Hurtado, “Destroyer of the Gods”

In September, Baylor University Press will release “Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World,” by Larry W. Hurtado (University of Edinburgh). The publisher’s description follows:

Destroyer of the Gods“Silly,” “stupid,” “irrational,” “simple.” “Wicked,” “hateful,” “obstinate,” “anti-social.” “Extravagant,” “perverse.” The Roman world rendered harsh judgments upon early Christianity—including branding Christianity “new.” Novelty was no Roman religious virtue.

Nevertheless, as Larry W. Hurtado shows in Destroyer of the gods, Christianity thrived despite its new and distinctive features and opposition to them. Unlike nearly all other religious groups, Christianity utterly rejected the traditional gods of the Roman world. Christianity also offered a new and different kind of religious identity, one not based on ethnicity. Christianity was distinctively a “bookish” religion, with the production, copying, distribution, and reading of texts as central to its faith, even preferring a distinctive book-form, the codex. Christianity insisted that its adherents behave differently: unlike the simple ritual observances characteristic of the pagan religious environment, embracing Christian faith meant a behavioral transformation, with particular and novel ethical demands for men. Unquestionably, to the Roman world, Christianity was both new and different, and, to a good many, it threatened social and religious conventions of the day.

In the rejection of the gods and in the centrality of texts, early Christianity obviously reflected commitments inherited from its Jewish origins. But these particular features were no longer identified with Jewish ethnicity and early Christianity quickly became aggressively trans-ethnic—a novel kind of religious movement. Its ethical teaching, too, bore some resemblance to the philosophers of the day, yet in contrast with these great teachers and their small circles of dedicated students, early Christianity laid its hard demands upon all adherents from the moment of conversion, producing a novel social project.

Christianity’s novelty was no badge of honor. Called atheists and suspected of political subversion, Christians earned Roman disdain and suspicion in equal amounts. Yet, as Destroyer of the gods demonstrates, in an irony of history the very features of early Christianity that rendered it distinctive and objectionable in Roman eyes have now become so commonplace in Western culture as to go unnoticed. Christianity helped destroy one world and create another.

Ulanowski, “The Religious Aspects of War in the Ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome”

In July, Brill Publishers released “The Religious Aspects of War in the Ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome,” by Krzysztof Ulanowski (Gdańsk University). The publisher’s description follows:

“Hellenistic Sanctuaries” (Melfi & Bobou, eds.)

In April, Oxford University Press will release “Hellenistic Sanctuaries: Between Greece and Rome,” edited by Milena Melfi (Oxford University) and Olympia Bobou (Ashmolean Museum).  The publisher’s description follows:

Sanctuaries were at the heart of Greek religious, social, political, and cultural life; however, we have a limited understanding of how sanctuary spaces, politics, and 9780199654130rituals intersected in the Greek cities of the Hellenistic and Republican periods. This edited collection focuses on the archaeological material of this era and how it can elucidate the complex relationship between the various forces operating on, and changing the physical space of, sanctuaries. Material such as archaeological remains, sculptures, and inscriptions provides us with concrete evidence of how sanctuaries functioned as locations of memory in a social environment dominated by the written word, and gives us insight into political choices and decisions. It also reveals changes unrecorded in surviving local or political histories. Each case study explored by this volume’s contributors employs archaeology as the primary means of investigation: from art-historical approaches, to surveys and fieldwork, to re-evaluation of archival material. Hellenistic Sanctuaries represents a significant contribution to the existing bibliography on ancient Greek religion, history, and archaeology, and provides new ways of thinking about politics, rituals, and sanctuary spaces in Greece.

“Pagans and Christians in Late Antique Rome” (eds. Salzman et al)

In November, the Cambridge University Press released “Pagans and Christians in Late Antique Rome: Conflict, Competition, and Coexistence in the Fourth Century,” edited by Michele Renee Salzman (University of California, Riverside), Marianne Sághy (Central European University), and Rita Lizzi Testa (Università degli Studi di Perugia). The publisher’s description follows: 

This book sheds new light on the religious and consequently social changes taking place in late antique Rome. The essays in this volume argue that the once-51gcE0J9FuL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_dominant notion of pagan-Christian religious conflict cannot fully explain the texts and artifacts, as well as the social, religious, and political realities of late antique Rome. Together, the essays demonstrate that the fourth-century city was a more fluid, vibrant, and complex place than was previously thought. Competition between diverse groups in Roman society – be it pagans with Christians, Christians with Christians, or pagans with pagans – did create tensions and hostility, but it also allowed for coexistence and reduced the likelihood of overt violent, physical conflict. Competition and coexistence, along with conflict, emerge as still central paradigms for those who seek to understand the transformations of Rome from the age of Constantine through the early fifth century.

