57 of 61 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars When Christians do really bad things.
Concise, elegant, massively documented and beautifully endnoted, Ramsay MacMullen's book is a devastating account of the rise of Christianity and the destruction of Paganism. With 85 pages of notes to 159 pages of text, with widespread use of primary sources, archeological evidence and the secondary literature, MacMullen's book is an exhaustive update of Gibbon for the...
Published on September 22, 2002 by firstname.lastname@example.org
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Decent scholarship; poor and difficult writing
Of all of the scholars who have written widely on Christianity, paganism, imperial patronage, and the transformation of the late Roman world, Peter Brown and Ramsay MacMullen stand above the rest. I've read a number of Brown's works, but this is the first of MacMullen's books that I've read. The general slant on the church's intolerance towards paganism makes this an...
Published on August 29, 2011 by Kirialax
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57 of 61 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars When Christians do really bad things.,
Persecution: MacMullen challenges those who argues that Christianity was an improvement for women and slaves. Women did play some role in leading Pagan cults, none at all in Christianity, and he tells how while a pagan governor demanded the compensation for the family of a murdered prostitute, Saint Jerome supported beheading for extramarital fornication. He discusses how exorcisms, resurrections, and healings played a greater role in conversions than sermons or reasoned argument. He discusses the increasingly bloodthirsty demands of bishops, monks and imperial decrees as well as pointing out the weaknesses of the bureaucratic machinery.
Cost to the Persecuted: MacMullen notes how Constantine still claimed a sort of divine status for himself and his father. He discusses the joyous pagan festivals, including feasts, dancing, poetry orations and their long presistence despite the opposition of the bishops (Augustine tried to argue that giving friends presents was wicked). MacMullen also gives accounts of pagans who thought idols had actual magical powers. He discusses the destruction of pagan temples and shrines, as well as the cutting down of sacred trees.
Superstition: MacMullen discusses the shifiting attitude from the rational world view of Pliny, Seneca and Plotinus and the increase in credulity throughout the third and fourth centuries. MacMullen argues that this was a result of changes in the elite as more vulgar and less literate people increased their predominance. Whatever the merits of this thesis, MacMullen points our the contempt prominent Christians such as Tertullian, Augustine, Lactantius, Ambrose and John Chrysostom had for ancient philosophy. They denounced Plato and Aristotle by name, and mocked the idea of skeptical study and the scientific attitude. Nor did they stop there. They told stories about appartitions over the battlefield, miraculous cures, the everpresent existence of demons, people raised to life by Christians, and dragons turned to dust by the sign of the cross.
Assimilation: Here I have some slight disagreement with MacMullen's account. The fact that some pagan practices continued into Christianity does not mean that they are pagan survivals. People who put pennies on the deceased's eyes do not literally believe that Charon will ferry their soul across the Styx, anymore than people concerned about 13 are remembering Judas Iscariot's presence at the last supper. A practice may continue long after any of Paganism's original ideological content has vanished. One should look at Ronald Hotton's books on the ritual year and witchcraft to understand more. Nevertheless MacMullen provides much information about the assimilation of dancing, festival meals for the dead, and the growth about the cult of martyrs. He tells how angels and martyrs took the place of minor deities who heard the wishes that would have been apparently too petty to relate to God. Christianity also assimilated practices like valorizing the dust around certain shrines and the plants that grew there, as well as amulets and ankhs used to ward off disasters, while images of Jesus and other Christian figures spread throughout the world. "The triumph of the church was not one of obliteration but of widening embrace and assimilation," concludes MacMullen, and it is the weakness of Christian efforts which mitigates an otherwise brutal history.
45 of 48 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Superb research nearly swamped by convoluted prose,
The book is not without controversy. The traditional view has been that, during the century after Constantine's conversion, most of the Roman Empire (and lands beyond) converted to Christianity with wholehearted gusto, and pagan beliefs survived only in remote pockets. Not so, according to the author's overwhelming evidence: paganism had an extremely long half-life. MacMullen also dispenses with the long-held traditional argument that women and slaves converted to Christianity because paganism did not offer them much. (If anything, as he clearly and succinctly shows, the reverse is true.) Furthermore, MacMullen discusses how, beginning in the fourth century, upon subsuming power, Christians dealt with pagans in the traditional (non-Christian) way: they persecuted them with intimidation, torture, forced conversions, and death. Persecutions continued for many centuries, indicating that the underlying pagan culture was indeed very hearty.
