Tag Archives: Early Christianity

Were Pagan Temples All Smashed Or Just Converted Into Christian Churches?

This week over at the Forbes column [access it here], I discuss an article in the new volume of the Journal of Late Antiquity (10.1) It is a great piece of scholarship written by ancient historian Feyo L. Schuddeboom and is called “The Conversion of Temples in Rome.” The article effectively uses archaeological evidence for temple conversion within the city of Rome during the period of Late Antiquity (ca.300-800 CE in this case) in order to further dismantle the myth that all Roman temples were smashed to bits by angry pagans. Using the case study of Rome, Schuddeboom also suggests that temples being converted to churches was usually a pragmatic act rather than one meant to demonstrate the “triumph” of Christianity over paganism.

The article has a helpful map within it. It was also a great excuse to insert some pictures from Santa Maria Antiqua; a 6th century church in the Roman Forum. I was lucky enough to be able to see this converted quadriporticus church near to the ramp that leads up to the Palatine from the Forum Romanum and to glimpse at its recently restored frescoes (see images below).

Enjoy these photos and this amazing new issue of the JLA. If you care to read about another converted temple in Rome, feel free to read my article on the history of Roman Curiae. The Curia Senatus was a Roman temple and also the Roman Senate House–since senate meetings could only technically be held within a consecrated space in the city of Rome.

A Short History of Demons, Exorcism, And Possessed Women

Since last’s week accusation by Alex Jones that Hillary Clinton and President Obama were demons that smelled of sulfur, I had begun to think about the role of demons, exorcism, and demoniacs in early Christian texts. Over on the Forbes blog, I discuss how the subject of demons has a rich past in the religion, but it must be said that from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, accusations of demon possession have often shown gender bias. That is to say that women are frequently cast as more susceptible to possession than men of power are–particularly in the demon possessions mentioned in the 13th century. Moreover, male priests and saints are often then relied upon to cast the demons out. As this post explores, accusing Hillary Clinton of being a demon is not simply an outlandish thing to do, it carries serious and long-held misogynist undertones.

Please note that this story contains a number of images from the Public Domain made freely accessible by the British Library Manuscripts Library. The British Library is, after all, probably the best and safest place to find demons.


Image via the British Library: “Dante and Virgil observing Satan swallowing his victims, with figures of those who betrayed their benefactors, such as Brutus and Judas Iscariot, frozen in ice below, from Canto 34 of the Inferno” (illustration from 1370)

Tattoo Taboo? Exploring The History Of Religious Ink And Facial Tattoos

Over on my Forbes blog, I explore the history of religious tattoos. This post stems from my interest in the use of various stigmas–legal, social, and even corporal–against marginalized individuals. Tattoos in Greco-Roman antiquity were often linked to servility, but could also advertise one’s religious convictions. I spoke with tattoo historian Anna Felicity Friedman about pilgrimage tattoos in Jerusalem and also chatted with Jordan Rosenblum (UW-Madison) about the old wives’ tale that tattooed Jews can never be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Overall, it is interesting to see the variant ways in which tattoos have been used since antiquity and to realize what a potent canvas the human body was and still is.

Recovering the Invisible Women of Ben-Hur (1880-2016)

Over on the Forbes blog, I discuss the new version of Ben-Hur released last week. Rather than dissecting the film in terms of historical accuracy, I chose to take a look at the women who contributed to the story since its publication in 1880. Despite a lack of strong female characters in the plot, there were some strong women that helped to make the literary, theatrical, and cinematic version possible.

Code Switching: Courtesans, Clothing, and Crossdressing in Antiquity

As I begin this post, it is the feast day of Saint Pelagia (October 8). In honor of the famed Antiochene actress and prostitute (known around Antioch as Margarita because she wore expensive pearls and jewelry), I decided to reread her hagiographical vita. A deacon named Jacob or James wrote of her fifth century CE conversion and baptism; abandoning the life of being an actress and prostitute in order to be a “bride of Christ.” There are a number of interesting points about the saint’s life. The first is that the tale includes a deaconess named Romana, who serves as evidence of the existence of women as clerics in many early Christian churches. The second is the fact that the Bishop Nonnus gives Pelagia his hair shirt and a woolen mantle in order to sneak away into the night dressed as a man. She became a well known ascetic and hermit on the Mount of Olives, though people believed her to be a monk named Pelagios. Pelagia is just one of many crossdressing saints from the early Christian hagiographical tradition, and represents the boundaries blurred both by prostitutes and by crossdressing in antiquity.

