESD, 2009.
2.   David E. Wilhite has recently provided an interesting study, also with many further references, on the Christianization of Roman Africa (Tertullian the African, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2007), which offers a valuable complement to the present investigation.
3.   For the basilica of St Peter see a rich collection of essays edited by William Tronzo, St. Peter's in the Vatican (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), part of which is devoted to the early story of this basilica, pertaining to the chronological range elected by MacMullen, especially the introductory essay by Tronzo himself and Glen Bowersock's essay on "Peter and Constantine," who argues that it was not Constantine who promoted the construction of this basilica. On the history of ecclesiastical architecture in Rome in the fourth century note also Hugo Brandenburg, Die frühchristlichen Kirchen Roms vom 4. bis zum 7. Jahrhundert (Regensburg: Schnell und Steiner, 2004; English translation Turnhout: Brepols, 2005), not least its photographic documentation, due to Arnaldo Vescovo, and its plans, maps, and reconstructions. He precisely starts from Constantine's construction campaign (chapters 2 and 3) and even earlier stages of Christian architecture (chapter 1). On the Basilica Apostolorum, note a brand new study which places the erection of this basilica during the reign of Constantine: Anna Maria Nieddu, La Basilica Apostolorum sulla via Appia e l'area cimiteriale circostante, Città del Vaticano: Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, 2009.
4.   See Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church. A Documentary History, Baltimore/London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, with my review in Orpheus 28 (2007) 338-346; my "Donne diacono: fonti e studi recenti sulla Chiesa dei primi secoli," Il Regno 15 March 2006, 171-175. A study of mine on Theosebia, an ordained woman in Cappadocia in the fourth century, and on other ordained women related to the Cappadocian church in the same period, is forthcoming. Here, evidence is also offered concerning consecrated and ordained women singing holy songs and the divine office in choirs in the fourth century. This could correct the impression one might receive from the statement that women never joined in the hymns and chants at church, because only prostitutes and female entertainers sang (15). It is true that this notion was widespread, but choirs of virgins, often led by female deacons or presbyters, are very well attested for the fourth century (that χορός means not only "group," but also singing choir, is clear from the texts themselves, as I show in that study).
5.   I discussed this issue, and some relevant evidence, in "Cristiani e vita politica: il cripto-Cristianesimo nelle classi dirigenti romane," Aevum 77 (2003) 35-51.

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