Latest Teaching Company course was Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity by Kenneth W. Harl. Wasn't sure about this one since I've already read a bit on the subject and period, but it turned out to be pretty good. Harl takes a bit of a different angle, in a way returning to an older explanation, that the efforts of the Emperor Constantine were the most important factor.
Other accounts I've read suggest that traditional Pagan religion was in decline, that the mystery cults were increasingly popular, that Christianity was on a steady rise by the time Constantine got to it, and that the wide-ranging organization of the Christian church was a useful power base for Constantine.
Harl points out that there's little evidence for a rise in Christianity before Constantine. He says that the term "mystery cult" is a modern invention coming from 19th Century historians, and that contemporaries had no concept of "mystery cult" at all. They regarded mystery cults as just like any other religious cult: they were pretty normal and established. He regards emperors like Diocletian and Constantine as powerful autocrats, for the first time with an independent bureaucratic power base that didn't rely on the support of the Senatorial class. As such, he thinks Constantine didn't need the Christian church at all.
There was an interesting aside that I would have liked to see more on: he thinks the Third Century Crisis has been a bit overblown and wasn't really that bad. In particular he thinks that the inflation after the debasement of the currency wasn't that severe after a short period, and points out that the debased coins were considered to have value by the people who used them.
So Harl's view is not that weak emperors desperately reached for Christianity to assist them; rather it was that the newly strong emperors of the "Dominate" who had the power to enforce their religious views across the empire. He speculates that if the emperor Julian the Apostate hadn't died after a few years, he might have successfully reintroduced paganism.
Harl makes a good case, but I'm not entirely convinced. For one thing, Julian tried to copy Constantine's idea of making priests a distinct social class (ordo), so it does seem to me that an Empire-wide religious structure was useful. While there's not much evidence for a rise of Christianity, there's not much evidence against it: sources and archaeology are a bit sparse. Harl also considers the missionary monks who took direct action the pagans to be a later development, but I wonder if they might have been active earlier too, which would have made Christianity more of a bottom-up grassroots movement than something imposed from the top.
Overall though, an interesting course, detailed and well presented. Also has a pretty good story, with the later pagans forced into a similar role to the early Christians, plaintively begging for tolerance from the Emperor.
Extract from course notes:
The Enigma of the 3rd -Century CrisisWhat I'm Watching
Scholars of the past generation have spent an enormous amount of effort trying to make sense out of the 3rd century. There were great costs for beating back these barbarians and for ending the civil wars. First and foremost was money.
The usual argument is that the money was rapidly debased—that is, the silver money was turned from a silver coin into a copper coin with a silver coating—sparking an inflationary spiral often compared to the Great Depression. By extension, it is argued that the savings of the Roman world were wiped out and that this hardship played to the benefit of Christianity.
This view is overdrawn. First, the actual debasement lasted only a short time, approximately 25 years. Second, during the period of debasement, the coins were still valuable. Numerous hoards from all over the Roman Empire indicate that people were still saving these coins during the period, indicating that they still had value as money.
Finally, in 274 and in 293, then throughout the 4th century, the soldier-emperors reformed the coinage, creating fiat money that was negotiable for a fixed amount of gold. By the 270s and 280s, prices had stabilized; the borders had restabilized; and the emperors, starting with Diocletian, had imposed reforms that brought peace and order back to the Roman world.
There is other evidence from coins, inscriptions, and relief sculpture that indicate that the 3rd century was not as dismal as previously thought. In the cities of Italy, Africa, and Asia Minor, the ruling classes survived the crisis of the 3rd century, carrying on civic government and rallying to the soldier-emperors.
Archaeology shows a remarkable continuity in imperial patronage to the cults of the cities and to the sanctuaries of the Roman world, as well as a loyalty expressed by the ruling elites to the Roman emperor. While invasion and civil war did bring about change, it was not a spiritual crisis.
Not Crisis but Continuity
Romans believed in powerful ancestral traditions. Changes in perception, while important, were not revolutionary. Loyalty was now centered on the Roman emperor, not necessarily on the city of Rome or all the abstract traditions of the republic, and that resulted in the creation of a new tone of government: the Dominate, in which the emperor could rule as an autocrat.
Rather than create disorientation or flight from public service, the religious history of the 3rd century is better understood not as a failure of nerve on the part of the ruling classes but a reaffirmation of traditional values, a move back to traditional religion and invoking of the gods of Rome as their defenders against invasion.
We have no evidence of large numbers of Romans giving up their traditional faith for mystery cults or Christianity. We have no evidence for any new cult in the Roman Empire since Alexander of Abonouteichos created the cult of Glycon in 160, and the visual evidence indicates rebuilding of traditional cult sanctuaries during this period. That calls very much into question the idea that this was one of rapid Christianization.
Saw the 3-part documentary Meet the Romans presented by classicist Mary Beard. Excellent series exploring the lives of ordinary Romans, (rather than aristocrats) through their chatty tombstone inscriptions and archaeological evidence.
Well worth seeing. I thought her portrait of Rome as a diverse city of immigrants was interesting too.
All this is verbal so far, so it's uncertain. But it looks like I will be made redundant from my job at the end of May, with a pretty good package.
However I've been job-hunting pretty hard, and have a verbal offer through the agent of a job in Richmond which will start a week or two after. Apparently nothing can be signed until the finance director comes back from holiday next week though.
If I can get the job sorted, thinking about buying a property with Girl B and moving in together. We talked about it, but put it on hold while my job was at risk, since didn't know whereabouts I'd be working.
Pics. Japanese manhole covers.
Science. Bionic eyes.
Video. Texting and driving PSA.
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