To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire Paperback – August 23, 2004
The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
Frequently bought together
Customers who bought this item also bought
This fascinating and important book…discusses the social origins and career paths of the aristocratic men―and the family involvements of the women―who converted to Christianity, and concludes by exploring ‘the emperor’s influence on aristocratic conversion’ and ‘the aristocrats’ influence on Christianity’… Salzman’s work is important not just for the study of the early church but for the study of the whole history of Christianity. The class distinctions which she so ably explores were significant not only for early Christians, but also for the medieval church and the Reformation church. (Robert M. Grant Christian Century)
There is much to praise here. Salzman makes a coherent and believable case, and argues it well. She provides statistical derivatives of her database in the form of tables, from which others may form further conclusions… [Salzman] has elucidated one piece of the puzzle, and provided a wealth of data and approaches for others to take outstanding questions forward. (Malcolm Choat Scholia Reviews 2003-01-01)
An indispensable study of what the ‘average’ aristocrat would have experienced in coming to call upon Jesus instead of Jupiter…it accurately and articulately details the Christianization of the empire’s leading families. (David Vincent Meconi Journal of Early Christian Studies)
This is a fine book, genuinely paradigm-shifting and splendidly argued…remarkably firm and convincing. It offers a major addition to our knowledge of late antiquity. (John Moorhead Journal of Religious Studies)
An impressive piece of work. Salzman has produced the most complete quantitative study of conversion of aristocrats to date. I particularly liked her concluding chapter on their influence on Christianity. She shows that fourth-century bishops adopted the rhetoric of ‘nobility’ and ‘honor’ in their preaching and writing in a way that appealed to aristocrats. (Elizabeth Clark, Duke University)
An important and carefully crafted book with much that is new to say about the ways, means, and speed by which the Late Roman Empire came to convert to Christianity in the wake of Constantine’s change of allegiance. Salzman constantly strives to turn numbers into real people and real lives, to set her findings as fully as possible in political, social, and cultural context. And her writing is clear and effective. (Peter Heather, University College London)
An impressive piece of work. Salzman has produced the most complete quantitative study of conversion of aristocrats to date. I particularly liked her concluding chapter on their influence on Christianity. She shows that fourth-century bishops adopted the rhetoric of "nobility" and "honor" in their preaching and writing in a way that appealed to aristocrats. (Elizabeth Clark, Duke University) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
Salzman proposes to illustrate the process of conversion by examining the lives of some 414 aristocrats, from the western empire, who lived between the reign of Diocletian in 284 C.E. and the death of Honorius in 423 C.E. She accomplishes this by reviewing all extant evidence: literary, archaeological, epigraphic, and prosopographical. However, her argument "is based primarily on many years of study of Roman history and institutions and on a close reading of the literary and archaeological record" (7).
Salzman confines her study to aristocrats belonging to the `clarrisimus': the lowest senatorial rank conferred; this social rank is hereditary once achieved. Salzman maintains there were four paths to the senate: "through the military career, the senatorial civic career the imperial bureaucratic career, and the religious career" (111). Christians were more likely than pagans to begin their careers in the imperial bureaucracy.
Salzman attempts to define aristocracy by attributing to it identifiable qualities. Wealth was normally the most important determiner, but birth or mere acceptance as a peer by the rest of the aristocracy was enough for admittance (23). Members of the clarrisimus were wealthy, powerful, and influential people not typically led but rather leaders.
Among the aristocracy, family and friends were considered social resources to be utilized.
The picture Salzman paints is one of a functional patron'client, "good ol' boy," networking system wherein most of the members try to do well by the community they serve. Public offices were frequently a source of patronage, but there was a need to put men of talent into these offices: the more senior public offices had real power and responsibility: both judicial and administrative. A man's performance in office reflected on his patron; hence, a man who performed his job honorably reflected well on his patron, and the man who failed tarnished the reputation of the man who had recommended him. More minor positions controlled the giving of games. Philanthropic civic functionaries were good for the gods, the state, and spurred positive competition among the aristocrats. The honors and awards the aristocrats reaped were secondary to doing their jobs spectacularly well.
Salzman states that the senatorial aristocracy was central to Roman conversion to Christianity, but: "The message of Christianity'its ideological content'would not have been enough by itself to make a Christian aristocracy. The aristocrats had an economic and social investment in pagan theology that Christianity had to over-come. Theological and psychological motives used to explain conversion from pagan polytheism to monotheistic Christianity are insufficient. Rather, Christianity, as it emerged in it various fourth-century forms, must be understood in part as a response to aristocratic concerns with status and the traditional prerogatives of noble birth" (18).
There was no separation of the religious from the secular, and Christianity and polytheism coexisted for centuries in the late Roman period. "[M]en who held high state office also held the most important priesthoods in the pagan state cults" (2). Such men pursued enhanced social position, status, and power where they could. Priesthoods, either pagan or Christian, gave the aristocracy a stage upon which to ostentatiously display their wealth. The single largest expense an aristocrat might incur was related to holding or attempting to acquire public office. This was an ambition that required hosting public games. Games were state affairs, but many, for the sake of ostentatiousness, would augment the financing with funds from their own purse. One aristocrat, Symmachus, is cited for spending some 2,000 lbs. of gold for games given in his son's name. Another aristocrat reportedly spent 4,000 lbs. of gold for games.
