Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam

By Thomas Sizgorich | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
“What Has the Pious in Common with
the Impious?” Ambrose, Libanius, and
the Problem of Late Antique Religious Violence

IN 388 C.E., a band of Christian militants attacked a Jewish synagogue in the city of Callinicum (modern Raqqa, Syria), near the Roman Empire’s frontier with Persia, burning it to the ground. The first reaction of the emperor Theodosius to the event was to hold the head of the Christian community of Callinicum responsible for the actions of the militants and to require that he make good the expenses of rebuilding the synagogue. The emperor was dissuaded by the bishop Ambrose of Milan, however, who by letter and sermon convinced Theodosius that he ought not to defend the legal rights of those Roman citizens who now asked for redress against their attackers.1

This frequently cited example of what seems to be imperial acquiescence to the rising tide of religious intolerance among Christians toward their Jewish neighbors bears much in common with the episodes of intercommunal aggression and violence we explored in Chapter 2. This is particularly the case as regards the strategies with which Ambrose argued his case before Theodosius. Most familiar, perhaps, is the repertoire of semiotic and narrative forms with which Ambrose worked as he argued that it was not the Jews that Theodosius should be worried about defending but instead his own Christian community.

Ambrose interpreted the events in Callinicum and the potential consequences of Theodosius’s decision to redress those events through the narrative

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