Episode 75: Dusk and Starlight

A retrospective on the material we’ve covered thus far as we head into Early Christianity and Late Antiquity, plus some announcements.

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An Introduction to Early Christianity and Late Antiquity

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 75: Dusk and Starlight. In this program, we’re going to close our long season on Roman literary history, and look ahead to the coming two seasons on the New Testament and Late Antiquity. The history of Europe during centuries between 200 and 800 CE, when these centuries are studied at all, has most often been understood as a fall – a descent from the shining splendor of the Roman Empire at its height to the squalor and disintegration of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. But disintegrations enable reintegrations, and falls, rises, and modern historians of the period we’re now entering see the Early Christian era not so much as a decline into paralysis and stasis, but instead an era characterized by creativity, regional renaissances, and class mobility all enabled by the loosening of the Empire’s old power structures.

Our podcast has, most recently, just spent a staggering 63 hours with ancient Roman literature and culture. We have read Rome’s plays, its epics, its orations, its philosophical tracts, its historians, and its poems, from the first time a play was recorded as staged at Rome’s Ludi Scaenici in 364 BCE up until the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE. We have learned a different side of Ancient Rome than a standard historical account of its wars, tacticians, consuls and emperors. We have learned Roman history from the inside, having spent dozens of hours hearing the texts of Rome speak for themselves. Still, the time has finally come for us to leave the main phase of Roman history behind. In our main narrative, it is March 17, 180 CE, and the last of the Five Good Emperors, Marcus Aurelius, has just died, leaving the Empire to one of the most depraved and horrifying human beings ever to sit on a throne – the Emperor Commodus. The capital and provinces have just experienced their first run in with a major epidemic, the so-called Antonine Plague, which killed between 10 and 18 million Romans, or 1 or 2 out of every seven people.1 The border wars that Marcus Aurelius spent so much of his life fighting, together with the attempted coup he suppressed, demonstrate that the bloated empire was neither internally stable nor secure on its frontiers. If there has ever been a time to start exploring the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, it seems we have reached that point.

Edward Emily Gibbon

Edward Gibbon (1737-94) published a series of six volumes between 1776-1788, which, for centuries afterward, continue to be standard sources on Roman history.

Historians have cited countless of reasons for the Western Empire’s gradual loss of power and influence, from the obvious things like succession disputes, diseases, and diplomatic botches with powerful northern neighbors, to subtler things, like mercury and lead poisoning, soil erosion, and gout. The German historian Alexander Demandt famously listed 210 different reasons for the attrition of Roman power and influence in the Central Mediterranean. And generations before Demandt’s 210 causes of Rome’s decline, the English historian Edward Gibbon set the tone for the academic discussion of late Roman history in the 1770s when Gibbon made pronouncements like this one in his book The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – Gibbon wrote, “The [Roman] legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy.”2

So here, in the most famous modern book ever written on Roman history, we have the prevailing soundbytes about why Rome fell – it was the corruption of discipline – and vice, from foreigners, no less. If you’ve been listening to this show through our season on Rome, you know that these are old ideas, and, in fact, they’re Roman ones – they are the ancient, undying and evergreen myth that Romans were once a pure, brawny race from Italy, who over the course of their long history were constantly threatened by the decadence and finery of various other cultures. From the Roman republic, to the Roman empire; from Cato the Elder to Juvenal; from the Book of Revelation to Edward Gibbon and beyond, historians and commentators are always ready to regurgitate this myth – this stock remark about Rome’s fall, as though a whole civilization went morally awry, and thereafter became a bloated, beached whale, lying there in the sun for posterity to blush and gawk at. And yet, it is no coincidence that historian Edward Gibbon uses that old Roman myth of a stalwart culture corrupted from without – a fiction at least five hundred years old by the time of Marcus Aurelius, in order to tell us why Rome didn’t endure. It’s no coincidence, because Gibbon lived, and we live in a world in which the basic institutions, the religious ideas and one religion in particular, the intellectual activity and philosophical concerns, the economics and international affairs, the consumerism, the drowsy and overstuffed popular culture, and the demagogues of Rome are still with us. To Alexander Demandt’s 210 reasons as to why Rome fell, then, today, we are going to add a 211th. And that is that Rome didn’t fall. [music]

The Poet of “The Ruin” and Gregory the Great: Two Ancient Perspectives on Rome’s Fall

I’m going to tell you the story of a poet, and a pope. And we’ll start with the poet, who wrote a poem in a language that has not yet been featured on Literature and History. To read this poem, we’re going to lean over an ancient manuscript – just two pages of the manuscript, burned by some sort of a fireplace poker and thus unreadable in places. Here’s the poem.
Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime,
scearde scurbeorge scorene, gedrorene,
ældo undereotone. Eorðgrap hafað
waldend wyrhtan forweorone, geleorene,
heardgripe hrusan, oþ hund cnea
werþeoda gewitan. Oft þæs wag gebad
ræghar ond readfah rice æfter oþrum,
ofstonden under stormum; steap geap gedreas.
And let’s hear that in translation to modern English.
Well-wrought this wall: Weirds broke it.
The stronghold burst. . .
Snapped rooftrees, towers fallen,
the work of the Giants, the stonesmiths,
     Rime [scours] gatetowers
     Rime on mortar.
Shattered the showershields, roofs ruined,
age under-ate them.
     And the wielders and wrights?
Earthgrip holds them – gone, long gone,
fast in gravegrasp while fifty fathers
and sons have passed.
     Wall stood,
grey lichen, red stone, kings fell often,
stood under storms, high arch crashed.3
Roman Baths and Abbey, III, Bath, England-LCCN2002696369

Aquae Sulis, the ruins that are thought to have inspired the Old English poem “The Ruin.”

That was the beginning of one of the most famous Old English lyric poems – a piece called “The Ruin,” written in a famous early medieval manuscript called the Exeter Book some time in the late 900s, and usually dated to the 700s or 800s – first in Old English, and then in the Penguin Michael Alexander translation. In the poem, the narrator looks at the imposing stonework of an abandoned ancient city – usually though to be Rome’s Aquae Sulis, or what we now call Bath. The poem communicates a sense of awe and wonder at the massive scale and building materials of the classical world, its speaker not knowing how such feats of architecture were accomplished, writing that giants must have been the stonesmiths at work there, and that the weirds, or the fates, must have caused the once imposing massive structures to fall. To the Saxon poet who wrote “The Ruin,” after all, living in the southwest of Britain four hundred years after Roman influence had waned there, wooden buildings were the norm – modest houses and gathering halls, and stone was only for the walls of the area’s small churches.

It’s hard to imagine a more iconic image of the decline of the western empire than the one evoked by this poem. Here stands a poet, centuries after Roman aristocrats and legionaries abandoned the high water mark of Roman influence; centuries after they hurried back to the Mediterranean Basin, looking on collapsing stonework shagged over with lichens and moss – a post-apocalyptic picture of a world that has gone out with a bang and ceased to whimper. If this Old English poet had sifted through the ruins of a Roman house just a block south of the baths, he would have found something gruesome that modern archaeologists discovered in the 1980s – a girl’s head, severed and shoved into an oven some time in the 400s – evidence of the raids and marauders that had taken Britain back from Roman occupiers, and how brutal things became in the last days of Roman Britain.4 Roman Britain had begun beneath the Julio-Claudians under the reign of Claudius, and persisted formally until around 400. A century later, the straggling Roman families who’d tried to remain had either fled, or gone the way of the poor girl found just south of Bath Abbey. And four centuries after that, as the Saxon poet who wrote “The Ruin” marveled at the megalithic ruins in front of him, the Roman occupation of Britain was in many districts no longer even remembered.

Or, if Rome were remembered at all, it was remembered from the vantage of early Christianity. Pope Gregory the Great, between 590 and 604, amidst his other accomplishments, became the main engine driving Christian missionary work in Britain. And Gregory’s attitude toward Rome’s broken stature in the west is nothing less than smugly triumphant. Gregory declared, in a sermon on the Book of Ezekiel,
[W]hat is left of that Rome which once seemed mistress of the world? She is ground down with manifold and immeasurable pains by the desolation of her citizens, the pressure of her enemies, and the frequency of ruin. . .For where is now the Senate, and where is the people? The bones have been dissolved and the flesh consumed; all pride of worldly dignity have been extinguished in her. . .Yet why do we speak thus of the men, when ruins multiply so sore that we see even the buildings destroyed?. . .the people have perished. . .now Rome stands empty upon the fire.5
These, then, were the ideas held by the architect of British Christianity – that the Western Empire was reduced to moldering rubble, and that its destruction was well deserved. Gregory, perhaps picturing the trackless wilderness of inland Europe and Britain, states in the same sermon, “No inhabitants remain on the land, and scarce any in the towns; yet even these scanty relics of humanity are beaten with daily and incessant stripes. Moreover, the scourge of God’s justice resteth not, because men’s guilty deeds have not been corrected even under this scourge.”6

Antonello da Messina 010

Antonello da Messina’s San Gregorio Magno (c. 1472-3). Gregory the Great, one of early Christianity’s most heroic figures, held a triumphant view on the dissolution of the western Roman empire.

The language that Pope Gregory uses here is the angry and apocalyptic rhetoric of Revelation, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah. From the beginning, a frequent feature of the Old Testament had been the vilification of alternate cities and civilizations. Judah had crossed swords with the Moabites, Edomites, Ammonites, and Phoenicians, and so these civilizations are damned and cursed through much of the Hebrew Bible. Judah was hemmed in, conquered, and eventually destroyed by earlier imperial juggernauts – Syria, Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon, and all of these receive various condemnations and oracles of retribution throughout the Pentateuch and Prophetic books of the Old Testament. Christianity learned this rhetoric of moral condemnation from the Old Testament, and as Christians had their first run-ins with the Roman establishment – likely initially beneath Nero, the Book of Revelation emerged at the end of the first century as a prophetic vision of the gory death of all non-believers and the exaltation of all Christians on earth. In Revelation, the Roman Empire is a multipart monster, lurching out of the ocean next to Satan, ridden by the Whore of Babylon, often interpreted as the city of Rome. No depiction of Rome would ever be more influential than the utterly negative one we read in the central chapters of Revelation. The Bible’s final book teaches us that the civilization whose culture we have just spent 500,000 words and 63 hours studying was nothing more than monstrous and obscene.

There is a contrast between the pagan poet who wrote “The Ruin” and Gregory the Great’s sermon on Ezekiel. In the Old English poem, we see a sense of wonder at the lost world of Roman splendor – its scale, its ornamentations, its comforts, its strangeness and its unfamiliarity. Uncoupled from any sense of allegiance or enmity to Rome, the poet of the medieval Exeter Book simply wonders how and why such enormous and complex stone buildings came to be. For Pope Gregory the Great, the squalor and ruination of the Empire’s vast network of provincial building projects is not only a source of satisfaction – Gregory wants to see more devastation, in his own words, “because men’s guilty deeds have not been corrected even under this scourge.” With a commanding vantage of the disintegration of Roman power in Europe, Gregory saw not tragedy and loss, but instead atonement, and, we should add, opportunity.

