BMCR 2006.01.01

Christianity and Roman Society

, Christianity and Roman society. Key themes in ancient history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xii, 137 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0521633109 $24.99 (pb).

In this useful addition to the Cambridge “Key Themes in Ancient History” series, Clark presents a “snapshot of fast-moving scholarship” (xi) on the early history of Christianity and the relationship of Christians among themselves, with other groups of people, and with the institutions of the empire. Clark addresses a series of historical questions with a primary view to explaining the current status of the scholarly debate on these questions to undergraduate students (2). This well-written text provides a useful structure for the historical portions of lower-level courses on early Christianity, though the instructor will need to supplement it to exploit the evidence of early Christian material culture, which it largely skirts. I thought the book good enough to adopt it for my own Fall 2005 Honors “Beginnings of the Christian Intellectual Tradition” freshman-level course at Creighton, and as compensation for the lateness of this overdue review I offer the experience of having now used it in practice and the benefit of my students’ feedback.

Clark divides the questions she intends to address into six groups, each covered in one chapter. The questions themselves, or rather the most salient ones, are grouped in summary form at the beginning of the introductory chapter (2-3); after having finished the book, the attentive undergraduate should be able to use this summary list as an aide memoire and to answer these questions on the basis of readings and the class discussion the readings prompt. The chapters are as follows:

Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: Christians and others

Chapter 3: The blood of the martyrs

Chapter 4: Body and soul

Chapter 5: People of the book

Chapter 6: Triumph, disaster or adaptation?

There follow a bibliographical essay, a list of references, and an index. In keeping with the book’s intended audience, the references are almost exclusively to recent English-language scholarship.

The first chapter, which lays down the fundamentals, front-loads vocabulary and technical terminology, both of which Clark does a fine job of explaining. For example, in the first few pages of Chapter 1 (4-7), she not only explains the Latin Iudaea, discipulus, and vicarius, and the Greek leistai, christos, sunagoge, episkopos, basilikos, cathedra, dioikesis, paroikia and askesis, but she also explains the origin and meaning of the terminology of the ” anno domini” system of dating. She thus (wisely) assumes that her student readers are tabulae rasae without any knowledge whatsoever of ancient languages or terminology. As the book proceeds, she progressively enlarges the student’s vocabulary (with some repetition, as needed) so as to make the scholarship to which she refers more easily comprehensible and give the student the verbal tools to discuss the issues presented. My midterm examination showed that the students had by-and-large picked up the terminology, and many also used it comfortably in their papers.

After the necessary factual preliminaries, Clark goes on in Chapter 1 to discuss broader topics such as the modern rejection of the traditional teleological narratives of the church’s growth, and the general trend of recent scholarship to see diversity in early Christianity or among competing Christianities, as the phrase goes. The final important question of the chapter (13-14) is both obvious and necessary in a book like this: how did Christianity (in any of its guises) win out over competing traditions? She didactically poses the possible answer as a stark choice between two alternatives, that given by “confident Christian authors” on the one hand (that Christian beliefs are true and led to a superior way of life), and “confident anti-Christian authors” on the other (effectively, that Christianity is a bad meme that traded on people’s fears and fanaticism, and was supported in the end by political powers which exploited it). Clark’s answer is to stress recent work showing pluralism in Roman and Christian traditions, leaving it to the student to figure out (or the instructor to explain) that the choices she originally offered were straw men implicitly representing the view that Christianity and Roman traditions were fundamentally different and in opposition to one another. But even if various Christian ideas were adapted from or could be found elsewhere within Roman society, this still leaves open the question of why the Christian package was seen as a valid (or preferable) option, and how it survived in the marketplace of ideas. This question is answered in various ways in the remaining chapters.

The second chapter lays out the source problem for early Christianity, explaining why we possess so little anti-Christian polemic, and why the surviving ancient sources offer a skewed picture. Clark also provides useful background and a framework for discussing the famous passages on Christians in Suetonius, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger (whom she takes in that order) which, with a few snippets found elsewhere, lay out the standard complaints against Christians: arson, antisocial behavior, cannibalism, and sexual irregularities like incest. This, then, was the wall of prejudice the early Christians needed to scale or tear down in order to gain toleration, not to mention acceptance, or to seem to make a better offer than other cults. She then runs through the evidence for Christian practice, so as to contrast it with the prejudicial accounts just mentioned, and develops this into a discussion of competing cults and evidence that the Christian offer was better.

