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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fateful marriage ? A historian's perspective on Christianity and power intertwined, 1 July 2008
Jeremy Bevan (West Midlands, UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire (Curti Lectures) (Paperback)
Did Christianity begin to `go wrong' with Constantine's conversion and the faith's subsequent adoption as the empire's `official' religion later in the same century ? That's one frequently-heard view, and in this fascinating little book (originally the 1988 Curti lectures at the University of Wisconsin), Peter Brown examines how Christianity went from `outsider' cult to (occasionally contrary) prop and mainstay of Roman power and authority. Drawing on a wide range of ancient sources, especially Libanius, he shows how, essentially, the Christianisation of empire took place as a result of the church `slipping into the skin' of existing cultural and political forms. Over the course of a few decades, the bishops, themselves frequently trained in the classical tradition, increasingly replace local pagan notables in roles of civic authority, albeit frequently in alliance with wealthy local families. As this change takes place, they become on the one hand responsible for inculcating loyalty to the empire (`devotio'), and on the other active in defence of the local populace against Rome's ever more authoritarian rule.

To do this, they make use of the same model of civic behaviour that had been nurtured in their predecessors through `paideia' (education emphasising courtesy and self-control) - though they expanded somewhat the circle of those deemed worthy of their protection to include, for the first time, the poorer non-artisan classes. Their Christian insight adds, too, an understanding of the importance of a Christlike humility to the governor's role.

But in taking over these forms, they are sometimes guilty of gross abuses: Brown recounts how Cyril of Alexandria resorted to bribery on a shocking scale to ensure Nestorius' condemnation at the Council of Ephesus. Equally, the author's account shows how a figure like Ambrose should be seen as not so much offering principled resistance to the abuse of power, as exercising a local governor's legitimate and expected challenge to the emperor's excesses. Brown's account of this key transition in early Christian history will perhaps strengthen the unease some may feel about cosy alliances between Christ and power, and they will want to set alongside it the church's - equally valid - history of deliberately divesting itself of the trappings of power. But Brown's perspective on this fascinating period is nonetheless fascinating.
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