The Making of Late Antiquity
Peter Brown

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The Making of Late Antiquity



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The Making of Late Antiquity

Copyright © 1978 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College

A Debate on the Holy
Many of the religious histories of the Late Antique period have tended to place their main emphasis on emotional and subjective qualities and have spoken of the emergence of Late Antique civilization in terms of a rise of “superstition,” of a “failure of nerve,” or of a “decline of rationalism.” In so doing, they seem to miss the point. Indeed, if judged simply in terms of religious ferment, Late Antiquity is a singularly sober and serious-minded period in European history.

In this period, “divine power” came to be defined with increasing clarity as the opposite of all other forms of power. The “locus of the supernatural,” where this unique power was operative, came to stand for a zone in human life where decisions, obligations, experiences, and information were deemed to come from outside the human community. A highly privileged area of human behavior and of human relations was demarcated. Whatever took place in relation to this locus and, more particularly, whatever claims to obedience were made within its territory were thought of as being removed to a quite exceptional degree—ideally, removed totally—from the ambiguity, the criticism, the envy, and the resentment that were observed to attend the impingement on fellow human beings of mere human skill, human force, and human powers of persuasion.



Merely to observe, as many scholars have done, that from the second century A.D. onwards men came to behave and to think in a manner different from modern Europeans, and from the manner we would like to believe that Greeks and Romans of more “classical” ages had behaved and thought, advances our understanding of what actually happened in Late Antiquity not an inch. Societies can pass through a “failure of nerve,” and can witness a “decline of rationalism” without drawing from the experience the particular consequence of permanently vesting some of their fellows with “divine power.” Among many groups, and over long periods of time, belief in the supernatural can be strong, even impulsive. Yet it has often been articulated in such a way as to exclude, or to keep within narrow bounds, the claims of particular human beings to represent the supernatural on earth. What gives Late Antiquity its special flavor is precisely the claims of human beings.
The men we call “agents of the supernatural” were those who had brought down into the dubious and tension-ridden world beneath the moon a clarity and a stability associated with the unchanging heavens.
The sorcerer was merely a paradigm of supernatural power misapplied in society; and the criteria used to judge the source and exercise of such power involved issues that were far from being purely theological. For what was condensed in such language was a muffled debate on the exercise of different forms of power in small groups.
The “earthly” power of the demons, on which the sorcerer drew, was a faithful replication of all that was sensed as most abrasively egotistic, as most domineering in the social world in which he operated. Thus if any human being were to gain acceptance by any group in Late Antiquity as wielding power based on a peculiar relationship with the supernatural, he would have to make his way in an atmosphere heavy with tacit resentments at power exercised in a manner that threatened merely to replicate, to the disadvantage of his fellows, patterns of domination and dependence current in society at large.



To decide to allow a human being to exercise “heavenly” supernatural power involved something more than mere credulity. It meant moving slowly from the minus to the plus side of the graph. To decide that a man was a saint and not a sorcerer, the community had to overcome severe inhibitions and to release the well-tried defensive mechanisms with which ancient men were armed to hold new forms of supernatural power in check.



An Age of Ambition
Elites tend to maintain a set of strong invisible boundaries, which mark firm upward limits to the aspirations of individuals, and to direct the aspirations of their members to forms of achievement that could potentially be shared by all other members in the peer group. In a peer group, therefore, forms of individual achievement, like wealth, are there to be spent not hoarded. Those who accumulate too much to themselves are cut down to size in no uncertain manner, if not by the envoy of their fellows, then, at least, by the ineluctable envy of death. [...] Appeals to the other world as a source of special status in this world had to be kept within strictly conventional limits if they were to be acceptable.
The rise of Christianity and the final decline of paganism took place against a hubbub of speaking gods. These oracles were not, as Christian apologists would have us believe, the isolated voices of defeated gods, nor were they merely the result of the machinations of frustrated priests. In the third century, at least, oracles against the Christians were merely an extreme application, to a dissenting religious group, of the day-to-day role of the oracle as the mouthpiece and the creator of public opinion, allaying anxiety, pinning blame, offering reassurance in an old-fashioned tone of voice.



