Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.07.32 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.07.32

Maijastina Kahlos (ed.), The Faces of the Other: Religious Rivalry and Ethnic Encounters in the Later Roman World. Cursor mundi, 10.   Turnhout:  Brepols Publishers, 2011.  Pp. viii, 324.  ISBN 9782503539997.  €80.00.  

Reviewed by Richard Flower, University of Exeter (

Table of Contents

I used to live next door to a rugby player who often wore a T-shirt bearing the slogan ‘I support two teams: New Zealand, and anyone playing Australia’. Since most people he met in Britain could not readily distinguish his accent from that of an Australian, this short-sleeved component of his habitus contributed to asserting his identity. The ways in which individuals and groups seek to construct images of ‘the Other’, and thereby to define themselves more clearly through opposition, has been the subject of many studies, both within Classics and in academia more widely.1 The volume under review here, which is the product of an international research group, adds a number of Roman case studies and surveys to the sum of scholarship on this topic, with particular emphasis on Christianity and other religious groups. After an introduction setting out some key themes and bibliography, the nine chapters are then divided into two groups: ‘Other Religions’ and ‘Other Peoples’. However, as the introduction makes clear, the topics of religion and ethnicity pervade the whole volume. For this review, therefore, it might be more useful to split the chapters up into the two main approaches employed: case-studies of individual authors and surveys of particular themes across time.

Anders Klostergaard Petersen provides a reading of the rhetorical techniques of ‘othering’ in 2 Corinthians, demonstrating how Paul distinguished himself from alternative ‘apostles’ who sought to usurp his authority at Corinth. Through some close consideration of the text’s vocabulary, this chapter argues that the oppositions between Paul and his opponents were more constructed than essential, since ‘there is not that vast a difference between Paul and the other apostles’ (p. 50). This provides an example of what Kahlos refers to in the introduction as ‘the proximate other’, whereby people often strive most vehemently to demonstrate their difference from those who seem most like them, as was the case with my rugby-playing friend. In general, Klostergaard Petersen presents a persuasive argument, although it takes a while to reach it. The first part of this 32-page chapter is taken up with rather dense theoretical material that does not seem to be required for the subsequent analysis of Paul. In this section, the reader is confronted by a number of obscure phrases, such as ‘ontological dumpings of fragile cultural entities’ (p. 21).

Päivi Vähäkangas’ chapter on the presentation of the Valentinians in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies stands out as a clear and perceptive exploration of the bishop’s various rhetorical strategies for branding his enemies as heretics, including comparing them to a hydra, united in one heresy, but with many mouths that disagree amongst themselves. This chapter also moves beyond describing the text’s construction of ‘the Other’ and considers both Irenaeus’ portrayal of his own authority and the use of similar strategies in Nag Hammadi texts and Celsus’ anti-Christian polemic.

Anders-Christian Jacobsen moves through three types of ‘others’ – pagans, heretics and women – in the works of Tertullian. The categories are discussed in turn, with a text-by-text approach taken within each individual section, allowing continuities in Tertullian’s rhetoric to be illustrated clearly. Perhaps more importantly, however, Jacobsen also demonstrates the occasional blurring of Tertullian’s supposedly rigid boundaries, especially between ‘pagans’ and ‘Christians’, such as allowing the latter to be present at celebrations which involved sacrifices. Benjamin Isaac provides a similar discussion of a theme across the work of a single author in his piece on ‘foreigners’ in Ammianus Marcellinus. This is explicitly presented as a continuation of his earlier monumental work on ‘racism’ in the ancient world.2 After examining Ammianus’ descriptions of Gaul, Arabia and Persia, the main part of the chapter is taken up with his treatment of various nomadic groups, especially the Huns, Saracens and Alans, demonstrating his use of long-standing stereotypes that can often be traced back as far as Herodotus. This includes discussion of a number of famous passages, including the Saracen drinking the blood of his Gothic enemy at Hadrianople and the Huns warming their meat while seated on their horses, as well as Jordanes’ story about the Huns being descendants of Gothic witches. For those who rarely venture into the fourth century AD, this chapter will provide useful comparanda for earlier literary tropes, but those already familiar with Ammianus will probably find it less informative.

