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The End of Ancient Christianity
by robert markus
cambridge university press, 258 pages, $49.50

In fourth-century Syria John Chrysostom complained that when a Christian couple was married a priest was not allowed to bless the union. Like many of the institutions and customs of the ancient world, the wedding ceremony was slow to welcome the influence of the new religion. In Chrysostom’s day there were no Christian schools, Christian art was in its infancy, Christian poetry was just beginning, and the pagan calendar continued to set the rhythm of public life. Only slowly was Christianity able to put its mark on the life of society. 

In this new book, Robert Markus—whose earlier work, Saeculum, a study of St. Augustine’s political and social views, is still the best discussion of the topic in English—surveys the history of Christianity in the West from the time of John Chrysostom and Augustine (ca. 400) to the time of Gregory the Great (ca. 600). His intellectual agenda, however, is wider. The book is a historical examination of the shifting bounds of “sacred” and “secular” in late antiquity, which is to say the relation between the community of the church and the larger society, and the nature of the changes that transformed the Christian world in the West after the breakup of the western empire. Like Markus’s earlier book, this is a work of great learning and sophistication, based on a fresh reading of a wide array of sources, and at the same time it is sensitive to theological questions. 

“I shall be primarily concerned,” writes Markus, “with the manner in which Late Roman Christians, lay and clerical, drew the line which distinguished what they would have seen as their ‘religion’ from the rest of their activity and experience, their ‘secular’ lives and its setting. . . .” The book itself is less tidy than this suggests. Although Markus’s professed aim is to locate the boundaries of the new faith, a number of other agendas keep intruding into the discussion, and it is not always clear how they contribute to the central theme of the book. At the same time, Markus is so conversant with the sources, and turns up such interesting material, that the book is a pleasure to read irrespective of whether the argument is always kept in focus. 

For example, the first chapter begins with a welcome polemic against “prejudices about early Christianity encouraged by the Reformation.” One of these prejudices was that the institutions of the early church made the holy distant and remote. Against this view Markus offers a brief discussion of the meaning of the “communion of saints” in Christian antiquity. “Can any of the faithful doubt,” wrote Gregory the Great, “that at the hour of the [eucharistic] sacrifice the heavens open at the priest’s calling, that in this mystery of Jesus Christ the choirs of angels are present, the heights joined to the depth, earth linked with heaven, the visible united with the invisible?” So real were the angels that monks were told to turn aside if they had to spit lest they spit on the angels who stood before them. In holy places, in relics, in prayers to the saints, and in the ministry of angels, the divine was present “like a huge electric charge waiting to break through the cloud. . . .” The church lived always in the company of a larger invisible community. 

Another subsidiary theme, one which occupies the first main section of the book, is how Christian notions of perfection changed from the age of the martyrs to the time when Christianity was becoming the majority religion in the Roman Empire. Here Markus traverses familiar terrain, but as always he turns up lively passages to illustrate his point. In the early period, baptism was thought to require a radical break with the past (“be ye perfect”), but Augustine came to view it as the beginning of a “lifelong process of convalescence.” “A man of good works who acts from the faith which works through love, who indulges his incontinence within the decent bounds of marriage, who both exacts and renders the debt of the flesh and sleeps with his wife—though only with his wife!—and does so not only for the sake of bringing forth offspring, but even for sheer pleasure . . . who will put up with wrongs done to him with less than complete patience, but burn with angry desire for revenge . . . who guards what he possesses and gives alms, though not very generously, who does not take another’s goods but defends his own in a court of law—ecclesiastical, not civil,” such a person “on account of his right faith in God . . . acknowledging his own ignominy and giving the glory to God” will depart this life and be received into the company of the saints destined to reign with Christ. Against the notion that the church was an elite moral community, Augustine developed a “deepened sense of community with the half-educated, the superstitious and the sensual Christians of Hippo, and a poignant remorse for his brash hauteur.” 

As interesting as these topics are, they are tangential to the main theme, and that is what Markus calls the “desecularization” of public life in the later Roman Empire and the creation of a narrowly scriptural culture by ascetic bishops by the end of the sixth century. For most of its early history Christianity existed within an old established culture of language, literature, civic institutions, calendar, art, public space, in short all that was necessary for civilized life. These things were already in place when Christianity began to make its way in the cities of the Roman Empire, and one of the great themes of early Christian history is how Christians learned to negotiate this world. The problem was particularly acute in the early centuries because culture could not be easily divorced from religion. At every turn, whether in the schools, in the military, in politics, in civic buildings, in public amusements, or in the markets, it was difficult to be a citizen without being touched by religion. 

By the end of the fourth century, however, according to Markus, much of the traditional culture had been emptied of its religious content. His chief examples come from the spectacula, the shows, races, games, and other public amusements, and from the calendar, e.g., the celebration of the new year or the Lupercalia, a riotous Roman festival celebrated in February in which a dog and goats were sacrificed and young men ran through the streets clad in the animals’ skins. Though the clergy did not approve of the spectacula or festivals such as the Lupercalia, they did not forbid the faithful from participating in them. “These things,” wrote Augustine, “are to be tolerated not loved.” Christian leaders opposed the atmosphere of sensuality and license, not the religious content, of public amusements. Such amusements were, in Markus’s language, secular. 

