Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Christianity, Philosophy, and Roman Power:Constantine, Julian and the Bishops on Exegesis and Empire

Lea Niccolai

The young Augustine was repelled by the Gospels. Or so he says, at least, in a passage from the Confessions (3.5.9) in which he reflects on his former, ‘inflated pride’. The student of rhetoric in love with Latin literature struggled to accept a written style that he perceived as ‘unworthy’ of his Marcus Tully (Cicero). He was not alone in this aversion. Later Roman intellectuals cleaved tightly to paideia – a system of education rooted in traditional Greco-Roman culture – as their symbolic capital, and their various expressions of discomfort at manifestations of popular culture extended also to the ‘language of fishermen’ (sermo piscatorius) which Jesus and his disciples had spoken.

These sentiments set the stage for the dual paradox that Christianity, Philosophy, and Roman Power seeks to unravel. First, this book contends that Christianity – the religion that culturally entrenched elites framed as incompatible with paideia – became politically successful by mastering a script that paideia had written. Secondly, nowhere in the late antique sources is this turning of the tables as visible as in the literature designed to conceal it: the surviving writings of Emperor Julian, the ‘Apostate’.
Few figures from the Greco-Roman past have elicited as much fascination as Julian. Even today, he continues to inhabit our fantasies, as books dedicated to him top the charts (most recently Julian Barnes’ Elizabeth Finch, whose eponymous protagonist is a Julianic scholar) and he features in pop culture from graphic novels (Broeders’ Apostata) to counter-factual fiction – ‘what-if’ historical fantasies (e.g. Wilson’s Julian Comstock, Farneti’s Imperium Solis). Julian’s afterlife has been fuelled also by the richness of the ancient evidence. When one considers the quantity of past stories, figures, events, that must be recovered from fragments, the abundance of material documenting the reign of a man who did not even reach the age of thirty-three is rendered even more striking – not least because much of what remains comes from Julian’s provocative, inspired, idiosyncratic voice.

Yet this abundance of information has also given rise to perceptions of Julian as a somewhat isolated, eccentric thinker, a loner. Julian’s own writings feed claims to his uniqueness. But they do so, I suggest, with the aim of concealing something in plain sight: the fact that his self-image as a philosopher-ruler was intended to emulate the cultural policy of his predecessors, Constantine and Constantine’s son Constantius II – Rome’s first Christian emperors. Julian’s claim that he sought to restore the Greek political ideal of the ‘philosopher on the throne’ following Constantine’s displacement of culture in favour of Christianity capitalised on elite perceptions of Christianity as an ignorant religion (see above) but did so to obscure Constantine’s configuration of his religion as a prerequisite for philosophical leadership. However, examination of the propaganda of the house of Constantine reveals that the innovative (if not subversive) profile of Rome’s first Christian rulers was mediated through their self-projection as enlightened leaders whose agency was driven by profound understanding. This Constantinian narrative had ancient roots. It drew on the ancient conceptualisation of religions as systems of knowledge. Our tendency to associate (ancient) religious thinking with the spheres of belief and irrationality speaks more to modernity’s secularising discourse(s) than to how the Greeks and the Romans configured the relationship between knowledge and divinity. Early Christian theologians shared cultural coordinates and ideals with the Roman aristocracy from which they usually stemmed. These commonalities manifested in their need and ambition to assert their doctrine’s authority through close (and at times ferocious) competition with the empire’s philosophical schools.

Christianity, Philosophy, and Roman Power re-examines Julian’s oeuvre in the light of the Constantinian mobilisation of the early Christian intellectualising self-image and thus re-contextualises his writings as a pointed response to this mobilisation. Julian’s act of resistance resonated profoundly with his cultural surroundings: far from a nostalgic flight of fantasy, it was the reaction of a Platonic scholar to a cultural discourse that he perceived as doubly controversial – first, because it displaced paideia and second, because it did so by relying on paideia’s intellectual tools while simultaneously disavowing such reliance. In his literary works, Julian presented his own life as the gods’ response to Constantine’s Christian leadership and his cultural politics. It was inevitable, therefore, that his death in battle would ignite episcopal reactions that placed the Apostate’s demise at the heart of their opposing theological arguments.

Julian’s parable – from a window on his times to a catalyst for Christianity’s self-assertion – uniquely captures the Christianisation of Roman power as the outcome of a crisis of knowledge. A new class of leaders, both imperial and episcopal, consolidated their authority by claiming that Rome’s troubles were caused by epistemologically misguided rulers, an issue that Christianity’s exclusive access to truth and providence claimed to resolve. These claims were articulated in public rhetoric and in literature through the emergence of what I term a ‘politics of interpretation’ – a shared, at times obsessive, commitment to performative engagement in exegesis (whether of literature, philosophy, politics, theology, or history). This collective literary agenda was designed to assert Christianity’s control of cosmological truths – including those that presided over Rome’s history and culture – as the hallmark of its political legitimacy.
It is hardly necessary here to reiterate Constantine’s role in annexing the church to the Roman state. However, if we understand the conversion of Roman institutions as the outcome of a prolonged philosophical dispute, his disciplining of the experience of religion is imbued with new significance. Our institutional focus overlooks how Christianity’s admission into the halls of power was secured through Constantine’s sanctioning of the centrality of doctrine in the experience of religion – a public and power-centred act that endorsed Christianity’s characterisation as perfect understanding. Julian’s response illuminates this intellectual aspect of the Constantinian propaganda, revealing efforts to conceptualise religion as source of knowledge as the fil rouge tying together a string of later Roman emperors, from Constantine to Theodosius, who are rarely ascribed intellectual concerns by modern commentators. Nonetheless, they and their supporters were all drawing on the ancient authority of paideia to negotiate a new world, alternately upholding or contesting the Constantinian responses to the fundamental questions of what God has to do with knowledge and knowledge with power.

Christianity, Philosophy, and Roman Power by Lea Niccolai

About The Author

Lea Niccolai

LEA NICCOLAI is Assistant Professor in Late Antique History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Trinity College....

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