Christianity, Empire, and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity

In Christianity, Empire, and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity, Jeremy M. Schott examines the ways in which conflicts between Christian and pagan intellectuals over religious, ethnic, and cultural identity contributed to the transformation of Roman imperial rhetoric and ideology in the early fourth century C.E.

Christianity, Empire, and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity

Jeremy M. Schott

2008 | 272 pages | Cloth $65.00
History | Religion
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Identity Politics in the Later Roman Empire
Chapter 1. Philosophers, Apologists, and Empire
Chapter 2. Porphyry on Greeks, Christians, and Others
Chapter 3. Vera Religio and Falsae Religiones: Lactantius's Divine Institutes
Chapter 4. What Difference Does an Emperor Make? Apologetics and Imperial Ideology in Constantine's Oration to the Saints and Imperial Letters
Chapter 5. From Hebrew Wisdom to Christian Hegemony: Eusebius of Caesarea's Apologetics and Panegyrics
Epilogue: Empire's Palimpsest

Appendix: Porphyry's Polemics and the Great Persecution

List of Abbreviations
Notes
Bibliography
Index
Acknowledgments


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

INTRODUCTION:
IDENTITY POLITICS IN THE LATER ROMAN EMPIRE

In 299 C.E. things were going well for Diocletian. His political experiment in tetrarchy had paid off. Maximian and Constantius I had defeated the usurper Carausius in Gaul and Britain. Meanwhile, Diocletian's Caesar, Galerius, had defeated the Persians and concluded a treaty that promised to secure the eastern borders. A pious man, Diocletian attended auguries following his recent successes. These sacrifices did not go as planned. Despite repeated attempts, the haruspices were unable to read the entrails of the sacrificial victims. Somehow, "either by suspicion of by seeing it himself," the chief haruspex identified the problem: "profane people"—the Christians—were interfering with the rites. Diocletian required members of his court and his army to perform a traditional sacrifice; surely this would weed-out, or reform, anyone so impious as to disturb the traditional religion of the court. And so the matter stood, until the winter of 302-303, when, according to the Christian apologist Lactantius, Diocletian and Galerius summoned "judges . . . and some military leaders who held superior rank," as well as some "friends" of the Emperor to court. According to the Christian apologist Lactantius, the decision to initiate the Great Persecution came only after a series of consultations and conferences with various advisors. During the winter of 302-303, Diocletian's advisors recommended that the Christians "as enemies of the gods and hostile to traditional religion, ought to be done away with." By the end of February 303, the Great Persecution was on.

To an empire in control of vast territory and diverse peoples, the Christians could appear threatening—they refused to participate in imperial cult, rejected public amusements, were wary of public office, and were openly critical of traditional religions. Yet, while they seemed almost completely antithetical to Rome, Christians could also appear very Roman. Many Christians spoke and thought in Greek and Latin, the two imperial koinai, shared the same civic spaces, and even espoused, at least ostensibly, the same desire for the preservation of the empire. Christians could speak of themselves as Romans. The scholar and bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, who had witnessed the martyrdoms of many friends during the Great Persecution, identified the confusion that lay at the heart of anti-Christian sentiment. "In all likelihood," Eusebius reflected, "someone may ask who we are . . . that is, whether we are Greeks or barbarians, or what might there be in-between these?" How appropriate then, that the edict initiating the Great Persecution should have been promulgated in the day of the Terminalia, a festival celebrating boundaries and limits.

Long before Diocletian's edicts, however, earlier persecutions had served as crucibles in which Christians negotiated their identity. Under examination by the Roman proconsul, for instance, the African martyr Vestia's only reply was her two-word confession, Christiana sum. The narratives of many early martyr acts hinge on similarly succinct declarations of identity. Indeed, many ancient Christians (as well as modern scholars) claim that the taxonomic classification "Christian" was the central legal grounds for the pronouncement of capital sentences. Despite the clarity with which martyrs declared their identity as "Christians," the meaning of the label often remained unclear to those who passed sentence. When Pliny, the Roman governor of Bithynia, for instance, found himself presiding over trials of Christians he had to ask Trajan for clarification as to "whether the name "Christian" in itself . . . or the crimes associated with the name ought to be punished."