Because Pope Gregory, who lived from about 540-604, was not just some grouchy clergyman, glowering at the wicked past and wayward present. As much as he sounds quite spiteful in this pair of quotes, airlifted from a single sermon, Gregory was also one of the most heroic figures in European history. Pope Gregory the Great embodied much of what was extraordinary and compassionate about early medieval Christianity – its studiousness, its cautious but sustainable expansion, and most of all, its tireless almsgiving. Born into a period during which Italy was being tugged back and forth between the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and the Ostrogoths, Gregory knew that during his earliest years Italy had been brought to its knees by the Plague of Justinian between 541-2, and he made it his life’s mission to stabilize the church, and provide basic sustenance to those whose lives had been jeopardized by the duofold forces of Constantinople’s wars in Italy and the awful fallout of the Justinian Plague.

Gregory’s harsh remarks about Rome are apiece with so much of what we find in Christian writings set down during Late Antiquity. Gregory, who knew of the great Roman persecutions under the Emperor Decius in 250, and Diocletian in 303, not to mention a longer history of Roman bullying and bludgeoning Christians for various reasons up until the Edict of Milan in 313, had understandable reasons to look upon the decaying evidence of provincial Roman civilization and with a sense of good riddance. To the poet of the Exeter book, Roman ruins were merely wondrous vestiges of a lost elder civilization. To Gregory, they were the visual evidence of Christianity’s triumph – a record of a rich and rotten world best left to decay as the modest stone churches and monasteries of Christianity’s satellite institutions arrived to replace it all with something more democratically and soundly built.

This story of a poet and a pope is not a narrative with heroes or villains – I have actually told you the tale only to make a single point. By the time Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans on December 25, 800 by Pope Leo III, a real and symbolic moment of Christianity’s triumph in Europe, two major schools of thought had emerged on Rome. The first, Pope Gregory’s, is the Christian one, and perhaps the most common one today – Rome was an overripe apple that fell, rotted, and decomposed, just as the diametrically different institutions and creeds of Christianity grew. The second – that of the poet of the Exeter Book who wrote the Old English poem “The Ruin” – wass everyone else’s – especially as we draw further and further from away Italy. Rome? What’s that? Oh, you mean those stone bits along the waterways and the junctions of some of our roads? Oh. Interesting. Always wondered about those. Anyway, let’s get to the mead hall. When the latter group began listening to the former group, as Christianity installed its ecclesiastical network throughout Europe, those who had never heard of Rome were given a view of it that was hardly ideologically neutral.

Ulpiano Checa La invasión de los bárbaros

Ulpiano Checa’s Invasion of the Barbarians (1887), showing the Huns galloping toward Rome on a murky day. The division of the Roman Empire in 285 by Diocletian, followed by its increasingly complex and multipart history over the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, make this epoch of European cultural and theological history challenging material for the newcomer.

I think these centuries – these years between the end of the Julio-Claudians in 68 CE, and the coronation of Charlemagne in 800, are for many of us a foggy duration in our historical knowledge. Speaking for English departments, of which I am a product, these are not centuries we often visit. We tend to follow the general course of the way Christian-centric histories have written about this period – that Christianity arrived as a turnkey religion with the coming of Christ, that it flowered independently of the sin and spoliation of Rome, and the world was never the same afterward. Some of this is true. Christianity certainly achieved a level of expansion greater than its competing cults during the first century – the Isis, Mithraic, and Orphic cults, just to name a few. But while its own historians wrote about the turn from B.C. to A.D. as the rising of a sun, pun often intended, Christianity’s real emergence into the Late Antique world was patchy and gradual, with the religion finally reaching something approximating its modern form around the time of Gregory himself. Today, we are still living in a period that needs to believe that Roman culture as a whole was brutish and decadent for the fragile periodization between something called paganism and something called Christianity to be preserved. The history, otherwise, just seems mercilessly complicated. We have to deal with things like Christianity’s various Gnostic branches, Manichaeism, and Zoroastrianism, theologies that today are not widely known about. We need to understand Christianity’s roots in the topsoil of Rome’s diverse theological activity – the cults mentioned above, together with countless others pervasive during the first century BCE. And we need to understand Christianity’s philosophical origins, origins that went all the way back at least to the Cult of Pythagoras in the sixth century BCE. A Pythagorean text called The Sentences of Sextus, perhaps dated to the first century BCE, was in wide circulation by the third century CE – in one scholar’s words, “the favorite reading material of many educated Christians.”7 The early Christians, then, were not New England Puritans, holding the shield of a fully formed faith up against alternative views of reality. They were something else.

When I said earlier that perhaps Rome never fell, this is part of what I meant. Christianity was a product of the Roman world, its written creeds in the New Testament and elsewhere offering a narrative of a divine sacrifice for humanity and schema for posthumous salvation that existed in nearly every single Mediterranean cult religion out there by the life of Jesus. Other aspects of Christianity – its virgin birth, its ascetic philosophy, its ritual meals and purification rites, its sense of an all powerful divine mover animating the cosmos, its central protagonist out-talking and outthinking a gaggle of skeptical rivals in the Gospels, and the battle between good and evil in Revelation – all of these core elements of Christianity predated the religion by centuries. If we allow ourselves to think of Ancient Mediterranean religions as a family, with various genuses and species, we have to remember that it was Roman commerce and economic activity, and Rome’s manifold intellectual history that set up the environment in which Christianity was born, evolved, and matured. In this sense, then, the early Middle Ages was simply the time that a single Roman religion came to have outsized influence on a great deal of the Eurasian and North African land masses. By the time the poet of the Exeter book wrote “The Ruin,” Roman military power and colonial outposts had indeed fallen into decline. But its religions had all braided together into one, and that religion has been ascendant, ever since.

The point I am making here is a bit of a technicality, I realize. Christianity persisted, obviously, carrying on the theological and philosophical traditions that had been rising since the 500s BCE, traditions enabled by the institutions and thoroughfares of the Roman republic and empire. Sure. But, then, those provincial capitals did decline and fall, didn’t they? And Rome was sacked in 410 by the Visigoths, 455 by the Vandals, and again in the 540s by the Ostrogoths. By the latter date, consular armies were no longer stomping up and down the highways of Italy, and everywhere, power was being regionalized into smaller centers. If such a thing can’t be described as a fall, then what can?

Well, to return once more to the scene of the poet of the Book of Exeter, writing Old English lyric poetry on the hulking ruins of Aquae Sulis, the scene of the poem’s composition appears to offer quite an unambiguous picture of a Western Europe, devoid of Roman leadership. But if we look at maps of Rome at its greatest geographical extent – under Trajan, for instance, much about these images is misleading. In the words of scholar Peter Brown, during the summit of the Roman Empire,
men of the same class and culture, in any part of the Roman world, found themselves far closer to each other than to the vast majority of their neighbors, the ‘underdeveloped’ peasantry on their doorstep. The existence of the ‘barbarian’ exerted a silent, unremitting pressure on the culture of the Roman empire. The ‘barbarian’ was not only the primitive warrior from across the frontier: by 200, this ‘barbarian’ had been joined by the non-participant within the empire itself. The [Roman] aristocrat would pass from reassuringly similar forum to forum, speaking a uniform language, observing rites and codes of behaviour shared by all educated men; but his road stretched through the territories of tribesmen that were as alien to him as any German or Persian. In Gaul, the countrymen still spoke Celtic; in North Africa, Punic and Libyan; in Asia Minor, ancient dialects such as Lycaonian, Phrygian and Cappadocian; in Syria, Aramaic and Syriac. [The Roman gentry lived] cheek by jowl with this immense unabsorbed ‘barbarian’ world.8
Roman culture, in vast stretches of the provinces, was never some homogenizing quilt. It was a cobweb often trembling under the pressure of the cultural forces beneath it – a cobweb that over the second century CE, some of Rome’s more astute emperors realized was impractical to maintain.

To the peasantry of the European interior and elsewhere, whether in tribes, tribal coalitions, regional monarchies, or other organizational structures – this vast majority of the population experienced the Roman colonial presence as a novel strand of cultural and economic activity woven among their vernacular languages and indigenous culture, rather than some revolutionary new era. The Old English word wealstan, or “wallstone,” in the first line of the poem “The Ruin” comes from the Latin word vallum, which similarly means fortification or wall – a stereotypically Roman word if there ever were one. It’s not likely that the poet knew that etymological roots of the very words he was speaking dated to the culture that had produced the ruins lying at his feet. But just as even the far off language groups of the north became peppered with Latinisms during Late Antiquity, Christianity, that synthesis of the Ancient Mediterranean’s most successful cult religions and ethical philosophies, began blossoming all over the thoroughfares of the former empire. Rome once had a saying about Greece’s culture – that even though Rome had conquered and annexed Greece back in 146 BCE, “Captive Greece took her captor captive.”9 In a similar fashion, it’s fair to say that “Defeated Rome defeated her defeaters.”

Ludwig Thiersch - Alaric à Athènes

Ludwig Thiersh’s Alaric in Athens. Between 395 and 415, Alaric the Visigoth beseiged and conquered the Greek and Roman heartlands, wrecking the Empire’s military even as Christianity continued to explode during this period of chaos and conflict.