In the fourth and early-fifth century bishops were tolerant and flexible in drawing the boundaries between the church and the larger society, tacitly acknowledging the need for a “secular” realm alongside the distinctively religious world. This strategy worked well in the civilized urban society of the Roman world. In the following centuries, however, Christian leaders had a narrower view of what it meant to be a Christian. One reason was that the ascetic movement had invaded the hierarchy. Monasticism had begun as a lay movement in the desert independent of the clergy, but now found a home in the city and began to impose on the bishops norms of conduct suitable for monks. By the end of the fifth century the lines between the monks and the clergy were blurred. 

A second reason for the change in outlook was that the new peoples of the north did not possess the civic and cultural institutions that were taken for granted in the Roman Empire. A good illustration is Cassiodorus, a monk who lived in Italy in the sixth century. In his last work, written when he was ninety years old, he was not concerned, as earlier Christian thinkers had been, about the influence of pagan ideas on Christians through the reading of classical literature; he wanted to make sure his monks could read at all. Hence he wrote a book on spelling. “I have taught you, among other things, in a summary manner, the importance of correct spelling and punctuation, universally acknowledged to be a precious thing. . . .” His purpose in teaching spelling, however, was not to give his monks access to the literary and philosophical tradition, but to make it possible for them to read the Holy Scriptures, thereby creating a monastic culture centered on the study of the Scriptures. 

The combination of these two factors, the movement of asceticism from the desert to the chancery and the absence of a literate cultural tradition among the peoples of Europe, led, in Markus’ view, to a narrowing of the horizon of Christian thought and imagination. Cassiodorus constricted the “sphere of Christian discourse” by centering his educational program on an “exclusively scriptural culture.” Church canons prohibited the reading of works of secular literature, and Christian leaders sought to root out any remnants of pagan customs. “Christian culture in the early medieval centuries became essentially and radically biblical in a way it had not been before.” 

There is no question that the Christian culture being created in northern Europe was different from the urban civilization of the Roman Empire. Yet I am uneasy with the categories Markus imposes on his material. The chief culprit is the term “secular.” Markus wants to use “secular” to designate those areas of life that are not of direct religious significance, e.g., education, language, literature, art, and public amusements. Yet, even if such things as the spectacula or the Lupercalia were largely indifferent to religion in the fourth century, that hardly means that Roman society found space for a “secular” realm. 

One of the first acts of emperor Julian the Apostate (d. 363) was to prohibit Christians from teaching literature in the schools. Why, he asked, should Christians be allowed to teach “what they do not believe in”? He knew well that when a child began to read the Iliad the schoolmaster asked: “Which gods were favorable to the Trojans?” To which the youngster would reply: “Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Leto, Scamandor.” Already in the fourth century a Syrian church order included the injunction: “Have nothing to do with pagan books.” 

Basil the Great, one of the most cultured Christians of the fourth century, wrote a little treatise to youngsters on “how they might profit from Greek literature.” He realized that young Christians had to learn to write and speak correctly, hence he advocated the study of Greek literature, but he had no doubt that reading it was risky business. If Basil had his way he would have preferred that they learn what is needful “from our own literature,” but Christian literature was a paltry resource against the riches of Greek antiquity. 

At the time of Augustine and John Chrysostom, Christian intellectuals realized they could not readily dispense with the civic traditions that made civilized life possible. These were all they had and they were known to work. Even when bishops had reservations, they were indulgent because they had nothing to put in their place. At the same time Christians were creating their own public space through liturgy, holy days, holy places, customs, literature (the letters and treatises of bishops), poetry (hymns), and of course ideas. When the time was opportune they gradually filled the old forms with a new content: the calendar, by adding Christian holidays; art, by adapting classical interior space; literature, by replacing the lives of statesmen and philosophers with the lives of holy men and women. 

In sixth-century society in northern Europe, however, the church was not part of a literate, civic culture. There were no schools, and a provincial who wished to go to the theater had to travel to Rome or Ravenna. In this setting I do not see that the attempt to establish a scriptural culture based on grammar and spelling was “self-limiting,” especially when one considers to what other uses these skills could be put and would be put in the centuries that followed, not least in preserving the literature of classical antiquity. Though the intellectual energies of Cassiodorus and others of his generation were given over to more elementary tasks than those of Augustine or Gregory of Nazianzus, that does not mean they were to have less cultural significance. The study of grammar, even at the service solely of reading the Scriptures, laid the foundations for a new Christian culture that would eventually rival the “secular” culture of ancient Rome. 

In the midst of all this historical discussion of civic festivals and ascetic bishops, there lurks a deeper argument about church and society. For Markus, Augustine’s tolerance of Rome’s civic festivals was not simply pragmatic; it pointed to a neutral secular space that can promote the “coherence of wills” that is necessary for any healthy society. The phrase “coherence of wills” is taken from a famous passage in Book 19 of the City of God where Augustine argued that the Heavenly City does not abolish those customs and laws and institutions by which earthly peace is achieved. Markus wants to use Augustine to defend a neutral secular space for the cultivation of the “arts of civilization,” as he put it in his earlier book. For Augustine, however, a neutral secular space could only be a society without God, subject to the libido dominandi, the lust for power. He was convinced that even in this fallen world there can be no genuine peace unless society is ruled by those who acknowledge the one supreme God. 

Robert L. Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.

Photo by Edhral via Creative Commons. Image cropped.