Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.06.51 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.06.51

Peter Eich, Eike Faber (ed.), Religiöser Alltag in der Spätantike. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge, Bd. 44​.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2013.  Pp. 293.  ISBN 9783515104425.  €58.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Robin Whelan, Corpus Christi College (

Table of Contents

Late antiquity has always been seen by historians of religion as a thrillingly formative period. As Peter Brown – der große Meister dieses Sujets, in the words of the editors (16) – elegantly puts it in the opening line of his paper: ‘One of the joys of the study of Religiöser Alltag in der Spätantike is the fact that… Alltag had not yet become grauer Alltag’ (23). There is little humdrum in the diverse themes surveyed by this collection – taken from a 2010 conference at the Universität Potsdam – which range from synods and imperial victory ideology to the Pirenne thesis and oracular literature. Still, there is a sense that the participants could have dared to be more boring. For it is precisely in the intersection between religion and the mundane – in both senses of that word – that this volume tends to fall short.

An introduction considers briefly the methodological problems of ‘religion’ and ‘the everyday’ in late antiquity (7-16). The editors do not seek to impose a particular definition of these terms or their combination, although they do gesture strongly towards Clifford Geertz’s classic conceptualisation of religion as a cultural system (9) and more generally advocate an approach that takes into account the linguistic turn (12-16). As so often, scholars of the ancient world cannot afford to be too picky in their choice of evidence: ‘Althistoriker sind Allesfresser’ (12).

Peter Brown’s chapter is a short rumination on the shift from traditional civic forms of largesse to the Christian mode of charity, covering in brief the material of his recent magnum opus.1 Brown suggests both that these two types of giving remained compatible in Augustine’s Africa – despite episcopal protestations – and that the broad cultural change which eventually led one to replace the other was neither simple continuity nor rupture, but ‘the emergence of a vivid tertium quid’ (27). He emphasises the need to capture the ‘sociological untidiness in the Christian communities of around 400 AD’ (29).

Christiane Kunst considers the Christianisation of marriage ceremonies in late antiquity. A closing sententia schematises her argument: ‘Pagane Kultelemente werden profanisiert, profane sakralisiert’ (50). If this could all seem a little neat, Kunst’s survey of how this process affected each of the traditional elements of Roman wedding customs does permit greater ideological messiness. Her analysis of the ambiguities of a sixth-century Syrian wedding belt is particularly nice: would a viewer interpret its Greek inscription as ‘“aus Gott [Christus] kommt Eintracht, Glück und Gesundheit,”’ or ‘“Von Gott kommen Concordia, Venus und Hygieia”’? (42-44)

Eike Faber lays out the evidence for Christian influence on fourth-century imperial victory celebrations, summarising the ‘pre-history’ of the late-antique triumph from the Republic to Constantine (53-59), the four fourth-century entries into Rome (59-65), the limited and often much later evidence for Christian prayers for imperial victory (65-67), and the fourth-century coin issues which contained triumphal imagery (67-69). His conclusion – that the process of Christianisation affected the army in a similarly gradual way to the rest of society (69) – is sensible, but it is difficult to see how it connects to the previous discussion.

The next four papers tackle the consequences of ecclesiastical controversy. Pedro Barceló narrates the involvement of Athanasius of Alexandria in the conciliar conflicts of the fourth century, from the synod of Tyre in 335 through to the bishop’s death in 373. Following this narrative, he concludes that Athanasius was a pathfinder for later political bishops like Ambrose of Milan, Theophilos and Cyril of Alexandria, and others in the main metropoleis of the empire. Claudia Tiersch turns to the politics of the See of Constantinople between Gregory Nazianzus and Proclus. Taking its holders one-by-one, she tracks a shift from a hair-splittingly dialectical theological culture to one of unity rooted in Marian piety. If this overarching narrative might be questioned,2 Tiersch’s contribution nonetheless takes a sophisticated approach to the policies of these bishops and their consequences within the court city. Manfred Clauss’ wonderfully titled ‘Kein Bad für Häretiker’ briefly sketches the colourful Christian politics of the city of Alexandria in the second half of the fifth century and its implications for everyday life. Drawing heavily on analogous material from the Donatist schism, Clauss sees uncompromising sectarian division as patterning society. Claudia Rammelt uses the extraordinary evidence of the acclamations from the city of Edessa against its bishop Ibas, transmitted in the Acts of Ephesus (449), to suggest something similar. ‘Die christologische Frage bleibt somit im Alltagsgeschäft verwurzelt, ja wird zur identitätsstiftenden Größe für jeden Einzelnen’ (143). These papers rightly highlight the potential for Christian conflicts to intersect with everyday life; it might be questioned whether day-to-day interactions were so deeply influenced by them – especially to the extent that Clauss suggests – or whether that is simply the impression contemporary clerics gave.

The next four papers are case studies of everyday religious life at particular sites. Armin Eich considers the evidence from Sagalassos in western Asia Minor. There is not a great deal to go on, but Eich uses what there is – the incorporation of earlier temples into the walls c. 400 and the survival from the sixth and seventh centuries of ceramics and a silver amulet – to integrate the city into broader narratives of transformation and Christianisation.

Norbert Zimmermann sketches the religious life of the Roman catacombs from the second to the ninth century, narrating their move from a largely private burial space to an ecclesiastical pilgrimage site, with the interventions of bishop Damasus as the key turning point. Zimmermann’s main focus is on the burial customs of the early period. In Zimmermann’s view the third-century catacombs were dominated by the interests of families and the activities of fossores. This is an image compatible with other important recent work,3 although episcopal oversight is perhaps given more credence here as a potential factor (171-73). One rather curious decision Zimmermann makes is to illustrate the everyday life of the catacombs with a series of black and white photos of early twentieth-century re- enactors, in which grieving men and women in togas pose with officiating priests before loculi (194-98).