Gentle Pope Gregory, as trees grew up through the paving stones of Roman ruins in the sixth century and rain wore away the faces of imperial sculptures, saw evidence of the changing of an era. But we know differently. Having studied Roman cultural history together, we know a fair bit about stoicism, and Epicureanism. We have seen Christian doctrines like differentiated afterlives and immortal souls showing up in places as obvious as Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. We have read ahead in the New Testament to see near-quotes from Seneca appearing in Acts and elsewhere. We have met the goddess Isis in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass and looked straight into the eyes of different, but also massively popular second century Mediterranean savoir deity whose male relative had died for the benefaction of mankind, and would be resurrected, and we know there were several others. We have been watching all of this happening since the 400s BCE, when youthful Plato was snuggling up to Pythagorean traditions and Euripides and Aristophanes were reacting to the cult of Orphic Dionysus. From the turnpikes and sea lanes of the Roman republic and empire, the materials of Christianity had amassed in the province of Judea by the first century CE. The new religion, first beneath Roman boot soles, and later in Roman throne rooms, devoured and reprocessed all of these traditions. And it became the most important means by which many aspects of Roman culture persisted and continued to evolve, even as the Western Empire contracted and its institutions and urban centers came beneath the sway of other powers – a Roman Trojan Horse made of theology, that in the end, fulfilled the perennial Roman dream of conquering all of Europe. [music]

Ancient Greek and Roman Perspectives on Poverty

Histories of Rome often chronicle emperors, executive intrigues, and battlefield victories and defeats. If we look at the final few centuries of Roman history, and tally up battles and territories lost, and emperors assassinated, we indeed see a slow loss of power and influence in the Western Empire. But history is more than a marionette show of military engagements between powerful leaders. Perhaps the most famous sentence that Karl Marx ever wrote is, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”10 As we move, finally, from BC to AD, we’re at a juncture where we’ve spent a lot of time with Rome’s literature – the product, most often, of its privileged classes. I think we should take a moment and consider the history of Rome’s largely moneyless majority – its slaves, its beggars, widows, and orphans, its working poor and subsistence farmers – that mass of humanity that remains largely invisible over the course of Roman literary history. We are so conditioned to thinking of the Western Empire’s fall in negative and disparaging terms, sharing Rome’s old ethnocentric narrative of barbarian hordes descending on toga-wearing civilians and a proud culture rotting with vices, that it might be useful – for a moment – to think of the decline of the Western Empire as something akin to a giant class revolution and redistribution of wealth.

Jean-Léon Gérôme - The Slave Market - Google Art Project

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Slave Market (1871). Christianity was able to expand over the second and third centuries in large part due to its consistently compassionate outreach efforts toward slaves and the poor, who found the new religion’s institutions and creeds a unique source of solace in this troubled epoch.

Now obviously, Alaric the Visigoth and Attila the Hun and other European military leaders were not budding communists seeking an end to alienated labor. These were warlords acting in national and self interest to cleave off resources from overextended provinces and vulnerable cities. The states and tribal coalitions that formed in the rubble of the Western Empire were not egalitarian regions ruled by empowered proletariats – they were fiefdoms and hereditary monarchies as unstable and unjust as such state systems generally are in history. The end result of Rome’s decline, nonetheless, was a dramatic redistribution of wealth and decentralization of power. When the octopus that had long ruled from Italy began to sicken and die, suddenly the intelligent and capable people who had lived beneath its tentacles out in the provinces had new opportunities. Early Christianity’s church leaders hurried to the religion’s first ecumenical councils from all over the Roman world – from North Africa, the Balkans, Anatolia, the Caucasus and Middle East – using the shuddering Empire’s old roads and shipping lanes as they forged the final Roman religion.

A lot of what this religion brought to the Ancient Mediterranean had ideological precedents. Rome’s citizens and slaves had been acquainted with savior gods who had perished for them, with virgin mothers of demigods, with promises of blessed afterlives, with ethical systems that emphasized moderation and personal purity, with healing deities who performed miracles on beggars and nobles alike, and with cult religious communities that shared meals and rituals in private gathering places. All of these raw materials were centuries old by Apostolic period – some of them, thousands. What Christianity was able to do that Rome had never managed to, then, was not a radical theological departure from what had come before. What Christianity was able to do was, to put it simply, to engage successfully and meaningfully with lower classes and slaves in a sustained, organized manner. Let’s talk for a little while about Rome, and Greece, and class.

From the empire back to the republic and before, Rome had a shoddy record with the poor. Perhaps the most pervasive myth of the Mediterranean by the time of Christianity was of a succession of ages that went from gold to silver to bronze to the present. Hesiod told this story in Works and Days some time around 700 BCE – that life is hard, and we have gird up our loins and pick up shovels, and that’s just how it goes. Hesiod’s aristocratic readers during the Classical Greek period, though they might have enjoyed slumming it with a centuries old Greek farmer’s almanac, had no sense that they themselves had to buckle down and dig furrows. Ancient Greek texts recurrently refer to the wealthy as “good” or “best” (chrestoi or beltistoi) in marked contrast to the poor, who were “bad” or “worse” (poneroi or kheirous). These are depressing, but familiar ideas. From Classical Greece to the Gilded Age and beyond, wealthy classes have often justified hoarding resources on the basis that they are somehow categorically better, and they deserve a larger slice of the pie than the brutes and boors they perceive as below them on the social ladder.

Some Ancient Greek aristocrats considered what ought to be done about the teeming masses of landless poor. Were acts of charity the answer? Was some sort of state welfare? During the late 300s BCE, Aristotle formulated questions on the subject of the poor that have been asked ever since. Aristotle wrote in his Politics,
If men are given food, but no chastisement nor any work, they become insolent. If they are made to work, and are chastised, but stinted of their food, such treatment is oppressive, and saps their strength. The remaining alternative, therefore, is to give them work, and a sufficiency of food. Unless we pay them, we cannot control them; and food is a slave’s pay. (1344a-b)11
These ideas, while likely not original to Aristotle, dominated Greco-Roman discussions of the poor for a long time afterward. Charity, Aristotle writes elsewhere (1344b), is like a wine jar with a hole in the bottom, and it does nothing other than induce people to laziness and inactivity. To Aristotle, the question of what to do about the poor was a question of control, rather than compassion, and giving money to the needy indiscriminately was not good for anyone involved, in his opinion. Two and a half centuries later, Cicero wrote that “We must often distribute from our purse to the worthy poor, but we must do so with discretion and moderation. For many have squandered their patrimony by indiscriminate giving.”12 A century after this, the philosopher Seneca wrote that a wise man “will have an easily opened pocket, but not one with a hole in it. . .I shall not give some men anything, although they are in want, because, even if I do give to them they will still be in want.”13

These are all familiar ideas from contemporary history, whatever we make of them – these notions that welfare enables laziness, and that charity should be undertaken with restraint, ideas from an ancient era that believed in congenital, essential differences between the haves and have-nots. In later Roman history, a third important idea appears in texts around the end of the republic. And this third idea is that the idle poor are a threat to the order of society. To Rome’s ancient historians, the republic’s crises had been largely driven populist politicians and, importantly, the gullible and moneyless masses who bought into their promises.

The Roman historian Sallust, who wrote a history of the Catilinarian Conspiracy not long after it took place in the late 60s BCE, did not have anything good to say about the lower classes in this book. To Sallust, this conspiracy to steal away Rome’s executive leadership and lay torch to the city of Rome had been enabled, specifically, by the presence of the morally corrupt urban poor. Sallust wrote,
all who were especially conspicuous for their shamelessness and impudence, those too who had squandered their patrimony in riotous living, finally all whom disgrace or crime had forced to leave home, had all flowed into Rome as into a cesspool. . .the young men who had maintained a wretched existence by manual labour in the country, tempted by public and private doles had come to prefer idleness in the city to their hateful toil. . .Therefore it is not surprising that men who were beggars and without character, with illimitable hopes, should respect their country as little as they did themselves. . .[and] all who belonged to another party than that of the senate preferred to see the government overthrown rather than be out of power themselves.14
These are not kind statements about the moneyless masses of the Roman capital. To Sallust, the Roman poor weren’t worthy unfortunates down on their luck. They were immigrants who’d flocked to the city, given up their agricultural responsibilities elsewhere, and felt so entitled to public welfare that they were willing to support a spiteful and murderous demagogue – again Cataline. Sallust knew that history had repeated itself in late March of 44 BCE, when, expecting applause for killing a self-proclaimed monarch, the conspirators who had killed Julius Caesar instead faced an angry mob whose appetites had been whetted by the dead dictator’s acts of public philanthropy.

To a certain strand in Greek and Roman ideology, then, the poor – especially the urban poor – were a volatile mass that needed to be corralled and controlled – a mass always eager for handouts, whether from a passing aristocrat or aspiring despot. Writers like Sallust and Cicero were not skeptical toward welfare programs for no reason. Rome, famously, had a grain dole – specifically a program in which citizens in the capital could purchase monthly supplies of grain below the market price through a state subsidized program. This program was set up by one of the Gracchi brothers in 123 BCE – those very same men who were the first to take extralegal measures to prolong their time in office and ultimately set precedents for the power grabs that brought down the republic. Over the next century, the politicians who paid the most attention to the grain dole were those trying to curry favor with the masses. Gaius Gracchus allowed 40,000 Romans access to the grain dole prices, and the number swelled rapidly. Julius Caesar reduced potential grain dole recipients to 150,000, and later Augustus stabilized the list at 200,000.

As the republic became the empire, the grain dole lists were in the crosshairs of new generations of men and women migrating from the provinces and into the capital. As scholar Neville Morley writes, “the [grain dole] measures [in Rome] relieved the worst effects of poverty without doing anything to reduce the number of poor; indeed, they undoubtedly served as an inducement to prospective migrants, perpetuating the problem.”15 The city of Rome, then, during the first century of Christianity, was in a position similar to ones faced by wealthy nations today. Pragmatism drove its welfare system, which, even if human compassion is taken entirely out of the picture, had a stabilizing effect on potentially volatile lower classes. Moneyed citizens, however, griped about the grain dole, some feeling that it merely encouraged lazy and potentially seditious classes to pool in the city’s streets and squares, with old nativist Roman fears about foreign immigrants seething through the discussion. We see this perfectly in Juvenal, at work around the time the New Testament had been completed, with his glaring disgust at the masses glutted by bread and circuses and simultaneous jingoist loathing of Greek immigrants.

Juan Antonio Ribera’s Cincinnatus abandons the Plough to dictate Laws to Rome (c. 1806). Romans themselves, and countless historians of later periods have tirelessly recounted the myth that the Romans were once an wholesome, ethnically pure group, and that the republic’s early leaders were farmers, soldiers, and statesmen.

So to sum the topic of Rome and the poor up from what we’ve talked about so far, the literate classes of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean left behind several different key ideas on poverty. Many of them believed that the poor were poor because they were of a naturally lower caste of humanity. Privileged Greeks and Romans were suspicious of welfare, because on one hand it might encourage laziness and inactivity, and on the other hand, because it might encourage the congregation of urban masses who might riot and cause trouble when whipped into a frenzy by a populist politician. These are not complimentary ideas, obviously. No single civilization engendered them, but it’s safe to say that we don’t have to search very diligently to find some pretty nasty rhetoric about the poor in the texts that have survived from the Ancient Mediterranean. But an entirely different, and contradictory school of thought on poverty also existed in the Ancient Mediterranean – one which is just as relevant to Christianity, and which we should get in our minds for a moment.

