One of the recurring delights of the late Terry Pratchett’s much-loved series of fantasy novels is scenes where the Discworld’s laconic grim reaper greets the recently deceased to inform them of their passing. My personal favourite is the moment in Maskerade where Death attempts to coax a reluctant swan into playing its part in its own demise.
‘NOW LOOK, he said, I KNOW HOW IT IS SUPPOSED TO GO. SWANS SING JUST ONCE, BEAUTIFULLY, BEFORE THEY DIE. THAT’S WHERE THE WORD ‘SWANSONG’ ORIGINATES. IT IS VERY MOVING. NOW, LET US TRY THIS AGAIN…’ (75)
Death eventually tricks the swan into warbling the first notes of an aria, much to the swan’s consternation.
‘THANK YOU, said Death. The scythe moved.
A moment later the swan stepped out of its body and ruffled fresh but slightly transparent wings.
“Now what?” it said.
THAT’S UP TO YOU. IT’S ALWAYS UP TO YOU.’ (76)
Like Pratchett’s darkly funny swan song, Ellen Muehlberger’s new book Moment of Reckoning turns on the cultural expectations of how we anticipate our own deaths and what comes after. As Muehlberger notes in her introduction, most scholarship on death in the ancient world and beyond has focused (partly of necessity) on the social and political functions of funerary practices: the acts of mourning and commemoration carried out by those left behind. Moment of Reckoning instead looks at how early Christian authors encouraged their audiences to think about their future passing. In exploring late ancient appeals to the terrifying experience of death as a means of Christian self-discipline, Muehlberger moves back to late antiquity the groundbreaking work of Philipp Ariès and Caroline Walker Bynum on twelfth-century ideas of the Last Judgement. But she does so without making the same claims to capture interior dispositions through textual representations or—most critically—to see in this period the ‘invention of the individual’. Instead, Muehlberger traces how the emergence of particular aspects of Christian thought about death help us to understand distinctive ideas of personhood, the afterlife, and religious coercion formed in the late ancient Mediterranean.
Ch. 1 argues that fourth-century Christian writers used political deaths as a means to ‘manage the ambiguities of the near past’ (32). It analyses depictions of the ‘good’ deaths of Constantine and his family in Eusebius’ Life of Constantine (neatly reframed as a deathbed account (32-41)) and the grotesque ends of Galerius in Lactantius’ On the Deaths of the Persecutors (41-52) and Arius in Athanasius’ Letter to Sarapion (52-62).1 Muehlberger persuasively argues against the tendency to treat such horrific deaths as a generic trans-historical trope. In these cases, Eusebius, Lactantius and Athanasius worked from the assumption that ‘a body in death registers either divine reward or divine punishment’ (51). The quality of these deaths shut down alternative interpretations of events by revealing divine truth about support for, or opposition to, Christianity or Nicene (supposed) orthodoxy. Somewhat less persuasive is her suggestion that Constantine’s reported final words in the Life have shaped our continued historiographical interpretation of him as a Christian emperor (40-41). (Or at the very least I would have needed more substantial footnoting here to be amenable.)
Ch. 2 explores how late ancient preachers sought to evoke in their audiences the experience of their own deaths. Muehlberger presents close readings of descriptions of the process of death in sermons by Augustine of Hippo, Jacob of Serugh, Ps.-Cyril of Alexandria and Shenoute of Atripe. While Augustine’s sermon on Lawrence reframed Jesus’ supposed dread of death in the Garden of Gethsemane as a means of comforting humanity (71-79), Jacob, Ps-Cyril and Shenoute walked their listeners through the grim bodily (and extra-bodily) realities of mortality (79-101). Particularly neat here is Muehlberger’s connection of Jacob’s scene of an unremarkable death to his reflection elsewhere on the need to speak to the ‘condition’ of ordinary Christians to hold their interest (88). Muehlberger argues that these passages show sermons as an ‘experiential’ rhetorical form (68) and an ‘implicit medium’ (75) that invited listeners to round out the scenes evoked with their thoughts and memories. She suggests that this led to a certain atomization of individual church communities in the moment, as preachers got each individual to imagine their own circumstances.2 (And, she could have added, evoked in these deathbed scenes relationships which transcended, and sometimes countervailed, those of a formal Christian community: family members, friends, household dependents, business contacts and so on (86, 90, 96).) Of course, Muehlberger’s view of preaching as an ‘intimate technology’ (79) takes for granted that members of this audience found these scenes plausible enough—or, to be frank, were paying sufficient attention—to be transported. Neither is a given in the light of recent studies of late ancient preaching.3 In that regard, I would be interested to know whether other preachers could get by on appeals to commonsensical understandings of the process of dying (as in these cases), or had explicitly to acknowledge (and tackle) alternative perspectives they presumed were present amongst their audiences..
Ch. 3 sets late ancient sermons on death in the context of the schooling preachers received alongside the other elite men of the Roman Empire. Muehlberger stresses the significance for late ancient people of the thought processes learned through speech-in-character (prosopopoeia), and convincingly argues that the death scenes in ch. 2 bear the imprint of this practice. This chapter is an elegant summary, both of late Roman rhetorical training and of the wider scholarly move to dismantle the artificial barrier between ‘Christian’ and classical discourse in the study of this period. Given that recent work, I felt that Muehlberger was pushing a little too hard at a door she and others had already opened. Nevertheless, her reflections here should stimulate future work, not least on the potential impact of ventriloquizing tragic heroes and heroines on the ideas of mortality instilled in elite adolescents (pagan and Christian). The new Christian ‘postmortal’ understanding discussed in ch. 4 may have metabolized this more traditional framework for contemplating death in late antiquity, but Muehlberger’s own insistence on the continuing significance of both process and content—and, I would add, the recurring presence of these voices in late ancient poetry—point to other possibilities.
