BMCR 2001.07.20

Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity

, Pagans and Christians in late antiquity : a sourcebook. London/New York: Routledge, 2000. xxi, 328 pages : illustrations, 1 map ; 23 cm. ISBN 0415138922. $25.95.

Not so long ago “sourcebooks” for teaching late antiquity were a scarce commodity. That situation is rapidly changing. A. D. Lee’s Pagans and Christians holds an exemplary place on an expanding list that now also includes Michael Maas’ Readings in Late Antiquity: A Sourcebook (Routledge 2000) and Religions of Late Antiquity in Practice edited by Richard Valantasis (Princeton 2000). Pagans and Christians also stands as the late antique continuator of an earlier sourcebook of similar focus, temperament, and utility, Paganism and Christianity 100-425 C.E., edited by Ramsey MacMullen and Eugene Lane (Fortress 1992).

Lee’s Pagans and Christians is sixteen chapters arranged in three unequal parts: the chronologically ordered “Pagans and Christians through time” (chaps. 1-7); the categorical “Other religious groups” (chaps. 8-10); and “Themes in late antique Christianity” (chaps. 11-16). The volume’s “Introduction” offers an historical and bibliographic overview. Lee has included one map, a list of emperors, a brief glossary, and twenty-one illustrations (line drawings and photographs). The book ends with bibliographies (ancient and modern) and indices.

Lee’s stated aim is to make available a wide range of sources (literary, documentary, legal, and archaeological or art historical) illustrating the “seminal religious developments that occurred” from the third through the sixth centuries. His selection criteria privilege texts and documents that suggest the social, political, and cultural horizons of paganism and Christianity in late antiquity. The harvest is rich. I count roughly 204 entries, some as short as the few lines of ILS 8946 (a dedication to Julian), most a page or so in length, none longer than the nearly complete ten-page Martyrdom of Pionius (which utilizes the recent edition of L. Robert). Moreover, Lee has freshly translated the vast majority of the volume’s texts. Some entries introduce students to old friends, like Symmachus and Ambrose on the Altar of Victory, who have frequently been available in anthologies; other selections, like the extracts from Severus of Minorca’s Letter concerning the Jews (also excerpted by Maas) or the calendar of Polemius Silvius, make available material less familiar in such contexts. Especially welcome are the illustrations (available neither in Maas nor in Valantasis). Some of these, like the drawing of a curse tablet or the photograph of an inscribed stele, set texts in vivid contexts; others, like a carved ivory panel from Trier, are themselves relatively thick texts that, by calling for alternative interpretive strategies, provide opportunities for broadening students’ “reading” skills. Chapters and individual selections are succinctly introduced; suggestions for further reading are offered for nearly every entry. Together with the bibliographies, the suggested readings give students the tools for independent work. The format, marked off with varying font size and typeface, is inviting and accessible.

We may hope that our students will see the religious world of late antiquity as one abuzz with change and exchange, with collaborations as well as confrontations. In the seven chronologically arranged chapters of part one, Lee’s organization of material generally does emphasize the coordinating conjunction of the volume’s title. Pagans and Christians here live in close proximity, though not often, it seems, happily: Constantius II and Julian share facing pages and Libanius’ For the Temples sits between Ambrose and CTh 16.10.10. Still, Christians, and perhaps inevitably Christian perspectives, have considerably more presence in this volume than “pagans” (a designation whose limitations and dangers Lee explicitly acknowledges); and in Lee’s selections the former often appear in conflict with or aloof from pagans. The latter perspective is most obviously the case in part three (“Themes in late antique Christianity), wherein Christian writers, artisans, and patrons dominate almost entirely chapters entitled “Ascetics,” “Bishops,” “Material resources,” “Church life,” “Women,” and “Pilgrims and holy places.” Yet even here we might expect to encounter, for example, the unfavorable opinions of Rutilius Namatianus or Eunapius on Christian monks (Libanius does make an earlier appearance) or to read Ammianus on episcopal politics or to hear from non-Christian ascetics. Likewise, some “pagan” women might have been allowed to populate the chapter on “Women,” at least to provide points of reference. Maas’ chapter of the same title, for example, does admit a few. This relative insularity of Christianity in Lee’s pages is further underscored by the relegation of three groups that escape the dichotomy of the book’s title, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Manichaeans, to a liminal zone between parts one and two.