This second ideology on poverty in the Ancient Mediterranean was the notion that the poor – most often the rural poor, were pious, pure folk whose modest lifestyles exempted them from the temptations of wealth. The notion of the virtuous poor was tied together with various periods of Rome’s nostalgia for a supposedly lost, simple past. As wealthy Romans from Cato the Elder to Cicero to Livy to Plutarch traveled past plantation farms run by slaves and moneyless freedmen to visit their own plush country estates, they began writing about a former, better time when Roman senators had been both ploughmen and soldiers. Cicero, gushing about the brawny golden age of the republic in a book called On Old Age, wrote “[T]o return to farmers. . .In those days there were senators, i.e. old men, on their farms. For. . .Cincinnatus was actually at the plough when word was brought him that he had been named Dictator. . .[Senators] used to receive their summonses to attend the Senate in their farm-houses. . .For the good and hard-working farmer’s wine-cellar and oil-store, as well as his larder, are always well filled, and his whole farm-house is richly furnished.”16 This was a favorite fable from the late republic onward – this weird notion that Rome’s early senators had fought Etruscans in the morning, ploughed fields in the afternoons, and then in the evenings, dusted off their coveralls to go make laws in the senate. The republican senator Cato the Elder, who lived from about 234-149 BCE, wrote a treatise on farming and was in his own day known as the most conservative and nativist of all Romans, grinding his teeth at the arrival of foreigners in central Italy, like a Roman version of the biblical prophet Nehemiah. Let’s look at a passage of ancient Roman history written about this Cato the Elder – a passage written by the historian Plutarch some time around 100 CE, once again around the time the New Testament was finished. Plutarch wrote, on the subject of Cato, this most conservative of Romans, that
His ancestors commonly passed for men of no note whatever. . .[Cato’s] bodily habit, since he was addicted from the very first to labour with his own hands, a temperate mode of life, and military duties, was very serviceable, and disposed alike to vigour and health. . .Near his fields was the cottage which had once belonged to [an ancient hero of the republic]. To this [cottage, Cato] would often go, and the sight of the small farm and the mean dwelling led him to think of their former owner, who. . .had subdued the most warlike nations. . .[but] nevertheless tilled this little patch of ground with his own hands and occupied this cottage. . .Here it was that the ambassadors of [Rome’s enemies] found [this ancient hero] at his hearth cooking turnips, and offered him much gold; but he dismissed them, saying that a man whom such a meal satisfied had no need of gold. . .Cato would go away [from this ancient farm] with his mind full of these things, and on viewing again his own house and lands and servants and mode of life, would increase the labours of his hands and lop off his extravagancies.17
In the passage you just heard, Plutarch imagines Cato the Elder, a man with servants, by the way, imagining an even older and brawnier republican hero, who chose turnips over gold – a scene within a scene of Rome’s nostalgia for a rugged rural past.

If you’ve listened to the main sequence’s programs on Roman literary history, you know that this scene in Plutarch is a tacky fairytale. Roman conservatives, from Cato the Elder himself in the mid 100s BCE down to Juvenal around 100 CE, loved to imagine a culturally and ethnically purer time when moneyless subsistence farmers proudly built the ancient republic. Cicero wrote that “[O]f all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more profitable, none more delightful, none more becoming to a freeman.”18 But Cato the Elder’s actual farming treatise, which we looked at, if any Romans actually bothered to read it, was a document detailing how a plantation estate ought to be managed, and not anything that would have been useful to a subsistence farmer. In short, then, the ancient Roman gentry loved to imagine earlier versions of themselves, exalted by sweat and grime, scarfing down turnips and planting crops. But this was as far as their interest in the rural poor went.

The idea of husky Roman farmers swinging axes by day and writing laws by night had an especially long influence on Rome’s historical understanding of itself. From this mythical lost past, historians like Livy, Plutarch, Sallust, and for that matter Gibbon tell us, Rome eventually became fat and corrupt. And at the heart of this corruption, as Rome’s historians tell us, was greed. I want to read you one final passage from a Roman historian and then turn to the subject of Christianity and the poor – a passage that happens to have been written by Sallust about fifty years before the birth of Christ, but could have been written by any early historian of Rome, including once again Gibbon. Sallust wrote, in regards to the declining republic,
[W]hen our country had grown great through toil and the practice of justice, when great kings had been vanquished in war, savage tribes and mighty peoples subdued by force of arms, when Carthage, the rival of Rome’s sway, had perished root and branch, and all seas and lands were open, then Fortune began to grow cruel and to bring confusion into all our affairs. Those who had found it easy to bear hardship and dangers, anxiety and adversity, found leisure and wealth, desirable under other circumstances, a burden and a curse. Hence the lust for money first, then for power, grew upon them; these were, I may say, the root of all evils.19
Here it is, yet again, the shorthand for why Rome fell. The last sentence, if you know the Bible well, might cause your ears to perk up, because just as Sallust calls greed “the root of all evils,” 1 Timothy says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim 6:10). Like so many moments when we find direct textual parallels between the New Testament and Greek and Roman texts, we can assume that 1 Timothy is simply rehearsing a commonplace maxim, though it’s possible that the letter quotes directly from Sallust. Either way, we’ve taken a tour through some of the ancient Mediterranean’s contradictory statements on poverty and wealth – that poverty was morally healthy; no, that the poor were inferior from birth; no, that poor farmers had built the republic; no, that the poor were an anarchistic mob just waiting in the streets for an excuse to riot. Out of this jumble of conflicting ideas on class emerged Christianity, which unambiguously emphasized that there was nothing wrong with being poor. And from Jesus to Pope Gregory the Great, early Christianity had a markedly more consistent and coherent philosophy toward class than ancient Greece and Rome had. [music]

Early Christianity and the Poor

The words of Jesus in the Gospels are not complimentary toward the rich. “You cannot serve God and wealth,” he states in Matthew (6:24). Christ tells his disciples in Luke, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (12:15). And as we heard earlier in 1 Timothy, Christ says, “we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it. . .[T]hose who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim 6:7-10). Now, these ideas were everywhere in the Roman Empire by the life of Christ. The Greek philosophy we call Cynicism was based on an abnegation of personal possessions. Various purity cults and mystery religions, including the Essenes of modern day Israel and Palestine, favored simple lifestyles and wholesome diets in order to intensify their adherents’ spiritual existences. The widespread philosophy of stoicism, while often the creed of rich aristocrats like Seneca, praised the virtues of minimalism, as well.

Jacopo Tintoretto - Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples (detail) - WGA22428

Jacopo Tintoretto’s Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples (c. 1547). Tintoretto’s painting shows Jesus, having quite literally rolled up his sleeves to wash the feet of the Apostles, an event that takes place in the canonical Gospels and is apiece with Christ’s general industriousness and willingness to help the poor throughout the New Testament.

Jesus’ followers, in the first century, however, did something a little bit different. Their deity was explicitly working class. Christ’s debates with the Pharisees and Sadducees were on one level ideological, but they were also contests between a country man from Nazareth, the son of a carpenter, and two different groups that in Ancient Israel were associated with various kinds of power and privilege. His death at the behest of the temple priest Caiaphas is by many interpreted to be the murder of the son of god by humanity. But narratively, the Gospels also tell the tale of an innocent country man coming to a city and being spurned and killed by that city’s privileged elites. Jesus’ actual teachings, then, and the narrative architecture of the Gospels, are quite clear and consistent in their attitude toward the poor and the working classes. Christianity gave the average man and woman on the Ancient Roman street a thumbs up, a warm welcome, and a big hug.

Ever since the Hellenistic period, and probably before, cult religions in general had been giving the men and women of ancient Eurasia and North Africa a sense of belonging, social networks, and basic resources during some pretty turbulent periods of history. The ancient indigenous religions of city-states like ancient Jerusalem and Athens had been anchored in a single place, and offered participation at the highest tiers to landed male citizens – the back rooms of the temples on the Acropolis, the office of the Roman pontifex maximus, the Jerusalem temple priesthoods – these were politically coveted, sometimes hereditary offices exclusive to only a select few. Cult religions, however, did something else. You could stumble into town as a nobody in Alexandria, Egypt, and find friends and resources in the cult of Isis, even if you were an out-of-work farmer from some remote area of modern day Libya or Saudi Arabia. You could wash up in Ephesus as a stowaway and at least make conversation with the priests of Cybele, perhaps from there finding a role in their organization. You could run out of water near the Dead Sea and get helped along by the Essenes, who, if you went through their initiations, might allow you to stay with them. More than pedigree or cachet, these cults sought warm bodies receptive to their ideologies. And the more trouble Ancient Mediterranean state systems ran into, the more these interstate cults made sense as entities to get involved with. Different cults served different interests. For the intellectual, the Pythagorean and Orphic cults offered religious and scholarly experiences alike. For the bored and spiritually undernourished, the Dionysian cult offered ecstatic, alcohol-fueled parties and a salvation-based religion. For the military man, the Mithraic cult provided a gradation-based system of step-by-step enlightenment and salvation. Ancient Judea’s Essenes exemplify an eastern and Jewish offshoot of a cult with initiation rituals and ethics of self-renunciation. Like Christianity, these ancient cults don’t seem to have placed a particular emphasis on class and pedigree. If anything, studying the history of early Christianity, we see its early thinkers running into a novel problem. The poor were welcome – of course they were. As to the rich – well, what to do about them?

Gérôme - Cave Canem

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Cave Canem (1881). Early Christianity, and the cult religions of the Roman world more generally, gave slaves and indigent men and women a sense of belonging and hope that their state systems often denied them.

When Gregory the Great came to the papacy in 590, he brought with him Christianity’s long-lived ethic of charity, and unlike the Senecas of Ancient Roman history, Gregory actually did live a modest life and concentrate the fiscal resources at his disposal on helping others. The year he came to the papacy – again 590 – exactly 500 years after the decade scholars suspect that John and Revelation were completed, was the culmination of a long period of growth. And during this period of growth, Christian leaders had to figure out what to actually do about wealth. Some of them, like Gregory the Great, had pretty hardline stances against wealth and personal possessions. Saint Jerome, who lived from about 347-420, shared Gregory’s egalitarian ideology. Jerome wrote a letter – perhaps his most famous letter of all – to a rich Roman woman named Eustochium. In this letter, Jerome told her, “You must. . .avoid the sin of covetousness, and this not merely by refusing to seize upon what belongs to others, for that is punished by the laws of the state, but also by not keeping your own property, which has now become no longer yours. . .But you will say: I am a girl delicately reared, and I cannot labor with my hands. . .Let the words be ever on your lips: Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there.”20 As Jerome understood, this was not easy advice for a privileged Roman to take. A century and a half earlier, Christians may have been adopting milder tones to their congregations. Clement of Alexandria, who lived from about 150-215, was not telling rich women to take their clothes off, nor, more generally, taking a hardline stance against having money. In his treatise titled Salvation for the Rich, Clement interprets Jesus’ talk of selling one’s possessions and camels going through the eyes of needles as subject to all sorts of interpretations. In the treatise, Clement writes, “Riches, then, which benefit. . .our neighbours, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions, inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods, inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men; and they lie to our hand, and are put under our power, as material and instruments which are for good use to those who know the instrument. If you use it skillfully, it is skilful; if you are deficient in skill, it is affected by your want of skill, being itself destitute of blame. Such an instrument is wealth.”21 Well put, by the way.

