Pagan City and Christian Capital: Rome in the Fourth Century (Oxford Classical Monographs)
The critical century between the arrival of Constantine and the advance of Alaric in the early fifth century witnessed dramatic changes in the city of Rome. In this book Dr Curran has broken away from the usual notions of religious conflict between Christians and pagans, to focus on a number of approaches to the Christianization of Rome. He surveys the laws and political considerations which governed the building policy of Constantine and his successors, the effect of papal building and commemorative constructions on Roman topography, the continuing ambivalence of the Roman festal calendar, and the conflict between Christians over asceticism and ‘real’ Christianity. Thus using analytical, literary, and legal evidence Dr Curran explains the way in which the landscape, civic life, and moral values of Rome were transformed by complex and sometimes paradoxical forces, laying the foundation for the capital of medieval Christendom. Through a study of Rome as a city Dr Curran explores the rise of Christianity and the decline of paganism in the later Roman empire.
Papers and books about Christianising the Roman Empire ought not to be encouraged… The concept is so big an aspect of Late Antiquity as to be all but beyond the control of the historian, and admits of so many layers of meaning and varieties of interpretation that it is in danger of becoming meaningless. If and when we have arrived at some understanding of the term, and of what factors may have led people to change to being Christians from having been something else, it is still hard to know what it would mean to any individual to shift religious allegiance in the generations after Constantine.
Such well-judged circumspection has become more necessary than ever for students of late antiquity. The most innovative and important scholarship for a generation has recently subjected `Christianity’, `paganism’, `religion’, and `conversion’ to unprecedented historical scrutiny. Under rigorous examination, old certainties have subsided. The `triumph of Christianity’ has been unmasked as a deterministic model created by fifth-century churchmen; the vigour and complexity of ancient religious beliefs have been meticulously presented alongside the thoughts and activities of ancient people who called themselves Christian; and the `desecularization’ of ancient culture has been brilliantly charted, detailing how Christian ascetical thinking decamped from the wastes of the eastern Mediterranean to settle in the communities of early modern Europe.
The spirit of this book is informed by these new perspectives and complexities of recent research, but its scope is more narrowly focused. The subject here is the nature of the change which shaped the topography and society of the city of Rome during the fourth century ad. My researches have been prompted and enlightened by three great scholars of the city. Charles Pietri’s magisterial Roma Christiana, published in 1976, remains the first point of reference for all aspects of the life of Christian Rome; Richard Krautheimer’s many books and articles are an invaluable source for the architecture and landscape of the city; and Rodolfo Lanciani’s admirably readable accounts of the rediscovery of ancient Rome are as learned as they are exciting. Where I have dissented from the opinions of these scholars, I have tried to do so with humility and respect.
At the time of writing a vast number of learned articles and monographs on aspects of the city of Rome are at the disposal of the student. The antiquities of the city are being catalogued and analyzed to an unprecedented degree. But broad treatments of the fourth- century city of Rome which offer a synthetic account of politics, topography, and society are, however, virtually unknown. I have sought to meet the need for such a study by utilizing the expertise of a large number of scholars in diverse fields selecting what I believe to be some key themes in the history of the city at this time. Like a number of others, I have sought to move away from seeing the history of the fourth century as a series of dramatic and significant conflicts between `Christianity’ and `paganism’ in various forms. Instead, I have chosen to concentrate on what I feel are hitherto neglected topographical and social themes in the history of the Roman community. What follows, then, is a substantial review of historical data, much of it long known, but some of it in my opinion frequently misunderstood.
In Part One, I examine the physical setting of the city of Rome as the necessary context within which to study the important social developments. The characterization of the third century as a period of chaos is challenged and with reference to Rome, some crucial political dynamics are established. These, it is argued, helped set the parameters which the Tetrarchs both reinforced and exceeded. This is the back- drop against which Maxentius is to be understood. It becomes possible to liberate him from his traditional historical backwater as an interlude in Constantine’s rise to power and restore him to his position as an ambitious interpreter of Romanitas in the late empire. There follow implications for Constantine himself. In contrast to the pervasive orthodoxies of Constantine as a devoted but diffident Christian in Rome, an examination of his relationship with Maxentius’ legacy permits a more complex but plausible analysis of his impact upon the city to be offered.
It is, I believe, unsatisfactory to consider the `Christianization’ of the topography solely or even chiefly through the study of the great imperial foundations. Students should not be left to think that no other building activity of significance took place and they have often been allowed to believe that the urban landscape of Rome was slowly and inexorably `Christianized’ at the expense of some monolithic`pagan’ topography. I have therefore provided a fuller picture by including for study the activities of the bishops of the city up until the later fourth century. These reveal that the extension of what we may call a `sacred landscape’ was anything but straightforward and by examining the topographical dimension to the growth of Roman Christianity we may come to appreciate the fragmented, violent, and destabilizingly territorial character of the Christian community. The little churches of Rome illustrate more clearly than the grand foundations of emperors the challenges which faced bishops of the city in the middle years of the century. In meeting these challenges, the scale and scope of episcopal ambitions for the Roman church began to burgeon, a development of lasting importance detectable first in the fourth century.
A thorough revision of our understanding of the transformations of fourth-century Roman topography prepares the way in Part Two for a new look at three crucial aspects of Roman society during the same period. First of all, in order to appreciate the social atmosphere within which change took place, I have considered it necessary to review the legal standing of the ancient religio of Rome. Though hardly complete, the retrievable archive of laws of the fourth century provides a coherent body of material which illuminates the attitudes of law-makers, the difficulties experienced in transforming these into law and the com- plexities of making law relevant to the ancient cults in a world where the Pontifex Maximus was Christian. What emerges, for almost the entire period under consideration, is a catalogue of compromise, inconsistency, and contradiction. The case-study of the entertainments at the Circus Maximus in Rome thus assumes considerable importance as an aspect of urban life which was both ancient and vigorously persistent under the Christian emperors. I argue below that the games of the Circus Maximus represent the clear obligations of the social elite to provide an important urban amenity but at the same time they traditionally offered an experience to race goers that was intimately connected with Roman religio. The study undertaken here illustrates clearly the kind of techniques used by Christian emperors to exploit the ceremonial space and time of the Circus Maximus and its entertainments. Above all, by bringing into view the powerful integrative forces acting upon emperors, we can move decisively beyond seeing conflict as the model for interpreting fourth-century Roman society.
The alternative approach is nowhere of greater utility to the historian than in the case of Roman asceticism. Although extensively and continuously discussed in recent years, the study of Roman asceticism tends to be characterized by two perhaps understandable but unfortunate perspectives. First, many studies lift the ascetics from their social context and treat them as chapters in the history of western monasticism. Secondly, ascetics have too often been treated as a feature of the debate on the `Christianization’ of the Roman aristocracy, which has increasingly become a rather sterile prosopographical exercise aimed at assigning individuals to one camp or another. In my final chapter below, I restore these Christians to their urban world and by doing so it becomes possible to see where the real conflict of the fourth century is to be found: between Christians. It then becomes necessary to see many interested parties in the city drawing upon a common matrix of ideas and carrying these on into their own specific religious and social worlds.
This study thus invites the reader to view the familiar concepts of conflict, compromise, and continuity in rather unfamiliar contexts. If what emerges suggests confusion, contradiction, or even paradox then we may be a little closer to understanding the highly complex nature of the change which affected the physical and psychological world of Rome in the fourth century.