Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.09.36

Bernard Green, Christianity in Ancient Rome: The First Three Centuries.   London/New York:  T & T Clark, 2010.  Pp. ix, 258.  ISBN 9780567032492.  $130.00.  



Reviewed by Dennis E. Trout, University of Missouri (troutd@missouri.edu)

Bernard Green’s Christianity in Ancient Rome is a welcome work of synthesis, survey, and fresh observations on the emergence and evolution of Christian communities, doctrines, and institutions at Rome during the first three hundred years of the religion’s history. The Rome of this book is the city on the Tiber, although Green is well aware that developments there cannot be isolated from events throughout the empire. Similarly, although Constantine serves as the ostensible end point of Green’s discussion, the story necessarily spills over into the later fourth century, particularly in its treatment of the Roman catacombs. Nevertheless, within the limits of the possible, the city of Rome stands at the heart of Green’s interest and the book he has written can with fair reason claim to be a history of both Christianity’s place within that city and also of that city’s engagement with those religious communities that identified with and shaped Christianity between the apostolic age and the Constantinian period.

The book’s five chapters are thematic but also loosely chronological. Beginning with “Origins” (ch.1) and ending with “Constantine” (ch. 5) Green’s study sweeps across “Community” (ch. 2), “Persecution” (ch. 3), and “Catacombs” (ch. 4). This progression both reflects the trajectory of the evidence for Christianity at Rome and also foregrounds questions that have tended to predominate in discussions of the Roman scene. From this perspective, as Green observes in a brief conclusion (238), during the second century Roman Christians struggled “to define what Christianity was”, during the third they “learned how to live in the pagan city”, while during the fourth they “learned how to make the city Christian”. History, of course, is not quite so tidy but such a conceptual scheme does allow Green to organize his material in a manner that offers readers a suitable narrative framework within which to situate the rich trove of textual, archaeological, and visual sources that elevates early Christian Rome above every other early imperial city we can explore. Moreover, this approach highlights Green’s insistence that the evolution of Christian doctrines as well as institutions can only be understood with reference to the Roman cultural matrix in which they formed. Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of this book -- and the feature that particularly recommends it for a student audience -- is Green’s willingness to relate events at Rome to the broader trends discernible in the religious, social, and political life of the empire at large. Set against this larger canvas, the typicality as well as the idiosyncrasy of the Roman Christian communities and churches clarifies. Thus while Green’s study is, as noted, focused upon the story of Christianity at Rome, it regularly offers readers a far more panoramic view of the Mediterranean world that nurtured and was in turn invigorated by developments there.

For the record, chapter one, “Origins”, considers the nature of the apostolic communities of Rome and argues for an earlier separation of Roman Christianity from its Jewish background than was typical at other cities of the empire. Green sets the Roman Jewish community (counted at 20,000 or more) within the context of Hellenistic and Diaspora Judaism, arguing for a diversified and influential Roman Jewry that was nevertheless neither as well-organized or as politicized as the Jewish community that can be observed, for example, in contemporary Alexandria. Judaism at Rome, Green suggests, was not centered upon the synagogue but upon observance of the Law in domestic settings. His reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans and Acts, therefore, encourages him to posit that, in contrast to many eastern cities, the strength of the Christian movement at Rome in the 40s and 50s derived largely from gentile not Jewish converts, a trend enhanced by the expulsion of Jewish Christians from Rome by Claudius, which represents Green’s understanding of Suetonius’ well-known but ambiguous observation at Claudius 25.4. This critical divide between observant (Jewish) and non-observant (gentile) Christians, as Green acknowledges, is hard to pinpoint on the state of the evidence but the question is framed here with due respect for recent scholarship that has emphasized the vitality of first-century Judaism and the centrality of Jewish-Christian dialogue to the “parting of the ways” and gradual emergence of Christianity as a distinct religious movement. Familiar sources and ideas (Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus) condition Green’s discussion of persecution and popular perceptions of Christianity, while his claim that the Neronian persecution was a serious blow to the city’s emerging Christian groups is a valuable insight. Less likely to gain easy assent now is Green’s argument in favor of Peter’s presence and martyrdom at Rome, though he will not have known the case to the contrary offered in Otto Zwierlein’s Petrus in Rom.1

Despite its title, “Community”, chapter two spends most of its time in the thought world rather than the social world of second- and early third-century Roman Christianity. Archaeology is silent for this period and narrative possibilities are minimal, but a startling array of doctrinal and theological texts and debates of this period do have a Roman setting. Marcion, who dismissed the Old Testament (and its God), wrote at Rome; the “gnostic” Valentinus taught there; Justin Martyr, appealing to a non-Christian audience, developed his doctrine of the Logos at Rome; the Refutation of All Heresies, apparently composed by a Roman presbyter, boosted the genre of heresiology; and Novatian, another Roman presbyter, penned his De Trinitate there, in Latin. As these selections reveal, the controversies by which early Christians gradually defined themselves and their beliefs swirled through Rome’s crowded neighborhoods. Happily, then, Green is able to present many of early Christianity’s defining debates through a Roman lens. The underbrush is dense but Green is deft at clearing a way through the thicket of topics: the formation of orthodoxy and heresy, Christianity’s proper relationship to the heritage of Judaism and its scriptures, the nature and identity of Christ, the formulation of creeds and canons, and the evolution of ecclesiastical structures bent on providing order and leadership in the midst of competing claims and ideas. It might be noted that although Green readily acknowledges doctrinal diversity, he is less inclined than some recent scholars to see “fractionated” multiplicity as a defining feature of the city’s Christian social landscape2 or to postpone the emergence of a fully fledged Roman episcopate until as late as the 230s and 240s (98).

