Adam and Eve on the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, 359 C.E. (Erich Lessing/ Art Resource, NY.)
procession by members of the cult of the god Dionysus. The worship of Dionysus as god of wine and theater was so complex as even to seem contradictory, ranging from violent passion to peaceful rest; it showed both the good that could come from pleasure and the evil that resulted from going too far. Lively processions in his honor, some led by women, were pop- ular. Dionysus is shown here in one of his many different forms: a chubby, lusty, old drunkard, whom the Romans called Bac- chus. He reclines on a cart with a jar of wine, pulled by a horse and some kind of half man, half beast, perhaps a centaur. His entourage also includes female musicians, who dance along playing horns and beat- ing tambourines. What other details can you make out? Do they offer hints about the values of the cult of Dionysus?
Compare this scene with the one shown on the right, a detail from the most spectacular surviving example of an early Christian sarcophagus. This coffin, from 359, held the remains of a promi- nent Roman official. Carved from mar- ble in a classical style, the scenes are all taken from the Bible and center on the story of Christ. The absence of references to polytheistic mythology, which had been standard on earlier Christian sar- cophagi, illustrates Christians’ growing confidence in their own religious tradi- tions, which they display in the same way that pagans had previously done. What other shifts in attitude and competing values are revealed by comparing this de- tail from the Garden of Eden (when Eve is seduced by the snake into eating the
forbidden fruit and she and Adam are cast out of paradise by God) with the pro- cession in honor of Dionysus? What ac- counts for the position of Adam and Eve’s hands? What do the scenes suggest about the roles of women in pagan and Christian religion?
ever, soldiers saw military duty as serving Christ’s regime.
Christianity’s social values contributed to its appeal by offering believers a strong sense of shared identity in this world. Wherever Christians traveled, they could find a warm welcome in the local congregation (Map 7.2). The faith also won adherents by promoting the tradition of charita- ble works characteristic of Judaism and some poly- theist cults, which emphasized caring for the poor, widows, and orphans. By the mid-third century, for example, Rome’s congregation was supporting fifteen hundred widows and poor people. Fellow- ship and philanthropy to support believers who were poor contributed to the faith’s growth.
Women were deeply involved in the new faith. Augustine (354–430), bishop of Hippo, in North Africa, and perhaps the most influential theolo- gian in Western civilization, recognized women’s contribution to the strengthening of Christianity in a letter he wrote to the unbaptized husband of a baptized woman: “O you men, who fear all the burdens imposed by baptism! Your women easily best you. Chaste and devoted to the faith, it is their presence in large numbers that causes the church to grow.”Women could win renown by giving their property to their congregation or by renouncing marriage to dedicate themselves to Christ. Conse- crated virgins and widows who chose not to re- marry thus joined large donors as especially respected women. These women’s choices chal- lenged the traditional social order, in which women were supposed to devote themselves to raising families. Even these sanctified women, however, were excluded from leadership positions as the church’s hierarchy came more and more to resemble the male-dominated world of imperial rule.
Hierarchy in the Church. The Christianization of the Roman Empire depended on creating a hier- archy based on the authority of male bishops, who had replaced early Christianity’s relatively loose, communal organization in which women could also lead. Bishops selected priests to conduct the church’s sacraments, such as baptism and com- munion, the rituals that guaranteed eternal life. They also oversaw their congregations’ member- ships and finances. Over time, the bishops replaced the curials as the emperors’ partners in local rule, in return earning the right to control the distribu- tion of imperial subsidies to the people. Regional councils of bishops appointed new bishops and addressed doctrinal disputes. The bishops in the largest cities became the most powerful leaders in the church. The main bishop of Carthage, for ex- ample, oversaw at least one hundred local bishops in the surrounding area. The bishop of Rome even- tually emerged as the church’s supreme leader in the western empire, reserving for himself a title previously applied to many bishops: pope (from pappas, Greek for “father”), the designation still used for the head of the Roman Catholic church.
The bishops of Rome justified their leadership over other bishops by citing the New Testament, where Jesus addresses Peter, his head apostle: “You
208 Chapter 7 ■ The Transformation of the Roman Empire 284–600 C . E .
Jesus as Sun God This heavily damaged mosaic, perhaps from the mid-third century, depicts Jesus like the Greek god of the sun, Apollo, riding in a chariot pulled by horses with rays of light shining forth around his head. This symbolism—God is light—reached back to ancient Egypt; Christian artists used it to portray Jesus because he had said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). The mosaic artist has arranged the sunbeams to suggest the shape of the Christian cross. The cloak flaring from Jesus’s shoulder suggests the spread of his motion across the heavens. (Scala / Art Resource, NY.)