Teitler, “The Last Pagan Emperor”

In March, the Oxford University Press released “The Last Pagan Emperor: Julian the Apostate and the War against Christianity,” by H.C. Teitler.  The publisher’s description follows:

Flavius Claudius Julianus was the last pagan to sit on the Roman imperial throne (361-363). Born in Constantinople in 331 or 332, Julian was raised as a Christian, but 9780190626501.jpgapostatized, and during his short reign tried to revive paganism, which, after the conversion to Christianity of his uncle Constantine the Great early in the fourth century, began losing ground at an accelerating pace. Having become an orphan when he was still very young, Julian was taken care of by his cousin Constantius II, one of Constantine’s sons, who permitted him to study rhetoric and philosophy and even made him co-emperor in 355. But the relations between Julian and Constantius were strained from the beginning, and it was only Constantius’ sudden death in 361 which prevented an impending civil war.

As sole emperor, Julian restored the worship of the traditional gods. He opened pagan temples again, reintroduced animal sacrifices, and propagated paganism through both the spoken and the written word. In his treatise Against the Galilaeans he sharply criticised the religion of the followers of Jesus whom he disparagingly called ‘Galilaeans’. He put his words into action, and issued laws which were displeasing to Christians–the most notorious being his School Edict. This provoked the anger of the Christians, who reacted fiercely, and accused Julian of being a persecutor like his predecessors Nero, Decius, and Diocletian. Violent conflicts between pagans and Christians made themselves felt all over the empire. It is disputed whether or not Julian himself was behind such outbursts. Accusations against the Apostate continued to be uttered even after the emperor’s early death. In this book, the feasibility of such charges is examined.

Around the Web This Week

Here is a look at some interesting news stories involving law and religion from this past week:

“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

The Parthenon Enigma

Preparing for the Sacrifice?  

“Athenians,” St. Paul begins his famous sermon in the Book of Acts, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” That basic fact about ancient Athens–that it was, in classicist Joan Breton Connelly’s words, an “intensely religious” society–mostly escapes us today. Since the Enlightenment, we are accustomed to see Athens as the prototype of rationalism and liberal democracy. That’s why so many civic buildings in America, like the Supreme Court in Washington and Federal Hall in lower Manhattan, take as their model the most famous Athenian structure of all: the Parthenon.

In a provocative new book, The Parthenon Enigma (Knopf), Connelly argues that the Enlightenment view is wrong, or at least crucially incomplete. One cannot understand the Parthenon, she says, without appreciating the central role religion had in Athenian life. Yes, the Parthenon was a political building. But in ancient Athens, politics, like everything else, was an extension of religion. To be an Athenian was to share an imagined identity as a descendant of Erechtheus, a legendary king born of a union (sort of) between the god Hephaistos and Mother Earth. Athenian citizenship, she writes, “was a concept whose sense extended far beyond our notions of politics, positing a mythic ‘deep time’ and a cosmic reality in which the citizen could not locate himself or understand his existence except through religious awareness and devotions.”

The centerpiece of Connelly’s book is a reinterpretation of the Parthenon’s frieze. Since the Enlightenment, conventional wisdom has held that the frieze commemorates a civic festival known as the Panathenaia. Connelly argues, however, based in part on a recently discovered manuscript of a lost work by the playwright Euripides, that the frieze in fact commemorates the myth of Erechtheus and his daughters, one of whom offers herself as a human sacrifice to save the city. (The word “Parthenon,” it turns out, means “place of the maidens”). This reading of the frieze, she argues, resolves some puzzling aspects of the conventional understanding–for example, other Greek temples, without exception, depict myths, not civic festivals–and better fits what we know of the history, legendary and otherwise, of the Acropolis, the famous hill on which the Parthenon sits.

Unless one is a classicist, it’s going to be very hard to evaluate her claim. Much depends on the correct interpretation of the section of the frieze in the photograph above. Is that Erechtheus on the right, giving his daughter a burial shroud? Connelly certainly provides a lot of detail. But, detail or not, this is a fun and worthwhile book, and its central argument about the overwhelming religiosity of Athens is compelling. Turns out St. Paul was right.

