Transcript: Did the Roman Empire really wage a war against Christians and their God?

Dr. James Corke-Webster

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James Corke-Webster

Hi, I’m Dr James Corke-Webster. I’m a classicist and historian at King’s College London, and this is my Garden talk. Hello and welcome to The Garden.

Sophie Wawro

I’m Sophie of Afro, and I’ll be your guide for today’s Garden talk. Today. It’s my great pleasure to be joined by one of our all time favorite Garden Fellows Dr James Corke-Webster. James is a classicist and historian who focuses on the late antique and early Christian periods he studied and researched at some of the four most universities in the world, including Oxford, Cambridge and Berkeley and now King’s College, London.

It’s a pretty impressive resume. They This isn’t James First Rodeo at The Garden, and he’s already helped us dig into fascinating questions like whether Jesus received fan mail and what happened after the first Christmas. You can check out both of those talks in our library right now. And today James is back in The Garden to help us explore what really happened when it comes to the persecution of early Christians in the Roman Empire. James, it’s fantastic to have you back in The Garden. Welcome back.

James Corke-Webster

Thank you so much for having me back.

Sophie Wawro

James you’re here to dig into some popular misunderstandings about how the Roman Empire interacted with early Christians. Are there any other common misconceptions about the Romans that you’d like to clear up for us before we get started?

James Corke-Webster

There are many, many common misconceptions about the Romans, so maybe we can cover them in countless Garden talks to come. But perhaps the I guess the biggest and most famous myth of Rome is the fall of Rome, which is a lot of people.

Rome synonymous with its with its decline with its fall. The most famous work of Roman history ever written was Edward Gibbon’s history of the decline in the fall of the Roman Empire. In many ways, Roman history was born by an interest in figuring out why the Roman Empire fell by people that wanted to stop the British Empire falling or stop the kind of the age of the European Enlightenment coming to an end. But actually, I think you can make a good case that Rome didn’t fall didn’t fall in 476 when a lot of people talk about the kind of the end of the Western Roman empire. Didn’t fall, uh, in the centuries after that and arguably didn’t fall for a long, long time afterwards.

So maybe the biggest myth of Rome is the untimely rumours of its demise.

Sophie Wawro

So it’s fascinating. I want to dig into that now. We’ll definitely have to come back for that one in the future. Um, so with that cleared up, or at least the start of clearing it up, I’d love to hand over to Dr James Corke-Webster for his Garden talk on whether the Roman Empire really waged a war against Christians and their God.

James Corke-Webster

Thanks so much, Sophie. So one of the most famous images that we associate with early Christianity is the idea of early Christians thrown to the lion normally in the Coliseum, And this topic, the persecution of Christians.

The violence the Christians suffered at the hands of the Roman Empire is a topic that has been like a persistent thorn in the side of scholars. Over the years, scholars of all different types and calibres have returned to it early. Christian scholars, obviously, but Roman historians as well experts in theology experts in Roman law as well. They all keep coming back to this problem to try and figure out what really went on. And perhaps because of that, perhaps because it has provided some iconic images, it’s also a topic that has lived long in the popular memory.

There is arts from almost every period of Western history that has returned to this theme, and in the 20th century it became a hot topic in film. Perhaps the most famous, Um uh, or most iconic version of this is the film Quo Vardis some of you may have heard of, which is a very famous film directed by Mervyn Leroy, kind of one of the original, uh, of the Swords and Sandals Hollywood genre. It’s the film’s supposedly that inspired Ridley Scott to make Gladiator when he when he rehabilitated that genre in modern Hollywood.

And there’s a very famous scene in that film where the Christians are brought into the sands of the Coliseum and they’re huddled together in white robes, singing hymns together, looking up to the skies, and the lions are released from the side of the screen and tear towards the Christians who starts screaming as the Christians arrive. And then the camera pans to the bestial hoards of the Romans chanting from their seats and then, in particular to the imperial box where Peter Ustinov’s Nero is laughing maniacally away.

So you have this kind of binary image of pious Christians suffering down in the sand and the all powerful, mad, tyrannical emperor of the Roman world. He’s responsible for it, laughing away above them in his box. And in fact, the film was itself based on an earlier painting. And I think that really captures the way we’ve been taught to think about this historical episode. Um, and in fact, that way of thinking about the persecution as a binary between Christians on the one hand and Rome, on the other hand and as an antagonistic, binary and in particular as a war is, is an image that certainly persists today.

