The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 748-749
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The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire. By Michele Renee Salzman. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 2002. Pp. xiv, 354. $49.95.)
Michele Salzman's "important and carefully crafted book" is "the most complete quantitative study of conversion of aristocrats to date" according to the puffs provided for the dust-jacket by two distinguished historians of Late Antiquity. She has compiled her own database of 414 Roman aristocrats between 284 and 423 whose religious affiliations are explicitly attested, and she uses this database to underpin a historical analysis of when, how, and why the senatorial aristocracy of the western Roman Empire abandoned its ancient religious traditions in favor of Christianity. Salzman's dating of this important socio-religious change coincides with that deduced from fallacious statistics by Raban von Haehling in his lengthy study Die Religionszugehörigkeit der hohen Amtsträger des Römischen Reiches seit Constantins I. Alleinherrschaft bis zum Ende der Theodosianischen Dynastie (Bonn, 1978), on which she frequently draws. Like von Haehling, Salzman regards the reign of the emperor Gratian, who ruled the western empire from 375 to 383, as "pivotal" in the conversion of the Roman aristocracy to Christianity (pp. xi, 79-80, 89, 96, 135, 143, 147, 347).
The central question for any reviewer, therefore, is simple: is the thesis of von Haehling and Salzman correct? Salzman has avoided Haehling's grosser and more obvious statistical errors (on which, see JRS, 85 , 136-147). Yet, despite frequent references to von Haehling's book, she seems never to draw her readers' attention to these errors, while her own statistics are often misleading, though in a subtler way. Salzman has deliberately and consciously excluded unknown and uncertain cases from the database on which her argument largely rests: her database comprises "414 men and women of the aristocracy... about whom we have explicit evidence for religious affiliation" (p. 239). But the strength of the inferences that can be drawn from her tables (pp. 221-230) varies greatly according to whether the number of aristocrats in any group (temporal, social, or geographical) who are attested as Christians is 10%, 25%, 50%, or 100% of the total number who originally constituted that group. Although each table gives both the total number of men and women included and a figure for "missing observations," Salzman's overall argument tends in practice [End Page 748] to ignore the latter category. Moreover, her criteria for inclusion have led her to exclude a statistically significant number of holders of high office before 360 who were probably, and in some cases certainly, Christians: for example, the praetorian prefects Junius Bassus, ordinary consul in 331, and Ambrosius, the father of Ambrose of Milan, are absent from the list of "high office holders" after 324 (pp. 258-264), while Salzman expressly excludes the six comites of Constantius who wrote to Athanasius in 345/6 urging him to return to Alexandria on the grounds that "they wrote on the orders of the emperor" (p. 237). The premise of the inference is undeniably true, but from the pen of Athanasius the remark that these comites deserved to be believed more than Constantius himself (Historia Arianorum 22.1) surely implies that they were Christians, not pagans. Salzman's consistently minimizing approach sometimes leads her to misreport evidence badly. A clear example is her assertion that Eusebius "only states Constantine's preference to promote Christians as provincial governors," not vicarii of dioceses and praetorian prefects (p. 339 n. 24). But the relevant passage in the Life of Constantine appears to state the opposite:"the same applied also to the ranks above provincial government... If they were Christians, he permitted them to make public use of the name; if otherwise disposed, he instructed them not to worship idols" (2.44, trans. Cameron and Hall). Salzman has read into Eusebius a distinction between provincial governors and higher officials which is not (I think) to be found in...