Scholia Reviews ns 12 (2003) 10.

Michèle Renée Salzman, The Making of a Christian Aristocracy. Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire. Cambridge Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2002. Pp. xiv + 354, incl. 16 Tables and 4 Appendices. ISBN 0-674-00641-0. UK£34.50.

Malcolm Choat,
Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University.

This book sets out to 'place the senatorial aristocracy at the centre of analysis' (p. xiii, cf. pp. 3-5). Saltzman claims the point of view is novel (p. 3); previous discussions have drawn, by necessity, on the same élite sources, but questions have frequently been different, and at times unsuited to the source body. Salzman avoids the latter with questions tailored to the concerns of the Roman élite as she conceptualises them. Attendant factors (in particular the emperor and his court) are treated as secondary, and not allowed to dictate the direction of the discussion.

'Approaches to a Paradox' sketches the programme (pp. 1-19; esp. p. 6). The evidential centrepiece is 'short biographies' of 414 Western aristocrats from 284 to 423 CE (pp. 6f.). Eastern evidence is rightly not allowed to dictate a reading of the contemporary West (p. 8), a practice largely adhered to, even if Salzman cannot help citing Chrysostom on some important points (eg. pp. 61, 158f.). Salzman accepts for her database only those aristocrats 'for whom there was certain or near certain explicit evidence of religious affiliation' (p. 7); the criteria on which these decisions are made are discussed in Appendix 1 (see below).

At the centre of her analysis Salzman places aristocratic concerns with status and honour, which she sees behind the aristocratic drift towards Christianity in the fourth century. It was Christianity's successful appeal to these values which for Salzman primarily explains the 'conversion' (a term which here does 'not entail a radical reorientation', p. 202) of the Roman nobility: emperors, preachers, and Christian aristocrats all contributed to a grafting of aristocratic ideals onto Christianity, with consequent Christian influence on those ideals.

'Defining the Senatorial Aristocracy' requires a substantial chapter (pp. 19-68), preparation for the 'understanding of status components of aristocracy' which Salzman's model of Christianisation requires (esp. pp. 43-58). Criteria for inclusion in the target group are detailed, and changing composition and character charted. Religion's role in this 'status culture' is left until last, with Salzman arguing for the survival in prestige of the pagan priesthoods into the last quarter of the fourth century (pp. 61-66). 'Christianisation' (pp. 66-68) could only proceed by appeals to these same status mechanisms.

'Aristocratic men: Social Origins' (pp. 69-106) rehearses much material available elsewhere, charting geographical, social, and vocational distinctions against religious preference. In not a few cases Salzman finds that her data concur with well- established hypotheses. Here, however, such axioms as the persistence of paganism in fourth-century Rome (p. 77) are placed on a secure footing. The approach to 'Dating the Conversion' of Rome is conservative ('a compelling resolution . . . still eludes us', p. 79). Nevertheless, Salzman's data indicates that the last two decades of the century are significant.

A correlation of 'Career Paths' (pp. 107-38) and religious identification shows pagans predominant in the senatorial cursus until the period 367-383. By contrast, Christianisation was more rapid in the Imperial bureaucracy, with social and cultural networks more important than the influence of the Emperor in promoting conversion: Christianity became part of the 'common culture', rather than a career- based option. Salzman confirms that no great correlation existed between high military office and Christianity (pp. 127-32), and charts the 'religious career', that is, Church offices and pagan priesthoods (pp. 132-35). Despite well-known cases, Salzman demonstrates that aristocratic participation in Christian leadership was rare during the fourth century: only in the fifth does Peter Brown's 'double oligarchy' appear.[[1]] By way of summary, Salzman contrasts older notions of defensive conservatives with revisionist assertions of fluidity, and offers an alternative: a gradual turning away from pagan institutions was accompanied in 'episodic fashion' by slow but steady convergence of Christian and pagan career paths, as Christianity became a 'prestigious, status-laden option' (p. 137).

'Aristocratic Women' (pp. 138-77) contributes much to Salzman's revision. Engaging on multiple fronts with the long shadow of Harnack, feminist readings, and the social world constructed by Brown,[[2]] Salzman argues against the existence of close ties between Christianity and aristocratic women ('I think not', p. 140). For Salzman, nothing reveals women to be dominant figures in the spread of Christianity; she seeks rather a better understanding of the influence of aristocratic men on their wives, sisters, and daughters. Looking beyond writers with other agendas (Jerome is repeatedly cited), Salzman's evidence does not suggest that Christianity broke the traditional patterns of Roman family life. Salzman insists on the continuity of traditional Roman female ideals into Late Antiquity: these were threatened not by the conversion of Roman noblewomen to Christianity, but instances where ascetic or celibate lifestyles threatened family continuity (pp. 151-55). When women were praised by men such as Jerome, the lexicon of old Roman values was still used. Nor, for Salzman, should such enthusiastic testimony be given undue weight: this leads inevitably to the overestimation of the importance of such ascetic women to the spread of Christianity (pp. 166f.). Ascetic 'career paths' were taken up by women after conversion to Christianity, rather than being the impetus for it (pp. 167-69). Nor were women 'critical, active converters' (p. 140); such engagement with the world outside the family was a man's job (p. 161). In both Christian and pagan familial and educational contexts (pp. 158-61), children largely followed the paterfamilias, as wives did husbands. Only between mother and daughter can much influence be detected (pp. 160f.); the influence of mothers on their children and in family contexts was, as it had always been in the world of the Roman aristocracy, secondary. It is a point emphasised repeatedly by Salzman, a repetition both necessary and appropriate given how entrenched opposing views are.

