Paganism: What We Owe the Christians

Nationalmuseum, Stockholm/Bridgeman Art Library
Bacchus/Dionysus; painting by Nicolas Poussin, seventeenth century

The trouble with the end of paganism in Rome is that we once thought we knew all about it. Paganism took the form of worship of a variety of deities, along with participation in different cults and the celebration of sacred rites, many of which depended on support from the Roman authorities, as did the colleges in which priests were gathered. Practically all these manifestations of paganism died out in Rome during the late fourth and fifth centuries CE. They did so in the greatest city in the Western world and in one of the most vividly documented epochs in the long history of Rome. In the words of Count Auguste-Arthur Beugnot, writing in 1835: “History has deigned to be present only at the funeral of paganism.” From the nineteenth century onward, scholars have been determined to present this death as heroic, in the best Roman tradition.

Strong currents in the culture of modern Europe have contributed to the wish to see the passing of paganism in Rome as tinged with a sense of high drama. Despite the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312, many leading members of the Senate of Rome had remained pagans. For classically trained historians, it has been hard to resist sympathy for a cause that appeared to be identified with the traditions of the Senate of Rome. In their opinion, senatorial opposition to emperors of autocratic disposition (and especially to Christian emperors) was an unambiguously good thing. The pagans could even be said to have had their own Cato of Utica—the caustic defender of the republic against Caesar—namely, a leading pagan, Nicomachus Flavianus, who became involved in a civil war and committed suicide on the field of battle in 394.

Better still, the last pagans were held to have saved the classics. Withdrawing to the well-stocked libraries of their country villas, like monks before their time, they patiently emended the texts of ancient authors, to pass down to future generations. They are said to have sponsored works of art and literature in which the alert eyes of modern scholars have claimed to detect veiled hostile comments on the rise of Christianity around them.

Best of all, the last pagans could be acclaimed for having stood for tolerance in an age of mounting intolerance. Worshipers of many gods, they challenged their emperor and his Christian advisers to respect religious diversity. In the words of one of them—Quintus Aurelius Symmachus—writing in 384: “It is not by one way alone that we can arrive at so sublime a mystery.” This resounding phrase has had a long life. It recurs, for instance, in the declaration on non-Christian religions issued by the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Symmachus has come down to us as the hero of a perpetual struggle against intolerance and fundamentalism of every sort. A few years ago, when I resorted to Wikipedia to find out more about Symmachus and the last pagans of Rome I was surprised to discover not an image of this vain and punctilious grandee but the bearded, turbaned face of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who is taken to be the sort of believer Symmachus opposed. Everybody who is anybody should wish to be a last pagan.

Not Alan Cameron. In his work of magisterial and relentless erudition, he challenges every aspect of the high-pitched scenario of the end of paganism in Rome that, in the past two centuries, has worked itself deep into the historical subconscious of the West. Cameron claims that, over the centuries, the last pagans of Rome have undergone an apotheosis that they did nothing to deserve:

They have been transformed from the arrogant, philistine land-grabbers most of them were into fearless champions of senatorial privilege, literature lovers, and aficionados of classical…culture as well as the traditional cults.

His message is firm:

There was no pagan revival in the West, no pagan party, no pagan literary circles,…no pagans editing classical texts, above all, no last pagan stand.

According to Cameron, paganism ended not with a bang but a whimper. Having made his appeal for tolerance in 384, Symmachus—no amiable dodo as we like to imagine him, but an astute politician—stepped back. He did not wish to be too closely identified with an increasingly unfashionable cause. And far from being the Cato of his age, Flavianus is shown by Cameron to have been a political opportunist with no clear religious policy.

The cause of the old gods was not defeated on the field of battle. Rather, for Cameron, the end of paganism came in a gray manner. It died as the victim of a period of fiscal restraint. For in Rome, paganism was what paganism did. And what paganism did depended, ultimately, on what the emperor did. No one but the emperor could provide funds for the ancient rites, or name members to the ancient priestly colleges. In this way, the prestige of Roman paganism had come to be woven into the sinews of the Roman state. It was a religion that hung on the slender thread of a collusion in shared grandeur between court and Senate.

