Ever since Gibbon enumerated the “secondary” causes for the spread of Christianity (the primary cause, naturally, being “the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself”), historians have sought to trace, date, and account for the Christianization of the Roman world. It is clear that the conversion of Constantine was a turning point, though there is less agreement about the extent of pre-Constantinian Christianity. Thanks to the support of a succession of Christian emperors and an aggressive church, by the beginning of the fifth century paganism was in rapid decline. What this book seeks to discover is how rapid (and how defiant) this decline was.
Until recently, it was taken for granted that the fourth-century Roman world was divided straightforwardly between pagans and Christians. The question was how to determine the relative proportions and the date and rate of conversion from one to the other. But not only are we faced with all the usual problems of the ancient historian about lack and quality of evidence. Even more problematic is the assumption that these are the sort of questions we could answer if only we had more evidence. It should be recognized straightaway that they are questions only a Christian would have asked at the time:
The image of a society neatly divided into “Christian” and “pagan” is the
creation of late fourth-century Christians, and has been too readily taken at its
face value by modern historians. Unlike Christianity, with its growing world-
wide cohesiveness, “paganism” was a varied group of cults and observances… It
existed only in the minds, and, increasingly, the speech-habits, of Christians.
As Henry Chadwick charmingly put it, “Pagans did not know they were pagans until the Christians told them they were.”1 Even then, no pagan would have thought of himself as a pagan except in relation to Christians.
It is also a problem that we have so few conversion stories—for the aristocracy, none. Fascinating as Augustine’s incomparable account of his own conversion is, such confessions are always misleading in one way or another. More important in the present context, Augustine had never really been a pagan. We have the outline of a conversion for one minor member of the nobility, a certain Firmicus Maternus, vir
1. Markus 1990, 28; Chadwick 1985, 9.