BMCR 2008.05.19

Grammar and Christianity in the Late Roman World

, Grammar and Christianity in the Late Roman World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. 272. $59.95.

Scholarship has come a long way in thinking about late-antique education since Henri Marrou could state with unflinching certitude that, “Even the most ‘educated’ of [Christians], those who remained most faithful to classical art and classical thought … share the spontaneous reaction of the simple and the ignorant, and condemn the old culture for being an independent ideal hostile to the Christian revelation”, or by Pierre Riché that, “While this kind of learning [the commentaries of grammarians] satisfied curiosity, it did not shape the mind.”1 The work of Catherine Chin presently under review lays both of these misconceptions firmly to rest by demonstrating how late-antique grammatical artes did, in fact, mold the imaginative aspect of reading practices, allowing educated late-Roman Christians to generate a conceptual space within which they appropriated and reconciled themselves with the use of the secular literary tradition. This book comes as a recent addition (and one for which there is much to celebrate) to a more general field of interest in late-antique education that has been the subject of intensive study from a number of very specific directions.2 Chin’s contribution, however, brings to bear the resources of critical literary theory and linguistic anthropology in the service of quite a large claim, that “the teaching of language in late antiquity shaped the ability of late ancient readers and writers to have concepts that we call religious” (page 1). The following review will offer an overall assessment of that claim after summarizing its development in the course of the work.

The introductory chapter (“Toward Tyranny”) opens with the premise that late-antique Christian identity developed in tandem with elite exposure to the classical tradition and its pedagogical texts. Chin locates this process in the fourth and fifth centuries, when Christian authors began appropriating and differentiating specific reading practices embedded in secular education. The chapter makes a quick pass at Quintilian, Suetonius and Varro as earlier participants in a pedagogical tradition that demarcated categories of social identity, especially in the sense that, as tools for the training of reading practices, grammatical treatises were laden with cultural and class ideology. The attention given these authors is brief, the discussion exploratory, and overall the chapter serves to position Chin’s thoughts on language and identity within the framework of critical theory, particularly to the work of Pierre Bourdieu.

It is in the second chapter (“Imagining Classics”) that the book begins assembling a picture of how late-antique people read texts. The chapter targets two recurrent stylistic elements of grammatical treatises that created a dialogue between the individual reader and a more abstracted cultural and linguistic identity. First, the extraction of meaningful textual fragments from the literary tradition and their deployment in texts claiming linguistic authority created a composite narrative that reinforced the auctoritas of the past in grammatical artes. Using literary fragments to explain the relationship between the past and present instilled in them an iconic potency and generated a wider discourse in which the mos veterum became more coherent and tangible as part of the ethos of the literate elite. Next, the use of word lists in grammarians’ artes complemented the explication of textual fragments by reassembling and categorizing words drawn from the literary tradition, further codifying an inchoate linguistic past for present use. Chin’s reading of grammatical treatises isolates two stylistic elements that allowed a late-antique readership to interact with and possess the past as something coherent and whole, as ‘the classical’, through reading practices not dissimilar to the activity of reading complexity in images and poetry studied by Michael Roberts.3 The model for understanding late-antique reading offered here will likely be a lasting contribution to classical studies with important implications for how we interpret the relationship between the codification of knowledge and group identity. Future studies of the rhetoric of varietas, encyclopedism in miscellanies and theme and variation within epistolary collections have much to gain from Chin’s work.