Martyrdom represented a dramatic and visceral means of establishing one's identity, but a less bloody, though no less agonistic, means of self-definition lay in the composition of literary treatises, or "apologies," in defense of Christianity. The work of Christian apologists was twofold, defining and defending Christianity, on the one hand, and attacking traditional religions, on the other. Beginning in the first century, Christians grappled to fix the boundaries between themselves and others. Paul's letters show him wrestling to define himself in relation to Jews and Greeks, while the author of Acts also presents apologetics as a central component of Paul's mission to the gentiles. Paul's arguments with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in the Athenian agora and his speech in the Areopagus are often considered the first Christian apologies. By the mid-second century, a number of writers began authoring full-scale apologies for Christianity. Some, such as Quadratus, Aristides, Justin, Athenagoras, and Theophilus, in Greek and Tertullian, in Latin, addressed themselves to Roman emperors or other imperial officials in the hope that reasoned defenses might dissuade them from persecution. Others, such as Tatian and later, Clement of Alexandria, wrote more generally to the "Greeks" in efforts to explicate Christianity and prove its superiority over other traditions in the Greco-Roman world. According to Eusebius, apologetics served as a defensive weapon in the conflict with the persecutors. Eusebius's evaluation of the early apologists has influenced modern definitions of apologetic literature. Frances Young, for instance, stresses what she sees as the inherently defensive character of apologetics. Jean-Claude Fredouille considers the anti-Christian slanders of pagan critics as the main motivation for apologetics. For Michael Fiedrowicz, "apologetic literature originated in the life of the early Church out of the experience of contrast and confrontation."

While many characterize apologetics as a defensive response to the anti-Christian offensive of persecutors and critics, others stress the aggressive aspect of the genre. The vitriol of the apologists' critiques of traditional religion and society in these ostensibly defensive pieces is striking and leaves one to consider the extent to which Christian apologetics prompted anti-Christian sentiment. Others stress the constructive aspect of apologetics as an effective tool for conversion. For Robert Grant, apologetics is a matter of cultural translation. Apologists explained their scriptures in terms of the categories of pagan mythology, their god in terms of Greco-Roman theological categories, and their cosmology, anthropology, and soteriology in terms of Greco-Roman philosophy. This process of cultural translation cut both ways. If apologetics was the conduit through which Christianity was made intelligible to the Greco-Roman majority, many argue, it was also the door through which Greco-Roman philosophy entered Christianity. To some, this represents an "acute Hellenization" of Christian theology. For others, apologetics is a catalyst by which the base elements of pagan culture and philosophy were transmuted into Christian gold.

Histories of apologetic literature are also replete with the rhetoric of territorial conquest and expansion. Edward Gibbon, for instance, described Christianity as a "republic which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman empire" and consequently portrayed the interactions between Christians and others as a war between sovereign states. Gibbon began what would become a nearly dogmatic practice of describing Christianization as an inevitable, if sometimes glacial, accretion of provinces. Over a century after the publication of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Adolf von Harnack presented a similarly triumphalist account of Christianization in his The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries. As this title suggests, Harnack, like Gibbon, perceived the growth of Christianity as something territorial. Harnack did not stop at recounting the spread of Christianity in terms of geographic territory; he also gauged Christianity's conquest of various segments of society: the wealthy, the court, the military, and women. A territorial framework continues to underlie many recent surveys of the history of Christianity and lies behind the traditional division of the subfields of early Christian studies (Patristics) into Greek, Latin, and "Oriental."

