Thursday, January 14, 2016


David M. Gwynn, Christianity in the Later Roman Empire: A Sourcebook. Bloomsbury sources in ancient history. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. Pp. xix, 293. ISBN 9781441122551. $120.00 (hb). ISBN 9781441106261. $39.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst (

Version at BMCR home site


This sourcebook by David Gwynn is meant as a guide for beginning students, but advanced scholars, too, will read it with pleasure and profit. Unlike most other sourcebooks, Gwynn does not just list relevant texts with a short introduction to each of them or explanatory notes. He presents us with a concise thematic history of Christianity in the fourth through sixth centuries, with the quotes from ancient sources interlaced with his running text. These sources range from the New Testament to Bede, but the focus is mainly on the period from the accession of Diocletian in 284 to the rise of Islam.

The topics dealt with are: Christianity and Rome; the Great Persecution; the conversion of Constantine; Constantine and the imperial church; the Donatist schism; the doctrine of the Trinity; scripture and liturgy; the ecclesiastical hierarchy; emperor and bishop; asceticism and monasticism; christianization; paideia: Christianity and classical culture; Christians, Jews and Manichees; gender and society; holy men and holy women; pilgrimage and relics; missionaries and kings; the city of God; christological controversies; Christianity and the barbarian invasions; and in an epilogue, the dawn of medieval Christendom.

On these topics Gwynn has selected almost 300 fragments or excerpts, ranging in length from one line to one-and-half pages. The sources quoted are a felicitous mix of well-chosen Christian and non-Christian texts, both literary and juridical. Some are well-known (e.g. Eusebius' Life of Constantine), others much less so (e.g. Sebeos' Armenian History or the inscription on the ancient Projecta Casket in the British Museum). There are no explanatory footnotes, which is sometimes unfortunate since beginners will require clarification of some of these texts. At the end of each chapter Gwynn gives a helpful selective bibliography. Regretfully (but understandably) he lists only books in English. The book also contains two maps of the Roman Empire (around 300 and 500 CE).

In the case of sourcebooks it is always possible to quibble about the selection of texts. That would seem to be futile here in view of the richness of material that Gwynn presents. Yet I wonder whether it would not have been useful to spend some pages on the most important opponents of Christianity. To be sure, there are some quotes from Julian the Apostate, albeit only from his Letters, not from his Contra Galilaeos. But the most formidable adversary of the new faith, Porphyry of Tyre, is missing. In view of the fact that Porphyry was still active during the reign of Diocletian (he died ca. 305 CE), it would have been worthwile to include some of the extant fragments of his Contra Christianos. If Porphyry's well informed attack on Christianity was so dangerous that several Christian authors from the fourth and even the fifth century still felt the need to combat him and refute his ideas, it would certainly make sense to pay attention to his views in a sourcebook on Christianity in Late Antiquity. Or Gwynn could have chosen some salient quotes from the work of the anonymous anti-Christian author whose fragments have been preserved in Macarius of Magnesia's Apokritikos (or Monogen̻s), which dates almost certainly to the fourth century. Another point of criticism is that almost all texts in Gwynn's selection are from literary works Рdocumentary texts from papyri and inscriptions are virtually absent. How much these non-literary sources can contribute to our knowledge of Christianity in the later Roman empire is shown abundantly in, for example, A.D. Lee's comparable but very different sourcebook.1 The chapter on christianization could have profited, for instance, from material in the papyri of the Sortes Astrampsychi in both their pagan and their christianized forms. But these quibbles apart, Gwynn has done all students of Christianity in the Later Roman Empire a great service by compiling this well-researched sourcebook.


1.   A.D. Lee, Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity: A Sourcebook, London; New York: Routledge, 2000 (BMCR 2001.07.20).

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