BMCR 2020.07.31

Religious dissent in late antiquity, 350-450

, Religious dissent in late antiquity, 350-450. Oxford studies in late antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. xvi, 274 p.. ISBN 9780190067250. $99.00.


One of the major developments which occurred in the later Roman empire was the introduction of Christianity into various aspects of society. That much has always been indisputable. However, scholarly perceptions of this development have shifted over time. While older scholarship tended to view this change as a ‘triumph of Christianity’, the conclusion to a bitter struggle against adherents of traditional religions, most modern historians instead argue that this process of incorporation was gradual, complex, and not always antagonistic.[1] Maijastina Kahlos, already an established figure in the latter camp,[2] provides another defence of why the process of ‘Christianisation’ was not a triumph. More precisely, the book under review examines the ‘rhetoric and reality’ of religious dissenters (i.e. non-Christians and Christians who disagreed with what imperial and ecclesiastical authorities considered to be ‘orthodox’ beliefs) in the mid-fourth to mid-fifth centuries CE. Over the course of fifteen chapters, grouped in three thematic sections with a brief introduction and conclusion, the author demonstrates that relations between late antique individuals who adhered to divergent beliefs existed in a state of flux. While there were some attempts to force unifying conceptions of Christian belief on those who held to different doctrines or faiths, there were equally many efforts, especially at the local level, to cooperate regardless of religious differences.

Following an introduction (1-8) in which Kahlos sets out the major themes of this book, the first section (Imperial and ecclesiastical authority) opens this study with the responses of emperors and clergymen to religious diversity. The first chapter discusses the imperial position, particularly concerning legislative measures (17-26). Emperors often sought to please God and thereby ensure the prosperity of the realm by issuing laws to support or criminalise certain faiths and doctrines. Through such enactments, conformity with the emperor’s beliefs was presented as a display of loyalty to the regime, whereas dissidents against this position were cast as outsiders to law-abiding, civilised society. As Kahlos goes on to discuss (27-39), such presentations were primarily rhetoric in nature and were not part of a pre-planned, consistent, or even effective imperial strategy to eliminate religious diversity. Punishments were threatened against those who did not follow imperially accepted doctrines, but these laws were mostly targeted at specific individuals, locations, or circumstances, rather than the empire in its entirety. The following chapter (40-9) notes that clergymen, often in doctrinal disagreement themselves, also strove for unity and likened dissidence to treachery and disease. Bishops sometimes worked with emperors, but as clergymen and rulers both represented different forms of social authority, the two sometimes clashed. Both church and imperial authorities could also clash with the wishes of provincial aristocrats, who could permit or prevent the occurrence of certain practices in their local communities (50-6). In the face of resistance, rulers and bishops could turn to forceful measures. In the longest chapter of this book (57-79), Kahlos notes that clergymen often utilised violent tactics, such as destroying traditional shrines, to suppress what they saw as unacceptable sects and beliefs. Although Christian narratives lauded these approaches, emperors, who sometimes also used the same strategies, sought to keep the right of using coercive force to themselves. Once again, we are reminded that there was no ‘grand plan’ to unify religion in the Roman empire; rulers and clergymen varied dramatically in their responses to perceived dissidence, so there was never a consistent level of pressure across all provinces or reigns to conform to one set of beliefs or doctrines.

In the conclusion to the first section (79-81), Kahlos reaffirms that designations of non-conformism were created from a ‘top down’ perspective. In the second section of this book (People in rhetoric and realities), these designations are deconstructed and we are shown that the groups which fell under the general umbrellas of ‘pagan’ and ‘heretic’ were diverse. The first chapter notes the multifarious identities late antique individuals possessed and activated depending on their immediate circumstances (85-91). Ecclesiastical and imperial authorities created boundaries in an attempt to persuade divergent religious adherents to comply with their beliefs, but, in reality, these boundaries were not definite or static. The following two chapters focus more specifically on the construction of ‘paganism’ (92-104) and ‘heresy/heterodoxy’ (105-20) as opposition groups to ‘Christian orthodoxy’. The delineation of conceptual borders between the ‘true believers’ and everyone else was part of the quest for self-identification undertaken by Christian leaders and, Kahlos argues, we should not take such designations at face value. Rather, ‘pagan’ and ‘heretic’ were discursive weapons used to attack anyone who disagreed with the beliefs of emperors or theologians. By pushing dissenters outside of these boundaries, emperors and theologians suggested that Christianity was in fact unified and stable, whereby it was only those who were not really Christians that gave the appearance of diversity. This section closes with a discussion of how ordinary individuals (i.e. those who did not possess ecclesiastical or imperial authority) responded to the increasing pervasiveness of Christianity in society and the changing definitions of what constituted correct belief (121-34). Some became fanatical supporters of certain doctrines, others resisted Christianity entirety, but most found themselves somewhere on the spectrum of accommodation in between.

