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.
Above all, Christianity produced bishops. Having sidestepped issues of social status, socially diverse groups fell into line behind their bishop. Lane Fox goes out of his way to stress that the bishop’s office and style of leadership was “most unfamiliar to pagans,” and that his appeal to authority in thought and morals “rested on profoundly unclassical sources.”
Such a religion might survive. It was unlikely to triumph. Standing in the agora of Smyrna in 250 AD, the learned and pertinacious Christian priest Pionius treated a circle of well-known men of letters to a disquisition that included observations on the volcanic landscape of Burnt Lydia and the geology of their own, local hot-water spa: the fires of Judgment Day were that close beneath their feet. Under the quiet gaze of Marcus Aurelius and his wife, whose images looked down from the agora’s western colonnade, Pionius preached on,
as a man might point to the steam clouds from New York’s manholes and argue to the fate which awaits that great city of sinners.
By 310 the churches were more divided than ever before, by the savagery unleashed among themselves in the days of the Great Persecution. In the prison of Alexandria, “a cloak, a blanket and a shirt” hung in the middle of the cell, separating one embittered splinter group from the other. The Christian rhetor, Lactantius, and Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea, “two aging men of letters,” knew that the end must be close. They remind us of Joyce Cary, who hurried to the Balkan War of 1913, convinced that this would be the last war that a European would have the opportunity to witness.
The conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity, in 312 AD, was “an entirely unexpected event.” For the next quarter of a century, this strangely tenacious and bombastic man heaped public favor on the followers of Christ. He built them churches of imperial size and tone:
This deluge…exceeded any other programme in precious stone which was realized by a ruler in antiquity.
In 325 he summoned the divided bishops to a world council at Nicaea, thereby becoming the ruler “who first mastered the art of holding, and corrupting, an international conference.” But the worst had already happened. The year before, at Antioch, the emperor had opened his mouth. He addressed the “saints” assembled at a preliminary council.
Having committed himself to this particular date and location for Constantine’s extraordinary Oration to the Saints, Lane Fox lingers on the scene. The plenary address to the bishops “reinforced their sense that they were so much wiser than the world.” As the speech rolled on, in Greek, for “two hours at a reasonable rate of delivery,” they would have realized (with satisfaction, Lane Fox implies) that “in a few broad sweeps, Constantine had damned the free use of reason and had banished poetic imagination.” It is just as well that no classics don of Oxford sat in the audience. He would have heard Virgil’s fourth eclogue, “Latin’s loveliest Eclogue,” made to prove the coming of Christ: “As a man might read A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a Russian translation and cite it as proof of the class struggle.”
All was not lost, however. Outside the bishops’ council room, at Constantine’s indecently magnificent court, Publius Optatianus Porfyrius could still write an ingenious acrostic poem, dedicated to a high-ranking senator, that contained in its midst the letters of the name of the current lover of that high gentleman’s wife. And I might add—from the works of a late-fourth-century clergyman at Rome, writing to prove the freedom of the will—the same court contained a certain Samsucius, who had pretended successfully to be a fool for the whole length of the emperor’s reign. No congenital deficiency, but a free, and prudent, exercise of the will had made him so. One suspects, having read the dazzling penultimate chapter of Lane Fox’s book, that our politic idiot was not the only one of his kind at the court of the first Christian emperor. (Pseudo-Augustine, Quaestiones veteris et novi Testamenti 115.75.)
Yet it is precisely the second half of Pagans and Christians, dealing with Christians, that brings us up against a flaw that lies at the very heart of the methods of the ancient historian. It is a book where the nature of the evidence changes dramatically. We begin in a spreading landscape scattered with intricate sites and gossiping stones. Late classical texts are eased back into the meticulous immensity of the world revealed by inscriptions and archaeology. As a result, the religious life of the pagans of the second and third centuries is summoned up for us, and we are given a sense of a weighty presence silently stepping into our world, much as late pagans dearly loved to experience such a presence in the “clear appearances” of their gods. We turn the pages, but after page 261 there is virtually nothing but texts. They startle us, like the sudden rattle of hail on a window pane. They are chillingly clear, overwhelmingly prescriptive—almost all of them were written, from the start, to create the world anew in their own image.
The shift to texts raises problems that cannot be described simply by pointing out the hiatus between literature and reality, precept and practice. Those who study Christianity in the pagan world face a virtually insoluble puzzle of perspective. Paganism no longer belongs to our world. We still see bishops (or think that we do) more frequently than we will ever see the pagan gods. Our most intimate culture lacks the chemical coating that is most sensitive to the light waves emitted by paganism’s particular radiance. As in an astronomer’s photograph of deepest space, the fierce blue emissions of the dwarf stars, our Christian texts, appear as blurs of harsh light, eclipsing the dull red of mighty Betelgeuse. Hence the need for unrelenting vigilance. Texts of such intensity can too easily lure us into taking them on their own terms. We can overestimate the force of their impact on real people in the real world. And we tend to accept their deadly clarity at the expense of the nuances in the religious culture in which they circulated, a culture that often ensured that their message was heard in a different, and perhaps less abrupt, way than that which a modern reader would assume.
