Did aristocratic women drive the rise of Christianity? Michele Salzman says No
Summary of arguments against the consensus view that aristocratic women were key to the rise of Christianity in the Late Roman Empire. Based on "The Making of a Christian Aristocracy" by M. Salzman
Lately, I've been interested in the rise of Christianity during the Late Roman Empire and Early Middle Ages. And I think anyone remotely curious about how ideologies gain prominence should be, too. Understanding how Christianity entrenched itself during this period can offer clarity in our current era, which is often riddled with speculative cultural discussions. It’s in many ways the best “natural experiment” of this kind that we have.
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This is how I came to read “The Making of a Christian Aristocracy”, an academic book that looks into what drove the conversion of the Late Roman aristocracy to Christianity. This is an insightful work that I highly recommend; I have written an entire thread with excerpts from it.
But in this piece I am focusing on a very specific part of the book: that which challenges the commonly accepted wisdom that aristocratic women were major and active drivers of Christianisation.
Questioning this consensus narrative becomes a daunting task when confronted with the monumental legacies of figures like Olga of Kiev and Saint Helena. They are iconic figures who loom large in history, often celebrated for their transformative roles in steering entire empires towards Christianity. Olga, the first recorded female ruler of Rus, is credited with the initial steps of converting the Kievan Rus to Christianity. Saint Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, is celebrated for her influential role in the Roman Empire's embrace of the faith and her purported discovery of the True Cross.
Indeed, the idea that upper class women were major players in the rise of Christianity is very strongly cemented in historiography. When I read Rodney Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity” (one of the most popular books on the topic), this was accepted as a fact not to be debated, but rather to be understood and further explored in detail.
But if Michele Salzman is right, figures like Olga of Kiev and Saint Helena might be the exception rather than the rule.
The question of whether aristocratic women were indeed major drivers of Early Christianisation is interesting in itself; But analysing Michele Salzman’s work is also an occasion to look critically at the accretive process that leads to historical paradigms being consolidated and accepted; Over time, as authors build on previous works, the origins of certain beliefs become muddled. What might have started as mere conjecture can, through repetition, solidify into perceived fact. And we see this quite clearly in this case.
A different approach to an old question
Michele Salzman (the author of the book) is able to arrive at a different conclusion from most historians in part because her approach to studying the rise of Christianity among the aristocracy is somewhat unique:
Firstly, she uses quantitative data. The author assembled the short biographies of 414 aristocrats who lived or held office of senatorial rank in the western Roman Empire between 284 and 423 C.E. This sample size might sound small to someone coming from other disciplines. Indeed, the aristocracy at the time might have included something like 36,000 people. Yet, most details about their lives have been lost to history; This actually means the cohort assembled by the author is the largest such group used for the purpose of answering this question.
However, the author is aware this data alone cannot be used to make very strong inferences. She uses her history expertise to embed this new evidence within a broader mosaic of considerations. Chiefly, and most importantly for the question of the role of upper-class women in Christianisation, she rejects “belief"-based explanations in favour of sociological/political ones1.
To quote the author herself:
“In any case explanations grounded in Christian ideas suffer by presupposing people act primarily on the basis of belief. Beliefs matter, but to have broader historical impact they need to interact with wider social and political forces and institutions. A strictly theological or idea-based approach cannot answer why some groups of aristocrats found Christianity intellectually and emotionally compelling while others did not, nor why some groups were more likely to convert than others”
As explained further on, the author’s decision to put aside a “belief-based” approach in favour of a sociopolitical one is crucial for arriving at the conclusions that she does regarding the role of women.
The common wisdom: Women as active players in Christianisation
It seems the idea of women as major players in Christianisation started with the theologian Adolf Harnack in 1902. In one of his key pieces of work, he hypothesizes Christianity took hold of upper class women to a disproportionate extent. All subsequent works on the topic have been influenced by him. Indeed, Henry Chadwick, the famous theologian, writes in 1967 that “Christianity seems to have been especially successful among women. It was often through the wives that it penetrated the upper classes of society in the first instance”. Later on, feminist scholars embraced this idea and were rather keen to perpetuate and emphasize the role women played in the early Christian Church.
So what evidence are these rather bold assertions based on?
