at Eumeneia in Phrygia. Ordinary Christians practised a wide range of trades essential to the urban economy. The epigraphic and literary sources mention agricultural day-labourers, bailiffs on imperial estates, bankers, linen weavers, maritime traders, mat makers, mule keepers, rural estate owners, stonecutters and tailors, to name only some.53

Rural vs. urban locations

Less is known about the expansion of Christianity in the countryside, except in some parts of Asia Minor and North Africa. Agriculturists were conservative on matters of religious belief and practice, fearing violations of the 'peace of the gods'. The failure to sacrifice according to ancestral ritual was thought to alienate the chthonic and celestial gods who brought the good harvest, thereby unleashing destructive natural phenomena like drought, floods and hailstorms. Christianity first took root in the nearer territories of the towns where urban attitudes prevailed. Hermas, the narrator of the Shepherd of Hermas, owned a productive estate, and divided his time between Rome and his agricultural lands some hours away, where he practised viticulture and flock grazing.54 Justin Martyr mentions rural folk attending the Christian liturgy in Rome. There is no epigraphic evidence of Christians residing in estates outside the Aurelian wall before c.300; they would have been a tiny percentage of the rural population in most districts outside the wall until the later fourth century.

There are pre-fourth-century examples of Christians of low social status living in the territories of provincial cities in the Roman orient. In Syria, Phoenicia and Arabia, Christianity was confined mostly to the towns; it spread slowly in the countryside because of the strong cultural roots of the varieties of Semitic religion, whether of Aramaean or Arabic origin. At Edessa, the provincial capital of Osrhoene, there were rural clergy and Christian villagers just outside the city walls at the time of the great persecution.55 Among them was the deacon Habib from the village of Tell-She. For Palestine, Eusebius' Onomasticon mentions only three villages as having a mostly Christian population: Anaia, Jetheira and Kariatha.56 His De martyribus Palestinae mentions the prosecution of Christians from Anaia, from a village in the territory of Caesarea, and from the village-towns of the Batanaea in Arabia.57 The papyrus letter of the presbyter Psenoris mentions a team of Christian gravediggers at the Great Oasis,

54 Herm. Vis. 1.1.2; Vis. 3.1.2; Vis. 4.1.2; Sim. 1.2.3; Sim. 1.5; 5.2.3; 6.2.1-7; 8.1.2; Mand. 11.8.

55 Segal, Edessa, 85.

56 Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, II0.

57 Taylor, Christians and the holy places, 60f.

3ii a settlement at al-Kharga in the western desert of Egypt, and their burial of a possible victim of the great persecution.58 In contrast, in the territory of Anti-och in Syria, no Christian inscriptions earlier than 300 have been discovered in the extensively built-up limestone massif. This applies equally to the territories of Apamea in the late Roman province of Syria ii, Emesa and Damascus in Phoenice Libanensis and Bostra in Arabia.

The presence of funerary inscriptions in the countryside of Phrygia does not in itself prove the existence of Christianity in every village. Many of these belonged to urban Christians, like the city councillors of Eumeneia, who were interred in cemeteries outside the walls as a matter of imperial law and customary practice. It is difficult to estimate the number of rural Christians vis-a-vis pagans except as a small minority, perhaps 5-10 per cent. They were sufficiently rare for Origen to observe c.250 that 'some ... have done the work of going round not only cities but even villages and country cottages to make others pious towards God.'59

Karl Holl long ago suggested that Christianity was attractive to linguistic minorities of the Mediterranean hinterlands, particularly in rural Africa, Egypt and Phrygia, where poverty alienated agricultural labourers from the landed magnates.60 The only region where his thesis has been borne out is Africa. Onomastic study of the persons prosecuted by the proconsul of Africa at Madaura in 180 (Namphamo, Miggin, Lucitas and Sanae) indicates Punic or Berber background. In contrast, the martyrs of Scilli have common Latin names (except for Nartzalus, which is Berber or Punic). Rural poverty in Africa and Numidia found expression in a militant martyr Christianity that became dominant in the territories of the towns in the later third century.


The demographics of Christian expansion remain a controversial subject. Johannes Geffcken in 1920 argued lucidly that the fifty-year period between 250-300 ce saw a decisive decline in the number of votive offerings at pagan temples.61 Similarly, W H. C. Frend, drawing on Geffcken's analysis and much new evidence, concluded that this half-century also saw the decisive expansion of Christianity; it was this that provoked the tetrarchy into launching the great persecution.62 The figures proposed by Hopkins, MacMullen and Stark are

58 Grenfell and Hunt (eds.), New classical fragments, no. 73.

60 Holl, 'Das Fortleben der Volksprachen'.

61 Geffcken, Last days of Greco-Roman paganism, 25-34,115-77.

62 Frend, Martyrdom and persecution, 440-76.

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