Chapter Three (“From Grammar to Piety”) departs from the stylistic practices of grammarians and focuses on their reception and replication among elites educated with the texts of grammarians, further developing the sociology of reading. By mapping out how elites perceived their world as demarcated by language, this chapter advances the central claim that elite attachment to the past, vis-à-vis the literary tradition, shifted from deferential care in adhering to established aspects of linguistic behavior to a kind of piety. Elite authors appropriated ‘the classical’ in the same manner as it was constituted in the fragments of grammatical artes, and within that representational framework constructed a literary habitus as the basis of a cultural identity shared with actors of their own past, familial or otherwise. The chapter discusses four texts from Ausonius, Macrobius, Julian and Augustine in which personages of the past become ciphers for a wider, literary identity. The treatment of these sources, particularly the interpretation of Augustine’s Victorinus, furthermore suggests an important redefinition for ‘paganism’ as something not to be understood strictly in terms of non-Christian cultic practices, but more precisely as a culture of reading and writing that recognized literary references to ancient non-Christian sources as part of the imaginative domain allowing late-antique elites to take part in a more homogeneous identity, one bound to a literary past. In this sense, individuals could be simultaneously Christian and ‘pagan’, or at least, like Ausonius and Macrobius, Christians who constituted their social identities through a non-Christian semiotics. Christianity was something in which late Romans could participate with varying degrees at different narrative moments of their literary self-presentation (p. 172)— a subject to which Chin returns in the epilogue. The multivalent Christianity described here offers a refreshing qualification to the static and unsatisfying image of “pagan vs. Christian.”

The issue of how these reading practices became more overtly adapted to a Christian identity forms the subject of the fourth chapter (“Displacement and Excess: Christianizing Grammar”). The famous polemical debate between Jerome and Rufinus over the use of secular sources frames the chapter’s discussion of “Christianizing authors” trained in the classical tradition who sought to denature the elements of secular literature that were potentially antagonistic to a Christian way of life. Jerome’s response to Rufinus prescribed decontextualizing fragments of secular literature, parallel to the practices of grammarians, in such a way that suggests the cultural potency of the classical tradition was meant to be translated to, not expunged from, a Christian context. The chapter also examines a parallel in De Doctrina Christiana, where Augustine discusses the interpolation of secular literature in the service of a Christian readership. For both Jerome and Augustine, writing in dialogue with secular literature could be an act of literary purification for Christian authors, something that generated ‘the pagan’ as a conceptual category, while redeeming ‘the classical’ for Christian usage. With Origen’s Hexapla, Chin notes that this process of creating a new literary space for Christianity involved applying the imaginative gymnastics of the grammatical artes not only to the ‘pagan’ literary tradition but to the Hebrew scriptural tradition as well. One aspect of the transition in reading practices described in this chapter that might have received more attention is the implied shift in the cognitive practice of reading described by Christianizing authors. It would seem that grammarians and secular authors asked readers to construct the mos veterum by mapping textual fragments as parts of a cultural whole, a process that built upon knowledge of the original literary contexts. Christianizing authors employed the same stylistic strategy, although requiring the audience to divest context while somehow preserving the cultural potency of secular fragments. However this may be reconciled, the virtue of this chapter, when taken in sequence with those preceding, is that we witness a historical moment when Christians appear to have begun defining themselves through a ‘pagan versus Christian’ polemic that was a construct entirely internal to Christian discourse and the result of the appropriation of ‘the classical’ in Christian writing.

In Chapter Five (“Fear, Boredom and Amusement: Emotion and Grammar”), Chin expands on the formation of a mentalité specific to Christian reading habits by examining affective portrayals of reading. Literary tableaux depicting the child’s fear of receiving physical punishment from the grammarian and the adult’s boredom with grammar appear as tropes in both the secular and Christian literature. In earlier Roman literature, portrayals of these emotional responses were markers of confraternity among the educated elite. The literature of late-antique Christians complicated these images of the literary experience, and hence the boundaries of inclusivity, by fragmenting a given tableau into scripts with multiple perspectives of observer and observed. According to Chin, the fragmentation of these portrayals expands the narrative quality, a change that denotes “a chronological progression from (pagan, classical) past to (Christian, post-classical) present” (p. 124). Chin develops this model from an almost exclusively internal reading of texts from four authors (Augustine, Jerome, Martianus Capella and John Chrysostom). While the chapter offers an otherwise excellent discussion of these texts, the scope of analysis unfortunately makes it difficult to appreciate how the reading practice detailed here differs from other forms of composite narrative in classical literature and hence how this may be an historical transition specifically attributable to emergent Christian reading practices. Similarly, it is not entirely evident that a text of disputed religious sentiment and lacking reference to Christianity such as Martianus Capella’s Marriage of Philology and Mercury participates in the kind of juxtaposition in Christian and pagan entities proposed in this chapter.

