H.A. Drake A Century of Miracles: Christians, Pagans, Jews, and the Supernatural, 312-410. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
H.A. Drake’s A Century of Miracles surveys a discourse of miracles within the Roman Empire during the fourth century. Not miracles simpliciter, but what Drake defines in his penultimate chapter as “imperial miracles” (217). Framing his book with the two great miracles of Constantine and Theodosius, Drake attempts to tease out exactly how this discourse functioned in late antiquity, especially for Christians. Drake argues that imperial miracles provided Christians a way of interpreting and understanding their new socio-political standing. But in the course of arguing this thesis Drake touches on several issues relevant to the study of late antiquity more broadly.
In Drake’s first chapter, he explains that miracles per se are not his interest but “stories about miracles” (7). Drake situates his reading of the fourth century amongst competing historiographies that have been dominant in the modern period. Historians in the twentieth century tended to read the fourth century as a great conflict between diametrically opposed ideologies: “paganism” and “Christianity.” Drake argues that these historians—influenced by the categories and anxieties of the Cold War—exacerbated a tendency amongst scholars to narrate the fourth century as a “black and white” contest between two incommensurable ideologies vying for power over the late Roman Empire (19-21). In contrast to this approach, Drake contends that it might be better to look to a center of interests, concerns, and attitudes that were shared by those with varied religious identities. This shared middle is revisited and expanded throughout the book, and is fully on display in Drake’s chapters that describe Judaism. Thus, inspired by recent scholarship (e.g. Seth Schwartz and Shaye Cohen), Drake seeks to understand Judaism in all its late antique, ethno-religious complexity, rather than merely accepting rabbinic representations (121-122). Likewise, in chapters two and three, Drake looks closely at Theodosius’ miracle at Frigidus and Constantine’s miraculous vision respectively (27-74). In each case, Drake argues that Christian writers and bishops were particularly interested in description and promulgation of these miracles to delineate and solidify the boundaries between Christians and pagans. While chapter four looks at how Constantine’s miracle was shaped and deployed by Eusebius and Lactantius, Drake characterizes Constantine’s developing imperial theology as fairly irenic and inclusive (70-73). Nevertheless, Drake argues that the church fathers—and especially bishops—ultimately bequeathed a certain orthodox picture of Constantine that left their unique access to the divine unchallenged (90-92).
Helena’s famous discovery of the cross forms the basis of chapters five and six (93-134). Drake traces the literary and archaeological evidence for Christian discovery and veneration of the cross on which Jesus was crucified—the True Cross. Drake speculates concerning the reason for Eusebius’ silence concerning its discovery when describing the unearthing of the Holy Sepulcher (99-104). Whatever its reason, he concludes, it would be more surprising if the excavators who had ostensibly discovered the tomb had not also thought the beams of wood they unearthed were the True Cross (103). More important for Drake’s thesis, however, is how he thinks the discussions of the True Cross helped to ease Christian anxiety about where the cross had lain hidden and why Christians could trust that the newly revered wood was the real item (112-113). It also allowed Christians to address their “most deep-seated” anxieties about why Jews, who were steeped in Scripture, did not accept Christianity (133). This was accomplished in part by stories such as the myth of “Judas the Jew” who began around this time to feature prominently in literature about the discovery of the True Cross.
Drake’s next chapter deals with the production of Athanasius’ Life of Antony (135-156). In this text, and in its reception, one can see the burgeoning discourse of miracles assuming greater importance. The Christian holy person was transformed into a conduit of divine power whose legitimacy was bound to the miracles that attended his or her life. While this trend begins with Antony, Drake argues that this is just the beginning of a trajectory that became more and more pronounced in subsequent decades. Thus, Sulpicius Severus’ Life of St. Martin is almost entirely concerned with the amazing and miraculous events of Martin’s life, but contains far fewer of the extended discourses central to the Life of St. Antony (151-152).
The following two chapters consider ostensible fights between Christian and “pagan” writers over religion. Drake looks at the famous conflicts of the emperor Julian the “apostate” with Gregory, and Ambrose with Symmachus about the Altar of Victory. While in each case there is a real point of disagreement, Drake argues that the terms, shape, and content of the debates demonstrate a fundamentally shared worldview. Symmachus and Ambrose, for instance, disagree about what the true divinity is, but they agree that this divinity, properly worshiped, would provide the Empire supernatural support (176-178). Julian also participates in this discourse, but he did not end up having his own miracles with which to legitimize his rule. Moreover, Christian writers acquired rhetorical ammunition from Julian’s failure to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and his ignominious death by a stray Persian javelin while also bolstering their belief in divine support for the Christian faith.
The final two chapters examine how the sack of Rome undermined the Christian discourse about miracles (199-234). Having rested legitimacy on the miraculous support of the Christian God, catastrophe must surely imply that the Christian God was either impotent or absent. Drake describes two strategies that Christians used to circumvent this conclusion. First, Augustine’s famous City of God, responds to the sack of Rome by “cleaving the tie between Christianity and the Roman Empire” (218). God’s providence put wicked men as well as good men in power (215-216). Indeed, Augustine argues that sometimes God prematurely kills devout rulers to teach others that conversion should be motivated only by the hope of eternal life not the lust for worldly power. In this way, Drake argues that the City of God is an epitaph for the century of miracles. Providence cannot be discerned from historical events. The epilogue looks at the same issue in a different register. Drake argues that pervasive and popular Christian stories (miracles, conversions, showdowns between ascetics and demons) were how most people were formed in a Christian view of the world. These kinds of miracle stories were composed and repeated throughout the fourth century, entertaining and shaping Christians around the Roman world. So by the time Rome was sacked in 410 most Christians “could brush off the failure with hardly a stutter” (233).
Drake deftly argues his main thesis: that miracle stories—particularly “imperial miracles” or “battlefield miracles”—provided Christians with a way of connecting Christianity and the Roman Empire. Constantine and Theodosius were miraculously assisted and guided by God because they were good, Christian emperors. Julian’s plots were foiled and he died an early death because God wanted the empire to remain Christian. But along the way, Drake weaves together threads pertinent to several other questions and issues in the study of late antiquity. Building on recent scholarship such as monographs by Susanna Elm and Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, Drake pulls together “pagans,” Christians, and Jews to show where and how they participated in a cultural koine. Yet, Drake also highlights something unique about the fourth century. Century of Miracles is about a pivot in both the history of Rome and Christianity. This discourse of miracles faded away as its viability faded, but while it lasted it served the important function of helping Christians make sense of their new situation.
Peter Morris is a doctoral candidate in Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity at the University of Virginia.