You only need to think about the references to a war on Christmas that you get every so often in some of the newspapers. But it also has a very long history and in fact goes back to antiquity itself, Um, and in particular to the first Christian historian, a man called Eusebius of Caesarea, who I’ve talked about in another Garden talk on the Abgar correspondence did ‘Jesus answer Fan mail’. Um, this guy is Eusebius was the first Christian historian writing in the early fourth century. It was the first person to really try and look back on the first three centuries of the Christian era.

So the period sort of, from the death of Jesus up to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, which is the sort of period in which this persecution occurred. And he very much buys into this narrative of a war. This is in many ways where it comes from, and I thought I’d I’d give you an example of this. So Eusebius says, for example, in the middle of his work, he says, other historians have confined themselves to the recording of victories in war and triumphs over enemies of the exploits of the commanders and heroism of their men, stained with the blood of the thousands they’ve slaughtered for the sake of Children and country and possessions.

But it’s peaceful wars fought for the very peace of the soul and men who in such wars have fought manfully for truth rather than for country for true religion rather than for their dear ones. that my account of God’s Commonwealth will inscribe on imperishable monuments. It’s the unshakable determination of the champions of true religion, their courage and endurance, their triumphs over demons and victories over invisible opponents. And the Crowns, which all this one for them at the last that it will make famous for all time.

And he’s talking there about martyrdom and about the martyrdom is that happened under emperors that he’s about to recount? So this is where we get the imagery of warfare, of sort of antagonistic battle. And in particular, it’s also Eusebius who has this idea of emperors in particular waging war on the Christians. So again to follow up the Quo Vadis example and the idea of Nero as a persecutor again. We owe this in many ways to Eusebius our friend, because when you see this introduces the Emperor Nero, he says.

"When Nero’s power was now firmly established, he gave himself up to unholy practises and took up arms against the God of the universe to describe the monster of depravity that he became lies outside the scope of the present work. Many writers have recorded the facts about him in minute detail enabling anyone who wishes to get a complete picture of his perverse and extraordinary madness, which led him to the senseless destruction of innumerable lives and drove him, in the end, to such a lust for blood.

He didn’t spare even his nearest and dearest, but employed a variety of methods to do to do away with mother brothers and wife alike, to say nothing of countless other members of his family as if they were personal and public enemies. All this left one crime still to be added to his account. He was the first of the emperors to be the declared enemy of the worship of Almighty God"

Eusebius, he really says, Look, we should think about persecution as a war and on the other side of this war from Christians, it’s emperors, and Nero was the first, and he goes on to identify various other emperors who coincide with the famous tyrants of Roman history, Nero commission, et cetera, that he claims as persecutors.

So this is where we get our image of a binary tension between church and state between Christianity and Rome. The problem. And I’m sure you anticipated that there is a problem coming is that this doesn’t really fit for a whole host of reasons with the way that the ancient world worked and ancient Rome works. And there’s a lot of problems here. But I’m just going to give you a few. So one is quite simply that. Okay, you see, this is writing in the early fourth century, and he says that Nero was responsible.

But when you look in the contemporary evidence earlier evidence evidence from the time that this was actually happening, it’s actually quite hard to find evidence of emperors really doing anything to do with the Christians, with some small exceptions that will return to later. But certainly you don’t get extensive evidence, and certainly not from non Christian sources of emperors persecuting Christians. In fact, it’s quite hard to find much evidence of emperors being at all interested in Christianity.

And that really makes sense because the other problem with this sort of narrative of monolithic Christianity going toe to toe with a monolithic Roman state is that Christianity was really quite insignificant at this point. Christianity was a very, very small sect of the eastern part of the empire. It was one of many, many religious sects in this period, and there was no real reason for it to come on the radar of the Romans and certainly not of the Roman Emperor in this particular period. So again, the idea that Rome would have been so concerned with Christianity at this early stage that it would have waged a war also doesn’t make a huge amount of sense.

Um, and another. And perhaps the most important reason is that this is simply not how the Roman state works, in part because the Roman state didn’t really exist in the way that we think about the state today. So when we think about the state, we think about government, right. But then we also think about the civil service so Boris Johnson may decide to do something. But it’s not Boris who actually does it. It’s the whole enterprise of the civil service that kicks into motion and develops and enact policy.

Um, the problem is that there is no civil service really in this period, or at least not much of one in the Roman world. Rome runs its empire empire on a skeleton staff, so Rome just doesn’t really have the apparatus. It doesn’t have the police force to enact a wide scale persecution like this, and it’s not really interested in doing so. Rome is not particularly bothered by whether everybody in the empire conforms to its own views. It’s a whole lot of work to make everybody think the same way as you.

