How late do we find pagan writers revealing their paganism in their writings? Once upon a time this seemed an easy question. Mythological poets like Claudian and Nonnus were unhestitatingly identified as pagans, defiant pagans. Nowadays we make more allowance for the influence of the literary tradition on Christian writers in secular genres. There are a number of Latin writers of the late fourth and early fifth centuries whose religious beliefs have been repeatedly debated over the years: Ausonius, Claudian, Rutilius Namatianus, Macrobius, Martianus Capella, Pacatus Drepanius, to name the most prominent.
It is often claimed of writers who fall into this category that such and such a passage “could not have been written by a Christian.” At best, this means that a well-informed and observant Christian is not likely to have written thus. But a poorly informed or not very pious Christian might have. And even a well-informed and observant Christian might have if he was writing in a classicizing genre, for example an epithalmium or a panegyric, whether in prose or (especially) verse. If all we had from the pen of Sidonius Apollinaris was his imperial panegyrics, and we knew nothing about his life beyond these poems, it might well have been argued that he was a pagan. It might have seemed surprising to find a pagan celebrating (as Sidonius did) Christian emperors of the 450s and 460s, but the Egyptian pagan Pamprepius briefly enjoyed high favor at court in Constantinople in the late 470s.1 The survival of Sidonius’s correspondence puts it beyond doubt that he had always been a Christian, who eventually entered the church and ended his days as a bishop. As late as 468 (his panegyric on Anthemius), audiences at western courts clearly still enjoyed classicizing poetry full of the old mythology.
All too often, having inferred, usually on the basis of just one or two passages, that one of these writers is a pagan, some critics at once take the further steps of assuming that he must therefore have been hostile to Christianity, assign him to “pagan circles,” and then look for signs of covert polemic. The polemic is always covert, never open, because (we are assured) pagans did not dare to speak their mind openly. Alföldi, Straub, and Chastagnol are the classic exponents. More recently, here is Shanzer, writing on Martianus Capella: “Too often a discreet silence on the part of a pagan author is taken for lack of conviction, rather than a refusal to recognize Christianity and an unwillingness to get involved in the possible legal consequences of professed
1. Cameron in Bagnall 2007.