The power of sacrifice: Roman and Christian discourses in conflict

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




James W. Watts


Sacrifice, Christian, Roman Empire, Comparative rhetoric

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | History of Religions of Western Origin | Religion


This dissertation argues that the conflicts between Rome and the early Christian Church were the logical outcome of divergent discursive formulations of the idea of sacrifice. This project examines "discourse" within the conceptual framework offered by Foucault, Barthes, Lincoln, and Todorov. Discourse is more than a collection of words or an extended soliloquy, it is a means that generates and constitutes social identity through the exercise of power. A society's religious or political discourse manifests itself in many and varied rhetorical forms. I will argue that "sacrifice" functions as a mode of social discourse. Both imperial Rome and early Christianity capitalized on the idea and the rhetoric of sacrifice as a discursive means to craft their location and identity within the cosmos. The sacrificial practices associated with the Roman imperial cult allowed the Emperor, as a divine-like figure, to be present throughout the Empire. These rituals accomplished more than extending honor to a monarch, they effected social cohesion and religio-political control. The early Christian Church emerged from this sacrificial and social milieu to formulate its own discourse through rhetorical and ritual practices. Because of their sacrificial discourse Christians were perceived as a threat to the fragile balance of power that existed between the gods and the state. In an attempt to check Christianity's growth, Rome made sacrifice the litmus test of political and religious loyalty. Borrowing an imperial political model for Church order, as well as exalting the spectacle of the martyr in imitation of the biblical Christ, Christianity was able to create its own social order through a novel discourse of sacrifice.


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