CUP (2020) h/b 432pp £90 (ISBN 9781108494908)

This splendid book is a detailed and scholarly riposte to some of the oversimplified views of religious violence—such as the idea (endorsed by Gibbon) that triumphalist Christians battered the old pagan gods and temples into the dust in a frenzy of philistine fervour, and that polytheistic religions tend to be more tolerant than their monotheistic rivals. This book is also timely in the wake of 9/11, and the seventeen scholars here work hard to contextualise and understand the links between faith and violence.

The first part sets out the book’s methodology, and the opening chapter takes us straight into a lucid and illuminating discussion of 9/11, the Middle-East conflict and the ongoing war against terror: Hans Kippenberg questions the simple equation of religion and violence with a convincing sociological analysis of religious communities. The second chapter (by Jan Bremmer) then goes back to the ancient world and concentrates on Socrates and Phryne as test-cases. His theses can at times sound bland (e.g. ‘Ancient Athens was a fairly tolerant community’ [p.66]) but they certainly help to focus the mind at key stages of the argument. Bremmer looks at the evidence for violence against Christians (such as persecutions) and also violence by Christians towards pagan temples such as the Marneion in Gaza, and in all these cases he shows where the details are suspect (such as the amazing prophetic polyglot seven-year-old boy telling the faithful to burn the temple in Mark the Deacon’s Life of Porphyry) and where we are on firmer ground, as in the case of the persecution of Diocletian in the 4th century. He also admits that the religious feelings of individuals can affect their account of events, and draws the only safe conclusion (p.68): ‘in Antiquity not all religious violence was that religious and not all religious violence that violent.’

The second major section of the book examines religious violence in the Graeco-Roman world. Esther Eidinow widens the scope considerably with a fascinating article about ancient Greek ‘binding’ spells— a good way to damage one’s competitors in the market-place, or to nobble judges in the courts (pp. 72-4) and in some ways the ancient equivalent of the hostile Google review or the online troll. The religious angle is present in cases of gods inflicting madness on their enemies, and here this reader would like to have seen at least a mention of the ‘binding’ song in Aeschylus Eumenides (299-396). Christian Raschle examines the notion that polytheists were more tolerant than monotheists in ancient Rome and shows that things are not so simple. Religious mores were part of the social order and, once Rome incorporated foreign peoples into her empire, their gods (such as the Magna Mater [Cybele]) tended to come with them (p. 89): but the Romans soon found that Cybele brought with her some unattractive practices (such as the self-castrating priests) and so found themselves in a dilemma which was sharpened when the senate decided to ban the Bacchanalia in 186 BC for its ‘anti-Roman’ ambience. The polytheistic state was (in short) more than happy to intervene in private religious worship if it felt it to be politically advisable.

The best case of this tension at work was Egypt and the cult of Isis and Serapis. Egypt was massively useful to Rome but her gods were (to them) silly animal-headed beings which no decent Roman should worship—even Virgil put the boot in to the ‘barking’ god Anubis (Aeneid 8.698)—and when Antony took up with Cleopatra his opponents in Rome gave anti-Egyptian sentiment full rein. Once Egypt was absorbed into the empire, however, the cults of Isis and Serapis were allowed more freedom and any threat they posed was watered down by their naturalisation into Roman society. New gods could be useful—such as Asclepius who was brought into Rome in the aftermath of an epidemic—but astrology was outlawed under the principate to prevent people trying to find out when the emperor would die.

Moving away from the city of Rome, Steve Mason looks at the two simultaneous massacres in AD 66 in Jerusalem and Caesarea—one of Roman forces by Judaean militants in Jerusalem and the other of 20,000 Judaeans by Greco-Syrian forces. The stereotype has it that Romans only killed for personal or political reasons whereas Jews only killed for their religious beliefs: Mason shows that this is not adequate by examining in detail the text of Josephus who narrates the same events in two different books in very different ways. Apart from the interesting light this sheds on Josephus’ attitude to narrative, the upshot is that these conflicts were matters of social and political pride and principle and were not motivated by religious sentiment.

This position is then qualified by Andreas Bendlin who broadens the definition of violence to include cultural and structural forms of oppression—such as the hostile ethnography of the Jews in Tacitus (Histories 5) or the depiction of the conquered Jews as ‘barbarian other’ on Flavian coinage. The experience of the Jewish diaspora in southern Italy shows that the romanticised notion of Roman religious pluralism (as ‘a marketplace of religions’) was not the lived experience of Jewish people seeking to find acceptance. This topic of acceptance is taken further by James Rives who examines the impact of Decius’ decree in 249/50 enforcing animal sacrifice on all citizens—a practice which Christians could not undertake and which thus forced them to choose sides. Animal sacrifice had not been a deal-breaker in earlier times; Decius’ use of it as a litmus test seems to mark a shift in attitudes both of the Romans and of the Christians themselves.

