Plundering the Romans: Irenaeus, History, and Economic Presuppositions

Historians studying premodernity generally try to avoid thinking in the kind of grand epochal schemas that characterized nineteenth-century historiography. True, one can still find contemporary Marxist-colored readings of, say, the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages, but even these are appreciably more nuanced than the better-known mega-narratives of Western history proffered by Marx or Weber. Indeed, few things seem to invite the adjective “blinkered” like overly idealized, stadial history, with its sharp divisions between different eras and socio-economic models.

Yet, ironically, although historians have largely moved on from the nineteenth century’s broad brushstrokes, today’s public discourse still has an affinity for such clunky old models. I have complained about large-scale, categorical thinking in a few essays already, but here I mainly want to trace the trouble in one specific sphere: economics.

By closely examining a passage from one of the Patristic era’s most significant works, Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, we find assumptions which challenge the historical outlook of many zealous Christians of the post-liberal flavor–traditional and progressive alike–who want to drastically refashion our economics by retrieving some supposedly “lost” model from church history. As so often, an engagement with the sources of the early church reveals that our narratives simply do not fit the data.

Post-Liberal Sentiments about History

Some curious parallels can be found between the current post-liberal, “Common Good” Right and the old “blinkered” Marxist models and polemics when it comes to economics and history. Both habitually trade in vaguely defined sentiments, impressions, and nostalgic tropes, particularly regarding the jump from pre-modernity to modernity. Such notions can include:


To put it mildly, each of these sentiments makes for better rhetoric than history or economics. Yes, one can find elements of more nuanced truth in a few of them, but as a blanket description of the past, they don’t hold much water.

The first two particularly concern us here. Historians of premodern economics have increasingly recognized that approximations of “capitalist” modes of production, such as slavery, existed in certain realms of economic activity dating back to antiquity.[5] Likewise, the notion that Western economics existed in some idyllic, static agrarian system even for the Middle Ages obscures important developments such as the Commercial Revolution, a turn which began around the eleventh century–to wit, we have very post-liberal-sounding complaints about economic trends voiced by reactionary theorists in the fifteenth century.[6] Even the famed medieval ban on usury is a bit misleading: Byzantium, an advanced medieval society that embodied many of the values espoused by contemporary Christian nationalists and integralists, allowed lending at interest.[7] Perhaps most poignantly, in a premodern world where land was the basis of wealth and thus the closest analogue to “capital” in the modern sense, the church was among the largest medieval landowners/landlords. To put a finer point on it: the church and bishops of the city of Rome alone had land tenants numbering in the multiple hundreds of thousands in the later fifth and sixth centuries, to say nothing of the institution’s many, many slaves.[8] Such examples abound. The ever-zealous delineations of modernity, Liberal economics, and their relationship to Christianity simply melt on contact with the historical record.

Irenaeus and Profit

To examine one example more closely, consider Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130–c.202 AD), who wrote what must be one of the earliest comments about how Christians thought about day-to-day economics and coexistence with the larger Roman social structure. Probably written sometime in the 190s AD, Book 4 of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies survives mostly in a Latin translation, rather than his original Greek (even then, Irenaeus was essentially lost for the entirety of the Middle Ages and only rediscovered by humanists in the 1520s).[9] In 4.30, Irenaeus rejects the Marcionite argument that the God of the Old Testament induced the Hebrews to sin by having them “plunder” the Egyptians (Exodus 12:33-6). We read the following:

Some reprove and find fault with the fact that the people about to leave by God’s command received vessels of every kind and clothing from the Egyptians, and so departed, and that from these items, the tabernacle was made in the desert. Not knowing God’s justifications and his manners, they are arguing against themselves, just as the Presbyter also used to say. For if God had not consented in this typological exodus, today in our true exodus—that is, the faith in which we are confirmed, through which we are freed from the class of the gentiles (i.e. pagans) —no one could be saved. For property (possessio) follows each of us, either moderately or quite a lot, which we have acquired through “the mammon of iniquity” (cf. Luke 16:9, ἐκ τοῦ μαμωνᾶ τῆς ἀδικίας).