And really the Roman emperors of the Roman state are only interested in having a vast empire in a vast territory in order to get wealth and taxes out of it and bring it to the centre. But they don’t want to spend money on those provinces. They want to make money from the provinces, and so unless they’re forced to, they’re not going out of their way to embark upon any wide scale policy decisions. So for a whole host of reasons, this narrative of systematic, top down imperial persecution of Christians just doesn’t quite sit right with everything we know about the way that ancient Rome works and everything we know about the nature of early Christianity and this is our problem for today.

So the next question then, inevitably, is, is there another way to think about this? Is there an alternative model that we can apply. And unsurprisingly, I think there is. But its sources, I think quite interesting and very fitting for this collection of Garden talks on persecution, because my suggestion is that to better understand the ancient world in this instance, we can learn from other periods what we might call comparativist history. And so one of the things I like to do is look at the way persecution has worked in other periods.

And one such period that I’ve picked out today is the early modern witch trials which Dr Mickey Brok will be talking about in the next Garden. Talk on persecution. And she’s much more of an expert than me. So I defer to her knowledge on this. But what I can say is that traditionally, there was also a view among scholars of the witch trials that tended to focus on the agency of the state again, a kind of top down view of persecution. But there were some very famous work published in the 19 seventies that actually tried to analyse it.

What we might say on the ground what I like to call a bottom up approach to persecution and one of the things that showed is that the persecution of witches is much better understood by looking at the nature of face to face communities in the early modern period, and that actually, when you look at those communities, you find them to be a hotbed of tensions and rivalries and feuds. In a world of limited resources, everybody is at everybody else’s throats. People are always looking for a way to get one over on their neighbour.

And the witch trials, it’s been suggested, fit quite nicely into that landscape of neighbours accusing neighbours, family members accusing family members, friends accusing friends, and the state only really gets involved as a kind of mechanism. But the agency for persecution arises from these local communities, and so we understand them much better when we focus on that small scale rather than on the rather than the top day it tapped out top down state scale. And this, actually, once you start looking, works for a number of other periods as well.

There’s been some very famous studies of the persecution of lepers, uh, Judaism and Islam in, uh, the 14th century, for example, in the crown of Aragon and similarly a similar model emerges where, actually state top down agency is less important than bottom up agency. And so this is what I suggest that we apply to the ancient world to the early Christian case study and see if it makes sense. And what’s amazing is I think that it actually works surprisingly well. And this is for two reasons. One is because of what we’ve learned recently about the nature of Rome’s governance.

Now, I’ve already told you a little bit about this from the state perspective, right that Rome actually runs its provinces with a skeleton staff rather than sending a whole civil service. It sends one governor and a handful of people to help him, and he basically just has to do the best he can with the resources he has available. And if he has a problem, he writes, not some bureaucrat but to the emperor himself, and the emperor might advise him on a particular issue. But given that governors don’t really have either the inclination, the energy or the resources to embark upon widespread persecutions, they just respond to problems that come to them.

It’s what we might call a very reactive model of government. But the second thing that I want to add into this now is thinking about the way that provincials in other words, people that lived in Rome’s empire, people that lived in Rome’s provinces, the way they thought about Rome and the way they used Rome and its administration. Now it was long thought that basically provincial provincials kept themselves to themselves and only really went to the governor or made use of Roman law or made use of the Roman administration that governed them in their particular areas as a last resort when everything else had been at any other attempts to get things done, had failed.

But recently discovered evidence suggests something rather different. Now we need to take a slight, interesting sidebar here to talk about the nature of evidence. So most of the texts we have from antiquity come from manuscripts from books and manuscripts have been copied over and over again by scribes. So if we threw a book away here and left it outside, it would eventually rot. So if we want to preserve a book, what you have to do is get someone to copy it down and leave it in a library and a few 100 years later, copy it down again, and that’s how text get preserved.

But some parts of Egypt are so hot and so dry in their climate, that paper doesn’t rot. So if you throw away something there, that piece of paper will just survive for 100, 200, 100 , 2000 years. Which is to say that there are some parts of Egypt where original pieces of paper have survived from the ancient world, and so these give us a snapshot of daily life in antiquity. And some of these texts show individuals making use of Roman law making use of Roman governors making use of Roman administration, and what they reveal is absolutely fascinating.

They show that, on the contrary, it’s not that people are using this as a last resort. People are just inundating the governor with all sorts of requests. They don’t really understand how Roman law works. They don’t really understand how Roman administration works. They just see it as one more avenue that they can use to get one over on their neighbours because and this is where the parallel comes in with the early modern period again. These are local face to face communities that are in constant tension with each other.