Up to the 380s, the celebration of the ancient rites made Rome seem great and the emperor feel big. After 382, however, the thread snapped. Funding for the rites was withdrawn. Despite six successive petitions, it was not renewed. Yet (as Cameron points out) the Christian successors of Constantine were not bigots. Nor were they impelled by bigots. Paganism in Rome fell victim not to intolerance but to the “institutionalized egotism” (to use a phrase aptly applied to the absolutist monarchy of Louis XIV) that was a central feature of the late Roman imperial system. An emperor who was regularly acclaimed by his Christian courtiers as “an ever-present god” and as the personal darling of Victory no longer needed the rites to feel big. It was not that the ancient rites were repellent to him. He simply found them redundant. It was he (the emperor, not ancient statues of the gods, courted by fussy noblemen in a faraway city) who made the Roman world safe.

By the beginning of the fifth century, there was nothing that pagans could do. They could feel like pagans, think like pagans, write like pagans as much as they pleased. But without institutional support for their activities, they could no more be pagans than a university post or department, declared redundant in modern times, can reconstitute itself simply by reading books on the subject in the university’s library. As for the priesthoods: “The colleges were not abolished; they simply faded away as their older members died off.” May this never be written, in our own times, of the august institutions that still bear the name of “college” in Oxford, Cambridge, and elsewhere! When reading Cameron’s disabused account of the end of paganism, one cannot avoid a shudder. Institutions and cultural traditions far closer to our own hearts than the dream world of late Roman paganism can die for lack of funding.

Altogether, Cameron’s book is a myth-buster. For he gives no quarter. From one end to the other—a full eight hundred pages—he tracks down and demolishes every strand in the current image of a heroic last stand of noble pagans locked in deadly conflict with their Christian rivals. There is no malice in this awesome detonation of odium philologicum. Rather, Cameron moves from topic to topic in the relaxed, even benign manner of a past master of his field. Of the most preposterous and pretentious claims to see hidden anti-Christian meaning in unlikely texts, it is sufficient for him to say, “This is pretty tenuous stuff”—and yet another branch falls to the ground in what is a great chainsaw massacre of dead wood. One puts down his book with gratitude and draws a deep breath. For it has enabled us to fill our lungs with an atmosphere rendered clean, at last, through the ruthless pruning of so many false certitudes.

The Last Pagans of Rome is truly a life’s work. Or, more precisely, it is the work of a generation in which Cameron has been a towering presence. For we must remember the emotional pressure that had built up behind the false image of the last pagans. It is not for nothing that the scenario of a desperate last stand of paganism was propounded with especial fervor in the years that immediately followed the end of World War II. Such an account echoed the fears of a postwar world. For scholars in Europe and America who had recently emerged from thirty years of violence and ideological intolerance, only to confront the new, spreading shadow of the cold war, the conflict between a liberal paganism and an intolerant Christianity seemed like a foreshadowing of the nightmares of their own times. Many of the scholars who propounded this view of paganism in its last days were scholars who had suffered exile and worse. The great sadness of a generation that had passed through darkness weighs on their work.

Only a decade later, for a post-postwar generation, all this would seem somewhat overdone. So lachrymose a sense of melodrama, based on such fragmentary evidence, instantly aroused in many of us the creative irritation that, alas, has always characterized the young—even in so respectable and respectful a field as ancient history. As a result, Cameron’s great book will be read by many of us as if it were a particularly jovial old school reunion. We can linger with delight on the days of the 1960s, when Cameron was already the top scorer in the many matches that we—the home team of budding students of late antiquity—played against the forces of error, overinterpretation, and sentimentality.

But now almost half a century has passed. The Last Pagans of Rome is the book of a generation. A model of erudition and integrity of argument, it is also a book that will be with us for many generations to come. But what is its main thrust?

It is not the book of a historian of religion. One cannot help noticing that Cameron, like all scholars embarked on a great venture in demythologization, may have allowed himself to be unduly influenced by the image against which he has mounted so formidable a polemic. He is relentless in disproving every hint in the texts of a conscious “battle” between paganism and Christianity. But he may have achieved his success at the cost of limiting the horizons of our historical imagination. Does this work of demolition really tell us what it was like to move from a pagan to a post-pagan world?