To allow the texts to speak for themselves is an elementary guarantee of sanity in the study of the ancient world (a guarantee frequently neglected by scholars of the early Church, as Lane Fox points out on many occasions). But only a very self-confident (or stagnant) discipline would equate sanity with truth. We can only too easily end up like the couple in a high-rise apartment, convinced that it is the bright patterns of the wallpaper that hold the building aloft. There is a lot of stone and steelwork out there, subject to invisible strains. We may have to stretch our minds to the very edge of common sense to do anything about the situation that the evidence has left us in: but we must always remember that texts that speak with such confidence of the “conscious motivation” of the members of a very distant world may, at times, divert our attention away from those more dimly perceived but more significant shifts in the surrounding culture and society.
I think that Lane Fox has relaxed his vigilance, on some occasions, in two significant ways: the first is in the choice of the texts themselves. Those that he uses with greatest effect to evoke the “real” nature of early Christianity are drawn largely from what later became the mainstream of the Christian tradition. But, at the time, they were written with the express intention of creating a world from which all other Christians but themselves were excluded. Alain de Boulluec’s delicate monograph, La notion d’hérésie dans la littérature grecque,2 has shown us the way in which one of the most potent and enduring “representations” to come out of the second century was created—the notion that heresy must have been concretely as well as intellectually “peripheral” to the “real” Church. Thus when Lane Fox claims to be closest to the texts that tell us about the “real” texture and concerns of the early Church, he may, on occasion, be closest only to the center of a dream. The Gnostics, for instance, he finds hardly worthy of mention:
Like “structuralism” in literary circles, pretentious heretical teachings provoked sensible Christians to state their own faith…. Heretical ideas and groups survived, catering for those who wished to be perverse.
In saying this, Lane Fox has done more than offend the sensibilities of devout readers of the Hypostasis of the Archons (a declining band, I suspect, outside the pages of journals of religious history): he has simply switched the weights on his scale. He has declared that the intense intellectual ferment of the didaskaleia, the study circles of the second and third centuries, carried no weight and momentum in the “real” world simply because a body of influential Christian texts, in declaring them to be peripheral, deemed that they should not be perceived to have the weight they so evidently possessed. Thereby we lose half of the intellectual texture of the Christian movement. It is the equivalent of describing the religious culture of early modern England as if all that counted in those centuries was the Anglican Church. A study that lumped the Puritans and the Cambridge Platonists, the Quakers and the terrible Muggletonians together, and dismissed them all as exemplifying “the curious beliefs of minorities who had become rather passé,” might delight a hunting parson; but it would otherwise be laughable.
The dismissive tone of Lane Fox’s remarks makes one of his most acute observations on the nature of early Christianity that much less intelligible. He makes plain that we are dealing with a world of tiny groups. The Christian church house at Dura-Europos in presentday Syria was remodeled in the early third century to hold a congregation no larger than sixty. In a polytheistic society, Christianity spread much as Islam would later spread in parts of southern Asia: conversion meant “a change of fellowship [in a] land of fellowships, but not of fellowship.”3 In such a world, small was beautiful. Intense loyalties to “star groups” counted for much.
The central authority of the bishop stands out in such high relief in Lane Fox’s account because he approaches it from the pagan world. Such authority strikes him as quintessentially unclassical, “alien and archaic.” But within the confederacy of pious households that made up each local church, spiritual authority was a delicate essence, easily dispersed into small groups. No one of these needed to perceive itself as a “minority” over against any others. The idea of churches filled with unsmart and—so it might be hoped—“sensible” Christians does not fit very easily into Lane Fox’s minimalist model for the spread of Christianity. In the ancient world, there was nothing wrong with an army made up of generals. We need only look into Martin Goodman’s scrupulous study, State and Society in Roman Galilee,4 to appreciate the extraordinary achievement of the rabbis, free-lance scholars surrounded by tiny bands of disciples, in eventually projecting their own image of Judaism onto an entire provincial society. To deprive the Christian church of similar figures by declaring them to be peripheral, or to have written only for a “smart minority,” is to deprive Christianity of a large amount of the moral and intellectual force that kept its converts converted. We brisk historians, I admit, would have found the “afternoons long in a Gnostic’s company”: but the time spent on such matters was not wasted.
Furthermore, Lane Fox does not allow all of the texts he marshals to speak in the full richness of their tone. For someone who keeps company so well with so many different texts, this is a surprisingly anti-intellectual book. Lane Fox makes us feel the terrible certainty of early Christian thought, but little of its passion. This is not to say that we can recapture this passion only by retreating into the works of intellectuals such as Origen. It is, rather, that Christian texts (which were, after all, written as one vehicle of communication among many in a religious community) frequently imply a whole symbolic system. This system reached far deeper into the individual and into varied Christian groups than a first reading of a text might suggest. Lane Fox shows disturbing patches of colorblindness when dealing with certain texts and with the patterns of behavior they appear to advocate: they emerge as more callow than they may have been in reality.