For example, Clark argues indirectly that one factor contributing to Christian success was the network of their communities which systematically offered welcome and support all across the Mediterranean. She cannot find one Roman cult group which looked after strangers and people in need (23: “provision for the poor was not an ethical priority in Roman culture”), an argument used again in stronger form (110) when she cannot find evidence for “anything more than individual response to immediate need and official response to crisis”. While subsidized and free distribution of grain in Rome (and later, elsewhere) was arguably politically motivated, at least in part, it is hard not to see the long-lived, state-run alimenta schemes beginning under Nerva and Trajan as not aiming in some way at social good through their support of orphans. To be sure, Roman attitudes leaned toward laissez faire, but examples can be found of social action falling between the self-aggrandizing euergetism of the wealthy and the small-scale concern for society’s lowest ranks among the Christians.

Clark concludes Chapter 2 with an examination of the merits of the Christian package vis à vis Judaism. She points out (24-27) that Judaism was not as exclusive or rule-bound as the NT makes it appear, that it had potential appeal to people on the margins such as the poor, women, and slaves (27-30), and that it had its own fractious internal disputes over heresies (30-34: nicely structured for a class module); she then performs a similarly complicating analysis for pagans (35-37). The liveliest parts of the book, Chapters 3, 4 and 5, reflect Clark’s personal interest through her frequent ability to cite her own scholarship. In these chapters she addresses the naturally interesting set of questions surrounding Christian martyrdom, asceticism, and access to sacred scripture and learned exegesis.

Chapter 3, on martyrdom, is the best in the book. In it, Clark explains to students what persecution and martyrdom was, how Christians could see martyr-relics as vested with special power, and how the cult of the martyrs affected the growing religion. She points to similarities (58) between pagan precedents and the Christian festivals associated with martyr veneration, and how the latter were thought (by Augustine in particular) to be risky for young girls, but unfortunately doesn’t cite Krautheimer’s fundamental “Mensa — Coemeterium — Martyrium”,1 which (despite its age) is still worth reading on this topic. Clark does not much discuss the interesting similarities between Christian miracles — instanced here (58) specifically through the power of relics to heal — and pagan magic. Clark does not exploit Celsus’ famous passages on the banality of Jesus’ magic (though she uses him frequently elsewhere) and thus leaves it to the instructor to provoke discussion with it. Nor, if only to take issue with them, does she refer to Smith’s Jesus the Magician 2 or the apposite chapter (54-91) in Mathews’ The Clash of Gods.3 A brief discussion of some of the physical evidence from the catacombs for the perceived power of martyr relics would also strengthen her case in a way that would interest students.

Chapter 4, on asceticism, is almost as interesting as Chapter 3. With the idea of askesis as training for spiritual athletics and the long “daily martyrdom” (61) of abstinence and self-negation having been explained, it will surely interest students that celibate ascetics discussed the phenomenon of nocturnal emissions (68) and that there was gossip and a sort of social life among hermits. Students will also be interested to find that St. Jerome’s cave (during his experiments with asceticism) was outfitted with “a lavish supply of books and a staff of helpers” (72). Clark explains how ancient medical theory (70) could offer some kind of basis for understanding the idea that abstinence could purify the body and perhaps bring it closer to the state of mankind before the fall (68) — and delicately raises the issue of modern distaste for the self-harm inherent in extreme ascetic practices, or the likelihood of modern eyes seeing near-obsessive abstinence from food as a form of anorexia (68). Most interestingly, extreme self deprivation de-sexualized the female body (notably through the common side-effect of cessation of menstruation), and female ascetics could almost rise to the status of men (68). The final section of the chapter compares (pagan) philosophic restraint with asceticism, acknowledging the similarities (the shucking off of the encumbrance of physicality), but also pointing out to students some major differences, such as the philosophical tendency to maintain observance of social obligations instead of retreating into isolation (74-77).

