The title of this post is a chapter title in Peter Brown’s land-mark book, “The World of Late Antiquity”. Brown is a celebrated historian who deserves far more recognition and credit than many of the “popular” historians of the television world. Late antiquity is a period that generally receives little attention outside of Christian theological circles. The high medieval period and the classical arguably draw greater audiences. When we do think of late antiquity, one phrase always comes to mind: decline and fall. Gibbon’s work continues to overshadow both the lay and academic engagement with late antiquity: lay audiences generally accept his assertions, while the academic world is coming to a synthesis or counter-reaction to his revisionist detractors.
This period was formative for the course of world history and the history of the Church. The shape of all three Branches owes much to the life and writings of men like Ambrose of Milan; Athanasius of Alexandria; Gregory Nazianzen; Augustine of Hippo; Ausonius; Emperors Constantine, Valentinian I, Valens, Julian, and Theodosius; Quintus Aurelius Symmachus; St. Jerome; Pelagius; Arius; and many more. This was the period when Christianity obtained what some have called its “triumph” and others an “own goal” in the conversion of Constantine and the suppression of paganism by Theodosius.
Christianity was itself irrevocably changed in this period. Champions of these changes saw Christianity as an ark that received the best of human culture: secular and religious. Into her hold Christianity drew the culture and philosophical precepts of the people now defined as “pagans”, but once simply the “civilized”. The word “pagan” is itself a product of this period. “Paganus” means “someone from the countryside” in Latin: the French word “pays” and the English word “peasant” come from this root. This is because the cities had become almost totally Christianized by the end of this period: the cults of the gods clung to life in the countryside amongst the peasants and in the palaces and villas of the old-world aristocrats. Paganism died a slow death here: in both the West and the East there were pagans well into the 7th century – and I don’t mean the Slavs and Germanic groups outside the formal boundaries of the old Roman empire.
But paganism did eventually die (though its gods have not). The neo-pagans of today, in truth, have little in common with their ancestors. For paganism was not simply a religion (nor was it ever unified). To interpret it as such is to make the same mistake as Julian the Apostate, who could be described as a “Christian pagan” without that term implying a contradiction. The death (or murder?) of paganism in the late antique world was a complex process: on the one hand lay opposition expressed in the violence of monks towards ancient shrines; on the other lay the assimilation of the aristocratic rural bishops who eagerly read Plato and his Neo-Platonist devotees.
Even today formal theology owes much to this world: the Catholic Scholastic movement of the Middle Ages owes much to Aristotle (e.g. the concepts of genus and species), while the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment work of Protestant and Catholic scholars alike owes much to the humanist Renaissance writers, whose reverence for their conception of the classical past was an echo of the myth of “Roma aeterna”, cherished by late antique senators and aristocrats like the Symmachi.
As time has moved on and we have engaged with our past, as ever seeking to find answers to our current malaise, different assessments have been made of the claim that Christianity was converted at this time and whether that conversion was beneficial. Should we acknowledge that such a conversion took place, we must also admit that its roots go back into the classical period. The causes of this conversion were not simply social or economic: in order to convert people from the literate middle and upper classes, Christianity had to present a coherent apologetic that addressed their values and concerns. The successors to the Apostles were under an injunction to do just that:
- But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear (1 Pet. 3:15)
- Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Col. 4:6)
The question is: did they (and,by extension, we) become too much like the people they hoped to convert? In the Apostle John’s terms, did those who were in the world become of the world?
This is not an easy question to answer, but my instinctive reaction is that there are lessons to be learned from late antiquity regarding the Church’s engagement with the world. This period saw the Church become the establishment and in some places fall from being the establishment: the Catholic bishops exercised little authority in the kingdoms of the Arian barbarians. Nevertheless, we must continue to use both the intellectual and spiritual resources available to us to present a sound apologetic to people in our own countries. Perhaps it is time to revive desire of some medieval Catholic scholars and priests to see a greater engagement with Plato.