Christianity, Empire, and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity

Christianity, Empire, and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity

Christianity, Empire, and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity

Christianity, Empire, and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity

Synopsis

In Christianity, Empire, and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity, Jeremy M. Schott examines the ways in which conflicts between Christian and pagan intellectuals over religious, ethnic, and cultural identity contributed to the transformation of Roman imperial rhetoric and ideology in the early fourth century C.E. During this turbulent period, which began with Diocletian's persecution of the Christians and ended with Constantine's assumption of sole rule and the consolidation of a new Christian empire, Christian apologists and anti-Christian polemicists launched a number of literary salvos in a battle for the minds and souls of the empire.

Schott focuses on the works of the Platonist philosopher and anti- Christian polemicist Porphyry of Tyre and his Christian respondents: the Latin rhetorician Lactantius, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, and the emperor Constantine. Previous scholarship has tended to narrate the Christianization of the empire in terms of a new religion's penetration and conquest of classical culture and society. The present work, in contrast, seeks to suspend the static, essentializing conceptualizations of religious identity that lie behind many studies of social and political change in late antiquity in order to investigate the processes through which Christian and pagan identities were constructed. Drawing on the insights of postcolonial discourse analysis, Schott argues that the production of Christian identity and, in turn, the construction of a Christian imperial discourse were intimately and inseparably linked to the broader politics of Roman imperialism.

Excerpt

In 299 C.E. things were going well for Diocletian. His political experiment in tetrarchy had paid off. Maximian and Constantius I had defeated the usurper Carausius in Gaul and Britain. Meanwhile, Diocletian’s Caesar, Galerius, had defeated the Persians and concluded a treaty that promised to secure the eastern borders. a pious man, Diocletian attended auguries following his recent successes. These sacrifices did not go as planned. Despite repeated attempts, the haruspices were unable to read the entrails of the sacrificial victims. Somehow, “either by suspicion or by seeing it himself,” the chief haruspex identified the problem: “profane people”—the Christians—were interfering with the rites. Diocletian required members of his court and his army to perform a traditional sacrifice; surely this would weed out, or reform, anyone so impious as to disturb the traditional religion of the court. and so the matter stood until the winter of 302–3, when, according to the Christian apologist Lactantius, Diocletian and Galerius summoned “judges … and some military leaders who held superior rank” as well as some “friends” of the emperor to court. According to Lactantius, the decision to initiate the Great Persecution came only after a series of consultations and conferences with various advisors. During the winter of 302–3, Diocletian’s advisors recommended that the Christians, “as enemies of the gods and hostile to traditional religion, ought to be done away with.” By the end of February 303, the Great Persecution was on.

To an empire in control of vast territory and diverse peoples, the Christians could appear threatening—they refused to participate in imperial cult, rejected public amusements, were wary of public office, and were openly critical of traditional religions. Yet while they seemed almost completely antithetical to Rome, Christians could also appear very Roman. Many Christians spoke and thought in Greek and Latin, the two imperial koinai, shared the same civic spaces, and even espoused, at least ostensibly, the same desire for the preservation of the empire. Christians could speak of themselves as Romans. the scholar and bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, who had witnessed the martyrdoms of many friends during the Great Persecution, identified the confusion that lay at the . . .

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