The problem with the early Church's aggressive approach is obvious: many converts were not true believers, or they didn't quite understand what they were accepting. In addition, the relatively new Christianity, "a religion of the book" that was strong on doctrine, lacked a distinctive culture or the ability to satisfy everyday needs and desires (whether worldly or supernatural). Still, the Christian elites--the educated or the anointed--placed far more faith in the supernatural (God) than did their pagan predecessors, who viewed the reliance on superstition (gods) as a crutch for the lower, especially rural, classes. This difference ironically gave Christianity an advantage: believers at both ends of the social spectrum, from bishops to peasants, looked to the supernatural for explanations of everyday occurrences, from the weather to illness to death. Thus, many pagan rituals provided the basis for Christian traditions: offerings to the gods became cults of the saints, pagan feasts became Christian festivals, etc. As Jerome acknowledged, in MacMullen's paraphrase: "better, worship of the saints in the pagan manner than none at all."
MacMullen marshals an impressive parade of evidence, both in the text (only 160 pages) and in the notes and bibliography (which occupy only slightly less space). Unlike most scholars, he entirely avoids unfamiliar terminology and spices his treatise with glib comments and wry witticisms--it's been a long time since I've chuckled while reading a scholarly monograph. Unfortunately (alas, like most scholars), MacMullen is just not a very good writer. Perfectly lucid passages alternate with sentences that resemble very rough lecture notes. He has an aversion to direct statement and a fondness for pronouns that will send the most alert reader hunting for an antecedent. A not atypical sentence: "Within tradition, what lacked any supporting scripture or even any conscious reason they might think foolish; but they accepted it as harmless." "They," whose antecedent appears three sentences previous, refers to pagan civic leaders. Even armed with this discovery, most readers will find this sentence difficult, I wager. Other sentences are backwards for no good reason: "But in the ideas and rites just described a large area of new loyalties opened up." And, finally, there are run-on sentences of such length that a lethal dose of caffeine is required to follow the sense from beginning to end. Such idiosyncratic sentence structures might be amusing affectations when used sparingly, but their overuse in this volume is frustrating and unnecessary.
It's too bad that MacMullen isn't kinder to his readers. Although the book is certainly meant for a scholarly audience, it contains little material that wouldn't be within reach of interested readers outside the academy. (Even professional historians must tire of such sloppiness.) Nevertheless, if you're willing to slog through tortuous prose, you'll find treasures on every page.
39 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Persecution by, not of, Catholicism: Integral to its history,
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Rise of Christianity...,
Since Justinian felt the need to take sever action against pagan religious practice, well into the 6th century, we see that paganism was alive and well for a while. Under Constantine, and then under Theodosius and others, the laws encouraged conversion to Christianity and discouraged staying pagan. Constantine's motivations are complex; he wanted to find one religion to unify his empire, but there's no evidence that he was not sincere in his conversion. After his conversion, church leaders and bishops were not happy with the persistence of the old religion. "Pagans danced in the very streets, as Augustine described them; in the theatres they laughed aloud at takeoffs on communion and martyrdom, as I mentioned a few pages earlier; they wrote open letters and speeches in their own defense, they even went to court to assert their rights- all this, far into the fifth century...Thus the imperative to which Augustine and others of the ecclesiastical leadership responded, utterly to extirpate every form of worship but their own, must resort to arms." (p. 25)
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is MacMullen's discussion of the assimilation of pagans into the church. Most pagan converts simply did not have a concept of praying to one supreme being for petitions, intercessions, etc. Rather, they each had their own god- one for harvests, one for employment, and so on. They thought that there was some vague "Logos" that was governing the world, but that it was unreachable by humans. The influx of pagans holding these views greatly influenced the cult of the martyrs and saints. Many converts made a simple substitute. Since there are records of Augustine and Jerome and others constantly making sermons against superstitious obsession with martyrs, we can safely say that assimilation was far from a smooth process. Moreover, according to MacMullen, aspects of paganism influenced the development of Christianity, despite the latter's hostility to the former.
