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The Tenacity of Paganism

In response to:

Paganism: What We Owe the Christians from the April 7, 2011 issue

To the Editors:

Peter Brown begins his review of Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome [NYR, April 7] with the statement that paganism in Rome included a variety of rites and celebrations, practically all of which died out in the fourth and fifth centuries. This indeed was the story of the public cults that depended on expenditures by the senatorial class (at best, a tenth of one percent of the population). However, for the elite and everyone else, too, far better attested were the rites and celebrations of graveside ancestor worship.

Paganism in this universal and immemorial form continued in Rome for many centuries past the period Professor Brown deals with, much of it in huge glorified and roofed-over cemeteries such as St. Peter’s, San Lorenzo, San Sebastiano, and others that Constantine had paid for. Here, the increasing number of Christian families could feast and celebrate their dead, including those whom they specially honored since the third century—the saints. In this sense or form, paganism continued for the masses, leaving the elite to make other arrangements that Professor Brown describes very eloquently.

Ramsay MacMullen
Dunham Professor of History
and Classics, Emeritus
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut

Peter Brown replies:

As a reader of Professor MacMullen’s learned and provocative book, The Second Church: Popular Christianity A.D. 200–400, I would, of course, agree that the fading away of official paganism in Rome tells us little or nothing about the tenacity of what many call “pagan survivals” within the Christian church. At just the same time that solemn aristocrats found their priesthoods declared redundant, the courtyard of St. Peter’s echoed to the shouts of merry Christian banqueters, toasting their dead loved ones.

The history of late antiquity (as MacMullen well knows) is full of such enticing juxtapositions. But Alan Cameron’s book was not about such people. Its was about the fate of elite priests in fourth-century Rome. My business as a reviewer was, first and foremost, to summarize the thrust of the book as faithfully as possible. I trust that I did so. Now we can go on to a wider view. And in taking that wider view, the work of Professor MacMullen is an abundant and thought-provoking guide.

Whether everything that average Christians did was automatically “pagan” and a “survival” of pagan practice is less certain for me than it is for Professor MacMullen. His work seems to take too seriously the denunciations of the clergy—for whom any practice other than their own austere version of Christianity seemed suspect and vaguely “pagan.” I would call it, simply, human. But that is a matter of opinion on which other books—books not as superbly limited to the examination of the religious and cultural activities of a proud and well-documented elite as is that of Alan Cameron—remain to be written.

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