BMCR 2017.01.31

Pagans and Christians in Late Antique Rome: Conflict, Competition, and Coexistence in the Fourth Century

, , , Pagans and Christians in Late Antique Rome: Conflict, Competition, and Coexistence in the Fourth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. xv, 419. ISBN 9781107110304. $120.00.

Table of Contents
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The relations between pagans and Christians in late antiquity have been the subject of many scholarly works over the last decades. The present volume continues the tradition by focusing on fourth-century Rome and assembling contributions by some of the leading experts in the field. This has the advantage that the book, which has grown out of a 2012 conference at the Hungarian Academy in Rome, is not limited to one scholarly tradition, but offers a range of different perspectives from European and American scholars (p. 2).

The 18 chapters are grouped in three parts with a total of five sub-headings, starting with “Senatorial Politics and Religious Conflict”, followed by “The Construction of New Religious Identities” and “Pagans and Christians: Coexistence and Competitions”, which is divided into three sections on religious practice, death and afterlife. and religious iconography respectively. This subdivision facilitates the reader’s orientation and creates thematic focal points, although the individual contributions are not interconnected. The chapters incorporate a wide range of evidence, comprising archaeological material, literature, inscriptions and coinage, and succeed in offering a comprehensive picture of pagan-Christian relations in late antique Rome. For reasons of space, this reviewer has decided to concentrate on select contributions.

Michele Salzman stands at the beginning of the volume with her analysis of Constantine’s relationship with the Roman senate, focusing on his visits to Rome and the appointments of urban prefects. She sees Constantine as “openly Christian” in 312 (p. 18. 21), a view that is contested by other scholars, not least Nágy in the present volume (p. 391).1 She succeeds in showing that, far from using appointments to the urban prefecture as a means of Christianising the aristocracy, Constantine mainly chose men from old, established pagan families. Those findings are presented in the form of a useful chart including dates, religion, and evidence. Salzman asserts that, in general, the senate and Constantine chose cooperation over conflict in their interactions; while evidence of concealed senatorial resistance exists, opportunities for voicing criticism were limited. Salzman interprets the Senate’s consecration of Constantine as a “disguised form of resistance to change” (p. 41); this does not convince, however, being unsupported by evidence.

Salzman’s chapter, unfortunately, sets the tone for much of the collection in that it suffers from sloppy editing. We get CIL-volumes, as well as the books of the Codex Theodosianus, in both Roman and Arabic numerals (p. 15 no. 18; p. 26 no. 66; p. 31), while both “D” (e.g. p. 26 no. 66) and “ILS” (p. 21 no. 44) are used for Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae. Citations of RIC are inconsistent, one footnote giving the name of the mint (p. 20 no. 37), another providing the page (p. 38 no. 114). Both “RM” and “MDAI R” are used for Römische Mitteilungen (p. 43).

More serious is citing Lact. De mort. Pers. 17.2 in the footnote while speaking of Libanius in the text (p. 23 no. 52). For “heirs of a divi ”, read divus (p. 39). Readers will realise for themselves that coins are struck using a “die”, not a “dye” (p. 26), and that Constantine, being dead at the time, did not in fact “issue coins to commemorate his deification and consecration” (p. 39).

Thomas Jürgasch’s subject is the conceptual interdependence of late antique “Christians” and “pagans”. He makes a convincing case for seeing the late antique paganus as a construct emphasising social rather than purely religious or theological aspects: the term describes those outside the social group of the Roman Christians. Serving as a reminder to be careful in our use of “pagan” (just as, in his contribution on the imperial cult, Douglas Boin cautions against using “religion” for ancient phenomena without taking into account the problems inherent in applying our modern notion of the term to other times and cultures), the chapter might better have been placed at the beginning of the book, since it also cautions against automatically assuming a direct correlation between statements about pagans and their existence in the “real world” (p. 135).

Maijastina Kahlos offers a concise overview of the function of “magic” in fourth-century discourses of the “other”. She convincingly shows the importance of the label “magic”—a “discursive category that depends on the perspective of the perceiver” (p. 162)—as a polemical tool in the contexts of pagan practices, Christian heresies, political rhetoric and legislation. Kahlos continues the move away from the conventional distinction between magic and religion and uses “magic” to illustrate late antique strategies of contesting religious authority and marginalising political or religious opponents.

