BMCR 2010.10.65

Christian Responses to Roman Art and Architecture: The Second-century Church amid the Spaces of Empire

, Christian Responses to Roman Art and Architecture: The Second-century Church amid the Spaces of Empire. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xvi, 334. ISBN 9780521766524. $95.00.

Nasrallah tells her story of Christians in the second century through a juxtaposition of texts and artifacts in order “to understand how religious discourse emerges not in some abstract zone, but in lived experiences and practices in the spaces of the world” (p. 1). The word “spaces” is key, for her study has an expressed cartographic interest. Nasrallah is concerned with landscapes—some real, most imaginary, all of them imperial—from the broad horizons of the oikoumene, to particular cityscapes, down to the location of individual bodies of flesh and marble. Although she thinks E.R. Dodds’ famous description of the second century as an age of anxiety “is not quite right,” Nasrallah nonetheless insists that “there is something anxiously performative about this time period” (p. 5). Whatever else the second century may have been, it was a time of “crisis over representation” that had to do with “ethnicity,” “ paideia,” and “piety” (p. 6). The existence of such a crisis is more asserted than argued, however, and the issues on which the crisis turned remain vague, no matter how often repeated. The question one might put to Dodds could be similarly asked of Nasrallah as well: What age isn’t “anxiously performative”? The overriding concern with “identity formation,” the repeated references to “the culture wars” of the second century/sophistic, and the use of postcolonial criticism may lead the reader to wonder whether Dodds’ anachronism hasn’t been exchanged for another. Yet it might be unfair to fault Nasrallah (or Dodds) for thinking analogically in such fashion. For by risking anachronism she offers fresh ways of reading tired evidence, as well as new assessments of its significance. One result is to move the apologists out of the Christian ghetto and into conversation with the wider Romano-Greek world. Another is to take seriously “imperial power and its (ab)use of its subjects’ bodies,” and to imagine what it would mean to walk a metropolis like Rome and “resist being seduced by the pedagogical power of monumental architecture” (p. 9)—what Paul Zanker has famously called die Macht der Bilder.

Nearly all of the book’s seven chapters “juxtapose literary and archaeological materials.” By bringing “voices” and “spaces” together in this way Nasrallah hopes to “overhear and glimpse the discursive world in which literature, images, and architecture were produced” (p. 12). The first chapter juxtaposes the rhetoric of Christian apologies and the fountain of Regilla and Herodes Atticus at Olympia, which constituted “a kind of pious ‘address’ to the Roman emperors” (p. 13). Here we encounter what is the most interesting, important, and problematic aspect of the book. Nasrallah succeeds admirably in transcribing these “voices” and sketching these “spaces,” but fails on occasion to move beyond mere juxtaposition, at times offering little more than a gloss: “Like the apologists, who address the emperors, perform Greek paideia, and think about what true piety is, this fountain ‘talks’ about empire, power, paideia, and religion” (p. 42). One would like to overhear, or glimpse, just a bit more.

The second chapter brings together three travelers—Lucian, Tatian, and Justin—“truth-seekers” all, “barbarians” from the eastern reaches of the empire, and hence “vulnerable” and “struggling” in their pursuits, “questioning Greek paideia even as they have mastered it” (p. 83). The individual portraits in this triptych are quite expertly drawn, and the author’s keen eye renders a nuanced comparison (but I wager you will still pity the poor apologists when they are placed in the company of the redoubtable Lucian!). Juxtaposed to them is an analysis (much indebted to R.R.R. Smith) of the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias, which Nasrallah claims “engages geographical thinking and helps to make sense of second-century provincial traveling men’s rhetoric of the vulnerability—the feminization—of their bodies within the inhabited world” (p. 83). Save for that line, though, the traveling trio and Sebasteion are left simply in juxtaposition.

Chapter three continues the geographical theme with the Lukan fiction of Paul the traveler and Roman citizen and the contemporary Hadrian’s equally artificial creation of the Panhellenion. Nasrallah is able to detect a similar logic at work in each; indeed she argues “there is a homology between the Panhellenion and Luke-Acts” (p. 101). Homology may be overbold, and elsewhere the thesis is expressed more modestly (p. 88). A couple of crucial differences emerge as well, though. Luke’s Paul doesn’t seem concerned to establish “kinship” between cities, as Hadrian did, and there isn’t much of an overlap between the cities of Acts and those of the Panhellenion. It sounds a bit desperate to say “the cities to which Paul travels repeatedly are in the same regions where many of the cities of the Panhellenion were” (p. 110, emphasis added). But Nasrallah makes a good case for seeing both Hadrian and (Lukan) Paul as uniters, not dividers, as well as reminding the reader of how much must be sacrificed for such an ecumenical strategy to work.

The fourth chapter returns to Justin’s Apologies, this time setting them in juxtaposition to Trajan’s forum, an example of “the sort of discourse of imperial power to which Justin and others respond[ed]” (p. 154). Nasrallah mentions in passing that the “message” of Trajan’s column “was militaristic, but not brutal, like its immediate successor, the Column of Marcus Aurelius” (p. 127). The mood is certainly different, but Trajan’s is still plenty brutal, with lots of beheadings. In any case, the immediate successor to Trajan’s column was not that of Marcus but Antoninus Pius (without any decorative relief). Nasrallah rightly points out how expressly political and so frankly imperial(ist) Justin’s own myth-making is, even as he sought to challenge Roman power and piety. Nowhere is this better expressed than by his claim that “whatever things were rightly said among all people belong to us Christians ” ( 2 Apol. 13.4). Obviously, everything depends on who gets to decide what is “rightly said” and has the power to enforce it; but even absent the latter, the imperial impulse is noteworthy. So “Justin is no postcolonial hero” (p. 14), but what early Christian was? There were undoubtedly apocalyptic fanatics who hoped for the destruction of Rome, but the evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of a bourgeois normality or christliche Bürgerlichkeit. Indeed, Justin effectively remythifies Roman militarism by claiming the emperors unwittingly use the sign of the cross—and hence wield its power—in their military standards (pp. 167-168). It is a chilling anticipation of Constantine’s labarum.

