The women of early Christianity explored in Kate Cooper’s excellent new book are surprisingly similar in one respect to the barbarians I’ve spent much of my adult life wrestling with. Both were central to revolutions that shook the previously immovable foundations of Greco-Roman civilisation, and yet, before the bombs went off, both were marginal to the interests of the dead white classicists who wrote pretty much all our source material. The problem that this poses is two-fold: firstly, to find ways to retrieve the truth of women’s roles, and secondly then to turn it into comprehensible storytelling for a modern audience.
Band of Angels succeeds triumphantly in both respects. Cooper’s fundamental point is that, behind the male facade, it is possible to see determined and resourceful women taking leading roles in the development of the new religion and empowering themselves in the process. Occasionally the task is straightforward. The story of Perpetua – told, it seems, in her own words from prison awaiting martrydom – could not be more disturbing. A baby left behind, a father’s pleas ignored, dreams of simultaneously curing and saving a younger brother who had died of cancer: Euripides himself could not have set up something more moving. The story is easy to tell, again, when we encounter the religious grandes-dames and even empresses of the fourth-century Christian empire who leave deeper footprints.
For much of the book, however, intricate detective work is required. Cooper does an excellent job, for instance, in bringing out how Saint Luke’s account – both in his gospel and acts – brings women to the fore, but teasing out his still sparse comments into a rounded picture, with the help of inscriptions, papyri and legal remains, is an act of finesse. The energy to perform this task, the author indicates, was provided by her own convictions.
My one criticism isn’t really of the book as it stands. The volume closes in c450 AD, three generations into a process that saw the grandsons of the dead white classicists start to take over the church and reshape its institutions. I was left wondering whether Cooper thinks this new Christianity offered as many opportunities to its womenfolk as the old.
Peter Heather is the author of The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders (Macmillan, 2013)