Tag Archives: Ancient Rome

The Death of the Divine Augustus

blessedToday is the 2000th anniversary of the death of Caesar Augustus. For anyone who has ever seen it, the Divine Augustus will always be associated with Brian Blessed’s portrayal of him (left) in the BBC adaptation of the wonderful Robert Graves novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God. And so, to commemorate the day, here’s a snippet of dialogue, on a law and religion theme, which captures the charming, cynical urbanity of the series. For those of us nerds of a certain sort, it’s a real guilty pleasure. I’m sure the whole thing is available on Netflix. Watch it — or, better yet, read the books!

[Herod and Augustus are watching a gladiatorial contest.]
Augustus: Herod, what about a little bet? I’ll take the fat one for twenty gold pieces.
Herod: Caesar, it would be against my religion to bet on the life of a man.
Augustus: Oh, really? I would have thought it against your religion to bet on anything.
Herod: Caesar, it’s true: Jews love gambling. But we fear our god more.
Augustus: Which one?
Herod: We have only one, Caesar.
Augustus: I’ve never understood that, it’s quite insufficient. Why don’t you take some of our gods? You know, plenty of people do.
Herod: Believe me, Caesar, the one we have is hard enough to live with.

 

 

On Loving the City

Marc’s post yesterday about Augustine’s two cities–the earthly and heavenly–reminded me of something I read in Peter Brown’s recent book on wealth in ancient Rome. Brown argues that a decisive shift in the conception of generosity accompanied the transition from pagan to Christian society. Both pagans and Christians could be generous. But the objects of their generosity differed.

In pagan Rome, generosity meant adorning one’s city–nowadays, we would say, “country”–contributing to its stature, power, and beauty. Benefactors gave money for magnificent buildings, games, and banquets. Such generosity was understood as a form of love, the “amor civicus,” or “love for the city and its citizens.” A rich person who gave money to glorify his city, Brown writes, “was acclaimed as an amator patriae–a lover of his or her hometown. It was the most honorable love that a wealthy person could show.” A pagan benefactor would not think of looking beyond his city when making a gift. That would have been a snub to his hometown and fellow citizens. 

Christian giving was a different thing. The ideal recipients of Christian generosity were not one’s fellow citizens, who might be quite well-off, but the poor and marginalized, whether they were citizens of one’s patria or not. The point was still to give money in a way that would glorify the city. But the heavenly city, not the earthly city, was the proper object of glorification. Christian charity, Brown writes, was “a transfer of wealth from this world to the next, summed up in the notion of placing treasure in heaven.”

Obviously these are generalities; there were pagans who gave to the poor and Christians who tried to beautify Rome. But the change in focus was essential, and dramatic. From a Christian perspective, the things of this world, although important and necessary, can never be the main concern. Friends, family, home, country–of course one loves these things. Only a monster would not. But it is foolish to glorify or invest too much in them, particularly country. “For here we have no lasting city,” the author of Hebrews says, “but we are looking for the city that is to come.”

Marc began his post with a poem, so I will end with one. In Browning’s “Love Among the Ruins,” a shepherd muses over the ruins of an ancient capital, now a pasture. I’ve always imagined that Browning was talking about the ruins of the Roman Forum, which for centuries, before the archaeologists started to dig, were known as the Campo Vaccino, or cow pasture. The love that Browning describes isn’t Christian love, exactly, but it strikes me as a lot closer to that ideal than the amor civicus:

In one year they sent a million fighters forth
South and North,
And they built their gods a brazen pillar high
As the sky
Yet reserved a thousand chariots in full force—
Gold, of course.
O heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
Earth’s returns
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best. 

“Jews, Christians, and the Roman Empire: The Poetics of Power in Late Antiquity” (Dohrmann and Reed, eds.)

This month, University of Pennsylvania Press will publish Jews, Christians, and the 15169Roman Empire: The Poetics of Power in Late Antiquity, edited by Natalie B. Dohrmann (U. of Pennsylvania) and Annette Yoshiko Reed (U. of Pennsylvania). The publisher’s description follows.

In histories of ancient Jews and Judaism, the Roman Empire looms large. For all the attention to the Jewish Revolt and other conflicts, however, there has been less concern for situating Jews within Roman imperial contexts; just as Jews are frequently dismissed as atypical by scholars of Roman history, so Rome remains invisible in many studies of rabbinic and other Jewish sources written under Roman rule.

