Christians ‘Armed with Faith’

A view of Alexandria.
“A view of Alexandria” by Jan Luyken, Pieter Schenk (I), and Cornelis de Bruyn, 1698. Rijksmuseum, The Netherlands. Public domain.

The end of April is almost here, which means: Time to head to Exeter. Richard Flower and Morwenna Ludlow are hosting a conference on “Rhetoric and Religious Identity in Late Antiquity,” and I’m thrilled at the opportunity to take part in the conversation.

What’s on the agenda? Tons of good papers on heretics and the rhetorical use of classical diseases to describe them; on art, sarcophaghi and early Christian identity-making; on the architectural rhetoric of temples; the language of Eusebius; the power of law; and the “threats” of magic. The organizers have truly put together a stellar line-up of researchers to address this conference theme. I’m honored to be included.

I’m going to be talking about research I’ve been publishing the past year and a half on the social origins of the Latin word “paganus,” particularly as it came to be used in Christian conversations of the late fourth century. One of the main contributions of my recent book, in fact, was to jailbreak this peer-reviewed work from behind the paywalls of the modern university and to bring it to a wider audience. It’s work that, I believe, can contribute to our understanding of events on the ground in the fourth century Roman Empire.

One of those events I’ll be talking about was the catastrophic destruction of the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria—at the hand of “Christians.” It’s an event that can be dated probably to 392 A.D. (some would say 391). As I discuss in my book, however, this almost inexplicable act of violence, regardless of its exact date, was a turning point in social relations during the late fourth century empire.

Who were the perpetrators of this act? They have not been easy to identify. Our earliest source to describe the attack, Rufinus of Aquileia, described the leader as one of the Christian “soldiers” (milites, in Latin). Rufinus’s testimony, written in the early fifth century, has given rise to the following common opinion: that the people who attacked Alexandria’s most prominent sanctuary—part library, worship space, even museum—were Christians who were members of the Roman army.

Another look at Rufinus suggests a much more disturbing scenario. Rufinus goes on to describe these “soldiers” as “armed more with faith than with the weapons of an enlisted man.” Elsewhere, he uses to same language to characterize Christians who saw themselves as fighting in “the Lord’s army,” not necessarily Rome’s (For full citations, including the Latin texts, see Coming Out Christian in the Roman World).

When we combine this overlooked evidence with the new framework I’ve proposed for the emergence of the derogatory word “civilian” (“paganus,” in Latin) in fourth-century Christian texts, I think we can start to sharpen our understanding of the violence that besieged Alexandria. The attack was perpetrated “by Romans against other Romans and by Christians in the name of Christianity.”

That’s what I’ll be talking about at Exeter. How and why did Christians in Late Antiquity come to define “being Christian” in “militant” terms, and what gave rise to the corresponding rhetoric by which other Christians were excluded from the community for being “too civilian”?

Even more broadly, why have scholars been so reluctant to consider how intra-Christian social conflict may have been tearing at the fabric of the empire? I think we owe it to everyone in the empire—Christians, Jews, and non-Christians alike—to try to understand both the causes and the effects of this horrific eruption of violence that shows up in our Late Antique sources and in the archaeological record.

How do I interpret it? Perhaps I should conclude here the way I do in my book: “What ignited so much change was the inability of Jesus’ followers to agree on what it meant to be a Christian in Rome.”

Conferences, Identity, Publications