Finding 'Religion' on Brick Lane in London after a conference at the University of Exeter (Author's photo).
Finding ‘Religion’ on Brick Lane in London after a conference at the University of Exeter (Author’s photo).

I realize, of course, that the hottest news out of the United Kingdom is the royal birth. May 7th is also a national election. I certainly can’t compete, but I am just back from across the pond. And I do have a little report from an excellent conference on “Rhetoric and Religious Identity” which was held at the University of Exeter.

Here goes.

Richard Flower and Morwenna Ludlow hosted a great three-day event, with people coming in from all over, Oxford to Helsinki, Swansea to St. Louis. It was great to catch up with a bunch of great senior scholars (Neil McLynn was in the house); meet some of the biggest names in the field of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Gillian Clark came to participate); and overall, make friends with some amazing peers working in Late Antiquity.

My sincere thanks to the organizers. We even taped a podcast on religion and Rome, which should be up soon (link forthcoming)!

Here, I wanted to offer some notes—drawing upon Morwenna’s remarks at the conclusion of the conference—to publicize the preliminary results of our conversation.

She began by surveying issues of inner group identity and self-identification which we encountered. There were issues of gender and asceticism which appeared in Latin texts. We also looked at rhetorical strategies in letters, fourth-century chronicles, law codes, temples, landscapes, and heresiologies.

The key take-away was that almost every kind of historical source featured some aspect of rhetorical engagement. This point was revealing since it means that any attempt to study rhetoric in Late Antiquity will have to cast a wider net than the study of, say, “rhetorical handbooks.”

So what were some of the rhetorical strategies we saw? Here, I’ll give the preliminary list as it was articulated in the concluding remarks, providing some editorial interpolation after each bullet point.

We saw that the rhetoric of religious identity involved strategies of:

precision (for example, a concern for drawing fine lines of distinction within a group, as seen in Ambrose’s writings or those of Gregory of Nazianzus);
erudition (hence an engagement with scientific genres in writings like heresiology, which help give the author the appearance of an authority);
accumulation (apparent in the way that many early Christian sarcophagi continually cite the same scenes to make a point about their importance); also similar to
repetition (evidenced in the way that many Christian writers repeat their ideological notion of civic decline associated with Rome’s “abandoned” temples in the fourth century);
• we also saw that the organization of texts or objects themselves cannot be under emphasized (thus, the organization of the Theodosian Code puts our study of “religio” in some larger context whereas the volumes of Mani as we have them today deserve some reconsideration; the texts’ organization may not be based on geographical origin, as earlier scholars suggested);
• finally, there was the issue of categorization, including thorny questions about who was the “real” _____ [ascetic? philosopher? rhetorician? Christian?].

Obviously, I can’t do justice here to the ways in which the papers illuminated all these ideas—that’s what the published proceedings will do—but I at least wanted to give a flavor of our conversations.

Last but not least, Morwenna added this final, related remark: “The rhetoric of modern scholarship can’t be ignored [in these discussions], either,” she said. For it can often hide or expose our own assumptions about the evidence.

Naturally, I couldn’t agree more.

Coming Out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar’s Empire will be released by Bloomsbury Press in the U.K. on May 7th.

Conferences, Identity