Roman Temples and Christian Churches

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I’m stealing this from Sarah Bond’s brilliant weekly column at Forbes (which you should read). Feyo Schuddeboom wrote one of the tighter papers on the conversion of pagan temples to Early Christian churches that I’ve read in recent times. Focusing on the city of Rome, he argues that very few – if any – converted temples appeared to reflect religious motivations. Instead, the conversion of temples or the building of churches on temple sites seems to have take place over several hundred years and to have been driven by motivations ranging from local topography and visual position of the building to the suitability and legal status of the building. 

Schuddeboom helpfully reminds us that most ancient temples remained protected by Roman law. Their status as public, res sacrae persisted even after these buildings had fallen out of use and rendered them res nullius which prevented them from falling into private hands. As a result, these temples often stood neglected for centuries and their sites undeveloped making them suitable places for Christian churches provided that the bishops could gain approval from the imperial authorities. There were a few examples of this practice even long after direct imperial control of the city had lapsed in the mid-5th century. Pope Boniface IV, in the early 7th century, requested permission to convert the Pantheon to a church, and a decade later, Pope Honorius I gained permission from the emperor to strip the abandoned temple of Venus and Roma of its bronze roof tiles. By the 8th century, imperial properties officially became the possession of the Pope paving the way for the acceleration of temple conversions. Their legal standing both before and after the emergence of the Papal States prevented the conversion of temples to private structures or, generally, their reuse as civic or public buildings. This is among the more compelling arguments for the fate of Roman temples, and while I’d be reluctant to expand it too broadly to temples across the empire, it certainly helps explain why the Theodosian and Justinianic Code contains a number of laws requiring the preservation of temples in urban areas (particularly, but not exclusively after their confiscation by the state) as well as their destruction in the countryside. Of course, imperial rescripts suggest that the law was not followed in every case, but evidence that the bishop of Rome had to request permission to recycle the building or its parts suggests that the law carried some authority in these cases.

This article offers an interesting perspective on the physical conversion of urban space to Christianity in Late Antiquity. For those of us who see Christian buildings as having both practical, but also symbolic or even spiritual functions within the city, the delayed and procedural adaptation of these buildings speaks more to the rise of the secular in the Late Roman world than the clash between Christians and pagans. In some ways, the growth of the secular explains how the centauromachy on the Hephaisteion in Athens could be reinterpreted at the battle of good versus evil rather than as the religiously potent representation of a rival cult. In Greece, it would seem, the conversion of temples or other religious sites to churches or their spoliation traced the line between the persistent paganism and the emergence of a secular world.

Religious violence has been in the news a good bit over the last few years and folks like John Pollini have argued that recent scholarship has downplayed the violence of the clash between Christians and pagans in the ancient Mediterranean. He’s argued that as part of the conversion of the Parthenon to a church in the 6th century, at least one panel of the frieze was ritually defaced. For Pollini, this suggested that the Parthenon maintained some of its sacred power and the desecration of parts of the temple, reflected the religious intolerance or, perhaps even, the fear of the persistent pagan power of the temple. In highlighting the violence of Christianity, Pollini seeks to correct for a view that saw the Christians as at worst ambivalent toward pagan monuments, and at best, beneficial to their preservation. While evidence for violence of Christians toward their pagan neighbors and predecessors is uneven across the Mediterranean, there is no doubt that the totalizing discourse of Christianity sought to challenge the growing secular space left between the retreat of traditional religion and the rise of institutional, liturgical Christian practices.  

In coming to understand the interaction between Christianity and pagan monuments, Pollini seeks to push back against a “Judeo-Christian bias” in scholarship, but he also is willing to advance the role of Christianity as one of the key filters that constructed out view of Classical antiquity. In my post yesterday, I wondered whether Johanna Hanink overlooked of the role Christianity in shaping our view of Classical antiquity and the kind of ancient world possible in the imagining of both modern Classical Philhellenism and the modern Greek national identity. What Pollini tends to see as a Judeo-Christian bias that downplays the role of Christian violence in the modern reception of Classical antiquity also served to marginalize the corrupting influence of Christianity on the purity of the Classical. By writing the Christian influence out of the Classical world, we could avoid dealing with the complicated filtering processes that produced our image of the ancient past and assert that the depredation and decadence of the Medieval, Byzantine, and, certainly Ottoman eras did little to obscure or contaminate our view.  

If Pollini’s studies reminds us that Christianization wasn’t always a peaceful process, Schuddeboom’s analysis of the conversion of ancient temples offers a glimpse of another, less easily understood, aspect of the rise of Christianity. By arguing that most temple conversions in Rome happened well after the demise of urban paganism in that city, he places the ongoing Christianization of Rome at the expense of secular space that existed outside of the Christian-Pagan dichotomy.  

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