["Aging Rome Versus the Christian Age"]
In my entry Some Modest Considerations Concerning the Background Assumptions of the Catholic “Apostolic Succession” Argument I sought to explain to a Catholic correspondent why I do not trust the profoundly Roman “window” through which the biblical teaching of successors to the Apostles is viewed by Catholicism. The central problem, as I see it, with the Christian Roman view of the structure and transmission of the Church is that it simply recapitulates the pagan Roman view that the ancestors are never to be questioned because truth ipso facto lies in what is old. Therefore, innovation is always to be suspected of falsehood. This is a problem not only because it is the view of pagan Rome, but also because even when held by Christians it is false. For in fact, Christianity itself represented a radical innovation in the Roman world ruled by this assumption of unbroken succession-agreement with the ancients, and a major complaint of pagan apologists (i.e., Porphyry) against the Christians was that they had introduced novelties and overthrown the witness of the ancients.
I discussed some background to this ancient Roman view in the above-referenced post, but it occurred to me today that someone else, the eminent scholar of Late Antiquity R.A. Markus, has discussed it with far more learning and rigor than I, and that I already had an excellent passage from him transcribed. I here present that passage as supporting detail for my more generic point in the above-referenced post. Markus first describes the pagan understanding of Rome’s “old age” and then explains the conflict between this and the Christian interpretation, most notably that of Augustine’s phrase “tempora Christiana”.
I have translated most instances of Latin in the citation; my apologies if the frequent brackets and / or footnotes are distracting. This is a long citation, but the contrasts are too striking to have warranted leaving much of it out:
The thought of the world in its old age had not always been quite so neutral in its contemporary reference. For centuries Christian writers had used these expressions, and behind their language stood one or other of the the traditional schemes for articulating the history of redemption. Often their views had strong millenaristic colouring; sometimes one may catch an echo of urgent anxiety about an imminent end to the existing order. The image of a mundus senescens [aging world] could serve as the poignant expression of a sense of the ebbing away of life or the fear of a final catastrophe. But this need not be its implication. The same image could nourish attitudes of a very different kind, such as Augustine’s.
It is curious that at no time do men seem to have been as ready to speak of an ageing world, or of Rome in her old age, as in the last decades of the fourth century and the early years of the fifth. Neither among Christian nor among pagan Romans was there any sense of a radical transition between speaking of ‘Rome’ and of the ‘world’. ‘Rome’ was the head, centre and sum of the ‘world’; the ‘world’ was only the expanded version of the City. Christians were led to speaking of their ‘old age’ by the very framework in which they articulated the history of salvation. But Christians were not alone in thus designating their own time. Roman historians like Florus had long ago divided the history of Rome into periods corresponding to the stages in a man’s life. According to Lactantius [Div. Inst. VII 15.14-16] the idea goes back at least to Seneca. The notion that Rome—or the world—had reached her old age had become a commonplace by Augustine’s time. Among pagan writers this did not mean—any more than it meant to Augustine—that the Empire was undergoing senile decay. The poet Claudian, for instance, once described Rome during the Gildonic rebellion as an aged figure exhausted with hunger and weakness; but in less than two hundred lines he could restore her meliore inventa. More generally, the image of a venerable, grey-haired Rome could focus the loyalties of a Symmachus; to his friend, Naucellius, the idea of old age summed up a sense of achievement, ripeness, repose; Ammianus Marcellinus may, on occasion, complain of declining standards of virtue, of the arrogance of wealthy Romans to their provincial clients; but in his work, too, the image of a Rome vergens in senium ["lying in old age"] is an image of achievement: the venerable city has entered upon a time of