Not entirely. Cameron’s account of the end of paganism finds singularly little place for resentment, for regret, still less for anger at the success of so much blasphemy against the gods and continued, unspoken fear of their vengeance. Evidence for such feelings exists for the Eastern Roman Empire. But Cameron rules this evidence out of court, as being limited to small circles of alienated intellectuals. Yet the nature of these lingering resentments, and the ways in which they were passed on from one generation to another, might repay a closer look, such as Edward Watts has devoted to the pagans of Alexandria in his recent study, Riot in Alexandria: Tradition and Group Dynamics in Late Antique Pagan and Christian Communities.*

Dante and Virgil passing Plutus, pagan god of wealth and guardian of the fourth circle of Hell; illustration by Gustave Doré from Dante’s Inferno

But the story that Cameron does tell he tells supremely well. He makes plain that the glum string of negatives with which he sums up the critical agenda of his work is not the whole story. Indeed, it is no more than the beginning of another more true and more interesting narrative. For all these negatives actually add up to a resounding positive:

So many of the activities, artifacts, and enthusiasms that have been identified as hallmarks of an elaborate, concerted campaign to combat Christianity turn out to have been central elements in the life of cultivated Christians…. Despite the best attempts of Augustine and other rigorists, the Roman literary tradition played a vital and continuing role in shaping the thought-world of Christians, both at the time and in the centuries to come.

This is the story that Cameron tells us with zest throughout the last half of his great book. Chapter by chapter, he passes in review nothing less than the entire history of Latin literature in the fourth and fifth centuries. He explains the humblest details of the preparation, publication, and circulation of manuscripts. He evokes the remarkable restocking of the bookshelves of late Roman readers, which ensured that authors such as Lucan, Juvenal, Pliny the Younger, and Tacitus became part of the classical tradition that was handed on to all later generations.

He also treats us to the more recondite byways of Greek knowledge of the Latin writings of the time—my favorite being the Latin word Pauper, “Mister Poor-Mouth,” preserved like a fly in amber, dutifully transliterated into Greek by a Byzantine writer when describing Constantius Chlorus, the father of Constantine. Constantius gained his name, “Poor Mouth,” through always asking his friends to lend him their silver plate whenever he gave a banquet. These chapters have few parallels in modern scholarship both for their thoroughness and for their independence of mind. They turn Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome from a necessary demolition job into a masterpiece.

It is by means of this wholehearted evocation of the power of the classical tradition in late antiquity that Cameron springs his last surprise. Without our knowing it, we have all the time been sharing the room with a very large elephant. Cameron makes a strong case that classical literature and classical art may well have bulked larger in the minds and feelings of members of the upper classes of the Western Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries than did the relatively recent conflict between Christianity and paganism.

This is a fact almost too big to be seen. Why, then, do we find it so difficult to include it in our image of the late Roman Empire? It may be because we still live in a post-Christian world. We still instinctively expect that religious beliefs must be more vivid, more calculated to touch the inner being, and, for that reason, more worthy either of respect or of fear than is “mere” culture. But in the fourth century, this was not necessarily the case. Culture was not a default surrogate for religion. For many the classical literature and art and the sense of history and language that were central to culture, inherited from the deep past of Rome, were, in effect, the religion. It was a religion in which all members of the ruling class could share. It spoke with a heavier voice and elicited a thrill of numinous awe that often resonated more deeply and more widely among its devotees than did the novel tingle of sectarian loyalties. This was the elephant in the room to which Cameron draws our attention.

He proves conclusively that the enjoyment of classical culture was far from being the monopoly of die-hard pagans. Rather, he points out that it provided the middle ground where pagans and Christians could meet with equal enthusiasm. He designates those who met in this manner as “center-pagans” and “center-Christians.” Such people were far from forming a closed elite. Cameron rightly rejects such a view of the intellectual life of Rome. It “implies an implausibly simplistic social structure for so large…a city.” Indeed, “knowledge of the classics was taken far more seriously by people of modest origins.”

The social structure of the later empire favored the need to find a middle ground in the classics. Upper-class society was marked by considerable social mobility. Men of talent, many of Christian background, constantly pressed in around the old nobility. Fourth-century Rome was like the Paris of Marcel Proust, where it was possible for an aristocrat such as Monsieur de Charlus to adopt “an attitude which combines respect for clever men who are not of good family…with a fatuous satisfaction with themselves.” Fatuous aristocrats and eager parvenus alike, they all sat on the capacious back of the elephant.

Nor was the pursuit of classical literature and art a trivial preoccupation. It carried with it the heavy voice of wealth and power. Poems and silverware, exquisite cameos and great circus games: like the treasures of his ancestors stored in the muniment room of the Prince of Salina’s palace in The Leopard, they all spoke of

wealth…transmitted into ornament, luxury, pleasure…like an old wine [that] had let the dregs of greed, even of care and prudence, fall to the bottom, leaving only verve and color.

