BMCR 2022.09.19

Empire and religion in the Roman world

, Empire and religion in the Roman world. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. xiii, 277. ISBN 9781108831925 $99.99.

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

This volume of papers celebrates the life and work of Brent D. Shaw, the Andrew Fleming West Professor of Classics at Princeton University, and has its origin in a conference to mark his retirement held there in May 2017. Shaw is a specialist in the social and cultural history of the Roman Empire from the 1st century AD to the 5th century AD and the papers offered in his honour reflect these interests and timeframe, though Glen Bowersock’s paper on the rival prophets to Muhammad during the early 7th century AD is something of an outlier. The contributors are all leading specialists, senior scholars whose names will be familiar to most students of the Roman Imperial or Late Antique periods. After the introduction, there are 11 papers divided into two sections. The first section, entitled ‘Empire’, contains 4 papers, while the second, entitled ‘Religion’ contains 7 papers, where the papers of the first section focus on the impact that the Roman Empire had upon the territories that it controlled, while the papers of the second are united by their emphasis on religion, primarily Christianity, with the exceptions of the papers by Mark Vessey on Ausonius and by Peter Brown on the intellectual profile of Shaw. The former has no religious dimension to it at all, while the latter might better have been incorporated within a more extended introduction. As it stands, the introduction is a curious beast. After the obligatory summary of the honoree’s career and interests, and two pages spent explaining the relevance of the image chosen for the cover of the volume (a mosaic baptismal font from late sixth century AD Africa), it describes the three principal themes that it claims will be found in this volume, boundaries and networks, religious change, and violence, carefully listing which papers deal with which themes. However, it does not properly explain the actual structure of the volume, nor does it summarize the arguments of the individual papers. Given that no abstracts occur with the papers themselves, this is a serious omission. Finally, the volume concludes with an appendix listing the publications of Shaw to 2020. These are impressive both in quantity and quality and well illustrate why he deserves to be honoured in this way.

The first section begins with a paper by Kyle Harper which, after some general introductory material emphasizing the importance of disease in shaping Roman society and history, turns out to be a discussion of the origin and nature of the so-called Antonine Plague of the 160s AD. The author urges caution in identifying this plague as smallpox, but does not offer any alternative identification. In the second paper, Carlos Noreña investigates how what had been an Atlantic corridor stretching from the north-western corner of Africa through most of Spain, the Atlantic coast of France, southern Ireland, and south-western Britain, was transformed into an Atlantic rim when most of these territories were integrated into the Roman Empire during the first centuries BC and AD.  As he highlights, this was not necessarily a bad thing for all those involved, because south-western Spain did very well out of this process, although north-western France did not benefit in the same way at all. In the third paper, Clifford Ando investigates what it actually means to say that the Romans governed an empire through their cities and used them to subordinate the countryside about them. Finally, Erich Gruen investigates the causes of the Jewish revolt of AD 66 against the Roman Empire. He first summarizes the 7 main traditional causes of this revolt, and then explains the main weaknesses of each of these. His main point is that the revolt was not the inevitable result of underlying tensions that had been continually building up over a long period of time, but rather the accidental result of having the wrong men in the key positions of power at the wrong time.

The second section begins with a paper by Sabine Huebner, who investigates the date and provenance of a papyrus letter from a certain Arrianus to his brother Paul (formerly P. Bas. 16, now P. Bas. 2.43) that has long been recognised as the earliest Christian private letter, dated on palaeographic grounds to the first half of the third century. Based on the identification of a Heracleides mentioned in this letter with a city councillor known from the Heroninus Archive, she dates this letter to several years before AD 239 and identifies its origin as Theadelphia in the Fayûm. In the next paper,Éric Rebillard reconsiders how Christianity spread as well as it did during the first and second centuries AD. He rejects the idea that the primary agents of its spread were missionaries, pious merchants, or freelance religious experts and argues that the Jewish diaspora provided the primary network for its spread. However, it remains unclear who exactly it was that spread Christianity within this Jewish network, whether missionaries, merchants, or some other group. Indeed, the paper is mainly negative in nature, explaining why other theories about the spread of Christianity are wrong, rather than offering a properly detailed alternative. Next, Claudia Rapp analyses the growth of different forms of pious lifestyles within the Christian community during the fourth to the seventh centuries AD. In the first section of her paper, she analyses the evidence of Jerome, Cassian, and Benedict concerning the proper types of monastic life. In the second section, she discusses how various collections of edifying tales and hagiographical sources, some of which were monastic in origin, reveal a concern that the monastic life was not the only, or even the most virtuous, form of pious lifestyle. Finally, in the third section, she describes the emergence of organized lay piety in the form of the philoponoi and spoudaioi, relying primarily on the hagiographical and papyrological evidence.

The next two papers are very different in that they focus on selected texts by individual authors. Vessey sets Ausonius’ composition of his Mosella in context and analyses his motivation in composing a poem of its type. Catherine Conybeare examines the use of peregrinatio as a metaphor in the sermons by St Augustine of Hippo on the psalms (his Enarrationes in Psalmos). After this, Bowersock sets the career of the Muslim prophet Muhammad in context by describing how he was but one of numerous self-styled prophets or messengers of God operating in the Arabian peninsula during the early seventh century. However, this paper is marred by the author’s failure to distance himself from the religious values and judgements of his primary sources. For example, the reader is informed that Muḥammad received revelations from the angel Gabriel as if this was an indisputable fact, and the rival prophets to Muḥammad are often described as liars or false prophets as if their characterization in this way was unproblematic. Furthermore, the bibliography to this paper seems surprisingly short. Finally, Brown provides a very personal account of Shaw’s contribution to modern scholarship, a little hagiographical perhaps, but a useful reminder that Shaw has written much over his long and productive career that still deserves to be read and re-read.

It is not clear who the intended readership of this volume is. Most papers have been well-written in plain English in such a way as to be accessible to non-specialists, even undergraduates or interested members of the general public. However, a minority are couched in such terms that they will likely remain impenetrable to all but specialists in those fields (Ando, Vessey). Nevertheless, all are worth the effort.

Authors and titles

1. Germs and Empire: The Agency of the Microscopic (Kyle Harper)
2. Imperial Integration on Rome’s Atlantic Rim (Carlos Noreña)
3. The Ambitions of Government: Sovereignty and Control in the Ancient Countryside (Clifford Ando)
4. Contingency and Context: The Origins of the Jewish War against Rome (Erich S. Gruen)

5. The First Christian Family of Egypt (Sabine R. Huebner)
6. Missionaries, Pious Merchants, Freelance Religious Experts and the Spread of Christianity (Éric Rebillard)
7. Christian Piety in Late Antiquity: Contexts and Contestations (Claudia Rapp)
8. Ausonius at the Edge of Empire: Consular Poetics as Cognitive Improvisation (Mark Vessey)
9. Peregrinationes in Psalmos (Catherine Conybeare)
10. Muḥammad’s Rivals: Prophets in Late Antique Arabia (Glen W. Bowersock)
11. Brent Shaw: An Intellectual Profile (Peter Brown)