PAGANS AND POLYTHEISTS
How did Latin paganus come to acquire its most famous meaning? The earliest documented meaning was apparently “rural,” from pagus, a rural district. But to judge from surviving texts, the dominant meaning by the early empire was “civilian,” as opposed to “military.” Finally, soon after the middle of the fourth century, quite suddenly we find it as the standard Latin designation for non-Christians. It is less well known that by as early as the first century the word had passed into Greek (), where it still survives in the modern language—but only in the second of these three meanings.1 How did the religious sense develop?2 And why did it not develop in Greek?
Medieval writers assumed the rural derivation, on the ground that pagan practices tended to linger longest in the countryside.3 So Baronius (1586), assuming that Christians dismissed nonbelievers contemptuously as country bumpkins. This seems to be the dominant view today.4 Yet there are major objections. In the first place, this is not a perspective likely to have occurred to anyone as early as the fourth century, when, at any rate in the Latin-speaking western provinces, the primary and most conspicuous focus of paganism was still the city cults, presided over by the city elites, above all (as we shall see) in Rome itself.5 Second, paganus is never used like rusticus or agrestis for “coarse” or “uncouth.”6 Notoriously, rusticitas stands for lack of polish and sophistication in Ovid,7 but his one use of paganus, in a brief account of a rural festival, is entirely respectful.8 Three examples in Apuleius all carry the sense “villagers” or “locals,” again
1. LSJ, Lampe and Preisigke, s.v.; H. Cuvigny and G. Wagner, ZPE 62 (1986), at 66–67 and P. Oxy. 3758, dated to 325; Grégoire and Orgels 1952, at 363–400.
2. Zeiller 1917; for more texts and a more systematic classification, Flury in TLL x. 1 (1982), 78–83 (add Aug. Ep. 11. 5. 2 Divjak and many examples in the new sermons published by F. Dolbeau); Mohrmann 1965, 277–89; Bickel 1954, 1–47; Demougeot 1956, 337–50; O’Donnell 1977, 163–69; Chuvin 2002, 7–15; Kahlos 2007, 22–26.
3. Le Goff 1980, 92–94.
4. “the term pagani, meaning inhabitants of the rural pagi, became synonymous with non-Christians,” C. R. Whittaker, CAH xiii (1998), 308; Fowden 1993 and Athanassiadi/Frede 1999 below; Kahlos 2002, 6.
5. See (e.g.), Rives 1995; rural cults may have been more prominent in the East: Lane Fox 1987, 41–46.
6. So rightly Bickel 1954, 26–27; the closest example is Pliny, NH 28. 28.
7. Hollis 1977, 129–30.
8. Pagus agat festum: pagum lustrate, coloni,/et date paganis annua libafocis, Ov. Fasti i. 669–70; annua pastorum convivia, lusus in urbe,/cum pagana madent fercula divitiis, Propertius iv. 4. 75–76.