And wealth was what held them all together—pagans and Christians alike.

Last but not least, what does this tell us about the Christianity of the period? In the first place, it shows that the most vocal exponents of a radical and intransigent Christianity—the “rigorists,” to use Cameron’s term, when speaking of figures such as Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome—were very much to one side of the elephant. The high ground on the back of the beast was occupied by any number of “center-Christians” sharing their privileged ride with “center-pagans” who differed little from them in tastes and manners. While Cameron’s “last pagans” may not have cut as fine a figure as their admirers might have wished, it is the “center-Christians” who emerge as the unsung heroes of his book.

One might add a further dimension to Cameron’s vivid picture. Christians did more than share with zest in the classical tradition that they held in common with pagans of the same class and sensibilities. Paradoxically, in the long run, it was they who kept alive the memory of the old religion. As Cameron puts it, “Paganism lasted much longer for Christians than pagans.”

One wonders why this was so. Let me suggest an answer. Christianity had brought into the Roman world the notion of an unresolved conflict with the past. For Christians from the time of Saint Paul onward the issue had always been how much of the past should be allowed to linger in the present and how much could be declared to have been irrevocably transcended by the coming of Christ. For this reason, Christians had battled for centuries about how much the Old Testament could be allowed to linger in their own present. The shrill “supersessionism” that characterized so many Christian attitudes toward Judaism was always held in check by a reverent sense that the Old Testament would never go away. Though caught in the depths of time, the world of the Old Testament stood for a great might-have-been—for a majestic alternative to modern times.

It seems to me that the same imaginative dynamic came into play as Christians thought about the pagan past. To take one example: many members of Augustine’s congregation treated paganism as if it was the Old Testament past to their own fourth-century Christian present. Like the Old Testament, it maintained an aura of bygone majesty. They even told Augustine that they considered the punctilious regulations of pontifical lore that characterized pagan cults in Rome just as worthy of reverence as were the rites of the Temple of Jerusalem described in the Old Testament.

I would also suggest that the solution for the conundrum of a past that would not go away was found in the Christian notion of “the world.” The “things of Christ” and the “things of this world” were starkly contrasted; and the contrast was thought to last until the end of time. This was a somber view of history. But it met a need. Having officially triumphed over paganism, what the Christian church lacked was what any institution with a sense of momentum must have: an explanation not only for its successes but for its failures. The enduring resistance of “the world” provided this explanation. In the words of James O’Donnell in his recent biography of Augustine:

But now “the world” was invented in a new sense: the world of temptations of the flesh and worldliness without religious overtones…. Even if every form of overtly religious opposition to Christianity were to be eliminated, the “world” would remain implacable and opposed.

This view might seem to open up a gloomy prospect for the future. Paradoxically, for the “center-Christians” perched on top of the elephant, the notion of “the world” came as good news. Their pursuit of classical literature, of classical art, and of traditions of magnificence rooted in the classical world were declared not to be pagan. No eerie sense of the demonic flickered around them. They were simply “worldly.” And “worldly” was a capacious term. There were degrees of worldliness just as there were degrees of sin. Compared with murder and adultery, reading Vergil was, if anything, no more than a pardonable lapse. It no longer involved crossing the charged frontier between two religions.

There was room in the Christian imagination for such a thing as “soft” worldliness, which came very close at times to our modern, neutral notion of the “secular.” The love of the classics might need to be disciplined, but it was there to stay. Memories of pagan Rome were as unlikely to disappear abruptly at the touch of Christianity as was the ancient glory of Israel. For the next thousand years, the “worldly” pursuit of the classics—with all the wisdom, the sensuality, and the sheer joy in a high skill that they conveyed to persons of worldly disposition (many of whom were members of the clergy!)—enjoyed a tacit license to exist. They lay in gentle shade, caught by the luminous penumbra of the black shadow cast by “the world” over all human activities.

Since the last days of paganism in Rome, knowledge of the classics has enriched the culture of Europe with the thrill of an ever-present might-have-been—a charmed, pre-Christian world that, like the Old Testament, refused to be exiled to the distant past. European culture would not have been so rich or so flexible if these majestic ghosts from the past had not come to haunt Christians through the centuries. Hence the enduring importance of the period that Alan Cameron has brought back to us—shorn of false melodrama but bursting with rare energy—in his masterly and zestful book.


The Tenacity of Paganism June 9, 2011

  1. *

    University of California Press, 2010.