Saturday, 16 February 2013

Book Review: Pagan City and Christian Capital

Pagan City and Christian Capital: Rome in the 4th CenturyPagan City and Christian Capital: Rome in the 4th Century by John Curran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This academic tome is an in-depth look at Rome's architectural and social development in the fourth century AD, a time when paganism was waning and Christianity became the dominant religion.

The first half looks at how the imperial capital, replete with symbols of paganism, slowly transformed into a place of churches and the tombs of martyrs. The second half is social history, looking at the development of the aristocracy of the time and at changing attitudes towards the Roman circus.

There are surprises throughout. While more simplistic books often describe the fourth century as a time of conflict between paganism and Christianity, the reality Curran reveals was much more complex. Christians and pagans lived and worked side by side, and except for some notable examples of persecution, pagans kept most of their religious rights for much of this century.

One of the most interesting chapters was on how Christian aristocrats discouraged individuals of their class from becoming Christian ascetics. (It was all about inheritance and continuing the family line, you see). Another interesting passage studies how the pagan symbols in the Circus Maximus remained in full public view long after most temples were closed, yet gradually lost their pagan meaning to be replaced with a more general one. The statues of Victory, for example, stopped being statues of a goddess and became symbols of the idea of victory.

I found the reading a bit dense at times and the author assumes way too much knowledge. I have a Masters in archaeology (although not Classical archaeology) but didn't know all the terms Curran expected me to. Also, he quotes extensively from French, Latin, and Greek sources without translating them. The French I can do, the Latin kinda sorta, and the Greek, well. . .it's all Greek to me!

I think Curran made a serious mistake here. With a bit of extra work, he could attract a much larger readership of educated laymen rather than a tiny audience of fellow academics. Considering the interesting subject matter and the depth of work that went into this book, that's a pity.

View all my reviews

No comments:

Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Civil War Horror blog, where he focuses on Civil War and Wild West history.

You can also find him on his Twitter feed and Facebook page.