The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire

By Barnes, T. D. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2002 | Go to article overview

The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire


Barnes, T. D., The Catholic Historical Review


The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire. By Michele Renee Salzman. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 2002. Pp. xiv, 354. $49.95.)

Michele Salzman's "important and carefully crafted book" is "the most complete quantitative study of conversion of aristocrats to date" according to the puffs provided for the dust-jacket by two distinguished historians of Late Antiquity. She has compiled her own database of 414 Roman aristocrats between 284 and 423 whose religious affiliations are explicitly attested, and she uses this database to underpin a historical analysis of when, how, and why the senatorial aristocracy of the western Roman Empire abandoned its ancient religious traditions in favor of Christianity. Salzman's dating of this important socio-religious change coincides with that deduced from fallacious statistics by Raban von Haehling in his lengthy study Die Religionszugehorigkeit der hohen Amtstrager des Romischen Reiches seit Constantins I. Alleinherrschaft his zum Ende der Theodosianiscben Dynastie (Bonn, 1978), on which she frequently draws. Like von Haehling, Salzman regards the reign of the emperor Gratian, who ruled the western empire from 375 to 383, as "pivotal" in the conversion of the Roman aristocracy to Christianity (pp. xi, 79-80, 89, 96, 135, 143, 147, 347).

The central question for any reviewer, therefore, is simple: is the thesis of von Haehling and Salzman correct? Salzman has avoided Haehling's grosser and more obvious statistical errors (on which, see JRS, 85 [1995],136-147). Yet, despite frequent references to von Haehling's book, she seems never to draw her readers' attention to these errors, while her own statistics are often misleading, though in a subtler way. Salzman has deliberately and consciously excluded unknown and uncertain cases from the database on which her argument largely rests: her database comprises"414 men and women of the aristocracy ... about whom we have explicit evidence for religious affiliation" (p. 239). But the strength of the inferences that can be drawn from her tables (pp. 221-230) varies greatly according to whether the number of aristocrats in any group (temporal, social, or geographical) who are attested as Christians is 10%, 25%, 50%, or 100% of the total number who originally constituted that group. …

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