Peter Eich’s paper on late Roman Cologne begins with a pointed observation: the problem of telling whether the statements of a high-profile religious intellectual represent the views of his community pale in comparison to the methodological difficulties for sites without such literary texts (201). For Cologne, this problem is exacerbated by the lack of helpful archaeological material for late antiquity, even in the form of late phases at imperial sites or early activity at early medieval ones (201-203). After surveying what evidence can be used for religious life in late-antique Cologne – predominantly inscriptions and cursory appearances of bishops in the historical record – Eich comes to an important conclusion: religious communities which are not the focus of literary debates over correct doctrine or practice in late antiquity can only be considered schematically (223).

Johann Ev. Hafner uses two such texts – the letter on the martyrs of Vienne and Lyon from Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History and Irenaeus’ Against Heresies – to consider the Christian community in Lyon c. 200. He argues that the ‘pogrom’ (as he calls it) of the year 177 described in the former text was a crucial moment of group definition which made Christians in the city begin to see themselves as distinct from adherents of other cults. Further, he suggests that this led Irenaeus and his community to oppose the Gnostics, who seemed like a return to an earlier syncretism that had since become a source of suspicion. Hafner’s chapter could perhaps have profited from a more critical approach to ‘Gnosticism.’4 He rightly notes that what was orthodox and what was heretical was unclear in this period, but still identifies Irenaeus’ community as the ‘Normalgemeinde’ (237).

David Hernández de la Fuente examines appearances of oracular statements in late-antique Greek epic poetry. He emphasises that these were not simply traditional elements since poets like Nonnus also appropriated prophecies from ‘external’ literary traditions. Hernández de la Fuente argues that these statements were used both because of and in spite of various cultural fault-lines in the later Roman Empire: notably, between Christians and pagans and centre and periphery.

Finally, Johannes Niehoff-Panagiotidis asks – channelling Pierre Veyne (257 n. 1) – ‘how did the Mediterranean world become Islamic?’ He sketches a brief narrative of seventh-century history from the Roman-Persian war through to the Muslim conquest of Spain before considering the polemical descriptions of the new religion written by John of Damascus, Theodore Abu Qurrah, and Nicetas of Byzantium.

As is often the case with such Sammelbände, the extent to which these papers tackle the central theme of the collection varies greatly. It is not entirely clear that, for example, imperial triumphs or church councils belonged to the sphere of everyday life in the fourth century. (Barceló himself suggests that the latter were certainly marginal to broader society and possibly of exaggerated importance to the Christian community [79-80].) Implicit throughout is that Religion in der Spätantike was Christian or, at least, on its way there (see the revealing formulations of ‘eine… Politisierung des christlichen Alltags’ at p. 91, ‘die alltägliche Arbeit in den Kirchen und Klöstern’ at p. 125, and the editors’ statement at p. 16: ‘Religiöser Alltag in spätrömischer Zeit weist selbstredend Kontinuitäten zur vorhergehenden Zeit auf. Interessanter aber sind die Brüche, die zu verzeichnen sind und die in besonderem Maße mit dem Aufstieg des Christentums zusammenhängen.’)

There is perhaps a more central problem that one of the most sophisticated contributions in the volume highlights. Claudia Tiersch suggests that everyday religiosity should be seen as its own sphere in the lives of the inhabitants of late-antique Constantinople, but must also be connected with other spheres such as power interests, patronage structures, political ideologies, and the interests of broader groups within the population (97). In so doing, she highlights a tension implicit in the book’s title and ignored by most of the other contributions. Are we seeking simply to study the facets of religious life which could be characterised as ‘everyday’ – and thus, as the introduction notes, as constitutive for religions in late antiquity (10)? Or are we seeking to understand the role of religion and the extent of its consequences within ‘everyday life’ broadly conceived? The danger of considering the former without careful reflection upon the latter is that this ‘process of routinisation’ (10) becomes self-fulfilling. The space for alternative interests in everyday life is discounted. In recent times, historians have convincingly read surviving late-antique Christian texts as attempts to make religious practices or beliefs alltäglich, and thus to create a sense of group solidarity, as opposed to windows on a world where this had already happened.5 If the religious diversity of late antiquity is not to be narrated as an inevitable process of streamlining towards a uniformly Christian medieval society, this sense of ‘sociological untidiness’ (to return to Brown) must come to the fore in future research. Religiöser Alltag in der Spätantike provides a useful starting point. ​


1.   P.R.L. Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton, NJ, 2012).
2.   See now Averil Cameron, ‘Can Christians do dialogue?’, Studia Patristica 63 (2013), 103-20.
3.   See É. Rebillard, The care of the dead in late antiquity, (trans.) E. Trapnell Rawlings and J. Routier-Pucci, Cornell studies in classical philology 59 (Ithaca, NY, 2009) and J. Bodel, ‘From columbaria to catacombs: collective burial in pagan and Christian Rome’, in L. Brink and D. Green (edd.) Commemorating the dead: texts and artifacts in context (Berlin, 2008), 177-242.
4.   E.g. A. Le Boulluec, La notion d’hérésie dans la littérature grecque, IIe-IIIe siècles, 2 vols. (Paris, 1985), 113-253. K.L. King, What is Gnosticism? (Cambridge, MA, 2003).
5.   See esp. I. Sandwell, Religious Identity in Late Antiquity: Greeks, Jews and Christians in Antioch (Cambridge, 2007); T. Sizgorich, Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam (Philadelphia, PA, 2009); É. Rebillard, Christians and their many identities in late antiquity, North Africa, 200-450 CE (Ithaca, NY, 2012). ​

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