When in AD 229 the historian Dio Cassius died, the Greco-Roman world was still materially and spiritually secure. “We live round a sea like frogs round a pond,” Socrates had told his Athenian friends, and seven centuries later this was still true. The outlying provinces of the Roman empire, Dacia and Britain, were anomalies, areas which had been conquered mainly for strategic reasons, where the army and the leading provincials tried to adapt Mediterranean styles of life to inhospitable climates. The frontiers were well guarded, and behind them stood the cities with their majestic temples, marble colonnades, and market places whose ruins still attract the annual pilgrimage of tourists to the Mediterranean.
The rulers of the Roman empire were stalwart conservatives drawn from an international aristocracy that had emerged from the landowning and priestly families in the provinces of the empire. In 229 the emperor was Alexander Severus, a youthful member of a Syrian high priestly house. To the peasants who made up most of the provincial population he represented divine providence to whom they could turn with an assurance that grievances would be redressed. Over all presided the age-old divinities of territory and city, assisted by the myriad of goblins and demons that controlled under Fate the individual’s every action from birth to death. Science for the majority consisted in the compilation of accurate horoscopes. Only a few malcontents, muddled intellectuals, frustrated artisans, and bored women had joined the rebel sect of Judaism and accepted the “crucified Sophist” as God.
The story which R. M. Grant, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Chicago University, sets out to tell so ably is how that minority gradually prevailed over all its pagan rivals, until in the lifetime of Dio Cassius’s grandson the emperor was a Christian and Christianity had become the official religion of the empire. His primary concern is “the thrust of the Christian movement into the Roman world.” His aim is, as he says, “to set the Christian movement in its Greco-Roman context and assess how much the direction of its development owed to its environment or environments.” This is a formidable task. So much vital evidence is lacking, and while modern criticism has eroded once accepted certainties, it is interesting that even in his final section devoted to Christian worship the author does not seek to trace the roots of the Christian liturgy in Jewish practices or even in the Greek mysteries, as Loisy and Lietzmann tried a generation ago. Surely here if anywhere Christianity owed the outward forms of its services to its environment.
Grant’s real aim is to follow the growth of the Church within the setting of the Greco-Roman world. He is eminently fitted for the task. In a style that sometimes resembles that of Tacitus in its lucidity and brevity he draws on a wide knowledge of Roman history and an acquaintance with archaeological discoveries to place the early impact of the Church against its secular background. A well-told outline of the structure of the empire is followed by a brief but searching account of the part played in it by the Jews. Without the Jewish Dispersion extending to every corner of the Mediterranean world, including Morocco, the Christian mission would never have gotten off the ground.
As one would expect from his work on the Gnostics and Christian Apologists, Grant is most at home in the second century. The first generations of Christians had looked forward confidently to the coming of Christ’s Kingdom. Maran Atha, “May the Lord’s kingdom come,” the concluding words of the Book of Revelation, summed up their hopes. In the second century, however, this prospect became bleaker. The “scoffers and mockers” of whom the writer of 2 Peter complains threatened to win the upper hand. Jewish Messianism crumbled beyond repair with the catastrophic failure of Bar-Kochba’s rising in 135. The Christians were confronted with an enormous task of readapting their faith from its former basis of apocalyptic hope to acquiescence in prolonged coexistence with the secular world.
In retrospect one can appreciate how well the Church succeeded. Without surrendering an iota of their rejection of idolatry and pagan worship the Christian Apologists of the second half of the second century mapped out a theology that accepted the greater part of the structure and thought of Greco-Roman civilization, while the Christian leaders developed an organization that was proof against the hostility of the pagans and the subversion of deviationist sects. By the end of the second century the Church had survived with a remarkably cohesive system of doctrine and a form of government which allowed for centralized decision-making while preserving just sufficient scope for individual freedom within the Church.
The third century put much of this to the test. By now the Church was far stronger. Its numbers had been swelled by the discontented, those who found nothing to strive for, let alone to die for, in the intolerably even tenor of Roman provincial life. There may even have been something of a “generation gap” of which the Church took advantage, as Grant argues, in the last two decades of the second century—something akin perhaps to the drift by the young, the fashionable, and the discontented toward Roman Catholicism that took place in Britain and the US between 1930 and 1955, the days when Pius XII really was believed to be omniscient!
