Church and Economy in Late Antiquity
Ghent, 27-28/03/2014

Brief description

Recent re-assessments of the economy in the later Roman Empire have tended to focus on the role of the state and its tax system. Yet the period is also marked by the rise of the Church as an economic agent: legal privileges and inheritances ensured the rapid expansion of the patrimonium of the church and related economic activity. Much work still needs to be done to acquire a detailed insight in the economic role the church started to play, its importance, and its relative wealth. The volume wishes to offer a set of detailed chapters that analyse specific issues and problems, so as to offer a starting point for further research.

Conference program

Thursday 27 March 2014

  • 14:00 Welcome
  • 14.30: Peter Van Nuffelen & Ine Jacobs - Introduction
  • 14.45: Filippo Carlá - Res tamquam proprias retenebat: Personal and collective property in the Late Antique church
  • 15.30: Carles Buenacasa-Pérez – The formation of the ecclesiastical heritage of the north African churches in the western Roman Empire (2nd-5th centuries)
16.15: Coffee break
  • 16.45: Claire Sotinel - Contribution to a study on the impact of Christian Churches on offer and demand laws: How did Christian Churches affect the patterns of consumption?
  • 17.30: End of proceedings

19.30: Conference diner

Friday 28 March 2014

  • 9.00: Rudolph Haensch - Die Verwaltung des Kirchenvermögens in den verschiedenen Teilen des Imperium Romanum
  • 9.45: Yuri A. Marano - Managerial bishops in Late Antique Italy (5th-6th centuries): a re-appraisal of written and archaeological evidence
10.30: Coffee break
  • 11.00: Gilles Bransbourg - Church and State: Reunion or Separation?
  • 11.45: Peter van Minnen - Church and Economy in the Egyptian chora in Late Antiquity
  • 12.30: Concluding discussion
13.00: Lunch


Filippo Carlá,
Res tamquam proprias retenebat: Personal and Collective Property in the Late Antique Church

In an often neglected passage of his Historia Francorum (8.39) Gregory of Tours presents us with the argue which opposed in Le Mans the bishop of the city to the wife of his predecessor, who claimed that all gifts given to the Church during her husband’s bishopric had belonged personally to him and thus, via inheritance law, now to her. This episode reveals one of the least considered problems which were connected with the processes of institutionalization of the Christian church in Roman society (and law): the definition of forms of private and institutional ownership. It is aim of this paper to investigate these aspects, starting from the moment in which, under Gallienus, Christian groups were legally recognized and could start structuring themselves in the forms foreseen by Roman law. Also through a comparison with other subjects of public law (such as, most famously, the collegia), as through a steady attention to the moments of testamentary bequest, which are very sensitive markers in this field, it will be possible to show that moments such as the one described by Gregory were not seldom, because of a lack of specific regulations, or simply because of loopholes and short circuits between different institutions, and that a thorough analysis of this development is necessary in order to better understand even the genesis of institutional structures such as the patrimonium S. Petri.

Carles Buenacasa-Pérez,
The formation of the ecclesiastical heritage of the north African churches in the western Roman Empire (IInd-Vth centuries)

From documentary evidence, we may assume that the creation of the African ecclesiastical heritage is not attested in Cyprian's times (as many studies has said), but started at the end of the third century, and was completed during the fourth century. As soon as Christianity was recognized as a legitimate religion by Constantine I, the Christian church was endowed with a certain quantity of land assigned to its sustenance. This situation was perpetuated by his successors (excepted Julian the Apostate), who granted to the Christian bishops a great deal of honors and economic privileges.

In Africa, the Catholic ecclesiastical heritage was mainly composed by rural estates (fundi) and church buildings and this inheritance grew very fast due to the protection of the imperial legislation and new ways of warranting and increasing their resources: private munificence, imperial patronage, economical exploitation of the martyrs’ cult, and incorporation of the properties of the Donatist Church and pagan temples. From Augustine’s letters and essays, we know about the existence of praepositi charged of the administration of the ecclesiastical heritage of Hippo and we also know how all these rural properties were scattered throughout the territory of the Hippo’s diocese (a precedent of medieval parishes) and they were administered by priests who lived in these rural fundi.

As regards the Donatist ecclesiastical heritage, sources are really succinct, but they allow us to infer that the properties of Donatist church were significant and were also continuously increasing thanks to the help of private donations (mainly legacies) and some strategies like being a tenant of public estates.