This is a highly recommended work. Anyone wanting to know how Christianity got to where it is today should read this. It makes a good companion to "Voting About God in Early Church Councils" by the same author.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Paganism: Tolerance and Tradition,
MacMullen deals with most of the important myths about the rise of Christianity and the downfall of Paganism:
(1) that Pagans voluntarily chose to convert to Christianity without coercion
(2) that women, slaves and the rural populations were less loyal to Paganism than the urban male elites
(3) that Paganism "went quietly"
(4) that Paganism simply disappeared without a trace
All of these myths are laid to rest by MacMullen. May they rest in peace.
Despite (apparently) not being a Pagan himself, MacMullen nevertheless displays an uncanny sympathy for and understanding of Classical Paganism. In particular he adeptly captures the spirit of Paganism with the two words "tradition" and "tolerance". Paganism was a Religion and a world-view in which tradition was honored and revered - it was a way for human beings to feel a strong connection to the past and to each other. And it was also a Religion in which tolerance was taken for granted. This is the real take-home lesson of this book.
MacMullen calmly tells the tale of how Christianity grappled with a simple fact: nobody knew exactly how to go about imposing one religion on everyone. It had never been done before and the very idea was not so much objectionable as it was simply incomprehensible. MacMullen tells the horrifying story of how the Christians slowly perfected the repressive machinery necessary to enforce spiritual and psychological conformity. At first edicts against Paganism could be safely ignored - but as the decades and centuries went on, through a combination of savage mob-violence and state terrorism, Paganism was driven underground.
MacMullen makes it clear that Paganism fought to survive. Without probably intending to, he leaves the door wide open for future investigations of the ways in which Paganism continued to survive as a clandestine Religion.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Decent scholarship; poor and difficult writing,Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire (Curti Lecture Series).
This book is divided into four main sections with a conclusion at the end. The first chapter, "Persecution" deals with the attempt of the Christian church to eliminate religious alternatives. This chapter also introduces the book and here MacMullen lays out some of the challenges that the source material presents, namely that there is very little pagan material to work with. He also gives a little attention to some general issues in the study of early imperial Christianity, such as its expansion. However, that is not what the crux of this chapter is on. The focus is on the Christian desire of a systemic set of universal beliefs led to intolerance. He juxtaposes the positions of Christians before Constantine to the position of Symmachus, a pagan official at the end of the fourth century trying to convince Ambrose, that intractable bishop of Milan, for toleration. There is no doubt that there was persecution, and while this chapter explores it, MacMullen fails to really get below the surface and see why there was some much intolerance, of both pagans and other Christians alike. He only touches on it at the end of the chapter when he gets into Justinian and his immediate successors persecuting their opponents, but fails to address the fact that "orthodoxy" was tightly bound up with imperial power and the belief in the salvation of the state. There are fascinating reasons for the persecution, but MacMullen sadly fails to really address them.
The next chapter, "the cost to the persecuted" is exactly as it sounds and discusses the dismantling of paganism and what happened after it was no longer required to participate in pagan rituals and festivals. In general, the customs continued, although many of the original meanings were lost. He concludes by saying that what survived of paganism was closest to superstition, which leads right into the next chapter. One could argue that the idea of the survival of pagan rituals is not all that relevant, since the people who participated in them clearly saw them as totally compatible and likely as part of their Christianity. This particular chapter argues that due to the expansion of the curial class in the third century, the "skeptical and empirical-thinking extreme" of the traditionally educated elite began to be besieged by the influx of their more poorly-educated brethren. It really feels like MacMullen is trying to blame Christianity for the decline of classical literary culture. Instead, the number of highly-educated intellectuals in any given era seems to have always remained rather small; MacMullen's own examples of Plutarch, Plotinus, Porphyry, and Pliny are all the evidence that is needed. It is true that the ascetic tradition in the east rejected classical learning, but as Brown has demonstrated in Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World (Canto original series) this is a case of power politics. The convoluted arguments surrounding the issues discussed in the late antique church councils, and well past iconoclasm in the east show that sophisticated intellectualism always existed. MacMullen argues that the well-educated of the fifth and sixth-centuries write primarily of the wonderful, but this can hardly stand up to scrutiny. MacMullen's own example of Plutarch fits into this category (and so does Pliny, at times), yet Socrates, Sozomen, Procopius, Agathias, and Theodoret all wrote sober histories in the fifth and sixth centuries.
The final chapter is entitled "Assimilation". In this exceptionally good chapter, MacMullen explains how the major pagan god's disinterest in the "little people" helped the rise of the cult of saints, and how Christian burials retained pagan curses for the destruction of the tomb robbers. He gives another in-depth explanation of how the eastern holy men functioned much like pagan predecessors in performing what we would class as magic, and how Christian and pagan acclamations existed side by side in the fifth century.