And so these Papiri show us these amazing long term feuds where one guy will accuse his neighbour of eating his sheep and he’ll, instead of just accusing him in a local court, will go right the way to the Roman governor and say, Jeff next door, he stole my sheep. But then, in response, Barry will say, Yeah, but Jeff a week ago stole my wife, so I want to prosecute him for that. So you get these sort of chains of claim and counterclaim where people are just sort of throwing accusations at each other, trying to make use of Roman law.

And a Roman governor just sort of had to try and sift through all of this material and to give you an idea of sort of the nature of Roman governance, governors moved around city to city and they’d only be there for a few days, and when they were there, they sort of dealt with all the casework that had built up for them that people all the sort of accusations that people have put in place that we’re waiting for them and we have one list from antiquity. It basically is the sort of the workload of a governor for the three days that he was in a place and there were 1084 different cases waiting for him to deal with.

And if he gave them all equal time, then he would have been giving them maybe two minutes each. So that is the situation that we’re dealing with. A hotbed of local tensions in the provinces that is keen to make use of Roman law, make use of Roman administration and doing so an incredibly haphazard way and a Roman state that just doesn’t really have the time or inclination to deal with it properly. Now that’s the background for the sort of model that I think is interesting and why I think it might be useful to think that way for the ancient world and the persecution of the Christians.

And what’s really amazing, I think, is that when you look at the very limited fragments of contemporary evidence for the persecution of early Christians, that we have not the later evidence, like Eusebius, who was writing hundreds of years later, but the little bits and pieces of evidence that exists from the period it fits amazingly well with that model of bottom up persecution. And so what I’d like to do now is just share two examples of these amazing little bits of ancient persecution that survived.

To the first is a very famous letter written by a Roman governor, a man called Pliny who had been posted to a little backwater province called Bithynia and Pontus or back water, as the Romans thought of it in the early second century. And plenty was a needy little chap. And so he kept writing back to the emperor to say, Dear Emperor, hope you’re well guess what I’ve been doing this week. This is my latest problem. What do you think? And the Emperor you can tell from his letters, was a bit exasperated by this, and the emperor sends back these very short replies being like, Oh, hi, Penny. Thanks for writing again yet Really interesting. Just please keep on doing what you’re doing. Basically And this correspondence between governor and Emperor has been preserved for us in the book of letters. And so it gives us a little insight into the way that Roman government worked. This is government by letters, direct communication between governor and emperor. And one of these letters written by Pliny concerns Christians. It’s actually one of our earliest references to Christians in outside of Christian texts.

So one of the earliest references from non Christians to Christianity and it’s very revealing, I think, for the way Romans thought about Christianity. But it has been persistently misinterpreted. So Pliny basically says, I have encountered Christians and I executed them. And the emperor writes back, as the emperor always does in these letters and says, Yeah, that’s fine Pliny of whatever you’ve done, keep going. And scholars interpret this as evidence of persecution, right, because you have proof of a governor killing Christians and an emperor approving.

But when you read the letter in a bit more detail, I think is a little bit more complicated than that. So let me read you a passage from the letter, So Pliny says in his quite pompous way. Meanwhile, in the cases of those denounced to me as Christians, I followed this procedure. I asked them whether they were Christians, those who admitted it. I asked a second and a third time after threatening punishment. And those who persisted. I ordered to be led away to execution, right? So on the face of it, it does sort of seem to confirm top down state persecution.

But then, and this is the bit that doesn’t get quoted so often then he says this because Pliny likes to waffle on, he says, For I had no doubt that whatsoever was the thing they were actually admitting to stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy definitely ought to be punished. There were others of a similar insanity who, because they were Roman citizens, I marked, were dispatched to Rome. And then soon as so often happens, with the charge spreading as a result of the proceedings themselves, further incidents occurred.

Then he goes on to say some other things in the letter. There’s a number of nuggets here for us to tease out that I think fit rather well with the alternative model that I suggested to you. The first is this, Pliny says on undebatably, for I had no doubt that whatsoever was the thing they were actually admitting to stubbornness and obstinacy deserved to be punished. In other words, Pliny doesn’t know anything about Christianity. He even says elsewhere. The letter. I’ve never really dealt with these people before.

I don’t know anything about them, and I’ve not made any effort to find out about them. In other words, the details of their Christianity seems to be irrelevant to this Roman governor, right? He doesn’t know anything about it. He doesn’t ask anything about it. He’s not executing them for their Christianity. He’s just executing them because they seem to be troublemakers. A note that he says anyone who was a Roman citizen in other words, anyone that was a big deal in that world. I’m not going to kill.