Claire Sotinel,
Contribution to a study on the impact of Christian Churches on offer and demand laws: How did Christian Churches affect the patterns of consumption?

One way to study the relationships between economy and Church might be to explore the various ways in would the Church might have contributed to change the patterns of consumption. This could be a two ways research:

First, as an institution, are Christian churches centers of consumption added to the existing ones, or do they replace (part of) the existing? How different from other major consumers is their consumption pattern? How can they compare to them? (in quantitative as well as in qualitative terms). We probably know enough on Church building, liturgy, building maintenance, scriptoria, and distribution to the poor, etc. to gather information on at least some Churches as consumers.

Second, does the teaching of the Church affect the consumers’ behavior? Food, clothing, luxuries should be used in different ways by Christians, according to Christian texts. Besides the extreme case of asceticism (which should be investigated in terms of consumption), did people change their way of consumption in a Christian empire? A comparison between the ‘official’ teaching of the Church and the observations made through archaeology and papyrology might help to answer the question.

Rudolph Haensch,
Die Verwaltung des Kirchenvermögens in den verschiedenen Teilen des Imperium Romanum

Es soll untersucht, wer von den kirchlichen Ämtern in welchem Reichsteil für das kirchliche Vermögen zuständig war und welche Regelungen es für dessen Verwaltung gab. Offensichtlich gab es für die Organisation der Verwaltung unterschiedliche Modelle: Im Westen wurde sie zumeist vom Bischof geleitet, in Rom vom Archidiakon, im Osten wurde sehr schnell die Institution des Ökonomen installiert. Noch unterschiedlicher dürften die Regelungen auf der Ebene der einzelnen Kirche gewesen sein, die sich langsam zur Kirchgemeinde entwickelte. Während die Einkünfte im Westen anscheinend mit Hilfe von Teilungsregeln weiterverteilt wurden, gab es im Osten feste Ausgabeposten. Die Kirchenverwaltung ist ein Beispiel für die ganz unterschiedlichen Entwicklungen im Rahmen der Christianisierung des Reiches.

Yuri A. Marano,
Managerial Bishops in Late Antique Italy (5th-6th AD): a Re-Appraisal of Written and Archaeological Evidence

In his latest book, Through the Eye of a Needle. Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, P.L. Brown observes how the last decades of the 5th century and the 6th century were marked by "the emergence of a new figure in the landscape of wealth – the rise of what may best be called the ‘managerial bishop’”[1]. Since the mid- of the 4th century, local Churches had accumulated wealth and landed properties thanks to generosity of the faithful. Not by chance, bishops had at their service skilled lawyers to hold onto what they received, and administrators who were devoted to making the best out of those properties the Church had been able to retain[2].

In Italy, these developments are well-documented from the written sources, but recent investigations enable us to appreciate them from an archaeological point of view too. In the last decades, industrial installations (oil and wine presses, kilns for the production of bricks, tiles and pottery, forges, sculptural workshops, fulleries and tanneries) annexed to Early Christian churches have been brought to light. They share several features with late antique aristocratic villas and attest the wide range of activities carried out by bishops[3]. This matches with the data of written sources: the construction by a praetorium at Saint Stephen’s basilica nearby Rome, recorded in the Liber Pontificalis, echoes Palladius (de re rustica, 162), who advocates incorporating workshops for artisans, including smiths and markers of dolia and wooden barrels, in the villa-praetorium. It is highly implausible that such a mobilization of labor and resources simply aimed at self-consumption or charitable activities: indeed, written, archaeological and numismatic evidence highlight the involvement of bishops in periodical rural markets (nundinae), as well as in the exaction of taxes[4]. At the same time, the fact that 5th and 6th cent. churches were large buildings for the standards of the period makes the economy of means deployed by the bishops all the more impressive.

My paper aims at a reappraisal of the archaeological data concerning the economic (production and trade) role of the Church in late antique Italy (5th-6th cent. AD), projecting them on the background of the written evidence. The economic role of bishops will be compared to that of lay actors, such as emperors and aristocrats, examining it as a special factor in sustaining agricultural and craft production on a substantial scale and relating it to the size and scale of economy as a whole.

Gilles Bransbourg,
The State and the Churches - aimed at maximizing their 'rente' extraction power

Any productive system implies a sharing formula, in order that its economic value added is shared between labour, capital and state. Ancient economies are no exception to that rule. The Later Roman

Empire witnessed the development of a global taxation system following universal principles and the rise of Christian collective organizations as major land owners. Since both entities - the State and the Churches - aimed at maximizing their 'rente' extraction power, a dynamic relationship had to develop, implying at different times a varying degree of convergence, cooperation, as well as competition and conflicts.

