So when did paganism really, finally, end? This is a question that depends on a series of further questions, of definition, interpretation, and context. Above all, it depends on constantly changing perceptions of paganism. Many people still claim to be pagans (a student once gave me a “born-again pagan” button), but nowadays that implies a rejection of established religion that was alien to ancient paganism. If we define paganism as the civic cults of the pre-Christian Graeco-Roman world, official Roman paganism really did effectively end with the disappearance of the priestly colleges in the early fifth century. To use the term in the wider but well-established sense of any and all religious beliefs and practices that preceded conversion in what became Christian societies, Gothic paganism ended in the mid-fourth century, Viking paganism not till the mid-twelfth. We should not confuse the end of paganism with the victory of Christianity, nor should we assume that it was active pagan opposition that kept certain pagan practices alive.
A mass of evidence for pagan “resistance” from all over the Roman (and postRoman) world was thrown together in a curiously haphazard but (as always) lively and entertaining book by MacMullen.1 But since the evidence is virtually all Christian, that makes it peculiarly difficult to use. The non-Christian evidence consists almost entirely of Neoplatonist biographies, thanks to which we are remarkably well informed about the philosophers of fifth-century Athens and Alexandria, colorful characters disproportionately prominent in modern accounts of the last pagans. But there can never have been more than a few dozen of them at any one time, and they kept to themselves.2 According to Lizzi Testa, “The most intractable problem lies in reconstructing pagan attitudes through hostile Christian sources, which are often apt to exaggerate.”3 Actually, the problem is far more complex than just exaggeration. Many Christian texts imply situations that a modern (or contemporary pagan) observer would have described entirely differently.
Traditional religious practices no doubt lingered in remote country areas for many years, in some cases for centuries. John of Ephesus famously claimed to have converted seventy thousand pagans and built ninety-six churches in mid-sixth-century
1. MacMullen 1997; see too the less lively volumes of Trombley 1993–94.
2. Chuvin 1990; Cameron 2007, 21–46.
3. Lizzi Testa 1990, 161.