Jews, Christians, and the Roman Empire brings Jewish perspectives to bear on longstanding debates concerning Romanization, Christianization, and late antiquity. Focusing on the third to sixth centuries, it draws together specialists in Jewish and Christian history, law, literature, poetry, and art. Perspectives from rabbinic and patristic sources are juxtaposed with evidence from piyyutim, documentary papyri, and synagogue and church mosaics. Through these case studies, contributors highlight paradoxes, subtleties, and ironies of Romanness and imperial power.

Reflections from the City of God: On Excellence in the Two Cities

Excudent alii spirantia mollius aera,                                                                              (credo equidem), vivos ducent de marmore voltus;                                            orabunt causas melius, caelique meatus                                                              describent radio et surgentia sidera dicent:

tu regere imperio populous, Romane, memento                                                           (hae tibi erunt artes) pacique imponere morem,                                                       parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.

When I was a kid, these lines were an ending of sorts. We read them in 11th Publius Vergilius Marograde Latin, at year’s end, and they represented the culmination of the first half of the Aeneid. True, several of us continued on to read Books 7-12 in our senior year, but the second half is something of a long walk down the hill (and I always had a soft spot for Turnus and couldn’t get too excited about his defeat). It’s this section of Book VI (lines 847-853)–in which the ghost of father Anchises discloses to Aeneas what the special arts and excellences of the Roman are to be–that was the peak moment. It was satisfying to us not only as an explanation for all of the trouble that the hero of the story seemed to be taking and enduring but also as an inspiring affirmation of political virtue and the excellence of civic governance writ large: to impose the habit of peace, to spare (or, one might say, to tolerate) the subjugated, and to tame the proud!

It is really quite unnecessary to study “politics” as a discrete subject in high school, or even in college, since the study of abstract political ideologies is often simply a truncated version of the study of the political tradition and heritage of a particular society. And if you want to learn about the “political theory” of an empire that continued to think itself deeply committed to its republican past, you can find it all in Vergil. Other people, he says, might make pretty arts and crafts, but this is what you want from your politics.

These lines came back to me as I read some of the Preface of Book I of the AugustineCity of God, in which Augustine notes the obstacles that he faces in laying out the aim of the work.

For I am aware what ability is requisite to persuade the proud how great is the virtue of humility, which raises us, not by a quite human arrogance, but by a divine grace, above all earthly dignities that totter on this shifting scene. For the King and Founder of this city of which we speak, has in Scripture uttered to His people a dictum of the divine law in these words: “God resisteth the proud but giveth grace unto the humble.” But this, which is God’s prerogative, the inflated ambition of a proud spirit also affects, and dearly loves that this be numbered among its attributes, to “Show pity to the humbled soul,/ And crush the sons of pride.” And therefore, as the plan of this work we have undertaken requires, and as the occasion offers, we must speak also of the earthly city, which, though it be mistress of the nations, is itself ruled by its lust of rule.

Book I is, in fact, loaded with Vergil; Vergil’s poetry itself illustrates the excellence of the City of Man. Later in Book I, it is almost as if Augustine is speaking to the hundreds upon hundreds of generations of young Latin students to come: “There is Vergil, who is read by boys, in order that this great poet, this most famous and approved of all poets, may impregnate their virgin minds, and may not readily be forgotten by them,” after which he proceeds to engage in some close textual reading and interlocution of Vergil. All of this, of course, is meant to counter the claims of those who argued that the Romans got what was coming to them by abandoning the Roman gods and embracing Christ. And as for “parcere subiectis,” Augustine argues that, in fact, the Romans did no such thing. To the contrary: “[A]mong so many and great cities which they have stormed, taken, and overthrown for the extension of their dominion, let us be told what temples they were accustomed to exempt, so that whoever took refuge in them was free.” I.6. In this book, then, Augustine punctures the Vergilian rhetoric of the Augustan age extremely effectively–”[a]ll the spoiling, then, which Rome was exposed to in the recent calamity–all the slaughter, plundering, burning, and misery–was the result of the [Roman] custom of war.” I.7. What was novel, and what showed itself in the comparatively gentle behavior of the barbarians, was truly to spare the subjugated who (whether godly or not, whether deserving–by man’s lights–or not) sought sanctuary in the Christian “temples.”

