Reprint and impact of my book on book-burning

One year after its first appearance my book “Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity: Studies in Text Transmission” (De Gruyter, 2016) has been published as a more affordable paperback reprint edition (Baylor University Press, 2017).

Catherine Nixey has also just published a book for a general readership “The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World” (Pan MacMillan, 2017). She had kindly asked me for feedback on a couple of chapters she drafted, after she read my book, on which she started to work independent of mine.

The two books are currently being discussed on the internet by interested members of the public, for example, in the Vridar blog by Neil Godfrey “Christians, Book-Burning, Temple Destruction and some balance on Nixey’s popular polemic“, in which he kindly mentions the Migration of Faith project.

I think Neil Godfrey’s blog was in reaction to a posting on the Roger Pearse blog, who says he has read neither book, but nevertheless wrote a lengthy post in reaction to a one-line tweet by Catherine Nixey somehow to do with her book. If I understand correctly, he observes in his blog that a line by John Chrysostom (the apostles “have gagged the tongues of the philosophers, and stiched shut the mouths of the rhetoricians”), quoted from my book (p. 202), is not a stand alone line, but does include context, which he borrowed from the one English language translation by Harkins (Catholic University of America Press, Reprint 2001). (“Hunting the wild misquotation again: the perils for the author of not verifying your quotations”)

Yes, this line comes with context: in his work “A Demonstration against the Jews and Pagans that Christ is God” John Chrysostom intends to demonstrate the divinity of Jesus Christ because Christianity was able to overcome pagan science and all their schooling, as I explain in my book. John gives an ex eventu view, from his standpoint, on the apostles having ultimately done the job as the whole world now believe in Christ rather than in external pagan science.

What power a tweet has! We can learn from this that it might be a good idea FIRST to read a book and THEN to comment, even though not everyone seems happy to do this in this day and age where all we want is a quick and dirty read on the internet.

With the more affordable paperback reprint out, perhaps Roger Pearse can afford to buy my book and does not have to rely on the google books preview?


Book announcement

My new book has just been published with De Gruyter. The title is “Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiqity: Studies in Text Transmission”. It has recently been endorsed by Forbes Magazine:


As Dirk Rohmann has written in his new book, Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity, early Christians often spoke of books as a kind of body that demons could inhabit. What better way to kill these demons than to burn them? (Sarah E. Bond, Forbes Magazine, 26/09/2016)


Here is a short summary:


It is estimated that only a small fraction, less than 1 per cent, of ancient literature has survived to the present day. The role of Christian authorities in the active suppression and destruction of books in Late Antiquity has received surprisingly little sustained consideration by academics. In an approach that presents evidence for the role played by Christian institutions, writers and saints, this book analyses a broad range of literary and legal sources, some of which have hitherto been little studied. Paying special attention to the problem of which genres and book types were likely to be targeted, I argue that in addition to heretical, magical, astrological and anti-Christian books, other less obviously subversive categories of literature were also vulnerable to destruction, censorship or suppression through prohibition of the copying of manuscripts. These include texts from materialistic philosophical traditions, texts which were to become the basis for modern philosophy and science. This book examines how Christian authorities, theologians and ideologues suppressed ancient texts and associated ideas at a time of fundamental transformation in the late classical world.


It took me quite a while to write this book, and I hope it sheds new light on an important question that to my mind has so far been understudied. I would like to quote a major passage that I find key to approaching the subject:


To Christian authors of Late Antiquity, the philosophers were wrong, for example, when they posited evolution, originating from the clash of atoms, instead of creation out of nothing. These Christian authors attributed many opinions of ancient philosophers to a demonic, devilish counter-world. For example, they considered natural forces, recognised by certain philosophers, as demonic because natural forces explained the movement of material objects without God. The atoms too were demonic as being independent entities, uncreated matter, impartible, moving automatically and by cohesion in varied order composing the objects of the material world, without divine providence. Other questions of doctrinal importance included predictions on the movement of the stars, the singularity, duration, size and shape of the universe and whether it was a miracle of creation or something that can be explained mathematically; whether human beings were informed about the material world through the various senses (for example, through optics and acoustics) or through the ideas of the soul. The various opinions of the philosophers could cause heretical thinking and had done so in the case of many heretics. Christian authors condemned much of the material which became the basis for modern philosophy and science as magical and heretical because it conflicted with the world-view, or universe-view, that they were promoting. (p. 22)




You can find a google preview here.