The contrast between Clement, writing in, say, 200, and Jerome, in 400, demonstrates the way that Early Christianity on one hand tried to remain true to biblical mandates for poverty, and at the same time how early churchmen had to deal with constituencies of converts from various economic backgrounds. It was all fine and good to generally follow the words of Christ and tell converts they ought to sell their Lamborghinis and bling bling and that brown bread was as good as champagne and escargot. But, then, rich parishioners brought in a lot of tithe money that could be used for alms, and some of them had considerable influence on those around them, and so the Clements and Jeromes and thousands of other early Christian churchmen, like modern religious leaders, had to deal deftly with all sorts of moral conundrums and iffy parishioners, lest they end up being harsh ideologues preaching to a bunch of empty pews. Whatever they did, it worked.

In 313, Constantine’s Edict of Milan, following a horrific persecution under Diocletian, secured the safety of Christians in the Empire. Historians have speculated extensively about the sincerity of Constantine’s famous conversion to Christianity, but at least one law Constantine wrote is compelling evidence that he took the religion’s dictates toward charity very seriously. Here is a law that Constantine wrote in 322, which was directed to imperial functionaries in the African provinces. Constantine wrote:
We are aware that provincials, afflicted by shortage of food and lack of resources, are putting up their children for sale or giving them as a pledge. If any one should be found in this situation, with no family revenues to support him and keeping his children alive only with grave difficulty, he shall be aided by the [public treasury] before he falls victim to calamity. The proconsuls and governors and treasurers throughout Africa shall have the power to grant the sustenance that is required to all those whom they find to be locked into pitiful poverty, and forthwith to provide the appropriate provisions from the storehouses. It is repugnant to my nature to permit anyone to be so consumed by hunger as to be driven to shameful crime.22
There is evidence here at the very end of this quote of that old Roman notion that the unoccupied poor were an accident waiting to happen. Even Rome’s first Christian emperor, then, saw charity as a tool to pacify the potentially seditious, and if you’re of a mind to look for them, there are a fair number of passages in the annals of early Christianity that do take a patronizing and derogatory attitude toward the unwashed masses, in much the same way that Aristotle had back in the 300s BCE. But, to be fair to the Christian Empire, Rome had done far, far worse things to provincials to pacify them than giving them free stuff. And Constantine, over the course of his time on the throne, continued to write laws that used the apparatus of the church in order to redistribute the wealth of the empire more evenly. Later in the 320s, Constantinian decrees were written that basically said rich people shouldn’t be allowed into publicly funded clerical positions – not because there was anything wrong with the rich, but instead in order to maximize resources. Constantine understood that bringing impoverished men and women into the clergy, even just as helpers of the sick, solved two problems at once. In scholar Caroline Humfress’ words, under Constantine, “The church was to support the poor, at least partly, by employing them.”23

If we look for the writhing corruption, and vice, and the decay of discipline that are the usual reasons cited for imperial Rome’s fall, we can find them. The empire had some awful people on the throne – Caligula, Nero, and Commodus to name a few. Surviving Silver Age Latin works of literature that we’ve read like the Satyricon, Juvenal’s Satires, and Apuleus’ The Golden Ass show some pretty grotesque displays of conspicuous consumption, just as they show some appalling extremes of poverty. Manuscripts of these works survived for a reason – they reinforced that age old notion that Rome had rotted out morally, a notion at least as old as the second century BCE that flared into world history forever after in the Book of Revelation. But by the fourth century, Roman Christians had to deal with the odd fact that they had become the gargantuan monster in the Book of Revelation – that they had taken over the Death Star, and had to decide where to pilot it. Under emperors like Constantine, the machinery of the church and state was wired together in ways often to the public benefit. At other points, the two were at odds with one another. But on the long scale, what happened between the completion of the New Testament around 100 CE and the papacy of Gregory the Great in 600 was a transformation, rather than a fall.

A gigantic redistribution of wealth and power had taken place. The most stable organization on the continent had become an ecclesiastical institution, rather than an erratic hereditary monarchy, notorious in the provinces for its sporadic bouts of brutality and its famished search for tax revenue. If we get the ancient, crusty, and more or less racist categories of Roman and barbarian out of our heads, we can see that many competent people from the provinces, by means of the church and its appendages, now had paths to success and fulfillment that would not have been available under the Julio-Claudians, or the consulship of Cicero. As scholar Peter Brown writes, “In the later empire, indeed, one feels a sudden release of talent and creativity such as often follows the shaking of an ancien régime. A rising current of able men, less burdened by the prejudices of an aristocracy and eager to learn [could flourish in] institutions less conservative than the bureaucracy and the educational system of the empire.”24 Jesus, after all, had been from a provincial from a family of no distinction, and his story was an allegory to all who heard it that their class and their roots didn’t matter, and that their energy and dedication was all that did.

The first page of the Exeter Book, the product of a Latin-influenced vernacular culture that flowered in the late pagan north centuries after the collapse of the western Roman empire.

To return to that poet of the Exeter Book, who looked on the broken stonework of Aquae Sulis and marveled at a whole civilization that seemed to have passed, this writer was a small part of the history that the Roman Empire ultimately engendered. The dissolution of Roman power structures throughout Europe encouraged the growth of vernacular literatures like the one we find in the Exeter Book. The punishing taxation that had sucked provinces dry since the second century BCE was gone, replaced by more local ruling systems that, as indifferent and malevolent of some of them were, were at least not thousands of miles overseas and out of sight. With the redistribution of wealth rattling change into the pockets of various early European monarchs, new patronage systems could emerge that sponsored regional forms of art by groups that had never been assimilated into the Roman Empire in the first place. During the earliest centuries of what historians used to call the Dark Ages, regional cultures were able to twinkle and glow in ways that would have been less likely under the roaring sun of the outstretched empire, hence the name of the episode that you’re now listening to, “Episode 75: Dusk and Starlight.”

Modern historians on Late Antiquity, then, as I said earlier, see the years between 200 and 800 or so as a period of regionalization and the energetic creativity that this regionalization made possible. This is a more positive view than the old conventional notion that these years were an awful plunge into squalor and violence and ignorance. And as we’ve seen, inasmuch as the Western Empire was careening off the rails at various moments in the 200s, 300s, and 400s, a lot of changes were also going into effect that had broadly positive impacts on the lives of the average men and women of the Mediterranean and beyond. Christian historians, including Pope Gregory, have tended to tell the story of the fall of Rome as an allegory for a sinning nation in the hands of an angry god. And secular academic historians, following Edward Gibbon, have often tended to write of the rise of Christianity in pejorative terms, dismissing Earth’s most pervasive religion as a regrettable decline into superstition, as though Plato and his ancient fanboys were secular rationalists with no beliefs in the divine. In the two upcoming seasons of Literature and History, as we first work through the New Testament and some of the other religious activities of the first few centuries CE, and then study the texts and the history of Late Antiquity together, we will not take these paths. We will not assume that Rome, by the third century CE, was some maggot ridden corpse, being drop kicked by God for its misdeeds. Nor will we treat Christianity as some mammoth shadow, hulking over European history until the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment dispelled its gloom in the Early Modern period. We are going to take Early Christianity seriously, on its own terms, by reading its primary texts. And I think we’ll find, as we so often do in our journey together, that there are terribly important, revealing, and poignant texts from this period that we really ought to know all about, that this period of literary history, too, is a gem box full of strange and delightful stories that will make us smile and reflect and laugh out loud with incredulity, and that our ancient counterparts from this chronically understudied period of history have far more in common with us than we might expect. [music]

A Mural at the Book Store

Well, Literature and History listeners, this concludes our main series on Roman literature. There will be more literature from the imperial period ahead as we enter Late Antiquity, and in fact Lucian of Samosata, whom we’ll meet in our next season, was a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius. But naturally, before we move into a period in which Christianity was starting to show up everywhere, we need to explore Christianity’s central book, and the history behind it. Our next eight programs will delve into the New Testament, and then some of the second and third century ideologies, such as Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism and Manichaeism, that were out there when Jesus Christ began taking over the ancient Mediterranean. I think perhaps that what we’ll learn above all else is that however codified Christianity is today in the Catholic and various Protestant churches, Early Christianity was wiggly, and it took a long time to assume its present forms, which, themselves are continuing to evolve.

I didn’t anticipate that covering Roman literature would take me over two years. When you produce long podcast episodes like I do, your release numbers often look deceptively meager. In our case, a mere 75 episodes over the course of four years indicates a release cycle of less than two programs a month. But having produced about 125 hours of content with an average length of an hour and forty five minutes per show, plus another nearly 50 hours of bonus episodes, more hours of bonus poetry readings for Patreon, more than seventy original songs with vocals, more than 260 original instrumental pieces and about the same quantity of short instrumental section breaks, I still feel like I can look myself in the mirror. In fact, and forgive me for a moment of self-promotion, but while Mike Duncan’s sterling podcast, The History of Rome, which many of us have listened to, has a running length of about 68 hours over 190 episodes, our series of 34 programs on Roman literature alone have reached 63 hours. I think that as we move into later Latin writers – Rutilius Namatianus, Athanasius, Ausonius, and others, we’ll have enough content on Roman literature to match Mike on Roman history, with a single segment of our show, and that’s great – it’s been wonderful telling a little bit different story about Rome than Mike’s, which proved to be a gateway drug toward the ancient world for so many podcast listeners.

But we’ve covered more than Rome. Over the course of a full million words – 1.3 million counting the bonus episodes, we’ve taken a massive number of books from half a dozen university departments and read them all together. There are advantages to doing what we’ve done. If we opened the New Testament with no background on Roman literature and culture, the pagan world beyond the tiny Christian fold would seem like a black box – an impenetrable brick of ancient creeds and a briar patch of polytheistic systems impossible to understand. Having spent 125 hours on the pre-Christian world, though, we’ll have no such hang-ups. Our podcast hasn’t made us into professional scholars, but it has caused the Greeks, Romans, Ancient Egyptians, Judahites, and even older Ancient Near Eastern cultures to feel like old friends – friends whose stories and poems and creeds we’ve treasured and shared. From cuneiform, to Homer, to the Hebrew Bible, to ancient Athenian drama, to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Silver Age Latin, the pre-Christian world is much less foggy than when we started this adventure a few years back.

