How much mileage can historians get out of them?

How much mileage can historians get out of them? (Photo by Benson Kua, Creative Commons, 2011).

Writing for a wide audience is a bit like getting behind the wheel of a sports car. The prose needs to get you places, but it should also be fun to go for a ride. Who wouldn’t want to take the Aston Martin DB10 out for some fro-yo? That’s the thrill of taking peer-reviewed research out into the real world.

The academic monograph, a staple of the university press, is different. It’s more, “My boyfriend has this clunker he’s been working on for a while…” You polish it incessantly and fixate over the pieces, but it’s the kind of thing that never really moves from the drive-way and, if some prowler saw it on the side of the road, they’d probably harvest it for pieces.

Both of these cars are necessary because they serve different purposes. Trying to learn stick? Not on the Aston Martin, you won’t. Figuring out how all the pieces of the engine go together so that you can talk to the boys at the shop? “Have I got the perfect car for you.” And when you’re finally ready to go out on the open road—the flat land of West Texas spread out before you under a cloudless sky; next stop: Marfa—why not feel the wind rushing by?

Those of you who read the Acknowledgments to my last book will know that I used a version of this car metaphor there. I’ve been thinking about it some more now that I’ve been able to reflect on what I was and wasn’t able to accomplish in the course of telling that history. The biggest thing that I regret is that I wasn’t more explicit about my intellectual disagreements. Let me explain.

My title was meant to do that work for me. It’s a metaphor, and it’s designed to pull in a wide readership. The message behind it was implicit: Early Christians did not have to convert everyone to achieve their social victory in Rome. I also made sure to stress this point explicitly and repeatedly throughout my chapters. The goal was to move our conversation about Christians in Rome away from a whole host of thorny issues—”conversion,” “Christianization,” even “evangelization”—topics which have traditionally dominated the way specialists and non-specialists alike talk about the history of early Christianity.

The assumption behind these concepts is rarely articulated, but it should be. They all have one thing in common. In the “marketplace” of religions in ancient Rome, Christians were always out to get ‘ya!

But what if many of them weren’t? That’s why I decided to propose a different metaphor.

The idea that ancient religions functioned like a “marketplace” has a long history in my field. (Most recently, see the 2011 University of Chicago Press publication Economic Origins of Roman Christianity; readers interested in the backstory of the metaphor can start here.). The scholar who is probably most associated with refining the “marketplace” as a metaphor for the study of Roman religion, though, is classicist John North. North’s work in this area, formulated in his contribution to The Jews Among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, published in the early 1990s, would later be championed by many big names in the discipline. It would also be used by other scholars interested in the rise of Christianity, people like the sociologist Rodney Stark.

In his work, Stark tried to articulate all the reasons why ancient Romans would have happily abandoned their traditional worship practices when faced with the option to convert to Christianity (for a primer, read through Stark’s essay on “Religious Competition and Roman Piety”). As a classicist and someone who specializes in the history of ancient religions, I myself am highly uncomfortable with the notion that one faith—be it Christianity or anything else—might be superior to another. That’s why I mention Stark and his work in the preface of my book. Like his mirror-image Edward Gibbon, the scholar who could find absolutely nothing positive to say about “the Christians,” Stark had been an important conversation partner with me during my research. I only wish I could have said more—that is, had a bit more room to lay out some technical parts while I was taking apart the engine of the car. But that’s a minor regret.

Today, other scholars are challenging the idea that everyone in antiquity hawked their religious beliefs in a vibrant, cacophanous, souk-like “marketplace.” One of the biggest critiques to date has recently come from Peter Van Nuffelen and David Engels. I was thrilled to have a chance to meet Peter at the recent “Rhetoric and Religious Identity” Conference in Exeter, in part, because the work he had just edited dovetails very much with my own interests. Writing together in their introduction to a volume called Religion and Competition in Antiquity, Peter and David observe the following:

Market metaphors presuppose that religions compete: together with rational choice, competition is one of the basic tenets of liberal economics. …[And yet] whereas competitors in the situation of free market concurrence endeavor to obtain, on the long run, a monopolistic situation, enabling them to organise prices and profits on a dictatorial basis, it should not be forgotten that these tendencies were largely absent in pagan cultic advertisement and only gradually emerged in Christianity…. In this context, speaking of religious competition may even be misleading…. The market metaphor thus can illuminate aspects of the religious life in Antiquity and may even find some justification in the fact that in Late Antiquity the spiritual journey could be compared to a commercial one. But it has to be used as a metaphor, with clear limits.

From “Religion and Competition in Antiquity: An Introduction,” by David Engels and Peter Van Nuffelen (Collection Latomus volume 34 [2014] at p. 28–29).

That’s a great, middle-of-the-road, sensible approach. It picks right up where the conversation currently is and tries to nudge everyone in a new direction by suggesting that, when it comes to religion in Rome, not everyone was always trying to sell you something.

Of course, even John North knew, back in 1994 (p. 178–79), that all metaphors have limits. (Indeed, to critique a metaphor for failing is to make a fairly banal observation.) The more pressing question for historians, I think, has always been the extent to which the metaphors we pick are useful.

We’ve gotten a lot of “mileage” out of the marketplace metaphor in the study of Roman religion over the past three decades. It might be time to trade it in.

Update: For some of the latest talk about early Christians as “closeted,” see here here.

Method, Publications