I’m not going to deal with. I’ll just send them for someone else to deal with the only people who is killing our basically non entities or people in the Roman world who are non entities, which is non citizens provincials. He doesn’t really care about them. This is just a quick fix solution. People have been denounced on them. He doesn’t know anything about them. He thinks they’re troublemakers. If they’re if they’re in any kind of gathering. The Romans basically think that your troublemakers, in another letter of plenty um, plenty asked the emperor if he can start a fire brigade because there’s been so many fires and the emperor says no, no fire brigades, because fire brigades, firemen are. There are grouping of people and groups of trouble. So we won’t have that. We’ll just let the buildings burned down in the provinces. That’s better, right?

Any gathering of people, as the Romans are suspicious of because they think they might be they might cause unrest in the provinces and cause them trouble. So in this case, it was just executed Christians not because they’re Christianity, but because it’s a small group. Problematic people, troublemakers. Easiest thing to do for governors to kill them because he doesn’t have that many resources note that he then says that the charge spread as a result of the proceedings themselves.

So in other words, what’s happened is plenty has put to death a few Christians without knowing anything about them, and then other people in the community have said, Oh, hold on. This is a strategy to get one over on your neighbour that’s actually working right? If you accuse people to this governor of being a Christian, he’ll kill them. and suddenly there’s a flurry of more accusations. So this is an example of people on the ground in local face to face communities mobilising the Roman state Roman administration to their own purposes.

The agency for persecution here is the bottom up rather than the top down. Now, the second example I want to give you comes from a bit later is from the mid third century. And in the mid third century, an emperor called Decius issued an edict of sacrifice. He basically said, I want people to sacrifice to the gods because we’re not doing very well in wars on our frontier. So we need to get the gods on side. And for a long time, people thought that this was specifically targeted at Christians, right? Make Christians sacrifice to the Roman gods because they won’t do it.

And the problem asset, their religion won’t let them and then execute them. In fact, we now know that actually decreases edict. Just ask everybody to sacrifice. It wasn’t targeted at Christians at all. It was it was for everybody to sacrifice. Um, but what happened was Christians were the only people really that refused to do it and So they fell on the wrong side of this edict because everyone else was happy to sacrifice. Christians wouldn’t. So Christians were the only people in practise who ended up being punished for it, not because the Romans had gone looking for them just because they were the people that refused to sacrifice.

So they were kind of being troublemakers. But Christian authors then looked at that and said, Well, look, the Roman state is persecuting us. But there is a letter that survives from this what we call the Decian persecution in the mid third century of a man called Dionysius who was a bishop in Alexandria. And he wrote to another vicious elsewhere, giving a really detailed account of what had happened in practise when when the local magistrates called for people to sacrifice right, they wanted everyone to go up and sacrifice.

And Dionysius describes the persecution of the Christians, and there are a number of really, really interesting bits to the letter. So the first is this right? When he opens it, he says this. It was not the imperial edict that set the persecution in motion against us. It had already been going on for a whole year now that has largely been neglected by scholars. But what it shows us is that Dionysius says Christians were already suffering before the Roman emperor issued this edict of sacrifice. In other words, are suffering.

The persecution preceded the stage where the state got involved. What happened was there was already violence against Christians in the community. And then the state introduced a new bit of legislation, a new mechanism for its administration. And then the persecution got worse. In other words, people in local communities mobilised that bit of Roman administration in order to use it as part of rivalries, tensions on the ground that were already happening. That’s the first thing that diagnosis dynasties Letter shows us.

The second was this when he describes who exactly suffered amongst the Christians. And he says terror was universal and of many public figures, some at once came forward through fear. Others who were in state employment were induced by professional reasons. Others were dragged forward by the mob. Now, again, this is a passing reference that’s been largely ignored. But if we paid attention, what he’s saying is it’s not that all Christians suffered. It’s not that the state went looking people and drag drag Christians from the crowd and killed them.

Actually, what happened was there was just magistrate asking for sacrifice. And it was only prominent individuals. People who were already known to be Christians or those who were dragged forward by the mob who were forced to sacrifice, refused and then were executed, thus persecuted. So again, if you’re a Christian here, you’re afraid not necessarily of the state, because it would have been quite easy to avoid this hide in the crowd. But you’re afraid of the people on either side of you who can name and shame you as someone who wouldn’t sacrifice right.

That’s Jeff. He won’t sacrifice. Ask him, right? It’s the mob dragging people forward. And the third bit of this letter that I want to show you, um, is just a passing reference. Dionysius gives to a guy called in a Nemession otherwise a forgotten individual from Christian history. But I think really important. And dynasty says this Nemession. In another, Egyptian was falsely reported to be in league with bandits. No sooner had declared himself before the centurion of such an absurd accusation that he was denounced as a Christian and brought in chains before the governor.

