Monday, July 19, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Maijastina Kahlos, Forbearance and Compulsion: The Rhetoric of Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Late Antiquity. London: Duckworth, 2009. Pp. xii, 259. ISBN 9780715636985. £50.00.
Reviewed by Jochen Walter, Johannes-Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

Few topics have commanded the public's attention in the last decade to the extent that religiously motivated violence has. The question of how to deal with the religious "other" is an issue much debated today. Moreover there has been speculation on whether religion (or especially monotheism1) has a particular affinity to violence or, in contrast, is crucial to establishing peace. Maijastina Kahlos, known to students of late antiquity as author of the two books Vettius Agorius Praetextatus. A Senatorial Life in Between and Debate and dialogue: Christian and pagan cultures c. 360-430, has presented a monograph that touches on many of these questions focusing on the years between ca. 250 and ca. 450 CE. Kahlos aptly traces the development of the rhetoric conceptualization of religious forbearance and compulsion, mentioning the pertinent events and discussing strategies used to (de)legitimize such practices.

In her introduction, Kahlos draws attention to problems connected with the application of notions of "tolerance" or "toleration" to antiquity, and prefers the (seemingly) plainer notion of forbearance. She distinguishes between a practical level and a level of ideas and rhetoric. Also, with M. Turchetti, Kahlos differentiates between two forms of forbearance: tolerance, which presupposes no change on the part of the religion to be tolerated, and concord, which ultimately aims at creating unity and unanimity. She seeks to overcome the dichotomy between Christianity and paganism by investigating the ancient debate on forbearance and compulsion from three points of view (p. 3): a) that of the imperial government, b) that of pressure groups bent on persecution (Kahlos speaks of "lobbyists" promoting "unifying religious policies"), and c) that of the "voice of resistance", arguing for freedom of religion or even for religious diversity in general.

The second chapter, "Articulating Forbearance and Compulsion Before 250", starts with classical Greece, highlighting legal provisions against religious activities regarded as potentially subversive. Kahlos shows that in Rome, too, participation in the state cult was perceived as a crucial marker of political loyalty. She then passes on to the situation of Jews in the Roman Empire, and to Jewish voices. She mentions "more or less narrow-minded" (p. 18) attitudes towards non-Jews but focuses on views appealing for forbearance towards Jews or advocating Jewish forbearance towards non-Jews. Kahlos states that Christians (Athenagoras' and Tertullian's views on forbearance are briefly discussed) with their claim to the universality of their religion and to the monopoly of truth were perceived in the Roman Empire as "enemies of the social order, gnawing at the religious and moral foundations of Roman society" (p. 20). The accusations targeted against Christians as a whole were also exchanged among various groups who self-identified as Christians. Kahlos refers to G. Stroumsa's view that there was a Christian double tradition of appeals for religious forbearance as well as manifestations of intolerance. She also mentions that Jews and Christians were not the only groups that met religious repression in the Roman empire.

In the third chapter, "The Third Century", Kahlos first traces the attempts of Roman emperors to achieve religious unity in the empire, beginning with Caracalla and continuing with Decius and the tetrarchs with special consideration of Galerius and Maximinus Daia. The involvement of the latter two emperors in what has been called the Great Persecution is clearly mentioned. Yet they are cast less in the role of blood-thirsty persecutors but rather as emperors who made significant contributions to the development of the Roman state's articulation of forbearance. Following W.H.C. Frend, Kahlos speaks of "'a propaganda war' against Christianity" (p. 39) waged by some members of the philosophical and political elite of the empire, especially Porphyry. Nevertheless many pagans seem to have remained less than enthusiastic about the persecution. On the Christian side, in addition to lapsi and stantes, Kahlos reports also instances of active resistance. She mentions Arnobius and especially Lactantius, whose concepts of iustitia and patientia and propagation of Christian exclusivism Kahlos discusses at some length.

Chapter four, "From Constantine to Constantius II", is opened by a discussion of the so-called "Edict of Milan", pointedly titled by Kahlos "Licinius' letter on libera facultas sequendi religionem". She interprets this in terms of "continuation of the existing state policy, established in Galerius' letter in 311" (p. 57) which already had replaced the requirement of sacrifice by that of prayer. Constantine is portrayed as another "reluctant forbearer[s] alongside Galerius and Maximinus Daia" (p. 62) although Kahlos acknowledges some shifting of focus. Next, she passes on to restrictive legislation of Constantine's sons concerning heretics and pagans. Looking at the Christians, Kahlos sees a gap usually separating actual Christian behaviour towards pagans from intolerant anti-pagan views important to Christian identity-building. She adds that this gap was bridged several times even before the Diocletianic persecution. Two Christian voices (Eusebius and Firmicus Maternus) are considered more closely. While "Christian leaders were competent both in using demonizing polemic against their opponents and in appealing to free choice as the prerequisite for Christian faith" (p. 74), pagan reactions seem to have been mixed, with pagan voices reporting conversions based on fear or opportunism, not inner conviction, and pagan historians stubbornly ignoring Christianity in their accounts.

The fifth chapter, "From Julian to Valentinian I", presents Julian as anti-Christian polarizer who reacted to the Christian construction of a Christian/pagan dichotomy. Otherwise, he is seen as continuing the policy of Maximinus Daia and Constantine. Kahlos then passes on to Valentinian I and Valens, mentioning inter alia a decree (not extant but mentioned in Cod. Theod. 9.16.9) in which she sees similarities to Licinius' letter in 313. The rest of the chapter is devoted to two pagan "moderates", Secundius Salutius (p. 81-82) and especially Themistius (p. 82-87).

