BMCR 2021.09.24

Christian intellectuals and the Roman Empire

, Christian intellectuals and the Roman Empire: from Justin Martyr to Origen. Inventing Christianity. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2020. Pp. 232. ISBN 9780271087078 $99.95.

Christian intellectuals in the Roman Empire joins a growing body of scholarship that treats the Greco-Roman world not as mere “background” from which early Christian thinkers departed, but as the actual world in which they thought, debated, and competed for status, and from whence their assumptions, attitudes, and concerns were drawn.[1] In this study, Jared Secord de-centers the Christianity of four prominent thinkers—Justin Martyr, Tatian, Julius Africanus, and Origen—and re-directs his readers’ attention to the ways in which each fits within the broader world of “intellectuals” in the Roman Empire. Secord defines this term broadly to include “people who presented themselves as authority figures because of what they knew or claimed to know, especially if this knowledge was based on the possession of high-level literacy” (2). Thus, not only philosophers, but physicians, sophists, jurists, and even astrologers are classified together as intellectuals. When imperial authorities and other elite figures in the Roman world encountered intellectuals who were also Christians, Secord argues, they appraised them not primarily on the basis of their being Christians but considered their ability to deal in the ‘culture and philosophy’ of the Roman empire. For their part, Secord contends, “Christian intellectuals often behaved in ways that avoided, deemphasized, or complicated the simply claim of ‘I am a Christian.’ Rather than marking themselves off from others, they depicted themselves as full participants in the intellectual culture of the Roman empire and were judged on this basis” (2).

The book’s thesis is argued over four chapters, each presenting its own relatively self-contained argument.  Chapter 1, “Emperors, Intellectuals, and the World of the Roman Empire,” highlights the importance of eugeneia (“nobility” or “good birth”), purity, and antiquity in the competitive world of early imperial intellectual culture. Secord presents Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who championed both the ancestral connection of Rome to Greece and the restoration of a “pure” Attic Greek language from the corrupting influence of barbarisms, as a representative thinker of his age. For Dionysius and his peers, “the threat of barbarians, real or imagined, was a key factor in the development of fascination with classical Athenian literature” (19). Claims that Rome’s founders had ancestral connections to Athens were wielded as a means of asserting Rome to be the rightful heir to, and restorer of, a pristine Greek culture. In this way, the drive to achieve a pure Attic style went hand in hand with the notion that Greeks and Romans enjoyed a deep kinship, one based on a shared culture that was more ancient, noble, and pure than that of the barbarian peoples who surrounded them.

This alliance of Greece and Rome posed challenges for would-be intellectuals with Barbarian ancestry. These, Secord argues, “faced challenges that their Greek counterparts never experienced” (31). In order to be accepted, they were required to demonstrate their mastery of both Greek and barbarian culture, while simultaneously defending themselves against crudely-drawn stereotypes. Philo of Alexandria and Josephus are discussed as examples of intellectuals who ran up against imperial authorities suspicious of their barbarian origins. Christians, Secord argues, faced similar barriers to success as did other barbarian intellectuals. Like Philo and Josephus, they were committed to a corpus of ancient barbarian writings (the Hebrew Bible) and engaged in foreign practices. In order to be taken seriously by cultural elites, they would need to demonstrate their mastery of classical literature and philosophy and think carefully about how they would present themselves in relation to the Greek past.

In the remaining three chapters, Secord describes how each of his selected Christian intellectuals navigated this task. The title of his second chapter, “Justin Martyr: A would-be public intellectual,” anticipates Secord’s argument that Justin, in spite of his best efforts to present himself publicly as a learned philosopher, would have been regarded by his contemporaries as “at best, a poorly educated representative of a second-rate school of philosophy” (58).  This conclusion is reached via a comparison of Justin with the works of two prominent second-century figures, Lucian of Samosata and the physician Galen. Both Lucian and Galen treat Christians with derision, the latter lumping Christians together with Cynics proponents of philosophies that taught dogmas rather than rational proofs (64). Christians, like Cynics, struggled to gain a hearing in the highly competitive culture of public intellectuals in Rome, in which “rumors and allegations abounded, and some intellectuals even seem to have faced acts of violence” (49). Secord emphasizes that the possibility of violent attack, and even persecution, did not exclusively threaten Christians. Intellectuals who drew the attention of the imperial household could land plum positions, but they also ran the risk of attracting abuse, exile, or even death (49).

It’s in his Second Apology, Secord argues, that Justin’s desire to achieve public notice is most clearly on display. In this work, addressed to the Roman Senate, Justin defends fellow Christians who had been executed as a result of their blunt public outspokenness (parrhesia), a fate that they shared with noble philosophers of the past, including Socrates and, Justin claims, Heraclitus and Musonius Rufus.[2] Secord locates Justin’s work within a larger debate over the conditions that render death noble. He concludes that while Justin may have intended his martyrdom as a demonstration of his philosophical credentials, “it would have been dismissed as an empty act by most non-Christian onlookers, especially those who considered themselves philosophers.” Yet while Justin may not have succeeded in winning public, or imperial, support, his self-presentation as a philosopher “provided a model that later Christians followed” (76).

