Empire to Commonwealth: Consequenses of Monotheism in Late Antiquity
By Garth Fowden
Princeton University Press, 206 pages, $17.95
This smart, elegant book is about many things. Here is one of them:
When Constantine became a Christian he created a golden opportunity to unite a wholeheartedly universalist religion and its abundance of scriptural authority and missionary impetus with an empire’s forces of political, military, and economic expansion in order to create a genuine world empire.
Even before Constantine, Rome had universalist tendencies. Roman authorities expected the official religious cults to bind the allegiance and affection of the remotest provincials to Rome, “the temple of the whole world.” Even during the turmoil of the third century, when the Eternal City’s attractions became “decreasingly meaningful,” a new god, Sol Invictus (with the emperor as his “Living Law”), became for a time the bearer of Rome’s universalizing tendencies. With the Emperor Constantine’s conversion, however, the Christian historian Eusebius could join Roman ideals with the new faith and proclaim the advent of ”One God, One Empire, One Emperor.” Roman universalism and missionary monotheism became inseparably bound in a dynamic synthesis of power and knowledge in a way never before seen. Of course, Constantine’s Empire soon went the way of all empires. But Constantine’s synthesis endured.
It was the empire of Constantine, not that of Scipio or Augustus, that was transformed into the four commonwealths that became the medieval bearers of the antique heritage: the First and Second Byzantine commonwealths, the Islamic caliphate, and Latin Christendom.
In the sixth century John of Ephesus defined a commonwealth as “the politeia of the party of the believers.” John was a Monophysite Christian (those who exaggerated Christ’s divinity at the expense of his humanity), an anti-Chalcedonian. And thereby hangs the tale both of why Constantine mattered and also of what he could not do. In Fowden’s telling, monotheism is creative and dynamic but not necessarily proselytizing. Monotheism may not be universalizing but it is likely to be rigidly opposed to other religious beliefs and practices. If a rigid and dynamic monotheism is linked to a rigid and dynamic political force that can create a climate favorable to conversion, then “world empire” will be the result.
In some ways Fowden takes “world” to mean any area whose inhabitants can plausibly claim that it is the world. But in antiquity there was a very special region that thought of itself as the center of the world-the band of lands running from Arabia through Syria-Palestine to Mesopotamia where the world’s three great monotheisms all arose. This region was ringed by mountains that ran from Armenia to Ethiopia. On either side of this heartland lay competing powers with universal pretensions: Rome and Persia (Iran).
The Persians conquered these lands first but could not hold them because their imperial institutions were too weak and because their cultural demands were too few. Rome correctly saw that Persia was its greatest potential foe and therefore struggled mightily to control the territories that lay between Constantinople and Ctesiphon. But rigid monotheism, says Fowden, calls heresy into being. The lands from Armenia to Ethiopia that formed a bulwark against Persian advance were also an anti-Chalcedonian block (those who held that the divine and human persons remained separate in the incarnate Christ) of Monophysites, Nestorians, and others. These peoples, these politeiai of believers, rallied around local clergy, maintaining a belief in their own orthodoxy and becaming members of a “commonwealth.” Roman Constantinople could not coerce these people and had to maintain civil relations with them in order to retain some sense that there was still a world empire in the eastern Mediterranean. Where Christianity had once been a means for the center to forge bonds with the periphery, Christianity was now giving the periphery the means to define itself against the center. And thus the ancient world passed from empire to commonwealth.