  • The most up-to-date analysis of the texts and archaeological evidence from late antique Rome
  • Written by an international team of scholars with diverse backgrounds and approaches
  • Illuminates new approaches to ancient history by addressing the nature of religious change in the largest city in the Mediterranean world – Rome

Winter, “Divine Honours for the Caesars”

In October, Eerdmans released Divine Honours for the Caesars: The First Winter_Divine Honors for the Caesars_wrk03.inddChristians’ Response, by historian Bruce Winter. The publisher’s description follows:

Though the first century A.D. saw the striking rise and expansion of Christianity throughout the vast Roman Empire, ancient historians have shown that an even stronger imperial cult spread far more rapidly at the same time. How did the early Jesus-followers cope with the all-pervasive culture of emperor worship?

This authoritative study by Bruce Winter explores the varied responses of first-century Christians to imperial requirements to render divine honours to the Caesars. Winter first examines the significant primary evidence of emperor worship, particularly analysing numerous inscriptions in public places and temples that attributed divine titles to the emperors, and he then looks at specific New Testament evidence in light of his findings.

Bardill, “Constantine, Divine Emperor of the Christian Golden Age”

Next month, Cambridge releases Constantine, Divine Emperor of the Christianconst Golden Age, by Jonathan Bardill (Oxford). The publisher’s description follows:

Constantine, Divine Emperor of the Christian Golden Age offers a radical reassessment of Constantine as an emperor, a pagan, and a Christian. The book examines in detail a wide variety of evidence, including literature, secular and religious architectural monuments, coins, sculpture, and other works of art. Setting the emperor in the context of the kings and emperors who preceded him, Jonathan Bardill shows how Constantine’s propagandists exploited the traditional themes and imagery of rulership to portray him as having been elected by the supreme solar God to save his people and inaugurate a brilliant golden age. The author argues that the cultivation of this image made it possible for Constantine to reconcile the long-standing tradition of imperial divinity with his monotheistic faith by assimilating himself to Christ.

The Death of the Divine Augustus

The Death of the Divine Augustus

blessedToday is the 2000th anniversary of the death of Caesar Augustus. For anyone who has ever seen it, the Divine Augustus will always be associated with Brian Blessed’s portrayal of him (left) in the BBC adaptation of the wonderful Robert Graves novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God. And so, to commemorate the day, here’s a snippet of dialogue, on a law and religion theme, which captures the charming, cynical urbanity of the series. For those of us nerds of a certain sort, it’s a real guilty pleasure. I’m sure the whole thing is available on Netflix. Watch it — or, better yet, read the books!

[Herod and Augustus are watching a gladiatorial contest.]
Augustus: Herod, what about a little bet? I’ll take the fat one for twenty gold pieces.
Herod: Caesar, it would be against my religion to bet on the life of a man.
Augustus: Oh, really? I would have thought it against your religion to bet on anything.
Herod: Caesar, it’s true: Jews love gambling. But we fear our god more.
Augustus: Which one?
Herod: We have only one, Caesar.
Augustus: I’ve never understood that, it’s quite insufficient. Why don’t you take some of our gods? You know, plenty of people do.
Herod: Believe me, Caesar, the one we have is hard enough to live with.

 

 

On Loving the City

Marc’s post yesterday about Augustine’s two cities–the earthly and heavenly–reminded me of something I read in Peter Brown’s recent book on wealth in ancient Rome. Brown argues that a decisive shift in the conception of generosity accompanied the transition from pagan to Christian society. Both pagans and Christians could be generous. But the objects of their generosity differed.

