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
—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”1 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.2 While insisting that it was of no importance, Jerome fantasized that his aristocratic groupies were descended from Camillus and the Scipios.3
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,4 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.
1. Ille nobilis, si Christianus esset, nemo remaneretpaganus, Aug. Enarr. in Ps. 54.13.
2. Vita Melaniae, passim; Hilarius, Vita Honorati 4. 2.
3. Jerome, Epp. 54.1, 4; 108.1, 34.
4. Now treated in detail, from various angles, by Salzman 2002: see too Ch. 5. 2.