Christianity in the Roman World
Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition
The Fall of the Roman Empire: A Reappraisal
For books on the Roman Empire and on the rise of Christianity to come before a reviewer in 1976 brings author and reviewer alike into the disturbing presence of a mighty shade. Two centuries ago, in 1776, Edward Gibbon published the first volume of his Decline and Fall. It was twelve years previously, in 1764, “as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”
In January of this year, with pardonable hubris, the participants of a congress on Edward Gibbon and his Decline and Fall, organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, posed for a group photograph on that spot. The forthcoming issue of Daedalus will range widely and deeply in the immediate intellectual background of Gibbon, and will present a picture less of Gibbon’s relevance to modern scholarship in ancient and medieval history than of the deep roots of Gibbon’s thought and erudition in the religious and social preoccupations of post-Renaissance Europe.
In this review, a group of authors on the period of history that Gibbon himself covered is presented to the shade. An excellent short survey of Roman Social Relations by Professor Ramsay MacMullen; a short work of characteristic intellectual distinction on Christianity in the Roman World by Professor Robert Markus; a sensitive and pioneering study—the most specialized and the most original in our group—of the religious language of a Christian community that stretched from the Roman shore of the eastern Mediterranean deep into Asia, Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition, by Robert Murray; and The Fall of the Roman Empire: A Reappraisal, skillfully written by Professor Grant, and magnificently illustrated.
The shade would have inspected this group with some curiosity, and would have inspired no little trepidation. For Gibbon’s range was awesome. Within twenty years he had covered the history of a millennium, and in so doing he had scanned almost every society in the Eurasian land mass. What is even more disturbing: before he set pen to paper, he had amassed vast knowledge which he did not even consider worth his while to put into the Decline and Fall, so great was his sense of relevance and of the overriding importance of his main themes. On page ninety-eight Professor MacMullen presents us with a diagram illustrating the distribution of wealth in an Italian region in the reign of the Emperor Trajan: the salient features of Roman society—its “verticality” and the accumulation of wealth and status in the hands of a tiny few—spring to the eye. This is a characteristically felicitous exploitation of data from an inscription—the Veleia tablet. It is the way history is done, and done well, in the 1970s. But Gibbon had seen the Veleia tablet in 1764. He had copied it out:
C’est un travail sec et ingrat, mais quand on construit un Édifice il faut en creuser les fondements. L’on est obligé de fair le rôle de maçon aussi bien que celui d’Architecte. J’espère pouvoir tirer quelque chose de cette espèce de recensement.
…and then decided that it was not worth using in the Decline and Fall.
Gibbon would have passed by Professor MacMullen’s book. This was because he had come to believe that the social development of the classical Empire could be of little relevance to his theme if it did not explain to him the main feature of the period of decline and fall—that is, the rapid and unprecedented accumulation of social and political power in the hands of new religious leaders, the Christian bishops and monks. But then Gibbon did not have the opportunity to be persuaded by a reading of Professor MacMullen’s Roman Social Relations, or by the author’s previous works, Soldier and Civilian in the Later Roman Empire (Harvard University Press, 1963) and Enemies of the Roman Order: Treason, Unrest and Alienation in the Empire (Harvard, 1966). For Gibbon would have met in MacMullen the one author in the English language whose highly distinctive view of what the social history of the ancient world was about (a view pursued with Gibbonian tenacity and erudition, and with more than a touch of Gibbonian empiricism) has enabled him to write convincingly of just those religious and cultural developments that so preoccupied Gibbon in the Decline and Fall.
Professor Markus’s book would have brought Gibbon to a halt. This book is directly relevant to his own concerns. It, is a clear-headed exposition of intellectual history, yet concerned throughout to grasp the meaning of ideas by way of the attitudes they encouraged groups to take toward their cultural and social environment—a central concern of Gibbon. Professor Markus calls his little book “a history of Christian self-awareness in the Roman world.” It is just that, and the best short account now available, giving the inside of a development which Gibbon had watched, from the outside, with fascinated curiosity.
It is precisely because it is a history from the inside that the book differs so markedly from Gibbon’s. It displays, in a nutshell, where modern scholarship has changed, indeed advanced, in its handling of the problems set out by the Decline and Fall. For Gibbon was a theologian manqué. As a young man in Magdalen College, Oxford, he had been projected for a moment into Catholicism by the “elastic spring” of metaphysical controversy. A few generations later, he might have been a pillar of the Oxford Movement—a “perpendicular prig of Puseyism.” In his later life, the spring was weighed down safely by rational and humane considerations. But never for a moment did he lose his sense of its dangerous powers in others, or of the havoc it could wreak when, in the hands of fanatics, such as Christian monks and theologians, it flicked loose. For Gibbon, therefore, the “history of Christian self-awareness” was a history of deadly certainties. The hard bones of metaphysical cerebration and clerical ambition press ineluctably through the wasting flesh of the Empire.
