Negotiating Clerical Authority in Late Roman Italy

I spent part of the weekend finishing up Kristina Sessa brilliant new book on the formation of Papal authority in Late Antique Italy: K. Sessa, The Formation of Papal Authority in Late Antique Italy: Roman Bishops and the Domestic Sphere. (Cambridge 2012). As readers of this blog know, I have been fascinated with authority for years and Sessa’s book offers just the kind of sophisticated perspective to capture my attention. She outlined how expectations from the domestic sphere shaped and were shaped by the expanding power of the bishop. The book oozed with post-structuralism (although it was not explicitly framed this way) especially the work of P. Bourdieu. Domestic expectations formed the habitus within which episcopal authority negotiated its place in Late Roman society. 

The bishop drew heavily on the existing discourse of authority to position himself at the head of his flock in Italy. His efforts were manifest in his sermons, letters, and other texts which preserved the delicate dance between emerging episcopal authority and longstanding practices among the proud, if besieged, elite of the Late Roman West. The bishop partially defined his authority over his flock as the elite landowner and paterfamilias of the Christian community. This responsibility included care over the church’s resources, lands, and dependents as well as the involvement in the life of Christians in Italy. 

The bishop, however, did not merely adopt a traditional elite position in the Roman social order as if this kind of simple replacement was possible among elites understandably reluctant to cede authority. The Roman bishop adopted both traditional elite language of authority and subtly transformed it by replacing familiar familial social expectations with a new language of Christian stewardship over the earthly affairs. Stewardship emphasized the temporary character of earthly authority particularly over wealth. This required earthly elites to accept a demotion from absolute control over all his possessions to subordination to the bishop as the representative of the Christian God. Just as the bishop was God’s steward on earth, so the Roman elite stoop subordinate to the bishop at least in matters of salvation (and by extension many aspects of every day life). The intersection of the cosmic hierarchy and the earthly hierarchy placed the Roman elite in a position of authority, but also in a position of moral responsibility over their dependents and possessions just as the bishop carried out the work of God. Thus the bishop negotiated an important shift in Late Antique habitus by articulating key aspects of elite authority in Christian terms and locating social practice within a new set of cosmic relationships and expectations that, in turn, imposed new rules and obligations.

(Because this blog is all about me, I want to point out there that Sessa makes a far more sophisticated and clever version of the argument that I attempted to make in my dissertation. I attempted to show that the reorganization of social space within Early Christian basilicas both drew upon well-known rituals and social practices, but inscribed them within a new Christian cosmology. This enabled the rise of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Greece as Greek society renegotiated traditional forms according to a new set of rules.) 

The rest of the book is every bit as cool as Sessa described how the bishop of Rome put his newly articulated authority into use. Like so much scholarship these days, Sessa is deeply interested in understand how ecclesiastical authority penetrated longstanding elite patterns. She looks at how bishops became involved in marital issues, the relationship between landowners and slaves, and the family economy. As ecclesiastical elite exerted a growing influence over all aspects of religious practice, the traditional involvement of the paterfamilias over religions worship in the home eroded. This included some of the tricky issues surrounding worship at home that Kim Bowes treats at some length in her book  (my reflections on it here).

The control over the location and authority of the liturgy seems to have been central to ecclesiastical authority. If the liturgy was the primary means that the Christian community gained access to God, then the control over this mediating act was central to projecting authority over the community. 

A Few Observations on Early Christian Baptisteries

I spent a little time over the last few days reading the most recent volume of the Journal of Early Christian Studies which was a volume length consideration of Everett Ferguson’s massive, recent book Baptism in the Early Church (2009). Robin Jensen (Grand Forks native, I must add) contributed a lengthy article titled: “Material and Documentary Evidence for the Practice of Early Christian Baptism“. 

There is no way to do justice to Jensen’s elegant summary of the main literary and material evidence for baptism (and it is complemented by Ferguson’s reply later in the volume).