In the sixth chapter, "From Gratian to Theodosius I", Kahlos first traces the steps those emperors took towards the further Christianization of the empire. She reports the growing legal oppression of pagan cults that was accompanied by militant Christians destroying pagan shrines, sometimes supported by local administrators who also took a hand in closing temples. Yet she maintains that the harsh laws against pagan practices must not be overestimated because they were hardly carried out or even expected to be carried out. "[P]agans, heretics, and Jews . . . were usually endured as long as they kept a low profile" (p. 91). Judaism remained legal, but the construction of synagogues was banned as were conversions to Judaism, Manicheism oder paganism. Kahlos discusses Libanius' oration 30 arguing in defense of temples and Symmachus' and Ambrosius' contributions to the dispute over the Altar of Victoria and Prudentius' somewhat later polemical poem "Contra Symmachum".

In chapter seven, "After Theodosius", Kahlos reports determined efforts to exstirpate paganism. Did Christian opinion leaders or rather the government take the lead in promoting and sharpening persecution? Kahlos is wary with regard to this question, but mentions many bishops' zeal to promote persecution by lobbying with the government, by writing texts legitimizing violent suppression of pagans and heretics or by preaching sermons rousing the faithful to riot. Sometimes, the same bishops could try to calm riotous Christians, when such riots seemed inopportune. Kahlos traces the development of Augustine's views on persecution and also looks into the "rhetoric of suppression" Augustine and other Christians employed: Among the numerous arguments put forward in order to legitimize persecution are the paternalistic argument, but also direct references to the bible, especially to biblical prophecies. Furthermore, Kahlos discusses letters exchanged between Augustine and distinguished Donatists and pagans.

In the summary, Kahlos sees a continuity in the discourse about religious affiliation as crucial marker of political loyalty. On the other hand, she traces an increasing tendency towards religious unity in the 3rd and 4th centuries reaching its height unter Theodosius I and his successors who narrowed the scope of acceptable religion to Nicean Christianity. She also reminds the reader that only groups in a weak position argued for forbearance, and then primarily for themselves. Pleas for general religious freedom, even when they occurred, were collateral forms of argumentation, not (necessarily) a sign of genuine care about other people's religious freedom.

The remainder of this book contains notes (p. 141-217), a list of ancient sources (p. 219-224), a modern bibliography (p. 225-241), an index of sources (p. 243-249), and a general index (p. 251-259).

There are features of this book that are not entirely satisfying. The regrettable choice of endnotes makes it much harder for the interested reader to follow the scholarly discussion behind Kahlos' arguments, diminishing the book's value for research. Also, Greek characters are banned completely from this book, Greek words and even phrases being given in transliteration only. But making a book less attractive to scholars does not automatically render it more attractive to non-scholars. There are further irregularities that may also be due to less than perfect editing.2

Nevertheless this book has many merits. First, Kahlos takes account of the variety of people and views self-identifying as Christian(s) and withstands the temptation to present Christianity (or other religions) as one monolithic block. She is mindful of the dangers of navigating the ideological minefield connected with the topic of her book, and pays attention to the terminology employed and to what hidden agendas specific technical terms might carry. For example, in a conscious effort to avoid such bias, she mostly eschewes the term "pagan" and uses instead "polytheist". This is a defensible decision. Yet it might be remarked that the notion of "polytheism" is hardly less informed by Jewish and/or Christian views than that of paganism.3 Furthermore, Kahlos herself calls into question the binary opposition between monotheism and polytheism and warns against identifying too readily monotheism with Christianity and polytheism with paganism. She also questions the exclusiveness of Christianity and the inclusiveness of paganism. Some readers will find it difficult to follow her all the way in those matters, but she does offer thought-provoking cross connections between the rhetoric strategies of pagan and Christian voices. Another strength of this book is that Kahlos keeps reminding the reader that although it is the hardliners that appear most prominently in the sources, people often, in spite of differences, found a way to coexist pragmatically. It is important to recall this time and again, even if some readers might get the impression that the violence of pagan and/or Christian persecutions is rather played down a little.

To sum up, this is a good and thought-provoking book. It does much more than give an overview over the development of the debate on religious forbearance and compulsion from ca. 250 to ca. 450 CE. It time and again offers fresh perspectives on the rhetoric strategies and events it reports. Students of ancient history and religious studies, theologians and classicists, but also a wider audience generally interested in the topic of religious toleration will want to read this book.


1.   Cf. e.g. Jan Assmann: Of God and gods: Egypt, Israel and the rise of monotheism, Madison/Wisconsin 2008.
2.   The endnotes 121-124 are missing completely on p. 181, with endnote 125 following directly endnote 120. On p. 98, Kahlos seems to understand religionum status as some mysterious technical term, not as simply "state of religious affairs". On p. 102, the title of Prudentius' poem against Symmachus is given as "Contra orationem Symmachi", which is elsewhere rendered correctly as "Contra Symmachum". Other misprints are rather few.
3.   Cf. Gregor Ahn, 'Monotheismus' -- 'Polytheismus'. Grenzen und Möglichkeiten einer Klassifikation von Gottesvorstellungen, in: Manfred Dietrich -- Oswald Loretz (ed.): Mesopotamica -- Ugaritica -- Biblica: Festschrift für Kurt Bergerhof zur Vollendung seines 70. Lebensjahres am 7. Mai 1992, Neukirchen -- Vluyn 1993, 1-24.

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