A Century of Miracles

Christians, Pagans, Jews, and the Supernatural, 312-410

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H. A. Drake
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     2017.
     328 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199367412.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Who won the second battle of El-Alamein in November 1942? The usual response would point to Allied forces under the command of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. But in the Great Lavra on Mount Athos is a painting that suggests a startlingly different answer: it shows German tanks and infantry fleeing, but instead of being chased by Monty’s troops, they are running away from a figure in Roman dress riding a camel and attended by a heavenly host. In this alternative version of the battle, the early Christian martyr Saint Menas, whose ancient shrine lay near the battle lines, appeared to Allied and Axis troops alike, inspiring the former and terrifying the latter. This strikingly unfamiliar image of a well-known modern battle brings us close to the world examined by Hal Drake in his new book, which puts miracles—or, more specifically, miracle stories—at the center of a consideration of the century from Constantine’s reign to the sack of Rome. 

Drake asserts the central importance of miracles early on: “Just as miracles were a way for people to think about and understand their circumstances, so studying these accounts is a way for us to enter into communication with an age that thought very differently about the way that the world worked” (16). He sees the 4thcentury as an age bookended by important imperial miracles associated with significant battles: Constantine’s vision before his confrontation with Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge in 312, and the wind that blew against Eugenius’s forces at the River Frigidus in 394 in apparent response to Theodosius’s cry for a sign of favor from his God. Rather than speculate on the historicity of such occurrences along the lines of solar haloes or katabatic winds—an exercise that “encourages a kind of reductionism” (63)—Drake is altogether more interested in using such stories as a key to unlock understanding of the period’s significant religious transformations.

It was in the telling and retelling of miracle stories that these events accumulated their power. This explains Drake’s daring choice to begin not with Constantine’s heavenly vision, but with Theodosius’s heaven-sent wind. As he remarks, no one who heard Ambrose of Milan preach about the latter at Theodosius’s funeral could have failed to connect it with Constantine’s vision (49); good emperors could be expected to receive God’s help. Such insistence on divine help, whether on the pagan or Christian side, risked encouraging a drift toward extremist positions of religious self-righteousness and intolerance. In Drake’s reading, however, late Roman emperors could be motivated just as much by a desire for consensus, so that the miracle stories about Constantine obscure the emperor’s quest for a more tolerant middle ground. But how does that leave room for a triumphalist narrative of Christianity? Drake (unlike Timothy Barnes, for whom Constantine’s mounting intolerance is incontrovertible) sees this as a result of a hijacking of Constantine’s miracle by more doctrinaire and uncompromising forces. The trouble begins with Lactantius and Eusebius, narrators of Constantine’s miracles and stern advocates of a sort of implacable, Cold War-style ideological conflict between Christianity and its rivals.

Such miraculous retellings form the meat of the book, and show how pagans, Jews, and Christians used the supernatural to make sense of the world in which they lived and the changes they encountered. Many of the miracles, like those of Constantine’s mother Helena discovering the True Cross, are ones where sparsely narrated episodes became embellished with ever more elaborate stories, just as a saint’s shrine might be encrusted with gold and jewels. Even if, as Drake notes, such stories “were crafted after the fact, when it is always easier to be confident about the outcome of an event” (182), they nevertheless shed light on a century of religious opportunities, marked, on the one hand, by extraordinary fluidity of religious expression and, on the other hand, by increasingly intransigent ideologues seeking to define religious boundaries. For instance, the story about the Jew Judas (not thatJudas, but a fictionalized 4th century one who assisted Helena’s discovery of the Cross) opens up for Drake a discussion that highlights the diversity of experience by juxtaposing the solar imagery included matter-of-factly on the floor mosaic of the synagogue at Hammat Tiberias, with the frightening anti-Jewish sentiments of Ambrose and John Chrysostom (123-32). Of course, it was not just Christians who manifested intransigence: the chapter on the miracles of Antony of the desert ascetics offers opportunities to present the much less than flattering portraits of monks offered by pagan intellectuals (149-50). 

Throughout, Drake proves himself to be a most congenial guide to the late antique miraculous, pointing out the highlights and inconsistencies, and always helping the reader understand how such apparently implausible stories came to exercise so profound an influence over the historical imagination from the 4th century down to our own day. Ultimately, such was the power of the miraculous in storytelling that not even the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410, which Drake casts as bringing the century of imperial miracles to an abrupt end, could obliterate the taste for such wondrous narratives. As he astutely remarks, “for understanding the change from a pagan Roman Empire to a Christian Roman Empire, miracle stories are just as important as the theological debates that enthral scholars” (113). He therefore manages both to be sympathetic to the miracle narratives that are his raw materials and critical of them as windows onto a remarkable period. Throughout he wears his deep learning lightly, combining careful analysis with elegant prose and wit (one remark about the ecclesiastical historian Rufinus made me laugh out loud in public). Specialists will inevitably find details to dispute, but Drake’s audience is plainly broader than that. In fact, if I am ever confronted by anyone who scoffs that the rise of Christianity represents some sort of closing of the Western mind in the face of unreasoning credulity, I will now direct them to Drake so that they can see the wonder and intellectual ferment that such stories actually represent.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark Humphries is Professor of Ancient History at Swansea University.

Date of Review: 
June 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

H. A. Drake is Research Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of Constantine and the Bishops.

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