In pagan Rome, generosity meant adorning one’s city–nowadays, we would say, “country”–contributing to its stature, power, and beauty. Benefactors gave money for magnificent buildings, games, and banquets. Such generosity was understood as a form of love, the “amor civicus,” or “love for the city and its citizens.” A rich person who gave money to glorify his city, Brown writes, “was acclaimed as an amator patriae–a lover of his or her hometown. It was the most honorable love that a wealthy person could show.” A pagan benefactor would not think of looking beyond his city when making a gift. That would have been a snub to his hometown and fellow citizens. 

Christian giving was a different thing. The ideal recipients of Christian generosity were not one’s fellow citizens, who might be quite well-off, but the poor and marginalized, whether they were citizens of one’s patria or not. The point was still to give money in a way that would glorify the city. But the heavenly city, not the earthly city, was the proper object of glorification. Christian charity, Brown writes, was “a transfer of wealth from this world to the next, summed up in the notion of placing treasure in heaven.”

Obviously these are generalities; there were pagans who gave to the poor and Christians who tried to beautify Rome. But the change in focus was essential, and dramatic. From a Christian perspective, the things of this world, although important and necessary, can never be the main concern. Friends, family, home, country–of course one loves these things. Only a monster would not. But it is foolish to glorify or invest too much in them, particularly country. “For here we have no lasting city,” the author of Hebrews says, “but we are looking for the city that is to come.”

Marc began his post with a poem, so I will end with one. In Browning’s “Love Among the Ruins,” a shepherd muses over the ruins of an ancient capital, now a pasture. I’ve always imagined that Browning was talking about the ruins of the Roman Forum, which for centuries, before the archaeologists started to dig, were known as the Campo Vaccino, or cow pasture. The love that Browning describes isn’t Christian love, exactly, but it strikes me as a lot closer to that ideal than the amor civicus:

In one year they sent a million fighters forth
South and North,
And they built their gods a brazen pillar high
As the sky
Yet reserved a thousand chariots in full force—
Gold, of course.
O heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
Earth’s returns
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best. 

“Jews, Christians, and the Roman Empire: The Poetics of Power in Late Antiquity” (Dohrmann and Reed, eds.)

This month, University of Pennsylvania Press will publish Jews, Christians, and the 15169Roman Empire: The Poetics of Power in Late Antiquity, edited by Natalie B. Dohrmann (U. of Pennsylvania) and Annette Yoshiko Reed (U. of Pennsylvania). The publisher’s description follows.

In histories of ancient Jews and Judaism, the Roman Empire looms large. For all the attention to the Jewish Revolt and other conflicts, however, there has been less concern for situating Jews within Roman imperial contexts; just as Jews are frequently dismissed as atypical by scholars of Roman history, so Rome remains invisible in many studies of rabbinic and other Jewish sources written under Roman rule.

Jews, Christians, and the Roman Empire brings Jewish perspectives to bear on longstanding debates concerning Romanization, Christianization, and late antiquity. Focusing on the third to sixth centuries, it draws together specialists in Jewish and Christian history, law, literature, poetry, and art. Perspectives from rabbinic and patristic sources are juxtaposed with evidence from piyyutim, documentary papyri, and synagogue and church mosaics. Through these case studies, contributors highlight paradoxes, subtleties, and ironies of Romanness and imperial power.

Reflections from the City of God: On Excellence in the Two Cities

Excudent alii spirantia mollius aera,                                                                              (credo equidem), vivos ducent de marmore voltus;                                            orabunt causas melius, caelique meatus                                                              describent radio et surgentia sidera dicent:

tu regere imperio populous, Romane, memento                                                           (hae tibi erunt artes) pacique imponere morem,                                                       parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.

When I was a kid, these lines were an ending of sorts. We read them in 11th Publius Vergilius Marograde Latin, at year’s end, and they represented the culmination of the first half of the Aeneid. True, several of us continued on to read Books 7-12 in our senior year, but the second half is something of a long walk down the hill (and I always had a soft spot for Turnus and couldn’t get too excited about his defeat). It’s this section of Book VI (lines 847-853)–in which the ghost of father Anchises discloses to Aeneas what the special arts and excellences of the Roman are to be–that was the peak moment. It was satisfying to us not only as an explanation for all of the trouble that the hero of the story seemed to be taking and enduring but also as an inspiring affirmation of political virtue and the excellence of civic governance writ large: to impose the habit of peace, to spare (or, one might say, to tolerate) the subjugated, and to tame the proud!

