Climate and Religion in the Late Roman Mediterranean

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading about in the recent work on the climate history, climate change, and the Anthropocene. I’ve been sucked into John Brooke’s massive work, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey (Cambridge 2014) and spent altogether too much time surfing the footnotes. To simplify a very complex and nuanced book, Brooke argues that large-scale climate change has had a direct impact on the development of human culture. In particular, he argues that “the structure of human history is distinctly “Gouldian”/punctuational, with long periods of relative stability (stasis) interrupted by well- de ned breaks best understood as episodic (not necessarily cyclical) global climate crises – Dark Ages, perhaps – increasingly augmented and surpassed by the eruption of epidemic disease and destructive warfare.” In other words, he human populations, culture, and society as stable and resilient. As a result, change has tended to come when particularly disruptive natural events (in contrast to the slow pressures of, say, population growth) push populations to adapt quickly. Not every natural catastrophe had this impact on human societies, but many did.

Last week, David Pettegrew took the first mighty swing at the introduction to our Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology.  He traced the history of Early Christian archaeology and left us looking ahead to a section on the future of the study of Christian material culture. One of the issues that Brooke’s book has pushed me to consider – as well as recent works (such as the admitted problematic works like Ronnie Ellenblum’s The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and Decline of the East 950-1072 (Cambridge 2012)) – is the role of natural disaster in the rise of Christianity. There is a growing body of evidence that Late Antiquity saw a series of closely clustered natural disasters that ranged from earthquakes and the onsets of plagues to the end of the so-called “Classical Optimum” which was characterized by relatively stable climates and warmer temperatures and the start of 400 year period of greater climate variability. For Brooke and others (most notably Michael McCormick), nature has an impact on the transformations marking the end of the ancient world.

Notable among these changes was the rise of Christianity in the Mediterranean. It is difficult to deny the rate of cultural change that took place over the Late Antique centuries. For example, the accelerated growth of Christianity during Late Antiquity (i.e. after, say, 300) paralleled changes in pagan beliefs. In fact, many of the these changes took place side-by-side and created wonderfully diverse examples of pagan-Christian syncretism. This is not to suggest that either Christianity or paganism was stable and unchanging during its previous centuries. In fact, the internal organization of Christianity from its earliest days in cities around the Eastern Mediterranean adapted to persist in a politically hostile environment which included periodically intense persecutions often triggered by local natural (or social) disasters. The ability for Christianity to survive and adapt to attacks by communities who saw Christians as disrupting social cohesion or the relationship between the community and the divine, almost certain served it well as plagues, climate change, and political and military challenges beset the region.

The challenge for an archaeology of Early Christianity remains identifying evidence for the interaction of Christianity and climate change in specific instances. 

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