Professor Markus writes in an age where the spring is safely broken. The finest passages of his own masterly exposition of the thought of Saint Augustine, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of Saint Augustine (Cambridge University Press, 1970), are those in which he shows Augustine’s subtle and hard mind learning to live with uncertainty, and explains how relevant such uncertainty can be to a modern Christian. Gibbon and Gibbon’s bêtes noires alike thought in straight lines and right angles. Markus’s early Christians, by contrast, are left to fumble. Whatever “fanaticism” they might have had was tempered by a humane inability to breathe any other air than that of the Roman world and to see with any other eyes than those inherited from a long classical past. Professor Markus’s history of the Early Christian church is the history of a “subculture”: the angular figures of Gibbon give way to men groping obscurely “in their confrontation with what they came to recognise as non-Christian only in the moments of dawning self-definition.”
Not surprisingly, this is an amply and skillfully illustrated book. It is typical of the gap between Gibbon and ourselves that the scholars to whom Professor Markus acknowledges a debt should be one Platonic metaphysician (Professor Hilary Armstrong) and two interpreters of Late Roman art (Gervase Mathew and Sabine MacCormack). Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is unillustrable. The excellent set of pictures provided in J.B. Bury’s edition of 1908 almost invariably remind us of what is not in the text. For Gibbon’s text describes what Early Christian art could not show—men whose minds were bemazed by the deadly clarities of speculative theology. Such certainties speak most clearly only in cold print. Markus’s Christians come alive in their uncertainties; and the sheer weight of these uncertainties can be seen in so many of his illustrations. Christian themes struggle with a millennium of pagan craftsmanship to take on a profile of their own. The polished marble holds them back, imposes a classical reticence on them, and blurs each new face with a disturbing sense of déjà vu from an ancient past.
To Gibbon’s discredit, he might have found Robert Murray’s book unworthy of consideration. To bring alive the rich religious language of a Near Eastern province of the Later Roman Empire was not a service likely to commend itself to him. He had a brusque way with representatives of the “Syriac tradition,” and especially, as was generally the case, if they were monks: the monk Antiochus was only one such—“whose one hundred and twenty nine homilies are still extant, if what no one reads may be said to be extant.”
He might have missed the point of Murray’s beautiful and patient evocation of an Early Christian religious language. For just as the tentativeness of Markus’s Christians differs toto caelo from the fanatical clarities of Gibbon’s princes of the church, so Murray’s concern to explore the basic, mystery-laden “Symbols of Church and Kingdom” used by Syriac religious poets takes us far away from the arid world of the theologians, down to the roots of Christian piety in the Near East. Indeed, the deeper we sink into the inner dimensions of the “history of Christian self-awareness in the Roman world,” the less we smell the acrid smoke of theological battle which Gibbon managed, for all his distaste, to breathe with such gusto.
Murray’s Syrians knew Gibbon’s theologians, and did not like them. Ephraim, in his long, passionate songs, called them “the Questioners.” They were the self-confident heirs of Aristotelian logic, whose scholastic method sought to strip from the Godhead the rustling, shimmering, shot-silk veils of symbols. In the fourth century, these men were the Arian heretics in Edessa. A long tradition of scholastic thought in Western Christianity has made their like, until quite recently, the official spokesmen of orthodoxy. Symbols of Church and Kingdom is a scrupulous book, with unfailing historical sense and aliveness to the language of Late Roman men. But it has serious theological implications; it lays bare with rare sympathy the way in which the Christians of the Syriac-speaking provinces spoke of the Church. It is a subtle and mellow voice from the past that has been too long drowned by the articulate and rigid certainties of Western churchmen. Gibbon can have his speculative divines: Father Murray, I suspect, is happiest with his poet-monks: “He was a fine sight as he stood among the sisters, singing a melody of praise.”
Professor Grant’s book would have surprised Gibbon. It is written with the elegance and talent for making the evidence speak that we have come to expect in Professor Grant’s work. Clearly laid out, well signposted with maps and tables, the thirteen causes of the fall of the Roman Empire are made crystal clear in 314 pages. What would astonish Gibbon, though, is that of these thirteen causes, every one, Professor Grant points out at every turn, is also apparent and active in contemporary American and Western European society. The Roman Empire in its last hundred years is brought briskly up to the twentieth century. The effect is like seeing a near-by object through a telescope of high resolution: the sudden abolition of distance and the close-up detail is baffling, and unnecessary.