Français 185 , Fol. 264v Vies de saints, France, Paris, XIVe siècle, Richard de Montbaston et collaborateurs.

Pelagia and her harlots depicted in a 14th century manuscript. Français 185 , Fol. 264v Vies de saints, France, Paris, XIVe siècle, Richard de Montbaston et collaborateurs. (Image via Legenda Aurea). 

Crossdressing was nothing new in the ancient Mediterranean–and the act included both men and women. Plutarch’s Life of Alcibiades, the late 5th c. BCE Athenian statesman, emphasized his feminine proclivities. In a story about his childhood, Plutarch (Alc. 2.2) recounts that in a wrestling match, Alcibiades bit his opponent.  The opponent yelled: “You bite, Alcibiades, as women do!” To which he responded: “Not I…but as lions do.” Female lionesses are the ones that hunt, so this was a rather apropos comeback from the witty Alcibiades. Another ancient author remarked that Alcibiades regularly attended symposia disguised as a woman. This idea is also seen in Plutarch, who noted that while with Timandra, his mistress and a courtesan, Alcibiades dreamed he was placed in her clothes and her makeup put on his face (Alc. 39). Not long thereafter, Alcibiades was killed and his corpse wrapped and buried by Timandra in her own clothes. The harlot’s actions would feature heavily in Shakespeare’s Timon, written 2,000 years later.

Timon of Athens, IV, 3, Timon giving gold pieces to Phrynia and Timandra by / J.H. Ramberg, 1829.

Timon of Athens, IV, 3, Timon giving gold pieces to Phrynia and Timandra by J.H. Ramberg, 1829. (Photo via Cornell University Library)

“The Pink Project” Jeeyoo and Her Pink Things, 2007 by JeongMee Yoon (Photo via ReShareable TV).

“The Pink Project” Jeeyoo and Her Pink Things, 2007 by JeongMee Yoon (Photo via ReShareable TV).

Because ancient clothing was often draped, voluminous, and gender-ambiguous, color was an important thing to think about when picking out an outfit. In the same manner that Americans tend to associate pink with female babies and blue with male babies (I am delighted to see this fad go away), Greeks often read yellow as feminine. In antiquity, there was a saffron colored party dress of sorts called a krokotos, which was worn by young girls but could also commonly be worn by educated prostitutes hired by elites called hetairai. Dionysus, the god of wine and the original party boy, was often depicted in a yellow dress that gave him a feminine look. And so when Aristophanes depicts the tragic poet Agathon as wearing a saffron-colored gown, he is really trying to tell us that the poet blurred the gender and propriety lines of the time. In his Thesmophoriazousai (l.136-144)Aristophanes has Mnesilochus rage about  Agathon’s lack of male accessories:

“Whence comes this γύννις (androgyne)? What is his country? his dress? What contradictions his life shows! A lyre and a hair-net! A wrestling school oil flask and a girdle! What could be more contradictory? [140] What relation has a mirror to a sword?To Agathon And you yourself, who are you? Do you pretend to be a man? Where is your tool, pray? Where is the cloak, the footgear that belong to that sex? Are you a woman? Then where are your breasts? Answer me. But you keep silent. Oh!” [tr.O’Neill]

The passage tells us a great deal about ancient gendered clothes, colors, and objects, and the anger sometimes felt by those who could not categorize another. Although largely positive, I think we all can reflect on the fears and anxieties expressed in the negative things written about Caitlyn Jenner for a modern example of this misplaced anger. I am impressed and supportive of our increasing acceptance of transgender persons within our society, but such hate speech existed both in antiquity and today.

Red figured attic cup of a hetaira and man [500-490 BCE] (Image via the British Museum).

Red figured attic cup of a hetaira and man [500-490 BCE] (Image via the British Museum).

