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Romanization and Christianization

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading some basic, recent works on Romanization or the expansion of “Roman culture” across the area of either direct Roman political control or strong Roman influence.  Most of these works dealt with Western Europe and considered the relationship between the archaeological remains clearly identified as being Roman with those typically seen as “pre-Roman” or local.  Most works consider cultural change as a process and see the interaction between Roman and non-Roman representing both resistance and accommodation.  Moreover, most of these works see the term “Romanization” as problematic.  In particular, the notion of Romanization as a cohesive phenomenon functioning in similar ways across the entire area of Roman influence has done more harm than good and papered over variation in the process of cultural exchange rooted in social status, economic organization, traditions of elite display, and even Roman policies across the Empire.

The basic critique of Romanization (for lack, at present, of a better or more compact term), has clear and obvious parallels with critiques of Christianization over the past 20+ years.  In fact, the conversations about the two concepts are so parallel that it is a wonder that more obvious (than I have seen) cross-pollination between these two scholarly approaches to cultural exchange have not appeared.  I’ve come away from studying this material with the following little gaggle of observations:

1. The Viewer. Since John Clarke and Jas Elsner introduced me to the Roman viewer, I have become convinced that the act of viewing is central to the understanding the process of cultural engagement.  While it is almost old-hat now to observe that content producers (to use a nice, new media term) do not have exclusive control over how endusers view their content, actualizing this understanding in scholarship is a difficult task, especially if the enduser represents a group that has not left behind the kind of cultural material that scholars are apt to interpret (e.g. texts, monumental buildings, ceramics, sculpture, et c.).

2. Hybrids. Post-colonial critiques have seemingly cast long shadow over the process of Roman political and cultural expansion. A hybridized elite worked to bridge the gap between the political core and periphery and hybrid cultural places created space for that could accommodate both local and non-local interests.  Within the study of Christianization, the notion of the hybrid has not seen the same interest from scholars, although it seems clear that the spread of Christianity can be at least partly associated with the religious, ritual, and political interest of the political center.  The rarity of any discussion of hybridity within the discourse Christianization is, in part, a matter of terminology. Certainly scholars have understood the emergence of Christianity as a process that produced myriad hybrids through, for example, processes like syncretism.  Our relative lack of interest in the notion of hybridity may stem from a reluctance to see the process of religious change as one of imperialism or colonization.

3. Resistance. Hybrids form just one point on an increasingly nuanced ranged of potential cultural interaction in the ancient world.  The extremes, of course, are typically of greater interest to the scholar, if for no other reason than they are more likely to leave evidence.  The more pressing question, to my mind at least, ishow do we recalibrate our analytical lens to see more subtle forms of resistance to aggressive or openly hostile projects to promote social, political, or religious change. The process of Christianization took place over long spans of time and through the independent actions of multiple groups and agents; finding resistance in this context is far more than documenting the obvious occasions when Christian buildings were torched by hostile non-Christian groups.

4. Plurality. Just as being Roman accommodates many different, sometimes incompatible, forms of cultural expression, being Christian can hardly be reduced to a fixed set of characteristics. The plurality of Roman culture and Christianity both require that we expand our understanding of how these two phenomena manifest themselves in a social, political, and cultural context.  In some cases, this might involve simply qualifying what we mean when we say Roman or Christian: for example, direct Roman political control or imperial or ecclesiastical Christianity.  In other cases, we might have to reconsider the relationship between hybrid identities and forms of Roman-ness and Christianity and the way in which such identities appeared to various groups of viewers.

5. Erasure and Process. The creation of a Roman space or a Christian space in the ancient world was part of a process that involved, in part, the overwriting of earlier forms of cultural, economic, political, and social relationships.  In short, the process of Romanizing and Christianizing not only involves present forms of cultural expression, but projects these back into the past making it much more difficult for the historian and archaeologist to discover the traces of the process itself.

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