Usually, as Fowden notes, historians tell a story of Rome evolving into the medieval commonwealth of Western, Latin Christendom. But Constantine’s unwitting legacy lay in the pattern of the several commonwealths that succeeded to the Roman Empire. The first of these was in the east and so was the second, the vast Islamic caliphate. To those who have always seen the progression of Western history as a Translatio Imperii and a Translatio Studii running from Jerusalem to Athens to Rome to Paris, Fowden introduces the Nestorian Catholicos Timothy I (780-823). Timothy asserted the primacy of Ctesiphon over the patriarchates of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople because the east had been honored above all lands, the Garden of Eden was in the East, Nimrod had been the first man to wear a crown, Christ’s ancestors according to the flesh had come from the East, and the Magi of the East had embraced Christianity before the rest of the world. Here, as Fowden says, was a path out of antiquity that did not lead to the Renaissance.The second commonwealth arose from the disintegration of the Islamic caliphate in the middle of the ninth century. Fowden draws out the interesting parallels between Constantine and Muhammad. Each grew up in an environment rich with monotheism; each saw himself as the equal of the prophets and apostles; each had an intense desire to spread his faith. Muhammad produced a new secular order, a new revelation of the One God, and a new religion (although the latter may not have been among his original intentions). By Islam’s conquest of all the old monotheist heartlands and the Persian plateau, the conditions for an Islamic world empire were met. But with the conquests of Egypt and Iran it became clear that Islam would not be an exclusively Arab faith. As non-Arab peoples converted to Islam, they demanded a share of the power initially wielded by an Arab elite, and the Islamic empire of the caliphs broke down into a commonwealth-a commonwealth whose common denominator was broadly cultural and religious rather than political. It is a shame that Fowden does not devote serious attention to the other two commonwealths that emerged from Constantine’s Rome. The third was the Slavic world of Orthodox Christianity that maintained varying and complex relations with Constantinople. Here there was no heresy but neither was there a political bond. This commonwealth differs from the others, yet Fowden does not say how it was formed or what sustained it. The fourth was the Latin Christian and Fowden says not a word about it, which is regrettable for many reasons. Universalizing, missionary, monotheistic dynamics were potent features of Charlemagne’s Europe. The great Frank called his people a “New Israel” and boldly contested both Muslims and Byzantines on grounds of universality. The Europe of the high Middle Ages is arguably a commonwealth that emerged from the ruins of the Carolingian Empire of the eighth and ninth centuries. If Fowden rightly says that some roads out of antiquity did not lead to the Renaissance, it is undeniable that other roads led straight to that destination. Even the Europe of the Reformation may be seen as a commonwealth in which believers maintained communal horizontal bonds with one another on the plane of culture while establishing independent bonds between themselves and God.
Moreover, the very period between a.d. 400 to 600, when the First Byzan tine Commonwealth appeared, saw a series of kingdoms in the western Mediterranean that retained close connections with Constantinople, used Latin and various administrative relics of the western Roman provinces, and professed Christianity-Arian Christianity, for the most part. It is true that these kingdoms either converted to Catholicism or disappeared. But for a time they represented a remarkable analogue to Fowden’s eastern Commonwealth. What was crucial here, Roman inheritances or the Christian faith? Presumably these lands do not draw Fowden’s attention because they did not lie between Constantinople and Ctesiphon and because they did not sit atop the key centers of monotheism. But the Slavs and their commonwealth, not to mention that of Charlemagne, fail on these scores too. Fowden seems too anxious to avoid roads that lead to the Renaissance.
Fowden’s conceptual framework provides interesting perspectives for thinking about why communism could not come to the aid of the Soviet Empire to produce either a world empire or a successor commonwealth. Likewise, we can see through Fowden’s lens why the more admirable but no less secular ideologies of the West have produced neither world empire nor commonwealth in modern times. I am sorry that Fowden did not pursue these themes just a little. Had he stopped with late antiquity I would have expressed no such disappointment, but Fowden invites some criticism by concluding an intelligent and erudite book with a set of superficial and strained reflections on multiculturalism and the global village.
Fowden simply asserts that monotheism is rigid and that its rigidity will generate heresy. A moment’s reflection on the history of Judaism will lead to doubt about Fowden’s assertion. And heresy is merely one of many possible fault lines in the Christian world. Consider the many- colored cloak of American Christianity. Which color is the one against which the others are to be judged? Do religious differences alone cause empires to fragment into commonwealths? The American experience would suggest not. So one might ask of late antiquity whether it was other than religious forces that gathered some communities together while driving others apart. Fowden has thought hard and creatively about some important questions. But there are, perhaps, more things in his world, and in ours, than he has thought to think about.
Thomas F. X. Noble teaches in the Department of History at the University of Virginia. His latest book, coedited with Thomas Head, is Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints’ Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.