Sticking with the Pagans

Christopher Kelly

  • Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire by Peter Brown
    Wisconsin, 192 pp, £36.00, December 1992, ISBN 0 299 13340 0

In AD 362 – only fifty years after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity – the pagan Emperor Julian, hoping to undermine the privileged position of this new religion, banned Christian rhetoricians from teaching the pagan Classics. In a spectacular act of literary futility, the Syrian poet Apollinaris and his son, determined to retain a Classical gloss to Christian education, at once translated nearly the whole of the Bible into Greek epic verse.

Their efforts, rendered obsolete by Julian’s death 12 months later, have (perhaps mercifully) not survived. Yet their attempt to mix Christianity with the Classics was neither an isolated nor a curious event. It was part of a much wider pattern of fourth and fifth-century Christian culture which based itself openly and self-consciously on traditional pagan models. Educated bishops delighted in their non-Christian learning; letters, sermons, witty table talk and even doctrinal tracts were all regarded as suitable vehicles for virtuoso displays of erudition. In over one hundred and twenty quotations, the City of God paraded St Augustine’s dazzling knowledge of Cicero – the greatest orator of the pagan Roman Republic.

On the face of it, Christian involvement in the survival and preservation of Classical pagan culture seems anomalous. It is certainly at odds with triumphalist accounts of the rise of Christianity, which privilege confrontation over compromise, antagonism over accommodation. In contrast to such simplicities, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity presents a highly sophisticated and deeply sensitive view of Roman culture and religion in the eastern Mediterranean.

The book takes as its ruling theme the relationship between upper-class subjects of the later Roman Empire and imperial government. The first two chapters examine the political ideology developed and refined by an upper class concerned – in the face of increasing autocracy and centralisation – to exercise control over the force and direction of imperial power. The political imagination of these local notables, prominent men in the archipelago of small towns which made up the Roman Empire, was filled with cautionary tales based on precepts derived from the Classical past. In these, good emperors (or governors) were characterised by their poise, benevolence, accessibility and willingness to be swayed by upper-class spokesmen. Bad governors (or emperors) stubbornly ignored upper-class concerns, easily lost their temper, and met deservedly ignominious ends. A complementary set of stories prescribed the proper relationship between local notables and their citizen bodies. Municipal worthies were expected to show respect for their peers, demonstrate a solid civic pride and assist fellow citizens through charitable donations or lavish public building programmes.

The reality or truthfulness of these images is beside the point. Rather, these carefully elaborated moral templates enabled an interlocking set of tense and potentially explosive relationships to be expressed, negotiated and policed. In showing how a common, Classically-based culture was central to the political imagination of the later Roman upper class, Brown has revealed an elegant and powerful moral economy, underpinned by necessity (central government could not have functioned without the co-operation of the Empire’s upper classes in collecting taxes and keeping the peace) and continually reinforced through paideia – the Classical training which endlessly recycled a small number of set texts and morally improving exempla. Paideia not only gave the upper class a uniform cultural gloss, it also ensured that those involved in the exercise of power or persuasion acted from the same well-thumbed script. All participants had a recognisable role to play. Even strong protest had its formulae. At crucial moments, philosophers (invested with parrhesia – the right of unrestrained speech) might tell emperors what was really going on in the Empire; or so, at least, it was imagined.

But this was also a fractured and embattled world. By the fourth century, the urban upper classes no longer held a monopoly over power at a local level. Rather, civic notables competed for influence with new groups – military officers, imperial officials and holders of court titles – who derived their rank and status from far beyond the city walls. In fourth-century Antioch, the renowned orator and lecturer Libanius complained bitterly of those who refused to play by the rules. In one case, Jewish tenant farmers, who had demanded new conditions of employment, were brushed aside by Libanius, who asserted his traditional right as landlord to decide these matters unchallenged. Frustrated, his tenants turned to a local military commander. In return for payment in farm produce, he backed the tenants against Libanius in a court case before the governor. Libanius was defeated. His angry response is instructive: ‘And if justice has not even been preserved for me, despite my tireless efforts in giving speeches, despite my receipt of letters bringing honours from the Emperor, and despite the annoyance felt by ex-pupils on my behalf, what must be expected in the case of others who possess none of these advantages?’

Men whose influence could be bought did not feel themselves bound either by appeals to a code of conduct sanctified by antiquity or by the narrow social world it sought to uphold. The strident tone of Libanius’ complaints captures something of the threat posed by these new ways of organising relationships. It raises the possibility that the many tales emphasising the importance of paideia may tell us more about upper-class dreams of a perfect world than about how the surrounding society actually worked. The upper-class position was perhaps more complex, less self-assured than their rhetoric often admits. Civic notables in the later Empire may have claimed that the restraints of a shared set of values remained strong, but they still had to reckon with men like Libanius’ opponent – a powerful individual who remained entirely unpersuaded by one of Classical culture’s most eloquent proponents. With such people paideia cut no ice; they preferred to be paid.

The rise of Christianity in the cities of the Roman Empire should also be understood in the light of this contrast between political reality and the ways in which it was represented. That Christianity was unavoidably implicated in the life and politics of the Empire’s cities is elegantly demonstrated in the third chapter of Power and Persuasion: here Brown argues convincingly that the Church eroded upper-class control by feeding, organising and mobilising a growing, and hitherto neglected, constituency – the (largely non-citizen) urban poor. Increasingly, bishops were recognised as important and influential figures in city life. From their episcopal seats, they settled disputes, controlled crowds and passed on popular grievances to imperial officials. By the end of the fourth century, central government was exploiting and supporting this new pattern of power. It frequently relied on bishops, rather than civic notables, to secure peace and good behaviour in the cities. The Church, with its newly regimented supporters, gradually assumed a role once taken by more traditional municipal institutions.

