Thursday, February 27, 2014


Anna Leone, The End of the Pagan City: Religion, Economy, and Urbanism in Late Antique North Africa. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xxii, 319. ISBN 9780199570928. $150.00.

Reviewed by Catherine Conybeare, Bryn Mawr College (

Version at BMCR home site


Sometimes a picture is worth many pages of words. There is a remarkable photograph on the dust jacket of The End of the Pagan City (also, in black and white, on p. 208). Taken by the author in the Severan basilica of Lepcis Magna, it is described as an "ambo made of reused marbles". At a casual glance, I assumed it was a photoshopped pastiche: the juxtapositions of size, texture, color seem so outlandish, the adaptations of function so improbable; the very perspective of the image seems out of alignment. Leone's project in the book is to determine, solely through archaeological sources, the patterns of continuity and change in religious practices and use of urban space through a broad swath of North Africa in late antiquity; and, further, to determine whether observable change was driven by economic or religious motives. Looking at the jumble of stone and marble on her cover, I realize that the photograph is a summary representation of the near-impossibility of arriving at any clear answers. When was each piece of the pastiche moved to its current position? Why? How? From where?

Leone's claim for archaeology is that it can "draw a picture that is not biased by doctrinal approaches or by theological disputes" (3). The problem with that, as emerges from her rather cursory survey of the parameters of her project in chapter 1, is that archaeology—in this instance, at any rate—cannot speak to theological disputes either. (Leone does not mention the possibility of latterday theological bias in the archaeology of Christian North Africa.) The great North African dispute of the fourth century, between Donatism and what became Catholicism, is archaeologically illegible. So too is the Arianism of the Vandals, who controlled North Africa from the 430s until the Byzantine re-conquest a hundred years later. What Leone is interrogating is a gradual shift to an urban environment that was predominantly, if indeterminately, Christian, complicated as it was by profound shifts in the economic infrastructure and the distribution of power.

Leone organizes her enquiry thematically; since we move, roughly speaking, from temples to churches, there is a loose chronological progression too. Chapter 2, "The fate of pagan religious architecture", focuses on temples, though there are also some remarks about private cult spaces. Temples, in general, were not destroyed; indeed, they remained officially under state control even after the edicts prohibiting their cult use. A fascinating edict from the Codex Justinianus (quoted p. 77, n. 168) decrees that the marble and gilded decoration of a "basilica" should remain intact; marriages should not be performed there, nor should horses be brought in! But this, as so often with legal pronouncements, seems to reflect a rearguard action: in fact, there was a pattern of reusing abandoned temples, both their space and their decorations, which were sometimes systematically removed and stored. Reuse as a church seems to have been rare—notwithstanding the aggressive intervention of Aurelius in Carthage, who placed an episcopal cathedra in the temple; Leone estimates 5% (62). Some were converted to private space, some to commercial use; some, it seems, simply stood. A church might, however, be built in a temple courtyard, or in the bath complex associated with a temple. In Madauros, a frigidarium was repurposed as a church (one can almost hear the jokes about that). From this complicated picture, Leone concludes that though religious change prompted the fate of temples, it did not structure the patterns of their reuse: "economy, expressions of power, and necessity were the driving forces that determined the conversion of pagan religious monuments" (82).

Chapter 3 addresses "Pagan continuity and religious attitudes". Although the last reference to restoration or rebuilding for the imperial cult is early in the period—the late third or early fourth century—the cult persisted in various forms, notably in the continuation into the Vandal period of the titles flamen perpetuus and sacerdotalis provinciae. These could be held by those who were demonstrably Christian; Leone lists all pertinent inscriptions in Appendix 1. Imperial cult statues form refractory evidence—too easily moved, impossible to determine whether, at a given moment, they carried ideological weight or were merely decorative—but Leone suggests, following Th├ębert, that "the centre of propaganda moved from the forum to the baths" (117) because of the presence of statuary there. She concludes that paganism was related to "culturally necessary actions and behaviours" which survived, whatever the progress of Christianity, in the secular sphere; late antique towns were "populated essentially by profane communities." 1

Chapter 4 looks at "The fate of statues" more generally. Once again, the reuse of statues was apparently favored over destroying them or commissioning new works; Leone makes the excellent point that the tradition of damnatio memoriae had accustomed a Roman audience to such reuse. There seems to have been a market for statues, possibly state-controlled; certainly, they were moved around and rearranged in an apparent urban horror vacui. Some may have been kept in temples now functioning as museums—whatever exactly that meant: a provision in the Codex Theodosianus says that these "images ... should be measured by the value of their art, not their divinity".2 A few were literally defaced, or had crosses carved onto them, but they were the exceptions. Even if the statues were taken down, they seem more likely to have been stored than destroyed.

