This rich and tantalizing book explores how demonically embattled cityscapes in the late Roman world were creatively structured and restructured by Christian ecclesiastical leaders. Where City of Demons contains a great deal of vivid detail on the physical geography of the late antique city—maps of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Milan precede the introduction and chapters 1, 4, and 7 include painstaking, descriptive research—this is of marginal importance to Kalleres’ argument. She foregrounds the rhetorical, ideological, and ritualized construction of Christian identities as baptized Christian soldiers, equipped to battle the demonic in the city. These soldiers of Christ engaged in strategic “spiritual warfare” against a horde of malevolent spirits plaguing post-Constantinian Christianity. Focusing on the fourth-century figures of John Chrysostom in Antioch, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Ambrose of Milan, Kalleres stresses how urban bishops were also significantly adept demonologists and exorcists. As such, John, Cyril, and Ambrose preoccupied themselves in sermons and baptismal lectures with the complex task of Christianizing urban spaces co-inhabited by Greco-Roman paraphernalia and custom, and thus demonic infestation. Most provocatively, the city sphere in late antiquity emerges as a way of spiritually perceiving, even confronting, demons in direct public battle.
Two key terms in City of Demons warrant attention as they open up a number of discursive trajectories taken by Kalleres. She recursively employs the designations “Christianization” and “diabolization” to describe processes of cultural engagement and competition between Christians and others living in their immediate municipal environs. Christianization, in this context, denotes the deliberate assimilation of city space through ritual activity and rhetoric. An instrumental facet of Christianization was the diabolization of all Greco-Roman and Jewish practices and beliefs. Borrowing from Birgit Meyer’s study of Pentecostalism in Ghana, Kalleres describes in colorful abundance how “urban ecclesiastical and episcopal leaders gain power and authority in and over their city through diabolizing others’ forms of ritual and rhetoric, the public and performative practices that ultimately organize and coordinate the city’s wider enchanted and social environments into a series of coordinating dualities: divine against the demonic, the Nicene party against those who are enemies of Nicene Christianity” (202). In other words, orbiting the nexus of Christian vs. non-Christian and orthodox vs. non-orthodox identities, episcopal figures perceived and credited demons with the power of profoundly disturbing every gesture, word, and sensory experience of the physical world.
In framing her discussion around experiences with the demonic, Kalleres intuitively reconfigures scholarly assumptions about the relation between demons and humans. Strikingly, for urban bishops, and John Chrysostom in particular, the “demonic” was not solely a “locative” mapping device, as Jonathan Z. Smith has argued—meaning, a standard against which, say, Christian and non-Christian identities were culturally constructed—but also a definitive target of exorcistic assaults spearheaded by “highly mobile, aggressive holy men and women” (95-97). Kalleres repeatedly remarks that scholars have tended to identify early Christian demons either as metaphors for cosmic instability or as rhetorical sites of impure boundary penetration that require expulsion. In contrast, City of Demons suggests that urban bishops instructed a number of baptized individuals to actively seek out and purge the entire city of demons by means of expressive public spectacle. On this view, the presence of unclean spirits served as a galvanizing agent for Christian congregations to ritually act against, not stray from, demonic beings and influence. As one might expect, Greeks and Jews were ipso facto considered demonically possessed agents for their false customs. Christian soldiers were to agitate confrontation with non-Christians, thereby exposing to those with the gift of “spiritual sight” the veiled puppetry of demons behind the latter’s activities.
City of Demons draws from several theoretical approaches in order to delineate the ways in which sacramental ritual (baptism in particular), exorcism, and public display were central to this ideation of urban bishops and demons. Especially fond of Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus (and Isabella Sandwell’s use thereof), Kalleres’ lucid analysis of embodied demonic possession (of human bodies and the city) traces the troubled and troubling contours of performative ritual dispositions. This is most explicit in her reading of John Chrysostom, who grants to trained baptizands an instinctive sensory perception of demons inhabiting non-Christian assemblies by means of ritual agency (Chapter 2). Even when discussing Cyril of Jerusalem, Bourdieu tacitly resounds in Christian cultivation of baptism experiences and the capacity for spiritual participation “in vivifying originary biblical events,” again, in the context of spiritual warfare (154). Later, Kalleres also invokes Catherine Wessinger’s study of millennialism and violence to draw distinction between progressive and catastrophic eschatologies in the catechetical lectures of Cyril (Chapter 6). These are but a few of the many modern theoretical frameworks Kalleres employs to enrich her study.
Underlying the whole project is a “critical intervention” into hermeneutical approaches to the period under discussion (20). Kalleres bookends her study with considerable commentary on contemporary scholarship and the innate challenges posed by a rigorous analysis of Late Antiquity’s enchanted environment and animistic atmosphere. In her estimation, scholars of religion have become all too haunted by E. B. Tylor’s ghost in the insubstantial form of animism, and City of Demons boldly endeavors to reveal the affective supernatural encounters forged by the experience of demons as real, physical entities. Eloquent forays into Max Weber’s Entzauberung der Welt, anthropological theory, cultural history, and Robert Orsi’s “abundant history,” inter alia, inform much of Kalleres’ book and methodology. To this end, she innovatively builds and rebuilds bridges between modern and premodern worldviews, enabling productive comparisons that frustrate the secularizing and disenchanting tendencies so prevalent in Gibbonian discourses of decline into “superstition” and irrationality.
To its form, City of Demons is organized into three main parts which respectively reflect interrelating case studies of John in Antioch, Cyril in Jerusalem, and Ambrose in Milan. Part 1 is divided into three chapters; Part 2 constitutes chapters 4-6; and Part 3 includes a single chapter (7). In other words, a greater amount of writing and interpretation is given to John and Cyril, whereas Ambrose unfortunately receives less attention. That being said, Kalleres dedicates her last chapter to an impressive summation of the book’s themes and observations in the figure of Ambrose and his transformative use of sacramental ritual. Furthermore, her final remarks on Orsi in chapter 7 drive home the important challenge of sustaining in scholarship an inclusive approach to late antique worldviews, noted above. This means, at times, admittedly “speculative” considerations, but never at the cost of rigorous historical analysis and research methods. In short, City of Demons is a fascinating and brilliant book for students of early Christian demonology and urban studies in particular, but also for those interested in religious culture more generally.
Rex Barnes is a PhD candidate at Columbia University