More New Work on Early Christian Attica

At the end of the semester, I tend to experience a bit of priority creep as the number of “do right now” projects (grading, end of semester deadlines, and so on) begins to encroach on the “do sometime soon” or “wouldn’t it be cool to do?” projects. That kind of ontological ambiguity which is only heightened by the symbolic weight of the end of the year and gnawing fatigue that comes from the end of a semester causes bad decision making.

All this to say, I kept reading around some of the very recent work on Early Christian Attica. 

Three more things as a follow up to my post from yesterday.

First, I finished reading chapter 6 titled “Aspects of Christianity in Athens, Attica, and Adjacent Areas” in Cilliers Breytenbach and Elli Tzavella new book, Early Christianity in Athens, Attica, and Adjacent Areas, from Paul to Justinian (1st-6th cent. AD) published by Brill as the first volume in a series called Early Christianity in Greece (ECG).

It’s a really nice synthesis of the archaeology, textual, and epigraphic data with a view toward producing the kind of study that would support comparative analysis of Christianization both in Greece and the wider Eastern Mediterranean world. This kind of generalizable study is particular commendable for a city like Athens where archaeologists have tended to celebrate its uniqueness (especially in the Classical period) and the number and intensity of excavations and the city’s 19th and 20th century history creates a sample that calls into question how representative the city would be even for the later periods. That said, the sober analysis of Breytenbach and Tzavella drawn from cemeteries, epigraphy, architecture, and texts reveals a region that underwent gradual conversion to Christianity (perhaps punctuated by episodes of violence). 

The attention to cemeteries and associate inscriptions, on the one hand, allows the authors to probe social and economic organization of the Christian community on a granular level by noting the prevalence of family burials and the range of professions named in Christian epigraphy. They could contrast this with the story of monumental architecture which traced the consolidation of worship, certain aspects of the economy, and ecclesiastical authority around church buildings. Whether churches absorbed the function of civic and pre-Christian cults or developed a completely distinctive range of functions is left to the reader to decide.

Second, one particularly useful observation made in Breytenbach and Tzavella’s work is that the absence of monasticism in Greece has perhaps been overstated. Epigraphic evidence from Athens, Megara, and Argos suggest that monastic communities did exist in Greece despite the absence of architectural evidence for monasteries. To be honest, fourth fifth century monasticism appeared across a wide wide range of architectural forms from rural villas to urban palaces, massive purpose built monasteries, and scattered, ephemeral, and informal hermitages across the Eastern Mediterranean landscapes. The absence of explicit material traces for monasteries in Greece is no more surprising than the absence of evidence for house-churches or other spaces associated with an emerging Christianity that had not fully accommodated its institutionalize shape.  

Third, I very much enjoyed Georgios Deligiannakis’s “From Paganism to Christianity in Late Antique Athens: A Re-Evaluation” in Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler and Leonie von Alvensleben’s Athens II: Athens in Late Antiquity (2020). Deligiannakis turns his keen eye to the evidence of Christianization at Athens and in Greece and argues that despite the privileged position that Greece has enjoyed in the history of ancient religion, the evidence for the Christianization of Greece does not appear to be much different from the process as experience elsewhere in the Eastern Roman Empire.

He makes a few keen observations that I think benefit any archaeologist serious about Christianization in Greece. First, he observes that the absence of chronological control over the construction of Early Christian churches in Greece makes them a poor indicator of Christianization as a diachronic process. The excavation of a house church in Messenia which may have remained in use into the fifth century reveals that Christian communities may have continued to meet in a wide range of spaces even as monumental basilica-style churches sprouted across the landscape. 

He also argues that, if we accept Mango’s proposed fifth-century date for the conversion of the Parthenon into a church (rather than the more conventional seventh-century chronology), this changes significantly how we see the Christianization of Athens. Rather than assuming that the pagan cult practices tenaciously hung out against a Christian onslaught, it suggests a city that recognized its pagan past as part of its Christian present and rather than seeking to erase pre-Christian monuments sought to integrate them into the Christianized symbolic and ritual landscape. This finds parallels both in Greece (at Delphi and Olympia, for example, although these are not necessarily chronologically locked down) and at sites such as Aphrodisias in Anatolia which likewise saw a 5th century conversion of a temple.

That said, Deligiannakis points out that this doesn’t mean there were no episodes of violence between Christianity and paganism, but instead these appear sporadic and episodic. This not only proposed the kind of nuanced landscape that includes various individuals and groups with different levels of believe and commitments that manifests itself in different kinds of interactions. I was heartened to see that Deligiannakis took seriously my colleague Richard Rothaus’s work in the Corinthia (as well as Tim Gregory’s reading of the Christianization of Greece). 

There are a number of other interesting and useful pieces in the Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler and Leonie von Alvensleben volume including some that seek to survey recent developments (with particular attention to work done by Italian scholars) in the archaeology of Late Antique Athens. If this were to ever become a serious research concern for me, I am sure that I would eagerly devour these works. Even though that is unlikely at present, I will certainly consider the contributions in both of these volumes as I return to work in the Corinthia this spring.

New Work on Early Christian Attica

Every now and then I go back to reading something on Late Antique and Early Christian archaeology. It feels a bit like checking in with a favorite musician to see what they’re up to these days or watching the latest installment of a long running music franchise. You rarely expect something better or even different, but revisiting an old friend is always rewarding in its own right.

