Fun with footnotes again – a sentence suggesting Christian villainy, and the text of the reference

Yesterday’s post, investigating a paragraph on Dirk Rohmann’s book, drew some comment on the last sentence:

In John [Chrysostom]’s metaphorical words, the apostles have “gagged the tongues of the philosophers and stitched shut the mouths of the rhetoricians.” This passage echoes a similar statement in an unpublished manuscript (attributed to John) which asserts that “the senate decrees have been overthrown, the philosophers and orators have been put to shame, and the Areopagus has been wiped out.” This statement could be right because it is attested that in the last quarter of the fourth century large private mansions were constructed on the Areopagus hill, traditionally a place that housed archives.[13]

[13] Watts (2006), 80–81. – Watts, Edward J. 2006. City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria. Berkeley: University of California Press.

I had in fact intended to look into this myself.  The sentence suggested to me that the meaning was as follows:

  •  The rise of Christianity in the empire led to the destruction of pagan literature and written documents of all sorts.
  •  The Christians destroyed the Areopagus and the archives kept there.
  •  We know this because large private houses were built there at the end of the fourth century.

But in fact we learn that Dr R had no such intention, and the sentence was merely intended to offer evidence for the abandonment of the Areopagus by that date.

However the reference given is Watts’ City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria.  And … there is a preview of this online, including pages 80-81!  [Update: in fact the whole book is online at Academia.edu here!]

Watts seems like a rather good book, which I would very much like to read!  He tells us that Athens was sacked by the Herulian barbarians in 267.  This ruined the fortunes of the leading citizens, who were unable to repair public buildings.  But by the late 4th century things were recovering, and a period of opulence ensued.

The section that concerns us is as follows:

To understand the challenges faced by Plutarch’s school, one must first explore the economic and religious changes Athens underwent in the later fourth and fifth centuries. Both archeological and epigraphic sources indicate that, contrary to the trend of the previous century, relatively widespread prosperity took hold among the Athenian upper classes in the later fourth century. The most striking evidence for the new wealth of the city comes from the ruins of a number of large houses constructed in the mid- to late fourth century on sites scattered throughout the city.1 The remains of the most elaborate of these houses were found grouped together on the north slope of the Areopagus hill. Dating from the last quarter of the fourth century, these houses were extraordinary in both their size and their layout.2 At a time when the average Athenian house occupied something in the neighborhood of 130-150 square meters, the Areopagus houses ranged in size from 1000 to 1350 square meters.3 These large houses had distinctive architectural features (like apsidal rooms)4 and elaborate interior decorations such as were common to urban and suburban villas of the time.5 Broad upper-class prosperity is seen from the remains of other Athenian buildings as well. These include the massive Palace of the Giants in the Agora,5 an elaborately decorated complex of buildings and enclosed gardens that occupied over 13,500 square meters of space,7 and public construction of a stoa complex containing a mysterious round building.8

Epigraphic evidence from the later fourth and early fifth centuries tells a similar story. Inscriptions describing the efforts of private individuals to pay for the physical rehabilitation of the city begin to appear in the mid-fourth century. In the later fourth century, a new gateway to the Acropolis was constructed.9 Similarly, private funding paid for the renovation of the theater of Dionysus, the erection of a sundial, and the carving of a set of honorary statues to a prefect responsible for renovating the Library of Hadrian.10 The inscriptions mark some of the men responsible for these projects as teachers, but it seems best to see this public spending less as an indication of the wealth of teachers and more as proof of the general prosperity of the period.

The source of this activity is particularly interesting because many of the people responsible for this renewed public euergetism were demonstrably pagan. Traces of this can be seen in several well-known public inscriptions. One such inscription honors the prefect Herculius. It marks him as a defender of the city whose image rests beside that of Athena.11 Another inscription records civicly sanctioned honors for Dexippus, who is “dear to the gods.”12 These references ought not be taken as mere rhetorical convention. Wealthy Athenians in the late fourth and early fifth centuries worked hard both to maintain the vitality of pagan worship in their city and to demonstrate this vitality publicly. On May 27, 387, a man of senatorial rank named Musonius celebrated a taurobolium, an initiatory rite that culminated in a very public acclamation of the devotee’s piety, and displayed an inscribed commemoration of this act.13 Another (undated) taurobolium memorial also survives from this period.14 As was the case with taurobolia commemorations in fourth-century Italy, these monuments were intended to preserve the memory of specific public acts of pagan religious self-expression.15 Less exotic public manifestations of pagan devotion also occurred. Wealthy pagans continued to pay for the Panathenaiac procession16 and, through their influence, the Athenian temples remained intact until the middle of the fifth century.17

