Sunday, June 19, 2022

Evangelists and Politicians: the Fall of Rome, IV: With Bonus Sacred Spring Engagement (Edited)


So I understand that the way to get ahead in this blogging game is to go after the big guns and Brett Devereaux, of A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, did a three-parter on the fall of Rome back during the winter. Well, I did a three parter back in 2013, and I could easily do a fourth, and I have some things to say about the things that Devereaux says about the fall of Rome!

Which, big deal. Everyone talks about the fall of Rome. People were talking about it before Edward Gibbon decided it would be a good idea for a big book that would make him famous and offer a sly commentary on the whole thing with America, which everyone was on about back in the day. The idea for the series was foisted on Devereaux by his Patreon patrons, and I am only talking about it because it is a way to focus on the throughline from the Early Iron Age Revival of the State. Also, apart from some minor errors in the ongoing archaeological-reconstruction-of-the-Roman-economy thing, Devereaux mainly put me out by trash-talking Gibbon. Which, the thing about Gibbon is that it is easy to trash talk the man; the writing finger moves on, and all that. But what we know about ancient Rome is still dominated by what ancient Romans said about Ancient Rome, and Gibbon lived in a milieu in which everyone read the ancient Romans in the original, and talked about them. We don't do that today, and it is easy to see how Gibbon might have had a fingertip feel for the way that Romans thought and lived their lives that even a modern archaeologist might lack. 

Also, and most importantly to get at the throughline from Revival to Decline we go by the most prolific literature of ancient Rome, ancient Christian apologetics. and while I am not going to make a point from this literature that Gibbon knew so well, I am going to make a point about it.

First, I will develop the throughline, which goes like this: Setting technological change aside, the Iron Age revival of the state  begins with the urban sanctuary. The urban temple has its Bronze Age precursors, but the public site of ritual, and especially ritual sacrifice, in the midst of a city is both a change of practice and the inadvertent foundation of a new mode of economic practice and state power. It is not articulated as such, but the cult practice develops as follows:

i) Leading citizens supply livestock to the temple institution for sacrifice;

ii) All others fulfill their social and religious duty by buying these animals and dedicating them for sacrifice, a practice that develops from the original one of giving up the best part of the animal to the temple for redistribution, hence the Old Athenian "ham collectors";

iii) Temple officers like the "ham collectors" develop into state financial officials, and taxes, or at least some taxes, particularly market excises, become entangled with temple incomes;

iv) Temple funds function in something like the same way as modern banks.

v) Unimportant to us, but, at least at first, central to cult participants, sacrifice serves as an epistemological practice, generating knowledge about the world via divination; a practice that entangles knowledge in worship.

vi) Jewish thinkers associated with the Temple at Jerusalem develop this practice, via a monotheistic theology, into an unsustainable culmination, probably  at as late a date as our reconstruction of the development of Old Testament text and Jewish thinking will support, that is, with the completion of Herod's temple, between 18 and 10 BCE. 

vii) Contradictions heightened to an unsustainable degree, the Temple produces its own antithesis, "gentile Christianity," which rejects sacrifice entirely. 

viii) By the Third Century, Christian (but probably also neo-Platonist and Manichaean) abstention from sacrifice is sufficiently significant as to promote the persecutions.

ix) The persecutions are either too little and too late, or actively promote the crisis they were intended to avert. 

So here the question is one of coordinating the trajectory of the Roman economy with the spread of early Christianity. 

  Second, there is the question of Gibbon's explanation for the "Decline and Fall of Rome," which is one of "barbarism and religion." In Roy Porter's succinct formulation, the ascendant, post-Constantinian Christian church absorbed revenues previously dedicated to state purposes, wasted them due to "corruptin," and this led to the collapse of the Roman army. Never mind Gibbon being historiographically obsolete. Does it have to be any more complicated than this?

Third, I promised to Young Gun it up at Devereaux's expense:

I'd make fund of the wild increases and declines that turn out to be between femurs of 44.5cm and 46cm if I had to, but only if I had to. It might turn out that this is the full range of difference in human femur lengths and I would be embarrassed. Instead, a bit of research via Walter Scheidel, who straightforwardly labels this graph "misleading," turned up the original research, published in its final form in 2019, and conveniently abstracted. Willem Jongman, Jan Jacobs, and Geertje M Klein Goldewijk conclude that the evidence shows declining long bone length with the rise of the Roman economy and population, and a rapid rise with the collapse of the Empire. Bone length is taken, with due caution in light of its relation to find bias, fuel, clothes, disease, and dietary specifics, as a health proxy, and the conclusion is the "Malthusian one" that, as in the Industrial Revolution, health declined as population density rose, and revived at its end, something that, I thought, was at this point a bit of received wisdom.

