Late antique Christianity has traditionally attracted more than a fair share of ink, from scholars of different backgrounds and interests. And yet, Kim Bowes’s book, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity, manages to be both original and relevant: not a small feat in a field experiencing constant renovation. The book deals with a largely neglected topic, the impact of powerful secular men and women on the spiritual life and organization of the Christian community in the fourth and early fifth centuries. Our grand narrative of the Christianization of the Roman Empire tends to be too reliant on the role (and visions) of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and too confident in the smooth and linear character of a process that was actually complex and prone to multiple trends. The author argues her case in a simple and clear way, and even if the reader might disagree with a few issues, her argument is persuasive and stimulating.
The book is divided into four chapters, with a short introduction and conclusion. The introduction presents the general argument of the book and explains the perspective adopted. Studies of late antique Christianity tend to concentrate on the Church as an institution, with occasional forays into individual bishops and holy men. As a result, the role of the members of the church tends to be overlooked.1 B. then discusses the question of how to define ‘public’ and ‘private’, categories that are fluid and in a permanent dialectic relationship. The influence of social historians of the Annales School is clear from the outset, in terms of approach and definitions, and private worship is seen as a social phenomenon and therefore closely linked to the social structure of the late Empire.
Chapter 1 considers the issue of public and private worship in Roman religious life in the late Republic and early Empire, and serves as a background for the rest of the book. Although Roman authorities and writers were keen on defining the boundaries between these spheres in their relationship with the sacred, the very character of Roman society made these boundaries fluid and uncertain. Roman priests were powerful and rich politicians, and inevitably brought their social conventions and networks with them. What Roman jurists would define as ‘public’ was to a large extent privately appropriated. B. emphasises the social context of these definitions, and considers a large variety of sources: literary texts, laws, inscribed altars, as well as domestic architecture. The case was very different for Christians. Although Christianity did not have an officially recognized public character, there was a constant tension between private worship and community life. The discussion of these questions starts with specifically Roman notions, and although this method is adopted partly as a consequence of the evidence available, it risks misrepresenting the huge diversity of practice in the provinces as mere echoes of those found in the imperial capital. It is problematic to use Cicero and passages of the Digest to discuss notions of public and private in Rome, as it underestimates the important changes between late Republican and early Imperial society. This becomes even more complicated, however, when African and Eastern writers are brought into the equation. The risk of turning multiple voices into a coherent discourse is difficult to resist. This is not a minor methodological issue, since it detracts from one of the great merits of the next chapter, the analysis of cultural values and conceptions in their specific social context.
The contrast between traditional Roman religious life and Christianity had important consequences when Constantine made the new religion legal. This is explored in an urban context in chapter 2, where B. looks at Rome and Constantinople to understand the role of private patrons at a time when the public character of their religion was being explicitly asserted. The discussion of the old capital is much richer, due to the evidence available. Roman aristocrats used their houses as spaces for worship, learning and discussion. Large private apsidal halls were convenient spaces for religious gatherings, and B. makes important observations concerning the Christianization of Roman topography. Recent work on the dating of churches is used judiciously, and the fine illustrations and maps found throughout the book are particularly useful here. Scholars usually place much emphasis on the location of basilicas and tituli, but one cannot understand these developments without considering the importance of aristocratic houses and their use as spaces of worship. Powerful patrons also built public halls for assembly, and retained considerable influence over the community that gathered under their sponsorship. As a result, Rome’s Christianity was marked by the collaboration/competition between the official ecclesiastical structure and its powerful patrons.
If Roman bishops had to live with such a tense and unstable situation, the picture is even more troubling for Constantinople. The nature of the evidence available puts B. in much less certain terrain here, but her suggestions are nevertheless of great interest for Church historians and topographers. In the case of the new capital, the pace of church-building by the court and clergy only picked up by the end of the fourth century, and house churches necessarily played a crucial role until then. Constantine left his capital a ‘wild West-type city’ (in the words of the author), with numerous positions in the upper hierarchy being occupied by a recently arrived and ambitious aristocracy. As a result, aristocratic preferences had a great impact on episcopal politics, and the analysis of the careers of John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen is illuminating in this respect.
Chapter 3 moves this discussion to the countryside, focusing exclusively on the West. The chapter is divided into two parts, one dedicated to the main aspects of private worship, the other to a regional survey. Here too traditional practices of building mausolea, domestic shrines, and estate temples continued, only in a Christian fashion. Powerful landowners had a great impact on the shape of rural Christianity, and this is shown in terms of the spread of asceticism as well as in the building of spaces for worship, which required the presence of clerics. B.’s analysis of Paulinus of Nola and his ascetic community (established before he was made bishop) is particularly interesting, and it clarifies important aspects of rural society, Christian belief and aristocratic life in Italy.