This is a good book, although there are some flaws in it. Read it alongside some of Peter Brown's work for a much more fulfilling explanation of the Christian church in late antiquity - both authors compliment each other wonderfully. However, MacMullen's writing is also much more difficult to read, and at times his prose can be rather painful. In the end, however, this is a useful piece of work. Just not on its own.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly Significant, Unmissable,
The excellence of this book lies in its encompassing scholarship, combined with a complete and unwavering impartiality. MacMullen really does see things as they were, and despite clearly not being a believer of any kind himself (as fellow reviewer Curtis Steinmetz has mentioned) shows a near-perfect understanding of paganism and the reasons for the loyalty consistently shown to it, both in the period and beyond.
In describing the Christian reaction to that loyalty he is absolutely unflinching. He has no time for Church spin which sees Christianity as the faith which welcomed slaves and women, both of whom were far better off under paganism as he shows. The vast majority of sermons in this period address the rich male faithful, the 'brethren'. And their faith, as he reveals, is often one of extreme aggression, of most of whose acts I had no inkling. (Funny, how quiet the persecution has been kept.) There was no talk of tolerating the pagan, not once political power had been gained. Church leadership was on the contrary happy to incite mob violence with florid denunciations of the 'lethal infection' represented by the 'mad, loathsome, disgusting' heathens, with their 'natural insanity'.
Early in the period considered there was of course the murder of Hypatia, but mobs of Christian heavies caused trouble in numerous other occasions according to the orator Libanius, as Shaw has also noted in his excellent book on Iamblichus. Christian monks would break up pagan feasts or temples at order. Later emperors, particularly Justinian and Tiberius, were perhaps the most impressively violent -- the latter had one persistently pagan governor tortured, torn up by wild beasts, and then crucified. (Crucifixion was often the ironic execution of choice.)
MacMullen's book is about more than that though; he covers much which carried less surprise for me but was equally thorough and fascinating. In a wide-ranging chapter ostensibly on 'superstition', he describes the power of miracles (which have always been and probably will always be the major reason for anyone's conversion to any religion, I suspect) and shows the world of healers and weatherworkers with each side, pagan and Christian, competing for the best magic. This is a familiar sight to me (see Saint Patrick v. the Druids in Ireland of the period, for example). Clearly it's a long time since Christian magic was considered the best in any official sense, but unofficially the formulae being used then are still being taught today, and you can easily find Christian magic of the exact same kind on Amazon, for example in A Century of Spells. Nothing much has changed.
It's important to note that in contests of magic, the winner is always the one sharing a faith with the person writing up the contest. :) Thus we have scores upon scores of Christian miracles, and few pagan ones. However, that pagan workers still did the business is clear from the fact that loyalty to them was so hard to eradicate. And indeed they have survived until today also, not just in Biddy Early and her ilk, but unremarked in many places -- see for example John Cuthbert Lawson's Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion, page 49, for absolutely pagan weatherworking in Greece around 1910. (You can find the book free online.)
Survivals of pagan practices, in general, also play a big role in MacMullen's account. I knew of many already but he has many more, especially with regard to grave-feasts for example. Equally interesting is the number of pagan rites that were simply purloined into the Faith, over the protests of the upper orders of the hierarchy, because the people wanted and needed them. Christianity didn't have much practice of its own, and the people were not accustomed to addressing 'God directly'. The faith in saints and angels and martyrs, as everyone knows who has looked into the matter, simply replaced the older nature-based and deity practices, as it has done regularly in modern Christianizations of paganism such as Santeria.
This produces some amusing moments: great shrines appear to the Archangel Michael, who is promptly denounced by the authorities as a demon! Numerous other practices involving relics and saint-magic are very well described, and the picture on the cover of the book is particularly interesting -- a saint statue of gold that was still producing miracles and drawing worship in 1000 CE, apparently. Yes, an idol by any standard.