In familiar narratives of the history of Christianity, this battle between Christianity and paganism for geographic and cognitive territory reaches its climax in the Great Persecution and its dénouement in Constantine's victory over the persecutors. If the Christians had confounded the identity politics of the Empire at the opening of the fourth century, Constantine represented a triumphant and univocal Christianity that stood in stark contrast to a defeated and discredited paganism. Before Constantine's rise to power, Christians had been a persecuted minority under Roman rule. After Constantine's victories, a Christian held sole rule of the empire. How are we to understand this transformation? Robert Markus observes that "the image of a society neatly divided into 'Christian' and 'pagan' is the creation of late fourth-century Christians, and has been taken at face value by modern historians," but in what ways was this discursive Christian/pagan difference produced.

The battles of the Milvian Bridge and Chrysopolis decided who would wear the purple, but the rise of a specifically Christian form of Roman imperialism was not simply a function of military victories. Because imperial hegemony depends on the construction of difference, it is never based on force alone. Rebellions can be put-down and usurpers crushed, but the lion's share of imperialism is rhetorical. Military might cannot successfully maintain empire without a rhetoric of imperial ideology that makes differences between rulers and those they rule seem natural. The formation of Christian identity, therefore, cannot be fully understood apart from the broader politics of ethnic and cultural identity engendered by Roman imperialism. In contrast to traditional narratives which assume the explanatory power of categories like "Christian" and "pagan" or "monotheism" and "polytheism," however, this book suspends such static, essentializing conceptualizations of religious identity in order to investigate the processes through which Christian and pagan identities were constructed by Christian apologists and pagan polemicists in the early fourth century. Situating Christian apologetics within the contexts of imperial power and subjugation reveals the fluidity and complexity of identity formation in the late ancient world. This fluidity should not be taken to imply that identity formation was an irenic process. Quite the contrary. For the Christian apologists and pagan polemicists who are the subjects of this book, identity politics—the often tortured game of establishing oneself or others as Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Jewish, Christian, and so forth—had very tangible, and sometimes violent, material consequences.

As an effective means of establishing and contesting identity, moreover, apologetics also offered a means of accessing and/or subverting power and privilege. Of course, the agonistic process of crafting paganism and Christianity began long before the age of Diocletian and Constantine. Nevertheless, the polemical exchanges that accompanied and immediately followed the Great Persecution mark a crucial moment in this process. By situating apologetic discourse in the context of Roman imperialism, I contend, we can understand more fully the ways in which these conflicts between pagan and Christian intellectuals proved instrumental in the production of Christian identity, and in turn, the construction of a specifically Christian imperial ideology.

LATE ANCIENT IDENTITIES: ETHNIC, CULTURAL, AND RELIGIOUS

What do the terms "Christian" and "Christianity" identify? Are ancient Christians best thought of as a belonging to a "religion?" Or, did Christians represent a distinct ethnic or cultural group, a "third race," as some early Christian texts appear to intimate? What distinguished Christianity (Christianismos) from other morphologically similar terms, such as Hellenism, or Platonism? The study of identity and identity formation in antiquity is freighted with the modern valences of terms such as "race," "nation," "ethnicity," and "culture." Despite the lack of a clear point-for-point correspondence between ancient and modern vocabularies, however, as Clifford Geary argues, "It's no use trying to invent new terms for past social groups: We are stuck with the vocabulary we have inherited."

