BMCR 1995.02.15

1995.02.15, Trombley, Hellenic Religion and Christianization

, Hellenic religion and Christianization : c. 370-529. Religions in the Graeco-Roman world, v. 115. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993-1994. 2 volumes ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9789004096929 $114.50.

The fate of the native religions of the Mediterranean world in late antiquity has long fascinated historians, stimulating over a hundred years of both broad discussions, like Geffcken, Kaegi, and Chuvin, regional studies like those of Ramsay and Wilcken, and a large portion of the field of late antique history. And in many ways Trombley’s two volumes, fitting into the “broad” category, provide an invaluable extension of and improvement upon those of Geffcken and Chuvin in documenting both the resilience and the individual christianizations of “pagan” cults up through the fifth century CE. Whatever one might say about his analysis Trombley has surely proven his point that native religions were alive and well in many parts of the late antique world, and we may thank him for the breadth of his documentation.

But a work of this size one wants to be superb, a feat of methodology, bibliography, and depth and economy of analysis, a reference source on “late paganism” to which one can return continually. And for these expectations Trombley’s work is disappointing on all counts, beginning with the very term “Hellenic religion.” Trombley intends it, perhaps, as a more accurate form of “paganism” that translates literally the word by which Christian ecclesiarchs referred to their native opponents. But instead, applied as a general term to every instance of native or non-Christian tradition in the eastern Mediterranean world, “Hellenic religion” tends to give everything a classical Athenian cast.

The organization is ambitious, and chapter headings whet one’s appetite. Volume One contains long chapters on “The Legal Status of Sacrifice to 529” and “Christianization,” followed by briefer chapters on the religious transformations of Gaza and of Athens/Attica, each with excursive “Appendices.” Volume Two contains chapters on Alexandrian philosophical “religion,” Aphrodisias, Asia Minor, rural Syria (focusing on the activity of Symeon Stylites), Egypt (Canopus, Philae, Panopolis, Oxyrhynchus), and two additional studies of cultures on the Syrian periphery of the empire.

In many ways the chapter on legislation against sacrifice is the most useful in the volumes. Discussing the full sequence of anti-“pagan” edicts through the sixth century in their historical contexts, Trombley shows with little doubt that this legislation was unenforcable locally, that the historical sequence of edicts actually documents the continuity of native cults, and that legislators consistently compromised on the edicts’ wording and enforcement and likewise ignored the local syncretisms that allowed communities to maintain their traditions. Since the imperium seems more often to have been motivated by fear than by self-righteousness in promulgating these laws, a discussion of anti-“sorcery” laws is integral to the issue of the plan and effectiveness of the edicts, and it is a pity that Trombley did not integrate his section on sorcery legislation into that on “paganism” legislation. Here too one notices the first of what will become a theme of bibliographical lapses: by Trombley’s accounting the concept of “sorcery” seems to have begun in the fourth century and its object exclusively Roman haruspices. But he ignores a much longer history of imperial fears of mantic subversion and the attempts to legislate preemptively against the subversive potential of traditional oracles (e.g., P.Yale 299, a second-century attempt to proscribe traditional Egyptian oracle cults; see Rea in ZPE 27:151-56).

The chapter on Christianization covers the familiar issues of the transformation of native gods, sanctuaries, and rituals. Gods become saints occasionally, demons more often. But rather than speak precisely in terms of “demons,” evil spirits, as opposed to local gods or the typical capricious forces occupying village environments Trombley chooses to preserve the pre-Christian (or actually pre-Septuagint) ambiguity of Grk daimon throughout the discussion and the book to designate the whole gamut of supernatural beings—local gods, Christian demons, and other spirits and forces. This terminological choice thus renders entirely incomprehensible the subtleties of supernatural powers as conceived by various communities and Christians in late antiquity. Trombley’s examples of sanctuaries and rituals (e.g., incubation) that Christians were taking over demonstrate the view of Ramsay and various scholars before him that folk Catholicism and Orthodoxy were mere whitewashed paganism. In nuanced form this perspective has some merit, of course, since local communities will perpetually “indigenize” new religious idioms. But, to avoid the simplistic parroting of what was originally an anti-Catholic polemic, the modern study of the phenomenon requires copious reference to the abundant recent archaeological and epigraphical work on local sanctuaries, work that has sought precisely to test the concept of continuity. Trombley does use such material for a brief discussion of the destruction of the Palmyrene temple of Allat but elsewhere relies entirely on the early twentieth-century classics (Ramsay, Deichmann), highly suspect hagiographies and ecclesiastical historians (Theodoret, Socrates, Rufinus), or his own excellent article in HTR (78:327-52, which is cited on almost every other page).

