BMCR 2024.03.26

Early Christianity in Athens, Attica, and adjacent areas: from Paul to Justinian I (1st-6th cent. AD)

, , Early Christianity in Athens, Attica, and adjacent areas: from Paul to Justinian I (1st-6th cent. AD). Early Christianity in Greece, 1. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2022. Pp. xxv, 564. ISBN 9789004509603.



Inspired by Adolf von Harnack’s monumental work on the mission and expansion of Christianity, the authors present here the available literary, epigraphical, and archaeological data from Athens, Attica, and adjacent areas down to the end of Justinian I’s reign in 565, with a view toward offering a holistic approach to this material. Their volume inaugurates a new series of book projects on the Christianization of the area that today forms modern Greece and draws on the parallel monograph series on early Christianity in Asia Minor and the important Inscriptiones Christianae Graecae (ICG) online database, all products of the DFG Excellence Cluster 264: Topoi: Space and Knowledge in Ancient Societies (2007-2019). In its structure and emphasis on specific categories of evidence (epigraphic and archaeological), the book follows in the tradition of the previous volumes on Asia Minor.

Chapter 1 serves as a general introduction. It begins with the justification for the geographical scope of the book, which includes Athens, Attica, and adjacent areas. The justification for including the latter is provided by Hierokles’ Synekdemos (sixth century), a list of provincial cities in which the Megarid, Salamis, and Aigina are singled out as the areas closest to Attica. The authors briefly review earlier works on early Christianity and Christianization, and other related studies focusing on epigraphy and archaeology in the region. In the view of the present reviewer, and somewhat contrary to the authors’ own evaluation, Frantz’s 1988 book and Sironen’s IG volume are the most important reference studies. The bogus oracle that was probably used to justify the takeover of the temple of Athena Parthenos by Christians around the late fifth century, first identified by C. Mango and further discussed by A. Kaldellis and others, also marks a turning point in the discussion of the conversion of the Acropolis hill and the city itself.[1] A separate introductory section in this chapter is devoted to the meagre and controversial Christian sources for early Athenian Christianity.

Chapter 2 offers a useful geographical overview, as well as a historical outline covering the period between the first and the sixth centuries. Three maps and eight figures enhance the text, including a map of Attica with all known early Christian churches; a map of major sites is included in Chapter 5. A table with an updated list of the bishops attested in the sources would be useful here and would also serve as a metric for the Christianization of the region. This kind of information could also have been used in the attempted comparison between the political and ecclesiastical administrative units of the area that is based solely on the Synekdemos and the available archaeological material (i.e., basilicas). In the historical outline of the period from Paul to Justinian, organized by century, the emphasis clearly lies after the third century (but the basic bibliography about Roman Athens/Greece is incomplete, e.g., A. Alcock’s Graecia Capta and F. Millar’s P. Herrenius Dexippus are missing).[2] Many key aspects of the historical narrative are also addressed in subsequent chapters.

Chapter 3 attempts to correlate Christianity, pagan religion, and philosophical learning in Athens from the Apostolic period to the closure of the Athenian Academy. After repeated and thorough efforts to contextualize Paul’s visit to Athens through contemporary Athenian polytheism (including Philostratos’ third-century Vita Apollonii), the authors rightly conclude that “the historian has little to use from the Lukan narrative” (84) and that “at the time when Luke wrote, the progress of Christianity in Athens was still modest” (87). The same strategy is used for the second-century apologists Aristides of Athens and Athenagoras, but the bottom line is that there is nothing in their apologetic texts, supposedly addressed to the Antonine emperors, that might apply specifically to Christianity in Athens. The authors here (and to some extent in other sections) have taken on the difficult task of giving an overview of Athenian polytheism in imperial times, but unfortunately the reader does not get a panoramic overview of the issue here. Spawforth’s Greece and the Augustan Cultural Revolution might have been useful as a guide,[3] and the crucial third century appears neglected. Using the (mostly pagan) written sources relating to Athens and its intellectual life, the authors sketch the religious history of the city from the late fourth to the mid-sixth century by combining information from Athens and elsewhere, a task that several other scholars have already undertaken. The Athenian connections (whether enduring, short-lived, or dubious) of fourth-century figures such as Proairesios, Himerios, the emperor Julian, Gregory of Nazianzos, Basil of Caesarea, Diodoros of Tarsos, and John Chrysostom are analyzed in detail. The main challenge for the historian is to discover the real city of Athens beyond the various ideological constructions and rhetorical tropes that make up the imagined one. The authors limit their survey to the list of authors mentioned above and, in general, do not tackle the problem of the imaginary Athens as such (Hunger’s Athen in Byzanz would have been an obvious starting point here).[4] It is important to emphasize that the Christians who visited the city were mostly interested in its schools of rhetoric, while the philosophical schools seem to have been intended exclusively for pagans. A fuller account of the several luxurious bath and residential complexes of the late antique city might also have added a useful perspective regarding the city’s religious identity.[5]

Chapter 4 is devoted to the archaeological evidence for late public paganism (i.e., temples and festivals), churches, and cemeteries. The first two topics have received much attention from previous scholars, so the evidence is summarized here. What makes this section useful is a descriptive gazetteer of sites in some smaller towns and in the countryside. The study of the cemeteries of Athens, Attica, and adjacent areas brings together a great deal of data, including on burial customs and categories of burial finds. This is followed by the most original part of the chapter: based on specific criteria and comparative material, the archaeological burial record is compared to the epigraphic record to identify the spread of the Christian faith and the changes in burial practices from one century to the next. The serious difficulties of assessing such complex phenomena based on the available material are well recognized by the authors.