This is not to voice disapproval of Lee’s choices (the anthologist must choose), but to suggest that his choices of material and arrangement highlight a story line that is predominately binary and oppositional. Lee’s conscious decision to pay less attention to theology, doctrinal controversy, and heresy, a reaction to J. Stevenson’s long-serving A New Eusebius and Creeds, Councils and Controversies, means that the pluralism of Christianity, a decisive historical factor before and after Constantine, receives relatively little exposure. Arianism’s impact, though fully recognized by Lee, is illustrated (and faintly) by only a few documents. Athanasius is here solely as the author of the Life of Antony; Nestorius is mentioned only in an introductory passage (p. 132). Tellingly, chapter five allows Constantius II to remain “peculiarly elusive” while Julian’s holding actions dominate the mid-fourth century. To be sure, paganism is vital in these pages and Christianization does have its limits. But neither the Codex-Calendar of 354, nor the Casket of Proiecta, nor the Hinton St. Mary mosaic has an opportunity to blur the boundaries between fourth-century paganisms and Christianities. Nor does late antique philosophy to any appreciable degree: I find no Plotinus (outside of introductory comments) and little Neoplatonism. Even Lee’s assignment of part three (the final third of the book) to “Themes in late antique Christianity” (my emphasis) seems to encourage a proleptic reading of the “conflicts” documented in part one. Would Christianity (and history) look different to students if, for example, the material segregated in part two (“Other religious groups”) as well as some relevant “pagan” perspectives were integrated into a part three titled “Themes in late antique religions“?

In this respect, Valantasis’ Religions of Late Antiquity in Practice represents a contrasting approach. Here the selections are indeed far fewer (forty-odd), longer, and more exclusively literary. They also are introduced and translated by individual scholars who are, with only a few exceptions, teaching in or associated with departments of religion or schools of theology. Most significantly, however, in more than half of the book’s nine organizational categories (i.e., Biography, Organizations, Ritual, Hymnody, Philosophy and Theology) Christian texts enjoy no obvious priority over the texts of other “religions” (Jewish, Manichean, Mithraic, Isiac, Neoplatonic). Valantasis’ goal was to present a “comprehensive overview” that would show “the creative energy of Late Antique religious practice” (12). Whether or not the resulting overview conforms to the social or demographic “reality” of any given moment of late antique history is a fair question, but the ecumenical mix and thematic organization of Religions of Late Antiquity resist the emplotment and closure that Lee’s volume encourages. The story is more patiently waiting for someone to tell it. It is partly in order to acknowledge the narrative sensibility that informs his choices that Lee calls his “selection of sources…that of an ancient historian rather than a patristic scholar” (x).

Michael Maas’ Readings in Late Antiquity is also a sourcebook produced by an historian. Readings is, of course, a more ambitious volume with broader goals. The chapters are sweeping in theme and in scope (e.g., The Roman Empire, The Roman Army, Women, Medicine, Persia, Islam) and they offer material for teaching a full-fledged course on late antiquity. Most of the translations here are not new, there are no illustrations (except maps), there is relatively little “documentary” evidence beyond laws, and the excerpts are often brief. Readings, however, necessarily directly overlaps the subject matter of Pagans and Christians, particularly so in Maas’ chapters on Christianity, Polytheism, and Jews, but also in his chapters on Philosophy and Persia (Zoroastrianism). While Maas’ organizational structure tends to compartmentalize religions and their practitioners, within those compartments his selections are more eclectic than those of Lee. In part this is so because Maas is less squeamish about theology; in part it reflects a manifest desire to accommodate as much of the social and cultural pluralism of late antiquity as possible. Symmachus’ third relatio, for example, is here, along with Libanius and Severus of Minorca, but so are Plotinus, Arius, more Talmudic texts, Macrobius, Nestorius, Iamblichus, Boethius, and the Quran. Moreover, by the nature of the enterprise itself the religious life of Readings is enmeshed in a grand social, political, and military scheme of staggering ethnic diversity. Lee is clearly not insensitive to these complexities of the late antique world, but Maas’ pages open up to the late antique religious panorama in a way that is especially exhilarating. At the same time, however, the view from Maas’ shoulders can be dizzying, a pedagogical factor of not insignificant weight.

Like the anthologist, the teacher will choose in accord with temperament and needs. A. D. Lee has produced a fine and valuable compilation of carefully selected sources. Pagans and Christians will responsibly introduce students to the wealth and variety of our ancient evidence. It rightly gives buildings an important place beside texts. It buttresses literary texts, some well known and others novel, with the evidence of coins, laws, and inscriptions. It offers fresh and accessible translations. It ably points students to recent scholarship on a wide range of relevant topics. It will serve well in a class, or in that part of a class, devoted to the interface of paganism and Christianity in late antiquity.