Friday, September 16, 2011

When in Rome. . . Appealing to the Roman Aristocracy

We are dealing with the questions:
  • How and when did Christianity lose its egalitarian structure? 
  • How did the masses lose their ability to have input into matters of administrative, doctrinal, disciplinary and devotional practice in the Church? 
  • How did “pray, pay and obey” come to define the role of the laity?

We return to the fourth century. As we all know, the Emperor Constantine brought legitimacy to the Christian religion early in that century. He and subsequent emperors favored Christianity in many ways, but they did not have the power to impose this new religion on a population immersed in paganism

This imperial lack of power was especially true in regard to the Roman aristocracy who possessed power and wealth that was critical for the support of the emperors. Realizing that the way to conversion of the masses was through the conversion of the aristocracy, emperors and bishops united in a two-pronged effort.

What united the aristocracy was the "status" culture they shared. The deepest concern of aristocrats was their status in the world. Max Weber, the noted sociologist, makes these distinctions: Class is based on wealth; e.g. middle class, upper class. Party is based on power; e.g. Democrat, Republican. Status groups are based on honor, however honor is conceived. 

The Roman aristocracy was a status group for whom honor was everything. And honor for them was aristocratic standing, and aristocratic standing came from peer recognition. Only by meeting the expectations of their peers would anyone gain acceptance, the guarantee of aristocratic standing. So to be in the group, you had to play to one another within the confines of the group.

While both the emperors and bishops wanted to convert this group to Christianity--and with aristocratic help and example, convert the masses--the conversion could not be forced. And there was no way that this status group was going to relinquish the status center of its culture. Consequently, the emperors and bishops had to use terms and concepts that were attractive to and consistent with traditional senatorial values. In short, they had to appeal to and not threaten the status concerns of the aristocracy.

Bishops were able to make headway in converting aristocrats because they found ways to assure them that this new religion was not a threat to their status concerns, but in fact supported their status concerns.
What were those status concerns? Above all, of course was honor. Acceptance and recognition by peers, other aristocrats, was the most basic component of the aristocratic status culture. What brought them this acceptance and recognition? Social conventions such as friendship (one received honor from the number and prestige of one’s friends); family networks; nobility (nobility was an attribute derived from either noble birth or high office); the correct religion (aristocrats often sought a pagan priesthood for the honor it brought); patronage (honor that came from the status of clients they represented in the Senate and from construction of temples, etc.); recognition for high moral character; recognition for having an intellectual life; and wealth.
Next week we will look at how both emperors and bishops met these status concerns.

See also:

The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman EmpirePrimary Resource for this section: The Making of A Christian Aristocracy, by Michelle Renee Salzman.  Harvard University Press, 2002.