Yet, as Brown makes clear, even in the relief of the poor (seemingly the most Christian of activities) traditional morality was of crucial importance. Bishops represented their actions as a direct continuation of the old duty of municipal worthies to care for their fellows. Equally, their magnificent ecclesiastical building programmes were presented as fulfilling a long-recognised obligation on local grandees to beautify their city. By situating themselves within an unbroken tradition of urban philanthropy, bishops – many of whom were from upper-class families – used an old, familiar language acceptable to their peers. By refusing to reject Classical codes of conduct, they were able to position themselves more easily within an existing framework. Their acceptance of traditional expressions of power and influence helped to domesticate an alien and potentially threatening presence. It made more palatable a significant strengthening of the Church’s role within the city.

Given the importance of paideia in securing the Church’s position, it is unsurprising that the apostate Emperor Julian (a figure rather underplayed in Brown’s account) should have seen preventing Christians from teaching the Classics as the key to weakening their religion. From an uncompromising pagan standpoint, Christianity’s adoption of the Classical past was an attempt to subvert an old order by appropriating, not only the traditional roles of the urban upper class, but also, and more insidiously, their language and culture. Equally understandable are the protests against Julian’s legislation. In a strongly-worded attack, the great Christian rhetorician Gregory of Nazianzus argued that Greek language and culture represented ‘the common property of all rational beings’. Christians could not be denied its use in prayers or devotions, ‘as though we were caught stealing other people’s possessions’. But, as Julian’s brief reign showed, the fragile unity which joined a Christian present to a Classical past could be all too easily broken. This was what highly educated upper-class bishops such as Gregory sought desperately to avoid. It was in their interests that a Christian God should continue to listen to prayers in sophisticated Greek.

Paideia was only one tactic among many used to secure the position of the Church. As well as these cultural preoccupations, a range of more mundane measures, such as imperial funding and immunity from taxes, encouraged the growth of the Church as an institution. By the end of the fourth century, in its organisation, personnel and Empire-wide coverage, it was rivalled only by the imperial bureaucracy. This institutional strength contributed both to the gradual success of Christianity as a religion and to its growing political clout. In 390, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, protested against the Emperor Theodosius’ authorisation of the massacre of seven thousand rioters in Thessalonica. In speaking freely before an emperor, a Christian bishop was, as Brown observes, laying claim to a role once played by Classical philosophers. But Ambrose’s action, and Theodosius’ public penance in Milan cathedral, was also a simple index of the growing power of the Church. No Classical philosopher had ever persuaded an emperor to stoop so low. Brown speculates that for onlookers the remarkable sight of Theodosius stripped of his purple robes and openly weeping might have been quickly forgotten in the pomp and magnificence of the celebrations held soon after in the city to mark the arrival of the Emperor’s heirs. I am not so sure. Theodosius’ display of dynastic unity was no doubt dazzling, but his open subordination to the Church was, in the end, more telling.

This dispute between a Catholic bishop and a Roman emperor edges us firmly towards the noticeably different world of the fifth century. The final chapter of Power and Persuasion offers a brilliantly drawn tableau of an empire in which Christianity undeniably set the tone. Continued success in the cities, a growing institutional strength and an assured role as a mediator of imperial power gave the Church a new confidence. For some Christians, that was a signal to discard their Classical past. To be sure, there had always been advocates of rejection. In the wilderness, monks had achieved holiness through a denial of the intellectual delights of civilisation. Arsenius, once tutor to imperial princes, fled into the Egyptian desert. Of his elderly teacher there he remarked: ‘I once knew Greek and Latin learning; but with this peasant, I have not yet mastered my ABC.’

The fifth century was marked by more sophisticated strategies. At court, the language of imperial legitimation became more explicitly Christian. Emperors yielded to petitioners not because of the restraints imposed by a shared upper-class culture, but out of a concern for humanity in general. They condescended to help their subjects just as God had lowered Himself in the incarnation to save His creation. A similar image of Christianity triumphant informed much of fifth-century literature. For writers such as Socrates (the ironically named Church historian), a Christian empire had been firmly and decisively established with Constantine’s conversion over one hundred years before. Suggestions of accommodation to a pagan past were merely shadows dispelled by the clear light of true religion.

It is a tribute to the power of Brown’s picture of late antiquity that such triumphalism now lacks persuasion. These over-dramatised themes must be set alongside the continued political and cultural significance of paideia in the Empire’s cities and against some of the uncertainties, irregularities and contradictions which resulted from Christianity’s complex relationship with the Classical past. Brown’s attempt to recapture this fascinating complexity makes Power and Persuasion an important and thought-provoking book. Against the authorised version of a new religion sweeping all before it, he has restored something of the religious experience of those deeply committed Christians who saw reverence for the Classical past as a firm foundation for their own faith. These were, in great part, solid upper-class citizens (some of them bishops) for whom paideia remained both a priceless storehouse of hard-won wisdom and a guarantor of their own identity and importance in urban society. Such advantages were not to be surrendered lightly. Classical culture was not to be rejected outright. To meet the demands of a Christian empire it was best to embrace the past and, where possible, skilfully convert it.