The Last Pagans of Rome

The Last Pagans of Rome

The Last Pagans of Rome

The Last Pagans of Rome

Synopsis

Rufinus' vivid account of the battle between the Eastern Emperor Theodosius and the Western usurper Eugenius by the River Frigidus in 394 represents it as the final confrontation between paganism and Christianity. It is indeed widely believed that a largely pagan aristocracy remained a powerful and active force well into the fifth century, sponsoring pagan literary circles, patronage of the classics, and propaganda for the old cults in art and literature. The main focus of much modern scholarship on the end of paganism in the West has been on its supposed stubborn resistance to Christianity. The dismantling of this romantic myth is one of the main goals of Alan Cameron's book. Actually, the book argues, Western paganism petered out much earlier and more rapidly than hitherto assumed. The subject of this book is not the conversion of the last pagans but rather the duration, nature, and consequences of their survival. By re-examining the abundant textual evidence, both Christian (Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Paulinus, Prudentius) and "pagan" (Claudian, Macrobius, and Ammianus Marcellinus), as well as the visual evidence (ivory diptychs, illuminated manuscripts, silverware), Cameron shows that most of the activities and artifacts previously identified as hallmarks of a pagan revival were in fact just as important to the life of cultivated Christians. Far from being a subversive activity designed to rally pagans, the acceptance of classical literature, learning, and art by most elite Christiansmay actually have helped the last reluctant pagans to finally abandon the old cults and adopt Christianity. The culmination of decades of research, The Last Pagans of Rome will overturn many long-held assumptions about pagan and Christian culture in the late antique West.

Excerpt

The ruin of paganism, in the age of Theodosius, is perhaps the only example
of the total extirpation of any ancient and popular superstition; and may
therefore deserve to be considered, as a singular event in the history of the
human mind

—Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Ch. xviii

The last pagans of my title are the nobles of late fourth-century Rome. Although they spent their days moving between their grand Roman mansions and a variety of suburban villas, the oldest families owned estates all over Italy, North Africa, and many other parts of the empire, thus controlling the lives of hundreds of thousands. In the region of Hippo, according to Augustine, people said that if one particular noble converted, “no pagans would be left” Sermons of the age constantly exhort landowners to destroy pagan shrines on their land (Conclusion). Prudentius singled out for special mention the first noble families to convert to the new faith (Ch. 5. 2). Biographies of the ascetic saints of the age always stress the rank and wealth repudiated by their heroes, from the younger Melania to Honoratus of Arles. While insisting that it was of no importance, Jerome fantasized that his aristocratic groupies were descended from Camillus and the Scipios.

We are reasonably sure that by ca. 450 there were few pagan nobles left. But there is very little reliable evidence about the earliest Christians in any given family, no statistics, and no conversion stories. Fortunately, my subject is not so much the conversion of the last pagans, as how long they survived and what they did to defend the old cults. It is widely believed that pagans remained in a majority in the aristocracy till at least the 380s, and continued to remain a powerful force well into the fifth century (Ch. 5). On this basis the main focus of much modern scholarship has been on their supposedly stubborn resistance to Christianity. Rather surprisingly, 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 (especially Greek) culture as well as the traditional cults. The dismantling of this romantic myth is one of the main goals of this book.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.