Ward-Perkins, Bryan: The Impact of Christianity

The case of Rome is particularly well documented and particularly impressive, but, on a lesser scale, the same transformation was slowly taking place all over the empire. As temples and many secular monuments were gradually abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin, so new Christian buildings emerged-in particular, the great church of each city’s bishop and the shrines the extramural cemeteries, built over the graves of the martyrs.

The change in the cities from paganism to Christianity was played out not only in shifting monumental topography, but also in the organization of time, with a slow change in the calendar away from the celebration of the feasts of one religion and towards the feasts of another. This move was neither easy nor rapid, nor indeed ever fully completed, because the traditional feast-days, like 1 January, and the traditional rhythms of the year had such a profound hold. The survival of ancient feast-days was unacceptable to many churchmen, in part because of their enduring pagan associations, even if stripped of overt pagan practices (such as sacrifice), and in part because they were times for spectacles in the theatre, amphitheatre and circus, of which the more austere Christian teachers did not approve. Christian writers and teachers, like Chrysostom, Augustine and Salvian, attempted to make clear to their flocks that they should eschew these pleasures,(63) but, unsurprisingly, ordinary Christian men and women continued to enjoy the traditional entertainments for as long as there were patrons prepared to provide them.

The legislation of Christian emperors attempted to steer a middle path between the more ascetic teachings of the church, and the dictates of tradition and desires of the people. For instance, in 399 Honorius wrote to the governor of Africa Proconsularis:

When through a salutary law we abolished profane rites, we did not wish to abolish the festive assembly of citizens and the common pleasure of all. Therefore we decree that entertainments should be provided for the people, in accordance with ancient custom, but without any sacrifice or damnable superstition. (C.Th. xvi.10.17)

The celebrations of the major Christian festivals, both empire-wide (as in the case of Easter and Christmas) and locally (as in the case of the feast of a local patron saint), were, of course, very different in style from the days of sacrifices, shows and spectacles characteristic of antiquity. But, like the feasts of the past, when patricians and plebs had met together (in suitably differentiated seats) in theatre, amphitheatre and circus, the Christian feasts gradually came to serve as moments of reunion, suitable for the reaffirmation of both civic unity and of the correct ordering of society. In each civitas the Christian aristocracy were expected to come into town from their estates for the major feasts of the Christian year, which the whole community celebrated together in the great church. In this way the cities retained their central ritual and social function within the very different context of a new religion.

More fundamentally, the cities also retained their importance because the structure of the new church, as established before and during the fourth century, not surprisingly followed quite closely the city-based pattern of the secular imperial administration. Although there were exceptions to this rule, in general each civitas or polis acquired a bishop based in the capital city of that civitas. Subscriptions to early church councils, such as that at Arles in 314, show that many civitates already had bishops by the early fourth century, but in some regions, such as northern Gaul and Britain, it was perhaps only by about 400 that a full network of bishoprics had been set up.(64) The bishop and his church were central to the Christian lives of his whole flock, both rural and urban. He appointed and could dismiss all priests within his civitas, and he controlled all church finance. The only baptistery within a civitas was normally that attached to the bishop’s church, and dwellers in the rural areas had to come into town for baptism, as well as to celebrate the major feasts of the Christian year.

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