What influence did aristocratic patrons have on the shaping of rural Christianity? This question is addressed in the second part of chapter 3, where regional differences in the relationship between land-owners and bishops are analysed. The choice of areas discussed is based on the identification of three types of relationship between bishops and land-owners: close collaboration (North Africa); absence of a proper ecclesiastical structure (Northern Italy and Britain); and open conflict (Hispania and Southwestern Gaul). In spite of (or perhaps because of) its didactic nature, this is in my opinion the least convincing part of the chapter. It is important to consider private worship in its specific social context, and the regional diversity of the late Roman West certainly deserves attention. The division into types remains artificial, however, and the situation in North Africa or Hispania, for example, was much more complex than the types discussed. The risk of associating religious practice with a specific social structure is that one can forget the importance of religious belief. Christianity is then restricted to its social function, whether as a form of legitimising social dominance (as in Africa) or emphasising the social distinction between landlords and their dependents (as in Britain).
The late antique period, with the rise of Christianity, was marked by a ‘revolution’ in the private sphere, and chapter 4 considers the ‘ideologies of the Private’. The chapter focuses on two contrasting attitudes: while Christian and imperial authorities were concerned with the spread of heresy and superstition in domestic spaces, Christian writers insisted on the role of private asceticism as a form of renunciation of secular life. These different concerns led to contrasting evaluations of the private sphere, as either damaging or favourable to a proper Christian life. One is left to wonder whether there were other attitudes towards private Christianity; assuming an opposition between these two conceptions is too simplistic. Jerome and Damasus worked as close collaborators, and yet one was a keen promoter of private asceticism, while the other was haunted by private meetings and political divisions. In spite of this criticism, the author succeeds in showing that there were different ways of defining ‘the private’ in the late Roman world, and this is a salutary warning to scholars who might see these categories as natural and unproblematic.
We are reminded in the conclusion that the conversion of the Roman aristocracy should be seen in the context of the traditional practices and culture of this group. The aristocratic notion of what was private had an important influence on the development and affirmation of the Church, while bishops maintained an ambivalent attitude towards this group. While the commitment and support of powerful patrons were important elements in Church life, their power and interests were constantly at odds with the priorities of the ecclesiastical elite. Although the Christianization of the Roman Empire was ultimately controlled by the Church, the role played by aristocrats and their networks of friends and clients cannot be neglected.
It would be interesting to see how the actions of emperors and members of their families influenced the developments analysed here. One of the difficulties in discussing private life in this period is where to draw the line—a line that, as B. herself points out, was constantly shifting. To what extent were the actions of an emperor private or public? Descendants of emperors, members of the imperial family, and retired members of the court were also members of the aristocracy, and their ambiguous status must have played an important role in the definition of what was deemed proper or possible to a recently converted Christian. The case of the splendid villa in Carranque, Spain, and its possible association with Maternus Cynegius, discussed in chapter 3, is a good case in point. The chronological boundaries chosen, c.300-450, are also sometimes a limitation. The period between Constantine and the end of the Theodosian dynasty represents a reasonable historical unit, but it also represents the exceptional heyday of private worship in the Christian Empire, as the author herself notes (p. 224). The reader is left with the impression that the most important transformation should not be sought in the initial conversion of the Empire, as the continuities are striking and well demonstrated, but in the later incorporation of imperial structures into the ecclesiastical organization, at least for the West.
This book is commendable not only for adding great complexity to our view of late antique Christianity, but especially for the type of scholarship it represents. Being an archaeologist, B. shows great knowledge of many sites all over the western Empire, from North Africa to Britain, whilst understanding the limits of the evidence. The methodological questions raised concerning the identification of rural churches, villa architecture, and even the topography of Rome are interesting and thought-provoking. At the same time, she is aware of the contribution of texts to the topics under discussion, and proves that although they can be biased, they can nonetheless be profitably incorporated into the discussion of aristocratic religious life. Different strands of scholarship and different types of evidence are integrated in an efficient way, and Private Worship will be of interest to a wide audience. Not even the irritating system adopted by CUP for the references, with Harvard-style notes at the end of the volume (forcing the reader to spend a long time chasing sources and citations), undermines the attractiveness of the book. This is not just a book about the religious history of the later Roman Empire, but a good example of total history in the style of Marc Bloch and Georges Duby. Scholars have recently criticized late antique scholarship for neglecting the crucial, ‘hard’ questions of social relations and historical change that marked this period. B’s work is a fine example of how these wider questions can be re-addressed, without neglecting the important contributions of cultural and religious historians.
1. This is changing, however: see the essays collected in K. Cooper and J. Hillner (eds.), Religion, Dynasty and Patronage in early Christian Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.