As mentioned before, a large part of this is driven by a focus on a “belief-based” approach. The core of this argument is that Christianity attracted women because it offered a moral framework that appealed to them and would have raised their status relative to the one they had in Ancient times. While contemporary views often highlight religion's role in reinforcing patriarchy, scholars have noted that Christianity was historically more accommodating to women than earlier times. Passages from the New Testament, such as Galatians 3:28 ("There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus"), are used to showcase this egalitarian principle, which would have appealed to women. There are numerous other examples historians bring to highlight how Christianity would have raised the status and quality of living of women specifically. In the Roman Empire, it was not uncommon for unwanted infants, especially girls, to be left to die of exposure. Christians, however, prohibited this practice, emphasizing the sanctity of all human life. Similar to the above point, many Christian teachings advocated against the commonly accepted practice of abortion in the Greco-Roman world, thereby offering protection to expectant mothers.
The other important source of evidence is literary: historians point to various writings of the time that seem to suggest the pivotal role of women in Early Christianity. For example, Jerome’s letters to his aristocratic women friends. In these, he praises the merits of Christian asceticism & highlights specific female ascetics as a model. Other historians focus on specific examples of women who had leadership roles in the Early Church. For example, Paul's letters, such as his epistles to the Romans and Philippians, acknowledge women like Phoebe, Priscilla, Euodia, and Syntyche for their active engagement in the Church's mission.
Michele Salzman vs other historians
“A wife ought not to make friends of her own, but to enjoy her husband’s friends in common with him”
(Plutarch, Moralia 140D)
Michele Salzman challenges the prevailing consensus that women played a significant role as active converters during the early spread of Christianity. Her biographical data finds little support for the widespread notion of women converting their husbands. Notably, there's scant evidence of intermarriages between Christians and pagans that could facilitate such secondary conversions: both pagans and Christians discouraged marriage between people of a different faith. And when intermarriage did occur, husbands in this dataset didn't adopt their wives' faith. Is it possible that women turned to Christianity in larger numbers before marriage? The data does not support this either: most children followed the religion of their parents; If anything, boys were slightly more inclined to convert than girls.
As Michele Salzman herself notes, this would not be enough to definitely refute the prevailing wisdom, given the relatively small sample size. She uses her historical expertise and her own reading of literary and historical evidence to put this data into context.
Perhaps her preference for a socio-political as opposed to a belief-based approach best shines here. Belief based approaches were arguably used to overinflate the influence women had.
Firstly, her book concerns itself with more than just women. As the title suggests, it’s an attempt to understand the factors that led to the conversion of the aristocracy more broadly. In the early 4th century (Constantine changed the official religion in 313), most aristocrats were still pagan. Then, it seems that Christianity, which was now much higher status, spread through social networks (which were also career networks given how intertwined these 2 were). One of the interesting things in Michele Salzman’ book is she shows there is a strong correlation between conversion to Christianity and occupation of high status men. For example, men who worked for the imperial bureaucracy, as well as men who were “new” to the aristocracy (as opposed to being part of the very old and established families), were more likely to be Christian. This is a short summary of her findings, but overall she shows how, at least among the aristocracy, sociological factors explain more of the variation in conversion than ideological ones. Starting from this thesis, she turns to women.
The crux of her argument revolves around whether women, even if drawn to Christianity, had the sociopolitical agency to influence conversions given the constraints of late Roman society. She essentially asks:
“Ok, even if women were more attracted to Christianity, could they have done anything about it, given the political and sociological limitations they faced at the time?”
Her answer is a resolute No:
“Given the institutions, values, and role of women within the late Roman family and family cult, it would be surprising to find women taking on the pivotal role of active converters to Christianity.”
Since Roman families were very patriarchal in nature, women simply would not have had the freedom to make important choices that were out of line with their husbands. That was true even when it came to their spiritual lives. It was the male leader of the household, or paterfamilias, who was in charge with the religious life of the family and passing convictions down to his descendants. This is reflected at the level of ritual: men were the ones who carried out the private religious rites. Michele Salzman brings extensive textual evidence to show that in the context of the Late Roman Empire women were expected to subordinate their religious goals to their husbands and families. Indeed, a woman who took an active role in trying to convert her husband would have been perceived as grossly overstepping her role and deviating from the ideal of the time.
What about all the textual evidence and the examples of prominent women in the Early Church? The author argues the textual and literary evidence has often been misinterpreted, as well as cherry picked. And, even accepting the most generous reading of the texts brought forward by past historians, the role of women in Early Christianisation is still greatly smaller than that of men. Indeed, what could have been a decent argument in the vein of “Maybe women had a bigger role than one would expect given the patriarchal nature of society at the time” suddenly turned into “Aristocratic women were the major drivers of Christianisation”.