The tendency to rely on outdated scholarship and uncritically literal readings of hagiography unfortunately plagues the rest of the volumes. His discussion of Ephesian religion and the image of Artemis is based on long-outdated theories. Analysis of the potential “pagan” roots of Syrian stylitism seems unaware of considerable scholarship on this topic, including many reasoned rejections. His description of the conversion of Gaza, which adheres strictly to the account of Mark the Deacon, required a long supplementary defense of the hagiographer’s historical accuracy against the conclusions of other scholars. A lengthy reconstruction of the fifth-century Coptic abbot Shenoute’s battles with Egyptian local cults springs almost entirely from Johannes Leipoldt’s 1903 book, restating in even stronger terms Leipoldt’s simplistic polarity between educated Greek pagans and impoverished Coptic Christians (despite Ewa Wipszycka’s much more nuanced 1988 article [ Aegyptus 68:117-65] on cultural aspects of Egyptian christianization, unknown to Trombley). Several discussions of the destruction of the Alexandrian Serapeum and the Isis-cult of Canopus in the fourth and fifth centuries take Rufinus at face value even while citing Françoise Thelamon’s important analysis of his ideological tendencies. Indeed, the notion that hagiographers might have brought themes and devices to their accounts of local religions does not seem to have occurred to Trombley. Such materials do not deserve the total dismissal advocated by some historians, but surely one must approach their reports with the greatest caution.

Another irritation is Trombley’s focus: while he seems to want to work with local religions and cults his perpetual inclination is to return to those intellectuals and philosophers so intimately portrayed by the likes of Eunapius and Damascius but entirely unrepresentative of traditional late antique religion properly conceived. They were, to be sure, devoted to the old cults, as Athanassiadi has recently emphasized ( JHS 113:1-29); but they were by no means representative supplicants. To reconstruct that world of ordinary supplicants in as many areas as Trombley covers one would have to delve into the respective archaeological publications on Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor, and Palestine, to keep abreast of the state of scholarship for each late antique culture, and to maintain a clear, informed model of what “religion” really involved in its local context.

Trombley is much more at home with Athenian and Greek materials, and this chapter’s wealth of obscure data for the continuity of local traditions makes up for its methodological problems. So also his discussion of the cult of Isis at Philae (Upper Egypt), which stays close to the exhaustive epigraphical study of Étienne Bernand, offers a convenient summary of the issues of the temple’s long life, which ended only under Justinian. The extensive coverage of rural Syrian christianization provides a convenient, if undigested, introduction to the epigraphical corpus of this area as it stood at the time of Butler and Tchalenko (the vital 1991 reassessment by Georges Tate does not seem to have crossed Trombley’s desk).

But for all these materials one wishes for more analysis, a new (or at least consistent) framework for conceptualizing both local religion and conversion, nuanced parallels and contrasts to be drawn among the various cults, a sense of the different issues involved in one community’s choice of allegiance to Christianity and another’s refusal, a discussion of what “pagan/Christian syncretism” really involved. Trombley cites Eliade extensively in relationship to the persistence of sacred places; but surely this is not the only problem in the subject of late antique christianization on which scholars have written theoretically. Trombley’s understanding of social dynamics is unfortunately epitomized in his attribution of Durkheim’s term “collective effervescence” to Malinowski (1:149).

Thus to the extent that Trombley has compiled documentation for the continuity of many native cults into the sixth century his volumes are a thorough success. But to the extent that they develop critically the data on any particular culture (besides Greece) and build upon recent scholarship on that culture they leave much to be desired. Indeed, these volumes point to an increasing need for some kind of encyclopedia of Mediterranean religions in late antiquity, written by many experts who can explain for particular cultures the continuity of traditional religion in its historical and cultural context as well as the dynamics of regional christianization.