New Work on Churches in the Peloponnesus

I was pretty excited to read Rebecca Sweetman’s newest article on the Early Christian churches of the Peloponnesus in the the most recent American Journal of Archaeology. Not only has her work done a tremendous amount to recover my dissertation (on the same topic) from academic invisibility by citing regularly, but she also gave my blog a citation. More than the selfish pleasure of having one’s work recognized, Sweetman has done a great job bringing these neglected buildings into the scholarly spotlight. We can only hope that her insightful and important work will help these buildings gain more attention and enjoy for fully in the revived interest in Late Antiquity. 

Sweetman’s work is both better than mine, but also different. She has brought a more impressive arsenal of theoretical work to understanding these building and their role in Christianization. She has also a more intimate familiarity with the archaeology of these buildings from her time working at the acropolis basilica in Sparta. Finally, she has a more subtle and expansive view of the monuments themselves. In short, I’m jealous of her command of the source material. So, go read her work!

That being said, I do have a few little comments, which are less objections to her arguments than different takes on the same body of evidence:

1. Memory and Pagan Monuments. Sweetman thinks critically about memory in her work and agues that Early Christian basilicas and liturgy relied on the active memory of pagan and civic rituals to produce meaning, and by extension to produce a Christian ritual and social world. She notes that a few Early Christian churches in Greece were located near recently abandoned or still functioning pagan sanctuaries (the most famous examples being Olympia and Epidauros).

She also notes that Early Christian basilicas were built on the sites of long abandoned pagan monuments (e.g. Nemea). The usual reasoning for this phenomena is that abandoned pagan sanctuaries were a source of building material or the sites of settlements unrelated to the earlier history of the place. Sweetman hints (albeit vaguely) that memory of pagan activities could adhere to even long abandoned sanctuaries. I couldn’t help think of one of my favorite saints, John “The Strange” O Xenos from Crete. He discovered a long abandon pagan sanctuary and did spiritual battle with the lingering presence of paganism there and built a church. 

From the perspective of Early Christianity in Greece, these long abandoned pagan sanctuaries might be ideal places for Christian churches. They leverage lingering memories, but avoid direct confrontation with existing pagan practices. Moreover, the appropriation of these sites of lapsed pagan practices both emphasized continuity with the distant past as well as placing contemporary paganism as somehow innovative and different from historical practices. This move by Christianity had the potential of being more powerful than simply siddling up to existing sanctuaries. Christianity was appropriating the historical landscape of paganism.

2. Church Building and Elite Practice. Sweetman argues that some church construction paralleled elite practices of munificence by allowing elites to continue to patronize cult activities but to do so as part of Christian practices. I don’t disagree with this argument, but I do wonder whether emphasizing traditional practices of elite benefaction overlooks changes in Christian attitudes toward giving to the poor and to the church as part of a larger route to salvation. Changing Christian attitudes toward giving opened new ways for church builders to fund their buildings and freed them from existing networks of aristocratic wealth which often proved an obstacle to the centralizing tendency of the organized church.

There is evidence from the Adriatic coast and from Greece of rather small donations (<1 solidus) to the decoration of churches. This would have been within the budget of people of middling means in the Late Roman world. The tendency for these small donations to appear in groups in a building suggests that the church was recruiting groups of these donors. The appearance of anonymous donors of small amounts hints that the motive for giving was less about developing civic prestige and more about seeking divine rewards. 

3. Christianization vs. Monumentalization. Finally, I have come to wonder more and more whether looking at the Early Christian churches of the Peloponnesus has less to do with Christianization and more to do with the monumentalization process. While I recognize that building monumental architecture was closely tied to the spread of Christianity from the 4th on, I also wonder whether our linking of these two processes together obscure the real reason for the appearance of so many large buildings in Greece in the later 5th and 6th centuries. The 5th and 6th centuries were wracked by Christological debates that fractured Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean, but particularly in Greece where imperial and ecclesiastical policies were often at odds with each other.

Investment in monumental architecture, in this scenario, had less to do with the spread of Christianity, and more to do with the development of competition between groups within Christianity who had access to resources to make their claims in the Greek landscape. The proliferation of churches around cities like Corinth need not represent the expansion of the Christian community in this place, but rather may represent the appearance of groups with competing claims around this important city. This would help explain the multiple baptisteries, the multiple synthrona, and the subtle, but obvious differences in architecture and decoration in these buildings.

Finally, Sweetman and I would both have great little books on the Early Christian architecture and Christianization of Greece:

Hers would include her 2013 article, and the two articles she published this year (in the ABSA (pdf) and the AJA).

Mine is sketched out here.

It’s a good time to be an Early Christian basilica in Greece!

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