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Christians, Money, and the Politics of Intellectual Life under the Severans

Jared Secord

Under the reign of the Severans, Christian intellectuals achieved unprecedented levels of prominence, gaining connections even with members of the imperial household. I contextualize the success of two Christian intellectuals, Origen and Julius Africanus, by focusing on the increasing amount of wealth that supported their activities, and their ability to exist and even to excel within the highly competitive cultural milieu of elite intellectual life.

The paper I therefore offer presents a new way of looking at the successes of Christian intellectuals under the Severans, emphasizing cultural, economic, and educational factors more than religious, and breaking away from a long tradition of linking Christian success with Severan receptiveness for Eastern cults. Recent scholarship has admittedly backed away from older and more extreme suggestions about the spread of Eastern cults thanks to the influence of the Severans (e.g. Levick 163), but wide-ranging claims are still often made about the ability of Christians to take advantage of the dynasty’s syncretic and “henotheistic” tendencies (e.g. Burasaelis 39-47; Mazza 135-6; Roberto 125, 170). Such claims, I argue, take too much for granted about the economic and educational situations of successful Christian intellectuals under the Severans when compared to earlier periods: Origen and Africanus are in a different league from earlier Christian intellectuals. I therefore argue that cultural, economic, and educational legitimacy for Christian intellectuals was a necessary first step before receptiveness from the imperial household could follow. To be successful, Christian intellectuals had to live up to the same standards as their non-Christian counterparts, and Origen and Africanus were among the first to do so.

The first part of the paper’s argument illustrates the new levels of wealth that supported the activities of successful Christian intellectuals under the Severans. Wealthy patrons provided the material foundation for Origen’s immensely prolific career, providing him with scribes, for instance, to take dictation and to copy out his massive commentaries on scripture (Eusebius, HE, 6.23.1-2, 36.1; Grafton and Williams 69-70). Africanus’ extensive travels to further his researches similarly presuppose access to wealth (Adler 6), demonstrating a basic link between money and a distinguished intellectual career. Telling contrasts to Origen and Africanus come from the examples of less distinguished counterparts who divided their time between scholarship and a trade. A shoemaker and a banker, both with intellectual aspirations, led one group of Christians at Rome in the late second century (Eusebius, HE, 5.28.1-19; Lampe 344-49), and they clearly lacked the resources to be taken seriously in elite intellectual life. Wealth was a prerequisite for success as an intellectual, and Christians finally had access to sufficient amounts of it in the Severan period to find a place within elite levels of the empire’s intellectual life.

Besides having the necessary level of wealth to support them, successful Christian intellectuals needed also to attain the “big public reputation” that their successful non-Christian counterparts enjoyed (Bowersock 13). Displays of erudition helped to establish such a reputation, and both Africanus and Origen were up to the task, as is apparent from their works and from the testimonia provided by Eusebius (e.g. HE, 6.18.2, 19.7; Africanus, Cesti, T2 [Wallraff et al.]). Origen, too, proved himself capable of delivering extemporaneous homilies on subjects proposed to him on the spot by others (e.g. Homily 5 on 1 Samuel; Castagno 69), much like his sophistic contemporaries. Rumors of Origen’s self-castration, whether or not he actually committed this act (Eusebius, HE, 6.8.1-3; Caner 401), must only have added to his reputation, making him seem something like a latter-day Favorinus. Though they were Christian intellectuals, both Origen and Africanus were able to secure a reputation among non-Christians.

In sum, Origen and Africanus serve as excellent examples of the increasing prominence and mainstream legitimacy of Christian intellectuals under the Severans. Their wealth, erudition, and reputations allowed them to gain connections with the imperial household, and thereby helped to generate increasing receptiveness and sympathy for Christians.

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Writing Imperial Politics in Greek

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