1. Diversity. In general, Jensen argues for the diversity of baptismal practice. Her argument rests on the architecture of the fonts, the rituals described in the texts, and the depictions in art which  show not only variation in the symbolic understanding of baptismal rituals, but also the rituals themselves. The most obvious variations come in whether the baptismal candidate is immersed or simply sprinkled with water. As Ferguson’s reply reflects, the variation in practices continues to spur debate. My inclination is to agree with Jensen and to see liturgical practice are largely non-uniform across the Early Christian Mediterranean and that this variation is captured in regional architectural differences as well as variation in the ancient texts. Ferguson admits in his response to preferring evidence from texts to material evidence, and Jensen, it would seem, preferred archaeology to texts. This approach makes sense for her argument for diversity in practice; archaeological and architectural remains have a far wider chronological and spatial distribution across the Mediterranean than our limited corpus of textual evidence. In fact, based on the diversity present in the design of fonts alone, it is almost inconceivable that the actual moment of baptism did not see at least the variation necessary to accommodate the practical reality of different font designs. (As an aside, I was disappointed that Jensen didn’t introduce some of her most controversial arguments here including her suggestion that re-baptism may have occurred at certain martyr shines.) 

2. Nature. One of the more interesting little arguments that Jensen makes in her treatment of archaeological and decorative evidence for baptism is that the baptismal fonts were sometimes adapted to evoke the original outdoor setting for the rite. In fact, she notes a device in Milan that “simulated rain falling into a pool.” (p. 380). The natural context for baptism surely evoked scenes from the New Testament where baptisms all took place outside or the pastoral settings in the Psalms that are regularly invoked in the inscriptions associated with baptisteries. Moreover, the use of mechanical means to conjure up outdoors settings brings together the use of vegetative imagery in mosaics around the font, the starry night in the domed roofs of baptistery buildings, and the need for cool, flowing water to evoke an idyllic Christian landscape of rebirth. (What she does not note, however, is that in some places in the Eastern Mediterranean (Kourion and Lechaion in Greece come immediately to mind), baptisteries were equipped with small furnaces to warm the water. It would be interesting to reflect on this variation in practice.)

3. Baths, Baptism, and Martyrs. One of the most intriguing observations offered by Jensen was the parallel between baptisteries and baths. The need for water made it the location of baptisteries near on atop the site of earlier baths not unusual. The parallel between bathing and washing clean the taint of sin is obvious as well. What is perhaps not so obvious is the link between martyrdom and bath buildings. There are a number of stories that recount the imprisonment of a saint in a bath with the most famous (to me) being the story of Ay. Demetrios of Thessaloniki. In fact, the great church of Ay. Demetrios stands atop a bath building where the saint was said to be imprisoned. One example does not make a very convincing argument, but it is intriguing to imagine the complex intersection of narratives that made vivid the intersection of bathing, baptism and martyrdom.


A Little Story about Local History

Yesterday I received an handwritten letter from an older woman who lives in California. She grew up in East Grand Forks, Minnesota. This fall, she returned to town to revisit some of her past, particularly, (as her letter says) the happy times. On her itinerary was the Grand Forks First Church of God where her brother had been married on a snowy Christmas day in early 1950s. The church has also hosted a going-away party for her brother when he went into the Air Force and it was where he received his call to join the ministry. She even recalled the name of the charismatic preacher, Reverend Ray Finley and his successor Rev. Cecil Evans. Finley’s efforts ensured that the church survived a devastating fire in the March 1944. 

When she visited town, she was not able to find the little white church on 3rd and Walnut Street and she soon learned that the church has been torn down a few months before.  She says in her letter that she was heartbroken. She contacted me because someone has mentioned to her that I might have some information about the church. She had no idea that the church was over 100 years old.

Needless to say, two copies of Chris Price’s The Old Church on Walnut Street: A Story of Immigrants and Evangelicals are now in the mail to her.

While some sense of modesty made me a bit reluctant to share this story on the blog (and, yes, I realize the irony of this statement), I decided to post it because it speaks so eloquently as to how individual buildings and neighborhoods serve to locate memories. Our rapidly changing urban landscape puts ever increasingly pressure on us to find ways to preserve these places of memory whether in brick, mortar, and wood-frame form or as texts, photographs, and plans. The letter that I received yesterday provided a very real experience to confirm that investing in the preserving the past will make a difference to real people. (In my 15 years of studying Late Antique churches, never once has someone from Late Antiquity taken the time to thank me or even politely as about my work (most of them, of course, have been dead for 1500 years).)

