Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Polymnia Athanassiadi, Vers la pensée unique: la montée de l'intolérance dans l'Antiquité tardive. Paris: Les belles lettres, 2010. Pp. 181. ISBN 9782251381008. €25.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Arietta Papaconstantinou, Oriental Institute, Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

This book is the published version of four lectures given at the Collège de France in 2006, which I was fortunate to be able to attend. The author had developed an argument that struck me at the time, as I had been thinking along similar lines, namely that the notion of a compulsory state religion was not an invention of Constantine and Christianity, but that from Decius onwards the idea had been maturing in the Roman Empire, with the persecutions being one of its first manifestations. I was very excited to see the publication of those lectures in book form, expecting to find more ammunition in favour of this thesis. I did—but I also found that my memory had been very selective, and that the book, which quite accurately reflects the content of the lectures, contains much more than that.

Following others, but from a very different angle, Polymnia Athanassiadi tackles the question of the transition from what she calls 'an anthropocentric' culture to a 'theocentric' one, and from a polytheistic and decentralised religious system to one that was defined and imposed by the state. Her first chapter ('Antiquité tardive: de l'homme à Dieu ou la mutation d'une culture') discusses late antiquity both as a period and as a scholarly field, two aspects that are very closely linked. The chronological expansion of the field under the impulse of what she calls 'le club anglo-saxon' (generally, the English-language cultural historians who either follow Peter Brown or embrace the same basic premises) and the reaction to this by a number of social historians and archaeologists in the wake of an article by Andrea Giardina,1 are here presented in slightly ironical terms, with the observation that 'il n'y a pas eu jusqu'à présent d'offensive organisée contre l'attaque lancée par Andrea Giardina. Bien au contraire!' (32). However useful and informative, this presentation is also highly personal insofar as it deals exclusively with a small group of late antique historians—the 'club'—with whom, despite the irony displayed, Athanassiadi's work has the most obvious and direct intellectual affiliation. Even though writing in French and adopting the not-so-positive French description of 'anglo-saxon' for her bêtes noires, she does not cite in this overview a single active French late antique historian, let alone a German or Italian one, with the single exception of Giardina (only such early giants as Alois Riegl, Santo Mazzarino and André Piganiol appear). The chapter closes with reflections on the transformation of the ancient world and its reflection in urban landscapes, followed by some thoughts on the notion of intolerance.

The second chapter ('Religion d'État et raison d'État: de Dèce à Constantin') is where the main point of the book is made: 'intolerance' began in the third century, not the fourth. Its rise was the result of a slow evolution in the empire, precipitated perhaps by the Antonine Constitution and its implication that all inhabitants of the empire must now abide by Roman law. In that context, Christian 'aggressive proselytism' (44), 'ostentatious' and 'theatrical' voluntary martyrdom (46), and religious intransigence had to be dealt with more rigorously than before. The edict issued by Decius in 249 'reflects its author's intimate conviction that only the piety of all the Empire's inhabitants' (51) could save it from its misfortunes. This was the first time when orthopraxy, and a form of orthodoxy, was demanded from all citizens of the Empire, something that became the norm under Christian emperors. The author sees Decius as a direct precursor of Constantine, who, even though he started with an inclusive attitude and proclaimed Christianity simply as religio licita in 313, later went to much trouble to ensure that it was unified institutionally and doctrinally, and gave the clergy a number of privileges that boosted its numbers and importance.

The construction of this narrative as a model for the future of the empire was the work of Eusebius of Caesarea, a figure whose importance cannot be underestimated according to Athanassiadi. Not only did he rewrite history in purely Christian terms and develop a political theology that presented the earthly court as the mirror image of the court of Heaven, but his discourse on dogma and practice was strongly normative, and it glorified and legitimised violence both physical (through the glorification of the martyrs) and verbal (through his invectives against those who did not conform to his norms). Although Eusebius imagines a sort of pax christiana emerging after the violence of the founding period, Athanassiadi sees that violence as inherent in his system, and as the reflection of 'a phenomenon characteristic of [his] time' and a sign of his own 'modernity' (69).

The next chapter ('Les « évêques du dehors » et le salut de l'Empire') describes the success of the Eusebian model through the action of successive emperors: Constantine, of course, who was both the source and the realisation of that model, but also Constantius, who championed Arianism, and especially Julian, who is usually seen as having gone against the tide. Athanassiadi argues that even though he rejected Christianity, Julian was operating according to the same principles, attempting to institute a form of centralised pagan 'counter-Church' rather than returning to the religious pluralism of the early Empire. She cites, as evidence of his promotion of the 'pensée unique', his Letter 61, where he expresses the necessity for those who want to teach either privately or publicly, to have obtained a certificate confirming their adherence to Hellenism.