Paganism *never* disappeared, even if its public rites often either died or were assimilated. That much is clear, and there are very good reasons why it shouldn't in my opinion, to do with the way human spirituality naturally works. But in trying to eradicate it, Christianity found itself in a pretty pass. I'm afraid I had always assumed that the Roman paganism of the time must have lost its vigour for Christianity to have taken over 'so easily', and now I'm thoroughly disabused. Among the elite it had gone, but not among the people. And the takeover wasn't done 'easily', to the extent it was even done at all. The importance of this book goes to the nature of religion itself, as well, because MacMullen delivers the beliefs of the period without comment. You see what produced faith, or otherwise, much more clearly than in many books of religious theory! And the irony is that, after all the febrile denunciations, paganism could still in the end be said to have assimilated Christianity, just as much as or more than the other way around.
A note on his writing. Some people don't like it, but I disagree. Most academic language still seems to be by Le Corbusier, and I think it's nice to find some done still by Wren and Brunelleschi. Sure, he could be seen as florid, why not? "I have indicated at various junctures, above, my hopes of staying within those areas where the texture of the evidence is fairly close... and one need not rappel across great gulfs of ignorance on gossamer threads of conjecture." It's not every day an academic produces prose I'd like to hear read by Michael Hordern! And actually the style makes for a density of meaning, and a corresponding shortness of the overall text, considering how much it packs in.
This is just an excellent book. Obviously Christians and pagans will be interested, but I particularly recommend it also to those with an interest in 'folklore' and 'superstition', and to those interested in the nature of religious belief in general. On a wider culturological level I also recommend it -- if you are studying phenomena like the cultural revolution, which is only an updating of the same mindset, read this. It is, finally, also a marvellous testament, not only to the nature of its chosen period, but to the worth of a wide-ranging and scholarly mind surveying that period with immense discrimination, determined to tell it like it was.
14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A sketchy overview of a complex subject,
This review is from: Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (Hardcover)MacMullen does a creditable job of covering several aspects of the transition from paganism to Christianity in the abstract. However the author is light on specifics. Granted, it is difficult to give a full and insightful summary of four hundred rather turbulent years of an empire encompassing three continents. Nevertheless, I was disappointed that most instances of persecution, toleration or assimilation are given in the abstract. Given the extensive and impressive bibliography, I am sure these are well-researched generalizations, but I found it hard to picture some of the concepts without specific examples. I consider this book a good primer for someone who wants to know where to begin studying the formation of the religion/culture called Christianity
9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why Pagans converted to Christianity -- after Constantine,
Christian Roman Emperors outlawed Pagan ceremonies, taxed Pagan temples, and gave Christian Romans preferences in official advancement. By the end of this period everyone was Christian and the Empire was gone.
By a famous Yale historian, an essential text for serious students. Highly recommended. And like everything MacMullen writes, it is hard to read.
7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The History Christianity Never Told,
Orthodox Christianity was not interested in voices raised in protest. What were seen as heretical writings were burned, as were non-Christian texts and "copyists were discouraged from replacing them by the threat of having their hands cut off." And Christianity's own historians were not interested in giving a balanced accounting of events. MacMullen comments that Eusebius "disclaimed the telling of the whole truth. Rather, he proposed to limit his account to 'what may be of profit.'"
This book attempts to set the record straight. MacMullen notes that previously scholars had thought that paganism had been defeated by the end of the fourth century and all converted to the new faith. This is not true, he tells us. "Stain Augustine did not live in a Christian world" he says and in the book's five chapters proceeds to demonstrate the truth of this assertion.
We see that paganism of the late Roman Empire was alive and well. "It used to be thought that, at the end, the eradication of paganism really required no effort" and that paganism had become a hollow husk. "But historians seem now to have abandoned this interpretation...The real vitality of paganism is instead recognized; and to explain its eventual fate what must also be recognized is an opposing force, an urgent one, determined on its extinction." And we see the extreme measures to which Christianity was willing to resort to stamp out all opposition: fines, confiscation, exile, improsionment, flogging, torture, beheading, and crucifixtion. "What more could be imagined? Nothing. The extremes of conceivable pressure were brought to bear." Nor was this violence restricted to pagans. Speaking of the fourth century, MacMullen says "more Christians died for their faith at the hands of fellow Christians than had died before in all the persecutions."
Like Pagans and Christians before it, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries must be read for the truth of the past to be understood. The facts have for long been misrepresented and misunderstood, and MacMullen brushes these obstructions away with a masterful hand to reveal the vibrancy of a pagan world scholarship has long consigned to oblivion. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries by Ramsay MacMullen (Hardcover - September 23, 1997)
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