Michele Salzman also brings plenty of literary evidence of her own to support her view, chiefly written works about the ideal role of a wife within a family. There is also evidence in the form of stories/anecdotes: For example, examples of women who tried to defy their families to follow a life of Christian asceticism. These show the limited power women had over their own religious life, as well as the expectation that they would put the broader interests of the family before their personal religious preferences.
Overall, Michele Salzman urges us to look at the norm rather than the exception. Yes, some women might have defied societal expectations and chosen Christianity out of their own initiative; But most followed the social conventions of their time: obedience to their husbands and families. While Christianity might have brought an increase in status for women, this was very much a gradual process. Most women living at the interface between the pagan and the Christian world were still very much subject to the social norms and conventions of the pagan world of their ancestors.
Projecting modern sensibilities on past events
So a belief-based approach, lack of quantitative data and readings of ancient texts literally and without considering caveats have probably led historians to uncritically accept the role of aristocratic women in propagating Christianity. Is there any other reason? Here I am speculating and going beyond what Salzman explicitly spells out in her book.
Beyond these, I think there is a potential for misunderstanding of the past by projecting contemporary understandings of gender roles and family dynamics onto the period that is being analysed. Given that the works which started this theory were written at the beginning of the 20th century, it’s plausible that the authors would have been influenced by the attitudes of the previous century. During the 19th century, especially within the Victorian paradigm, a distinction was drawn between the public and private spheres. While women's power in the public realm was limited, they were viewed as the spiritual and moral anchors within the domestic realm. This John Ruskin quote encapsulates this sentiment, suggesting that while men venture, create, and defend in the external world, women hold the reins of decision-making, arrangement, and ordering within the household:
"The man's power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His intellect is for speculation and invention; his energy for adventure, for war, and for conquest. ... But the woman's power is for rule, not for battle, — and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision."
(John Ruskin- 19th century)
While such a viewpoint may seem antiquated today, it did endow women with a distinct authority within the private domain. Historians, working within the shadow of such ideologies, could have easily extrapolated that women in the past wielded a similar influence. However, this perspective overlooks that in the Late Roman Empire women's decision-making capacities, even in spiritual matters, were more circumscribed.
Sociologists like Rodney Stark also used examples from modern religious movements, like the Shakers or the spread of Protestantism in Latin America. There, women's influential role in spiritual conversions is much more firmly established. While these movements provide valuable insights due to the availability of more quantitative data, one must be cautious when using them to make inferences about ancient contexts.
So how did the power of women in the private sphere differ in Ancient Rome?
Firstly, in ancient Rome, the very conception of the public versus private divide, as perceived today, was different. Men were seen holistically; they were not viewed as compartmentalized entities with separate public and private lives:
“It would have been difficult for a late Roman aristocrat to distinguish what he was from what he did, nor would he have driven a sharp line between his public and his private persona (…) Symmachus’ judgement on Magnillus as vicar in Africa was based on his actions “in public and in private according to the testimony of all”. The late Roman senatorial aristocrat thought it inappropriate to profess eagerness for a “career”. Especially among the core aristocrats of Rome, it was conventional to show a certain disdainful hesitancy about negotium and public office in particular”
(The Making of A Christian Aristocracy)
Considering this interconnected nature of the public and private realms, it's evident that the predominant cultural paradigms of the time would have permeated both. The traditional Roman belief in the inherent superiority of men would have meant that men were the primary shapers of not just civic and political spheres, but also the domestic, including the spiritual and religious life of the household. This patriarchal dominance is also reflected in the role of the 'pater familias' – the male head of the household in Roman culture – who had significant authority over all family members and was typically responsible for the religious rites of the household, the upbringing of the children, and familial decisions.
Overall, I find Michele Salzman’s arguments pretty compelling. For me this was also an informative exercise in reconsidering an interpretation of history that I have been taking for granted as true.
There are other ways in which this book diverges from previous studies. For example, previous studies focused on socio-political forces had a “top-down” understanding of religious spread. This means they overly emphasized the role of the emperor in the spread of Christianity. Instead, Salzman sees the aristocracy as an entrenched and somewhat autonomous entity and gives it center stage. In the author’s own words: “Indeed, considering only imperial appointments provides too limited a gauge of late Roman political life. Politics also worked outside of the formal channels of appointment, through the building of patronage obligations, friendships, family ties and the like”