In modern usage, the term "ethnicity" designates a "composite of shared values, beliefs, norms, tastes, behaviors, experiences, consciousness of kind, memories and loyalties." A definition of "culture" might be equally broad. The main difference between ethnicity and culture, however, is that "ethnicity" has biological and/or geographical valences that "culture" often does not. Ethnic identities are understood to be inborn—an indelible, physical mark. While ethnicity is often used in contemporary contexts as a positive expression of self-identity in contrast to "race," marginalizing connotations are never far below the surface. Ethnic groups often become visible as minorities within dominant societal groups; hence the prevalence of hyphenate identities (African-American, Hispanic-American, Polish-American, and so forth) in the United States. The second element of each hyphenate contains, controls, and otherwise ameliorates the distinctiveness of each ethnic modifier. "Culture," in contrast, is not considered geographically bound or biologically determined. One may become "acculturated"; that is, one may access a new cultural identity through various performances, such as learning a particular koiné (such as American English) and participating in certain ideological expressions (such as "being patriotic"). If ethnicity is considered inherited, culture is perceived as to some extent elective. One may opt-in or opt-out of a given culture. At the same time, there is a hierarchical relationship between culture and ethnicity. Hence "culture" often designates a privileged set of literary, artistic, and intellectual formations, while "ethnicity," in contrast, is marginalized as a flavorful curiosity. To use a gastronomic metaphor, the distinction between "culture" and "ethnicity" is well illustrated by the difference between the "ethnic food" available in a Chinatown or Little Italy and the haute cuisine enjoyed by cultured elites in the city center.

People in the ancient world made differentiations of identity along lines similar to the modern difference between "culture" and "ethnicity." The English "ethnic" and its derivatives come from the Greek ethnos. The term ethnos is inextricably connected to ancient traditions of ethnography inaugurated by Herodotus, in which the world was thought to be composed of various ethné, each with its distinctive characteristics. In the ethnographic imagination of classical Greece, particularly Herodotus, for instance, peoples are defined especially by geography, language, and descent from common ancestors.

While Greek did not have a term that corresponds exactly with the English "culture," the term paideia approximates it. Often translated as "education," paideia refers simultaneously to the act and content of education, and may best be rendered "acculturation." The signs of paideia, like the modern "culture," are performative: one must learn and practice proper grammar, skillful rhetoric, and philosophy to become a "cultured" member of society. Paideia was, theoretically, elective; no matter one's ethnos, one could "become Greek" by acculturating oneself through rigorous education and the mimetic practice of Greekness via writing, declamation, and other performances.

Jewish identity, like Greekness, was a fluid category. Late ancient Jews, for example, understood themselves in terms of many of the same ethnological categories as other contemporary groups. The Greek Ioudaios and the Latin Iudaeus designated an ethnos—a people sharing a language and a native land (Ioudaia/Judaea)—and was analogous to "Greek," "Cappadocian," Egyptian," and so forth. Like these other ethnological categories, however, Ioudaios could also mark sets of practices that individuals could choose to adopt to varying degrees (that is, by "Judaizing" [ioudaïzein]), whether or not they had been born with Jewish "blood." The principal ethnological schema of the Hebrew Bible, moreover, is the difference between the people of Israel (am) and all other peoples (goyim). The Septuagint renders "goyim" as ta ethné, while Jerome's Vulgate has gentes. For Jewish and Christian readers, of course, the signifiers ethné and gentes functioned within specific soteriological and theological discourses (easily connoted in English translation when rendered as "gentiles"). As we will see in the chapters that follow, when thus translated (and read by Jews, Christians, as well as their critics), this Biblical terminology was not fundamentally different from and easily dovetailed with broader late ancient discourses of ethnography and universal historiography.

"Constitutional" Roman identity also stood in dynamic tension with ethnic and cultural identity in the Roman world. Romans could define themselves as a people resulting from "a continuous process of political amalgamation." Rome, according to Livy and Virgil, had been founded by a blending of heterogeneous peoples: Trojan, Latin, Sabine, and so forth. Roman citizenship was defined by adherence to common laws and participation in common government. As such it was, theoretically at least, open to all regardless of ethnic origins. Before Caracalla's grant of citizenship to all free residents of the Empire in 212 C.E., grants of citizenship were a means of establishing ties of loyalty with provincial elites and investing them in Roman interests. For some provincials, then, Roman citizenship represented a "transnational" identity—in the sense that it cut across individuals and populations from different ethnē/nationes. Citizenship also conveyed certain legal privileges: lighter sentences, for example, and for those in the provinces, the ability to circumvent local judicial systems. With the Constitutio Antoniana of 212 C.E., Caracalla enfranchised all free residents of the empire. What prompted Caracalla's edict is hard to tell precisely. He may have been seeking to extend the tax base. Others have suggested piety as Caracalla's motivation. As Clifford Ando puts it, the emperor may have wished "to lead the people of the empire in a unanimous display of consensual piety, and believing that the populus of the empire was most properly constituted by its citizen body, Caracalla granted citizenship to all its residents." By the early third century, there had already been a "decline in the value of citizenship"; although citizenship continued to convey certain legal privileges, in actual practice, however, other marks of status (like wealth and political influence) were more likely than citizenship to get one preferential treatment. The edict had the effect not so much of devaluing Roman citizenship as of marking a re-valuation of Romanness. Caracalla's edict can be seen as a legislative expression of a phenomenon that was already, or well on the way to becoming, a reality—the implication (in different ways and to different degrees) of most (free) residents of the Empire in a shared "transnational" identification with Rome.