Grant is perhaps too definite in his view that orthodoxy’s rivals, the revivalist Montanists and the spiritual syncretizing of the Gnostics, had been overcome. Both were to emerge in other and more effective forms later on, and there were more serious intellectual challenges in the offing. Meantime Christianity had become one of the major religions in the empire. One by one its rivals, Mithraism, the cult of Isis, the Roman gods themselves, began to lose their credibility.
The story of the Church in the third century presents difficulties to the historian. It is bound to be episodic, as by then there was a Latin-speaking church in North Africa which adopted a radically different theology and attitude toward the empire from its Greek-speaking counterpart in the east. The great centers of Christianity, Rome, Carthage, Antioch, and Alexandria, also were all developing their separate interpretations of Church discipline and theology. The theme, however, of the growing effectiveness of the Church in regard to the empire and the equally growing tendency toward internal rivalry and dispute is relatively easy to follow.
It is unfortunate that in recent years the veracity of Eusebius of Caesarea (circa 269-339), our primary authority for the events of the period, has been unnecessarily called into question. Grant follows the fashion too readily, and thereby has missed a chance of reassessing the evidence for the persecution of the Christians under Septimius Severus (193-211) and Maximin (235-238). Origen, who died in 254, regarded the threats of the latter as real enough and gave a vivid account of the ground swell of popular ill will against the Christians which the peasant emperor Maximin reflected. In the event, the persecution under Decius in 250 was no bolt from the blue, and it faced the Church with its greatest crisis before the rise of Mahomet.
The force of this book becomes blunted when it should be at its sharpest. The reason is, perhaps, that the author is less disposed than he might have been to realize that in the last decades of the third century the real revolution in favor of Christianity took place in the countryside of key provinces of the empire as well as in the cities, and that it involved the dethronement of deities that had swayed the lives of their worshippers for millennia in favor of a Biblically inspired Christianity. Antony’s monasticism starting circa 270 was essentially a Coptic peasant movement. Also, without the conversion of a large number of North Africans to Christianity and the immediate surrender of the North African provinces to him in 312, Constantine’s victory at the Milvian Bridge would have been hollow and his conversion to Christianity no more significant than a personal whim.
Grant’s book, however, is exciting. It explains clearly and convincingly why Christianity won and why it became the religion of Europe. The final section, devoted to the Christian way of life and its attitudes to issues such as slavery and war, shows how well Christianity was adapted to absorb the best that the philosophies of the Greco-Roman world could offer. The Church’s blend of conservativism and revolution ultimately assured its success. Constantine possessed the statesmanship to realize that the future of the empire lay in partnership with the Church.
Peter Brown takes the story on for another century. Collected writings such as these are a fair test of a historian’s genius. The pitfalls of repetition and even of incongruity, the product of changing opinions over the years, are always present. But these essays, the fruit of not more than ten years’ sustained research, escape creditably. They may be read as a major contribution to the understanding of late antiquity.
Brown’s studies fall into three groups, those connected with late classical religion and society, with Rome in the fourth and early fifth centuries, and finally with North Africa. In all of these there are the same complete mastery of material, penetration, and often novel insights into writings which to others would demand no more than a routine review. If Grant’s hero is Constantine, Brown’s is Augustine of Hippo. Six separate studies are devoted to the saint and his opponents, and to the intellectual currents of late Roman life that they reflected.
This is the level on which the author has most to contribute. Like Augustine his interest lies in recesses of human nature. “Man himself is like the depth of the ocean.” Brown echoes Augustine’s judgment, as he sets out on his explorations. Not the least interesting part of these studies is the introduction, where the author describes how he came to be interested in late antiquity. “Nothing is quite what it appears in the Later Roman Empire. This is the lasting attraction of that age of change.” Seldom were the externals of classical civilization and the myth of Eternal Rome so strenuously maintained, yet beneath the surface a new, bizarre world had come into being. Nowhere was this truer than in North Africa, where the actors on each side of the controversy between Augustine and the Donatists summed up the profound differences of outlook that divided men of that time. It was these deep changes of mood, the hidden currents of religion and politics, that challenged his research.