Moreover, this work is relatively easy to do. Our book took less than 9 months to bring it from a chat over a few beers to text, plans, and paper. With all due respect to Chris Price’s efforts, the result book will never win a National Book Award or a Pulitzer Prize. It has, however, served its function. In my 20 some years as a professional historian, I’ve never been as pleased to share my work as I was the send those two copies of The Old Church on Walnut Street to someone who I’ve never met in California.

Archaeological “Signatures” of Byzantine Churches

This springs Dumbarton Oaks Spring Symposium is titled Byzantine Survey Archaeology: Reflections and Approaches. The symposium will feature speakers covering a range of topics central to discussions about intensive pedestrian survey archaeology in a Byzantine context. My paper is among the last of the symposium and in a session called “Reading the Data/Reading the Future”.

I need to have abstract for my talk which is tentative titled “Looking across Chronological Boundaries”. The goal of the talk will be to bring together some of my work (largely with Tim Gregory and David Pettegrew) that explores post-Byzantine archaeological sites and consider how what we’ve learned in this work can inform out study of Byzantine sites in a survey context. 

Readers of this blog are familiar with my work at the early modern site of Lakka Skoutara in the Eastern Corinthia. Here’s a link to our most recent paper.

You may be less familiar with some of my work with David Pettegrew and Tim Gregory in 2001 on the island of Kythera where we collected surface data from around a series of still standing Byzantine churches. The results told us little about the landscape around these churches during the Byzantine period, but shed some significant light on formation processes around these occasionally used monuments in the Greek countryside. Like our work around the deteriorating houses in Lakka Skoutara, our work around these churches revealed a countryside that was in constant transformation. 

The evidence for the constant transformation of the landscape pushes us to see even the surface record as the product of a series of complex formation processes rather than a palimpsest awaiting our careful gaze to produce a complete but occluded text. The remains in the countryside preserve a complex record of processes.


Two Church Plans

Sometimes I don’t mind spending a morning with Adobe Illustrator (although most days it’s a special kind of torture). So I did that yesterday. 

The first image is a simplified plan of an Early Christian basilica in Greece. It is loosely based on a plan of Nikopolis Alpha, but I cut out some of the ancillary rooms joining the narthex. 

Figure1 Caraher

I also used the Illustrator to sketch a plan of the church at Kalpsi in Eurytania. This church has a spectacular group of mosaic pavements with dedicatory inscriptions. For my purposes, I was only really interested in the location of dedicatory inscriptions so I decided to create a sketch plan. I think it works for a very simplified representation of where the inscriptions appeared.

Figure2 Caraher


How’s that for a Thursday morning before a day filled with grading and grant writing?

Some Churches in Byzantine Epirus

I’ve spent the last week or so perusing M. Veikou’s very new book on Byzantine Epirus (Leiden 2012). It’s a monumental tome with over 300 pages of analysis and 300 more of figures, catalogues, and a site inventory. I’ve commented on Veikou’s work on this blog before so I was pretty excited to get my hands on her book length treatment of Byzantine Epirus to see how she developed more fully some of the themes touched upon in her article length work.

While I haven’t managed to get all the way through the book yet, she has already offered a few really interesting observations that are not so much novel as well documented and conceptualized.  As per usual my short observations this morning are based on what I have found useful or intriguing about the book rather than some kind of universal review of the book’s merits. 

1. Basilica Cemeteries and Byzantine Settlement. Veikou makes the rather obvious argument that the conversion of Early Christian or Early Byzantine churches into cemeteries in the 7th to 10th centuries – a common phenomenon across the southern Balkans – suggests continuity in settlement between the end of antiquity and the beginning of the Byzantine era (pp. 68-72). As far as I know, she is the first to make this leap and while I have some doubts about its application in specific cases (for example, I could imagine the urge to bury ad sanctos could trump the need to bury bodies in the immediate proximity of a settlement), I think she is probably right. She then takes this a step further to note that the use of earlier churches as places of burial might mark the growing willingness to bury the dead near or within settlements during Byzantine period as opposed to outside of settlements as was more common in the Early Christian period. She does, of course, note that the state of the buildings into which later visitors made burials is often unclear with evidence for churches both with standing walls and completely collapsed. 

2. Byzantine Churches on Early Christian Foundations. Veikou also compiles a useful list of later churches built on the foundations of Early Christian (or just earlier Christian) buildings (p. 57). While this is hardly a major emphasis in her work, it is an exceedingly useful list for scholars looking to understand continuity of the religious landscape in Greece. 