Whether or not we can discern "religious" identities as distinct from ethno-cultural, civic, or "constitutional" identities in antiquity is a difficult question, not least because many practices and discourses that stand out to moderns as "religious" were not readily distinguished from other marks of belonging in the ancient world. The myriad Greek and Latin terms— such as eusebeia, pietas, religio, or thrēskeia—that are often rendered as "religion" in when translated for modern readers served as key markers of ethnic and civic belonging. Thus, to be a Jew, Egyptian, or Greek, an Antiochene, Athenian, or Roman was to practice the traditional rites of one's ancestors. Other discursive forms—such as philosophy—that moderns might identify as "religious" or related to "religion" offered other modes of identification and belonging. While the terminology of ancient philosophical circles and other voluntary associations (such as collegium, secta, factio, philosophia, hairesis, and so forth) do not mark the difference between beliefs and practices so characteristic of modern constructions of religion as "belief systems" (to be a philosopher was to cultivate a specific mode of life, for instance), they do indicate modes of identification and belonging that were to a significant extent elective rather than "native."

In addition to shifting inquiry away from the purely taxonomic definition of categories and towards the processes of identity formation, scholars such as Denise Kimber Buell and Aaron Johnson have also questioned the value of drawing hard and fast distinctions between constructions of ethnic and cultural identity, on the one hand, and religious identity, on the other, in the study of ancient Christianity. Christians, they contend, do not mean something other than "ethnicity" when deploying terms like gens, ethnos, or natio to describe Christians and Christianity. Rather, it may be more helpful to examine the ways in which ancient Christians deployed this vocabulary to negotiate their identity in the context of contemporary ethno-cultural discourses.

While Christians did, as Buell and Johnson have argued, use the ancient vocabulary of ethnicity as a vocabulary of ethnicity, they, like their non-Christian contemporaries, were simultaneously immersed in discursive traditions that sought to privilege the univocity of a unitary, "spiritual," transcendent reality and denigrate difference. Thus a second-century Platonic "handbook" defines philosophy as "a striving for wisdom, or the freeing and turning around of the soul from the body, when we turn towards the intelligible and what truly is." Through their figurative reading practices, Christian, Jewish, and pagan exegetes split the letter and the spirit of texts, elevating the latter as transcendent signified and casting aside the former as mere signifier. Late ancient intellectuals also deployed history and ethnography to craft accounts of ethnic/religious origins in which the different cultural expressions of the world's diverse peoples were understood as the products of human history, rather than as preexistent, timeless givens. Similarly, the many gods and various cultic systems of the world's many peoples were the products of decline, decadence, and conflict within human civilization. Christianity (or, depending on one's allegiances, Judaism or Hellenism) in stark contrast, was understood to be timeless and superior because it was not a product of civilization, but a-cultural and inherently non-ethnic. Many late ancient Christians, for instance, thought of themselves as a people united by their transcendence of ethnic identity; as the author of the letter to the Colossians put it, "There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian or Scythian, but Christ is all in all."