Using the available numerical information, our paper will try to capture the evolution of that relationship from Diocletian to Justinian. We will endeavour at a better understanding of the economic genesis of the history of separation and reunion between Church and State.

Peter van Minnen,
Church and Economy in the Egyptian chora in Late Antiquity

This paper attempts to update E. Wipszycka, Les ressources et les activités économiques des églises en Égypte du IVe au VIIIe siècle (Brussels 1972). The past forty years have seen increased interest in Late Antiquity among papyrologists, and many relevant new texts have been published, which this paper tries to take into account. But the perspective on the economy of Late Antiquity as a whole is now so much different from what it was forty years ago that another kind of update is also needed. How do churches in Egypt proper (with the exception of Alexandria) fit into the approaches advocated by those currently working on the economy of Late Antique Egypt? Some continue to foreground the role of the state and the taxation system, while others focus on the role of large estates and local agency. Both the state and large landowners are assumed to have generated wealth to exercise power (or vice versa).

Were churches in the Egyptian chora like large landowners? The answer is a definite no. The sources of income differed: churches accumulated landed property and other forms of real estate through gifts and legacies and did not have to pass them on. Churches in the Egyptian chora did not accumulate as much land as, e.g., the Apiones of Oxyhrynchus and did not risk confiscation or extinction.

Did churches perhaps behave like large landowners? The answer is again a definite no. Churches adopted existing mechanisms for the exploitation of property but only up to a point. As institutions they developed their own kind of management; they focused more on local income and expenditure than on transferable income from multiple regions in Egypt; when they did transfer income, it went beyond the borders of the Roman Empire, where they were also socially active, rather than to Alexandria or the rest of the Roman Empire, where large landowners were politically active. Churches in other words were not accumulating wealth to exercise more power (let alone exercising power to generate more wealth) but to enlarge the scope of their “social action.” The evidence suggests that they were by and large successful.

How did churches impact the economy? Not by accumulating more property than large landowners, which they did not. Not by spending locally, which they did but never very substantially. Churches impacted the economy by developing new ways of doing business that could survive the extinction of families and the collapse of the state.

With the help of ideas borrowed from the New Institutional Economics this paper develops a new model to capture the ways in which churches made a difference to the economy of Late Antique Egypt. It moves away from the macroeconomic perspective informing much of the research done on the economy of Late Antiquity in the last couple of decades and toward a microeconomic perspective that fits the papyrus documents from the Egyptian chora much better. How things were done is sometimes more interesting than how much was done.

[1] P.L. Brown 2012, Through the Eye of a Needle. Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, Princeton 2012, 497: on the rise of the ‘managerial bishop’, see also H. Ziche, “Administrer la propriété de l'Église: l'évêque comme clerc et comme entrepreneur”, in Antiquité Tardive, 14, 2006, 69-78.

[2] C. Sotinel, “Le personnel épiscopal : enquête sur la puissance de l’évêque dans la cité”, in L’évêque dans la cité du Ive au Vie siècle, edited by É. Rebillard and C. Sotinel, Collection de l’École française de Rome 248, Rome 1998.

[3] R. Martorelli, “Riflessioni sulle attività produttive nell’età tardoantica e altomedievale: esiste un artigianato ecclesiastico?”, in Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana, 75, 1999, 571-596: on this regard, some recently investigated Apulian sites, such as Canosa and San Giusto (G. Volpe, “Architecture and Church Power in Late Antioquity: Canosa and San Giusto (Apulia)”, in Housing in Late Antiquity. From Palaces to Shops , edited by L. Lavan, L. Özgenel, A. Sarantis, Leiden-Boston 2007, 131-168) and Egnazia (R. Cassano, “Egnazia tardoantica. Il vescovo protagonista della città tardoantica”, in Rendiconti della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia, 81, 2008-2009, 15-37), offer best evidence.

[4] See G. Volpe, “Il ruolo dei vescovi nei processi di trasformazione del paesaggio urbano e rurale”, in Archeologia e società tra Tardoantico e Altomedioevo, edited by G.P. Brogiolo and A. Chavarría Arnau, Mantua 2007, 85-100.