The most infamous case of cross dressing came in 62 BCE. The rascally Clodius had fallen in love with Caesar’s wife, Pompeia, and infiltrated the all-female religious rites of the Bona Dea in order to commit adultery with her. Once again, we see a link in the classical literature between crossdressing and sexual deviance that is undeniable. It was always rumored that Clodius hung around with morally degraded people, such as prostitutes (cf. Cic. Mil. 55) and during the Bona Dea, he dresses as a woman in order to cross a number of boundaries: gender, religious, marital, and otherwise.

If we return back to the late antique period and our dear Pelagia, we can see a shift in the textual depiction of crossdressing within early Christian literature that is in stark contrast to most classical writing we have reviewed. As Kristi Upson-Saia has remarked, “[Hagiographical authors] absorbed the transgressive dress performance into their narrative not to uphold it as a model for readers to follow but rather to control, domesticate, and harness the dress practice, as well as claims of radical gender transformation, that were troubling them” (2011: 85). Upson-Saia rightfully points out that saints like Pelagia were meant to put on “masculine virtue and spiritual progress” through men’s ascetic clothing, while still retaining their female bodies (2011: 101).

Joan of Arc depicted on horseback in an illustration from a 1505 manuscript (Image via Wikimedia).

Joan of Arc depicted on horseback in an illustration from a 1505 manuscript (Image via Wikimedia).

To early Christians, certain masculine pieces of clothing (e.g. armor, the hair shirt) communicated strength and spiritual potency–but only if the body underneath was first dedicated to Christ. Consequently, allowing female saints to wear such articles was a way to advertise the virtuous characteristics they now embodied. I would venture that this rubric allows us to better understand depictions of Joan of Arc and later female saints as well. The trick here is that chastity had to be vowed along with the male garments in order for the crossdressing to be viewed positively. While I personally do not believe that clothing should be connected to any gender, it is interesting to reflect on its use in antiquity. Depending on the color, the context, and the individual’s sexual nature, crossdressing could announce myriad messages.

CFP: Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity XI

The Transformation of Poverty, Philanthropy, and Healthcare in Late Antiquity

The Society for Late Antiquity announces that the eleventh biennial Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity conference will take place at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, IA, March 26-29, 2015. The period of Late Antiquity (A.D. 200-700) witnessed great changes in respect to attitudes towards poverty, philanthropy, and health care. The conference aims to bring together scholars in order to explore these issues amidst global concerns over poverty and the provision of healthcare, as well as questions over the role of private philanthropy in effecting change within these areas. Two advances in particular, the ascendency of Pope Francis to the papacy and the debate over the federal provision of healthcare in the United States, helped to inspire the conference’s goal of surveying how late antique individuals and institutions viewed, wrote upon, depicted, and grappled with these issues, and the manner in which they shaped the late antique world economically, socially, politically, and topographically. Examples of questions one may wish to address are: What were the elite Roman, Byzantine, or Islamic attitudes towards the poor? What do we mean by the “economy of charity”? What was the status of physicians amid these new attitudes toward healing? How did monasticism shape health care in the later empire? How did attitudes towards healing transform the late antique landscape? What is the interaction between religion and science?  We hope to receive proposals of papers concerning all aspects of poverty, philanthropy, and health care. Methodologically, proposals may approach these issues from a number of textual, archaeological, numismatic, papyrological, or epigraphic standpoints. The conference aims to serve as an interdisciplinary forum for specialists throughout the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Africa during the period of Late Antiquity, and as such, welcomes a broad interpretation of the theme. 

Two keynote speakers will be taking part in the conference: Professor Ramsay MacMullen, Dunham Professor Emeritus in History and Classics, Yale University (U.S.A.) and Professor Susanna Elm, History Department, University of California, Berkeley (U.S.A.).

The deadline for proposals is November 15, 2014. Abstracts should be 200-300 words in length. Papers should be in English. Proposals from graduate students are welcome, but they should indicate on their submission whether they have discussed their proposal with their supervisor or not. Please note that the submission of an abstract carries with it a commitment to attend the conference should the abstract be accepted.

Proposals should be sent to: shiftingfrontiers2015@gmail.com

Conference Website: https://shiftingfrontiers2015.wordpress.com/