Meet Mark Letteney, Professor of the Ancient World

Submitted by Nick Grall on

We recently had the chance to sit down with one of History's newest faculty, Mark Letteney to find out how he is settling in and to discuss his book, The Christianization of Knowledge in Late Antiquity. A historian of the ancient world and archaeologist, Letteney began at the UW this past fall.

What have been your first impressions of the city? What do you like the most? What has been the hardest to adapt to? 

This fall I was on leave in Copenhagen, launching a new project with my collaborator at the University of Copenhagen and editing the manuscript of our book. That means that I’ve only just arrived in Seattle at the end of December and am still in the early stages of getting settled. Thus far I’ve been overwhelmed by the warm welcome offered by History Department faculty, staff, and students, and I’m excited to explore Seattle as the quarter settles in (and I can spend a bit less time on lecture prep and furniture assembly). 

This winter quarter, you are teaching your first class at the UW on the Roman Empire. How is the class structured? Chronologically or by theme? Do you have a favorite topic that you are excited to teach this quarter? 

I am delighted to teach HISTAM 313: The Roman Empire this winter! Teaching such a sprawling topic in a single quarter is a challenge — even on a narrow definition of the material, we have to cover some five centuries in ten weeks. Still, I don’t want to think of “The Roman Empire” strictly as a time period, but rather as a series of colonial practices — Rome had imperial ambitions long before the rise of Augustus, and the impact of the empire is not primarily a succession of emperors, but rather a new set of social, economic, and political practices that were implemented across the Mediterranean, often at the tip of a spear. So, each week will include one chronological lecture and one topical; chronological lectures give students a framework in which to understand changes over the first centuries CE, while topical lectures explore important themes like environment, enslavement, economy, and resource extraction. The second hour of each class is a “primary source workshop,” in which we read a variety of historical sources together, learning how to extract historical information from sources ranging from novels and laws to coins and mosaics. 

Congratulations on the publication of your new book, The Christianization of Knowledge in Late Antiquity (Cambridge University Press, October 2023). In it, you argue that we can understand the rise of Christianity in a new way by paying attention to the influence of Christian scholars on the broader intellectual culture. You state that clerics, who argued over the nature of Christ, “created a new scholastic regime.” For a non-expert, could you give us a simple example of how “new arguments were made in novel ways”? 

Thank you! I am thrilled to see the book out in the world. At its core, my book offers an account of the way that ancient scholars made arguments, and how their methods changed over time. In the simplest terms, early in the fourth century CE, theologians debating the nature of Christ came to an impasse: they were trying to answer a question by interpreting a set of books that they identified as scripture, and they found that reading these books closer and closer still didn’t answer the questions that they were after. As a result, they came up with new methods of making arguments, which required putting scripture aside for a moment and instead pulling together an archive of the entirety of opinions on the topic — on all sides of the argument — and distilling from that a universal statement of truth. This universal statement of truth (or “creed,” as they called it) fixed the problem of scriptural interpretation, because it told you how to interpret scripture, even when the text wasn’t answering the questions you wanted it to. 

Fifty years later, this same group of Christians came to power as a ruling elite for the first time, and when they did, other scholars in different disciplines altogether started to pick up their method of making arguments. Lawyers started to collate opinions and distill them into a universal statement of truth, as did historians and people writing miscellanies and scholars in a variety of other disciplines. Intellectual tools which were forged in the fires of theological controversy came to be reused to answer questions of law, history, and science. One way to trace the impact of the rise of this particular group of Christians is to trace the proliferation of their peculiar way of making arguments through the wider scholastic society.

What languages are your sources written in? In the introduction of your book, you state that you use texts which are not popular among ancient historians. How did you find and select the texts for this study?

My book engages materials written between the second and sixth centuries CE, and most are written in Latin or Greek (though some sources were written in Greek but only survive in ancient Coptic translations). The last chapter of my book turns to the Palestinian Talmud, which was composed in a combination of Hebrew and Aramaic and crystallized into its current form during the late fourth century CE, during the same period when my other scholars were actively forging new methods of argumentation.

I found these texts over many years of disciplinary training — the theological materials through researching early Christianity, the legal and historical texts while studying ancient history and classics, and the rabbinic Jewish sources as part of my graduate program in religions of Mediterranean antiquity. I can’t say that I ever had a master plan of putting this particular constellation of materials into conversation. The process got started when I was studying the work of theologians and lawyers from the early fifth centuries, and finding intriguing correspondences in the way that each group of scholars went about making their arguments. From there, I looked both for similar and contrasting scholastic methods in parallel fields of ancient study. Like a lot of historical work, my book began with a set of interests rather than a specific question: I always wanted to find a way to broaden the frame of ancient history to include a wider array of evidence. My book tries to bring the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ into the same interpretive frame, and also to interpret ancient texts as they appeared on manuscripts to their ancient readers, rather than just ideas and words disconnected from the way that people actually interacted with them in the past. 

What surprised you the most while researching this book? Did you start out with assumptions that were overturned by the sources? What is your own favorite text that you use in this book and why?

The biggest surprise came early. I traveled to Italy in January 2018 for an intense and invigorating month-long workshop on late Roman law. There I started thinking closely about some peculiar aspects of the Theodosian Code, a fifth century collection which systematically presented the entirety of the law for the very first time in Roman history. It was not lost on me that the men tasked with producing this Big Book of Law were Christians — many even attended Church councils — and that the very same office produced both the official records of church councils and the Theodosian Code. In conversation with other scholars at the workshop I started to look at the language that the Theodosian Code used to describe itself, and I discovered that many of the phrases that it uses to explain its intellectual project only make sense in a Christian theological context — that is, I discovered that scholars producing a law code were borrowing Latin terms and even intellectual frameworks from theologians. This argument appears as an appendix in my book, titled The Theodosian Code in Its Christian Conceptual Frame. It was the first piece of the puzzle that convinced me that maybe I really can answer some important questions by looking closely at how ancient scholars went about their tasks in the fields of theology, law, or even history, medicine, or military science. 

Mark Letteney will be discussing his book at a book launch event sponsored by the Department of History on February 27 at 4:00 p.m. in the Freedman Remak History Community Room of Smith Hall.