3. Typologies. Throughout Veikou’s section on architecture she proposes numerous typologies or adapts typologies for other authors to describe various architectural features present in both religious and non-religious architecture in Epirus. Such thorough typology building has long been standard practice in Greek (and more broadly Continental) approaches to documenting features in the landscape, but for many archaeologists the most persistent fear is that we impose typologies on material that, in turn, begin to dictate in unanticipated ways, our interpretations. The most obvious example of the typology-tail wagging the dog is when we have used typologies as the basis for either absolute chronology or the develop of features through time. In these cases, the logic of the typology (in, say, Byzantine architecture) has run the risk of trumping the evidence from stratigraphic excavation or other forms of dating.  That being said, typologies of the type that Viekou developed in her book offers the basis for a common vocabulary to describe various features in the Epiriote landscape, and she makes a particular effort to link the typologies she creates with those existing in other literature (e.g. her grave typology on p. 76-80).

As I said, I’ve only just started harvesting this book for valuable data and I’ve only scratched the surface of Viekou’s larger arguments regarding the transformation of the Byzantine landscape of Epirus. As a region of the Byzantine world that is both peripheral to the traditional centers of Byzantine control and authority and located in an important liminal zone between the East and West during the Middle Ages, the development of Epirus over these centuries has significant impact on how we understand the limits and character of the so-called Byzantine commonwealth. In other words, more on this book soon.

Human happiness never lingers for long even in the Bakken Oil Patch

I just returned for a 6 day field season in Western North Dakota. I had to pleasure of working with a great team of archaeologists and historians to document the material conditions and human stories from over a dozen “man camps” in the Bakken Oil Patch.


The Team: John Holmgren (Franklin and Marshall College), Kostis Kourelis (Franklin and Marshall College), Bret Weber (University of North Dakota), me, Richard Rothaus (Trefoil Cultural and Environmental), and Aaron Barth (North Dakota State University).

The team worked together like a series of experienced professionals and collected a remarkably robust body of data from the man camps including intensive descriptions of each camp and a sample of each units, photographs of individual units and of the entire camp from a kite, sketch plans, gps points, and (perhaps most importantly) over 3 dozen interviews of camp residents. We feel fairly confident in asserting that this is the most detailed study of the man camps in the North Dakota Bakken range to date and we will release a report, a press release, and some images from our work over the next week or so with an eye toward presenting a more comprehensive study in the next 6 to 8 months.

This is the cross marking the spot of the now vanished Betaini Norwegian Lutheran Church in the Betaini Cemetery. The oil pump in the background has brought a new prosperity to the region, a new population, and new challenges, while the metal cross marking a vanished church in an isolated cemetery reminds us that this is not the first boom in the fragile country of western North Dakota.



Scenes like this never fail to remind me of Herodotus 1.5:

“For the cities which were formerly great have most of them become insignificant; and such as are at present powerful, were weak in the olden time. I shall therefore discourse equally of both, convinced that human happiness never continues long in one stay.”

The Anti-Monument

The church at Walnut Street is gone.


There is some press coverage in the Grand Forks Herald. As Emily Wright pointed out, sometimes you need to tear down old buildings to make a neighborhood what it used to be (?!).


But it’s hard not to think of this… 

If you’d like a copy of the new book about the church, The Old Church on Walnut Street: A Story of Immigrants and Evangelical by Chris Price you can get an electronic copy here or a nice paper copy here



The End of an Old Church

This weekend, I attended a conference hosted by the Institute for European and Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Buffalo that focused on monumentality in the archaeological record. At the end of the conference, we had a short but thought-provoking discussion of anti-monuments. These were monuments that seemed to subvert the very notion of monumentality (which itself was a tricky thing to define). 

When I got back to Grand Forks and saw that our old church on Walnut Street was coming down a few days earlier, it got me thinking. (For more on this church, check out Chris Price’s excellent history and, if you feel like it, buy a copy of the book here).


The removal of the steeple reminded me of so many mosques in Greece where the top of the minarets have been removed.


The famous granitoid pavement in the foreground presents the contrasting issues of conservation in our community. An old church is more expendable than pavement.


The de-churched steeple was a depressing sight this morning.