Still, there are definite disadvantages to the approach I’ve taken in this show. To explain those disadvantages, I want to tell you a quick story. I went into a Barnes and Noble bookstore a while back– a few months before the present Coronavirus epidemic shut everything down. I just happened to be driving by, and I went in and bought a book, and I parked myself in the little Barnes and Noble coffee shop to read it. On the wall, above bookstore’s café tables, there was an ensemble painting of maybe a dozen literary figures, themselves seated at tables, as though they were present in spirit at the café, showering their bookish erudition down on those of us having coffee and bagels there. In the painting – a mural, really – William Faulkner sat, slouched, smoking a pipe. T.S. Eliot consulted a book and drank from a ridiculously small cup of tea. John Steinbeck mouthed a cigar. Virginia Woolf looked gaunt and aloof. Kafka appeared anemic and ghostly. John Milton frowned over a sheaf of paper, a quill in his hand. Walt Whitman leaned with his hand on his chin and looked outward from beneath his trademark frumpy hat. There were others, but I don’t remember who. None of them were smiling. Gravely, and humorlessly, the authors in the mural peered forth, preened as they had been in their most famous photographs and portraits.

The mural I saw at this Barnes and Noble was the kind of thing I would have adored as an undergraduate English major. I still love all of the authors depicted therein – I mean some of them feel like family. I have grass from Walt Whitman’s grave hung on my living room wall. I wrote much of this podcast in Steinbeck’s hometown, and read East of Eden in a house not far from where he grew up, and set the climax of this book. A single section of a Virginia Woolf novel radically transformed the way I think about the universe when I was twenty-four. I got drunk once in John Milton’s side yard in Gloucestershire with some kindred spirits on New Year’s Eve. I get it. They’re my heroes, too. But for some reason, sitting there under that mural, a hundred plus hours into Literature and History, it felt a little strange being there. I said to myself, looking up at the mural, “This is what people in my country think of when they think of literature, if they think of literature at all.” And something about it looked too serious, too formal, too self-consciously individualistic – too postured. The whole mural of all those authors exuded that old Romantic notion that artists are disaffected, precious things, floating above the mucky soil of their respective places and times, ever commenting and pronouncing, and all too often, perishing as rebels without applause. The convention of the twentieth century was unconventionality – nonconformists conforming against conformity, and as I looked up into the faces of some of my favorite authors I realized that this is still how we are imagining artists – as commentators somehow removed from the riffraff, solemn and saintlike in their ingenuity.

I looked up at that painting, and I realized that there were two big problems with my podcast, and also, that I didn’t really care about either of them. The first problem was that what I think of as literature – in other words what you’ve been hearing about for the last 125 hours, is pretty different from what contemporary Anglophone culture thinks about when they think about literature – that it’s the product of a caste of hipsters, themselves overwhelmingly modern, Caucasian, and unorthodox, and serious – angry at their fathers or mothers or the social injustices of their eras. To me, personally, literature is always more collectivisic, produced by people but also by systems, written as an effort toward individual expression but also as part of a group search for meaning, as when playwrights at the City Dionysia framed their contemporary history into trilogies of plays, or biblical prophets sought to understand the challenges their civilizations faced. And the second problem that I thought of, as I looked up into the deadpan countenances of Virginia Woolf and the rest, was that I realized that the Literature and History podcast is smack dab in the middle of a period that’s way off the radar of the modern English department. I mean, let’s be honest – we’ve talked about this before, but it’s pretty unusual for students of Anglophone literature to spend as much time with the Bible as we are, and nearly as unusual for students of literature to truck through Silver Age Latin, let alone Late Antiquity. I guess if I were going for mere popularity, I’d hustle ahead and pick out the marquee works of literary history, serving Dante’s Inferno and Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Shelly’s Frankenstein on a weekly silver platter, and leaving Enheduanna and Menander and Lucretius alone, since these folks would never appear on a mural at a Barnes and Noble. I’d concentrate on that small guild of headliner authors overwhelmingly congregated in and after the early modern period, and we would share stories of how they strode forth from their respective ages and sprayed their unconventional virtuosity onto the stupefied worlds around them. I would certainly not do what I am about to do, and set the controls directly for the single most misunderstood and underserved period of literary history out there and go full speed ahead into the potentially very incendiary topic of Early Christianity.

That night I was in Barnes and Noble I looked up at the Mount Rushmore of literary history on display to café customers and I just laughed at myself. I thought, “Oh Metzger, you’re an idiot.” You know how you talk to yourself under your breath in public places at a barely audible volume. I thought, “I’m going to spend the next year gallivanting through Late Antiquity, quoting Saint Paul and John of Patmos, packaging second century para-Christian theology into audio shows, and rather than Shakespeare and Hemingway I’m going to be serving up Heliodorus, Nonnus, Severus, and Gregory of Tours.” I shook my head, and I laughed at myself, and I felt really sad, and still kind of happy. I felt sad because – in the same sense of this story I’ve been telling you, I host a literature podcast and talk about a lot of things that literature people aren’t typically aren’t very interested in, and that’s not so good for popularity. I felt happy because I still can’t shake the notion that our approach to literature in this show is working, and that the quality and density of education it is providing is worth the sacrifice of the quantity of listeners who might stop by if I only focused on literature’s household names.

At this very moment, as we finally move from B.C. to A.D., with the major surviving works of classical and Bronze Age antiquity in our heads, we can pretty clearly see the benefits of the approach that we’ve taken so far. It’s an inclusive approach. The unique new form of the podcast allows for an awesome breadth of coverage in the same connected narrative. We have learned the theological, philosophical, and literary history of the Ancient Mediterranean in a way that has disregarded the divisions between these subjects in today’s academic departments, in a way that would be difficult to do in any other medium. We’ve undertaken a form of educational cross training, and this training will make certain things very easy for us to understand that are exceedingly difficult if you matriculate in a single university department and stay there. And as we move forward into the Early Christian period, we will really begin to feel the advantage of having taken the scenic route in order to get here. Let me explain why.

The book that I purchased that evening at Barnes and Noble was a work of non-academic popular history by author Bart Ehrman – a recent short historical survey called The Triumph of Christianity. I read it because I’d just finished writing my own season on the New Testament and the early centuries of Christianity, and I wanted to see how a popular public historian had handled the same period – how Ehrman told the whole story in maybe 130,000 words – where he simplified things, and what he left out for the sake of comprehensibility. Now, Ehrman is great – he’s a real historian and decorated author, and so what I’m about to tell you isn’t a criticism of his scholarship. What struck me immediately, though, reading there beneath the pictures of Faulkner and company, were these two sentences, printed on page five of the 2018 book. Historian Bart Ehrman wrote, “Before the triumph of Christianity, the Roman Empire was phenomenally diverse, but its inhabitants shared a number of cultural and ethical assumptions. If one word could encapsulate the common social, political, and personal ethic of the time, it would be ‘dominance’” (5).

Now I read those sentences and I scrunched up my lips. “Dominance,” I thought. Author Bart Ehrman, in a worldwide bestselling short work about the history of Early Christianity published in 2018, thought that the entirety of Roman cultural history up to – say – Constantine – was best described by the word “dominance” – that that was the word that would communicate the essence of Roman culture to a broad public mainly curious about Early Christianity. “Dominance,” I thought, and I pictured Ovid, walking around the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine on a warm summer night, making eyes with pretty women and going home to write elegiac couplets about it later. I pictured Cicero, as a young student in Athens, electrified by Greek oratory and burning the midnight oil to nurture his own nascent skills as the ancient world’s most famous orator. I thought of Livius Andronicus, Rome’s first known author, translating Homer’s Odyssey into Latin because someone had to do it, and Plautus, slinging actors up on stage and trying to make some cash by putting on New Comedy style plays in the ruckus of Rome’s cultural festivals. I thought of Virgil, walking around the Po Valley as a little kid and hearing shepherds singing songs and playing pipes, and Lucretius, laying out Epicurean atomism for all posterity. I thought of Juvenal, standing beneath a Roman archway on a rainy day, and rolling his eyes at rich buffoons walking by – of Terence sharing Carthaginian phrases with Scipio Aemelianus and his other friends – of Catullus, reading the lyrics of Sappho and deciding to try his hand at short love poems. I even thought of Marcus Aurelius, dressing before dawn in a cold military camp in the Carpathian foothills, reluctantly at war for so much of his life, a person who would so strongly preferred to be at home reading books. And I thought, “dominance.” Maybe, folks, we haven’t come so far from Revelation’s smear campaign against Rome after all, if, almost 2,000 years later, we’re still shorthanding all of Roman history as knuckle-dragging militarism.

I set myself the same task that author Bart Ehrman did – not an easy task – what if I had to summarize all of Roman history and culture to a popular audience primarily interested in Early Christianity, and had to do so in one word. My word would not be “dominance.” My word would be “movement.” Because movement, travel, immigration, and deracination – these were what increasingly characterized Ancient Mediterranean history following Rome’s victories against Carthage and Greece in 146 BCE. Movement was what ultimately enabled the lush intellectual history of Silver Age Latin to flower, producing works like The Golden Ass – a Latin novel by an ethnically Carthaginian intellectual who wrote about Greek philosophy and paid deference to an Egyptian savior goddess whose husband, like a number of other ancient deities linked to agricultural cycles, had suffered and died for the ultimate benefit of mankind. Movement was what accelerated the spread of the intercontinental religious cults.

And this takes me to a second point that I read in my brand new book there in that Barnes and Noble Cafe. This second point, according to Ehrman, is one of the great questions of Early Christianity – in Ehrman’s words, how did “twenty or so lower-class, illiterate Jews from rural Galilee. . .become a church of some thirty million. . .in three hundred years?” Ehrman spends his book doing a marvelous job answering this question, and you and I will spend the next two seasons doing so. But one answer that we already have is likely the trickiest one of all – and that is that by the year zero, a whole lot of what would later be Christian ideology already existed in the Roman world. We would not understand this if we had not journeyed for the past 125 hours through Ancient Mediterranean literary history. If we ignored Platonic philosophy, and stoicism, and late Second Temple Judaism, and if we stuffed all of the late republic and early empire’s religious activity into one overcrowded jar with the label “PAGANISM” on it, then certainly, Christianity might seem like something glittery and new. But this is not the path we’ve taken. And so as we move forward into Early Christianity, armed with a decent grounding in Classical literature and philosophy, schooled on the Old Testament and its roots, we’re in quite a good position for what’s coming next. We will understand the New Testament not as some finished tome that thunked down into European history right after the life of Christ. We’ll understand it as a spongy mass of ideas from all over – a mass that nearly became something very different as gnostic ideology gained ground over the second century, as five other surviving Gospels joined the existing four and dozens of other para-Christian sacred writings recently discovered in the Nag Hammadi Scriptures pulled what historians often call Proto-Orthodoxy in all sorts of different directions. We will see that while the Christian movement brought new ideas to the Ancient Mediterranean, the most historically pivotal one of all, as we’ve heard in this program, may have actually been its staunch egalitarianism and its related capacity to install and replicate charitable religious institutions all over the Roman Empire.

