- Christians in Caesar’s Household: The Emperors’ Slaves in the Makings of Christianity by Michael Flexsenhar III
Christians in Caesar’s Household: The Emperors’ Slaves in the Makings of Christianity
University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019
Pp. xvi + 191. $89.95.
In this insightful and ambitious first monograph, Michael Flexsenhar III reevaluates the idea that Christianity succeeded in part because it was embraced by enslaved and freed members of the imperial household at Rome. Through revisionist analyses of both literary and material sources, Flexsenhar argues that, beginning in the second century c.e., Christians invented what he calls the “pioneer narrative” (passim) to center their collective past in imperial geography and to define the boundaries of their communities.
The argument hinges on Paul’s extension of greetings to the Philippians from “all the saints, especially those from Caesar’s household” (πάντες οἱ ἅγιοι, μάλιστα δὲ οἱ ἐκ τῆς Καίσαρος οἰκίας, Phil 4.22). Although the details cannot be recovered, Flexsenhar makes a reasonable case for understanding these “saints” as low- to mid-level personnel in the administration at Ephesus (Chapter One). Their connections to Philippi would have been grounded in familial or economic networks, not simply shared cult, and Phil 4.22 cannot be taken as evidence that Paul introduced Christianity to the inner circles of the imperial court. Instead, Flexsenhar argues, the identification of these “saints” with members of the emperor’s household at Rome stems from later attempts to locate the martyrdom of Paul (as well as that of Peter) in the capital (Chapter Two). Most strikingly, the tale of Nero’s cupbearer Patroclus in the Martyrdom of Paul harnesses the symbolic power of the familia Caesaris to establish Christianity in Rome’s urban landscape. This tradition forms the backbone of the triumphalist narrative that the book works to dismantle.
Flexsenhar pursues this line of inquiry through well-paired readings of Hippolytus’s Refutation of All Heresies, book 9, and Tertullian’s To Scapula (Chapter Three). His thesis that Christian authors used members of the familia Caesaris as rhetorical instruments is highly plausible, especially in the context of imperial literature. On the other hand, the verbal echoes presented between Hippolytus and Lucian are largely generic, and the precise function of the enslaved characters within each text is not always perfectly clear. Moving to the Acts of Justin and Companions, Flexsenhar methodically interprets the figure of Euelpistus [End Page 340] in recensions B and C as a response to the traumas of the latter third century (Chapter Four). More specifically, the editor(s) of recension B recast Euelpistus on the model of Patroclus to articulate a form of Christian piety based on exclusive devotion to Christ. This strategy is effective because Euelpistus’s refusal to venerate Caesar defies the prescriptions of Roman slavery, including those propagated in the household codes, as Flexsenhar notes (82).
In the final portion of the book, Flexsenhar examines how inscriptions and archaeological finds have been martialed by scholars to confirm the presence of Christians in the familia Caesaris. His thoughtful, if primarily deconstructive, analysis of the tomb of M. Aurelius Prosenes emphasizes well-known pitfalls in identifying Christians in the epigraphic record prior to the fourth century (Chapter Five). He then sifts through a handful of epitaphs that attest servi Caesaris and liberti Augusti in catacombs, a phenomenon which he attributes more to spoliation than to the supposed popularity of Christianity among imperial staff (Chapter Six). In a case study of the epitaph of Atimetus, an imperial verna (slave born within the household), Flexsenhar makes the intriguing suggestion that cult activity for Peter and Paul in the late third century may have prompted the reframing of this stone as a Christian artefact. This would offer a parallel in material culture to the processes that are evident in the textual sources.
In the course of upending the “pioneer narrative,” Flexsenhar ascribes only a limited role to Paul’s associates “from Caesar’s household” at Ephesus, as well as to other members of the familia Caesaris who did adopt Christianity. What he offers instead is an exposition of how Christian thinkers, much like their non-Christian counterparts, exploited a prominent group of enslaved and freed people...