Justin’s student, Tatian, adopted some of his teacher’s strategies of self-presentation, but charted his own course as a defender of “barbarian wisdom.” His Against the Greeks, which is essentially a broad critique of Greek culture, is the focus of Secord’s third chapter. He argues that the text’s interpretation has been hampered by “the distorting lens of orthodoxy and heresy” that cast a shadow on Tatian from his own lifetime (78). The text can be better understood, Secord contends, if it is read against the larger backdrop of debates concerning the antiquity and nobility of barbarian cultures. Tatian joins non-Christian intellectuals including Galen and Philo of Byblus in arguing for the elevated status of foreign wisdom (107). Yet in spite of his criticisms of Greek religion, art, and medicine, Tatian, Secord argues, “still reveals himself to be part of the same world as his addressees” (108). He remains fascinated by the idea of ancient wisdom contained in unadulterated form in ancient books. And he retains “their same concerns with purity, both in his critique of Greeks for using barbarian words and in his emphasis on the uncorrupted form of barbarian paideia that he had mastered” (108). Against The Greeks reveals its author to be very much formed by the standards and assumptions of Greco-Roman intellectual culture, even as he rails against it.

In chapter four, we move into the early third century to consider the cultural change ushered in by the Severan dynasty. Secord argues against previous scholarship that characterizes the Severans as ‘syncretistic’ or ‘universalizing’ in outlook and, as a result, describes them as positively disposed to Christianity. To the contrary, Secord argues, it was not the attitudes of elites that changed in the third century so much as the behavior of the Christian intellectuals: “[Julius Africanus and Origen’s] successes are less a breakthrough for Christianity than a sign that some Christian intellectuals were now able to fit in better with the elitist norms of intellectual culture in the Roman Empire” (122). Secord admits that the increased political power of the Near Eastern provinces under Severan rule likely contributed to a reduction in the Hellenocentrism that characterized earlier periods, which may have helped the foreign-born Africanus and Origen to gain an initial hearing. Yet the key factor in their appraisal was not imperial interest in Christianity, but in the Christians’ new ability “to pass as sufficiently Greek to fit in with the goals of Alexander and Julia” (129). Secord contends that Africanus’s Christianity was incidental to his role as architect and librarian for the royal household. The situation was different with Origen, who is reported to have been summoned by the emperor’s mother, Julia Mamaea, explicitly to discuss religious matters. Yet while “Origen may well have had much to say about Christianity to Mamaea,” Secord maintains that Origen “still seems to have carried himself… in a way that would have been familiar to her from her interactions with non-Christian intellectuals” (134).

Secord concludes the chapter with the claim that the imperial connections of Africanus and Origen had little to do with changing attitudes of elites towards Christians, and any suggestion to the contrary “is based on an anachronistic and narrow interpretation of intellectual culture in the third century” (146). This distinction strikes me as perhaps too sharply drawn. The very fact that Africanus and Origen could attract positive attention from the imperial household, whether because of their Christianity or in spite of it, suggests that the attitude of the Severans to Christianity was quite a distance removed from that of the Antonines. Secord’s argument that Christians became more skilled in fulfilling expectations for intellectuals need not discount the evidence that the Empire was itself simultaneously becoming a more hospitable place for Christians (and other barbarians).

The main text is richly supplemented with endnotes, including many references to primary sources in Greek. Citations of secondary literature, however, provide only the source and page number. Especially in cases where the author draws a distinction between his position and that of earlier scholarship, it would have been helpful to have immediate access to the words of the scholar cited.

Christian Intellectuals in the Roman Empire is an engaging and valuable study. Secord succeeds in demonstrating how several key early Christian thinkers participated in the competitive culture of Roman intellectuals, and his contribution surely helps to overcome the traditional exclusion of Christians from the intellectual history of the Greco-Roman world. The volume will be of primary interest to students of early Christianity, but it is equally to be commended to scholars of Imperial Rome who would otherwise have little exposure to early Christian thinkers.


[1] Secord cites as his predecessors in this effort Jason König, Saints and Symposiasts: The Literature of Food and the Symposium in Greco-Roman and Early Christian Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2012); Heidi Marx-Wolf, Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the Third Century CE (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Heidi Wendt, At the Temple Gates: The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Roman Empire (Oxford University press, 2016); and Dawn Lavelle-Norman, The Aesthetics of Hope in Late Greek Imperial Literature: Methodius of Olympus’ ‘Symposium’ and the Crisis of the Third Century (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

[2] As Secord notes, there is no clear evidence that either Heraclitus or Musonius Rufus were executed.