The next two seasons, then, will take us deep into the annals of Early Christianity and Late Antiquity, and into the history of an intercontinental redistribution of wealth and resources. As new civilizations arose and Roman hegemony receded, powers from the provinces of the Roman empire and beyond could assert themselves and flourish in ways that would have been impossible if Rome and its aristocracy had continued to hold sway. In the strange twilight of the western empire’s final centuries, as Rome subdivided and its various regions had increasingly testy encounters with well-armed outsiders, literature, though not literature that many of us know about, continued to grow and flourish. [music]

Two New Bonus Sequences: Christianity’s Roots and More Greek Plays

Well, as we close this long fourth season of our show, I’d like to make some announcements. One of the reasons I’ve been a little slow moving us through Silver Age Latin literature is that I’ve been writing a new bonus series, a new bonus series that’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. Let me tell you a bit a little bit about it. In the first chapter of the Book of Romans, Paul writes, “I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (Rom 1:14). This quote has always stuck in my mind, an outright admission of Paul’s own heterodox ideological heritage – a tacit acknowledgement by Christianity’s engineer-in-chief that his own contributions to Christian theology didn’t come out of nowhere. Paul’s words here, together with really the full heft of ancient history we’ve covered recently, inspired me to put together five new full-length bonus episodes.

Christianity’s Roots is an overview of the pre-Christian origins of some of the stories and ideas in the New Testament.

This bonus series is called Christianity’s Roots. Christianity’s biggest root is, of course, Judaism, and over our 24 hours of programs on the Old Testament, we spent quite a bit of time with the ancient Judahites. But Christianity had other roots – foundations which I find myself mentioning again and again and again without having covered them in a lot of detail. What were the mystery religions – this worship of Mithras, or Cybele, and the secret festival at Eleusis? What about this Isis cult that keeps coming up? What about Plato’s theology – and his heritage in Pythagoreanism and Orphism? Or the religious stuff happening in modern day Israel around the time Jesus was born there? I decided it was time for us to stop considering these questions in passing, and to turn our full attention to the pre-Christian world’s major cult movements, for a total of nearly ten hours.

Christianity’s Roots’ first program is on the Isis cult. Since I kept finding myself mentioning the Isis cult again and again in our podcast, I decided to do an entire program on it. Excepting the Book of the Dead a long time ago, we’ve talked surprisingly little about Ancient Egyptian religion proper, and in Episode 1 of Christianity’s Roots, we talk about the Ancient Egyptian Ennead – a pantheon of nine deities often compared to Greece’s Olympiad. In our program on Isis, in addition to reading the standard sources about her, and about worship practices surrounding Isis and Osiris in the Roman empire, we will also read what is, as far as I know, the most unabashedly x-rated text from antiquity – a story called “The Contendings of Horus and Set,” which involves, among other things, and I’m not making this up, a sacred hat made out of semen.

Isis, her son Horus, and her husband Osiris weren’t the only deities to have large cult followings in the Ancient Mediterranean. In the second episode of Christianity’s Roots, we’ll consider three of the major mystery religions, some of which had cult centers, and others which seemed to spread from place to place regardless of geography. These are the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Cult of Cybele, and the Cult of Mithras, all three of which often get brought into discussions of Early Christianity. These cults, in all likelihood with heritage in ancient agrarian rites, show the normal trappings of Ancient Mediterrean cult religions – gods who died or made divine sacrifices for humanity, humanity restored by such sacrifices, and various rules related to secrecy, purity, fasting, and initiation.

Understanding the basic machinery of cult religions will help us move into the third episode of Christianity’s Roots – one that covers Pythagoreanism and Orphism. These two movements, which had various evolutions and variations in ancient history, showed a concerted interest in topics that would later be central to Platonic philosophy. The Pythagoreans, a purity cult that began in southern Italy, studied harmonic relationships in music, and deduced that numbers and proportions might thus be used to describe all of reality, and not just music. The Orphics, who revered sacred texts related to Dionysus, belonged to what one study estimates was “the most widespread cult in the Hellenized world,” worshipping a deity whose death helped engender the creation of humanity.25 Both of these cults – the Pythagoreans and Orphics, were known for their doctrines of reincarnation, which they passed down to Plato, the main figure in the fourth installment of Christianity’s Roots.

Plato was relentlessly influential in ancient religion, he himself being as much a sacred augur of the divine as much as a philosopher in the modern sense, and his spiritual speculations in works Phaedo, Phaedrus, Timaeus, the Republic and elsewhere show up early and often in Early Christianity. Plato was a bottleneck in the early fourth century BCE, devouring the exclusionary spirit of ancient religious cults, inheriting Pythagoreanism’s zest for mathematics and more generally the rugged and purist ethics of movements like Orphism, embracing the doctrines of posthumous salvation and differentiated afterlives that most cult religions had, and cramming all of this into the core of Ancient Greek philosophy. As we see even major gnostic works of the second century CE like the Apocryphon of John parroting Platonic ideas, it’s fairly reasonable to say that aside from Saint Paul and Jesus himself, no one person ever had an influence on Christianity as great as Plato’s.

The fifth and final show of Christianity’s Roots is on the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Essenes – three splinter groups of Judaism that we’ll soon be seeing a whole lot of the main show – splinter groups that get bad press in the Gospels, but were in reality far more interesting and dynamic sects than the Bible might lead us to believe. The political energy of the Pharisees and their capacity to harness the enthusiasm of the masses with novel ideas like posthumous salvation made them a competitor to the earliest Jewish Christians who wrote the Gospels. The Sadducees were purportedly more traditional with their religion, but less conservative and nativist in other ways, building relationships with Greeks and Romans and perhaps in the long run inspiring a Greek language New Testament. The Essenes, finally, though they don’t show up in the Bible, were out there during the life of Jesus, a purity cult with at least one main cell on the shore of the Dead Sea, whose famous library shows the diversity of Second Temple literature in the centuries before the birth of Christ.

All told, this new series of Christianity’s Roots is about ten hours of new content, made with love and care. I spent nearly a year on the series, because I really wanted to make a connected narrative about Christianity’s theological origins that was accessible, story–driven, and engaging, and truth be told a massive amount of research went into it. But in fact, Christianity’s Roots is only one of two bonus sequences I’m releasing alongside Episode 75, because if you’re listening to this, there’s a second one out as well.

More Greek Plays covers Aeschylus’ Persians, the play Prometheus Bound, Sophocles’ Ajax, Aristophanes’ The Birds, and Euripides’ Ion, Iphigenia in Tauris, and Helen.

This second series is called More Greek Plays. It is, in all, pretty self explanatory – a throwback to our sequence on Ancient Greece, and a swan song for the most famous place and time in Ancient Greek history, a last splash into the old polytheistic world before we begin the New Testament. I made it because too many listeners were asking me to cover this or that Classical Athenian play – could I please include this other one by Aeschylus, or this fourth by Sophocles – Lysistrata and The Clouds were all fine, but how about this additional one by Aristophanes, and oh – had I heard about this understudied but tremendously important play by Euripides? We did ten plays by these authors in the main series, and our bonus series More Greek Plays covers five more, for an additional connected narrative of over nine hours.

First, we will cover Aeschylus’ The Persians, a work of historical fiction from 472 BCE that is quite literally the first surviving piece of world drama. The Persians is Aeschylus’ story of the Persian reaction to losing the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, and so it is a staged work about a very recent event, and, remarkably, it is told from the Persian perspective. In it, the Persian Queen mother Atossa receives and processes the news of her son Xerxes’ losses abroad, just before Xerxes himself arrives back and begins dealing with the ignominiousness of his defeat. Part tragedy, part stereotyped ethnography, and also, partly a genuine effort to display sympathy toward Greece’s defeated foes, The Persians is a production that has interested many as the first surviving work of literature to display a binary between the cultures of the European and Asian continents. And that’s just the first step in the More Greek Plays bonus series.

After The Persians, we’ll go on to read a play called Prometheus Bound. This second work covered in the series has often been attributed to Aeschylus, but increasingly, scholars think it may have been written by someone else, making it possibly the only work of Classical Greek drama to survive in full not written by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, or Aristophanes. Prometheus Bound is the tale of a god who has sacrificed himself for humanity, a deity who has accepted the full wrath of Zeus as punishment for bringing knowledge to humanity. While later readers like Shelly and Nietzsche saw Prometheus as a fearless hero, in the ancient play about him that survives he is more complicated than this – a character with divine foresight who nonetheless can’t help but have very conflicted visions of his own future.

Episode three of More Greek Plays is called Second Best, and it is about Sophocles’ play Ajax. Ajax, the greatest warrior in the Iliad apart from Achilles, and one who beats Hector several times, but never really receives recognition for it, was an important figure in the mythological tradition in his own right, receiving an especially long narrative in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Sophocles’ Ajax isn’t just a tragedy about a hulking warrior, though – it’s also a play about a historical transition – one that took place between the city-sacking tribal culture of the Homeric poems and the far more complicated one of Sophocles’ own. It is the only Greek tragedy I ever read that actually made me cry, and though I can’t promise that it ends with sunshine and rainbows, Sophocles’ Ajax is nonetheless one of Ancient Greece’s most famous plays, and one which I think you’ll appreciate.

The fourth program in More Greek Plays is called Cloud Cuckooland, and it’s about Aristophanes’ play The Birds, first staged in 414 BCE. The Birds is a play about two Athenian aristocrats who, fed up with their city’s bureaucratic hurdles and general nonsense, decide to light out to the northern territory of Thrace. There, they meet an influential bird, and with this bird, they build a city in the clouds, complete with bird citizens, a bird army, and an aggressive sense of manifest destiny. It is a hilarious and completely ridiculous story, culminating in a clash between the everyman Athenians, their feathered allies, and the gods themselves. And the play is also a mystery – scholars have long wondered why Aristophanes, who was obviously quite capable of writing very, very direct social commentary and timely pieces on contemporary history, would take it upon himself to pen such an outlandish tale during some of the tensest months of the Peloponnesian War.

The fifth and final show in More Greek Plays is called Beyond Comedy and Tragedy, and it is about Euripides’ plays Ion, Iphigenia at Tauris, and Helen – though mostly Ion. A small set of Euripides’ plays – and not the blood and thunder plots of Medea and the Bacchae that we covered a while ago, had an extremely outsized impact on literary history. Euripides, always rattling the casings of dramatic conventions, at a certain point in his career began experimenting with a new sort of plot – one neither tragedy nor comedy, but something in between, and this new genre, which I’ll tell you all about in the bonus episode Beyond Comedy and Tragedy, had a staggering influence on literature as we know it today.

