Sunday, September 3, 2017


Nathaniel DesRosiers, Lily C. Vuong (ed.), Religious Competition in the Greco-Roman World. Writings from the Greco-Roman world Supplement series, 10. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016. Pp. xviii, 326. ISBN 9781628371369. $44.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Allan T. Georgia, Shaker Heights, OH (

Version at BMCR home site


Tracing the role that competition played in the religious cultures of the Greco-Roman world is an enormous task. In a second volume exploring this theme, Nathaniel P. DesRosiers and Lily C. Vuong have collected essays that make important inroads in how religious subjects (of various kinds) competed and were subject to contest in the late ancient Mediterranean world.1 The collection is organized around four broad themes, with short essays introducing each section that tie the essays together. The collection is impressive and wide-ranging, which is appropriate to its purpose. This volume collects essay from a range of religious traditions, times and places under a unifying focus on how these traditions reflect competition—a concept whose commonality belies its highly complex dimensionality.

The diverse venues for competition are evident beginning in the first section of the book. Carly Daniel-Hughes begins by discussing Tertullian's use of idolatria and dress in a series of treatises written for Christian insiders. She argues that the concern about idolatry in dress is a function of his perspective that civic life constituted "a minefield of potential conflict that might compromise a Christian's virtue" (17). Daniel-Hughes tracks how Tertullian parses fashion as a potentially idolatrous part of a contentious, religious landscape. Arthur Urbano Jr.'s essay on the "philosopher type" in late Roman art balances a focus on material examples—including an especially illuminating discussion of the third century Hypogeum of the Aurelii in Rome—and a set of acute theoretical questions to propose that language of "cultural competition" can yield a better way to understand the way that artistic topoi were adapted by Christians and produced for Christian audiences in the third century.

The two essays that follow shift from the mid-third to the fourth century. Nathaniel DesRosiers' long essay on Constantine's coinage argues that coinage was an important medium through which elites competed. Imperial politics in the late Roman world was defined by competition, and DesRosiers makes the case that this was reflected in a coinage program overseen by a competitive but pragmatic Emperor. DesRosiers also provides a historical account of Constantine's coinage that is exceptionally detailed and illuminating. Catherine Chin's essay on Ambrose of Milan and the synagogue at Callinicum, which was destroyed by a Christian mob in 388 or 389 CE, provides an integrated final essay for the first section of this collection. Chin reads Ambrose's rhetoric against the physical landscape of cities in the Roman Mediterranean. Chin's exposition about the relationship between Ambrose's rhetoric and the shape and meaning of cities is both subtle and incisive. "Language was, of course, magic and persuasion, law and liturgy. But words were also located in urban space, and physical places provided the points of origin for certain kinds of efficacious speech: nonhuman force could be transferred from buildings to words or vice versa," Chin explains, with sapient prose (65). In the context of this continuum of language from words to physical landscapes, Chin reads Ambrose's Letter 74 as an effort meant to bring the ecclesial and the imperial together for the sake of Theodosius, but in doing so, Ambrose limns a cityscape in which word and façade, person and station, and the physical and spiritual blend together.

The next section considers a more narrow field of competition among Neoplatonist philosophers and intellectuals. Illaria L.E. Ramelli offers a carefully researched account of the Neoplatonic intellectual landscape of the third century, with a special focus on the competing claims made by Neoplatonists about what was intellectually authoritative. She also argues at some length that the Neoplatonist known as Origen and the Christian Origen are the same individual, noting the fundamental congruity between both historical figures. She argues persuasively that Origen is not only a path-breaking Christian interpreter, but also a Neoplatonic apologist for the potential for attaining wisdom through the exegetical readings of Judaic scriptures. Next, Gregory Shaw develops a discussion of the theurgic significance of ancient wisdom by investigating how Porphyry and Iamblichus of Chalcis understood divine names that were otherwise unintelligible—the ὀνόματα βάρβαρα. The inaccessibility of the meaning of these invocations, according to Shaw, did not stop Iamblichus from breaking with Porphyry's Hellenocentrism and approving the wisdom available to those who could communicate with the gods in an unknown tongue. In her essay, Laura B. Dingeldein offers a deep dive into the emperor Julian's Hymn to the Mother of the Gods (Or. 5) in order to argue that Julian interpreted the Metroac myth through the lens of broadly Neoplatonic traditions. It is, thus, an example of "the esoteric meaning-making of a literate specialist with political power" that demonstrates how Julian's intellectual efforts were part of a public and contentious world of fourth-century elites (128).

