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Silvester Kreisel: Alte Feste in neuer Zeit. Zur Entwicklung der paganen Festkultur unter dem Einfluss des spätantiken Christentums (= Pharos. Studien zur griechisch-römischen Antike; Bd. 50), Rahden/Westf.: Verlag Marie Leidorf 2023, XV + 576 S., ISBN 978-3-86757-278-4, EUR 59,80
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Rezension von:
Elsa Lucassen
Universiteit van Amsterdam
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Elsa Lucassen: Rezension von: Silvester Kreisel: Alte Feste in neuer Zeit. Zur Entwicklung der paganen Festkultur unter dem Einfluss des spätantiken Christentums, Rahden/Westf.: Verlag Marie Leidorf 2023, in: sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 1 [15.01.2024], URL:

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Silvester Kreisel: Alte Feste in neuer Zeit

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The transition from a traditional to a Christian festival calendar in Late Antiquity was a long and complex process. The rise of Christianity did not lead to a complete disappearance of the traditional feasts, as some of them remained popular for centuries. These are central to this monograph, based on a 2021 PhD dissertation, in which Silvester Kreisel investigates the impact of late antique Christianity on the 'pagan' festive culture. He explains the endurance of pagan feasts by stating that these continued to have a political or social function and, therefore, filled a need for people, including Christians.

Kreisel uses the word 'pagan' for the non-Christian traditions. He accepts this term, understandably, for practical reasons, and I will therefore use it as well, but this choice is not without consequences. Although he does discuss the complications surrounding the term, he cannot prevent that this leads to a rather stark dichotomy between Christians and pagans throughout his work. By juxtaposing Christian and pagan festivals, he strengthens the boundaries between the two worlds, which is questionable. A more nuanced view on early Christianity and 'paganism', with room for different degrees of being Christian and pagan respectively, would have been welcome, in line with Frankfurter 2018.

The book consists of five parts. The first two parts serve as a theoretical and methodological introduction to the main third part, in which Kreisel analyses sources regarding pagan festivals in seven different cities from all over the Roman Empire. In the fourth part he connects these different analyses and sketches an overview of the persistence of pagan feasts in Christian times. The fifth part provides a brief conclusion, followed by a summary in English and impressive lists of sources and references.

In the first part, Kreisel discards the terms Christianisation and secularisation for the process of transformation of the religious landscape, and concludes that, although none of the terms are completely adequate, the more recent concept of 'neutralisation' explains the endurance of pagan feasts in a Christian environment best, with the caveat that it does not account for the disappearance of the majority of pagan festivals. For the festivals that remained, however, Kreisel states that they could survive in a more worldly form, within the 'neutral' public space that arose between the competitive religious feasts (11). Following recent works that look beyond religious change for the development of rituals or games in Late Antiquity (Mattheis 2014; Puk 2014; Remijsen 2015), Kreisel wants to consider the local and imperial contexts of festivals as well (as does Graf 2015). He explores which other mechanisms influenced the heterogenic development of pagan festivals besides the religious change, and if the functionality of the feasts influenced their survival.

In the second part Kreisel discusses festivals as a way to strengthen communities and their shared identity, representing the opposite of everyday life (der Alltag) (28). He states that pagan festivals could continue when the religious aspect faded because of the many other dimensions festivals had, e.g. political, cultural, and social. In reality, this often meant that festivals continued as they were, but without the animal sacrifice, because this was the element of the pagan festive characteristics, such as processions and dinners, that was most problematic from a Christian perspective. A festival will disappear once its meaning and function fades, but if a function remains, the story surrounding the feast can be adapted (53).

The choices for the case studies in the third part (Antioch, Gaza, Alexandria, Constantinople, Rome, Trier and Carthage) are based upon their comparable size and prominence (and incidentally, they are also named together by Ausonius, see Grat. Actio 7,34), except for Gaza, which is added because of the analogous discussion regarding older festivals that occurred there, simultaneously showing that this debate did not only occur in bigger cities. For each city, Kreisel discusses several festivals celebrated there, such as the Kikellia and the Aion feast in Alexandria, the Kalends, Maiouma and Olympic games in Antioch, and the Brytae, Brumalia and Lupercalia in Constantinople. The discussions of these feasts and their sources show a thorough knowledge of the subject and Kreisel sketches the development of each. The analysis remains mostly descriptive, closely following the sources, which is questionable at times because of the subjectivity of particularly the Christian texts.

At certain points it would have been interesting to see more of the contemporary Christian feasts as well, to get the full picture of the festive culture. Only briefly mentioning the Christian feast of Epiphany in the conclusion of the chapter on Alexandria, for example, is a missed opportunity, considering that it plays a central role in the discussion of the Aion feast, as the author himself appears to admit (172). For Gaza, Kreisel does focus on two sixth-century Christian feasts (129), and the chapter benefits from this expanded view, showing that these more or less continued pagan rituals in a Christian way, with a possible political or economic function, which fits in with the tendencies identified elsewhere.

In the fourth part, the author ties all the individual situations of these cities together with larger, empire-wide developments and concludes that the rise of Christianity influenced the changes in the traditional festive culture and certainly acted as a catalyst, but was not decisive. The waning interest and rising costs, which became too steep for individuals to provide, were ultimately responsible for the disappearance of the feasts. As long as there was an interest in the traditional feasts among the local population and the occasion could be interpreted in a secular or Christian way, the celebrations could continue for a long time, as happened with the Kalends of January empire-wide and the Brumalia in Constantinople. As Kreisel justly points out, in the fourth century, the Christian festive calendar was not extensive enough to be a fully-fledged substitute just yet (400).

Concluding, he states that the development of the festival calendar showed a general trend for the possibility of the persistence of pagan festivals; which ones remained was the result of a local compromise between different parties. People, including Christians, were still drawn to these traditional feasts because they spoke to a different (not religious) part of their identity. Festivals could simply be enjoyable and helped to form common identities. The demand of the Christian authorities for a purely Christian world, including festivities, was not realistic, which led to "a negotiation between the interests of diverse actors, on the backdrop of structural preconditions in the individual polities" (419). Although this conclusion it not revolutionary, the detailed description of the various feasts is certainly valuable: Kreisel has gathered much evidence on feasts that are not all well-known and adds a strong analysis of the local contexts. The study of Graf remains indispensable for the wider implication and meaning of traditional feasts in a Christian context. More work on festivals in this period of transition and their mutual influence is definitely needed, making this book a good starting point for more in-depth, local research.

Elsa Lucassen