Against this, and in service of the claim that the post-Roman economy had moved from a "high productivity equilibrium" to a low one, Devereaux notes site surveys, interestingly referencing a particular study of the Roman hinterlands used by Brad Ward-Perkins to underline the scale of the "collapse" in the Roman collapse. I am a bit of a skeptic about claims for large conclusions from site survey data. Surveys are classically used to justify the claim that the population of Greece fell dramatically during the Late Bronze Age Collapse, with the further inference that everyone went off to colonise the east, and, in particular, to be Philistines. The reference here is, I imagine, to the Roman Hinterland Project, which is not quite as bold in making claims on its website. 

With, I think, good reason. What the survey did was conduct extensive field walks in the vicinity of Rome, looking for surface scatters of ceramic wares favoured in different periods. To map scatter densities to population densities requires the enormous assumption that populations have the same relationship to dinnerware in every period. To make it a properly statistical sample, large areas have to be sampled. To test the thesis that settlement patterns changed, different topographies would have to be sampled with the same accuracy. Saro Wallace has theorised that settlement moved uphill in Late Bronze Age Crete, and the same trend seems defensible more generally in the Roman Mediterranean world more generally. After moving downhill in the Roman imperial period. One might argue from analogy to the location of various regional capitals (Toledo, Spoleto, Tahirt, Tripolitsa, Mystara), to a reverse movement in the sub-Roman period. In other words, on top of all the other methodological quibbles, I am asking the poor field walkers to start climbing gullies and combing sidehills. It is perhaps no wonder that a very measured review of the results of Mediterranean site surveys includes a bibliography with at least one title that implies that it is time to "good bye to all that" to the whole literature: E. B. Banning, (2021). "Sampled to death? The rise and fall of probability sampling in archaeology" American Antiquity 86 (2021): 43–60.

I don't know if the swiftness of this blogger will be talked about in years to come, and I'm no Tarantino fan, but as a Late Boomer/Early Xer, I'm not going to pass on an  opportunity to give "Little Joe the Wrangler" a big up. You kids today with your labour shortage don't know what it was like!

Devereaux also cites another widely deployed factoid that shows a decline in maritime shipping, particularly during the Third Century Crisis. It seems a bit unfair to dunk on him again, and he even provides a link. It turns out that I already have a version of the factoid on my hard drive. As I recall from trying to track it down last time, the citation is not recoverable, and, as you can see, it has some interesting data apart from the ship wreck graph.  

This brings me back to something that Gibbon would have had at his fingertips: Ecclesiastical history. 


 For such a famous guy, Jesus is pretty obscure. Scholarship has come around to the position that the earliest of the Gospels that purport to tell the story of his life, were written after the fall of Jerusalem to Titus in 72AD. The earliest, the scholarship proposes hopefully, Matthew, was probably written by someone who was in Jerusalem during the Flavian siege. The other three are later, perhaps as much as fifty years later, and any facts not lifted from Matthew are probably more-or-less consciously made up. The Gospel authors were not among the Evangelists, and at best knew people who knew Jesus, with even that not guaranteed. It is not clear that there were any earlier texts to reference, notwithstanding pious belief in a "Q Gospel" consisting of commonplace sayings of Jesus. That makes the earliest documents in the New Testament the seven Pauline epistles accepted as authentic.  (There is some possibility that the Johannine Epistles, but not Gospel of John, are authentic.)

Paul, of course, had no idea that he was going to be the literary ur-source of Christianity as written. After all, he lived in the milieu of the apostles, and although there is some question of just how many of them he was in a position to know. Acts gives a fairly elaborate account of Paul's fifth and last visit to Jerusalem in 57, where he had a fight with James and the elders over his mission to the gentiles, after which  he was arrested and sent to Rome. Since he drops out of reliable Christian accounts after this, it is possible that Paul was martyred in Rome before 60, and before the Neronian persecution in which he is traditionally said to have died, along with Peter, who, to take the maximally revisionist position, might have been executed in Jerusalem as early as 44. Acts is clearly more recent and more heavily fictionalised than it presents itself as being, so it is not clear just how much faith we should place on its account. Our last certain contact with Paul is in one of his letters, which says that he is on his way to Jerusalem for his fifth trip, presumably in 57. 

From here, the search for witnesses to the earliest days of the Christian church becomes more feverish. Polycarp might have been born as early as 69, and was said by Irenaeus (130--202) and Tertullian (155--220) to have been a disciple of John. Clement (d. 99)'s ties to the apostles are through Peter's Roman mission, the reality of which is in debate, and is otherwise a shadowy figure known from a single letter to the congregation at Corinth. The third early "Father," Ignatius of Antioch, was probably pushed back from his actual death date of 140, to 108, by Eusebius (265--339), precisely to fill in a gap between the Apostles and the early Church community that was increasingly embarrassing to a triumphant church --and Christianity in general, since then. 

Taken together, it looks as though, when the Romans threw their siege lines around Jerusalem, there was a significant Jewish Christian community associated with the Temple; and, outside Palestine, including in Rome, dispersed "gentile" and Jewish Christian communities of the kind that Paul either ministered to, or fought with on his trips through Asia Minor and possibly to Rome. The destruction at Jerusalem seems to have been pretty apocalyptic, based on the number of slaves the Flavians sold, in a most convenient convergence of religious revolutionary and state fiscal crises. 