My examination of the production of "Christian" and "pagan" identities participates in a broad trend away from conceptualizations of identity as fixed and determinative, and towards the recognition of identity as the product of constant negotiation and re-negotiation. As Denise Kimber Buell has demonstrated, "the dynamic interplay between fixity and fluidity," rather than empirical relationships of kinship and descent, is the constitutive feature of ethnic identity. Constructions of ethnic identity, like cultural, constitutional, and religious identities, emerge out of the crucible of social conflict and competition. Ultimately, then, the meaning of ethno-cultural terms in ancient texts is situational; that is, their meaning depends more on the specific political situation of a given text than on fixed lexicographical dicta. In much the same way as the unity and permanence of identity is constantly negotiated and renegotiated in contemporary contexts, the ancient world offered a "moveable feast" in which identity was always in process. In light of this fluidity, I do not use one consistent English term to translate Greek and Latin terms such as gens, natio, or ethnos, but construe each instance ad sensu depending on context. Neither do I attempt to synthesize a rigid dichotomy between ethnic, cultural, or religious identities, preferring instead to highlight the inherent elasticity of the ancient vocabulary. This approach will help to bring into better relief conflicts, contradictions, and ambivalences that might otherwise be obfuscated by a synthetic over-schematization. Reading the production of Christian and pagan identities in terms of broader discourses of ethnicity and universalism, rather than as purely religious or philosophical debates, de-centers the a priori explanatory power often accorded to "religion" in studies of the ancient world. Finally, if discourses of ethnicity function strategically within specific political contexts, a more complete understanding of ancient identity politics also requires a theoretical orientation that pays particular attention to the realities of imperial domination and subjugation in which late ancient Christians and pagans lived.

APPROACHING ROMAN IMPERIALISM

The theoretical bases of my approach to Roman imperialism lie in the insights of postcolonial theory and postcolonial discourse analysis. Because it insists that identities are produced and deployed in the context of imperial systems of power and control, postcolonial discourse analysis offers a particularly useful theoretical basis for the study of identity in the Roman Empire. Not satisfied merely to analyze imperial systems of domination, many postcolonial theorists argue for an organic connection between the lived realities of subjugation and resistance and the production of theory, and self-consciously take a theoretical position actively interested and invested in pointing out ways in which such systems have been or may be subverted and resisted. Some scholars, however, have questioned the applicability of postcolonial theory to pre-modern contexts, contending that the discursive formations of nineteenth- and twentieth-century imperialisms—especially the particular racial theories and economic systems employed by European colonialists—did not obtain in pre-modern contexts. Some Roman historians, moreover, resist analogies between ancient Roman and modern European imperialisms on the grounds that Rome had no systematic mercantile or capitalistic interest in her territories. Despite such criticisms, in more recent years postcolonial theory, like feminist criticism and theory before it, has been applied beyond these original contexts to become a more broadly applicable form of discourse analysis.

While there may not be a point-for-point correspondence between pre-modern and modern varieties of imperialism, these forms of discourse analysis have been fruitfully applied in studies of pre-modern history. In particular, these theoretical models are a necessary corrective to studies of the Roman world that obscure or ignore the material consequences of domination. Rome, after all, conquered and controlled territory and people, established colonies, and controlled its subjects via provincial bureaucracies. The Roman Empire was a diverse place, but not an equal one. The right to rule was based on polarized differences between rulers and the ruled, between the metropolitan center and the provincial periphery. Consequently, establishing oneself or others as Greek, Roman, Egyptian, or Jewish was not an academic exercise. This was just as true under the Julio-Claudians of the first century as it was in the Flavian and Theodosian empire of the fourth century. On both sides of the "Constantinian divide," the game of empire continued to depend on the control of the ethnic and cultural diversity of the provinces. Familiar dichotomies between "civilized" and "savage," and "culture" and "barbarism" remained a critical component of Christian imperial ideology. Indeed, this book argues that the discourse of Christian imperialism was effective precisely because it developed out of, rather than erased, earlier imperial discourses.