Given the general decline of city councils in the fourth-century Roman East, the vigor shown by the Athenian councilor class is remarkable.18 Indeed, its vitality is particularly notable because this Athenian recovery occurred despite the fact that most historically prominent families had been devastated by the Herulian attack. It seems, however, that this activity was due as much to a sense of pagan civic patriotism as to a re-emergence of economic power among Athenian city councilors. Simply put, fifth-century pagans valued Athenian civic institutions and were willing to assume certain extraordinary burdens to keep them viable. There was a reason for this. At a time when imperial and provincial administrators were pursuing policies largely favorable to Christianity, the city council could serve as a governing organ that preserved certain features of pagan civic life. Possibly because of this continued relevance, participation in civic government remained a source of pride to Athenian pagans. Civic office in general and the archonship in particular remained an important achievement in one’s political career, even in the later fifth century,19 and evidence suggests that the archonship was an office that was often tied to prominence in the pagan community.20 Beyond simply valuing the office, Athenian pagans also respected the continuity of the institution. In some cases, pagans even continued to mark each year with the name of the eponymous archon, a deliberate contrast to the system of dating employed by the Christian court.21

Well that’s very interesting.  Indeed I have to force myself to stop quoting at that point, because it’s all fascinating, and very readable.

This gives a different picture.  The houses are not being built by Christians intent on erasing the pagan past; they’re being built by pagans on the town council intent on preserving and enhancing it.

Likewise there is no mention of archives, although I had certainly thought (evidently wrongly) that this was the point of the comment.  I was unable to find any mention of archives on the hill of the Areopagus anywhere.  The state archives were kept in a nearby temple, of the Mother of the Gods, the Metroon, as far as I am aware.  I am entirely ignorant here, of course.

Watts tells us that the city was so badly damaged by the Herulians that the buildings around the agora were not rebuilt, but used as a garbage dump; and that leading Athenian families from the 2nd and 3rd centuries disappear.  Did any such archives perish then, rather than in the late 4th century?

Interesting to see how the author’s intention comes across quite differently to the reader!

13 thoughts on “Fun with footnotes again – a sentence suggesting Christian villainy, and the text of the reference

  1. How intriguing and tantalizing all this is! “At a time when imperial and provincial administrators were pursuing policies largely favorable to Christianity, the city council could serve as a governing organ that preserved certain features of pagan civic life.” Might there be a radical note of ‘despite all this apparent flourishing in Athens,..’ to the phrase quoted in German translation? Julian had failed on the Imperial level, Christians could enjoy the literary training from which he excluded them, self-consciously pagan philosophy was no longer preeminent – that heritage of the ‘Areopagus’ was quelled, though wealthy pagan archons yet enjoy luxury building programs there – ?

  2. Hi Roger,
    That Athens remained a pagan ‘stronghold’ in the 4th and 5th centuries is a bit of a no-brainer! It’s common knowledge! Justinian didn’t close the Athenian Academy in 529 because of a lack of interest!

  3. “The sentence suggested to me that the meaning was as follows:

    The rise of Christianity in the empire led to the destruction of pagan literature and written documents of all sorts.”

    No, I’m definitely not implying that in the whole section I am even discussing that question. I think this should become obvious once you have a look into the book, from which you quote three (!) sentences, without any context. In that section I’m simply identifying recurrent themes in the sermons of John Chrystom which show his disdain for ancient philosophy/literature.

    I also find it impossible to think that the Areopagus did not store public records when even the tiniest Greek city states stored records in their public institutions. In the previous blog post I have already provided examples for public records demonstrably kept on the Areopagus. I do not claim this was the main archive of Athens.

    The footnote to Watts is simply because of his survey of previous literature on the redevelopment of the area. That should be obvious.

    “But in fact we learn that Dr R had no such intention, and the sentence was merely intended to offer evidence for the abandonment of the Areopagus by that date.”

    No, I didn’t say that either.

    “The houses are not being built by Christians intent on erasing the pagan past; they’re being built by pagans on the town council intent on preserving and enhancing it.”

    Sorry, what? Where do you get that information from?