A centralised and politicised state religion with a specific doctrinal and ritual agenda necessarily involved definition and codification. Athanassiadi describes this undertaking in the fourth chapter, entitled 'Codifier pour mieux contrôler: la loi et le canon'. It was achieved, after a period of doctrinal hesitations, by Theodosius, whose repressive and complete imposition of Nicean orthodoxy and persecution of paganism were imitated and even enhanced by his successors, and institutionalised through the Theodosian Code published under his grandson Theodosius II. Further dissensions within the Church were mercilessly rejected, and the 'heresies' with their 'errors' were themselves listed and codified in such works as the Panarion by Epiphanius of Salamis. The development of dogmatic florilegia after the Council of Chalcedon marked the end of theological debate, what the author calls 'la culture discursive', and only a few dissident voices were heard from then on, among whom Procopius, whose statement that 'life was for all without laughter' (Anecdota 26, 10) is given as an example of the culminating point of the 'pensée unique'.

The picture painted by Athanassiadi is grim to say the least. The short epilogue suggesting that Byzantine mysticism and holy fools were a way of contesting the religious totalitarianism put into place in late antiquity does little to lighten it. By insisting on the violence, both latent and expressed, in words or in acts, that pervaded the world of late antiquity, she wants to undermine the optimistic model of a well-balanced multicultural society, where conflict was marginal and convivencia paramount, that has been developed over the years by 'le club anglo-saxon'. She is certainly right to a large extent, in the sense that religious conflict has been downplayed by many (but not all) scholars of the period. However, she has also based her entire argument on religious sources, which by definition will overrepresent the cases of conflict and discord. As one who has worked widely with documentary sources, especially papyri, I have been consistently struck by the lack of any echo of most religious controversies in those texts, which originate in everyday life. Conflict is very present in those documents, but it is social conflict, often of a broadly economic nature.

In their reliance on narrative sources, overwhelmingly focused on political and religious issues, many late antique cultural historians tend to see society through a very special filter, and to equate it with the ideas, feelings and world views of its intellectual elite. Ultimately this book, like the ones it castigates, is about the superstructure, not about the base. The debate between two visions of late antiquity, one positive, one negative, is a debate about late antique ideology, not late antique society. I entirely agree with Athanassiadi that late antique ideology became totalitarian with surprising ease and that scholars today accept and justify this discourse all too readily, probably because they have more than 1500 years of it behind them and have become accustomed to some of its monstrosities. Where I diverge is in the belief that it reflects the social reality of the late Empire; contrary to her, I do not believe Procopius when he says that people stopped laughing.

Athanassiadi makes a very important point in this book. Although it was under the Christian emperors that the 'theocratic' view came to prevail, it was not an effect of Christianity alone, but of the specific circumstances offered by the conjunction of an exclusive monotheistic religion and an Empire which was itself developing a centralised control of its religious system. This is a very welcome reminder that historical change is gradual and continuous, and the book's shift in focus from Constantine to Decius as the starting point of the transformation from early to late Empire is not only refreshing, but absolutely necessary. The paradigm of Constantine's 'revelation' and subsequent 'revolution' still dominates the perception of that period to the point that throughout academia, 'Roman' history invariably ends with Diocletian: from Constantine onwards it is 'Late' something or other, and is taught by different people, often in different departments.

In opposition to the 'optimists', Athanassiadi clearly sees the the coming of Islam as marking end of late antiquity. Thus on the one hand, she equates late antique and late Roman; on the other, she calls 'Hellenistic' the entire period during which Hellenic culture prospered in the East. The title of the introduction, 'D'Alexandre à Mahomet', heralds this approach, and in many ways she has a point. However, ending this great épopée with Muhammad is not an obvious choice: Hellenic culture continued for some time after the coming of Islam; neither is it an innocent choice: it returns to Henri Pirenne's paradigm, signaled also by the (certainly deliberate) use of the form 'Mahomet', which resonates not only with nineteenth-century usage, but perhaps more importantly with Pirenne's title, Mahomet et Charlemagne (1937). Is it because Islam marks the culmination of the 'theocratic' ideology, as implied in the description of the minaret and minbar as symbols of the 'new order' (36)? Athanassiadi does not go into this question—Islam is simply left out of the picture.

In such a short but wide-ranging survey there will inevitably be many inaccuracies, and many complex issues will be passed over too rapidly. It is pointless to note such details as it was not the author's intention to deal with them. The intensely contemporary and anachronistic vocabulary ('pensée unique', coined by the French left to describe neo-liberalism; 'intolérance', which needs more discussion; 'immigrés' to describe the peregrini who received citizenship in AD 212...) is voluntarily provocative and one can accept it as a literary device intended to convey to the modern reader the negative aspects of the late antique world. One might, however, discuss her initial premise: that before the Roman Empire turned 'theocentric', antiquity was 'anthropocentric'. Was it really? There is, in this account, a plot that would not have been alien to the contemporaries of Giambattista Vico (whom Athanassiadi mentions on p. 34 concerning the autobiographical nature of the writing of history): the joyful, human-centered world of classical antiquity giving way to the dark theocracy of the middle ages. Although there is no suggestion that Humanism made it all good again, one imagines by association that had the narrative gone this far in time it is indeed the version that would have prevailed—and personally, I am not sure I am entirely comfortable with this view of history.


1.   Andrea Giardina, 'Esplosione di tardoantico', Studi storici 40 (1999) 157-80.

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