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 …

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