As the eminent Augustine scholar R.A. Markus puts in his magisterial volume, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine:

In Augustine’s mature view the radical vice of Greek philosophy as of Roman political ideology was the belief in the possibility…of perfection through the polis or the civitas. ‘God resists the proud, but to the humble He giveth grace’: the scriptural sentence quoted at the opening of the City of God was to Augustine’s mind the most fundamental comment on classical pretensions to human self-determination, as expressed in Vergil’s line, quoted in dramatic juxtaposition, on the historic mission of Rome….Here is Augustine’s final answer to the illusion of a teleiosis through rational and human means; and it is the more poignant for being a repudiation of a heritage which, as we have seen, had some power over his mind in his youth. (84)

And not only over Augustine’s mind!! The political program, and the power, of Rome is beguiling and attractive indeed. It holds enduring appeal to young people–as it did for me and my friends in high school. There are, I suppose, several reasons that one reads Vergil rather than Augustine in high school. But one of them, perhaps the most important, is that the excellence of the City of Man is so easy and approachable (as texts millennia old go), while the excellence of the City of God is so distant and so difficult. The excellence of humility is so much harder to appreciate and embrace than the excellence of dominion–especially, it seems to me, for the young. The excellence of the City of God holds little of the immediate and prepossessing appeal of the splendors of Rome.

But perhaps a little Augustine in the relatively early educational years, as a counterpoint to Vergil, might cast politics in a mellower light for the rising generations.

Reflections from the City of God: On the Miseries of Just War

I am blessed to be on sabbatical this semester. In addition to beginning several City of Mennew writing projects, I thought it might be good to take on some meaty reading projects. One of these projects will be to read through St. Augustine’s City of God and to become familiar with some of the secondary literature related specifically to his political thought (the project is not purely a private one–future students in my spring Professional Responsibility course, take note!). In connection with that project, I hope to post a weekly reflection from the City of God that is relevant to some law and religion issue of current moment.

I’m confident that I will say nothing original about Augustine’s political thought. Indeed, I am sure that many readers of this blog will know much more about Augustine than I will learn in these few months and well beyond that. But because I have been enjoying greatly what I have read so far, and because what I have read relates in various ways to many of the questions we consider at the Center for Law and Religion, and because it may be a pleasure for readers to see some of Augustine’s words again before their eyes (and a pleasure for me to re-write them), and simply for the joy that comes in replowing well-tilled fields, I thought to give it a try. Those of our readers who are Augustine scholars or otherwise knowledgeable: please let me know in the comments what secondary literature I ought to be reading. I am reading the Marcus Dods translation (would that I could read it in Latin, but as Dods–writing in 1871–said, “[T]here are not a great many men nowadays  who will read a work in Latin of twenty-two books”).

Here is a passage from of the famous Book XIX on the miseries of war, including of just war:

But the imperial city has endeavored to impose on subject nations not only her yoke, but her language, as a bond of peace, so that interpreters, far from being scarce, are numberless. This is true; but how many great wars, how much slaughter and bloodshed, have provided this unity! And though these are past, the end of these miseries has not yet come. For though there have never been wanting, nor are yet wanting, hostile nations beyond the empire, against whom wars have been and are waged, yet, supposing there were no such nations, the very extent of the empire itself has produced wars of a more obnoxious description–social and civil wars–and with these the whole race has been agitated, either by the actual conflict or the fear of a renewed outbreak. If I attempted to give an adequate description of these manifold disasters, these stern and lasting necessities, though I am quite unequal to the task, what limit could I set? But, say they, the wise man will wage just wars. As if he would not rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars. For it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars; and this wrongdoing, even though it gave rise to no war, would still be matter of grief to man because it is man’s wrongdoing. Let everyone, then, who thinks with pain on all these great evils, so horrible, so ruthless, acknowledge that this is misery. And if anyone either endures or thinks of them without mental pain, this is a more miserable plight still, for he thinks himself happy because he has lost human feeling.

One striking feature of this paragraph is the ubiquity of misery in all matters related to war. The misery not only of the initial wrongdoing that leads to war, and not only of war itself, but also of the waging of just war in response to (in fact, ‘compelled’ by) the existence of miserably wrongful conduct.

An Ancient Mystery

Rome 2013 006

Mosaic in S. Costanza, Rome

Here’s a puzzle. The mosaic in this photo is in Rome’s Santa Costanza, a lovely fourth-century church with some of the oldest surviving Christian art. The mosaic is famous among scholars of Christian iconography, even among scholars of Christian jurisprudence. It depicts Christ–blond, beardless, looking like the god Apollo–giving a scroll to St. Peter. Christ is dressed in a golden toga. Scholars believe the image is meant to represent Christ giving the Law to the Church.

According to French scholar Rémi Brague, during the patristic period, “Christianity came to think of itself as a law brought by Christ in the same way that Judaism is a law brought by Moses.” This understanding, he says,

received artistic representation in images such as that of a lawgiver Christ giving St. Peter the scroll of the Law in a mosaic in the church of Santa Costanza in Rome, on the sarcophagus of Probus in Rome, or in the basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan.This scene is adapted from the pagan model of the investiture of a high functionary by the emperor. After Constantine, the ideology of the Christian empire utilized the notion of a unique law. This iconographic theme is present from the fourth century to the sixth, when it was replaced by another image in which Christ gives Peter not the Law but rather the Keys to the Kingdom.