And then it goes on to talk about how Nemession was persecuted as a Christian. But what that actually shows, I hope you can see, is that somebody was trying to get the message on killed and was trying different strategies. First he was accused as a bandit that didn’t work. Then there was a particular atmosphere where the sacrifice thing was going on. So no mission was then named as a Christian someone that wouldn’t sacrifice. And then he was executed. So someone is just throwing accusations at the wall to see what will stick.

Now that is a very different picture of persecution, right? Some a local feud, mobilising whatever strategies they can to get a neighbour killed or harmed, very different from the idea of a state deliberately targeting a particular religious organisation. And so this alternative model, I think, works really well. And the final thing I want to say is that this has really important consequences, I think, for how we think about the persecution of Christians. The first is the who write the agency of persecution, and I’ve already I’ve already kind of hinted what I think about this, that we have to shift our perspective from the top down from the state to those around Christians in their local communities, and in particular if we take out the idea that this was motivated by religion, which has always been the assumption made by scholars and the general public alike right, that this is the persecution of Christians was because of their Christianity.

People have assumed it was done by pagans or by Jews. If we take that away and think about persecution on as simply part of these local rivalries, then suddenly it opens up who could be responsible? What mattered was not religious affiliation, but proximity to the individual who’s suffering, be it a friend, be it a neighbour, being a business partner, be a family member and we actually find examples of all of those in the ancient evidence. More to the point, those closest to Christians. We’re, of course, other Christians.

Now. This may sound shocking, and it’s never really been suggested before, but actually, once you allow for the possibility that Christians were persecuted in part by other Christians, those around them as part of general community tensions. Really, surprisingly and shockingly, you can find evidence for that in the ancient evidence as well. And this is the final passage that I want to read to you. Uh, is here is from a guy called Cyprien, who was a bishop in Carthage, and he wrote in the mid third century.

So around the same time as Dionysius was writing before and he says, And in fact, it’s not only the threats of gentiles or Jews we ought to anticipate and watch for, since we see that the Lord himself was held by his brothers and betrayed by him, whom he had himself chosen among the apostles so to at the beginning of the world, none other than his brother murdered the just able his hostile brother pursued the fleeing Jacob and Joseph was sold as a boy with his brothers as the seller. We even read it foretold in the Gospels that our enemies will be predominantly from our own households and that those who are formally bound by an oath of unity will become one another’s betrayers.

It’s no concern who had no concern, who hands us over or who is our aggressor. Since God allows us to be handed over and thus to be crowned. Nor is it any disgrace for us to suffer from our brothers what Christ suffered. Nor is it any glory for them to do what Judas did. So this individual talking about persecution in his own day looks back and says, Well, Jesus was persecuted by one of his own followers by one of his own brethren by one of the people around him. And so, too are we. In other words, that Christian author seems to suggest that persecution is arising from those closest to other Christians, which includes are the Christians right? So that who is really important? The how is, of course, important right that we have to think of Rome not as agent, but as mechanism, but most importantly, our job as historians, I think, and this is the last thing I want to say is to try and empathise with people in the past, try and rehabilitate that they’re lost experiences to give voice to those that have have not had the opportunity to speak for themselves.

And it’s my view that the suffering of a lot of individuals in antiquity has been co opted by later history writers, by later narrative writers by Eusebius, in service of this narrative of religious, monolithic tension, of a war between Christianity and state, and that the reality of their day to day experience, the suffering that they went through has been neglected. It’s a very different thing to fear a state than it is to fear those closest to you. It’s a very different thing to fear, death and torture than it is to fear ostracism, betrayal, fragmentation of your community, loneliness and all of those emotions.

And that tapestry diverse tapestry of what persecution means is what I think we need to add back in to our understanding of the persecution of early Christians. Thanks so much.

Sophie Wawro

Wow, Thank you so much, James. That totally upended my thinking on how prosecution works. I think that bottom up approach you talked about, it’s gonna be a really useful model for us to carry through the rest of the collection. Um, particularly that talk that you mentioned there on on which hunts coming up shortly. And it’s incredible to hear the pieces of paper have survived from Roman times.

It just astounds me. Um, I’d love to dig into that in some more detail. But we’ve had some questions coming in from our members, so we’ll kick off with one of those. Um, the first question we have is a great one from Louise, and Louise would like to know how much of an influence you believe cinema has had on our understanding of Roman history. And is that a positive or negative thing? From your point of view?

James Corke-Webster

That’s a great question. So the answer, in short, is a lot. Um, there is, uh, there’s actually a whole area of scholarship on this.

