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A Century of Miracles: Christians, Pagans, Jews, and the Supernatural, 312-410

H. A. Drake, A Century of Miracles: Christians, Pagans, Jews, and the Supernatural, 312-410, Oxford University Press, New York 2017.

 

The fourth century of our common era began and ended with a miracle. Traditionally, in the year 312, the Roman emperor Constantine I experienced a Vision of the Cross that led him to convert to Christianity, and in 394 the emperor Theodosius I won a victory after praying for divine support. Other stories heralded the discovery of the True Cross by Constantine’s mother, Helena, and the rise of a new kind of miracle-maker in the deserts of Egypt and Syria. Miracle also crept into the discourse and argument of this era, changing the criteria by which Romans awarded victory.

According to a long-standing scholarly narrative, the changes during this century represent a decline from the high standards of Graeco-Roman culture and eventually contributed to the fall of the Roman empire. They plunged Christians and pagans into a “life-and-death” struggle that replaced the happy toleration of polytheism with a narrower and darker belief.

The end of the Cold War and the rise of the field of Late Antiquity have led to greater appreciation for the variety of religious experience during this century. In A Century of Miracles, historian H. A. Drake explores the role miracle stories played in helping Christians, pagans, and Jews think about themselves and each other. These stories, he concludes, bolstered Christian belief that their god wanted the empire to be Christian.

Most importantly, these stories help explain how, after a century of trumpeting the power of their god, Christians were able to deal with their failure to protect the city of Rome from sack by the barbarian army of the Gothic king Alaric in 410. Augustine’s magnificent City of God eventually established a new theoretical basis for success, but in the meantime the popularity of miracle stories reassured the faithful–even when the miracles stopped.

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