Because the histories of persecution, martyrdom, and martyrology cannot be written on the basis of the Roman evidence alone, chapter three, “Persecution”, ranges widely in scope and sources. Indeed, the Roman record, especially between Nero and Decius, is woefully thin and there is reason to believe that the Roman Christian communities were relatively untroubled in these years. Green’s presentation of his subject here is sensitive though conventional, the sources again familiar (Pliny, Tertullian, and Cyprian, for example). The chapter considers the reasons for persecution (essentially local and broadly social before the Decian call for universal sacrifice swept up Christians, probably inadvertently) and the Christian response (the heroization of martyrs and the struggle for unity). Two aspects are notable: Green’s emphasis upon the “quandaries” Christians faced in respect to their participation in the “pagan society around them” and upon the turmoil over lapsi, libellatici, and re-baptism that plagued churches in the wake of the edicts of Decius and Valerian. It is especially around these latter issues that the Roman sources find their voice again, for debates and divisions between rigorists (e.g., Novatian) and their more lenient opponents (e.g., Cornelius) considerably disrupted the Roman church in the 250s. Significant as well is the fact that in this context the debate (ancient and modern) over papal primacy begins to gain traction.

“The Catacombs” both brings readers to what may be for many Rome’s signature early Christian feature and also advances archaeology, art history, and epigraphy to the forefront of the discussion, considerably broadening the profile and deepening the social stratigraphy of the Christian populace. Green is conversant with recent work on the Roman underground. The forms and functions of early Christianity’s visual imagery (nowhere better preserved) are surveyed; inscriptions (from a corpus of some 40,000) speak for the dead. Theology and persecution are aptly complemented with burial ritual, onomastics, and topography. There are oddities: The “high point of Christian burial” in the catacombs may be better dated to the mid-fourth century than the late third and early fourth (187). And as intra-mural burial was exceedingly rare in the fifth century,3 “graveyards within the city” were surely not superseding catacomb burials at that time (194), though suburban sub divo burial may have been. There continues to be debate over the ownership and early organization of the catacomb cemeteries, in particular about the degree of episcopal control exercised. Against Green’s confident assertion of “centralized clerical control” by the 260s (186) see, for example, Éric Rebillard’s (not cited) critique of such a reconstruction.4

With the final chapter, “Constantine”, the circle widens once more. Constantine’s relations with Rome, Green appreciates, can only be assessed within the broader initiatives, reforms, and gambles of the Tetrarchic age, particularly those that begin in Diocletian’s administrative realignments and the “Great Persecution”. The chapter rehearses the complex history of Tetrarchic succession and highlights the Roman regime of Maxentius (306-312) while also seeking to tease out of reluctant sources the history of a (compromised) Roman episcopacy in an age of renewed persecution, whose fallout at Rome may parallel the better documented Carthaginian debacle. Maxentius, as is now common, gets his due -- careful, tolerant, and perhaps, if recent claims for his patronage of the Basilica Apostolorum on the Appian Way are right, sponsor of Rome’s first Christian basilica (220).5 Wisely, Green privileges discussion of Constantine’s impact on the Roman church and the city’s ecclesiastical topography over rumination upon the emperor’s religious convictions. The former, brilliantly manifest in the emperor’s basilica-building program, is of indubitable consequence for Christianity at Rome and the incipient re-engineering of the Roman cityscape.

With Christianity in Ancient Rome Bernard Green has provided an admirable guide to the tandem evolution of Christianity and Rome in the three centuries between the deaths of Jesus and Constantine. Inevitably there will be individual points of disagreement, and surely the book could have been enhanced (at this price) with maps, plans, and images. More crucially, the value of Green’s contribution is evident in the scarcity of recent works that are comparable in theme and scope.


Notes:


1.   Otto Zwierlein, Petrus in Rom: Die literarischen Zeugnisse, Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2009. See the review by Pieter W. van der Horst at BMCR 2010.03.25.
2.   As does, for example, Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries, tr. Michael Steinhauser, London: T&T Clark, 2003.
3.   For a summary of their research see Roberto Meneghini and Ricarrdo Santangeli Valenzani, “Intra-mural burials at Rome between the fifth and seventh centuries AD, in Burial, Society, and Context in the Roman World, 263-269, ed. J. Pearce, M. Millett, and M. Struck, Oxford: Oxbow, 2000.
4.   Éric Rebillard, Religion et sépulture: L’Église, les vivants, et les morts dans l’Antiquité tardive, Paris: Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2003. Available now as The Care of the Dead in Late Antiquity, trans. E. T. Rawlings and J. Routier-Pucci, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2009.
5.   Following Elzbieta Jastrzebowska, “S. Sebastiano, la più antica basilica cristiana di Roma”, in Ecclesiae Urbis: Atti del Congresso Internazionale di Studi sulle Chiese di Roma (IV-X secolo), Roma, 4-10 settembre 2000, 2:1141-1155, ed. F. Guidobaldi and A. Guidobaldi, Vatican City: Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, 2002. On the other hand, archaeology and consensus now oppose identifying the Maxentian rotunda on the Forum as “a temple in honour of his son, Romulus” (216).

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