Chapter 5 treats, in general form, Christians’ relationship to their scripture, from the point of view of basic literacy, access to learned exegesis in churches, modes of accommodating the rural or unlettered, and the pedagogical (or polemical) tendency to slip expediently in and out of high and low registers as teaching required. Students should be warned away from the (all-too-common) tactic employed by Victricius of Rouen (translated and quoted by Clark, 83): “I am not tied in the tangle of hypothetical and categorical syllogisms: the empty sophisms of philosophers do not deceive me. Truth herself reveals her face, and faith spurns arguments.” Especially useful is Clark’s discussion of early Latin translations of the Bible and the Vulgate (83-84) and the accessibility of scripture to the poor or rustic (86-87). Clark sees great originality and value in a Christian attempt to make education — at any rate, training in scripture and doctrine — widely available through bishops’ (and others’) weekly homilies in services. Here again I miss a reference to Mathews’ The Clash of Gods, which advances a competing interpretation for the prominent position of the bishop-expositor in the apse of Christian basilicas sitting beneath apse mosaics focussing on Christ (113-114): “by sitting beneath Christ and imitating his pose and gestures, the bishop claimed the right to replace Christ, to speak in his name, and to legislate for his flock.” Some combination of the two ideas is possible, but Mathews’ ideas — in an English-language book accessible to students — should at least get a look-in.

The sixth and final chapter answers questions about the fate of Christianity after toleration. Clark offers the traditional narrative of toleration and imperial co-optation (94), warning us that every point of it is disputed and presenting several alternatives. Students are likely to expect Constantine (and other emperors) to smother all resistance, so it is useful to see Bishop Hosius of Cordoba telling Constantius II to keep to what is Caesar’s and leave to God what is God’s (98). No wonder, then, that Constantine had (somewhat disingenuously) affected the status of a bishop (100)! Nor will students be surprised to find that a pair bishops who refused to join the party line after Nicea found themselves exiled (99). Clark explains how Paul (Rom. 13.1-4) accepted the Roman government’s secular authority (100: “if you act badly, be afraid: authority does not carry a sword for nothing.”), and usefully offers examples of Roman laws which were enacted or suffered to stand though they contradicted Christian principles (106-107: slavery retained, cruel and unusual punishments developed, divorce still legal, a father’s right to expose a newborn retained, concubinage still recognized).

But if Roman civil law was still respected, Clark finds that systematic charity (in the sense of non-impulse giving to alleviate poverty and distress), and the mindset associated with it, were for the first time deeply imprinted on society in the Christian empire (107-110) — a useful launching point for discussion in a Jesuit University. In a final section (111-117), Clark nicely shows the many ways in which Christian patterns of behavior picked up or replaced traditional patterns (116: “… why accept the opposition of Christian and Roman?”), but unfortunately downplays the Christian persecution of pagans (typical phrasing, 112: “Ten years later, Theodosius I … comprehensively banned the visible practice, public or private, of traditional religion: but there is a question how effectively this law was, or could be, enforced.”)

I pointed to a few places where I think Clark missed some obvious scholarship. Her discussion of competing forms of Christianity (30-34), focussed on heretical movements, could do a better job of emphasizing the vastly divergent beliefs under the umbrella of Christianity, especially before orthodoxy was approached by consensus or enforced from above. (The most accessible English-language scholarship on this is Burton L. Mack’s Who Wrote the New Testament? 4). Mack’s outspoken (and at times offensive) secularism often gets him ignored by Christian scholars, but his intelligent (if sometimes speculative) reconstruction of the variety of early Christian belief systems is worth discussion. The evidence from material culture is the biggest gap in Clark’s presentation: a student reader of the book will have no idea of the significance of the attractive gold glass on the jacket/cover. The index is probably adequate to the purposes of the book, but a book explicitly tracing the history of early Christianity should probably offer a timeline and a map, especially a book aimed at a lower-level undergraduate audience.

In the end, Clark’s book (with the supplementation I have mentioned) served my, and my students’, needs. I found that having my students read translations of Justin’s First Apology and the remnants of Celsus’ On the True Doctrine also usefully supplemented Clark’s discussion at many points, and I, at least, found it necessary to supplement Clark’s presentation with Mathews’ The Clash of Gods and Hopkins’ lively A World Full of Gods.5 Hopkins’ book, with which I concluded the course, served as a useful tool to cover again much ground in a summary way and, by its provocative nature, to add some warmth to Clark’s comparatively, and understandably, dry presentation.


1. Krautheimer, R. “Mensa-Coemeterium-Martyrium”, CahArch 11 (1960): 15-40; reprinted in Krautheimer, R., Studies in Early Christian, Medieval, and Renaissance Art (New York University Press: New York, 1969) 35-58.

2. Smith, M. Jesus the Magician (Harper and Row: New York, 1978).

3. Mathews, T.F. The Clash of Gods, revised and expanded edition (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1999).

4. Mack, B.L. Who Wrote the New Testament? (Harper Collins: New York, 1995).

5. Hopkins, K. A World Full of Gods. The Strange Triumph of Christianity (The Free Press: New York, 1999).