The Christian State in Late Antiquity: Officials, Identities, and Religious Change, c. 400-600 CE

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Sch of Histories, Lanuages and Cultures


This project seeks a new understanding of the relationship between Christianity and the state in late antiquity (c. 250-700 CE). It examines how Christian ideas permeated the representation and practice of governance in the later Roman Empire at the end of antiquity, and developed into the basic political framework of the Byzantine Empire and post-Roman Europe. This process of Christianization is hardly understudied. For centuries, historians have debated the implications of the Emperor Constantine's conversion in 312 CE; more recent work has traced the complex cultural and social impact of the resulting legalization and expansion of the church. But these new histories of religious change have left the state behind. Through my leadership activities, I will seek to diversify and revitalize the study of late ancient Christian political thought. I will run panels at international meetings and a conference in Liverpool leading to an edited volume. This network will move discussion away from old-fashioned analysis of the constitutional relationship between emperor and bishops to explore a wider social history of governance (e.g. gendered praise and invective, the imperial family, ethnic discourse, demonology). It will also seek to reshape old narratives by incorporating previously understudied texts, languages, and regions of western Eurasia. These network events will build on a conference I ran at the University of Liverpool in June 2019.

My individual research project takes a novel approach by focusing on overlooked Christian political actors: not emperors, kings, or bishops, but rather the thousands of administrators who served late Roman and post-Roman regimes in their palaces and across their provinces. More often than not, it was these elites through whom people in the late ancient Mediterranean experienced the power of the state. This project assembles and analyses the literary and material evidence for the religious beliefs and practices of imperial and royal officials across the Mediterranean world between 400 and 600 CE. By considering these texts and objects in the light of modern theories of identity, I will evaluate how the religious affiliations of this service aristocracy impacted their political agency. Reconstructing contemporary expectations of these Christian officials will provide a window onto how Christian political thought was put into action and shaped the day-to-day reality of governance in the later Roman Empire and its successors. The result will be a new account of how religious change reshaped the culture of the state in societies from Gaul to Mesopotamia in late antiquity. The main outcome of this project will be a monograph on the religious identities of imperial and royal officials in the fifth and sixth centuries. This book will speak to wider histories of Christianization, the relationship between 'church' and 'state', and the formation of western ideas of secularity and (de)secularization.

The major Impact element of the project will be a collaboration with the Antiquities curators of the Liverpool World Museum to help plan and realize an exhibit of their classical collections opening in February 2021. As part of this team, I will use my research in this project and my wider expertise to advise on the display of late ancient objects not currently accessible by the public, as well as giving spotlight talks. This partnership will feed into further collaborations, including a Study Day on best practice in exhibiting late ancient material which I will organize for summer 2022 in partnership with Prof. Bonnie Effros. In sum, this Early Career Leadership fellowship would allow me to establish myself as an international research leader in my field, bring my second book project to fruition, and develop a substantial Knowledge Exchange and Public Engagement project which will engage with museum curators and a wider public.

Planned Impact

As part of this project, I will seek to make my work on the Christianization of the Roman world in late antiquity accessible and useful to museum curators, local communities on Merseyside, and to the general public more broadly. I will do so through a series of collaborations with the Antiquities curators of the Liverpool World Museum, Dr Ashley Cooke, Dr Chrissy Partheni and Ms Barbara Rowan, and with my colleague Prof. Bonnie Effros at the University of Liverpool.

In the first place, I will contribute to a temporary exhibit of the museum's classical collections, which are not currently on display to the public. This will open in February 2021; the World Museum has allotted a £300,000 budget (see Project Partner Letter of Support). I will attend at least four planning meetings, consult on the selection and display of late ancient objects, and offer spotlight talks once the exhibit has opened. These objects will allow me to present my work on Christianization and late ancient political ideology to the general public on Merseyside. They include an ivory consular diptych of an official significant to my main research project: Clementinus, consul in 513. Another ivory, the Asclepius/Hygieia diptych from early fifth-century Rome, presents obvious opportunities to discuss how fluid religious identities were in contexts of overlapping Christian and pagan belief and practice. My research in this project will thus help determine how these objects are presented and contextualized in the exhibit; I will explore these stories further in my talks.

My involvement in this temporary exhibit is intended as the starting point for further future collaborations. The curators and I have discussed working together on the development of a permanent in-focus display on the Christianization of the Roman world as part of a new Roman gallery in the World Museum. We have also been collaborating with Prof. Effros and the Assistant Curator for Decorative Art at National Museums Liverpool, Ms Nicola Scott to formulate an additional exhibition proposal. The Clementinus and Asclepius/Hygieia ivories are part of a larger group donated to the World Museum by its original patron, the Liverpool goldsmith and antiquarian Joseph Mayer (1803-1886), alongside a large collection of Anglo-Saxon burial finds from Kent. There is an opportunity to display both collections together as the Museum is currently seeking innovative ways to showcase its permanent holdings. The plan is to present these objects as the centrepiece of a temporary exhibition on Mayer's impact on the city of Liverpool in 2022/2023. The curators are currently discussing this proposal with the relevant teams at the Museum. This exhibit would use a figure of local significance to provoke interest in these late ancient and early medieval objects among the (extensive) visiting public: last year, 1.25m people visited the World Museum.

Alongside our work on the Mayer exhibit, Prof. Effros and I will seek to start wider discussions on the exhibition of late ancient material culture. This period is little known by the public and often marginal to the categorization of modern museum collections. We will run a Study Day in summer 2022 bringing together academics and curators to discuss the best ways to exhibit these objects. As part of this meeting we would explore, in particular, the ways in which local collection histories (like that of Joseph Mayer) might make this material more accessible to contemporary audiences. In this way we hope to have a lasting impact on curatorial practices within the UK museums sector.

Finally, I will seek more broadly to do my research for this project 'in public'. I will regularly post threads on Twitter and blogs on the WordPress site about particularly intriguing texts, episodes, and problems in my research. I also intend to reach a wider audience by seeking to place pieces in outlets like The Public Medievalist, History Today and other public history platforms.