From where do we have the house in which we live, the clothes we wear, the crockery we use, and everything else that assists us in the long course of our life, unless it comes from these things, which we acquired greedily when we were gentiles or received from gentile parents, relatives, and friends who acquired unjustly—to say nothing of the things we acquire even now as we are in the faith? Who sells and does not wish to profit from he who buys? And who buys and does not wish to come out profitably with respect to the seller? And who conducts business other than for the purpose of getting fed? And what about these people who are faithful in the royal hall? Don’t they have utensils that belong to Caesar? And is there anyone who, according to his own ability, does not take care of those who do not have anything of their own?

The people of Egypt were debtors, not only in things, but even in their very life, because of the earlier benevolence of the patriarch Joseph. Yet how are the gentiles debtors to us, from whom we receive profits and services? Whatever they procure with toil, we use without toil, although we are in the faith.[10]

As Charles Hill has argued at length, the “Presbyter” Irenaeus mentions at the beginning is very probably Polycarp of Smyrna, the reputed disciple of John the Apostle himself (in fact, there is a case to be made that the whole passage here mostly came out of Polycarp’s own teaching decades prior).[11] If Hill is right, then Irenaeus claims to be taking his point from Polycarp, and the reasoning here is quite simple: if the Hebrews were wrong to take material goods from the Egyptians who enslaved them unjustly, then Christians in the second century–who freely engage in self-interested commerce with their pagan neighbors–are in far worse shape.

This all probably alludes to the fact that Marcion had made an impressive amount of money in the shipping industry, even depositing a hefty donation, 200,000 sesterces, to the Roman church.[12] Material wealth of this scale was comparable to many elites of the empire’s equestrian order, which in turn probably means Marcion was in the realm of the top 1-2% of the population financially.[13] In other words, Marcion was a businessman who knew how to maximize profit as much as the next person. And we should note, had the earliest church truly treated such wealth as an “intrinsic evil,” we would have expected Marcion to be excoriated by his patristic critics on this point, but none of them appear to have ever criticized him for his lucre per se. Rather, Ireneaeus is probably framing him as a hypocrite for condemning the plundering of Egypt whilst he himself lived off of the plunder of Rome.

More importantly, Polycarp/Irenaeus indicate that this economic action is entirely normal. Material possessions inevitably cling to us, and if Christians are to exist, they must accept a degree of economic implication in the larger pagan world. But here, Irenaeus actually raises the stakes, applying the principle beyond purely economic questions. It turns out, as had been true in Paul’s day (cf. Philippians 4:22), there are faithful Christians entangled with Caesar’s own property. The exact meaning of the “faithful in the royal hall” remains a little unclear: is this in Rome itself or a bureau in Asia Minor? Are the Christians in question slaves or other imperial agents in persona Caesaris?[14] In any case, these people enjoy the usufruct of the emperor’s own things. Moreover, they are free as Christians to do so.

It takes no philological brilliance to detect a touch of early Christian animosity toward the emperor in this, but the limits of such animosity are also apparent. Caesar’s Christians represent the underlying principle in extremis: it applies even to those in the emperor’s orbit. Irenaeus knew the moral problem posed by the emperor in more intimate terms than most. He lost his teacher Polycarp around 156 AD, when Polycarp declined to swear by Caesar’s genius before the proconsul. Although we do not know their exact relationship for certain, Irenaeus may have lost another teacher to martyrdom in the person of Justin, who was executed in Rome about a decade later by the prefect Junius Rusticus: a personal friend of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. The same applies to the community at Lyons-Vienne, where Irenaeus had succeeded the bishop Pothinus, who was martyred along with other members of the Christian community there in 177 (according to Eusebius’ disputed dating). That is all to say, if any Christians had reason to treat Caesar and his mammon as polluting and untouchable, Irenaeus would have numbered among them. This, however, was not his outlook.