Chapter five begins with the Capitoline portrait of Commodus as Herakles, which “helps us to understand the sorts of discourses of godhood and imperial power that were roiling at [the] time” Athenagoras addressed his Embassy to Marcus and Commodus (p. 173). Where previous interpreters have found Athenagoras’ treatise disorganized, Nasrallah makes a persuasive case for a much more coherent arrangement, once one recognizes that mimesis is the issue at stake. Athenagoras exploits (mostly middle-Platonic) arguments about the relation between word and essence to point out the gap between the emperors’ actions and their claims to truth, justice, and the Roman way. In similar fashion, he denies that Christians are “atheists” in refusing to worship images, because they are just that: images not essences. But by the time we reach the end of the chapter, Capitoline Commodus seems a distant memory, and the reader may still wonder how widespread was the “crisis” Nasrallah describes. It seems rather an academic topic, and Athenagoras’ argument quite bookish and banal (even disingenuous, in a lawyerly sort of way).

Chapter six begins with an impressive survey of debates about the cult of images—from the Wisdom of Solomon to Maximus of Tyre—after which Nasrallah turns to Tatian’s attack on Greek sculpture. In contrast to some who thought the ignorant masses in danger of being corrupted through the power of images, Tatian alleges it is “the connoisseurs of culture [who] lead to ethical depravity” (p. 247), all the while sarcastically reminding “the Greeks” that he viewed their cultural heritage in Rome as the spoils of empire. Nasrallah concludes: “Rome and Athens become synecdoches for the kinds of acquisitive power and knowledge that Tatian rejects; the umbrella term ‘barbarian,’ so broad as to be meaningless as an ethnic marker, is nonetheless what Tatian prefers. By choosing this, he situates Christian philosophy as distinct and different from the paideia and power exercised by Greece and Rome” (pp. 245-246). Yes, and no: the “ethnic marker” barbaros was far from meaningless, and Tatian’s appeal to a superior “barbarian wisdom” on behalf of his imagined Christianity was as much a reflex of Greek paideia and ethnographic thinking as it was a criticism of it. Another second-century Syrian, Numenius, could ask: “What is Plato but Moses atticizing?”

The final chapter on Clement of Alexandria begins with a single statue type—Aphrodite of Knidos—which Nasrallah takes as “a paradigm or form in which the intersection of gender, ethnicity, and the boundary between thing, human, and divine are culturally and religiously negotiated” (p. 254). In singling out Aphrodite for attack, Clement not only “takes on an iconic image of his time, an image associated…with the imperial household, …with Greek paideia and myth, …[and] with those wealthy enough to so commemorate themselves in sculpture,” but also “offers his art-critical interpretation, exposing such images as disgusting and transgressive” (p. 290). But which comes first: mighty Aphrodite or Clement’s platonizing gaze? It remains unclear whether Clement’s “art criticism” is a response to any one particular statue or to “the proliferation of sculptures in the second century” (p. 249) in general, or if it is part of something much more literary, to wit: the widespread academic discussion of the “cult of images” (p. 292). A similar question might be posed of Dio Chrysostom’s “art criticism” ( Or. 12) in his defense of the statue of Olympian Zeus (pp. 230-233).

Nasrallah reaches new heights in these final two chapters, though I came away wondering how much of her story of “Christian responses to Roman art and architecture” actually depended on material evidence. Her expertise in aligning texts with artifacts is admirable, if for no other reason than to raise a critical issue: how is this “juxtaposition” to be theorized, and how does it work as a method? How do we better glimpse a “discursive world” through the juxtaposition of textual “voices” and physical “spaces”? In what way does “thinking spatially” illuminate these texts and render scholarly understanding of them more robust (p. 12)?

Justin tells us that the notorious Simon Magus, his fellow Samaritan and bête noire, had been honored “as a god” by the Roman senate in the time of Claudius, and was awarded his own statue and inscription. In fact, Justin says, the statue was erected on the Isola Tiberina, “between the two bridges,” and the inscription on its base read in Latin: “To Simon the holy god” (SIMONI DEO SANCTO [ 1 Apol. 26.2]). On the face of it, here is a second-century Christian, “walking the metropolis” and “responding to his material world,” as he “negotiated his religious identity,” describing a “real” statue and bringing it to the attention of Antoninus & Co. as yet another instance of mimesis (or “demonic counterfeiting”) of the truth. Could one find a more direct interaction with a given object, or a tighter fit between text and artifact? Justin’s point is that the emperors should remove the statue: the senate was too quick to recognize Simon, a charlatan and heretic, while not recognizing the virtue of “real Christians” (like Justin). Then in 1574 an inscription was found on the Tiber Island which read: SEMONI SANCO DEO FIDIO SACRUM (“Dedicated to Semo Sancus Dius Fidius” [ CIL VI.567]). The dedication refers to the old Sabine god Semo Sancus (aka Dius Fidius). Justin must have “misread” the inscription, or, what is more likely, never seen it at all: he was simply repeating what he had read in a book about or by Simon’s followers. The anecdote should serve as a reminder of just how contrived, fabricated, and above all bookish was the world imagined by the Christian apologists.