The flowering of urban life in the Antonine age is usually thought of as an Indian summer. The image is misleading; for it assumes that the golden autumn leaves were brought to the ground by winds that came from corners of the world distant from the cities—that, in the third century, the imperial court, the imperial administration and the army were forces that came to impinge from the outside on the life of the traditional urban classes. This is far from being the case. The style of urban life I have been describing was like a set of beams held horizontally by strong, head-on pressures: at a touch, they would spring upwards and apart. In the third century, the life of the upper classes of the Roman world did not collapse under pressure outside: it exploded.
The “pyramidal” hierarchy of the Later Empire grew from the ground up. It was not brought about by some profound dislocation, or by the intrusion of an alien force. It was the natural way in which a governing class, which had been committed for generations to competition in power, honor, and reputation, regrouped itself in an age where the rewards of such competition, for the successful few, appeared greater than ever before. What collapsed, therefore, in the course of the third century, were not the urban aristocracies as such, but rather the mechanisms by which they had channeled their more disruptive ambitions into their cities and had veiled their successes with old-fashioned decencies.
The Rise of the Friends of God

In the late second and third centuries, the Christians became figures to be reckoned with in the Roman world. They did so largely because they had a singularly articulate and radical contribution to make to that great debate, whose outlines were sketched in the first chapter, on the manner in which supernatural power could be exercised in society. The way in which the Christians idealized their martyrs as the special “friends of God,” and the manner in which they organized themselves around bishops who claimed with increasing assertiveness to be “friends of God” in a similar manner, condensed the main issues of that debate.

How the Christians thought about themselves is what we can know; and it may well be that the way in which they articulated their attitude to themselves and to the outside world counted for more than spectacular or massive conversions. That Christian bishops could explain to Constantine why he had been converted to Christianity was more important for the long-term fortunes of their church than the opaque fact of the conversion itself.



Pagan literature of the fourth and fifth centuries became more preoccupied than ever previously with the delicate watershed between “heavenly” and “earthly” forms of supernatural power and with which types of individual derived their position in society from which sources. As a result of this preoccupation, the “saint” and the “sorcerer” appear uncomfortably close together in contemporary accounts of neo-Platonic circles. It is only too easy for the modern scholar to dismiss such circles as having blurred the boundaries between magic and philosophy. To do this is to import modern criteria into a peculiarly Late Antique debate, and so to miss its point. For the distinction between rational philosophy and irrational magic, though present, was never central to the debate. What was hotly debated was the difference between legitimate and illegitimate forms of supernatural power.

In a society that knew all about the immediate social effects of friendship and patronage, the emergence of men and women who claimed intimate relations with invisible patrons meant far more than the rise of a tender religiosity of personal experience, and more than the groping of lonely men for invisible companionship. It meant that yet another form of “power” was available for the inhabitants of a Mediterranean city.

The problems that Late Antique men faced, therefore, were not whether such power existed, nor whether it rested solely in the Christian church. The power had to be focused and its apparently random distribution canalized trenchantly and convincingly onto a definite class of individuals and a definitive institution. Hence the importance of the rise of the Christian bishop in the third century, and of the Christian holy man in the fourth century.

[...] for all his sharp perfectionism, Origen’s view of man was one that placed the main emphasis on the permanent resources of the individual identity and on the slow, sure processes by which this identity unfolded ever higher and higher potentialities.

Immigration and the weakening of the bonds of kinship would not in themselves make a Christian of anyone, but Justin’s Christianity, with its emphasis on the shortcomings of local, regional custom and the superiority of a rational law that could be shared by all men in all situations, would offer the Christian who attended his didaskaleion something more than consolation for an abrasive social process. It made the process intelligible, and it allowed the individual to adjust to it, and so to move with it. [...]

This was the disturbing feature of third-century Christianity. It offered a community which, in symbolic form, clearly accepted the breakdown of the equipoise on which the traditional pagan community had rested.



The day-to-day life of the Christian communities involved less a renunciation of society as such than a process of symbolic modification and redirection of its links. This was because the Christian bishop claimed to be able to answer the question: “Who is my neighbor?” The third-century answer was more straightforward than was the heroic paradox with which this question had first been met. Above all, it was reassuringly narrow. The teaching of the church defined for the Christian who was not his neighbor: the neighbor of the Christian was not necessarily his kinsman, not his fellow dweller in a quartier, not his compatriot or his fellow townsman; his neighbor was his fellow Christian.

Compare to:

Sam Harris




From the Heavens to the Desert: Anthony and Pachomius

The literature of the ascetic movement enables us to pass under a microscope some of the themes that had risen to prominence in the course of the third century. We can take these themes out of the crowded and confused life of the Christian communities in town and village, and, with the hermits, watch them blossom into new, largely unexpected growths, in the clear light of the desert.

