City of Demons

Violence, Ritual, and Christian Power in Late Antiquity

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Dayna S. Kalleres
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , October
     392 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The ancient cities were inhabited much more densely than the modern city dweller can imagine. In addition to livestock and other animals, which served either for food or for amusement, the cities, streets, and houses were also full of those who, being nonmaterial//intangible[I mean ‘demons’] filled houses and streets with themselves. That is about the spirits and demons presented in everyday life—both in paintings and statues—and manifested in all kinds of omens.

It is precisely this fight—against demons—that a sizable portion of ascetic literature is devoted to. Although written by monks, for monks, and thus not originally intended to be read within the city walls, a quote from the apostle Paul—"[f]or we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but ... against spiritual wickedness" (Eph. 6: 12)—completely reflects the mentality of that era.

Until now, when receiving the sacrament of baptism in both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the baptizand is called upon to renounce Satan by spitting and blowing at him; and even if these are only symbolic actions, they take place on the physical level. In addition, during the anointing the adept  rubbed with oil like an athlete before the battle, and subsequently called the “Christ's warrior.” Such practices reflect the echoes of struggle against the pagan (demonic) heritage, and against hordes of demons, that existed in the Empire in the post-Constantine era. It was around this time, that the cult of warriors began to form. Kalleres points out that it was in the post-Constantine era that the Christian identity of the persecuted Church was replaced by the identity of the imperial Church, and Christians were no longer simply believers, but became soldiers of the army of Christ, for whom—and not vice versa—imperial orders were projected.

In connection with the problems scrutinized by Kalleres, she introduces two key antonym terms which are important: “diabolization” and “Christianization.” The latter relates, not so much to the baptism of new Christians but rather, in the conscious exploration of urban space through ritualistic actions and the physical elimination of pagan symbolism. The author also notes that the Christianity of these cities was in its pure, Nicene Creed version.

Kalleres often refers to the work of Birgit Meyer, among others, whose work in the study of modern religious organizations enables her to typologically reconstruct the events of antiquity not always reflected in the documents of that era.

As the name suggests, City of Demons is dedicated to “nonmaterial urban dwellers,” but they are not the book’s central focus. The book is divided into three parts, the first of which is devoted to John Chrysostom and his activities in Antioch, the second one—to Cyril of Jerusalem, and the third one—to Ambrose of Milan.

All three parts follow a similar scheme: first, the physical and spiritual geography of the respective city is described; next, the content of the episcopal sermons, including those aimed at preparing for baptism, is described; and finally, the author considers points that each of the bishops pays special attention to.

For Chrysostom in Antioch, these are the traditional pagan festivals (the image of which Kalleres creatively restores by the description of both Chrysostom and the rhetorician Libanius in chapter 1), as well as the “Jewish question,” since here the Jews celebrate their own holidays and visit to the synagogue (chapter 3). To this bishop, these people were cursed following their crucifixion of Christ. Moreover, God allowed demons to obsess the Jews , after the destruction of the Temple, celebrating their divine service out of favour and therefore, disgusting to God. Thus, the future Archbishop of Constantinople empowers the strongest of the church members  to detain weaker Christians, and to purify them from their “demonic Judaizing disease” (111). However, Chrysostom demonizes all non-Christian rites, not only the Jewish ones, and instructs his believers in their struggle against them (chapter 2).

In the part dedicated to Cyril of Jerusalem, Kalleres considers the transformation of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina, and back (chapter 4): how this holy city of the Jews with the only Temple in the world became a provincial imperial city, and from it—into the spiritual capital of Christianity. The Old Testament and New Testament expectancy of the believers, and the will of the emperor, returned the city to its former glory, consecrated by fact that Jesus Christ crucified here. Next, the author analyzes the catechetical orations of Cyril (chapter 5), who, like Chrysostom, wanted to convert the citizens perceived in a demonic state, to God-fearing, baptized Christians who, inhabiting the Sacred City, fulfill an apocalyptic mission. And this New Jerusalem is already present, it can already be seen, it is enough to accept baptism (chapter 6).

City of Demons concludes a section dedicated to Ambrose of Milan and the crisis of the basilica of 386 AD (chapter 7). After describing the history of the Christianized Milan and its churches, Kalleres discusses the fate of the Council of Nicaea, about the discovery of the relics of Protasius and Gervasius, and their role in the crisis of the basilica.

The City of Demons is a deep study and its author does not shy away from arguing against established academic theories—filling documents, well-known in science imbibed with new meaning, and considers them from an original point of view—from the attitudes towards the problems of a city populated not only by people. At the same time, Kalleres innovatively evaluates historical, religious studies and anthropological data, which help to understand the Christian worldview of the post-Constantine era.

Kalleres' study examines her topic quite extensively, and thoroughly; the description of three cities, and the activities of three bishops who minister to them, allows us to imagine the spirits of that era. Perhaps parallels can be drawn with Alexandria, and the activities of Pope Theophilus, when the Serapeum and other pagan temples of Egypt were destroyed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Illya Bey is Professor in the Philological Department at Zaporizhzhia University.

Date of Review: 
July 12, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dayna S. Kalleres is Assistant Professor of Early Christianity at the University of California, San Diego.


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