Stanley K. Stowers' essay on "elite" versus "popular" religion in the ancient Mediterranean builds upon concepts first discussed in his essay, "The Religion of Plant and Animal Offerings versus the Religion of Meanings, Essences, and Textual Mysteries."2 In this essay, he parses out the relationship between those deemed elites and those associated with "popular" religion by explaining the non-mutual dependency of the former on the latter. Stowers mines the insights of cognitive psychology and develops an engaging interpretation of Pierre Bourdieu in order to argue that these kinds of religion have a dynamic and occasionally interconnected relationship. But he also argues that, while "elites" were dependent upon "popular" religion and could adapt and reinterpret it, "popular" religion was fundamentally independent of these elites and their practices. Stower's contribution is, without a doubt, the volume's standout offering, demonstrated by its appearance in the footnotes of other essays in the collection. Its theoretical insights and historical precision will prove to be deeply influential on subsequent discussions of religious competition in late antiquity.

Following Stowers' theoretical essay are a series of essays that focus on specific textual examples of competition and how they operate. In an essay discussing the contended significance of the terms μυστήριον and εὐσέβεια, T. Christopher Hoklotubbe reads 1 Timothy alongside their usage in Philo and Plutarch in order to argue that what appears in 1 Timothy is part of an effort to claim cultural capital for its interpretation within a larger philosophical marketplace. Karl Shuve dips into the Jovinianist controversy in order to read Ambrose's Isaac, or The Soul) as a text that exploits the controversy over asceticism and marriage, by way of long-used ascetic topoi that draw on nuptial imagery in the Biblical Song of Songs. Ambrose's goal, according to Shuve, is to use this imagery to shift what was meant by the concepts of "Roman" and "Christian." Loren R. Spielman explores the fundamental congruity between early Rabbinical and Christian accounts of the culture of spectacle in the early Roman Empire. In an illuminating reading of Tatian's Oration to the Greeks and Tertullian's On Spectacles alongside a series of early midrashim and the Tosefeta, Spielman suggests that these texts share a response to spectacle and a posture of outsider-criticism that link them in the contentious urban spaces of the Empire. Her reading uncovers a shared use of Psalm 1:1 in their criticism that clinches a shared tradition that seems to have persisted until later interpreters developed these criticisms along disparate trajectories in the centuries that followed.

Part 4 begins with another noticeable temporal shift as Mary Joan Winn Leith and Allyson Everingham Sheckler's chapter brings the discussion from the third century to the mid–fifth century. They consider how the possession (or lack thereof) of relics functioned as loci of holiness that distinguished Christian sanctuaries in Rome and its environs. A similar focus on relics—though in a distinct religious context—is in view in Adam Bursi's discussion of early Muslim veneration of the prophet's hair in narratives meant to model how to "perform Muslim-ness" before it was clear what that might mean. Dina Boero's treatment of the Syriac Life of Symeon the Stylite demonstrates how a single holy figure could be associated with distinct locales that were far apart, which competed with each other by laying claim to a more intimate association with the figure's holiness. Closing the section and the volume, Gary Vikan's essay discusses how votive offerings—i.e., offerings that were left at shrines and holy sites—evolved in the eastern Mediterranean and prompted their own specific forms of competitive back-and-forth. He goes on to explain how this functioned by tracing votive images and motifs around healing that persisted throughout the Byzantine era and beyond it.

This volume is well edited, carefully organized and easy to read, especially given the scope of its contents, some of which include black and white images. The volume includes short essays that begin each section, which are not summarized here, but they function as important glue for what might otherwise be a collection only loosely tied together. And yet, except for the editors' introduction, these essays represent the only substantial opportunity in the volume to develop a methodological account for how competition functions in an ancient religious context. The account offered in these introductory essays is admirable, but their brevity conveys better how much work there is to do than the essays provide cohesion and conceptual congruity.