Conclusion

Hopefully, two points will impress upon readers following this brief study. First and foremost, there is fluffy nonsense aplenty today about what older forms of Christianity or Western society could and could not countenance in society and economics. It is true enough that premodern Christians, their theology, and their institutions frequently reveal differences in economic ideology. Yet these are often just as much a function of cultural presuppositions held by everyone in a given era. Much as today, most people were not substantively questioning the basic operating principles of their social world. Ancient and medieval Christians, for example, basically assumed the institution of slavery as a pillar of economic life–a moral horror to virtually all Westerners today. On the other hand, we may also be surprised to find certain resonances between premodern and modern economic assumptions in certain contexts. And so we find Irenaeus and Polycarp rather challenge the vague notion that all or most premodern Christians were simple minded serfs with no conception of profit or Franciscan friars who foreswore even the pettiest forms of property.

Second, Irenaeus’ particular point about Christians who “use Caesar’s utensils” further addresses a more progressive angst over structural oppressions and the guilt of association with them, which often breeds an activist approach to the world. Irenaeus does indeed presume generosity’s indispensability, but at an individual level. By contrast, he does not expect a cathartic, ascetic withdrawal from Roman society. Nor does he seem all that keen on “impacting the culture” at the level of the macrocosm. Rather, Irenaeus expresses a cool and well-considered ambivalence to the current order of things.

So by all means, let’s debate the socio-economic order with its various and manifest ills, as well as possible amelioration in ecclesiastical teaching and government policy. But let’s not begin by pretending our problems just sprang up yesterday or that we have forsaken some traditional economic outlook of happier times. The morally conscientious have been wrestling with the sticky hazards of wealth since well before modernity, the Enlightenment, or Liberalism. For my money, anyway, those hazards are here to stay.


Andrew Koperski is a doctoral candidate in ancient history at The Ohio State University. His fields of focus include Late Antiquity, Early Christianity, and Byzantium. Much of his current research examines the formation of the biblical canon and the reception of apocryphal literature.


  1. For an example in this mode, see Chapter Three of Yoram Hazony’s Conservatism: A Rediscovery (Washington DC: Regnery Gateway, 2022) where economic activity is construed as a “traditional institution” in the older conservative paradigm, while the nation-corroding principle of “free trade” comes out of the Liberal tradition.

  2. David Bentley Hart, “Mammon Ascendant,” First Things, June 2016 https://www.firstthings.com/article/2016/06/mammon-ascendant. See esp. “the New Testament treats such wealth not merely as a spiritual danger, and not merely as a blessing that should not be misused, but as an intrinsic evil.” Hart also singles out Calvin’s approach to personal wealth.

  3. See (the tongue-in-cheek?) Michael Warren Davis’s The Reactionary Mind: Why Conservative Isn’t Enough (Washington: Regnery Gateway, 2021), passim.

  4. Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 9-10.

  5. Kyle Harper, “The Transformation of Roman Slavery: An Economic Myth?,” AnTard 20 (2012): 165–72.

  6. Most famously Georgios Gemistos Plethon. Angeliki E. Laiou and Cécile Morrisson, The Byzantine Economy, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 229-30.

  7. Angeliki E. Laiou, “Economic Thought and Ideology,” in The Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century, ed. Angeliki E. Laiou, vol. 3, Dumbarton Oaks Studies 39 (Washington, D.C: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2002), 1136-7. While Byzantine theologians did sometimes complain about usury, “The most common and most prevalent Byzantine position regarding the Christian and Old Testament prohibition of lending at interest was that it applied only to ecclesiastics. Laymen, therefore, could legitimately charge interest on loans.”

  8. Kristina Sessa, The Formation of Papal Authority in Late Antique Italy: Roman Bishops and the Domestic Sphere (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 107, 117.

  9. Irena Dorota Backus, Historical Method and Confessional Identity in the Era of the Reformation, 1378-1615, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Thought, v. 94 (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2003), 130-3.

  10. My translation.

  11. Charles E. Hill, From the Lost Teaching of Polycarp: Identifying Irenaeus’ Apostolic Presbyter and the Author of Ad Diognetum (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006), 11-23.
  12. Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries, ed. Marshall D. Johnson, trans. Michael Steinhauser, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 245. A sum of this size could buy a city house in Rome itself or a middle-sized farm.

  13. Ibid., 245-6. Cf. Kyle Harper’s demographic estimates for a slightly later era, in Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 46.

  14. See Hill’s excursus in the pages cited above.

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