Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.12.55

Marco Rizzi (ed.), Hadrian and the Christians. Millennium-Studien = Millennium studies Bd. 30.   Berlin; New York:  De Gruyter, 2010.  Pp. vi, 186.  ISBN 9783110224702.  $98.00.  



Reviewed by Benjamin Garstad, MacEwan University (garstadb@macewan.ca)

Table of Contents

The papers in this volume have been collected with the laudably sensible, but regrettably rare, purpose of testing an hypothesis. As the editor puts it in his introduction, the “cultural effervescence” of Hadrian’s reign and the contemporaneous diffusion and institutionalization of Christianity are to be examined “in order to figure out whether any specific factor within this broader context eased or accelerated the affirmation of Christianity in the Second century Roman world.” It is suggested that Hadrian’s reconfiguration of the Roman Empire as a polity which tolerated or even encouraged a plethora of distinct ethnic, local, cultural, religious, and philosophical identities in the interest of fostering “direct loyalty to the emperor” (rather than the institutions of Republican government or the apparatus of imperial control) opened up a space in which the Christians could engage in “self-definition and external self- definition.” This thesis is pursued by directing an often narrow spotlight on various aspects of Hadrian’s reign.

Rizzi expands upon his introduction and lays the groundwork for the rest of the volume in his, the first, paper, which shares a title with the volume as a whole. He presents Hadrian as promoting the civic elites throughout the Empire, with their various cultures and relations with the emperor, at the expense of the Roman senatorial class. As part of this effort Hadrian legitimized the ‘philosophical way of life’, which had been suspect amongst the Roman aristocracy, but was an important part of the identity of the civic elite in the Greek East, as well as a means of approach to its members. It was in this context that the Christians began to present themselves as both a distinct ethnos and a philosophical school, alongside of and in competition with the other recognized schools. The apologists of the second century, then, present Christianity as a deserving member of the elite culture patronized by the emperor, but this presentation created strains in a Church that had an as yet uncertain relation to both philosophy and the elites.

Elena Calandra presents the Villa of Hadrian at Tivoli as the deliberately orchestrated backdrop to a self-conscious display of power in “Villa Adriana scenario del potere”. She indicates that the architectural sources of the Villa are to be found not only in the palaces of the Hellenistic kings with their elaborate ideologies of royal magnificence, but also in structures associated with the ruler cult of the Roman emperors, especially the Traianeum Hadrian built to honour his adopted father and his own library at Athens. She also traces the three phases of construction at Tivoli from the restrained conservatism of the first phase (118-121) to the elaboration of a novel and eclectic imperial ideology following Hadrian’s tour of the Empire in the second (125-128) and finally to an articulation of the emperor’s concern to link himself with a soteriological cult through the person of Antinous in the third phase (133/134). If the reign of Hadrian afforded the Christians an opportunity for self-presentation, the Villa at Tivoli as described by Calandra is a testament to Hadrian’s own effort at self-presentation, an autobiographical artifact of the first importance.

Marco Galli continues the theme of Hadrian’s self-presentation in his paper, “La paideia di Adriano: alcune osservazioni sulla valenza politica del culto eroico”. Recent scholarship, as well as popular presentations, have offered a robust and martial image of a ‘Roman’ Hadrian in contrast to the traditionally prevalent image of a peaceful, philhellene image of Graeculus Hadrian. Galli insists that this contrast is too simplistic and that paideia itself is the key to unlocking the complex but well-rounded image that Hadrian wished to project. Hadrian presented himself as a strong man, a conqueror, and even a hero in the mould of Heracles, Alexander, and Antinous, a hero of his own making, in ways that could only be read within the context of a literate paideia. In making his point, Galli reminds us that it is also simplistic to view paideia as purely cerebral and intellectual, when it was in fact central to the operations and interrelations of the local civic elites, whom Hadrian co- opted into the running of the Empire.

I must confess that after several rereadings I still find Alessandro Galimberti’s “Hadrian, Eleusis, and the beginnings of Christian apologetics” confusing and unconvincing. There is a thorough presentation of the background of Hadrian’s relations to foreign cults, the Jews, and the Christians before the problem at hand is finally set before the reader. Galimberti demonstrates that there is a connection in our sources between Hadrian’s observance of the Eleusinian rites, a persecution of the Christians, and the presentation of the apologies of Quadratus and Aristides to the emperor. So far so good, though the nature of the connection remains vague. Galimberti goes on to suggest that the date for these linked events should be shifted from 124/5, which coincides with Hadrian’s rescript to Minucius Fundanus (a document if not favourable to the Christians, then at least unfavourable to their accusers), to 131/2 and the persecution of the Christians identified with the massacres perpetrated by Bar Kochba and his Jewish rebels. I will restrict my criticism to two points. Although Galimberti states emphatically that it is, I do not see any reason why 124/5 should be precluded as at least a viable alternative. The link which our texts, Jerome’s De viris illustribus 19-20 and Epistula 70,4, seem to present between events is that Hadrian’s celebration of the Eleusinian mysteries offered an occasion to their enemies to persecute the Christians. While we can imagine the pagan enemies of the Church interpreting Hadrian’s practice of pagan rites as an endorsement of their position and tacit permission to extirpate deviants, it is hard to imagine Jewish zealots seeing the Roman emperor’s activities at Eleusis as anything more than a matter of indifference in their relations with the Christians.