Marika Rauhala’s piece, the first of five chapters that explore specific themes over time, examines attitudes towards the worship of Cybele and its self-castrated priests, the galli. While these figures were often described in pejorative terms that emphasised effeminacy and foreignness, Rauhala remarks that the cult itself was embraced as part of ‘Roman’ ritual within the city in the classical period. The main part of the chapter is then taken up with a survey of late- antique accounts, arguing that pagans seemed to remark on the otherness of the galli less during the fourth and fifth centuries, when Neoplatonist allegorical interpretations of Cybele, Attis and castration developed. In contrast, many Christian authors unsurprisingly seized on the cult as a prime example of the sexual deviance, sacrificial bloodlust and general ridiculous behaviour that they saw as characterising paganism more generally. At the end of the piece, Rauhala also supports the suggestion that Christians were particularly keen to attack the worship of the Mother of the Gods because it could be seen as having elements that were paralleled in Christian belief and practice.3

Markus Mertaniemi’s chapter on ‘Christians as others’ from the third to the fifth century forms a pair with the first of Maijastina Kahlos’ chapters, which explores Christian presentations of pagans during roughly the same period. Mertaniemi proceeds roughly chronologically, beginning with the period before 313, when Christians were depicted as dangerous, gullible or both, although necessarily much of this apparent ‘pagan’ hostility has to be reconstructed from later Christian writings. After that, the chapter surveys anti-Christian statements by Julian, Eunapius, Libanius and Ammianus Marcellinus. The interpretation of the last of these owes much to Timothy Barnes, since it regards Ammianus as subtly undermining Christianity.4 It would, however, have been useful to have seen alternative views explored here, especially since Mertaniemi translates Ammianus’ famous self-identification as a miles quondam et Graecus as ‘soldier and Hellene’ without acknowledging that taking Graecus to be a definite statement of ‘religious identity’ remains controversial.5 The chapter then concludes with a short discussion of Symmachus’ plea for seeing Christianity as merely one path to truth. Rather than proceeding by author in this fashion, Kahlos presents a thematic catalogue of late-antique anti-pagan labelling drawn from a range of texts. These included branding them as stupid, insane, childlike, feminine, immoral, beastly, dirty, diseased and demonic. Many of these categories appear elsewhere in classical polemical literature, including in some of the anti-Christian and anti-heretical texts discussed elsewhere in this volume, and Kahlos draws attention to this wider context on a number of occasions. The final section of this chapter is of particular interest, as it explores the uses of these rhetorical ‘pagans’, arguing that such attacks were frequently directed not at actual pagans, but rather at other Christians, who could be accused of behaving like the enemy and so separating themselves from the ranks of the true believers.

Antti Lampinen provides an extensive survey of depictions of Gauls and Germans in Roman literature, noting how traits attributed to the former gradually faded from texts after Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, although Lampinen argues that the presentation of the Bacaudae shows that they never disappeared completely. The chapter then demonstrates the many similarities between the ‘barbarian’ characteristics attributed to both Gauls and Germans, while also drawing out some differences between the treatment of the two groups, before incorporating a brief section on the widely-studied topic of ‘barbarian’ identities in late antiquity. Finally, the volume concludes with a second, brief piece by Maijastina Kahlos on shifting associations between the dichotomies of Roman/barbarian and Christian/pagan. After presenting the widespread view that in the pre-Constantinian period Christians were sometimes accused of not acting as ‘Romans’ because of their non-participation in pagan worship, this chapter examines the changing situation in the 310s. This is followed by some examples of Christians, especially Prudentius, associating paganism with barbarism, before discussing statements from the Theodosian Code that defined those who were not orthodox Christians as being outside Roman society.

Overall, this volume brings together a range of different material but nonetheless remains focused on its overarching concerns. Many of the possible links between the papers are discussed in the second half of the introduction, demonstrating that this book has a relatively high degree of thematic coherence compared to many edited volumes. As is usual in such publications, the originality and significance of the contributions is variable, with some tending towards primarily being assemblages of material without the depth of analysis that one might hope to see in a publication of this sort. As already mentioned, there are also a few places where individual contributors lapse into unnecessary and obfuscatory jargon. There are, however, some interesting discussions and useful insights in here, as well as helpful starting points for further study. Although the theme of ‘the Other’ has already been discussed extensively, its potential for classicists and ancient historians is clearly not yet exhausted.


1.   Probably the most frequently cited work on this subject in classical scholarship is E. Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy, Oxford, 1989.
2.   B. Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, Princeton, 2004.
3.   On this question, see also A. Fear, ‘Cybele and Christ’, in E. N. Lane (ed.), Cybele, Attis and related cults: Essays in memory of M.J. Vermaseren, Leiden, 1996, 37-50.
4.   T. D. Barnes, Ammianus Marcellinus and the Representation of Historical Reality, Ithaca, NY, 1998.
5.   Amm. 31.16.9.

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