Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries

Skepticlawyer recommended Ramsay MacMullen’s Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, a fine, erudite study of the persistence and suppression of paganism under the Christian emperors.

What struck me was MacMullen’s mastery of sources, some quite obscure. The chapter headings—Persecution, The Cost to the Persecuted, Superstition, Assimilation, Summary—summarise MacMullen’s thesis quite nicely. That paganism was seriously persecuted by Christian rulers, that Christianity (once it became the official doctrine of the Empire) spread more by the operation of legal and other penalties and inducements than preaching (particularly among the elite), that paganism was a more resilient competitor than it has often been given credit, that Christianity assimilated much of the rituals, observances and functions of paganism. A thesis advanced via citing much revealing incident and careful sense of evidence. Including how much our evidence has been strained through Christian sources and selection. Scraping off the last copy of Cicero on political good sense for the hundredth (surviving) copy of Augustine’s meditations on the Psalms is a typically vivid example of this process (p.2).

In the first paragraph of his Preface, MacMullen, sets the story as the replacement of one Establishment with another where we already know how the story ends (p.1). MacMullen then launches into a discussion of the problem of evidence: not only loss of sources but the suppression or congenial reconstrual of the inconvenient:
The father of ecclesiastical history, Eusebius, in a particular serious aside, disclaimed the telling of the whole truth. Rather, he proposed to limit his account to “what may be of profit”. His example found favour among his successors, by whom all sorts of details were bent out of shape or passed over, events were entirely suppressed, church councils deliberately forgotten, until in recent time even the wrong saint and pope might vanish from the record, or almost (p.4).
With surviving literary sources so compromised, studies such as those of urban inscriptions in North Africa, tell us (in contradiction of the surviving literary sources) that Augustine did not live in a Christian world (p.5).

By the fifth century it became increasingly difficult for the wealthy and the prominent to remain pagan:
Savage penalties were more loudly advertised by the impatient autocracy of the emperors, to offset the irremediable venality and favouritism of their students. The means of persecution available to the church thus had more of an edge (p.26)
Justinian, the great codifier of Roman law, was particularly brutal in his persecution (p.27). MacMullen pointedly contrasts the survival of the pagans of Harran under Muslim rule, noting their role in the transmission of Greek thought and learning to the Muslim empire, with the decline and loss of literary tradition by the Edessene church, which had suffered under the persecutions of the Christian emperors for choosing the “wrong” side in theology (Pp.28-9).

MacMullen estimates that a majority of Roman officials had become Christian by 360s-370s. Only one significant missionary effort is recorded in the sources: positive and negative inducements seem to have been much more important in the process of Christianisation of the Empire (p.30).

There was a clear process of the persecutions intensifying. From preferment in office it moved onto requiring attendance at church (on pain of confiscation and exile), being banned from imperial service (420s), being lawyers (468), being teachers in the schools (527) then the 529 reign of terror in Constantinople when prominent pagans were arrested, gaoled, interrogated, tortured (p.58). As the costs of intolerance fell, the level of intolerance intensified. Paganism was simply unacceptable. In 472, even ownership of pagan places of worship was subject to being stripped of rank and property (p.66).

MacMullen points out the range of human needs paganism appealed to with its rites, rituals, feasts and other services (p.71). Part of what went on was that Christianity incorporated these in itself more and more.

MacMullen estimates that about a tenth of the Empire was Christian at the time of Constantine. With the secular support of the Roman state, that number reached probably half of the Empire’s population by 400, or in three generations (p.72).
The importance of official preferment can be seen from a fundamental change in the empire from the principate to the dominate: the huge growth in government officials under Diocletian and after. MacMullen estimates that there were about 300 career officials in the reign of Caracella (r.211-217) and about 30-35,000 under the later Empire. This without considering the expansion in church offices (though much of that would be replacement of pagan ones). MacMullen argues that this led to a dramatic change in the range of intellectual opinion, with the empirical/sceptical end of the spectrum as represented by Pliny, Plutarch and Plotinus disappearing (p.83). It was a move to a situation where, for over a thousand years, the question was not which religion but how much (p.84).

MacMullen argues that Pliny, Plutarch and Plotinus had been taught by philosophy and books to restrain resort to the divine in explaining phenomenon, but both of these sources of scepticism lost power in favour of more “popular” outlooks, which became Christian outlooks (Pp85ff). Study of nature was to luminaries such as Tertullian, Augustine and Eusebius a superfluous diversion from the really important issue of salvation and study of God (Pp87ff). The corpus of the past became full of perils to the soul according to the new instrument of instruction, the church (Pp89ff). MacMullen identifies all this as the beginning of the Byzantine and medieval world and worldview.