There are several factors that recommend postcolonial theory for an analysis of the role of apologetic literature in the production of Christian imperialism. Although many apologies, written as open letters to Roman emperors or officials, speak quite directly to Roman power, scholars often situate apologetics as a genre belonging to the "religious" or "philosophical" spheres and disconnected from "unapologetic" political discourses. The apologists are often represented as working in an ivory tower, writing esoteric texts that never had an audience beyond other Christian intellectuals. By casting apologetics as a purely academic exercise, scholars marginalize apologetic literature and isolate it from "political" histories of the Roman Empire. It is more useful to see the boundaries between various discursive fields as fluid, or even illusory; fields as seemingly disparate as philosophy, politics, theology, ethnography, and history interact to produce regimes of knowledge and power.

If postcolonial theory can contribute to understandings of the ways in which academic discourses like apologetics are productive of hegemony, it also reveals instabilities within those systems of power and control. While Edward Said indicated the ways in which empires established hegemony by establishing knowledge about and power over their subjects, subsequent theorists have questioned histories of imperialism that overstate and polarize the rift between master and subject. The differences upon which hegemony depends are always unstable and must be constantly rearticulated and reestablished. In this view, the distinction between metropolis and province is a chimera and imperial territory a constantly shifting desert that needs to be repeatedly reclaimed through acts of differentiation. The game of identity politics does not play out on a clearly demarcated field, but within the fissures, gaps, and chasms of imperial discourse.

* * * * *

The arrangement of this book is diachronic. I begin in the contested, interstitial spaces between philosophical paganism and Christianity. Chapter 1 opens with a consideration of the ways in which Greek philosophers living in the Roman Empire (especially the later Stoics Posidonius and Cornutus and the Platonists Plutarch, Numenius) deployed the disciplines of ethnography, universal history, and allegorical reading to engage in comparative studies of the sacred texts, iconographies, and ritual practices of "barbarians." Through these comparative projects, intellectuals sought to distill a universal philosophy that transcended ethnic and cultural specificity. The quest for an ecumenical philosophy, however, was not a purely objective intellectual pursuit or a pluralistic venture in cultural appreciation, but a politically interested enterprise. Much as the Roman Empire viewed its provinces as resources ripe for exploitation, philosophers' cross-cultural research served as a means to extract valuable resources from native sources. As an intellectual practice that closely paralleled the relationship between Rome and her provinces, therefore, philosophy was simultaneously a potent discourse of social power and privilege.

The second portion of Chapter 1 examines the ways in which two second-century Christian intellectuals—Justin Martyr and Tatian—imitated and manipulated the cross-cultural practices current among late-ancient philosophers. Where Greek intellectuals centered their ecumenical philosophy around a thoroughly Greek center of gravity, Christian apologists centered their intellectual peregrinations around a set of confessedly "barbarian" texts—the Hebrew scriptures. This disruptive mimesis of late ancient philosophical practice served to destabilize Greek philosophical identity and subvert the always tenuous distinctions between center and periphery upon which Roman imperial ideology depended. I conclude by examining the Platonist Celsus's response to Christianity, On the True Logos, as a reactionary treatise that struggles to reassert Greek cultural privilege and the imperial status quo in light of the Christian threat.

In Chapter 2, I turn to the crises of the turn of the fourth century. Here I examine the anti-Christian polemics of the Platonist Porphyry of Tyre, as represented by the extant fragments of his Against the Christians and On Philosophy from Oracles. Porphyry's interpretive strategies were integrally related to the way in which this Syrian provincial constructed his own identity as a Greek philosopher. The Christian mimesis of Porphyry's interpretive practices, I argue, threatened the stability of the difference between province/metropolis and subjugation/privilege upon which Porphyry's own self-identity depended. Porphyry became an unlikely bedfellow of the persecutors in his efforts to contain the threat Christianity posed to the privilege he enjoyed as a Greek philosopher in the Roman Empire.

