The Medieval Review 10.03.26

Éric Rebillard. The Care of the Dead in Late Antiquity. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009. Pp. 224. $45 978-0-8014-4677-1. .

Reviewed by:

Neil McLynn
University of Oxford

In this book, a translation of a work published in French in 2003, Éric Rebillard asks a series of precise and acute questions about the extent of the early Christian church's involvement in the burial and posthumous commemoration of its members. The formidable erudition and expertise developed in a decade's work on the subject, which had found previous expression in a book on late antique Christian preaching on death and the character of pastoral care which this implies, and in a succession of important papers, are brought to bear, and deliver answers that are crisp, convincing and inexorably cumulative: in none of the various aspects of funerary practice and ideology that are investigated across seven chapters, each developing a different line of inquiry, is there the slightest sign of any systematic ecclesiastical concern in late antiquity to provide for, still less to control, the burying of the Christian dead. Instead, what evidence there is (and a constant theme of the book is how much less there is than has generally been supposed) attests the primacy of private initiative at the level of the family, and the operation of a free market in the funerary sector.

In a refreshing departure from the mystifications which occasionally continue to occlude the field of "Christian archaeology," Rebillard insists throughout upon the wider late- antique context: the Christian dead are here laid out alongside their Jewish and pagan counterparts, and the similarities are far more striking than any differences. There is a fine discussion of Jewish practice at pp. 18-27, developing the important arguments advanced by Margaret Williams in 1992. Notable also is the treatment of collegia (chapter 3), a lucid statement of the case against Mommsen's collegia funeraticia which paves the way for some most useful suggestions about the level of Christian participation in the colleges: the convenient antithesis between the latter and the church, still prominent in modern scholarship, is elegantly dismissed.

Rebillard's laconic expository style might disguise the significance of his argument. Non-specialist readers (and one must suppose that this translation is aimed principally at undergraduates and non-academics) might easily suppose after the first few chapters that they are being treated to further gratuitous flogging of a safely dead horse. But current assumptions about the Christian church and its 'care for the dead' are founded upon so intricately interdependent an accumulation of interpretations of texts and material evidence that Rebillard's painstaking removal of the clutter is needed to clear the ground for a fresh start. It is true that at a formal level his arguments are directed at a position which few scholars today would seek to defend (although a conveniently careless quotation to this effect is gleefully brandished at p. ix), that already in late antiquity there existed, at least in embryo, a prototype of the Medieval Christian cemetery, a destination controlled directly by the church authorities and compulsory for all Christians, while denied to everyone else. A review of the French edition by Olof Brandt (Bryn Mawr Classical Review, July 2004) duly took Rebillard to task for eviscerating a straw man, but this misses the value of his approach. Only when all "Medievalizing" assumptions are identified and definitively set aside does it become possible to assess, on their merits, the clues which are available about the ownership, management and use of burial grounds in the late antique city.

This book is an indispensible first step in this direction. Rebillard scrupulously refrains from taking the further step of applying the conclusions reached here to the material evidence-- above all, to the catacombs of Rome, with the vast quantities of data they provide for Christian burials and the new questions which his approach invites about who organized the different phases of their construction, how the individual tomb niches were bought and sold, and how the "care of the dead" was conducted in practice. There are tantalizing glimpses of what such a project might involve at pp. 32-36, where there is brief discussion, incisive but elliptical, of the catacombs of Domitilla, the Via Latina, and 'ad duos lauros'. One misses the fuller picture that would have been possible with sustained exploration of a single site, appropriately illustrated.

The most serious weakness in the book is the quality of the translation, which betrays a rather slipshod editorial hand. Such forms as "the Severii" (2), "Cartaginian" (7), Calends (22), "pontifs" (58), "Sylla" (79) and "Nicholas of Damas" (80) indicate the translators' unfamiliarity with basic details of ancient history; their handling of Latin is similarly faltering, with praesidere translated as "president" (45) and the form offere as "offered" (154), both of these deviations from the French original. "Denis of Alexandria" coexists with "Dionysius of Rome"; other distracting exotics include "Georges" the Melitian (117) and "Gregory of Nazianzen" (index, 214, 217, 219, 224). The few errors in the original are meanwhile also carried over, whether of fact, such as the placing of Monica's funeral in Milan (129) or Gratian's murder in 386 (104), or merely linguistic, like Patriarcal' at p. 22 n. 46. But the real problem is with the English, which is often awkward, and sometimes worse: thus "Hippolytus' question" (2 n. 3); "legends...have been dropped" (4); "thanks to new elements" (11 n. 39); "a hyphen between initiation and afterlife" (15); "Christians and innkeepers conflicted" (45); "the much less costly" (61); "damages to human remains" (63); "the rising of the cult of martyrs" (67); "the dead loves the tomb" (77); "weighted on the possibility" (84); "this only tomb" (86); "cremation remained, or had been, the norm for a long time" (88); "a Lenten predication" (146); "because of the arcane" (153). More serious are cases where translation seriously impedes the intelligibility of the text. At p. 39 the translation of "des donnes" as "data," reasonable in itself, makes nonsense of an important paragraph; at p. 147 the innocent reader would not suspect the "presence of relatives" in the Confessions passage just cited, since "cum suis praesentibus" has been translated as "to her fellow-worshipers" (the French edition, p. 168, has "avec ses parents prsents"). Footnotes are expanded or contracted to sometimes mystifying effect. At p. 40 n. 6 we are promised further information from Commodianus about the importance of funeral processions, but there is nothing on the subject when the text is summarized rather than quoted (although it bears directly on the argument) at p. 51; and I defy anyone to make sense of p. 54 n. 68 without help from the French edition.

As an aid to Frenchless undergraduates and novice graduates, the translation will serve its purpose. And if its flaws encourage the baffled reader to turn for enlightenment to the French original, so much the better.