Salzman sets out to place imperial influence in the background, but scholars from Gibbon on have emphasised the opposite, and Salzman is forced to engage with the issue in Chapter 6 ('The Emperor's Influence on Aristocratic Conversion', pp. 178-99). The influence of 'active' and 'inactive' Emperors is assessed, with the 360's and 370's again shown to form a crucial period of change. But the Emperor, rather than guiding the aristocracy towards Christianity, became a 'new symbolic figure', an 'exemplar of how to be aristocratic and Christian at the same time' (pp. 197-99).

In the final chapter, 'The Aristocrats' Influence on Christianity' (pp. 200-19), Salzman assigns most importance to the way in which the message of Christianity was communicated: explicitly placed within 'prevailing modes of discourse', targeted to appeal to aristocratic concerns. Pace Hadot and Nock,[[3]] it was this assimilation of key traditional issues, rather than 'changes within the mentalité of the aristocracy' (p. 201) which accounts both for the conversion of the Roman aristocracy, and the type of Christianity which emerged from this process. Honour and office, wealth and patronage, remained primary (pp. 202-9); new 'careers' were discussed in terms of the old values. Neither in education nor in friendship did Christianity seriously affect aristocratic ideals, although it is unfortunate that Salzman does make clear whether her lack of discussion of amicitia between Christians and pagans reflects a lack of evidence for such connections.

Nobilitas rightly closes the discussion (pp. 213-18), with Salzman showing how the bases on which the quality was awarded and admired were redrawn (especially in relation to asceticism), and an attempt made to promulgate a new definition. Through forced engagement with the aristocratic tradition, and the need to assimilate to its values to be successful, the message of Christianity was changed. Concepts of universal salvation, often tendered as an explanation for Christianisation, were rarely given public airing by aristocrats or bishops. The message itself was less important than aristocratic identity and status culture: only in the interaction of message with pre-existing culture can be found the explanation for the 'aristocratisation' of Christianity (pp. 218f.).

There is much to praise here. Salzman makes a coherent and believable case, and argues it well. She provides statistical derivatives of her database in the form of tables, from which others may form further conclusions. The sixteen tables are impressive, and so too the lists of office-holders by religion in Appendix 4. A list of all aristocrats with 'Religious Affiliations' is provided in Appendix 2 (pp. 243-53).

Appendix 1 is devoted to the conception and construction of the database. It strikes one that if, as Salzman asserts, there were few atheists in the Roman Empire (p. 61), then all those who do not make the database will have been part of the process, yet receive no voice. Source biases are addressed in individual cases (e.g. pp. 141-43), but required more systematic treatment.

Divining an individual's religion with such sources as we have for the ancient world is never easy. Salzman recognises the problems documentary texts in particular can pose in this regard (pp. 236-39). Often we find ambiguous symbolism or phraseology; behind that, the problem of what sort of belief (if any) such public displays reveal. Here, Salzman proceeds with somewhat disarming pragmatism, simply asserting that evidence such as epigraphic attestation of Christian phraseology, imagery and symbolism 'reflect[s] evidence of behaviour'. This will be true in many cases, but cannot, surely, be simply assumed.

Salzman's list of criteria (pp. 236f.) seems sound. Names are disallowed as indicative of personal beliefs. Merely writing a letter to a pagan does not mark one as such, nor does the inclusion of a religiously neutral formulaic phrase. A parent's religion is not allowed to speak for that of a child, nor, apparently, are family connections given much weight at all. All of this is sound, but the inflexible application of fixed criteria (on which Salzman prides herself, p. 237) does not always produce viable results. There is much still to be learnt in areas such the use of epistolary formulae. Many phrases are formulaic, but it is not at all apparent that none of them carry religious significance. People who are 'religious', but not demonstrative about it in a certain way, are lost.

Furthermore, we hear little from Salzman about these 'doubtful cases': people are excluded if there is any ambiguity, but surely such cases are among the most illuminating. A die-hard convert to Christianity may not tell us as much about how cultural norms assimilated the religion as a case in which stages in the process (rather than merely the end result) may be glimpsed. Such cases might assist in filling out the somewhat dry picture which emerges, and answering the real questions which remain about how aristocrats -- and all inhabitants of the later Roman Empire -- of differing beliefs interacted with one another. However, Salzman cannot be criticised for not addressing issues which would take her outside her focus. As it is, she has elucidated one piece of the puzzle, and provided a wealth of data and approaches for others to take outstanding questions forward.


[[1]] P. Brown, <i>The World of Late Antiquity</i> (London 1971) 133.

[[2]] A. von Harnack, <i>Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten</i> (Leipzig 1902), translated by J. Moffatt as <i>The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries</i> (London 1904); P. Brown, 'Aspects of Christianisation of the Roman Aristocracy', <i>JRS</i> 51 (1961) 1-11.

[[3]] P. Hadot, <i>Marius Victorinus: recherches sur sa vie et ses oeuvres</i> (Paris 1971); A. D. Nock, <i>Conversion: the Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo</i> (London and New York 1933).