The Great Persecution of 303-313 needs explanation and clarification in all this, and Erika Manders (with the help of some detailed diagrammatic illustrations [pp. 211-219]) uses coinage to show that the persecution was part of a new attempt to unify the empire by the tetrarchs. Once the emperor was Christian, of course, things changed: Elizabeth Depalma Digeser looks at the surprising way in which Constantine turned the Christian image overnight from that of a passive victim into that of a conquering hero of militant piety. Scriptural support was found from Revelation 19, and the emperor’s case was made for him largely by Lactantius, who rebranded the Christian martyr modelled on Christ crucified into the Christian avenger modelled on Christ’s victory over sin and death.

The third section of the book brings us into the world of late antiquity. Wendy Mayer contributes a wide-ranging discussion of the issues involved in our understanding of religious violence—whether it exists as a separate entity and the extent to which it becomes a ‘rhetorical and/or ideological construct’—while also assessing the degree to which our own assumptions affect the methods we use and the conclusions we draw.

Peter Van Nuffelen looks at Augustine, whose recommended use of coercion against the Donatists has been seen as a sign of a switch from tolerance to intolerance. Augustine clearly saw coercion as a form of ‘corrective’ treatment for the greater good, accepted in the sphere of law-making and assumed in ancient thought from Plato onwards: ‘in Antiquity virtue, not freedom, was the highest aspiration of humans’ (p. 285).

One of the best-known examples of religious violence was the destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria in AD 391-2, and Jitse Dijkstra subjects this incident to sociological and psychological analysis of crowd behaviour: he shows how Rufinus’ account of the escalation of violence fits well with other cases from ancient and more recent history.

Violence, then, is endemic in society. Monks, however, are surely immune from the urge to beat people up: their ascetic lifestyle, based on humility and tranquillity, should not readily lead to them becoming bovver-boys. Yet they did, and with some enthusiasm, as Fabrizio Vecoli and Chris de Wet show us in a superb pair of articles. The monks had some scriptural support in a partial reading of Matthew 11:12, and they also drew on the physical strength which their ascetic lifestyle inculcated. Chris de Wet shows how the use of this self-flagellating violence against other people was brought out in Theodoret’s Historia Religiosa of AD 440. Theodoret depicts monks in brutishly masculine terms—unkempt, slavish in appearance and existing on a minimal diet—with the aim of subduing the passions so that asceticism becomes a matter of dominance over demons and desires alike. Monks then applied their asceticism to others in the form of curses: the wanton girls, for example, whose hair was turned grey by James of Nisibis because he disapproved of their lack of modesty, or the disgusting demise of the gluttonous Arius (pp. 338-43). These cases show the corrective force of violence enacted against the wicked by the virtuous, and usually the curses show the power of the apparently weak ascetic over apparently dominant members of society.

Early Christian martyrs were executed by pagan emperors: but once the emperor himself became Christian, persecution moved to the suppression of rival Christian groups and above all centred on the conflict surrounding the Council of Chalcedon after 451—a council which cast a very long shadow and engaged with far more than merely theological disputes about the hypostatic union and the nature of Christ. Christine Shepardson begins this topic by showing us how the anti-Chalcedonian Christians were presented as ‘suffering saints’ in the tradition of the early martyrs, and Hugh Elton re-examines the revolt of Vitalian against the emperor Anastasius in AD 513-5. Vitalian was fighting for the soul of the Roman empire but his actions were rare in an age where soldiers swore an oath of loyalty to the emperor which usually trumped their religious allegiances. The final chapter by Geoffrey Greatrex looks at the Nika riot in 532 within the larger context of urban violence in late Antiquity in the Eastern end of the empire, whereby the growing power of the church on the one hand and the people on the other made the emperor’s power less and less secure. Emperors who sought to reconcile warring factions were confronted by the entrenched intransigence of the people involved, and religious conflict was a recurring flashpoint of social and political strife.

Books like this sometimes read like a disparate set of essays by a group of scholars who each plough their own furrow wearing noise-cancelling headphones. This one is different: the seventeen scholars here are like members of a string ensemble: they each play their own tune but they also listen to each other and so end up producing harmony as well as melody even where they disagree. The book ends with an index of sources and a general index (but no full bibliography): and the volume is impressively produced and proof-read throughout, with citations in footnotes (rather than end-notes) making the reading experience easy.

John Godwin