"Geographic origins comprised much of an aristocrat's religious and social experience" (73). Salzman finds there was a resistant core faction of the aristocracy deriving from traditional stock of the aristocracy in Rome and Italy that were pagan and remained pagan until the end of the fourth century. Senators residing in Rome and in Italy had greater independence than did the provincials. The provincials were more dependent on imperial approval for all of their acts; hence, their conversion to Christianity happened earlier than in Rome. By the end of the fourth century, new ascendants to the aristocracy, both Roman and provincial, were more likely to be Christians. Christianity necessarily had to acquire status within the Roman community before it would be accepted by those who had status. The provincials "transformed Christianity to conform to existing `aristocratic ideologies of prestige"' (89). Constantine's conversion and subsequent endorsement of Christianity as a state religion was also a part of this process.
Salzman points out that the Roman Senate had limited political power after Constantine. It was not required that imperial policy be approved by the senate by way of a formal vote, nor did the senate generally advance on its own initiative any imperial policy. Emperors consulted with the senate more as a matter of tradition, and placatory respect, than from any constitutional necessity. Rome remained the center of the Roman world until the sixth century-long after the imperial seat was removed from Rome by Constantine.
Salzman also discusses the role of women in this transformation. She believes that the role of aristocratic women in Roman conversion to Christianity has been over emphasized. She states that her analysis of the evidence does not support the theory that women were the principal impetus behind conversion. A woman's status position was too closely linked with that of her family. "The dominant role of the father in the life of the family extended as well to the religious activities of the children. Thus it would be through the father-and not the mother-that one would expect religious change to occur among the aristocracy" (155). Christian women might have been able to influence daughters in religious choice but not husbands and sons. Constantine, according to Salzman, followed in his father's wake; it was his father who first converted to Christianity, and despite contrary stories, it was his father who converted his mother, Helena, to Christianity.
Salzman believes that the church itself was against employing women as teachers because it was not thought to be proper and appeared unseemly. Salzman writes::
"When women were prominent in theological issues, the groups with which they were involved were often branded as heretical, and the dominant role of women in them was frequently used as a criticism since it was widely believed that `women are naturally more credulous than men, and that it is quite improper for them to be in authority"' (161).
Even after Christianity was sanctified by the emperor, Christian converts were still beset with problems. Public office holders were expected to fund and perform, as part of their civic administrative duties, pagan sacrificial rites: a loathsome task that repelled many Christians. In 341, public sacrifices were outlawed making public office more amicable for Christians. In 382, emperor Gratian confiscated certain monies set aside for pagan ceremonies. He also directed that an altar to Victory be removed from the senate, despite vehement protests. Exemptions from mandatory public service for being a priest of pagan rites were also removed. Emperor Valentinian II reiterated Gratian's directives during his reign. Theodosius also enacted stringent anti-pagan laws during his reign. A greater number of Roman aristocratic conversions are statistically apparent between 390 and 415. Imperial favor rewarded the ambitious men who were willing to convert, and imperial disfavor stifled those who maintained their pagan beliefs.
Religion was not the sole factor in Constantine's (nor any subsequent emperor's) selection of office holders. The aristocratic families in Rome had ancient ties and traditions that emperors needed to rule effectively; thus, Constantine chose some of these as well as his own favorites. Salzman states that honor was also important to the emperors; after all, they too were aristocrats. Christian emperors appointed prestigious pagan aristocrats to offices; their status reflected well on them. Military appointments in particular were based on talent and not religion.
Circa 382, Gratian renounced the title of `pontifex maximus': chief priest of the pagan religions of Rome. Through laws the emperors imbued the Christian church with exemptions, privileges, honors, and prestige that rivaled that of the pagan cults. This made Christianity attractive to the aristocrats and fit well into the aristocratic value system. Once Christianity enjoyed all of the amenities historically proffered to pagan cults, laws were passed circumscribing the activities, exemptions, and honors of the pagan cults. Often emperors were hesitant and legislated behavioral change only after it was de facto in effect. "[E]mperors could not do as they pleased. They were constrained by political exigencies, social relations, and, above all, by the norms of aristocratic status culture" (197). Emperors showed "how it was possible to be Christian even as they remained prestigious members of the aristocracy" (199).
Salzman concludes her book by recounting how the church accommodated the wealthy aristocracy. It afforded them prestigious offices equal to their status. It promoted salvation through charitable "works;" in essence justifying the excess wealth these people possessed. Once the church had configured itself and concepts, e.g., `nobilitas', in ways rivaling old pagan institutions and ideas, conversion became more amicable for the aristocracy, and the transformation of the pagan-Roman world to a Christian empire was expedited.
This book has a somewhat muddled beginning, and it is very narrow in its concept. Never-the-less, Michele R. Salzman presents new insights into how the Roman empire transformed from paganism to Christianity. I would recommend her book with qualification.