By the last third of the First Century, the Gospels probably exist, an effort is being made to collate Paul's epistles, and we have a huge crop of Christian writers rising. Origen (185--253), perhaps more famous today for his alleged auto-castration than for his theology, was astonishingly prolific. Supported by the fabulously wealthy Bishop Ambrose of Alexandria (212--250), but apparently well-off himself, , Origen headed a community in Palestine that must have been massive, considering the traditional attribution of 6000 works to his pen. Eusebius was similarly prolific, with one of his works being recovered in a neglected library manuscript as recently as the last century; and, between them, and forming the crucial transmitter of the Origen fandom, we have Pamphilus of Caesarea.

One of the things that makes the Crisis of the Third Century so obscure is that we  have no Roman historian treating it, excepting the fourth century troll behind the Augustan History. Such information from that work as is actually true, is lined up by modern scholars with some material in other historians of the period to justify the existence of a near-contemporary history that subsequent Roman historians used, but all suppressed mention of, for some presumably very good reason. 

Edit: In 1993, R. W. Burgess  identified the author of the Kaisergeschichte as Eusebius of Nantes, although it looks as though Hagith Syvan might share credit, publishing in a journal with limited JSTOR access. The manuscript was then continued through 367, only four years before Aurelius Victor consulted it at Marcianopolis in the winter of 361. Eusebius of Nantes is linked to Ausonius, and may have been an older family member. So if I had to conjure up a story about the manuscript, it was brought to Marcianopolis by Gratianus or Valentinian, or some other member of Julian's entourage. 

As for the contents that might have made the manuscript too sensitive for explicit citation, Eusebius is known to have been more interested in the Third Century usurpers than other writers, and it has been supposed that Victor finds in the Kaisergeschichte the names of Carausius and Allectus, the late Third-Century British usurpers, whose names were suppressed in earlier panegyrics. Which is too bad, as I was hoping that the secret spice would be information about the backgrounds of the Danubian emperors. 

If that is an accurate account of the Kaisergeschichte, then some obscurities in Eusebius's biography of Constantine and the parts of his enormous Ecclesiastical History are not just there because secular politics are irrelevant to a churchman. Roy Porter, perhaps quoting Gibbon, quotes Tillemont as celebrating the obscurity of Diocletian's early years as some kind of Divine punishment for the arch-persecutor. Tillemont, whose instincts on this kind of thing are probably sound, thinks that this is the kind of information that Eusebius could have, and would have, given us, if he did not have some pressing reason. So perhaps there is a tantalising political story here. If we had even a single Roman secular historian from this period a tenth as prolific as Origen, we might know, but we do not. And yet Origen, Pamphilus and Eusebius hardly exhaust the list of early Christian writers from the period. The Decian persecution seems to have been very effective in cutting off the tall poppies, but Pope Dionysius of Alexandria lived to 264, and Arnobius survived to 330 in spite of writing under the Diocletian persecution.  These authors could have told us more, chose not to do so.(pdf)

So the picture here would have been clear enough to Gibbon. Beginning with Decius in 253, the Roman state lashed out at Christians with a ferocity never before seen. The persecutions were intermittently revived, before reaching a peak under Diocletian. Between Decius and Diocletian, everyone is in agreement that the Roman state is in decay, perhaps about to fall, although Christianity is a chiliastic religion, so Christians are always identifying the Last Days, and are hard to take seriously. Meanwhile, the picture from surviving text is of a community with considerable resources and energy, rapidly overtaking the secular side of the Roman state. Constantine accepts reality, makes Eusebius his official historiographer. By the time that Ambrose of Milan becomes bishop, fifty years later, it is reasonable for him to be the virtual coadjutor of the Roman state. One hardly needs account books to see that the church has engorged public revenues and the "corruption" of its original institutions is obvious enough to an Eighteenth Century Protestant. That the Romans cannot fight off barbarian incursions without an army, nor have an army without money, is obvious enough. 

So if Gibbon does not report data or text criticism he does not have and has not seen, this is just the council of perfection. The basic pattern is obvious. Christianity caused the fall of the Roman Empire. All that's left is filling in the details of how it happened. This whole conversation is just footnotes on Gibbon. 

I had originally intended to talk for a bit about money, subsistence, and the Church. Gibbon the country gentleman probably has some to say about that, just as the officer of the Hampshire Grenadiers has something to say about armies, and Gibbon the man who travelled to and from Switzerland before the automobile has something to say about the assumption that a good field walk of an entire Roman province is surely out there to reference confidently in search of good demographic data. But that seems hopelessly ambitious at this point in a dreary Vancouver Sunday afternoon, so I will leave it to some indefinite early date, and certainly not my vacation week, when I finish with March of 1952. 

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