The quest leads Brown down the byways of history even as far as the study of witchcraft and sorcery and its effect on the lives of the inhabitants of the Roman empire. This turbid underground of religious belief was to have a long and fateful influence on European (and American) civilization. The witches of Salem could point to an ancestry extending as far as Apuleius’ Golden Ass. Brown has an uncanny grasp of the importance of the personal in history and an ability to ferret out the hitherto unnoticed fragment of information to support a case.
Few but he would have seen the connection between the passionately held alliances among the leading families of the Roman aristocracy and the fate of Pelagius’ teaching on free will in the years following the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410. Yet the connection becomes obvious as step by step one is confronted with the same family groups and their rivals who had been involved in theological politics for the previous thirty years. The Pelagian controversy of 415-418 was the final episode in a series of rows among members of the Roman aristocracy that had started thirty years before and had resulted in Jerome’s enforced departure from Rome in 385. More than any other scholar Brown tells his readers what it was like to live in late antiquity.
One will not, therefore, read these studies simply as a collection of disparate essays, but for the over-all picture they give of life and religion among the Roman upper classes on the eve of the great barbarian invasions. Two of Brown’s themes follow closely on the story told by Grant. In his study of the conversion of the pagan aristocracy in Rome, we are shown the power of Christianity in action. Christianity had penetrated upward through urban society and by the end of the fourth century it was laying siege to the last stronghold of paganism, the senatorial aristocracy in Rome.
This story of the transition from stanch paganism to conformist Christianity is complex and defies even Brown’s resources. One fact that emerges, however, is the influence of the Christian womenfolk in these great families, who played the same part in the ultimate conversion of their households as their sisters had among the landowning families in Syria and Asia Minor in the same period. Of when their own conversions had taken place, however, we know next to nothing. We are left to suspect that in many instances the women were attracted to the new faith perhaps as many as three generations before the male line abandoned traditional loyalty to the gods of Rome.
The second aspect concerns the Church and those who disagreed with it. In the first three centuries the Christians were the persecuted. In the fourth and especially in the early years of the fifth century, they became the persecutors. Brown’s interest in Augustine leads him into three articles on Augustine’s clash with the African Donatists and in particular his attitude toward religious coercion. In some ways the Catholic attitude toward schismatics and heretics stemmed from Constantine’s decision to favor the Catholics at the expense of all other Christian rivals.
Augustine merely approved the vigorous application of this policy, but coercion also fitted his basic view of the relationship of Church and state. The Church’s law was derived from God, and the state, originating as a means of disciplining sinful mankind, existed only to serve the needs of the Church. If the emperor could promulgate edicts against poisoners he could also do so against spiritual poisoners, that is, heretics. Human liberty was merely liberty to err. It was no bad thing for the recalcitrant to be disciplined “by inconveniences.” In the infinite wisdom of God those who had been forced into conversion might be among those predestined to be saved. The logic of the Latin Christian doctrines of the Church and of predestination and grace led inevitably to the justification of coercion against misbelievers. In the hands of a religious genius like Augustine what had been an attitude hardened into a doctrine—a doctrine abandoned only 1,500 years later at Vatican II.
Both books tell us much about the roots of European civilization, of how Christianity came to triumph and how it used its victory particularly in the western, Latin-speaking provinces. Both suffer perhaps from being elitist in outlook, concentrating on the upper echelons of society and failing to ask why ordinary men and women should abandon the worship of gods that had protected them for generations for the sake of a “new, strange religion” whose adherents their fathers had sent to the lions.
The Donatists who originally inspired Brown’s research had little in common with the urbane Late Roman aristocracy in which he now moves with such assurance, and the rough field conditions requisite for their future study are far removed from the libraries of All Souls and the Bodleian. Perhaps something of frontiersman and revivalist lurks in all of us. What both of these fine studies show, however, is that the history of the early Church can never be understood apart from the Greco-Roman world it overcame. Diocletian, Constantine, and Augustine each reflect a different aspect of the movement of Christianity into European history.
February 8, 1973