If this reading is correct, the mosaic is an important object, not only in the history of Western art, but Western law as well. A key piece of evidence that supports the reading is the inscription on the scroll Christ holds. According to most scholars, the inscription is “DOMINUS LEGEM DAT,” or, “The Lord Gives Law.” If that’s what the scroll says, it does indeed confirm the reading of scholars like Brague.

Except that isn’t what the scroll says. As the photo, which I took this summer, shows, the scroll reads, “DOMINUS PACEM DAT,” or “The Lord Gives Peace.” Not “Law,” “Peace.” Now, I suppose, the inscription may be elliptical: Christ gives Law, the Law of Christ gives Peace, so Christ gives Peace. But that’s a strain. Besides, in Christian teaching, the Law of Christ is usually described as Love, not Peace. Does the scroll refer to Christ’s words at the Last Supper, “My peace I give to you”? Maybe. But that would definitely change the meaning of the image.

So, what’s the explanation? Perhaps, as Brague suggests, this was a conventional image in late antiquity, so the mosaic must be about law. One scholar I’ve read thinks the word “PACEM” on the scroll is an simply an incorrect reconstruction of the original “LEGEM.” Sounds plausible. But when did the reconstruction take place? The Middle Ages? Why are scholars so confident that the image is about law, when the words on the scroll are about peace? Anybody know?

Harper, “From Shame to Sin”

Culture and law have a mutually-reinforcing relationship. Cultural transformation typically promotes legal change, and legal change often speeds up cultural transformation. A good example is the sexual revolution of the 1960s. As the revolution became mainstream, it put pressure on family law concepts that had been based on traditional Christian sexual ethics. And changes in family law have  no doubt accelerated the weakening of traditional Christian sexual morality.

Next month, Harvard University Press will publish a book that describes another cultural transformation that had an effect on law: the movement from pagan to Christian sexual ethics that occurred in late antiquity. In some ways, this seems the mirror image of what is happening today. As Christian values displaced the pagan sexual ethic, Roman law changed as well. Doubtless, pagan traditionalists grumbled about the revolution, just as religious traditionalists grumble today. It’s a good reminder that history doesn’t really move in a one-way direction.

The book is From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity by Kyle Harper (University of Oklahoma). Here’s the publisher’s description:

When Rome was at its height, an emperor’s male beloved, victim of an untimely death, would be worshipped around the empire as a god. In this same society, the routine sexual exploitation of poor and enslaved women was abetted by public institutions. Four centuries later, a Roman emperor commanded the mutilation of men caught in same-sex affairs, even as he affirmed the moral dignity of women without any civic claim to honor. The gradual transformation of the Roman world from polytheistic to Christian marks one of the most sweeping ideological changes of premodern history. At the center of it all was sex. Exploring sources in literature, philosophy, and art, Kyle Harper examines the rise of Christianity as a turning point in the history of sexuality and helps us see how the roots of modern sexuality are grounded in an ancient religious revolution.

While Roman sexual culture was frankly and freely erotic, it was not completely unmoored from constraint. Offending against sexual morality was cause for shame, experienced through social condemnation. The rise of Christianity fundamentally changed the ethics of sexual behavior. In matters of morality, divine judgment transcended that of mere mortals, and shame—a social concept—gave way to the theological notion of sin. This transformed understanding led to Christianity’s explicit prohibitions of homosexuality, extramarital love, and prostitution. Most profound, however, was the emergence of the idea of free will in Christian dogma, which made all human action, including sexual behavior, accountable to the spiritual, not the physical, world.

Happy Birthday, Edict of Milan

We didn’t want to let the month pass without noting the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan, one of the most important events in the history of religious liberty. In February 313, the emperors Constantine (left) and Licinius met in Milan to discuss imperial business. While there, they agreed to grant religious freedom to Christians–and, incidentally, everyone else in the Roman empire. Their decision came to be known as an “edict,” though it’s not clear an official document ever issued. The historian Eusebius supplies the text:

When I, Constantine Augustus, and I, Licinius Augustus, came under favorable auspices to Milan and took under consideration everything which pertained to the common weal and prosperity, we resolved among other things, or rather first of all, to make such decrees as seemed in many respects for the benefit of every one; namely, such as should preserve reverence and piety toward the deity. We resolved, that is, to grant both to the Christians and to all men freedom to follow the religion which they choose, that whatever heavenly divinity exists may be propitious to us and to all that live under our government.