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. 

Harper, “From Shame to Sin”

Culture and law have a mutually-reinforcing relationship. Cultural transformation typically promotes legal change, and legal change often speeds up cultural transformation. A good example is the sexual revolution of the 1960s. As the revolution became mainstream, it put pressure on family law concepts that had been based on traditional Christian sexual ethics. And changes in family law have  no doubt accelerated the weakening of traditional Christian sexual morality.

Next month, Harvard University Press will publish a book that describes another cultural transformation that had an effect on law: the movement from pagan to Christian sexual ethics that occurred in late antiquity. In some ways, this seems the mirror image of what is happening today. As Christian values displaced the pagan sexual ethic, Roman law changed as well. Doubtless, pagan traditionalists grumbled about the revolution, just as religious traditionalists grumble today. It’s a good reminder that history doesn’t really move in a one-way direction.

The book is From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity by Kyle Harper (University of Oklahoma). Here’s the publisher’s description:

When Rome was at its height, an emperor’s male beloved, victim of an untimely death, would be worshipped around the empire as a god. In this same society, the routine sexual exploitation of poor and enslaved women was abetted by public institutions. Four centuries later, a Roman emperor commanded the mutilation of men caught in same-sex affairs, even as he affirmed the moral dignity of women without any civic claim to honor. The gradual transformation of the Roman world from polytheistic to Christian marks one of the most sweeping ideological changes of premodern history. At the center of it all was sex. Exploring sources in literature, philosophy, and art, Kyle Harper examines the rise of Christianity as a turning point in the history of sexuality and helps us see how the roots of modern sexuality are grounded in an ancient religious revolution.

While Roman sexual culture was frankly and freely erotic, it was not completely unmoored from constraint. Offending against sexual morality was cause for shame, experienced through social condemnation. The rise of Christianity fundamentally changed the ethics of sexual behavior. In matters of morality, divine judgment transcended that of mere mortals, and shame—a social concept—gave way to the theological notion of sin. This transformed understanding led to Christianity’s explicit prohibitions of homosexuality, extramarital love, and prostitution. Most profound, however, was the emergence of the idea of free will in Christian dogma, which made all human action, including sexual behavior, accountable to the spiritual, not the physical, world.

Clive Bell on Paganism and Impressionism

The New Republic will from time to time reprint old essays on various subjects.  Here is a 1923 piece by the formalist art critic Clive Bell, whose ideas about the nature of aesthetic experience have always seemed to me nearly universally wrong.  That notwithstanding, I found his discussion in this piece of the connection between impressionism and paganism to be illuminating — one of the most concise explanations for why I have always disliked impressionism with such great intensity.  A bit:

The cultivated rich seem at last to have discovered in the impressionists what the impressionists themselves rediscovered half by accident. They rediscovered paganism—real paganism I mean—something real enough to be the inspiration and content of supreme works of art. Paganism, I take it, is the acceptance of life as something good and satisfying in itself. To enjoy life the pagan need not make himself believe that it is a means to something else—to a better life in another world for instance, or a juster organization of society, or complete self-development: he does not regard it as a brief span or portion in which to do something for his own soul, or for his fellow creatures, or for the future. He takes the world as it is and enjoys to the utmost what he finds in it: also, he is no disconsolate archaeologist spending his own age thinking how much more happily he could have lived in another and what a pagan he would have been on the banks of the Ilissus. No, paganism does not consist in a proper respect for the pagan past, but in a passionate enjoyment of the present; and Poussin, though he painted bacchanals galore, would have been quite out of place in the world of Theocritus. Your true pagan neither regrets nor idealizes: and while Swinburne was yearning nostalgicly for “the breasts of the nymph in the brake,” Renoir was finding inspiration for a glorious work of art in the petticoats of the shop-girls at the Moulin de la Galette.

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