Chapter Six (“Grammar and Utopia) elaborates on the differentiation of cultural entities (Christian and pagan) in late-antique literature by drawing attention to spatial/geographical references within the literary discourse. Focusing on Ausonius, Paulinus and Jerome, Chin notes that outside the Christianizing ambit, authors such as Ausonius consciously cultivated a geographical dimension to learnedness (as apparent in the representation of the travels of scholars described in the Commemoratio Professorum Burdigalensium) as a category denoting participation in ‘the classical’. In the exchanges between Ausonius and Paulinus, we find that Paulinus interjected a new definition for learned landscapes, interrupting the static geography of ‘the classical’ by categorizing the traditional wilderness of epistolary silence as a new locus of Christian piety. Similarly, in Jerome’s letters to Paulinus, scriptural exegesis becomes conceptualized as an act of travel that claims territory for Christian identity. Maintaining the theme of the book, this chapter draws attention to an actively emerging dialectic between Christianizing authors and traditions of secular literature that generated a new conceptual space for Christian identity.

In the aggregate, this is a remarkable study, which should be consulted by anyone interested in intersections of education, language, literature and religion in Late Antiquity. It is a carefully plotted project that meticulously and persistently builds the picture of how Christians came to identify themselves as such in a world with a myriad of social identities demanding allegiance (some with a more sustained pedigree than Christianity). Chin’s work pursues a very specific strand of that process and in doing so presents an intensely focused reconstruction of late-antique reading practices, revealing a vibrant discourse within a group of 4th and 5th century texts, some of which have not received their proper due elsewhere in scholarship. The scholarship is of the highest caliber and complemented with genuinely impressive insights.

However, the very virtue of the work is also its greatest limitation: Chin’s attention cleaves so closely to the texts examined that the scope of the book fails to break free of deeply internal textual analysis that in some ways inhibits making connections to a wider historical landscape. Of the dozen or so texts examined in close detail, none is provided with context in a manner standard for historical analysis. The book is silent on the historical background of authors, conditions of authorship, the social milieu of readership (including literacy) and the potential consequences of literary genre—all of which are integral to considering the impact of literature on the formation of identity. More often, authors and texts remain detached in a highly theoretical space and, oddly in a book about reading practices and identity, audience and community are either absent or only silently assumed. Explanations for historical processes generated in the absence of testimony from wider contexts inevitably run the risk of distorting the agency of the sources under analysis. It also misses the opportunity to fully appreciate the dynamism of the dialectical terrain in historical processes. As an example, it would be erroneous to assume that mos veterum was an ethos generated exclusively through acts of reading when a much wider matrix of social influences and political interactions lent the veneration of the past its potency in the literary discourse. As Robert Kaster has shown, the grammarian was truly a humble actor in this process. Despite offering one of the best discussions available of mos veterum and literary piousness, the book has not located the frontiers of that aspect of late-antique culture, and hence lacks the perspective of taking into account the relationship between cultural center and periphery. Similarly, an explanation of Christianizing tendencies in literature that generated ‘the pagan’ as a conceptual category would likely have fuller dimension should it also take into account political discourses giving shape to ideas of empire. It is not the purpose of the present critique to suggest that this book should have embraced all possible horizons related to the production of late-antique literary and religious identity; as it stands, the book adds palpable texture to those fields. However, in spite of the obvious merits of the study, some readers may find the author’s initial claim that “the teaching of language in late antiquity shaped the ability of late ancient readers and writers to have concepts that we call religious” to be overstated in light of the book’s distance from a wider historical context.


1. H. I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1956. P. 320; Pierre Riché, Education and Culture in the Barbarian West: From the Sixth through the Eighth Century. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976. P. 6.

2. Some of the more luminous works which have brought into sharp focus the rich texture of the history of late-antique education are R. A. Kaster, Guardians of Language: The Grammarian and Society in Late Antiquity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988; Raffaella Cribiore, Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001; Edward J. Watts, City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006; Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams, Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius and the Library of Caesarea. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2006; and Raffaella Cribiore, The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007.

3. Michael Roberts, The Jeweled Style: Poetry and Poetics in Late Antiquity. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.