It is really quite unnecessary to study “politics” as a discrete subject in high school, or even in college, since the study of abstract political ideologies is often simply a truncated version of the study of the political tradition and heritage of a particular society. And if you want to learn about the “political theory” of an empire that continued to think itself deeply committed to its republican past, you can find it all in Vergil. Other people, he says, might make pretty arts and crafts, but this is what you want from your politics.

These lines came back to me as I read some of the Preface of Book I of the AugustineCity of God, in which Augustine notes the obstacles that he faces in laying out the aim of the work.

For I am aware what ability is requisite to persuade the proud how great is the virtue of humility, which raises us, not by a quite human arrogance, but by a divine grace, above all earthly dignities that totter on this shifting scene. For the King and Founder of this city of which we speak, has in Scripture uttered to His people a dictum of the divine law in these words: “God resisteth the proud but giveth grace unto the humble.” But this, which is God’s prerogative, the inflated ambition of a proud spirit also affects, and dearly loves that this be numbered among its attributes, to “Show pity to the humbled soul,/ And crush the sons of pride.” And therefore, as the plan of this work we have undertaken requires, and as the occasion offers, we must speak also of the earthly city, which, though it be mistress of the nations, is itself ruled by its lust of rule.

Book I is, in fact, loaded with Vergil; Vergil’s poetry itself illustrates the excellence of the City of Man. Later in Book I, it is almost as if Augustine is speaking to the hundreds upon hundreds of generations of young Latin students to come: “There is Vergil, who is read by boys, in order that this great poet, this most famous and approved of all poets, may impregnate their virgin minds, and may not readily be forgotten by them,” after which he proceeds to engage in some close textual reading and interlocution of Vergil. All of this, of course, is meant to counter the claims of those who argued that the Romans got what was coming to them by abandoning the Roman gods and embracing Christ. And as for “parcere subiectis,” Augustine argues that, in fact, the Romans did no such thing. To the contrary: “[A]mong so many and great cities which they have stormed, taken, and overthrown for the extension of their dominion, let us be told what temples they were accustomed to exempt, so that whoever took refuge in them was free.” I.6. In this book, then, Augustine punctures the Vergilian rhetoric of the Augustan age extremely effectively–“[a]ll the spoiling, then, which Rome was exposed to in the recent calamity–all the slaughter, plundering, burning, and misery–was the result of the [Roman] custom of war.” I.7. What was novel, and what showed itself in the comparatively gentle behavior of the barbarians, was truly to spare the subjugated who (whether godly or not, whether deserving–by man’s lights–or not) sought sanctuary in the Christian “temples.”

As the eminent Augustine scholar R.A. Markus puts in his magisterial volume, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine:

In Augustine’s mature view the radical vice of Greek philosophy as of Roman political ideology was the belief in the possibility…of perfection through the polis or the civitas. ‘God resists the proud, but to the humble He giveth grace’: the scriptural sentence quoted at the opening of the City of God was to Augustine’s mind the most fundamental comment on classical pretensions to human self-determination, as expressed in Vergil’s line, quoted in dramatic juxtaposition, on the historic mission of Rome….Here is Augustine’s final answer to the illusion of a teleiosis through rational and human means; and it is the more poignant for being a repudiation of a heritage which, as we have seen, had some power over his mind in his youth. (84)

And not only over Augustine’s mind!! The political program, and the power, of Rome is beguiling and attractive indeed. It holds enduring appeal to young people–as it did for me and my friends in high school. There are, I suppose, several reasons that one reads Vergil rather than Augustine in high school. But one of them, perhaps the most important, is that the excellence of the City of Man is so easy and approachable (as texts millennia old go), while the excellence of the City of God is so distant and so difficult. The excellence of humility is so much harder to appreciate and embrace than the excellence of dominion–especially, it seems to me, for the young. The excellence of the City of God holds little of the immediate and prepossessing appeal of the splendors of Rome.

But perhaps a little Augustine in the relatively early educational years, as a counterpoint to Vergil, might cast politics in a mellower light for the rising generations.

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