Richard Lim

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Research Project

My research centers on the dialectical relationship between a dominant form of urban culture in the Late Roman world and Christianity. The period from the late fourth century to the first quarter of the fifth century furnishes a prime opportunity for investigating the dynamics behind the reciprocal formation of Christianity and forms of Roman urban sociability underpinned by routinized public shows. The staged spectacles of the theatre, amphitheatre and hippodrome played vital roles in the negotiations between elite and non-elite and served as an emblem of civilization by late antiquity even as socio-economic transformations, foreign and civil wars, and other changes challenged the viability of the ancient city. The embrace of Christianity by Constantine and his heirs in the fourth century opened up pathways for it to enter the public space, a process that proved gradual and partial at best. The dominant narrative posits the main story of the period as the conflict between Paganism and Christianity, tracing an implacable arc that culminates in Christian triumph as reflected in the end of traditional sacrifices and festivals and the closure of temples, first in the countryside and later in the urban areas. Public spectacles, even with their historical associations with festivals of the gods, were put into a new category of the “secular” by Christian elites who wished to continue as patrons to the plebs urbana at games even as they also assumed new roles as benefactors of churches. The label of secular as applied to urban commoda was meant to defend them against the ancient “cancel culture” that would mark all traditional institutions for elimination.

Taking the above as the start-point, my project, “Roman Urban Entertainments and Christianizing Cultures in Late Antiquity,” explores urban talk surrounding spectacles to get at the worldviews and experiences of the Christianizing Roman urban populace. The draw of spectacles challenged ecclesiastical leaders to mount their own Christian spectacles, itself a case of the reciprocal formation of urbanity and religion. But while the totalizing discourses of late antique Christian writers would have the Roman city turn into a sanctified space centered on the bishop and his basilica, this would not be realized until much later. Figures such as John Chrysostom and Augustine of Hippo could only condemn Christian for attending shows and shame the Christian elite who sponsored them. They failed to provide a counter urban culture that could displace the importance of public spectacles to the life-experiences of Roman city-dwellers. As long as public spectacles continued to be staged, most Christians attended both church events and theatres/hippodromes with little concern that the latter amounted to religious defection. Within cities where games long continued to play a key, structuring role, urban Christians fashioned still largely undocumented Christianizing cultures that were not identical (nor antithetical) to those sanctified lifeways prescribed by patristic writers but rather reflect their own self-understandings as being at once Christians and proud inhabitants of a Roman city.