Chapter 5 offers a meticulous analysis of Christian inscriptions (mostly funerary) by region according to onomastics, provenance, and content, i.e., professions and formulae. The brevity, formulaic style, and lack of reliable information about religious affiliation, which are the main characteristics of this genre, are major obstacles for the historian. Based on the analysis of names, the authors conclude that the vast majority of Christians in Athens came from old Athenian families (263).

Chapter 6 continues the analysis of the content and characteristics of the epitaphs that can be positively identified as Christian, in terms of the identity and affiliation patterns of the deceased and their social status. In this task, the authors rely heavily on Sironen’s work on late Roman Attic inscriptions (together with the ICG), to which they add further commentary (topographical, historical, philological) and combine it with material from the Megarid and Aigina. They conclude that “the Christians of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries were mainly artisans. Christianity hardly made it into the ruling class of Athenian society before the middle of the sixth century” (300). The rest of the chapter (sections 4-10) deals with various subjects, prioritizing either the epigraphic or the archaeological data. In section 9 (329-332), the authors do a good job of explaining the shift in beliefs about the afterlife via the spread of Christianity through Athenian texts. Two minor notes here: the idea of the ‘immortal soul’ (329, 331) should not necessarily be associated with Neoplatonism, as it represents a widespread motif in other non-Christian funerary texts; on the interesting sepulchral epigrams of the Neoplatonist scholarch Syrianos (IG II/III2 13451-2/ICG 2036-7), the recent article by G. Staab should be added to the bibliography.[6] The reader leaves this chapter with the impression that all the features of the corpus of Christian epigraphy of this region have been scrupulously analyzed here in almost every possible way.

Chapter 7, the last chapter of the book, summarizes the main characteristics of Christianity in this region. The authors choose not to propose an overall Christianization scenario for it in terms of process and local characteristics, nor do they compare it in a systematic way with other regions on specific metrics. They have placed both these tasks beyond the scope of their study (38, 342). As a result, they do not challenge earlier general observations on these issues (e.g., the idea that the spread of Christianity was ‘slow’ in Athens). They choose instead to present a few sample monuments from archaeology and epigraphy (i.e., three Early Christian churches and one funerary inscription), which underline the main findings of their book. The chapter ends with an attempt to show how intellectual, religious, social, economic, and ecclesiastical factors determined the rise of Christianity in the region, which oscillates between the (too) general and the meagre results of their evidence base. The descriptive, detailed archaeological gazetteer of churches and cemeteries in the book’s Appendix (369-511) deserves praise. It is bound to serve as an indispensable guide for any researcher interested in the topography of early Christian Attica from now on.

The authors should be congratulated on the huge amount of primary and secondary literature they have managed to bring together, present, and discuss. Remaining loyal to the philosophy of the series, Breytenbach and Tzavella’s project proves to be mostly aggregative and expository, rather than revisionary or groundbreaking. The most important ancient texts and all the Christian inscriptions discussed are cited in full and have been translated. The quality of the English and the editing is excellent, and I hardly found any mistakes in the whole book: Damaskios or Suda instead of Archaidas on p. 164; Nikomachos instead of Nikodemos on p. 165; She instead of He on p. 35 l. 7; Promachos instead of Pallas on p. 150. The book features many good-quality maps, illustrations (many in colour) and figures; the only omission is a map of Athens’ city centre. Nevertheless, discussions of the literary and non-Christian material somehow fail to make full use of the toolkits of ancient historians and Byzantine philologists. Theoretical discussions about key topics, such as ‘the spread of Christianity during the first three centuries’, ‘the Christianization debate’, or ‘secularity’ are sadly missing. Having said that, the collaboration between a New Testament historian and theologian and a Byzantine archaeologist serves the goal of interdisciplinarity set by the general editors well. It manages to delve into a large variety of demanding issues and paves the way for future joint projects in the field.



[1] Frantz, A. 1988. The Athenian Agora XXIV, Late Antiquity A.D. 267-700, Princeton. 1988; Sironen, E. 2008. Inscriptiones Atticae aetatis quae est inter Herulorum incursionem et Imp. Mauricii tempora (IG ii/iii2 5). Berlin; Mango, C., 1995. “The Conversion of the Parthenon into a Church: The Tübingen Theosophy” Δελτίον της Χριστιανικής Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρείας (4th ser.) 18 (1995), 201–203; Kaldellis, A. 2009. The Christian Parthenon: Classicism and pilgrimage in Byzantine Athens. Cambridge.

[2] S. E. Alcock, Graecia capta: the landscapes of Roman Greece. Cambridge 1993 Millar, F. (1969) “P. Herennius Dexippus: the Greek world and the third-century invasions.” Journal of Roman Studies 59: 12–29.

[3] Spawforth, A.J.S.  2012. Greece and the Augustan Cultural Revolution (Cambridge; New York; Melbourne).

[4] Hunger, H. 1990. “Athen in Byzanz: Traum und Realität.” Jahrbuch der österreichischen Byzantinistik 40: 43–61.

[5] Eleutheratou, S. 2019. Μουσείο Ακρόπολης. Η ανασκαφή. Athens.

[6] Staab, G. 2014. “Der Hymnische Nachruf Des Proklos Auf Seinen Lehrer Syrianos (IG II/III2 13451) Im Lichte Des Athener Neuplatonismus.” Zeitschrift Für Papyrologie Und Epigraphik 190: 81–96.