To take only one example: starting from the prescriptive literature of the Church, Lane Fox finds it easy to explain the phenomenon of sexual renunciation in Christian circles. He repeats on many occasions that such abstemious men and women were the “overachievers” of the Christian community. Eager beavers in a highly competitive class, they were kept in their place, but covertly admired, by “sensible” Christians. Many martyrs were no better: having “passed their oral examination” such high fliers were “assured…of first-class honours in Paradise.” (I suppose that it should be an occasion for old-fashioned rejoicing that the sensibilities engendered by the Oxford honors examination system can be employed, in this manner, as the surest road to “knowledge of human nature, and of the sure operation of its fierce and unrestrained passions”—to use Gibbon’s words—as these existed among afflicted groups of men and women a mere eighteen hundred years ago!) To attempt to live “like an angel” in this way, Lane Fox adds, also sprang from a longing to regain Adam’s primal singleness of heart. That was a pity:
This praise of simplicity and single-mindedness exalted human achievement by greatly limiting its scope…. To return to a childlike Paradise was to exclude almost everything and understand next to nothing: “single-mindedness” is a dangerous, enfeebling myth.
To draw such a message from early Christian texts is to harbor singularly pallid notions of what it was like to be an angel. Adam’s “singleness of heart” conjured up, to early Christians, a cascade of energy, flowing with such thunderous and unswerving power as to seem as solid as a crag of marble. An angel was a vibrant being, a creature of fire, forever alert to the majesty of the mighty God, hovering with serene and efficacious solicitude above a humanity caught in the cares of this life. Christians were to rise at midnight to say their prayers, for at that time
stars and trees and waters stand hushed for an instant, and all the angel hosts of heaven minister to Him at that hour, together with the souls of the righteous, to shout the praises of their God.
(Apostolic Constitutions 20)
For men and women to wish to “live like angels” by practicing sexual continence meant more than that they wished to compete in a moral high jump or to evade the complexities of civilized living: continence was a declaratory gesture of singular warmth and power. To try to be an angel was to bring a touch of the unbreakable order and high-hearted care of the angelic hosts down among the faithful on earth.
Before the Age of Constantine, it was the martyrs who needed most to draw on those reserves of indestructible majesty. Their visions betray, among other things, the desperate need to maintain a sense of agency in a situation that demanded only that they die like helpless playthings:
A man dreamed that he underwent a transformation and that he had a bear’s paws for hands. Sentenced to death, he was given to the beasts. He was bound to a wooden stake and devoured by a bear. [Hence the dream.] For when a bear hibernates in its den, it puts its paw in its mouth and sucks on it [insouciantly, in its sleep] for nourishment.
(Artemidorus of Daldis, Dreambook 5.59)
Only a woman with the determination of Perpetua could draw on mighty visions to turn the surreal horror of such a death into a dream of victory. To say of martyrdom that
it had no use for sophistication or for a complex awareness of the complexities of human choices [and that] it appeals especially to the young or the inexperienced and to those who do not reflect habitually that all may not be quite as it seems
(and to use the gnomic present tense that implies the reader’s agreement with the irrefutable common sense of such a proposition) is to miss a crucial aspect of the third century. Origen was no simple soul. He had meditated on the nature of physical pain, drawing on the experiences of Christians who had been broken by torture, in order to explore the exact nature of the spiritual pains of Hell. It was no unreflective certainty, but rather a fierce sense of the practicability of purpose, which may often grow more strongly, over the years, in complex souls, that led him, in his late sixties, into the stifling heat and nauseating stench of the dungeons of Caesarea.
If we have no other choice but to write the history of the early Church from early Christian texts, then, at least, we must learn to reach down a little deeper into the symbolic world that gave to some outstanding men and women such firm models for action and responsibility. This had little to do with the deadly certainties of “the young or the inexperienced.” By exploring Christian symbols of action, we may touch the roots of a strange new creativity. By a heroic wrench of the imagination, the sweet exuberance that pagans sensed in a Mediterranean landscape, which still shook with the unexpected tread of mighty gods and goddesses, came to flower again, but now beyond the cultivated world; it arose from the “obscene violence” of death and, a little later, from the chilling inhumanity of the desert:
…changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
(W.B. Yeats, “Easter,” 1916)
We live in a world where it is imperative that we should learn to understand revolutions. It is not enough to pile up the many, perfectly good reasons for regretting that such things happen. This is a humane and deeply thoughtful book. It would be a sad reflection on the mood of our times if some of its more peremptory judgments and the urbane tone of its voice were taken to imply that we now have the measure of the early Christians, and that we no longer need to struggle quite as hard to understand the frightening and brilliant age that ended, so unexpectedly, in the eventual triumph of Christianity in Europe. Robin Lane Fox has taken us out of the desiccated forest of current histories of the Christian church, and has led us on to a southern slope, rustling with trees and shrubs of every conceivable fruit and foliage. We can look forward, now, to spending many years strolling the paths of the new landscape he has opened up for us with Pagans and Christians in our hands.
March 12, 1987