So that bonus sequence once again is called More Greek Plays. My two new sequences More Greek Plays and Christianity’s Roots are available right there in your app in the episode description – just scroll down to where it says Bonus Content – which is also easy to find at literatureandhistory.com. Additionally, if you never heard The Astounding Apocrypha and Before Yahweh – my two earlier bonus sequences, now would be a pretty good time to brush up on the ancient theological history of the turf once called Canaan.

Folks, at this point I have over 50 hours worth of bonus content available – 25 full episodes – available for purchase – $1.99 an episode if you purchase them individually, and less if you buy them all together in a bundle. And I’ve been working overtime to put music and sountracked readings of famous poems up for anyone who pledges a dollar per show or more on Patreon – everything I’ve ever put up there is still hanging out there, ready to be downloaded. While a tiny portion of this audience has ponied up to help out, the overwhelming majority of my and other podcast audiences don’t do so – if unique download statistics are reliable, it seems to be about one percent for most of us – one percent who step in to help. Scholarship on this subject indicates that digital labor somehow seems less real to consumers – that we’ll drop $1.00 into a tip jar for the guy at the coffee shop counter, or buy a knit cap from a girl at the craft fair, but listen to decades of complimentary audio and download gigabytes of freeware, without offering a nickel. So, if you’ve never contributed to Literature and History, please, buy a bonus episode, or pledge a dollar per show on Patreon, and maybe do the same for another podcast you listen to and want to support. Podcasters are not wine jars with holes in them, or pockets that leak sesterces onto the ground, as Aristotle and Seneca compare charity to – educational podcast contributions are the two or three dollars a month that you pledge because doing so is the right thing to do, and because if everyone did it, public educators like me would be able to stop giving up weekends and evenings, and actually make a living sharing their disciplines with the world. I’m under no illusions that I’m some sort of a visionary or that I belong in a mural at a book store, but at this point I’m providing a useful educational service to a lot of of people, and so some compensation seems like a very reasonable thing to request. And if you really can’t afford a dollar or two a month on Patreon, or purchasing a bonus sequence to help me produce this project, well, of course, take the main series as a gift. There’s a reason I didn’t put this long story behind a pay wall, and that reason is the people around the world who really do need to download it all for free.

Having said all of this, though, as I always try to I want to thank you for listening in the first place. With coming up on 1.5 million downloads of often very long episodes at this point, from time to time I look back at the modest and dog-legged path I took to get here and feel honored that anyone’s tuning in at all. For a long time I’ve had an anonymous survey up on my website, which has been extremely helpful. Two thousand anonymous survey replies pretty quickly disabuse one of any notion that one’s work is perfect, and yet years into the story I’ve been telling you, I still feel like this project might be the best use of what I am and what I can do at the moment. I’m a person who – and maybe you can relate – I feel like I fit in everywhere, and also, like I fit in nowhere. From talking to so many of you over the years, I know that for a lot of us these podcasts serve a similar function – they are an opportunity to learn the things we never got to learn, or in my case to teach the things we never got to teach, and in all cases to discover or revisit areas of knowledge that, whatever our reasons, we’re hungry for.

You may know this about me, but although I did the terminal degree in literature, I’m not in academia any more. Like so many of us who finished graduate school around the time of the Great Recession, I faced the double whammy of an already competitive humanities job market and a severe hiring slowdown driven by various budget cuts. I married my graduate school sweetheart the same summer we finished our PhDs, and she got a teaching position right away, fortunately. After the first, and then the second move we made for her career, we wound up in a place where I was happy enough to live, but also a place that didn’t have much in the way of academic job opportunities, so I got an 8-5 office job in a tech field – I’d been doing it ever since. I started Literature and History about two years into that job because I missed teaching so much.

This show hit its fourth birthday very recently, and for four years I’ve been doing it on top of a full time job. It’s certainly been my choice to continue it through thick and thin. On a good day, it feels like quite a nice achievement – I won’t recount the stats again, but on the whole, a sizable piece of public scholarship that’s brought literary history to a lot of people. On a not so good day, it feels crude and overzealous – a zeppelin that’s consumed four years of leisure time into its fuel tank and is providing me with, as I record this, about a quarter of what I would need it to in order to make a living, a thing, since it’s independently produced and not under the auspices of a university, is ineligible for grant funding – and which my dissertation committee, if they even knew about it, would likely regard as mangy and unclean.

It has always been my spirit as a teacher to walk up to the chalkboard with a smile and spring in my step, because you never know what any given student in your class is going through, or what kind of day they’re having. I don’t put ads on this show, and I try to even keep my own solicitations for help brief, because I respect your time, and don’t want to waste it. And I can promise to keep these episodes coming for a while still, because I think what we’re doing is working, and as is likely obvious, I love this project and continue, overall, to believe in it. But my goodness, guys, I’m tired, and this has been a lot for just one person to do. I’m giving this everything I have, and I could sure use some more help.

Well, it’s time we finally move onto Season 5 of Literature and History on the New Testament, which begins with a program called Episode 76: Judea Under Herod. King Herod, often called Herod the Great, was a Roman client king who ruled from 37 BCE up until about 4 BCE. Prior to Herod the Great, Judea enjoyed a period of autonomous rulership called the Hasmonean Dynasty, which we covered in a Bonus Episode on the Books of Maccabees. When Mark Antony and Octavian ended the Hasmonean Dynasty after the Hasmoneans attempted to collaborate with Parthia, Herod was installed as the province’s ruler, and he presided over the generations just prior to Jesus Christ. Next time, we’re going to get our boots on the ground in the Roman province of Judea, and learn all about what was going on along the Levantine coast, the banks of the Jordan and the Sea of Galilee, and everything in between just prior to the birth of Christ. Neither Roman west nor Parthian east, Judea during this period was a cultural and linguistic crossroads, the history of which is quite useful in understanding the story of Jesus, his apostles, and the local world into which Christianity emerged. And please, take a look at my bonus content page – there are at least ten squeaky clean, full length, sound tracked new episodes for you there, on Christianity’s roots and Ancient Greek theater, and many more if you’ve never delved into L&H’s bonus content, and also, all the latest Literature and History songs, and a “Best of” compilation of this podcast’s comedy tunes. Patreon supporters get 25% off on this material, and, so there’s never been a better time to pledge a buck a show for this podcast.

And speaking of Patreon supporters, this week, man, with everything that’s going on, I decided some Walt Whitman was in order. Like so many healthcare workers at the present moment, Whitman was no stranger to hospitals and caring for those in need – Whitman volunteered as a nurse for much of the American Civil War. I thought everyone ought to listen to Whitman’s poem “The Wound Dresser” – a piece about his medical work during the Civil War – incidentally an era of partisanism that makes our country’s present one look fairly tame by comparison, and I also recorded a big stretch of “Song of Myself” for you for good measure – one of my all time favorite pieces of writing. There are some other Whitman poems at the new tiers I’ve launched on Patreon this week, too. Everybody, thank you so much for listening to Literature and History – I hope you are safe and well during the COVID-19 epidemic, that my episodes can help you get through some long walks or home improvement projects or whatever you find yourself doing, and I’ll see you very soon with Episode 76: Judea Under Herod.

I don’t have an outro comedy tune for you today, but in the spirit of Whitman, and optimism, and springtime, here’s an instrumental I wrote called “Long Grass” – a little melody that popped into my head while I was taking a walk and looking at some April seed pods dangling in a slight breeze on a warm spring morning. Hope you like it, and see you very soon!

[“Long Grass” Instrumental Song]


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2.^ Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Delmarva Publications, 2013. Kindle Edition, Location 45892.

3.^ Anonymous. “The Ruin.” Printed in The Wanderer. Translated and Edited by Michael Alexander. Penguin Classics, 1966. Kindle Edition, Location 469.

4.^ Russo, Daniel G. Town Origins and Development in Early England, c. 400-950 A.D. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998, p. 79.

5.^ Gregory the Great. “Homily on Ezekiel.” Printed in Coulton, G.G. Medieval Panorama: The English Scene from Conquest to Reformation. Cambridge University Press, 1949, p. 10.

6.^ Ibid, pp. 9-10.

7.^ Poirier, Paul-Hubert. “The Sentences of Sextus.” Printed in The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne, 2007, p. 707.

8.^ Brown, Peter. The World of Late Antiquity. W.W. Norton and Company, 1989, pp. 15-16.

9.^ A common paraphrase of Horace Epis 2.1.156.

10.^ Marx, Karl. Communist Manifesto. Printed in The Portable Karl Marx. Ed. Eugene Kamenka. Penguin Books, 1983, p. 203.

11.^ Aristotle. Politics. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Delphi Classics, 2013. Kindle Edition, Location 54397.

12.^ Cicero. On Duties (2.54). Printed in Cicero. Delphi Complete Works of Cicero. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 80880.

13.^ Seneca. On the Happy Life (23-4). Printed in Seneca. Delphi Complete Works of Seneca the Younger. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 19649.

14.^ Sallust. The War with Catiline (37). Printed in Sallust. Delphi Complete Works of Sallust. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 533.

15.^ Morley, Neville. “The poor in the city of Rome.” Printed in Atkins, Margaret and Osborne, Robin, eds. Poverty in the Roman World. Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 38.

16.^ Cicero. On Old Age (16). Printed in Cicero. Delphi Complete Works of Cicero. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 70925.

17.^ Plutarch. Cato the Elder. (1,3,21-2) Printed in Plutarch. Delphi Complete Works of Plutarch. Delphi Classics, 2013. Kindle Edition, Location 10287.

18.^ Cicero. On Duties 1.151. Delphi Complete Works of Cicero. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 78162.

19.^ Sallust. The War with Catiline. (10.1-4) Printed in Sallust. Delphi Complete Works of Sallust. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 186.

20.^ Jerome. Letters (22.31). Printed in The Complete Works of Saint Jerome. Public Domain, 2016. Kindle Edition, Location 1426. The italicized words are Job 1:21.

21.^ Clement of Alexandria. Salvation for the Rich (XIV). Printed in The Complete Works of Clement of Alexandria. Patristic Publishing, 2020. Kindle Edition, Location 16270.

22.^ Printed in Humfress, Caroline. “Poverty and Roman law.” Printed in Atkins, Margaret and Osborne, Robin, eds. Poverty in the Roman World. Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 191-2.

23.^ Humfress, Caroline. “Poverty and Roman law.” Printed in Atkins, Margaret and Osborne, Robin, eds. Poverty in the Roman World. Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 194.

24.^ Brown, Peter. The World of Late Antiquity. W.W. Norton and Company, 1971, p. 33.

25.^ The Orphic Hymns. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Apostolos Athanassakis and Benjamin Wolkow. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. Kindle Edition, Location 244.