Chapter 5 discusses "Spolia in churches", and—as we might expect from the cover image—the picture is messier than ever. Leone points out that the recycling of building materials was already common throughout the Roman period. Two things, however, make the North African record different. First, the import trade in building materials, especially marble, diminished drastically after the third century, and only revived with the Byzantine "explosion of urban monumentality" (190) in the early sixth century. Second, "local independent traditions" of stoneworking developed (206, 232) in urban workshops in the intervening period—for example, Corinthian capitals were produced to a distinctive North African design. Baths and theatres were most often dismantled for spoliation; this too may have been under state control. Spolia were reused, Leone observes, with a "pointed indifference" (how does she know?) to their original context (229); their aesthetic of irregularity and asymmetry she likens to Michael Roberts' "jeweled style", though to draw parallels between an idiosyncratic motif of late antique poetry and an architectural aesthetic born primarily of paucity and "convenience" (234) seems tenuous.

In conclusion, Chapter 6 asserts that "religion was not (apart from specific cases or events) a source of friction in Late Antique North Africa". Despite that parenthetical caveat, anyone who has read Brent Shaw's recent book may feel that this picture is rather too eirenic.3 But in archaeological terms, this may be true. Cities required to maintain urban monumentality did so largely through spoliation. There seems to have been no superstition attached to reusing material from temples for churches (though did Catholics and Donatists perhaps squabble over choice spolia?). Leone draws the conclusion towards which she has nudged us throughout the book, that economic considerations, not ideological ones, dictate the transformation of the urban landscape.

But Leone's account, despite its ambitious range, leaves many gaps. Differences of topography or urban power structures are occluded. (You would never guess from this book, for example, that the Vandals made Carthage their capital.) I longed for Leone to dig into the complexities of a particular city or site rather than flitting from example to example. (The exception is the descriptive account of Basilica I in Sabratha, 220-9 and Appendix 2; more typical is a "case study" in Chapter 5, again of Carthage, that covers one and a half pages.) Maps of sites indicating clearly identifiable "Christian" and "pagan" buildings would have illuminated her argument —see the exemplary map on p. 205 of Douglas Boin's new book on Ostia, a natural comparandum for this one.4 And although Leone often invokes the notion of monumentality, she never tells us what she comprehends within the term.

Above all, to what degree are the conclusions of the book shaped by the explicit focus on urban monumentality, when so much of the new Christian building was outside city walls? By this, I mean not just the extramural Christian churches that were nonetheless clearly attached to cities; what about truly rural churches, like the seventy-three charted in a single survey of central Numidia? Of these, Peter Brown writes, "The ruins of these churches represent a hidden Africa".5 Leone herself refers to the "large monumental complex of the basilica" at Theveste (204), with its "newly sculpted" decorations, which Brown discusses as an example of the "hidden Africa". The coastal cities may have been economizing; the hinterland, it seems, could still devote enormous wealth to Christian projects.

So the ambo from Lepcis Magna tells only part of the story; of complexity, yes, and indeterminacy, but also of what is not here. I am reminded of a passage in the wonderful novel by Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men. The young Libyan narrator tags along on a college trip to Lepcis Magna, and is awestruck by the ruins: "Absence was everywhere".


1.   This echoes the recent conclusions of Peter Brown: "The Christian church remained pinned into a niche of its own in late Roman society. It was kept there by the sheer weight of a profane Roman state and by the robustly secular attitudes of those who ran it." Through the Eye of a Needle (Princeton 2012), 383. (Leone uses an epigraph from an earlier work of Brown.)
2.   CTh 16.10.8, cited by Leone on p. 130: "simulacra ... artis pretio quam divinitate metienda".
3.   Brent Shaw, Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine (Cambridge 2011).
4.   Douglas Boin, Ostia in Late Antiquity (Cambridge 2013).
5.   Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle, 334.

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