Lisa Bailey

Lisa Bailey, Senior Lecturer in Classics and History, talks about her discovery of the early Roman Empire and revelations about the new popular religion of Christianity.

Lisa Bailey, Senior Lecturer in Classics and History
Lisa Bailey, Senior Lecturer in Classics and History

My career in academia was inspired by seeing a lecturer speak during a Careers Day visit at the University of Auckland. I knew that was the job I wanted to do. When I came here as a student I started in English and Japanese and took a variety of courses including Modern History. In my second year I discovered Late Roman History – it was an amazing, intriguing world which I didn’t understand.

I was set on a path to learn more. Having discovered this fascinating world it hadn’t occurred to me French and Latin would be mandatory tools to delve into it. I began formal tuition but was also supported by the University through an informal group of staff and peers to help fast-track my progress.

Later, I received a Fulbright scholarship and began my PhD in the United States. It was an interdisciplinary programme on the Ancient World with some of the top people in my field.

Overall I am most interested in how Christianity became such a powerful force in European society. I picked up the story in Gaul (modern France) around 400CE when it had just become a legal, officially state-supported religion. The Emperor had converted, but it was still very much a minority religion. By 700 CE it had become the completely dominant force.

My big overarching question for all of my research is: “How did this occur?” Most people who consider this look at the top levels - the emperors or secular kings. I’m interested in the ordinary people and what made them buy into it. It was not a religion that was imposed so why did they embrace it?

We have very few resources about how the elite communicated with ordinary people. Sermon collections are some of the few clues we have to inform part of that puzzle. So for my PhD I examined the Eusebius Gallicanus sermon collection, a substantial body of text which required my own dedicated, accurate-rather-than-stylish, translation from original Latin. Gaul, at that time, was not as religiously diverse as other parts of the Roman Empire, though there were still substantial Jewish populations, Eastern Christians from Syria and Egypt, and people practising various Pagan religions. The adoption of Christianity by these populations was an incredibly important yet undramatic change. It was gradual and generational.

My research suggests that people interpreted Christianity in a way that was relevant for themselves as individuals, families, communities and localities. They owned it in a way that was quite distinct from an imposed regulated system of centralised ideas. Also at this stage the Church had no means of enforcing a regulated system; it had no way of stopping people having their own interpretation and practice. This is significant because we tend to think of conversion as our model - missionaries dramatically saving people, people renouncing the religions of the past. That did happen, but I don’t think that is how it worked for 99 percent of the population. It was a gradual change with people integrating it into pre-existing worlds.

In practical terms perhaps people were no longer going to go to the public sacrifices (possibly because they weren’t publicly-funded any more) but they were still using rites for prosperous crops although now using a different kind of blessing. It was the same thing just conceptualised differently. The change was subtle.

I look at the physical and communicative landscapes so I travel a lot. I need to tromp around sites to get a sense of the religious spaces of ordinary people to reconstruct some of the experiences and interaction the laity had with this new religion. While on location you can quickly realise that there were particularly symbolically-important sites on hills and a dynamic interplay between the sites above and below. Geography played an important part of the everyday religious experience. I am also exploring where one could go as a lay person, what one could see in terms of artwork and artefacts, which means also going through museums and active excavation sites.

If we try to put all this together it forms a disparate picture. There’s no direct mapping between the different kinds of evidence, though we can still tell different kinds of stories from different kinds of experiences.

On the other side of academic life, I am really enjoying teaching. It’s one of those fields in which students are genuinely interested and have an enthusiasm and curiosity for the subject. It is nice to see people get excited about it in a way that I remember doing myself. Saying that, the field that I work in still has the same intrigue for me as it did when I took that course all those years ago - and the more I dig the deeper the hole.

Ready Steady Learn

Listen to Lisa talk with Mikey Havoc about her research on 95bFM's Ready Steady Learn.