Ch. 4 teases out a strand of late ancient Christian thinking that saw people continue to inhabit ‘physical and vulnerable’ (179) bodies after death. Christians in late antiquity belatedly fleshed out the experience of life after death and thus opened up a new phase in the course of human life: the ‘postmortal’. Muehlberger takes various narratives as indications of theorizing about postmortal existence. She considers, first, reports of Christian ‘sightings’ of the recently deceased (151- 59), and then the more developed visions of Antony, Pachomius, and Perpetua (159-67).4 Muehlberger argues that the carefully situational punishments presented in the hell of the Vision of Paul—another likely late ancient pseudepigraphic creation—were written to naturalize widespread ideas of a corporeal afterlife as against the non- corporeal soul presented in doctrinal tractates (167-79).
Ch. 5 argues that these new Christian ideas of postmortal judgement of bodies shaped the emergence of religious coercion in late antiquity. Muehlberger here offers an important corrective to recent studies of late ancient religious violence, and particularly the work of Michael Gaddis and Thomas Sizgorich (185-93).5 Both Gaddis and Sizgorich argued that the memory of pre-Constantinian persecution led Christians to their own acts of violence. Drawing on the work of Elizabeth Castelli, Lucy Grig, Candida Moss, and Stephanie Cobb, Muehlberger suggests that this solution merely defers the question of religious coercion, since that memory itself was formed (insofar as we can see it) in the fourth century.6 What follows is a rereading of Augustine’s infamous justification of religious coercion. Augustine characterized the errant Donatists as children, the sick, animals and others who could not be trusted to know what was best for them; eternal punishment justified coercion now (194-203). The bishop of Hippo replaced the ‘compeller’ (Augustine/imperial authorities/Catholic bishops) and ‘compelled’ (Donatists) with more agreeable surrogates: God and grateful former Donatists post-coercion (204-12). Muehlberger here patiently reveals the logic of an almost ubiquitous procedure in late ancient discourse about salutary correction; the degree to which its articulation required the specific ideas of the postmortal sketched in ch. 4 was less clear to me. The book ends with a short conclusion where Muehlberger returns to the role of ideas of death in the delineation of a sense of the individual and collective, in dialogue with the work of Michel Foucault on pastoral power (217-24).
All in all, Moment of Reckoning is an elegant and accessible book, which looks afresh at a cluster of ideas too easily taken for granted as basic to a Christian worldview. As an aside, it also has some of the most effective use of the first person I have seen in scholarly work. The book (blessedly) wears its research lightly. But in that sense, I might have liked Muehlberger to show more of her working, especially in terms of her choice of individual case studies. Do other histories treat the deaths of political figures in precisely the same way as Eusebius, Lactantius and Athanasius? Do the other sermons on death which Muehlberger consulted (mentioned at 66-67) conjure roughly the same sort of intimate, individual experience as she delineates in ch. 2? Did the ethical surrogacy used by Augustine have an identical impact in other contexts of religious coercion: for example, in cases where the grateful converts were heretics, pagans or Jews? I have little doubt that the answer to all three questions is a yes—but probably not a simple one. That extra degree of density and granularity would be all the more welcome in a work whose central purpose is to eschew teleology and explore the complex outworkings of these ideas across late ancient western Eurasia. But this is perhaps to ask too much of an already rich monograph. Like the late ancient Christian texts it so neatly analyses, Moment of Reckoning will encourage its readers to pay much more attention to expectations of death.
1. The latter section picks up Muehlberger’s article ‘The Legend of Arius’ Death: Imagination, Space and Filth in Late Ancient Christian Historiography’, Past & Present 227.1 (2015): 3-29.
2. See here recent work on individualism in late ancient religion: Jorg Rupke and Éric Rebillard (eds) Group Identity and Religious Individuality in Late Antiquity (Washington, D.C., 2015).
3. See e.g. Jaclyn Maxwell, Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity: John Chrysostom and his Congregation in Antioch (Cambridge, 2006); Lisa Kaaren Bailey, Christianity's quiet success: the Eusebius Gallicanus sermon collection and the power of the church in late antique Gaul (Notre Dame, IN, 2010); Éric Rebillard, Christians and their many identities in late antiquity, North Africa, 200-450 CE (Ithaca, NY, 2012).
4. Significantly, the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity is here taken as an originally late fourth/early fifth century text at 162 n. 35 against the scholarly consensus, with a future paper arguing this case trailed in the footnotes.
5. Michael Gaddis, There is No Crime for Those who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire, Transformation of the Classical Heritage 39 (Berkeley, CA, 2005); Thomas Sizgorich, Violence and Belief: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam (Philadelphia, PA, 2009).
6. Elizabeth Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (New York, 2004); Lucy Grig, Making Martyrs in Late Antiquity (Bristol, 2004); Candida Moss, Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions (New Haven, CT, 2012); idem, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (New York, 2013); Stephanie Cobb, Divine Deliverance: Pain and Painlessness in Early Christian Martyr Texts (Berkeley, CA, 2017).