The third, final, and most interesting section (Time, place, practices) focuses on the extent to which religious differences were considered or felt in the realm of everyday life. The first chapter discusses how traditional rituals were regularly portrayed by church leaders as unacceptable or dangerous but were nevertheless frequently absorbed into local Christian practices (139-57). Kahlos warns that we should not distinguish between the ‘Christianity of the bishops’ and ‘the Christianity of the people’, but there was evidently some disparity between what ecclesiastical leaders argued was the correct way to worship God and what most Christians actually believed and did. As such, there were many local variations of Christian belief. The author then moves on to the economic aspects of local religion (158-68), beginning with the granting of financial support, tax breaks, and exemptions from otherwise mandatory municipal duties to churches. These privileges were simultaneously taken away from traditional foci of worship, with the aim of causing their closure without the need for force. Kahlos then discusses civic euergetism and related developments, with donations being made by local elites to churches and an increasing emphasis on the need to give charitably. The next two chapters, on sacred spaces (168-75) and events/celebrations (176-94), highlight once again the attempts of theologians to delineate boundaries between acceptable ‘Christian’ matters and unacceptable ‘pagan’ or ‘heretical’ behaviours and places. These endeavours were in vain as many individuals either ignored or simply did not see these fabricated barriers between themselves, their neighbours, and their customs. In the final chapter, Kahlos focuses on the designation of certain rituals as ‘magic’ and the pejorative connotations of the term (195-211). Association with ‘magic’ was used to attack practices which church leaders believed fell outside of acceptable behaviour, but this distinction was far less clear-cut in reality. As was the case with traditional spaces and celebrations, rituals which theologians described as ‘magic’ became absorbed into local understandings of Christianity. A synthesising conclusion (214-20) draws the book to a close.

Overall, Kahlos’ arguments are convincing. There is little with which I disagree and the third section, on aspects of religion in local contexts, is especially important. Many of the points made by Kahlos throughout this discussion are in alignment with the current scholarly communis opinio; those familiar with the work of Alan Cameron and David Frankfurter in particular will find much to agree with here. A strength of Kahlos’ approach is the investigation of well-known evidence (e.g. Theodosius I’s Cunctos populous/Edict of Thessalonica) alongside works which have not received enough recent attention (e.g. the Mystagogical catecheses attributed to Cyril of Jerusalem). By explaining various issues which students and non-academic readers would not necessarily take for granted (e.g. that there was no effective state mechanism for ensuring that imperial enactments were universally upheld), the author mostly makes her work accessible to a fairly wide audience.

At the same time, readers may want a bit more detail in certain areas. Non-specialists will need to do some further reading to understand, for instance, who Nestorius was. Although Kahlos discusses the Nestorian controversy several times, Nestorius’ identity and position beyond his theological opposition to the doctrines of Cyril of Alexandria is not made clear. Specialists will also crave additional precision in the analyses of certain items. For example, Kahlos discusses a ‘proclamation of Theodosius II during the Nestorian controversy’ (18) without noting that this item was a letter addressed to the metropolitan bishops (i.e. the most influential clergymen) in convocation of the first Council of Ephesus (preserved in ACO 1.1.1, 114-6). As Theodosius was addressing the empire’s ecclesiastical leadership and was simultaneously calling for an ecumenical council, the emperor’s emphasised desire for unity in this case takes on greater meaning. Further clarification and discussion of aspects such as this would have brought the author’s arguments into even greater relief.

One aspect of this work which I question is the use of ‘dissenter/s’, and occasionally ‘religious deviant/s’, in reference to non-Christians and ‘heretical/heterodox’ Christians. Kahlos defends the decision to qualify these individuals in this manner on the basis that other terms imply a cohesiveness to these groups, who were presented as opponents to the ‘correct’ form of Christianity and who would not have thought of themselves in this way (3-6, 92-120). Few modern scholars will argue that ‘pagan’, ‘Christian’, ‘heretic/heterodox’, or ‘orthodox’ should be used without an awareness that such labels are problematic. And yet, ‘dissenter’ and ‘deviant’ have the same problems as these other terms: they are relational, whereby ‘dissenters’/‘deviants’ were those who were not ‘orthodox Christians’; they are broad in meaning and imply some unity, at least in terms of disagreement with ‘the correct faith’; and they are not how the individuals in question would have understood their own positions. Although I appreciate Kahlos’ attempt to find a novel answer to this ongoing debate, neither ‘dissenter’ or ‘deviant’ really solve the problems of the other options available.

Kahlos also states that this book is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis (3, 214), which would certainly have been impossible. However, there are a few matters which I expected to see discussed. In particular, some comment about the controversial Council of Chalcedon, the denigration of the second Council of Ephesus as a ‘robbers’ den’ (latrocinium), and the reported violent behaviour of Dioscorus, archbishop of Alexandria, all of which took place between 449 and 451 CE, would have been relevant to the first section of this monograph. Additionally, a few important discussions are omitted from the bibliography, most notably Richard Lim’s ‘Christian Triumph and Controversy’ (in G.W. Bowersock, P. Brown, and O. Grabar (eds.), Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World (Cambridge, MA, 1999), 196-218), Jaclyn Maxwell’s Christianization and Communication (Cambridge, 2006), and Theodore de Bruyn’s Making Amulets Christian(Oxford, 2017).

Notwithstanding these minor issues, Religious Dissent in Late Antiquity is a welcome addition to the scholarship on late antique Christianity. This work laudably zeros in on many of the bigger issues at play in the ongoing debates concerning ‘Christianisation’ and boils them down into concise, informed discussions. This monograph will therefore be particularly useful for the purposes of university-level education, where many chapters would be ideal for undergraduate reading. Kahlos has provided a valuable guide to the issues of late antique ‘Christianisation’, for which many students and lecturers will be grateful.


[1] The scholarship on the process of ‘Christianisation’ is immense, but see in particular: P.R.L. Brown, Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World (Cambridge, 1995); Averil Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse, Sather Classical Lectures 55 (Berkeley, CA, 1991); Alan Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome(Oxford and New York, 2011); J.L. Maxwell, ‘Paganism and Christianization’, in S.F. Johnson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2012), 849–75.

[2] Especially notable is M. Kahlos, Debate and Dialogue: Christian and Pagan Cultures c.360–430 (Aldershot, 2007).