For, if we turn to the Egyptian villages of the late third or early fourth centuries, we can trace a further, and more radical, ramification of the Christian response to the breakdown of the old solidarities. The overwhelming impression given by the literature of the early Egyptian ascetics, is that we are dealing with men who found themselves driven into the desert by a crisis in human relations.

The anachōrēsis of the fourth-century hermit took place in a world that was exceptionally sensitive to its social meaning. It was a gesture that had originated in tensions between man and man; and the ascetic message derived its cogency from having resolved those tensions.

For this reason, the Desert Fathers lavished the most meticulous attention on those links that bound men, disastrously, to other men, and not on the links that bound men’s souls to their bodies. [...] Even in his most personal and private acts of mortification, as when he triumphed over the needs of his own sexuality, the ascetic was seen as acting out a dramatic and readily intelligible ritual of social disengagement. As a result, “heavenly” power on earth came to be associated less with an intangible relationship to the other world and more with a clear ascetic stance to this world. A relationship to heaven was shown most irrefutably by a move to the desert.

The holy man in Egypt marks the culmination of the process begun among the leaders of the Christian urban community in the third century; supernatural power did not only exist, it had to be seen to exist, securely vested in an observable and continuous manner in certain human beings and in no others. This the ascetic could offer. His power did not come from discontinuous moments of trance, vision, or dream. Nor could it be gained by means available to the average man, by dreams or by the observance of traditional rituals.

On all levels of its experience, Late Antique society was alert to the exceptional and prepared to acclaim it. Men had come to accept and to give clear expression to the facts of power and hierarchy in the world around them. As a result, the resources of a whole culture, legislation, ceremonials, literature, art, and architecture, converged to highlight the status of a new spiritual elite of “friends of God.”

Yet the growing clarity that becomes so marked a feature of the late third and fourth centuries was gained at a heavy cost. A wide range of alternatives came to be closed. This closing of alternatives is only indirectly associated with the rise of Chritianity and the decline of paganism. Instead, we sense that the koiné of Mediterranean religious experience as a whole has shifted in an insensible tide that washed all its shores and has touched all its inhabitants. Pagans and Christians alike took up a new stance to another “style” of religious life, in which expectations of what human beings could achieve in relation to the supernatural had changed subtly and irreversibly from the age of the Antonines. The change cut off the Christian church quite as much from its own past as from its pagan contemporaries. A new form of Christian religiosity ratified the new position of Christian leaders in Roman society.

We are dealing, in the fourth century, with a sensibility that was at once more somber and yet more stable in its expectations of where the locus of the supernatural was to be found. The Christian bishop, the Christian “holy man,” the physical remains of the Christian martyr stand out all the more clearly because the upward ceiling of human contact with the divine has come to be drawn more firmly. For the Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries, the power that came from contact with the supernatural was not for everyone to use.

In the Christian church, the spiritual dominance of the few was made ever firmer and more explicit by a denial of ease of access to the supernatural that would have put “heavenly” power in the hands of the average sinful believer.

Pagans watched this development with deep religious anger. For in the “debate on the holy” Late Antique pagan sentiment maintained to the last one feature of the traditional position: the supernatural was constantly available to men.

The Christians looked to the earth alone. They claimed power from heaven; but they had made that heaven remote and they kept its power to themselves, to build up new separate institutions among upstart heroes on earth. Such institutions had been hastily thrown up by men for men. To these human institutions a new generation of Christians was prepared to transfer that sense of solemn delight which men of the old religion still sought in the clustering stars.

Compare to:

Terry Pratchett

The new heroes and leaders of the Christian church came to stand between heaven and an earth emptied of the gods.

The Christian answer to the pagans has been made plain, in part, by the manner in which the “debate on the holy” had unfolded since the age of the Antonines. Throughout that debate, we meet men and women who held doggedly to an obscure intuition, with which they grappled in a language top-heavy with the presence of the supernatural: in a poignant search for some oasis of unalloyed relationships between themselves, they made plain that what human beings had marred only human beings could put right.

text checked (see note) Jan 2005

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Background graphic copyright © 2004 by Hal Keen
One of several suggested by a 4th- or 5th-century Syrian mosaic fragment.
To view the original, go to The Minneapolis Institute of Arts collection and search for: Syrian stylized cross
Clicking the thumbnail picture will give you a larger one.