We have, therefore, determined, with sound and upright purpose, that liberty is to be denied to no one, to choose and to follow the religious observances of the Christians, but that to each one freedom is to be given to devote his mind to that religion which he may think adapted to himself, in order that the Deity may exhibit to us in all things his accustomed care and favor.

Note a couple of things. The edict does not, as commonly believed, make Christianity the state religion. That decision came later, under a different emperor, Theodosius–which suggests that Christians who condemn the “Constantinian compromise” that weakened the faith have got their emperors wrong. And, although it is famous for legalizing the practice of Christianity in Rome, the edict does not cover only Christians. It grants religious liberty to everyone in the empire. Everyone should follow the religion he thinks best, the edict proclaims, so that “whatever heavenly divinity exists” will continue his favors to Rome. Which puts one in mind of Gibbon’s famous jibe: to the magistrate, all religions are equally useful.

At length, Licinius changed his mind about the edict and began persecuting Christians in his part of the empire. A power struggle followed; Constantine eventually defeated Licinius, thereby becoming sole emperor. Constantine was always cagey about his own Christianity, perhaps because he wished to avoid upsetting those powerful Romans who remained pagan. He advanced the interests of the church and influenced (or interfered in) doctrinal developments, but he did not actually become a Christian until shortly before his death. Today, both he and Theodosius are commemorated as saints in Eastern churches. Licinius? Not so much.

Elm, “Sons of Hellenism”

One of the lessons of Peter Brown’s new book, about which I posted last week, is that Constantine’s conversion had only a limited effect on Roman society. For decades afterwards, Christianity and Paganism squared off as intellectual and political adversaries; Christianity’s triumph took time. A recent book by Berkeley historian Susanna Elm, Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church (University of California Press 2012) describes the conflict between Julian the Apostate, the Emperor who tried to restore Paganism, and his chief rival, Gregory of Nazianzus, the Archbishop of Constantinople. She argues that their debate obscures the fact they they shared a common intellectual and social grounding. The publisher’s description follows:

This groundbreaking study brings into dialogue for the first time the writings of Julian, the last non-Christian Roman Emperor, and his most outspoken critic, Bishop Gregory of Nazianzus, a central figure of Christianity. Susanna Elm compares these two men not to draw out the obvious contrast between the Church and the Emperor’s neo-Paganism, but rather to find their common intellectual and social grounding. Her insightful analysis, supplemented by her magisterial command of sources, demonstrates the ways in which both men were part of the same dialectical whole. Elm recasts both Julian and Gregory as men entirely of their times, showing how the Roman Empire in fact provided Christianity with the ideological and social matrix without which its longevity and dynamism would have been inconceivable.

Brown, “Through the Eye of a Needle”

As a break from grading exams over the last couple of weeks, I worked my way through Peter Brown’s immense new work, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West (Princeton 2012). Brown is the greatest living historian of late antiquity, and in this work he sets out to show how the Christian church gradually attracted the rich and powerful in the century or so following the conversion of Constantine. According to Brown, it was Christianity’s ability to attract the Roman super rich, rather than the moderately wealthy people who had made up the bulk of the pre-Constantinian church, that really “marks the turning point in the Christianization of Europe” — not the conversion of Constantine itself, which had little immediate effect on Roman society. It’s a useful lesson for law and religion scholars, who tend to assume, the way lawyers do, that official acts like Constantine’s are the most important force in social change. Brown’s erudition is incredible and the book offers many insights about late Roman culture and society. Many readers will love the immersion in the past — though, candidly, some might think Brown’s obsessive attention to detail occasionally detracts from the sweep of his narrative. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Jesus taught his followers that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Yet by the fall of Rome, the church was becoming rich beyond measure. Through the Eye of a Needle is a sweeping intellectual and social history of the vexing problem of wealth in Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire, written by the world’s foremost scholar of late antiquity.

Peter Brown examines the rise of the church through the lens of money and the challenges it posed to an institution that espoused the virtue of poverty and called avarice the root of all evil. Drawing on the writings of major Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome, Brown examines the controversies and changing attitudes toward money caused by the influx of new wealth into church coffers, and describes the spectacular acts of divestment by rich donors and their growing influence in an empire beset with crisis. He shows how the use of wealth for the care of the poor competed with older forms of philanthropy deeply rooted in the Roman world, and sheds light on the ordinary people who gave away their money in hopes of treasure in heaven.

Through the Eye of a Needle challenges the widely held notion that Christianity’s growing wealth sapped Rome of its ability to resist the barbarian invasions, and offers a fresh perspective on the social history of the church in late antiquity.