  4. To make it a bit clearer.

    The whole chapter is entitled “Moral Disapproval of Literary Genres”

    The guiding question of the section from which you quote those three sentences is the following:

    “Polemical rhetoric that addresses the end of pagan philosophy as a whole is
    therefore found across John Chrysostom’s corpus of sermons. Identifying recurrent
    themes of these polemics, I shall argue that his sermons help us understand
    the different strategies with which to separate true from false philosophy and to
    cast doubt on the worthiness of the latter.³ Such passages are usually placed
    within John’s comments on Bible passages. In these sermons, John intended to
    persuade his audience (which he thought too lax) to embrace an extreme Christian
    lifestyle.”

    p. 200

    Your passage is from p. 202.

  5. “Christians could enjoy the literary training from which he excluded them”.

    This is also demonstrably not true. A made up claim by later polemicists. If anything, Julian wanted to raise moral standards of grammar and rhetoric teachers, so they don’t teach material they don’t believe in. This is often understood to mean he excluded open (committed, confessing) Christians from teaching because of one of his letters. Quite a modern question, for example, in Germany there is a debate about whether or not teachers can wear headscarfs in the classroom, whether classrooms must display a crucifix (in Bavaria).

  6. Also, dear Roger, you conveniently don’t quote the very long footnote 5 on p. 81 in Watts (making up half of that page), where he deconstructs the previous (weak) link between the houses in question and the alleged pagan affiliation of its inhabitants, even though you quoted four full pages of Watts’ text and only three sentences of my own.

  7. That footnote (and those surrounding it – a text as long as the one you quote) was of course the text I was primarily referring to, because it contains – as far as I can tell – all the relevant secondary literature on building activities in the area in mind.

    The story of how Athens recovered from the third century crisis should be sufficiently known.

    I personally don’t agree with some of the conjectures Watts makes on the next couple of pages, but I don’t think this is the place to discuss this.

  8. There was no reason for me to quote footnote 5. In fact it discusses whether the houses on the Areopagus were “the residences and schools of teachers operating in the city”. The houses are built because of the “widespread prosperity” which took hold among the Athenian upper classes, many of whom were pagans. The houses were not built by Christians, which was what your sentence suggested to me.

    I’m afraid many of your other points don’t seem very serious to me.

  9. We don’t know the religious affiliation of those who built the houses. How can we?

    How dow we know the reason why the houses were built?

    Does Eunapius report about Christian teachers? (footnote 5)

  10. No, it’s how you misread the passage.

    What should I do, write “large private mansions by people whose religious affiliation is unknown to us”? I don’t even see the relevance of this as explained before.

    I spent more than enough time explaining this to you. It’s ok if you don’t agree with my views and opinions on that, I can understand that. I can’t use all my time to discuss footnotes I’m afraid, even if you think this is fun and want to do this for weeks on end. I find this actually quite intrusive. Write a scholarly review on my book if you like.

    Have a nice day.

  11. “This is often understood to mean he excluded open (committed, confessing) Christians from teaching because of one of his letters.”

    About all I know (‘know’?) about Julian is thanks to Joseph Bidez, Vie de l’Empéreur Julien (1930), in Dutch translation as Keizer Julianus: de ondergang van het antieke heidendom (n.d., c. 1960). My impression of it is in keeping with the German Wikipediast (!: as of “5. Dezember 2015): “Das Buch wurde von der internationalen Fachwelt mit großem Interesse aufgenommen, da es sowohl eine Auswertung des immensen Quellenmaterials beinhaltete als auch stilistisch äußerst gelungen war.” Whether this is true – “Bis heute gilt es, wenngleich in Teilen überholt, als Standardwerk” – I have no idea. I appreciate that Dr. Rohmann cannot devote too much time and energy to bringing us up to date on the scholarly discussion via blog comments, and look forward to someday being near a good library again with time to spare…

  12. The Wikipedia assessment is probably correct that Bidez is now “in Teilen überholt”.

    Primary sources (Codex Theodosianus, Julian’s letter and works) give no indication that Julian wanted to bar Christian children from classical education. If I remember correctly, Gregory of Nazianzus is the earliest Christian testimonial in reaction to Julian’s death, and he did not say that Julian barred Christian children from receiving classical education. Later Christian authors framed it that way. I think there is a good discussion in S.C. Lieu, Julian, Liverpool University Press 1989. Watts does not say that Julian barred Christian children from schools either.

    To reform the empire, surely it was a much better strategy to win over children of Christians rather than to isolate them.

    Btw, the 1997 article in FS Nylander does not contain a transcript or edition of the Laudatio Apostolorum either. It does, however, contain the passage quoted above and a couple of more snippets of the text, including some Greek.

    THAT already is almost too good to post on the internet (although I don’t think anyone will “steal” the find).

    Overall, I think I was being too careful in the wording of the sentence above.

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