Giovanni Battista Bazzana’s contribution, “The Bar Kokhba Revolt and Hadrian’s Religious Policy”, uses a detailed philological investigation of several disparate texts to clarify Hadrian’s policy in regard to the Jews. The epitome of Dio Cassius in Xiphilinus indicates that the Jewish revolt was started by anger at the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the foundation of a temple to Zeus on the Temple Mount, and the Historia Augusta asserts that it was caused by the Jewish insistence on circumcision. Bazzana draws on the evidence of the Epistle of Barnabas and Rabbinic literature to tease a coherent and plausible picture from these texts. Bazzana suggests that Hadrian, far from proceeding in ignorance or even setting out to instigate a Jewish uprising, was acting according to a benign policy consistent with his broader approach to the religions of the empire, in which the bestowal of the status of colony on Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple were acts of euergetism intended to integrate the Jews of Palestine more fully into the Empire and the discouragement of circumcision was meant to alleviate Jewish distinctiveness. If Hadrian was unwary, it was inasmuch as he offered these gestures to a Jewish population increasingly polarized between a willingness to accommodate itself to the wider world and an intransigent insistence upon peculiarity which entertained no negotiation or compromise.

The next paper, another by Alessandro Galimberti, “The pseudo-Hadrianic Epistle in the Historia Augusta and Hadrian’s religious policy”, attempts to rehabilitate a letter attributed to Hadrian in a notoriously unreliable source. Galimberti’s reading of the brief text is careful, revealing, and presents a real challenge to anyone who would blithely ascribe the letter and all of its references to the fourth century. Ultimately, however, I’m not sure that Galimberti has succeeded in proving much more than that the author writing under the name of Flavius Vopiscus had a creditably good working knowledge of the reign of Hadrian. If Galimberti would like to see the epistle used as a source contemporary with Hadrian, since he grants that it is a pastiche with late antique interpolations, it might have been helpful if he had explicitly separated the wheat from the chaff.

The unwelcome consequences of taking the evidence of the Historia Augusta at face value are demonstrated by the next paper. In “Serapis, Boukoloi and Christians from Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius” Livia Capponi propounds an extraordinary thesis: that Serapis was worshipped by the Christians of Egypt in the second and third century. Her evidence is tenuous, ambiguous and erroneous by turns. The mere presence of a copy of the Septuagint in the library of the Serapeum would not, to my mind, elicit from Jews and Christians veneration of the god whose temple housed the library, and there is no suggestion in Minucius Felix’s Octavius that Caecilius is a representative of “lower-class Christians” and not the pagan majority. From this proposition Capponi moves on to others just as dubious. The Boukoloi as worshippers of Serapis are to be associated with the Christian supporters of the usurper Avidius Cassius; no matter that Cassius made his bid for power after suppressing the revolt of the Boukoloi, the Egyptian desperadoes are still instrumental in his rising. Here I think she mistakes unsurprisingly similar phenomena produced by the same historical situation for phenomena that were related in intention or in perception. Capponi’s suggestion ultimately involves a complete inversion of our understanding of some of the critical events in the history of Egyptian Christianity. Rather than a growing number of Christians eager for a chance to extirpate the shrines and idols of paganism being held in check by Roman authorities committed to pluralism and toleration, we are to imagine the mobs and the bishop of Alexandria himself incited to the destruction of the Serapeum in 391, against their idiosyncratic but time-honoured customs and traditions, by a central government intent on the “normalisation” of Christianity throughout the Empire. Daring, but not defensible.

Marco Rizzi promises to substantiate the interpretations of Hadrian’s religious policy offered in this volume with material from Christian apologetic literature in his concluding essay, but the result is much more like a few random notes on the texts in question. He deals with the most difficult text, the Apology of Aristides, first, though basing an argument on a work which requires reconstruction in the first place may have been imprudent. I remain unconvinced that Aristides’ racial genealogy of religion can be reconstructed as three-part (“polytheists,” Jews, and Christians) rather than four-part (Barbarians, Greeks, Jews, and Christians) in order to correspond with the designation of the Christians as a tertium genus. Rizzi is much more persuasive when he proposes that the presumably fictional setting of Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho at the outbreak of the Bar Kochba revolt is particularly significant in making the Dialogue a response to the religious pluralism of Hadrian’s reign and suggesting that Christianity, rather than Judaism, has the potential to achieve the goal of religious universalism the Emperor was striving toward. Finally, Rizzi draws parallels between the rhetoric of civic prestige and the references to cities in the Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch to suggest that the idea of a monarchic episcopate grew up alongside Trajan and Hadrian’s concept of a monarchic Empire; but Ignatius’ model of ecclesiastical order seems to leave little room for the “cultural, religious, and ethnical diversities” which Rizzi takes to characterize the ideal polity of these emperors.

One final point is perhaps worth making. Although most of it is in English, I doubt that this volume passed under the eye of a native English speaker at any point in the editorial process. This is a sad oversight, especially when it might so easily have been remedied. The occasional unintended assault on the English language might be forgiven, but the accumulation of infelicities and errors in grammar, diction, idiom, and usage seriously detracts from the content of the papers.

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