Daniëlle Slootjes draws our attention to crowd behaviour in late antique Rome, and shows that it was a more complex phenomenon than simply an unruly group of people being discouraged from rioting by the offer of “bread and circuses”. She looks at ancient terminology as well as modern theories of crowd psychology before showing the new dimension of crowd behaviour facilitated by Christianity, namely the emergence of crowds induced to action in general, and violence in particular, by religion. She succeeds in establishing collective behaviour as an element of the ancient world that deserves a reassessment based on current sociological, anthropological and psychological theory.

In his illuminating chapter on the late antique Mithras cult, Jonas Bjørnebye weighs the assumptions of Mithraic studies against the evidence, providing a valuable reassessment of received opinions. By analysing epigraphical, literary and archaeological sources, he shows that the cult was still active in fourth-century Rome, in a continuity of cult practices from earlier times. Bjørnebye cogently argues for a mostly peaceful coexistence of Mithraism and Christianity at least in Rome until the cult simply faded from existence due to a lack of new initiates in the fifth century, and provides a useful list of literary references to Mithraism from the fourth century (p. 205 no. 29).

Nicola Denzey Lewis aims to arrive at a “new, revisionist understanding of ‘pagans’ and ‘Christians’ in late antique Rome” (p. 275) based on mortuary evidence. In an enlightening overview of the history of Christian archaeology, she highlights the importance of the rediscovery of the catacombs in 1578 in the context of the Counter-Reformation and mentions tinkering with the archaeological evidence in the interests of a Catholic agenda. She shows that the catacombs were by no means exclusively Christian burial-places, and emphasises the religious agenda of earlier scholars who had subjected pagan motifs to an interpretatio Christiana without any evidence. She poses the important question if images convey religious identity and asserts persuasively that catacomb images deal with grief, loss, or hope, but are not to be interpreted as weapons in a war between Christianity and paganism. That in death pagans and Christians were indistinguishable raises the question of how to recognise a late antique Christian at all. Her chapter shows the ramifications of religious bias in earlier scholars and cautions against continuing in this fashion.

Marianne Sághy argues for interpreting the efforts of Damasus on behalf of Christianity as a deliberate attempt to connect Christianity to traditional Romanitas by appropriating classical poetry in order to exalt Christian martyrs and casting Rome as the holy city of the new religion. In this context, her definition of the catacombs as “terrifying places” for Christians, evoking a “topography of terror” (p. 321) does not quite ring true, especially in light of the content of Nicola Denzey Lewis’ chapter.

Sághy’s contribution is the only one without footnotes, which makes it nigh impossible to separate her own insights from those of the scholars named in the four-page-bibliography, and necessitates using internet resources to find the ancient texts from which the citations are taken. Furthermore, “violating the sanctity of the grave was (…) a universally accepted norm” (p. 322), should probably read “NOT violating”.

Statues of deities are Caroline Michel d’Annonville’s focus of interest. She describes different modes of treatment of statues (restoration, transfer, condemnation, removal), with recourse to the contemporary literary, epigraphical and legal sources. She speaks of statues as parts of a heritage, but does not define the term nor explain how pagan statues qualified as heritage in late antiquity. In general, her chapter might have benefited from the inclusion of more recent Anglophone scholarship on the subject of late antique pagan statuary.2

Levente Nágy focuses on the Via Latina catacomb in Rome with its Hercules iconography in conjunction with a fourth-century casket mount from Ulcisia (Hungary). He interprets the famous Alcestis scene (Alcestis, contrary to his assertion p. 379, is not depicted in orans posture), in combination with the rest of the décor, as allusion to eternal love and a blessed afterlife. That is certainly an important, if not exactly new, aspect, but Nágy might have added that the other motifs (among them the tree of the Hesperides and Hercules slaying the Hydra and an unidentified enemy) should not be forgotten insofar as they allude to a broader view of Hercules as a redeemer from death and saviour of mankind from all kinds of evil. In this function he appears in other funerary contexts: e.g. the “Coptic” funerary reliefs depicting the hero, and the textile fragments with Hercules motifs, which probably also came from graves, where they often functioned as funeral shrouds. A nod to Hercules’ almost universally accepted function as exemplum virtutis is also a possibility: visitors to the catacomb might have felt encouraged to follow in his footsteps, in the hope of the same reward, namely, eternal life beyond the grave. 3

Some chapters are supported by black and white illustrations, which are of a good quality and generally add to the understanding of the matter on discussion.