It’s part of what we call reception studies, said the reception of the past, the way that the past has been sort of used and mobilised in different periods throughout history. And one of the the rich areas of this is cinema and in particular kind of early 20th century cinema that the gold, the so called Golden Age of Hollywood, which established a lot of norms for the way we think about a lot of different topics and areas and antiquity, is one which have then become kind of ossified in in, um in modern tradition and in later filmmaking for example, So Ridley Scott was very open about the fact that when he was imagining ancient Rome, he went back not or not just to ancient material. But he went back to the way people think about Rome in the modern world, which is based upon the way they thought about it in early 20th century cinema.

So Ridley Scott was deliberately copying films like Like Quo Vadis and all the other modern examples you can think of Spartacus TV programme, etcetera. They’re all copying what they think people think Rome looks like. Because if they now showed Rome, as scholars think it looked, a film audience would think That doesn’t look like I imagine Rome wears the togas.

You know where the arena doesn’t look like it should. The dresses don’t look like they should. The people don’t look like they should. What’s interesting is that you can actually trace what we might call this a very pretentious phrase, Mimetic chain, which just means a kind of a series of repetitions and copies, because again, 20th early 20th century cinema was itself looking for inspiration for how the ancient world looked from 19th century paintings and you can show stills from, um, Quo Vardis, for example, the film, which are designed to echo exactly, uh, famous paintings from the 19th century.

Um, so And you can you can the producers booklets still exist where they sort of talked about how they were going to make things look, and they’re very deliberately saying We’re going to try and copy, um, this painting from this period of this painting from this period. So, actually, our imagination of Rome is for a lot of people, based on on recent cinema, which is itself based on early 20th century cinema, which is itself based upon 19th century painting, which are themselves based right away back so you can trace these trajectories of memory, right the way back two to antiquity itself.

Well, that’s a good or a bad thing is, uh, you know, it’s not really my job as a historian to cast moral judgement on that. It’s very interesting thing, I think what I’d say is I definitely don’t think it’s bad. I think the traditional traditional reaction is Oh, that’s bad because it’s not authentic. But, you know, authenticity is a very nebulous phrase, you know, the Rome was different in different periods. Rome itself had its own ideas of how it should look. Romans tried to make themselves look differently to different audiences.

They projected themselves in particular ways, to different provincial audiences. They had their own versions of their own memory. So what we’re doing in the modern world is just a continuation of of what went on in the ancient world. And my view in general as a historian, um, is that memory is as interesting as reality or representation is as interesting as reality. Which is to say, and I talked about this in one of my earlier Garden talks. I’m as interested in the way things get remembered as what actually happened on the ground.

I’m interested in both. So in this topic, what Actually, you know what actually happened matters for the reasons that I said in terms of rehabilitating experience. But it’s also equally interesting to try and tease out the pieces of why that kind of that that concrete experience has been remembered differently and evolved over the years. Both of those are interesting processes.

Sophie Wawro

Fascinating. So it’s a case of the model sticks once it’s once it’s there and we just keep reinforcing it so interesting. Um, we have a question here from Simon. You obviously had a lot of documentary evidence that you talked through. In that talk, James and Simon is wondering how often are new discoveries of ancient documents made? I can imagine that must be a treasure trove for you if that kind of thing happens,

James Corke-Webster

yes, so there’s a sort of there’s different ways of looking at this. So the majority of of work in ancient history has done with long documents. We’ve known for a long time, right, And it’s very unusual for us to discover a new manuscript, right? If someone and it does happen every so often, that happened the other day actually. Someone will be, um, you know, rooting around the library of 1/14 century monastery in France as you do at the weekend, and we’ll discover that bound into the back of a tax register is a few reused pages that actually preserve an earlier text of an author that we didn’t previously have. And that does happen from time to time. When it happens, it’s a big deal. Obviously, scholars get very excited in this endless publications right. That does happen, but not very often, right? We don’t discover new books very often, and it’s a big deal when we do. Um, but in terms of Papiri, let me take one bundle of papyrus.

So a lot of them come from a place called Oxyrhynchus, which is a rubbish heap in the Faiyum, in Egypt and a large number of them were excavated in the late 19th and early 20th century, and they were taken in in boxes, these scraps of paper to Papiri collections all around the world. The biggest collection of the Oxyrhynchus Papiri is at in Oxford, and they systematically working their way through them and publishing them. They’ve published a few thousand now, which is a lot of papier because they take a lot of work.

They’re very difficult to decipher. Um, there are hundreds of thousands of Papiri in those collections, so there are huge numbers of texts still to be translated. Now most of them are not going to be a newly discovered book of Virgil or a newly discovered bit of Aristotle. Most of them are land receipts or tax registers or shopping lists or love letters which are equally interesting in their own right. They allow us to do a different kind of history, so we’re not discovering new texts every day. But we do have load and load a text that I’ve never really properly been read.