This final point is, perhaps, the volume's necessary launching point. If one reads these diverse essays with eye toward how each understands the notion of competition, it is difficult to map out a coherent account of how competition functions across the series, or even precisely what kind of competition is at issue in each case. This observations provokes a number of questions: how does competition among a discreet number of individuals differ from competition among an unknown number of adversaries? Are the competitors aware of how they compete, and are their strategies rational, or are they localized and conceived off the cuff? What does any one competitor know about the strategies and moves of other competitors—and how should we conceive of competition when one does know, versus when one does not? Is "capital" always a useful term to describe what is being competed over? Where do these competitions effectively take place—do these places of competition operate as "fields?" Does competition ever yield to cooperation?

That the volume provokes but cannot answer all such questions is perhaps to be expected. It does not seek to be exhaustive. Rather, it provides an illuminating entrée into a vast and expansive terrain. Perhaps no collection like this could develop a coherent account of such a multifaceted topic. Some of the essays—Stanley K. Stowers, Catherin Chin, Arthur Urbano Jr. and Todd Krulak stand out—map out promising theories of competition (or elements thereof); others are able to develop only a very general competitive vocabulary. What is left is a desideratum for further and deeper work into the subject. The remarks offered by Susan Ashbrook Harvey in her introductory remarks to the final section on relics may stand as an assessment of one of the volume's most effective contributions: the contributions in this volume remind us that "we have much to learn," at least with respect to the study of competition in late antiquity (203). Vuong and DesRosiers, along with the contributors to this volume, have given their readers every reason to continue the project.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Conflict, cooperation, and competition in antiquity / Nathaniel P. DesRosiers, Lily C. Vuong
Part 1: Competition and material culture. Introduction: Competition and material culture through real and imagined spaces / Gregg E. Gardner
The perils of idolatrous garb: Tertullian and Christian belonging in Roman Carthage / Carly Daniel-Hughes
The philosopher type in late Roman art: problematizing cultural appropriation in light of cultural competition / Arthur P. Urbano Jr.
Suns, snakes, and altars: competitive imagery in Constantinian numismatics / Nathaniel P. DesRosiers
"Built from the plunder of Christians": words, places, and competing powers in Milan and Callinicum / Catherine M. Chin
Part 2: Competition and Neoplatonsim. Introduction: Defining competition in Neoplatonism / Todd Krulak
Origen's allegoresis of Plato's and Scripture's "myths" / Ilaria L.E. Ramelli
The Neoplatonic transmission of ancient wisdom / Gregory Shaw
Julian's philosophy and his religious program / Laura B. Dingeldein. Part 3: Religious experts and popular religion. Introduction: Competition between experts and nonexperts / Daniel Ullucci
Why expert versus nonexpert is not elite versus popular religion: the case of the third century / Stanley K. Stowers
Great is the mystery of piety: contested claims to piety in Plutarch, Philo, and 1 Timothy / T. Christopher Hoklotubbe
Nuptial imagery, Christian devotion, and the marriage debate in late Roman society / Karl Shuve
Competing for the competitors: Jewish and Christian responses to spectacle / Loren R. Spielman
Part 4: Competition and relics. Introduction: The competition for relics in late antiquity / Susan Ashbrook Harvey
Relics? What relics? / Mary Joan Winn Leith, Allyson Everingham Sheckler
A hair's breadth: the prophet Muhammad's hair as relic in early Islamic texts / Adam Bursi
Promoting a cult site without bodily relics: sacred substances and imagined topography in The Syriac Life of Symeon the Stylite / Dina Boero
From Asclepius to Simeon: votives and sacred healing in late antiquity / Gary Vikan.


1.   The earlier volume is Jordan D. Rosenblum, Lily Vuong, and Nathaniel DesRosiers, eds. Religious Competition in the Third Century CE: Jews, Christians, and the Greco-Roman World (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014)
2.   in Jennifer Wright Knust and Zsuzsanna Várhelyi (eds.), Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 35-56.

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