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…

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