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  • Forbearance and Compulsion: The Rhetoric of Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Late Antiquity
  • H. A. Drake
Forbearance and Compulsion: The Rhetoric of Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Late Antiquity Maijastina Kahlos London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., 2009. Pp. xii + 259. ISBN 978–0-7156–3698–5

Intolerance has been at the heart of our understanding of Christianity and Rome ever since Enlightenment scholars, particularly Voltaire and Gibbon, identified it as the primary component in that religion's eventual "triumph." Voltaire did it by denying that the Romans were persecutors, Gibbon by giving intolerance pride of place in his famous five reasons for Christian success (Decline and Fall, ch. 15). Their conclusions resonated with a readership that had the legacy of the medieval Church and the bloody wars of the Reformation burned into its consciousness, and the notion that intolerance accounts for the brutal suppression of variant belief that followed in the wake of Constantine's conversion still makes a certain a priori sense. (Voltaire's argument about persecution is another matter: basically, he held in his Traité sur la tolérance a l'occasion de la mort de Jean Calas [1763] that such persecutions as did take place had to be minimal, because persecution is irrational and the Romans were not. Gibbon, who thought little of Voltaire's historical skills, finessed the issue by painting Roman magistrates as Enlightenment rationalists provoked by religious fanatics.)

In this book, Maijastina Kahlos pointedly steers clear of any argument over causality, focusing instead on the rhetoric used by persecutors, whether pagan or Christian. She also steers clear of the baggage contained in the word "toleration"—strictly, applicable only to state policies enacted in modern times—by using the terms "forbearance" and "compulsion," which she rightly holds more accurately reflect ancient thought and circumstances. In an introductory chapter, Kahlos identifies three consistent arguments used to justify religious oppression: (1) what she calls "TINA arguments" (for "There Is No Alternative"), used by reluctant persecutors to justify their decisions; (2) paternalistic arguments ("it's for your own good"), and (3), as a subset of (2) a medical analogy that used "the metaphor of disease and its remedies" to justify unpalatable actions (pp. 2–3). Six subsequent chapters proceed chronologically. Chapter 2 covers Greco-Roman views prior to 250 CE; Chapter 3, "The Third Century"; Chapter 4, "From Constantine to Constantius II"; Chapter 5, "From Julian to Valentinian I"; Chapter 6, "From Gratian to Theodosius I"; Chapter 7, "After Theodosius I." The book concludes with a relatively brief chapter, "Towards a World of One Alternative?," in which Kahlos reflects on the effect of this rhetoric on subsequent western thought. In each chapter, Kahlos focuses on "the dialectic between forbearance and compulsion" and a second [End Page 389] dialectic "between uniformity and diversity" from the perspective of the government and two opposing groups: those who argue for a unified religious policy and those who argue for religious freedom and diversity. The former she labels "pressure groups" and the latter the "voice of resistance" (p.3). Each chapter is divided into two to four subchapters.

A great advantage of Kahlos' approach is that it brings out underlying consistencies often obscured in studies that concentrate on a narrower time span or focus on religious change. She notes, for instance, that Greek and Roman forbearance always had limits. For Greece, she cites both the treatment of philosophers in Athens and Plato, who used the medical analogy in the Laws to justify suppression of religious dissent "as a sickness that needs to be cured, by forcible measures if necessary" (p.10). Similarly, despite their indifference to most non-Roman cults (too frequently mistaken for toleration), Romans drew a distinction between religio and superstitio that set limits to their forbearance.

Constantine's reign, while still significant, appears to be less of a watershed in these pages. In part, this is because Kahlos places the Great Persecution and Lactantius's important writings in the preceding chapter on the third century; in part because she characterizes the document traditionally known as the Edict of Milan, with its guarantee of religious freedom, as "Licinius' letter." Technically, that is what it is, but the effect is to...


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