Some Thoughts on Kim Bowes’ Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity
I just finished reading Kim Bowes’ Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity (Cambridge 2008). The first lines of her introduction recounted one of my favorite stories from Late Antiquity: Pulcheria’s dream inspired excavation of the remains of 40 martyrs from Sozomen (Hist. Eccl. 9.2). Any book that begins with a example of dream archaeology is o.k. to me.
But, I’ll admit that this incident was not why I read this book. Instead, I wanted to gather recent insights into the relatively late date for monumental architecture in Greece. Bowes does not talk about Greece directly in her book, but argues for the prevalence and importance of churches associated with elite domestic contexts throughout better documented regions of the Mediterranean.
These buildings are important because they represent an architectural counterpoint to the bishop’s church which stood as a product of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the centralized authority traditionally associated with that institution. Acknowledging the widespread existence of church buildings funded by the Late Roman elite and prominently associated with both rural and urban elite domestic contexts reminds us that the spread of Christianity was not the simple, linear growth of the institutional church, but a process riven with disputes. In fact, the victory of institutional Christianity overwrote evidence for many of the disputes in the process of producing a single triumphant narrative for the victor of the church.
Bowes’ book also continues to enrich our understanding of space by reminding us of the fluidity between public and private spaces in the discourse of power in Late Antiquity. Issues of display, patronage, and both public and spiritual mediation played out over a monumental landscape produced as much by private funds and initiatives as institutional authority of the church. As a result, efforts in the law codes to suppress privately funded church buildings were as much political moves as economic ones as the institutional church sought to suppress rival spaces of power in the Early Christian landscape.
The book also contributes to our understanding of the later 5th and early 6th century boom in ecclesiastical architecture in the Eastern Mediterranean. While Bowes does not discuss these periods explicitly – her book concludes in the middle decades of the 5th century – it may be that the boom in church building occurred as the institutional church made the final push for an exclusive claim to monumental architecture. The story the church of St. Polyeuctos in Constantinople and the rivalry between Anicia Juliana’s private church and the imperial church of Justinian is suggestive of just this kind of rivalry.
In the Corinthia, and in Greece more generally, it is exceedingly difficult to differentiate between churches associated with the local, non-ecclesiastical elite, and those constructed by bishops or under the auspices of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Evidence from epigraphy does suggest that non-church officials did build churches, but this tells us little about who controlled the church, its clergy, and the rites that took place there. There is some suggestive evidence, however: for example, groups of smaller, rural churches dot the Greek countryside – like those that throughout southeastern Attica – and many are not clearly associated with known settlements suggesting the kind of elite-controlled rural churches that Bowes has linked to villas in the West. Moreover, we know that there existed a villa-culture in Greece and that some civic power likely moved from the urban core to suburban and even ex-urban villas of the elite. It would be natural then for these buildings which already served some “public” functions to include religious space as well, although as far as I know we have no specific evidence for this function among the handful of Late Roman villas thoroughly excavated in Greece. The evidence for 6th century church building in better excavated and documented urban areas – like the group of contemporary churches located in the Corinthia – could, then, represent an institutional response to largely undocumented elite, private, rural practices.
While this all remains tremendously speculative, but it does allow us to explain how Christianity grew in Greece without evidence for monumental ecclesiastical architecture. The needs for Christian communities was largely met by church buildings associated with the traditional and increasingly rural elite rather than the new-fangled authority of the emergent, but not yet locally-powerful ecclesiastical hierarchy.