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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.*

  1. *

    University of California Press, 2010. 

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