Chapter 3 considers the Latin apologist Lactantius's Divine Institutes as a response to Porphyry's polemics. Lactantius imitated Porphyry's own hermeneutical approach to sacred texts to position Christianity as the universal philosophy. In the course of responding to Porphyry, moreover, Lactantius crafted a history of religions and a new imperial geography in which a theological difference between monotheism and polytheism emerges as the central marker of ethnic and cultural distinction. Finally, I consider the ways in which Lactantius subsequently edited the Divine Institutes after Constantine's victories, thus lending a new, imperial, timbre to his historical geography, in which a univocal Christianity (or "true religion" [vera religio], as Lactantius terms it) enjoyed privilege of place over and against the error-ridden religious plurality ("false religions" [falsae religiones]) of the world's diverse peoples.

Chapter 4 focuses on Constantine's Oration to the Saints and imperial letters as fruitful sites in which to explore cross-fertilizations of apologetic discourse and imperial power. Drawing on the rhetoric of earlier apologists, especially Lactantius, Constantine fashioned an imperial ideology that was based on differences between Christianity and the ancestral traditions of the peoples that comprised the empire. Constantine blamed the Great Persecution and the civil wars that followed on irrational devotion to ancestral traditions and portrayed his own reign as a necessary corrective to ancestral error. By deploying apologetic arguments in tandem with strategic material demonstrations of imperial power, moreover, Constantine contributed to the formation of a discourse about traditional religions that correlated with the categories "idolatry" and "polytheism" deployed by Christian apologists. Thus, during Constantine's reign, certain aspects of traditional cult, such as sacrifice and statuary, became visible as a new category—idolatry—that required imperial supervision and correction.

The fifth and final chapter considers the relationship between Christian apologetics and imperial panegyric in the work of Eusebius of Caesarea. I argue that Eusebius's lengthy apologetic Preparation/Demonstration of the Gospel was goaded by the Great Persecution and Porphyry's attack on Christian identity. I explore Eusebius's complex intertext of universal history, ethnography, and biblical exegesis to craft a history of human civilization in which religious error and diversity figures as the central sign and symptom of ethnogenesis. After Constantine's assumption of sole rule in 324 C.E., however, Eusebius's historical narrative came to serve as the basis for an effective and durable rhetoric of Christian empire. Focusing on Eusebius's Life of Constantine and Tricennial Orations, I consider the ways in which Constantine's reign catalyzed the potential energy of Eusebius's apologetics into an effective and rhetoric of power and difference. As ancestral religions (cast now as "idolatry" and "polytheism") became objects of imperial supervision and control, I go on to argue, Eusebius's history of religions became a potent narrative of Christian manifest destiny, in which the civilizing power of the one true religion of the one true God was to be spread among all peoples, supplanting the barbarism of ancestral traditions. This new rhetoric did not succeed by displacing earlier rhetorics of difference, but rather by appropriating and recasting them. On both sides of the "Constantinian divide," I conclude, the need to conquer, restrain, and supervise ta ethné, "peoples," remained the central ideological basis for imperial rule of the Mediterranean.

Finally, I offer a brief Epilogue that considers the way that these new rhetorics of imperialism developed by Lactantius, Constantine, and Eusebius, grounded as they were in universalizing histories of religion and civilization, informed future conflicts and negotiations between pagans and Christians into the fourth century and well beyond. I also suggest some of the ways in which the histories of religion and comparative practices of Christian apologists served as models for early modern colonial encounters between European colonialists and conquered indigeneous peoples. If, as a number of contemporary scholars have noted, the category "religion" emerges largely as a product (and instrument) of the subjugation of native cultures by (Christian) European imperialism, then exploring the interrelationship between Christian apologetic discourse and Roman imperialism suggests that we might locate the seeds of this process in the early fourth century, as "religion" was emerging as both the primary marker of ethnic and cultural identity and the central basis for (Christian) Roman imperial power.