2018 Jerome Lectures on “The Natural World: Pagans and Christians”

Novembre 29, 2018

By Claudia Trezza.

In the first of his three lectures for the American Academy in Rome, the renowned historian of the ancient world Robin Lane Fox explained how the two traditions imagined divine intervention differently. While Christian representations of God often showed a physical hand reaching down vertically from the heavens, the pagans tended to represent the gods in what Lane Fox called a “horizontal” relationship with humans and the natural world around them. The Greek god Zeus, he said, is rarely depicted as “poking” his hand down from the sky. Instead, he is physically part of nature, often taking the shape of animals.

This was one of the many observations Lane Fox made about the differences and similarities of pagans and early Christians—how the two lived amongst one another and influenced each other for centuries—during the November talks. Lane Fox, an emeritus fellow of New College Oxford, is a highly acclaimed author of books about the ancient world. He also writes a weekly gardening column in the Financial Times. The talks, all introduced by Lynne C. Lancaster, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor-in-Charge of the Humanities at the American Academy in Rome, marked the forty-fifth annual Thomas Spencer Jerome Lectures, a prestigious series named after an American lawyer and patron that is delivered at both the University of Michigan and the American Academy in Rome.

This year’s Jerome Lectures covered centuries of ground and myriad ideas on the attitudes that pagans and early Christians had formed about the natural world that, for centuries, they shared. The series began on November 6 at the American Academy’s Villa Aurelia with “Cosmos and Landscape.” It was a talk, Lane Fox joked, that was “truly Christian” because it was actually three lectures in one. He then traced attitudes to nature through the ancient Greek, Hebrew, and early Christian traditions and texts, examining the varying degrees to which man was given dominion over nature, from the Genesis stories to the apostles using comparisons to animals as insults. Yet Lane Fox showed how the people of the ancient world clearly had complicated feelings for their animals. A third century AD mosaic demonstrated how one pagan had affectionately named four favorite horses. He also recalled that Alexander the Great—who was attached to his animals to the point where he named cities after his horses—had no qualms about riding horses to their death. “Animals were only objects,” said Lane Fox, who worked as the historical consultant on the Oliver Stone movie Alexander from 2004. (He also appeared in the film, leading the cavalry against elephants with huge tusk extensions.)

Animal and Vegetable,” Lane Fox’s second talk held on November 8 at the British School at Rome, had more to do with flora than fauna. He focused on the meanings of the plants and flowers pagans brought into their Roman villas, the luxurious and perhaps sensual depictions of vegetation in Pompeii’s House of the Golden Bracelet, and the bountiful flowers originally painted on the Ara Pacis that were meant to represent a “new era” for the empire. In Christianity, Lane Fox explained, those same fruits took on different meanings. Where the pomegranate represented female fertility for pagans, for Christians it is often present in images of the Virgin Mary, with its seeds representing the members of the Church. He recalled that the Christian scriptures were rife with garden references, and that some of the Gospel’s key scenes, such as the Annunciation, occurred in gardens.

Lane Fox delivered his final talk, “Signs and Catastrophes,” on November 12 in the Lecture Room of the American Academy in Rome, where he turned his attention to natural disasters and their connections to the creationist and apocalyptic ideas of both pagans and early Christians. Whereas the Greeks wrestled to understand Zeus’s anger, manifest in natural catastrophes, Christian blamed themselves, seeing disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as acts of punishment for their sins. “We are being beaten as we deserve,” Lane Fox said, citing early Christian writings.