There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire

There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire

There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire

There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire


"There is no crime for those who have Christ," claimed a fifth-century zealot, neatly expressing the belief of religious extremists that righteous zeal for God trumps worldly law. This book provides an in-depth and penetrating look at religious violence and the attitudes that drove it in the Christian Roman Empire of the fourth and fifth centuries, a unique period shaped by the marriage of Christian ideology and Roman imperial power. Drawing together materials spanning a wide chronological and geographical range, Gaddis asks what religious conflict meant to those involved, both perpetrators and victims, and how violence was experienced, represented, justified, or contested. His innovative analysis reveals how various groups employed the language of religious violence to construct their own identities, to undermine the legitimacy of their rivals, and to advance themselves in the competitive and high-stakes process of Christianizing the Roman Empire.

Gaddis pursues case studies and themes including martyrdom and persecution, the Donatist controversy and other sectarian conflicts, zealous monks' assaults on pagan temples, the tyrannical behavior of powerful bishops, and the intrigues of church councils. In addition to illuminating a core issue of late antiquity, this book also sheds light on thematic and comparative dimensions of religious violence in other times, including our own.


In the early fifth century, the Egyptian monk Shenoute issued an open letter containing a thundering denunciation of a local pagan magnate. Shenoute and his followers had taken the law into their own hands, ransacked the pagan’s house, and smashed his idols. In response to the magnate’s accusation of lesteia—banditry, crime, illegal violence—against him, Shenoute proclaimed that “there is no crime for those who have Christ.” The statement neatly expresses a paradigm of religious extremism, a belief that righteous zeal for God transcended considerations of worldly law and order. Religious conflict, and the attitudes that drove it, form the subject of this book.

Shenoute made his declaration in a unique context, the world of the Christian Roman Empire. Constantine’s embrace of Christianity began a process that would elevate what had been the persecuted religion of a minority to the status of a dominant, hegemonic religious community. The new relationship between Christian religion and state power raised complicated questions of secular power, spiritual authority, and moral legitimacy. Would society be uplifted, as some hoped, into a new and universal community of

1. Shenoute’s letter: Leipoldt and Crum 1906, pp. 79ff. English trans. in Barns 1961. The pagan, though not named in this text, was most likely Gesius, a local magnate with whom Shenoute had come into conflict on several occasions: see Besa, Life of Shenoute, 88, 125–126 (probably referring to this incident); Emmel 1993, pp. 891–893; and Frankfurter 1998, pp. 77–82. Emmel 2002, pp. 106–111, has now made the intriguing suggestion, contra Frankfurter, that Gesius was not an open supporter of pagan worship but rather a “crypto-pagan” who concealed his continued devotions behind the façade of a politically expedient Christian conversion. I owe this reference to Caroline Schroeder.

2. N the gar ete mn mnt-lestes shoop n nete ou-ntau Iesous hn oume. Mnt-lestes, adapted from Greek lesteia, is equivalent to Latin latrocinium, on whose meaning of “criminal violence” or “brigandage” see below pp. 20–21.

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