So there’s actually a lot of material out there to be to be used. And the other thing I’d say to this because I think it’s a really good question is it depends which period of antiquity you look at. People talk about how not much has survived and what they really mean is not much has survived from the first century AD but in late antiquity, in the fourth century, fifth century, sixth century. We have huge amounts of Christian material that doesn’t get read very often loads and loads of sermons, loads of liturgies which some people might think are kind of boring theologically.

But actually they enable us to do a different kind of social history social history from the pulpit, for example. So there’s a lot more material that you think from antiquity waiting to be to be read and interpreted, and it’s also true that there are as many authors as there are readers. Which is to say that Pliny letter has been read hundreds of thousands of times since antiquity. But it’s still possible, in my view, to have new readings. And so, in some way, when when I read that text with my own interpretation, that text is born anew.

It becomes, in some sense, a new, a new kind of text, which is a bit of an overly romantic way of answering your question. But I hope that gives you a sense of what it’s like to think about discovery as an ancient historian.

Sophie Wawro

Oh, that’s brilliant. Answer, James, and lots of new material or material for you to dig your fingers into. I’m sure to go and discover in Oxford. That sounds fabulous. Um, we’ve got a question here about the Great Fire of Rome, Um, and John’s asking where Christians actually involved in the Great Fire of Rome in 64 that Nero blamed them for

James Corke-Webster

Very, very, very good question, much debated among scholars.

So this is the first what we might call the first known episode of persecution by the Roman state. Um, and there are two ways of looking at this. I think so. Well, three ways. One is the traditional way of thinking of, you know, the Nero targeted Christians as a religion for the first time, and he establishes a precedent that that other emperors followed later on. I’ve told you the reasons that I don’t think that really works. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a view among some scholars.

There was a very prominent article published recently on this and that thinks that the whole thing is what we call a later interpretation. So it depends in large part on a particular passage of Tacitus, the early second century historian Tacitus who talks about Nero scapegoating the Christians. And some people think that that bit was never in the original Tacitus that has been put in later. That was a very extreme version of the thesis. But other people think that Tacitus is sort of misremembering what happened that Tacitus is writing his knowledge of Christians in the early second century.

He’s a contemporary Pliny who we talked about before. He’s reading that back into the first century, and it’s not an accurate picture of what happened in the mid first century. The Great Fire of Rome. So we have these. Some people think that the stories just whenever there they were, added in later. Some people think there were these stories told about about Christians being scapegoated, but they’re they’re anachronistic, right? So So they’re not an accurate representation of what actually happened at the time.

Um, the third way of thinking about this is that Okay, let’s allow that it happened. And I think probably if you pushed me, I think it probably did. But what actually happened, according to our sources, is that there was a fire. Nero was, people suspected that Nero had had set fire to Rome himself in order to burn the city down to build a new palace. And so he went looking for a group to scapegoat. And he found a new hated group of people Christians in Rome and, uh, and he scapegoated them. Which means, if you if you analyse it properly, that those Christians were not killed to Christianity, they were they were killed for arson.

And it was a one off episode in the city of Rome without wider repercussions elsewhere in the empire. So this is not an empire wide persecution. It’s not really targeting Christians for their Christianity. It’s that Christians happened to be the group that were scapegoated and again, this is a bit technical. But if you read, if you read the details of the account, it becomes clear. Okay, let’s say Nero decided to to escape your Christians. How did he find Christians? How did he find out where they were? Well, it’s clear.

I’ve argued that on this very topic that again there is there is a local ground up movement where certain individuals are pushed into Nero’s kind of purview, as it were as possible scapegoats. And that’s happening from those closest to them, those around them and possibly other Christians, although we can’t really talk of Christians in this period because it’s too early. But But yes, so yes, I would say this did happen. But the traditional reading of it as a top down persecution is, in my view, also a misunderstanding.

Sophie Wawro

That is all we’ve got time for today. Unfortunately, James, it’s been an absolute pleasure to have you in The Garden. Thank you so much for sharing your research with us today and giving us that unique insight into life in the Roman empire

James Corke-Webster

As ever. Thank you so much for having me and thank you to you, our audience, for being here in The Garden with us today. You can follow us on our social channels at The Garden, underscore talks and share your light bulb moments from today’s talk. We’ll see you at your next Garden gathering, and in the meantime, stay curious.

Persecution Collection

Throughout history, humans have found ways to oppress and malign those they feel they're in opposition to, whether because of ethnicity or beliefs. In this collection, we're exploring the legacy of persecutions past, and why they're such a recurring theme.

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