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Brave Old World

Pagans and Christians

by Robin Lane Fox
Knopf, 799 pp., $35.00

This open-hearted and learned book is one that any scholar of the ancient world and of early Christianity would be proud to have written. The cultivated reader can wander in it with ever renewed pleasure and with the guarantee of reliable and up-to-date guidance. The learned will undoubtedly quarry its formidable erudition for decades to come. They will certainly be inspired by it; and it is much to be hoped that they will debate its perspective, its methods, and its implied conclusions with the same degree of transparent engagement and good sense that the author shows throughout its 681 pages of text. Pagans and Christians represents a quantum jump in the quality of scholarship on late classical paganism and on the history of the early Church.

This is a book on precisely what its title claims it to be: pagans and Christians. In the century and a half between the death of Marcus Aurelius, in 180 AD, and the death of Constantine, in 337 AD, Christians and pagans lived together in most of the great cities of the Mediterranean. They suffered famine together. They walked the same streets. They spoke the same Latin and Greek. Yet each piled up a literature, and has left a body of vivid evidence, that speaks to us as if its creators lived on a planet to which no other form of life had come. Reading pagan texts and inscriptions of the second and third centuries, pondering those portrait busts of men and women of the post-Antonine age, whose “Canova-like” sense of brooding delicacy reminds us of people in the nineteenth century, or treading our way from site to site in the sleeping classical cities of western Turkey, we require a fine leap of the mind to realize that others also existed in this, the long hot summer’s afternoon of the ancient world. But the excavated agora we visit, with its little pile of Byzantine fragments and Muslim gravestones discreetly tucked to one side to clear the view along the sunbaked marble of an Antonine colonnade, once witnessed the lynching by burning of an eighty-six-year-old Christian bishop. The great statues of the gods and goddesses, their numinous power now safely cooled in the reverential halls of museums, had once been passed by men and women, who would hurry a little as they did so, hissing to blow away the demonic pollution that oozed from their uncanny mass.

Lane Fox has made this leap, with memorable effect. Within ten pages we have met Aurelius Longinus of Side, in present-day southern Turkey. Longinus had served his “most brilliant and glorious city” as a good pagan notable should. He had officiated at celebrations of the cult of the emperor “with piety and honourable generosity,” and presided “with dignity” at the “festival known as the Apolline.” All the while he had administered the marketplace “with integrity,” and had, on three occasions, successfully escorted the grain levies of his region to the imperial expeditionary army of the east, in the early 240s. The sheer weight and texture of that one man’s career, a microcosm of the “measured classicism” of his age, now stands before us, conjured up from a mere handful of inscribed stones scattered in the fields of Rough Cilicia. On the next page, we meet Longinus’s exact contemporary and social peer, Saint Cyprian of Carthage, as he kneels to receive the executioner’s sword through his neck (in 258):

Almost the last thing Cyprian saw was a little pile of cloths,” thrown by the crowd, “to catch the martyr’s blood and become relics for the faithful.” No pagan notable had ever looked down on such a sight.

From this moment onward, the reader is gripped. For we know that sixty years later, the God for whom Cyprian died became the God of the Emperor Constantine. Pagans and Christians confronts the most profound, and certainly the most chilling, tragedy of any great and complex society. Not only do its members know nothing of the future; most of them—and more particularly those who know most clearly where they stand in the world—know next to nothing of each other.

To do justice to such a theme, Lane Fox slows his pace. He lingers gently, and at marvelous length, coaxing the evidence to speak to us in long, rich anecdotes. This is a period through which it was once fashionable to rush with ill-disguised distaste. In recent years it has been the subject, rather, of highly condensed essays of synthesis and interpretation. Lane Fox has broken with this tradition, which is represented by E.R. Dodds’s Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (1965)—the suppression of the second part of that phrase in the title of his own book is a clear manifesto of Lane Fox’s perspective—by my own The Making of Late Antiquity (1978), and by Ramsay MacMullen’s Paganism in the Roman Empire (1981) and Christianizing the Roman Empire (1984). All of us together would fit into the text of Pagans and Christians with two hundred pages to spare, and it can be said of all of us, as of the hero of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, “You think too sudden.”

Lane Fox is under less pressure to explain and to interpret: he is more at his ease, correcting, focusing, describing. His highly condensed footnotes reveal his ability to prune with a deft and unrelenting hand: much exuberant growth—my own, alas, included—is carted off to the bonfire. But, as a result, late antique studies will flourish in the coming years.

Above all, Lane Fox has opened his pages to let in an entirely new world. The hero of his book, the great French scholar Louis Robert, died a year before the manuscript went to press. Robert had an uncanny sense of the texture of life in the cities and landscapes of Asia Minor, as this was revealed in stray incriptions and seen, by him, mirrored in a baffling variety of sources. Robert, Lane Fox writes,

seized my imagination late at night and made me aware of a standard and a range of evidence which were quite beyond my reach.