tranquil enjoyment of the fruits of the arduous labours of the past. Even after the sack of the City by the Visigoths in 410, the image of Rome’s hoary old age prompts Rutilius Namatianus to voice his faith in the future: though the City was in her 1,169th year, there are no bounds to the span of life left to her, so long as earth and heaven remain; for the things which destroy other kingdoms serve to restore Rome—ordo renascendi est crescere posse malis.:”(My translation: “The order of renewal is to be able to thrive with fruits.”)”: None of these pagan writers drew the inference from the image of a Roma senescens [aging Rome] that Rome was destined for a speedy end. In their work the image of old age expresses a sense of achievement, of venerable maturity, of the well-founded claims of her traditions on men’s loyalties. Nowhere is this more succinctly expressed than in Macrobius’s lines vetustas quidem nobis semper, si sapimus, adoranda est.:”(My translation: “Indeed, if we have sense we ought always to venerate antiquity.”)”:
This is the very claim which Christian writers are concerned to undermine in the course of the polemics of the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Both the mood and the point of the conflict emerge very clearly in the debate over the Altar of Victory. Symmachus’s appeal to vetustas [antiquity] in his plea for toleration of the instituta maiorum [customs of the ancestors], the mores parentum [habits of our parents] voices the aspirations of the class above all dedicated to their preservation. Ambrose’s sharp rejoinder sees in the antique what is also antiquated: ‘why bring up the model of the ancients?…let old age that cannot amend its ways be ashamed. Not the maturity of years, but of manners, is what we should praise.’ [Ep. 18.7-8; cf. Ibid., 28-30] Ambrose saw the new world of the Christian Empire coming into being, and he wished to hasten the completion of this process. He spoke with the accents of a man who knew that in the transformations that were taking place he was on the side of triumphant novelty.
The confidence engendered by this conviction appears with the utmost clarity in Prudentius’s poem on the same theme. The assurance of this poem is perhaps one of the most disturbing symptoms of Theodosian Christianity. The establishment of Christianity and the christianisation of the Roman Empire emerge here as definite, fully achieved realities. Taught by the edicts of Theodosius I,
Rome fled from her old errors and shook the dark mist from her wrinkled face; her nobility now ready to enter on the ways of eternity and to follow Christ at the calling of her great leader…
Then, for the first time, in her old age, Rome would learn, and blush with shame; ashamed of her past, turning with revulsion from the years passed in foul superstition. (C. Symm. I, 506-13)
All the best families are now turning to Christ, and duly the populace follow the lead of their betters to the Vatican or the Lateran:
And shall we then doubt that Rome, dedicated to thee, O Christ, has placed herself under thy rule? (Ibid. 587-8)
For Prudentius a new era had begun in the history of the Empire. In her old age Rome had at last ‘passed with entire love to faith in Christ’. Jupiter’s promise of unending empire to Rome in Vergil’s Aeneid has become transmuted in the achievement of Theodosius. With deliberate allusion to Vergil’s famous lines Prudentius affirms his belief that Rome’s empire is to last, her power and glory shall know no age. [C. Symm. I, 541-3] He takes up an old Christian theme in endorsing the idealised pax Romana:
The world receives you now, O Christ, the world which is held in bonds of harmony by peace and by Rome. These you have appointed to be the chief and highest powers in the world.
Nor does Rome please thee without peace; and it is only Roman excellence that ensures a lasting peace. Her supremacy keeps order, awe of her power checks disorder. She has not lost the strength of her former valour in growing old, nor felt the burden of the years… (C. Symm. II, 635-41)
Prudentius writes as if Rome had come to the achievement of her destiny under his very eyes. Under Theodosius I and—odd as it may seem in retrospect—under his sons Rome had at last fulfilled her historic mission. Through her supremacy the world was now united under the rule of Christ. Now fit and proper reverence is paid to her years, now she is rightly called venerable and caput orbis [head of the world].
