New Book: The Baptized Muse

Karla Pollmann, The Baptized Muse (Oxford University Press, 2017)

ISBN 978-0-19-872648-7

This book focuses on early Christian poets, mainly from the 4th to the 6th centuries and writing in Latin, whose works have so far been too often dismissed as epigonal. The book chooses a fresh approach by highlighting the intertextual and exegetical means by which early Christian poets achieved a culturally competitive and highly influential standard in writing poetry directed specifically at an educated (would-be) Christian audience for their edification and education. This book will not only fill a considerable gap in our knowledge of the history of European literature, mentality and thought, but will also enable a better understanding of later literary artefacts in this tradition, from Beowulf to Milton’s Paradise Lost. Thus, in a general sense, this book contributes to the recently emerged interdisciplinary interest in looking at aspects of religion as cultural phenomena, and at the interrelationship of theology and literature.

With the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire increasing numbers of educated people converted to this new belief. As Christianity did not have its own educational institutions the issue of how to harmonize pagan education and Christian convictions became increasingly pressing. Especially classical poetry, the staple diet of pagan education, was considered to be morally corrupting (because of its deceitful mythological content) and damaging for the salvation of the soul (because of the false gods it advocated). But Christianity recoiled from an unqualified anti-intellectual attitude, while at the same time the experiment of creating an idiosyncratic form of genuinely Christian poetry failed (the sole exception being the poet Commodianus). This book argues that, instead, Christian poets made creative use of the classical literary tradition, and – in addition to blending it with Judaeo-Christian biblical exegesis – exploited poetry’s special ability of enhancing communicative effectiveness and impact through aesthetic means in order to disseminate the Christian faith. The book seeks to explore these strategies through a close analysis of a wide range of Christian, and for comparison partly also pagan, writers mainly from the fourth to sixth centuries. The book reveals that early Christianity was not a hermetically sealed uniform body, but displays a rich spectrum of possibilities in dealing with the past and a willingness to engage with and adapt the surrounding culture(s), thereby developing diverse and changing responses to historical challenges. By demonstrating throughout that authority is a key in understanding the long denigrated and misunderstood early Christian poets, this book reaches the ground-breaking conclusion that early Christian poetry is an art form that gains its justification by adding cultural authority to Christianity.

KARLA POLLMANN is currently Professor of Classics and Head of the School of Humanities at the University of Reading. She has also been appointed as Adjunct Professor of Theology at the University of Århus, Denmark, and Professor Extraordinary of Classics at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. She is internationally recognized for her monographs on late antique poetry, on Augustine’s hermeneutics, and a commentary, with introduction and text, on Statius, Thebaid 12. She was Principal Investigator of a major international and interdisciplinary project on the reception of Augustine through the ages, generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust, whose main result is the three-volume Oxford Guide to the Historical Reception of Augustine (OUP 2013). She is currently Co-Investigator of an Innovative Training Network sponsored by the EU, entitled “The History of Human Freedom and Dignity in Western Civilization” ( She is an internationally renowned speaker and her engagements include the deliveries of the 11th Augustine Lectures in Malta in 2007 under the patronage of the President of the Republic of Malta, the 4th Fliedner Lectures on Science and Faith in Madrid in 2013, and the 4th Dutch Annual Lecture in Patristics, at the Dutch Academy of Sciences in Amsterdam, Netherlands, in 2014.

Prof. Pollmann re-appointed Extraordinary Professor at Stellenbosch

Prof. Karla Pollmann

Karla Pollmann, Head of the School of Humanities and Professor of Classics, has been re-appointed as Extraordinary Professor at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

This appointment gives recognition of Professor Pollmann’s proven specialized expertise in Classics and Early Christian Studies, and her eminence in her profession and field of study.

It also implies Professor Pollmann to be involved in the academic programmes of the Stellenbosch Department of Ancient Studies.

Many congratulations!

A Trip to Athens

Walking around the busy streets of Greece’s capital is an experience like no other. The saying ‘you can feel the history’ is thrown around a lot, but Athens’ majesty merits this description more than most. Imagine yourself standing in the midst of the busy morning in the gridlocked Omonoia Square, with the scents of every different spice creeping out from the covered market; you look down the busy Athinas Street, and see the Acropolis, the timeless symbol of Athens’ heritage, rising above the horizon. No matter how time, culture and society move on, Athens is a city that refuses to belong to a single era. Not only is this true today, but it has been for centuries.

In early June, I set out to Athens, with the generous help of Reading Classics Department’s Austin Fund. I wanted to see Athens from the perspective of cultures interacting, assimilating and, perhaps, clashing. Specifically, I was interested in seeing how the culture of the early Christians found its place in the late antique city.

Walking around the city today, the assimilation of the cultures is represented by the various Byzantine churches that hide around every corner. The unsung heroes of Athens’ legacy, these oft forgotten structures are a true reminder that Athens’ rich history did not end with the Romans. However, my main interest in this trip was to see how some of the most important structures of the Classical era were repurposed for Christian use. The re-use of earlier buildings was a practice that was widespread throughout the Empire; indeed, many of our best-preserved examples of Classical architecture owe their survival to their Christian conversion (for example, the Pantheon in Rome, the Maison Carrée in Lyon, and many of the temples that are scattered around Sicily). In particular, I was interested to see the Parthenon and the Acropolis from this context of ‘Christianisation’, along with the Library of Hadrian, in which were built several Churches, the first being a 4th-century ‘tetraconch’ church.

Seeing this wonder of the Classical world from this new perspective was a truly great and useful experience; it reminds the viewer that the ‘Classical landscape’ played a defining role in making up the landscapes that would follow. Athens as city moved on from its Classical heritage; however, reminders of this legacy were mainstays on the city’s landscape, spearheaded by the Parthenon and the Acropolis.

Seeing the famous Byzantine Church of the Holy Apostles in the ancient agora was an equally memorable experience. I was particularly interested to see how this place of worship affected the landscape of the Classical space. Overlooking the agora is the much-copied Hephaiston, a staple of Athens’ pagan past; I wanted to see how the Christian structure contrasted with the agora’s non-Christian past, and I was not disappointed. I was delighted to discover that, in the 7th Century, the Hephaistion was, like the Parthenon, converted into a Christian church to St. George. It was thrilling to get to know the temple’s later history, and more thrilling still to consider its implications on the landscape.

Seeing the physical indicators of the relationship between Christianity and pagan society was not the only outcome of the trip. Particularly memorable were the wonderful collections of the Benaki, Acropolis and Byzantine Museums; equally interesting were the other sites that the city boasts: the Kerameikos, the national gardens and the numerous churches. Experiencing the city’s culture was also a delight; walking the seemingly endless system of streets and side streets, stopping off for Greek coffee or souvlaki, being pestered by the various buskers on the Athenian metro and chatting with city dwellers all contribute to a truly memorable experience.

As a Classics student, I have spent my entire degree reading about the majesty of the ancient city, but nothing is comparable to witnessing it first-hand on an independent trip. It is an experience that I hope all Classics students and enthusiasts can undertake at some point during their lives. I would like to extend my deepest thanks to Prof. Marzano and the department for making this trip possible.

Alexander Heavens
(BA (Hons) Classics 2015)