Cherchez la femme: Visiting ‘Egypt. Faith After the Pharaos’

Yesterday I visited Egypt. Faith after the Pharaos, an exhibition at the British Museum curated by the brilliant Elisabeth O’Connell, who is, of course, also a member of our advisory board. Elisabeth came up to Sheffield to our second advisory board workshop recently (on which more soon), and I realised then that the exhibition will be over in a few weeks, and that now was the time to go!

Egypt looms large in the history of late antique clerical exile, as both a region of departure and of arrival of exiles. It was great, therefore, to take the opportunity to learn more about the material world clerics would have left behind (and missed) or encountered when exiled. Yet, this being the weekend and hence, by definition, family-time, I visited the exhibition not just as a late antique historian, but also as a mother, for I took my eight-year old daughter (henceforth called D).

The exhibition charts the religious transformation of Egypt in the first Millennium, from a predominantly pagan to a predominantly Muslim society, as well as the co-existence of religious communities (some pre-existing, such as Jews) within this framework. This is a complex topic and not one easily grasped by eight-year-olds. I was reasonably confident that D would understand the difference between religious groups – she personally knows people identifying as Christians, Muslims or Jews (though not as Pagans!) – but I wasn’t sure how far she’d get the dimension of time (and hence religious change) and space (although it helped that one of her friends had just been on holiday at the Red Sea). In addition, D is naturally suspicious of anything to do with History, for fear of her mother launching into lengthy lectures. Luckily, however, she is also a little feminist, endlessly interested in female experience (a big Jaqueline Wilson fan) and very good at pointing out the lack of female voices in (hi)stories. To keep us both entertained (and also to fuel my own interest in women affected by clerical exile) I therefore came up with a mission of cherchez la femme: we would find the women in this exhibition, and hence in Millennium Egypt.

I also – probably against rules; apologies to the British Museum and Elisabeth! – gave her my phone so she could photograph the objects that interested her (this also explains the quality of the images below). As a true eight-year-old with a phone she ended up enthusiastically photographing almost everything, so I intermittently had to take it off her. On one level, she was right though: once you started looking, the women were (as always) almost everywhere.

First up, divine women. D wasn’t too interested in representations of Isis, though she took a photo of this stela showing Isis (and Dionysos) with a snake body:

IMG_0161On our way back home on the train I showed her in the excellent exhibition catalogue that Isis had also been venerated as Demeter, for I knew she had been learning about Greek myths at school, including the story about Hades and Persephone. She still wasn’t impressed, because clearly Isis-Demeter did not look like she imagined Persephone’s mother.

In terms of divine female images, she much preferred these beautiful silver figurines (actually, furniture-fittings) representing the four major cities of the Roman empire as women:

IMG_0160These are from the late antique, so-called Esquiline Treasure, found in Rome in the 18th century, and are in the exhibition because one of them represents Alexandria (the others are Constantinople, Antioch and Rome). Having researched the treasure as a graduate student working on late antique ‘family-houses’ in Rome (the treasure comes supposedly from a house of the Turcii on the Esquiline) I thought it was an excellent choice and we also enjoyed discussing Constantinople’s distinct ‘wall’ headgear.

As I learned later from the catalogue, we could potentially have continued the ‘divine’ theme, because the exhibition also traces the morphing of Isis into the Virgin Mary during late antiquity, but we somehow missed this and, in any case, D didn’t take a photo.

