I’ve been talking to people recently about what the material evidence of a major change in society looks like. Today, I will briefly discuss the example of the material evidence of the change in religion that occurred in Late Antiquity, when Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire.
This change was brought about by not just by consensual conversion, but also by coercion and violence. Temples and devotional art were destroyed, houses and towns were ransacked, adherents of traditional religion were persecuted, and the full weight of Imperial law was brought down upon those who resisted.
The material evidence for this religious revolution is like a crime scene. We can see the distinctive marks on statues, reliefs, and inscriptions from repeated blows with blunt or sharp instruments,. Sometimes works of devotional art or dedicatory inscriptions were reduced to fragments, testimony of the perpetrator’s emotional state during the attack. Statues were commonly decapitated and dismembered. Special attention was given to mutilation of the eyes, nose, hands, breasts and genitals, to show the deity represented in the art had been rendered powerless. Sometimes a cross was chiseled into the face of the statue, to show the daimon* supposed by Christians to inhabit or animate the statue had been exorcised by the power of Christ. It wasn’t unusual for the remaining trunk of the body of the statue to be squared off and used as a paving stone, or built into the wall of a Christian church or monastery.
How do we know these acts of destruction weren’t committed by vandals or invaders? Sometimes the desecrated buildings were re-occupied by Christian monks, or rededicated as a Church. Sometimes the vandalized building was abandoned, leaving behind money; not just a few coins, but sometimes large amounts of “tainted” currency.
This is the material evidence of the violent destruction of traditional religion in Late Antiquity:
Head of Aphrodite, 1st c. AD copy of an original from Praxiteles. Found in the Agora of Athens. Collection of the Archaeological Museum of Athens. Photo by Marsyas (2006) via Wikimedia Commons (X). GNU Free Documentation License.
Statue of Aphrodite, Sculpture of Roman Period, Istanbul Archaeology Museum. Found in Miletus, Baths of Faustina: the cooling-room section (frigidarium). Roman, 2nd century AD. Photo by Carole Raddato, 2011 via flickr.com (X). License: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
* A daimon was minor spirit in traditional religion, but was regarded as a “demon”, or fallen angel, to Christians.
Kristensen, Troels Myrup. Making and Breaking the Gods: Christian Responses to Pagan Sculpture in Late Antiquity. Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity 12. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2013. (Review: X)
Nixey, Catherine. The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018. (Review: X)
Sauer, Eberhard.. The Archaeology of Religious Hatred in the Roman and Early Medieval World. Stroud: Tempus, 2003. (Review: X)