The book would have profited from a more rigorous proof-reading, starting with the introduction, which, for example, gives “Block” for “Bloch” (p. 2) and speaks of a view that became “influent” (p. 1). Some other examples of inadequate editing: “Arminimum” for “Ariminum” (p. 188), “Arrian” for “Arian” (ibid.), “Alföldi” for (Géza, not András!) “Alföldy” (p. 161). Valentinian III most certainly did not order the corporations of Rome to do anything in the year 400 (p. 261). In citations of RIC, the number of the coin is not always provided (e.g. p. 148 no. 46: “RIC 5. 145” for “RIC 5.2 p. 145 n. 96”) nor even the correct number of the volume (p. 148 no. 44 should read “RIC 5.2 p. 135 n. 4” instead of “RIC 4. 135”).

All in all, the quality of the editing is inconsistent, with some contributions free or virtually free of typographical or other mistakes and others fairly replete with them. This might seem like excessive nitpicking, but such inadequacies of form are an irritation, since, as they accumulate, and especially in cases of faulty citations, they start detracting from the worth of the contents, until this reader, at least, in some cases started to doubt the veracity of the argumentation.

Those points of criticism notwithstanding, everyone interested in the interactions between pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity will find this collection worth reading, especially as it covers a wide range of topics and evidence and ably sums up the current scholarly trends.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Biographies of Authors
Introduction. Rita Lizzi Testa, Michele Renee Salzman, and Marianne Sághy

Part I Senatorial Politics and Religious Conflict
1  Constantine and the Roman Senate: Conflict, Cooperation, and Concealed Resistance. Michele Renee Salzman
2  Beyond Pagans and Christians: Politics and Intra-Christian Conflict in the Controversy over the altar of Victory. Robert R. Chenault
3  Were Pagans Afraid to Speak Their Minds in a Christian World? The Correspondence of Symmachus. Alan Cameron

Part II The Construction of New Religious Identities
4  Christians and the Invention of Paganism in the Late Roman Empire. Thomas Jürgasch
5  Late Antique Divi and Imperial Priests of the Late Fourth and Early Fifth Centuries. Douglas Boin
6 Artis heu magicis : The Label of Magic in Fourth-Century Conflicts and Disputes. Maijastina Kahlos
7  Crowd Behavior in Late Antique Rome. Daniëlle Slootjes

Part III Pagans and Christians: Coexistence and Competition
Section A. Pagans and Religious Practices in Christian Rome
8  Reinterpreting the Cult of Mithras. Jonas Bjørnebye
9  Napkin Art: Carmina contra paganos and the Difference Satire Made in Fourth-Century Rome. Dennis E. Trout
10  Poetry and Pagans in Late Antique Rome: The Case of the Senator “Converted from the Christian Religion toServitude to the Idols.” Neil McLynn
11 Professiones Gentiliciae : The Collegia of Rome between Paganism and Christianity. Francesca Diosono
Section B. Death and the Afterlife
12  Reinterpreting “Pagans” and “Christians” from Rome’s Late Antique Mortuary Evidence. Nicola Denzey Lewis
13  On the Form and Function of Constantine’s Circiform Funerary Basilicas in Rome. Monica Hellström
14 Romanae gloria plebis : Bishop Damasus and the Traditions of Rome. Marianne Sághy
15  Storytelling and Cultural Memory in the Making: Celebrating Pagan and Christian Founders of Rome. Gitte Lønstrup Dal Santo
Section C. Reading Religious Iconography as Evidence for Pagan–Christian Relations
16  Rome and Imagery in Late Antiquity: Perception and Use of Statues. Caroline Michel d’Annoville
17  What to Do with Sacra Antiqua ? A Reinterpretation of the Sculptures from S. Martino ai Monti in Rome. Silviu Anghel
18  Myth and Salvation in the Fourth Century: Representations of Hercules in Christian Contexts. Levente Nagy

Concluding Remarks: Vrbs Roma between Pagans and Christians. Rita Lizzi Testa


1. E.g. K. Rosen, Konstantin der Große. Kaiser zwischen Machtpolitik und Religion, Stuttgart 2013, 156-158.

2. E.g. B. Caseau, Religious Intolerance and Pagan Statuary, in: L. Lavan/M. Mulryan (eds), The Archaeology of Late Antique ‘Paganism’, Leiden/Boston 2011, 479-502; T.M. Kristensen, Making and Breaking the Gods. Christian Responses to Pagan Sculpture in Late Antiquity, Aarhus 2013; C. Machado, Religion as Antiquarianism: Pagan Dedications in Late Antique Rome, in: J. Bodel/M. Kajava (eds), Dediche sacre nel mondo Greco-Romano, Rome 2009, 331-54.

3. See A. Eppinger, Hercules in der Spätantike. Die Rolle des Heros im Spannungsfeld von Heidentum und Christentum, Wiesbaden 2015, 66-72. 90-99.