We missed this perhaps because we got drawn into looking at ‘real’ women. These included women commemorated after their death in Roman Egypt, for the exhibition features some lovely ‘mummy portraits’, portraits of the deceased painted on wood and placed like a mask on a mummified body’s head, like this one:

IMG_0164D already knew about mummy portraits from the magnificent Manchester Museum collection, but she liked this one especially for its clever display next to the jewellery she thought was the same as the one represented in the painting (the earrings were found in Italy, actually, but D didn’t want to hear about it). Later in the exhibition we found another woman mourned by her family, from Medieval Egypt: Fatima, daughter of Ja’far, son of Muhammad, who is commemorated on this splendid stela from 1021:

IMG_0181There is of course much to be said about the expense that went into these objects of burial practice, and whether they meant ancient or medieval women (and girls) were ‘loved’ (there is also in the exhibition a mummy portrait of a little girl, but D thought she looked like a boy), a questions that truly transcends ethnicity and historical periods. However, I already had had this conversation with D when we had come to see the British Museum’s Ancient Lives exhibition last year, and she very adamantly did not want to revisit it this time.

The exhibition not only narrates the death of women, but their lives, too. Here, the Egypt context really comes into its own, because, of course, due to the climate so much has been preserved which has perished elsewhere: textiles (there are some childrens’ clothes from Medieval Egypt, incidentally also from Manchester, from the Whitworth Gallery Textile Collection), wooden objects, and, above all, papyri, the documents from which we derive so much knowledge about daily life and social practice in antiquity and late antiquity. I thought D would find these boring, but was pleasantly surprised. She looked with some interest at least at some of them where I pointed out the ‘female connection’ (and the excellent object labels helped too):

IMG_0165An early imperial contract about the freeing of a Jewish slave and her children (D asked whether the woman had to pay her rescuers back the purchase price – 14 talents of silver – a good question!)

IMG_0166A libellus (the papyrus in the middle) by which a man, his mother and sister received a certificate that they had sacrificed to the Pagan Gods following the edict of emperor Decius in 250 that required just that from all citizens of the empire. This was actually quite hard to explain, not because of the historical debate about how comprehensive Decius’ policy was or whether it was targeted just at Christians, but because D simply asked: ‘What do you mean by ‘sacrifice’? (she actually said it in German: ‘Was meinst Du mit ‘Opfern’?’) Mmmh. Luckily we had been to an archaeological park in the summer, the wonderful Archeon near Leiden, where we had taken part in a re-enactment of a sacrifice to Nehalennia led by a priestess (!) so I could remind her of that. We had made little votive figurines and sacrificed flowers and it had been a lot of fun, so D didn’t see a problem with sacrificing. Perhaps the family who received the libellus hadn’t either. It’s worth asking though how much say the women of the family would have had in the matter.

And there was D’s favourite, a long spell by which a man, Theon, tried to get a woman, Euphemia, to fall in love with him:

IMG_0179 IMG_0178The spell had been placed in a pot and then buried, together with two wax figurine embracing, presumably representing Theon and Euphemia in the way Theon imagined them after the spell had worked.

For my own benefit, I also found two late antique women who provided some context for clerical exile. The papyrus below is a rental agreement by which a Jewish man leased part of a house from two female ascetics, Aurelia Theodora and Aurelia Tayris:

IMG_0202Feisty, and well-off, female ascetics from Egypt appear in some exile stories, such as Eudaemonis, a nun from Alexandria who for six years concealed Athanasius of Alexandria in her house during his third exile, 356-362: feeding him, washing his clothes and taking out books for him. She was allegedly later tortured for this (Palladius, Historia Lausiaca 53; Festal Index 28, 30, and 32; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 5.6). It was interesting to see some of this urban ‘household-asceticism’ in action and the two nuns of the papyrus taking in a man on their own terms, as business women. They probably didn’t do his laundry either.

After a bit over an hour, D’s concentration was clearly in decline, so we decamped to the shop, where I bought the catalogue and D bought a sticker book on Greek myths. D would probably claim that this was the highlight of her visit and I refrained from asking her to explain her impressions in too many words. This means, of course, that I can’t measure the immediate ‘impact’ the exhibition had on her, but she had a good time. Perhaps because she is a child, and hence possibly less cynical about the supernatural, she definitely was relaxed about the religious dimension of the show. She’s certainly taught me to look at the women of late antique Egypt with different eyes.


Interview with our PI

Our PI, Dr Julia Hillner, has been interviewed by Dr Richard Flower from the University of Exeter about crime and punishment in the Roman and late Roman world (including exile). You can listen to the interview here.