Falcasantos, Rebecca. “A Land Cleansed of Heretics”: Cult Practice and Contestation in the Christianization of Late Antique Constantinople. Ph.D. dissertation, Brown University, 2015.
In my dissertation, “A Land Cleansed of Heretics”: Cult Practice and Contestation in the Christianization of Late Antique Constantinople, I analyze the changes in Constantinople’s religious frameworks during the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. In conversation with recent work on religious identity and competition in late antiquity, particularly that of Éric Rebillard and Christine Shepardson, I examine how the public performance of ritual contributed to the eventual elision of Nicene Christianity with imperial structures to form a new civic and cultural identity. My primary theoretic frameworks for this study are the theories of practice and ritualization as elaborated by Pierre Bourdieu and Catherine Bell. In addition, I pull from examinations of violence, stemming from the work of David Riches, which view such actions as performative, relational acts that generate social boundaries and meanings. These lenses allow us to understand late antique social relations and ritual life as sets of mechanisms through which interested parties could naturalize social norms and enable shifts in behavior.
Initially these shifts involved Christian efforts to marginalize traditional cults, but they quickly turned to intra-Christian competition as Arian bishops gained control of Constantinople’s religious frameworks and relied on imperial support to violently suppress Nicene Christians. This situation changed significantly when Theodosius I, upon his arrival in Constantinople in 380, ordered the removal of the dominant Arian bishop and entrusted the city’s churches to Nicene clergy. During the following decades, imperial officials, ecclesiastical authorities, and the city’s Christian elite utilized historiographic narratives about Arian violence, the communal habits of ritual, and imperial legislation to restrict, and eventually eliminate, the practices of non-Nicene groups. Communal engagement in the rituals of civic religion and rhetoric about these ritual events provided crucial mechanisms for the production of a new Constantinopolitan religious identity as invested cultural agents worked to construct, solidify, and reconfigure social boundaries. Focusing on the dynamics of collective ritual engagement within a specific social environment in this way allows us to better understand the social consequences of cultic engagement in late antique cities and develop a more robust picture of religious change across the Mediterranean.
Following a chapter that situates fourth-century Christianity within the traditional patterns and fluidity of imperial religion, I examine the development of Constantinople’s religious frameworks in the century following its founding. When Constantine founded his new city in November 324 C.E., Constantinople was not a recognizably Christian city. Rather it was an imperial city, and its religious landscape was dominated by traditional temples and the imperial cult. Christian authors like Eusebius of Caesarea had to reinterpret this landscape in order to claim some sort of hegemony over the city. Once Christian bishops gained control over the religious structures of Constantinople, arguments began over which form of Christianity represented the official religion of the city. In the following chapters, I focus on the ways in which boundaries between groups were articulated and enforced, first through the construction of memories of religious violence and then through ritual engagement. In chapter 3 I challenge assumptions about the rigidity of religious categories and argue that the competitive environment of Constantinople led to conflicts, even open acts of violence, as opposing bishops strove to construct boundaries between groups. Chapter 4 examines the performative environment of the late antique city and the meanings, hierarchies, and commitments communicated therein. Important here is the fact the ritual events of competing groups in the fourth century could be nearly indistinguishable to the onlooker, and interested individuals could exploit these resemblances to shift perceptions of imperially sponsored civic religion, just as John Chrysostom appears to have done in his processions against the Arians. Moreover I argue that it is imperative to consider the types of meanings that could be constructed through the performance of ritual action in spaces that resonated with imperial ideologies and appealed to the memories of previous generations. With my final chapter I turn to efforts under Theodosius II to homogenize the city’s religious landscape. During this period, non-Christians and non-Nicene Christians were forced out of public view, and in some instances erased from the emerging historiographic tradition. This period was further marked by the development of a particular rhetoric of imperial Christian identity, evident in the writings of Socrates Scholasticus and Sozomen that focused on the religious integrity of the emperor and his capital and recast historical narratives about the previous century in a light favorable to Nicene Christianity.
This study brings to the foreground several important considerations. First, a civic and ritual environment changes over time as people interact with and interpret that environment. In Constantinople, these changes occurred within a rapidly evolving architectural landscape, in which traditional temples were eliminated and new Christian shrines and churches built, and depended on rhetoric about past violence against Nicene Christians, efforts to control ritual space, and legislative censure of particular groups. Second, the strength of religious boundaries depends upon the firmness of individual commitments to maintaining those boundaries and the degree of cohesion between these individuals. Influential cultural agents, namely Christian bishops and rhetors, can massage these commitments. Indeed the permeability of boundaries fosters a space for these individuals to compete for control of the religious frameworks of a city. Finally, this dissertation emphasizes the performative and generative nature of ritual actions. Because ritual performances depend upon habituated patterns of communal action, they can enable the rituals of a competing religious group to look familiar and help to reorient their participants toward new religious frameworks. Thus, engagement in ritual can facilitate shifts in religious identification in ways that both seem natural and foster conflict. Attending to the intersection of each of these processes expands the horizons of discussions about religious change by offering a broader understanding of public religious life in late antique cities and the politics of religion in the ancient world.
The dissertation was awarded the 2015 Joukowsky Family Foundation Outstanding Dissertation Award in the Humanities.
Rebecca Falcasantos, Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College