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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

John F. Shean

Soldiering for God: Christianity and the Roman Army

History of Warfare 61. Leiden: Brill, 2010. 452pp. €158/us$224. ISBN 9789004187313.

The role of the Roman army in the spread and acceptance of Christianity in the late Roman empire has garnered scholarly attention for over a century.  The dominant historiographical position has been that the Roman army was generally hostile to Christianity, and that at the same time early Christianity was hostile towards bloodshed and military service.  Thus it would seem, the Roman army hindered more than helped the spread of Christianity.  John F. Shean, Associate Professor of History at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York, challenges both of these assumptions and demonstrates a much greater level of debate and uncertainty among contemporaries than is normally acknowledged by historians.  

After an introductory consideration of the relationship between warfare and religion generally, Shean considers the example of the late Roman state in particular.  He illuminates some of the central paradoxes that his books seeks to address, namely how a bellicose state such as Rome could whole-heartedly embrace a "peaceful" religion such as Christianity, and, since the army played such a huge role in administering the post-Diocletian empire, how the role of the Roman army in that process could have been ignored by historians.  His solution is two-fold: first, "Christianity" was not uniformly pacifistic, and second, the army was a tool for conversion, rather than an impediment.  Shean summarizes the transformative nature of the army in spreading Christianity as a shift "from a force which waged war with religion to one which waged wars for religion.” (19)

Chapter two offers a useful overview of other the religions competing for attention with Christianity: Mithraism, the cult of Sol Invinctus, the traditional gods of the Roman state, among others. Shean also considers Christian attitudes towards the state, military service, and war.  It is here that he engages with some of the most pernicious and powerful historiographical assumptions made by previous historians.  His treatment of the argument over the role of pacifism in early Christianity, and his overview of the work of historians such as A. von Harnack, C.J. Cadoux, and J.M. Hornus, is very useful, though considering the centrality of this topic to his thesis, this response to the existing literature should probably been present in the introduction. 

In any case, Shean does an excellent job of demonstrating that many modern historians have seen the importance, or lack thereof, of pacifism to early Christianity through their own prisms of what constitutes "proper" Christianity.  Historians such as Jean-Michel Hornus saw the pre-Constantine Christian Church as an almost uniformly pacifistic enterprise, which was only later corrupted by influences from the Roman state.  As Shean points out, Hornus "tended to be extremely partisan in his handling of evidence" in an attempt to undermine the idea that early Christians had multiple beliefs and approaches towards warfare and violence (77). Indeed, the favoring of Christianity by Constantine did not "represent any change on the part of the Christian community towards war and violence, but only a shift in emphasis." (86)

Shean's argument is largely informed by the recognition that there was no single "Christian" ideology or system of beliefs in the Late Roman period.  He illuminates the myriad debates over belief in early Christian, and he rightly demonstrates that Christians were, in general, far more interested in questions of Christ's divinity than they were over questions of Christian military service. 

Shean also pushes back modern attempts to shoehorn early Christians into solid ideological categories that have affinities with modern political or religious beliefs.  In strident terms he argues that early Christians might have been opposed to violence in general, but that this should not be confused with pacifism.  He writes

The idea that the early Christians would exclude soldiers is a modern fable based on the mindless reiteration of the slogan that Christianity is a religion of peace.  But a desire for peace should not be confused with pacifism, which is an extremist view, just as a call for an end to killing could be interpreted by some as a call for vegetarianism. (141)

Shean then proceeds to knock down a further anachronism that sees early Christians as socialists who saw themselves as "a social movement of activists and subversives challenging the inequitable class system of Roman society." (148-50) In each case Shean's central point is that early Christianity belies easy categorization along socio-economic or ideological lines, thereby undermining the premise that the young religion had a monolithic attachment to behavioral norms concerning military service or violence.  He points out that there were certainly Christian communities that "did reject the everyday life of the pagan world and held themselves aloof from participating in the public festivals or playing the role of a fully engaged citizen in imperial society", but that we ought not to exaggerate the influence or comprehensiveness of these groups in the broader Christian movement. (162-3)

Shean devotes an entire chapter towards detailing the copious amount of evidence for Christians serving in the Roman army.  He argues that the Christians in military service who embraced martyrdom did so not because of the potential for violence or bloodshed, but rather the requirement of Christians to swear the military oath and the necessity of partaking of the religious traditions of the army.  Shean writes, "In none of these cases [of military martyrs] is the moral objection to serving in war or shedding blood ever raised as a primary issue.  The problem confronting the martyr is always forced compliance with the official religious practices of the Roman army." (195)  Going even further, Shean argues that by c.300 Christian in the military was so commonplace, that it was only noteworthy when one sought to make example of himself by refusing to obey orders or take the oath.  Therefore, he interprets Constantine's "conversion" as a reaction to the already large number of Christians within the military, rather than a leading indicator of future growth. 

The later chapters of the book demonstrate its only chief weakness: a lack of focus on the core topic of Christianity within the Roman army.  Shean broadens his study into questions of the acceptance of Christianity generally within the empire, and the changing nature of the role of Christians, both in the Byzantine and western European successor states to the Empire.  At the same time, important questions are left unresolved, such as the changing nature of Roman identity in the post-Imperial world, and the role of paganism in the creation of religious identity.

Aside from the lack of focus at the end of the book, Shean has produced a compelling and provocative text that challenges the existing paradigm of Christianity's acceptance within the late imperial Roman army.  He makes a passionate case for the importance of pragmatism over strict ideology among early Christians.  At the same time, he reminds us of the need for historians to maintain a balanced approach to ideological questions, rather than adopting as normative the side that most agrees with our modern sensibilities.

Craig M Nakashian

Texas A&M University–Texarkana <ferg@mapinternet.com>

Page Added: April 2011