In that spirit, I’ve taken note of the recent buzz of activity in Early Christian and Late Antique Athens and Attica, and this weekend, I read parts of Cilliers Breytenbach and Elli Tzavella new book, Early Christianity in Athens, Attica, and Adjacent Areas, from Paul to Justinian (1st-6th cent. AD) published by Brill as the first volume in a series called Early Christianity in Greece (ECG). I have on my “desk” a copy of Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler and Leonie von Alvensleben’s Athens II: Athens in Late Antiquity (2020) that I will likely dip into today.

The Breytenbach and Tzavella book is nice work and while I haven’t made my way through all of it, I did read and enjoy the first two chapters and chapter four which was dedicated to the archaeological evidence. I might dip into chapter five, on epigraphy, and chapter six which seems to offer a social reading of the archaeological and literary evidence for Christianity in Attica. In other words, this is not a review of the book, per se, but a kind of sounding designed to discern whether the book warrants further excavations.

In that spirit, here are some thoughts:

1. Thorough Synthesis. I’ve always found the archaeological evidence for Early Christianity in Athens a bit daunting. Some of this is because the prestige of Athens has produced a particular kind of archaeology who is less a Greek archaeologist and more an archaeologist of Ancient Athens. These individuals tend to celebrate encyclopedic knowledge of both published and unpublished sites in the city and often flaunt obscure knowledge as a mark of their seriousness as a scholar. All in all, it’s pretty annoying.

That said, the centuries of archaeological work in Athens has produced a massive bibliographic record which includes thousands reports, publications, and dissertations. Claiming that any work is exhaustive even on a single monument is a fool’s errand, but Breytenbach and Tzavella do produce what appears to me to be a thorough synthesis of the diverse range of sources available for studying Late Antique and Early Christian Athens and that alone is worth noting.

2. Context Matters. What this broad synthesis has allowed them to do is to situate both monumental Early Christian remains (namely churches) and Christian epigraphy (and burials) in a broader archaeological and physical landscape. As a result, buildings (and burials) which habits of study long isolated from their archaeological landscapes suddenly appear again as the centers of settlements and garrisons, along transportation routes through the region, and, sometimes, as isolated monuments standing sentry over abandoned pagan sanctuaries. 

The relationship between settlements, churches, burials, and movement in the landscape drew heavily on the tradition of intensive and extensive survey work in Attica. Aside from some of the work that I’ve done with David Pettegrew in the Corinthia (and maybe some of the work that Thansis Vionis has done in Boeotia), I can’t recall much scholarship that combines excavated Early Christian architecture, burials, and settlements with the results of survey in such a careful way. This feels like a watershed for how we think about Early Christian landscapes. I need to dig into Chapter Six: Aspects of Christianity in Athens, Attica, and Adjacent Areas 

3. Catalogues. No work by a German scholar is complete without a catalogue and the tradition of cataloguing basilicas, burials, and sites is a long-standing one both in Late Antique Greece and in Athens and Attica. 100+ pages of catalogue of basilicas and burials is a useful description and a clear upgrade over my catalogue of Greek churches (which included those in Attica) and Ioannis Varalis’s catalogue in Greek. It may well supersede Laskaris’s Monuments funéraires paléochrétiens (et byzantins) de la Grèce (2000) for Attica.

4. Periodizing the Early Christian World. In a very recent review of the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology that I edited with David Pettegrew and Tom Davis, J.-M. Spieser complained that our definition of the Early Christianity as “understood in the old, German, tradition of “christliche Archäologie” and not, as it is more usual by now, with a chronological meaning.” This is a fair enough criticism, I suppose, and I suspect he will find fault with this new Brill series and this volume on Athens and Attica. The volume’s scope from Paul to Justinian is both an unconventional chronological range (straddling both conventional understandings of Roman and Late Antique Greece) and an especially Germanic view of “Christian Greece” (i.e. Christian remains in Greece). 

I suppose if I were editing this volume, I might have extended the chronological range about a century later. This would be consistent with the recent trend to stretch Late Antiquity into 7th century (if not later) and to understand the disruptions of the later 6th and 7th century as part of longer term processes in the history of Late Roman Greece (as opposed to radical breaks or episodes of historical discontinuity). It would also be consistent with the ecclesiastical history of Greece during these centuries which remained under the jurisdiction of the Papacy (at least nominally) until the 8th century.  

5. Publishing the Early Christian Archaeology of Greece. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been invited to write up synthetic treatments of the Corinthia for various volumes dedicated to the Early Christian period in this region. It looks as though the ECG series will produce a volume edited by C. Zimmerman dedicated to Early Christianity in Corinth and the Peloponnese

I suspect most of these works represent efforts of publishers to cash in on the library market for synthetic studies and encyclopedic surveys of particular periods and places. Indeed, our Oxford Handbook project is another example of this same impulse among publishers. On the one hand, this is probably a good thing since the sale of these synthetic works likely subsidizes the ability of publishers to produce more specialized studies and monographs. On the other hand, I wonder how much scholarly energy is being drawn into projects like these that even when exemplary produce little new knowledge. The Breytenbach and Tzavella book is best case scenario because it produces a valuable new synthesis, but even then, an honest scholar will only recognize something new in about 20% of the book. In other words, 400 pages of this book is summary and catalogue.