MacMullen also notes a large difference between the pagan and the Christian. In the former:
… sacred texts, doctrine and directorate had no place (p.108).
This contrasted dramatically with Christianity:
It was a religion of the book … developed around certain sacred texts very gingerly chosen. For centuries, it had no temple; it filled the streets of no cities with its crowds and celebrations. Celebration instead was kept simple, not to distract focus on the Word; and the too-enthusiastic acting out of response to that Word, except in moral life, was discouraged.
This simplicity of structure was generally well protected. Change was suspect (p.105).
The one great Christian innovation during this period being the development of the ascetic life.

As Christianity became, not merely a public cult but increasingly the public cult, it more and more incorporated forms from paganism (parades, feasts, music, dancing, funerary rites) thereby increasingly taking over the human needs and comforts paganism provided: with the extra benefits of doctrine (to engage intellects and supplant other ideas) and active secular support (Pp108-9). Hence MacMullen’s argument that paganism never completely disappeared: it got incorporated.

The cult of St Michael was a particularly good example of the process. Angel worship had been condemned in the 360s by the Council of Laodicea, St Michael being a particularly awkward example since his cult had both pagan and Jewish roots. Yet his cult proved too attractive and prospered (Pp125ff).

Similarly, the Council of Elvira (c.306) forbade images of Jesus, Paul and Peter in Churches. Once again, the pagan influence proved too strong, with the Emperors leading the way (P.130).

In his Summary MacMullen reiterates the point about the breadth of human wants and services paganism covered that early Christianity did not (p.150) even though it did manage to spread both geographically and in numbers even, to a much lesser degree, in wealth. With the conversion of Constantine and the capture of the Roman state, all that changes. While doctrine did not much change, public rites, rituals and displays did incorporating all sorts of pagan forms. A variety of positive and negative inducements lead to a massive increase in Christian adherence. Yet, 250 years after Constantine:
… Justinian was still engaged in the war upon dissent (p.151).
And a war it surely was.

But one won in part because:
Elite and masses were in broad agreement about how the universe worked, though they put different names to the superhuman agencies at work (p.153).
Working with this, and responding to the persistence of the human needs paganism served:
… Christianity became (as a salesman would say today) “a full service religion” (p.154)
This is the world of theological incorrectness, of religion as it is rather than doctrinally ought to be. Hence:
The triumph of the church was not one of obliteration but of widening embrace and assimilation (p.159).
But still, in the end, a triumph of massive, sustained application of state coercion.

There is a sense of shock in reading about Christianity as an imposed religion: it is not the culturally received view. Especially as it becomes quite clear that Christian persecution of paganism was typically more severe than the later Muslim persecution of Christianity, since Muslims permitted the structures and observances of Christianity to continue while the Christian rulers successively, and evermore restrictively, banned the same for paganism. One sign of the greater Christian persecution is that it took, on MacMullen’s estimate, less than two centuries for Christians to increase from about 10 per cent of the population in the Empire at the time of Constantine’s reign to them becoming about half the population (around 400). It typically took much longer for Islam to become the majority religion in the lands of the Arab conquests. It is likely, for example, that Egypt did not become a majority Muslim country until sometime in the C12th to C14th: five or more centuries after the original conquest.

But paganism was “demonic error” while Christians had an accepted (if clearly inferior) role in Muslim jurisprudence and were a useful source of revenue from the jizya (“you get to keep your head this year”) tax.

Ramsay MacMullan’s disturbing study not only brings alive the process of the Christianisation of the Roman world, but it also throws light on other periods of religious transformation, as I discuss in my next post.


  1. Fascinating post, Lorenzo - SL has recommended this book to me too, but I'm yet to read it. Your post has painted it vividly for me.

  2. Terrific and thought-provoking review; look forward to the next installment.

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  4. Thank you for the reference to this Lorenzo. I hadn't yet read far enough back into your archives to see it before. A very interesting observation, and I'm now wondering if it provoked any discussion, refutation that you are aware of?

    Sometimes I find I learn more if I think about both sides of a discussion, but the above reminds me yet again that religion is always more the work of man rather than the hand of a god.


  5. kvd: not that I am aware of. I have seen a passing annoyed reference to it, but not beyond that. (I am sure folk have responded, I have just not caught up with it.)