…Prudentius’s way owed much to a long tradition of thought about the Roman Empire in the perspective of Christian salvation history…At the time of Theodosius’s death Augustine was forty-one and just entering on his episcopate. There can be no doubt that the vision of the triumphant progress of Christianity, assisted by the coercive measures of the emperors, had some fascination for his mind. As early as 392, commenting on Psalm 6, he interpreted it with half an eye on its contemporary fulfilment:
Let all my enemies be ashamed and very much troubled; let them be turned back and confounded very speedily. (v. 11)
—valde velociter [vigorously-rapidly]: the prospect of a sudden collapse of paganism induced a mood of optimism. Augustine’s mind turned naturally to thoughts of the power of Christ, ‘who turned the idolatrous persecutors of the Church to the faith of the Gospel within so brief a period of time’. [Ennar. In Ps. 6.13] This is a recurrent theme in Augustine’s works of this time. In the sermons and polemical writings of the 390s and the early years of the fifth century the extinction of paganism is frequently represented as God’s work, fulfilling the ancient prophecies. His viewpoint has aptly been called ‘the prophetic viewpoint’; what was happening around him was happening secundum propheticam veritatem [according to prophetic truth]. In a remarkable passage written about the year 400 Augustine allows us to see the way his mind worked: ‘The few pagans that remain fail to realise the wonder of what is happening…Now the God of Israel himself is destroying the idols of the heathen…Through Christ the king he has subjugated the Roman Empire to the worship of his name; and he has converted it to the defence and service of the Christian faith, so that the idols, on account of whose cult his sacred mysteries had previously been rejected, should now be destroyed.’ [De cons. Ev. I, 14.21] The idols have gone, or are going; Christianity has spread to the four corners of the world: ‘the whole world has become a choir praising Christ’. [Ennar. In Ps. 149.7] In our own day, temporibus christianis [Christian times], God has brought to a fulfilment the prophetic promises. He is uprooting the idols of the nations from the face of the earth, he is calling kings to serve his name. [De cons. Ev. I, 34.52; cf. Ennar. In Ps. 62.1] Augustine’s jubilation could scarcely be defended against the charge of intolerable arrogance were it not for its purpose: to proclaim solemnly the triumph of a God faithful to his promises.
The establishment of the Christian Empire and the repression of paganism have entered the sacred history. They have become part of God’s saving work and are described in the categories of the biblical prophecies. The tempora christiana have become a distinct phase in the history not only of the Roman Empire, but of salvation.:”(R.A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 25-31)”:
Several things stand out in this citation.
First, note the ready adaptation of the Roman imperial sine fine (“without end”) ethos as seen in Prudentius: although the “empire without end” has been transmuted by the coming of Christ, it is still an empire without end, and it is still Roman. The pax Romana is now not merely politically necessary, but salvifically as well. Flash forward to a point in time when Christianity is no longer a novelty (as it was then) but actually the very instituta maiorum and mores parentum of which the pagan Symmachus longingly spoke, and it seems that Prudentius’ view is a Christianized Symmachian one. Macrobius, a Christian bishop, also seems taken with this way of thinking: “Indeed, if we have sense we ought always to venerate antiquity.”
Second, and by contrast, observe bishop Ambrose’s sharp rebuke of the pagan Roman view: “why bring up the model of the ancients?…let old age that cannot amend its ways be ashamed. Not the maturity of years, but of manners, is what we should praise.” It is true that Augustine bought into the older view for a time, as Markus himself shows. But by the time he wrote the City of God, Augustine had given up the triumphalistic equation Roma=Christiana. To what extent his recognition of the falsehood of this scheme translated into other areas of his thought is not the point here. For instance, that Augustine accepted the very “instituta maiorum” notion of an unbroken succession of ancient leaders (i.e., “Apostolic Succession”) can easily be attributed to the very common human malady of inconsistency. The best of men are men at best. At any rate, it does not impact his larger point that the Kingdom of God (and I think, also the Church) cannot be limited to a specific spatio-temporal-ecclesio order. To do so is to domesticate the Gospel, to provincialize it, to erect a new wall of separation (between Rome and not-Rome) in a new world in which God has in Christ already broken down all such walls.