The Chlamydatus of Corinth

In the most recent Hesperia, Amelia Brown has offered an intriguing article on a significant group of Late Roman portrait statues (“Last Men Standing: Chlamydatus Protraits and Public Life in Late Antique Corinth,Hesperia 81 (2012), 141-176). Chlamydatus statues of Corinth depict men wearing the “distinctive long cloak or chlamys” and this dress typically associates these individuals with imperial office. Brown has assembled a group of 7 largely fragmentary, life-sized statues of this kind from around Corinth with 6 of them appearing in the forum area. These status date to the 4th and 5th centuries and represent both a change in Late Roman portrait style as well as the growing political influence of the imperial center at Constantinople of aristocratic representation at Corinth. According to Brown, these statues appear to be associated with imperial rather than local elite. Corinth’s position as the seat of the governor of Achaea probably accounts for the number of imperial elite present, but also made it both an appealing location for the display of honorific statues dedicated to men who had contributed to the safety, urban environments, religious life, and culture of the province.

As per usual, I’ll let Dr. Brown’s work stand on its own merits and recommend it to anyone interested in understand the development and archaeology of Late Roman statuary. Instead, I’ll focus on two interrelated but admittedly peripheral aspects of Brown’s work.

First, Brown does a nice job of arguing that the Lechaion road was the main area for the display of chlamydatus statues. In her reconstruction of this space of display the chlamys clad statues stood along the sides of the main road into forum area of Corinth. A visitor to the forum area would have passed under the impassive gaze of these statues as they walked along the main artery of the Late Antique city. The Lechaion Road provided access to basic civic amenities like latrines and shops as well as places of display like the Peirene fountain which likely served as an important source of water for the city as well as an area for informal recreation, gathering, and meeting. Thus Corinthians and visitors to the city lived their daily life in and among reminders of the city’s imperial patrons.

The Lechaion Road also likely served as the main route of official processions into the city of Corinth.  Important visitors from the west would have enjoyed their official adventus (or ritual of arrival) into the city along the wide, colonnaded, grandiose Lechaion Road. The chlamydatus would have watched the passage of fellow elites and their retinues accompanied by city fathers, fellow imperial aristocrats, and by the 5th century perhaps local representatives of the Christian communities. The position of the statues along the road left the main route into the city open, but also provided a permanent audience for ritual processions. The most important men in the city and perhaps province would always be there, standing to honor their fellow elites.

The statue that I was most intrigued by was the so-called Kraneion chlamydatus. This statue was found cut down and reused as a threshold at the Kraneion basilica which dates to the 6th century and stood immediately outside of the eastern Kraneion Gate to the city. The location of the statue near the eastern gate of the city suggests that this might have been an area for display during the Late Antiquity with chlamys clad statues greeting visitors from the east.

NewImageHesperia 81 (2012), p. 145

The reuse of the Kraneion chlamydatus in the Kraneion basilica interesting is that it was cut down for use as a threshold block.  It would be easy to recognize in this use of spolia practical concerns; torso of the chlamydatus provided a substantial block of marble suitable for the requirements of a threshold.

I do wonder whether there might be some symbolic considerations as well. The cutting down of the statue would have made it difficult for a visitor to the church to recognize the former function of the block. On the other hand, the process of selecting and cutting down the block must have involved a series of ideological decisions. The chlamys clad man had to be recognized as no longer relevant or important and therefore suitable for reuse. The placement of the block as a threshold offers a nice parallel to the original location of the statue near the gate to the city (or the placement of the other chlamydatus along the processional route of the monumentalized Lechaion Road).  In other words, the location of the reused chlamydatus at the threshold to the church finds a nice parallel with their original location in liminal spaces like the gate to the city or a processional way.

One could even go a step further and suggest that the relocation of the chlamydatus statue at the threshold of the church marked out the boundary between the civic world and the works of the church. The shift is more marked when you consider that within the church the congregation stood in the aisles and watched the ranked procession of the clergy. The congregation may have been accompanied by a passive processions of saints standing in the place of the onlooking chlamydatus along the Lechaion Road while the clergy’s liturgical procession echoed the ritualized adventus of Late Roman aristocrats into the city.

The physical subordination of the Kraneion chlamydatus at the threshold of the church echoed the gradual suppression of monumental civic space throughout the empire and their replacement with churches tied to the ecclesiastical rather than civic or imperial elite.

Crossposted to Corinthian Matters.