Dominic Moreau, How Can the Libellus de munificentia Constantini (Liber pontificalis XXXIV, 9-33) be Considered as a Source for the Economic History of the Church?                                                                  

Since the publication of Cesare Baronio’s Annales ecclesiatici, the part of the Silvester I’s biography in the Liber pontificalis which reports the donations of Emperor Constantine I to the Church of Rome is considered as a completely separate document from the rest of the vita. In summary, one would have copied an authentic document, taken from the archives of the Apostolic See, in the center of an apocryphal narrative, mainly based on the Acta Silvestri. This is how a most important piece of archive, which can be used for economic history, would came to us. Its authenticity would be proved by its similarity with other texts of same nature, among which the Charta Cornutiana, and by the archaeological works on the major Roman basilicas, primarily those of Richard Krautheimer. The idea is so accepted today that historians are now used to give a name to the concerned paragraphs in the Liber pontificalis, which is directly inspired by a sentence of Baronio (Sed et citatus superius Anastasii liber de munificentia Constantini erga Urbis ecclesias, ...), i.e. the Libellus de munificentia Constantini.

However, the arguments put forward to prove the authenticity and the independence of the concerned passage of the Liber pontificalis are not flawless. Is the fact that a text has the appearance of an authentic document can really be taken as a conclusive evidence ?  

Indeed, is it not the characteristic of a good apocryphal to look real ? Regarding the archaeological arguments, can we really consider that the existence of the objects and the buildings mentioned in the list of donations prove that the text dates back to Constantine ? Anyway, can we really extract and analyse some paragraphs of a biography of the Liber pontificalis without considering the context of composition of the whole work ? This question is especially pertinent since of the so-called Libellus de munificentia Constantini contains itself some elements from the Acta Silvestri. In this sense, the present work proposes to examine the issue in depth, as objectively as possible, by looking back on the historiography, by analyzing the text line by line and by trying to reinsert Liber pontificalis? vita Silvestri in the context of its composition. Only then it will be possible to find out how can we use it as a source of economic history of the Church.

Anna Leone,
Ut episcopi, presbyteri uel diaconi non sint conductores aut procuratores… : Clergy and Business in North Africa

A full understanding of the role of Bishops, from the recognition of Christianity (Edict of Milan AD313) by the empire to the early medieval period, is essential for evaluating the changes and transformations that occurred in Late Antique societies and cities. These transformations have been the focus of several discussions and debates in recent years. One of the main limits to the understanding of the phenomena is the shadowy knowledge of the secular power and the managerial role of the members of the clergy in various historical periods. The aim of this paper is to contribute to this debate, through ancient texts and archaeological evidence, by shedding new light on the role of Bishops and the Clergy in North Africa and Cyrenaica and how this changed from the 4th to the 9th century. The debate centres around two main themes. First is the problem of Church ownership and the nature and extent of the donations by Constantine and by private individuals. This leads to activities of members of the clergy as businessmen, and the balance between religious life and morality on the one hand, and more secular interests on the other. In this perspective it is essential to understand to what extent Bishops acted as secular governors of the city, with the focus on charitable activities, and what role they played in the economic, productive and political life of the urban and rural communities. This paper will take on a comparative approach, looking at North Africa (the provinces of Africa Proconsularis, Mauretania, Numidia and Tripolitania, essentially modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and the north-western part of Libya) for the Western empire and Cyrenaica (north-eastern Libya) for the East. The chronology from the 4th to the 9th century has been chosen to allow a diachronic analysis of how the role of Bishops and Clergy changed across significant historical events (the fall of the western Empire, Vandal conquest, Byzantine rule and the early centuries of the Islamic presence). The inclusion of the period beyond the Arab conquest of North Africa is intentional, in order to shed new light on the issue of the end of Christianity in North Africa.

Philip Niewöhner,
Who Built Late Antique Churches? The Evidence of the Stonemasonry

Written sources and inscriptions record various people that were involved in the building of churches. The clergy had to play a part, of course, but the funding was more often provided by lay donors. I propose to show that their social position correlates with the stonemasonry that decorated the churches. It follows that the laymen played a key part in the decision making. Conversely, stonemasonry may be taken to indicate the social position of donors. If so, countless churches without any written record can on the basis of their stonemasonry be attributed to donors of a particular social position or milieu. A considerable margin of error may limit the significance for individual cases, but I maintain that the correlation is statistically relevant. As a rule of thumb it may facilitate viable socio-economic assumptions, for example as to who built most rural churches.


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