It is a great moment when a scholar reared in one intellectual culture appropriates and applies to a major historical problem resources of erudition elaborated in another culture: the interchange somehow releases the full possibilities of the tradition, adding an invigorating strangeness to an accustomed landscape. Through Lane Fox’s generous enthusiasm for the life work of Louis Robert, the pagans of the late classical world and the life in the Greco-Roman cities have, at long last, found their own voice. Lane Fox can give us the taste of the very blood that ran through their veins. The first 261 pages of this book—and many others—are as humbling as they are exciting. We are shown the richness and complexity of a world we have lost largely because we had not even bothered to look for it, for we have been content with the specious clarity of long-known texts with their acceptable evidence for the history of the ancient world.

For the first time we have a sense of real pagans. Vivid, diversely named ladies and gentlemen, like the characters of a great Russian novel, appear in Lane Fox’s meticulous evocation of building activities, of great ceremonies performed with ordered piety, and of alert moments of aggiornamento in the immemorial oracle sites of the Aegean: Aurelius Longinus and T. Flavius Glaucus, Flavia Politta and Manilius Fuscus, Flavius Ulpianus, a prophet skilled in sacrifice, and his cousin, Aelius Granianus Ambeibios Macer, zealous sponsor of Apolline eisteddfods.

Living in the age of Marcus Aurelius, they presided, at times, over the trial and execution of Christians. Their grandsons nursed their cities into the Age of Constantine. Had Julian the Apostate, “the great heir of the third century,” lived, they would have stepped out of the shadows into which they sank for the next sixteen hundred years. We will search in vain for their names in library catalogs. Hardly any of them are known from literary texts. They are names, scattered among the marble fragments that litter Aegean Turkey and the neighboring regions. The patient genius of Louis Robert and the imaginative flair of Robin Lane Fox have given them back to us. No other history of the rise of Christianity in the Roman world so much as mentions them. Yet the sheer weight of their presence, throughout the third century AD, makes it clear that the triumph of Christianity in the Roman world was by no means a foregone conclusion. It cannot be said, as Jacob Burckhardt once said, in his The Age of Constantine the Great, that late classical paganism “can hardly be thought of as likely to endure even without the appearance of Christianity.” Still less can it be said that Christianity “broke like a flood into the empty channel of the century.”1 After a generation of struggling along these peculiarly dangerous shores, this book takes us out into the open sea. Things are not as we had once been told:

[Christian] converts…were not abandoning a static or dying religious culture. Rather, they were joining the most extreme option in a period when religious issues were very lively.

What, then, of this “most extreme option”? Up to the reign of Constantine, Christianity was a “moral minority.” No “rising swell in the tide of conversions” occurred, such as might have commended the Church to an alert emperor. Christianity had spread very slowly and in a piecemeal manner. After the account of Saint Paul’s journeys in the Acts of the Apostles, we have no truthful evidence for extensive Christian missions. Christian preachers had not leaped over any of the major barriers of the Mediterranean world. Limited to the languages spoken in the towns, Christianity had barely touched the countryside by 300 AD. Nor did Christianity appeal with any peculiar intensity to any one category within Roman society—neither to slaves nor to women. On such topics, Lane Fox’s chapter, “The Spread of Christianity,” is starkly minimalist. It was written to put a stop to a century of efforts on the part of Church historians to find in Roman society itself stresses and strains that the Christian message needed only to touch for whole groups to slide into the churches.

Christianity, however, did keep its converts. It subjected them to a long and exacting period of scrutiny and instruction, and policed their moral life with unrelenting vigilance. Sundays at Carthage were a grim occasion. A penitent adulterer might find himself

led into the midst of the brethren and prostrate, all in sackcloth and ashes…a compound of disgrace and horror, before the widows, the elders, suing for everyone’s tears, licking their footprints, clasping their very knees.

(Tertullian, De Pudicitia 13)

Such groups, Lane Fox insists, gave ample opportunity to the “overachiever”—the term recurs frequently in his pages. As we know only too well, the “overachievers” set to work with vigor on the relatively pliant dough of their sexual nature: they dismissed sex from their lives far more readily than they dispensed with the use of slaves. A few offered their bodies to the wrench of death, as Cyprian had done. Intellectually, Christianity’s revealed texts offered “a firmer and clearer compound” than did the love-hate relationship between cult and philosophy that predominated in the pagan world. Just as it was possible to make one’s own, to a heroic degree, the banal maxims of sexual restraint, so it was possible, over time, to sink ever deeper into the fire that burned at the heart of the apparently banal Scriptures.

  1. 1

    Jacob Burckhardt, The Age of Constantine the Great, translated by Moses Hadas (University of California Press, 1983), pp. 127–128 and 218.

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