The Last Pagans of Rome by Alan Cameron
Book Review by Philip Matyszak
Paganism came to an end in Rome during the early fifth century AD. The question is whether Rome's last pagans went out with a bang or a whimper. This book, by one of the foremost scholars of late antiquity, is a closely argued thesis in favour of the 'out with a whimper' school of thought. As a thesis, this book takes little time to accommodate the newcomer to late antiquity. It is assumed that, even if not fully up to speed with the latest research on the late fourth and early fifth century, the reader is reasonably clear about the major events and personalities of the period. Those who are uncertain about the participants or chronology of battles such as Adrianople or the Frigidus are advised to revise this and much else before approaching this book.
It is also important to note that this is not a narrative description of paganism's last days in the Roman empire. For a start, the emphasis is almost exclusively on Rome and the last pagans in that city, with occasional excursions to Constantinople for comparative purposes. We see this focus, for example, when Cameron says 'there were no pagan martyrs'. The famous case of Hypatia aside, the writer is undoubtedly aware of the Acta Alexandrinorum, popularly called 'The Acts of the Pagan Martyrs'. However, this latter book is in no way relevant to the author's thesis. There were no pagan martyrs in the city of Rome (and precious few elsewhere, if it comes to that).
Secondly, the reader is presumed to be aware of the narrative history of the period, so the text does not follow a basic chronology. Instead, after a brief introduction, Cameron examines and partly deconstructs that chronology and the underlying ideas behind it in over eight hundred pages of closely argued text. The target is the 'big bang' theory of the end of paganism, which Cameron believes did not happen. Before we turn to his text, it may be worth reviewing the hypothesis under attack. This theory runs very approximately as follows:
Paganism in Rome at the end of the fourth century was under violent attack from Christian intolerance. This intolerance forced the banning of sacrifices, and - most appalling of all - the removal of the statue of Victory from the senate house in Rome. The pagans of Rome included wealthy and influential aristocrats. These responded by supporting the pro-pagan Eugenius as emperor in the west in the hope of reviving their ancient status. The Christian emperor Theodosius crushed the pagans militarily at the battle of the Frigidus, and with it he crushed the last hope of preventing the Christianization of the west.
Theodosius went on to Rome where he urged the senate to see the error of their ways, and senators converted to Christianity in droves. However, Rome's pagans went down fighting. They moved the battle to the intellectual sphere by promoting works such as the Aeneid, which glorified Rome's pagan past. The younger Flavianus wrote a hugely influential history stressing the glories of the pagan republic, and the Saturnalia of Macrobius - apparently the record of harmless after-dinner conversation - was in fact a subtle counter to Christian writers such as Jerome and Augustine.
The Last Pagans of Rome is all about painstakingly and exhaustively dismantling this thesis. As such it is a weighty and fascinating work of scholarship in which the writer brings to bear his decades of experience at the forefront of studies of late antiquity. Sweeping conclusions there may be, but each is based on dozens, if not hundreds of pages of tight analysis which tests every piece of the available evidence to the limit. (And in the humble opinion of this reviewer, occasionally beyond that limit.)
The book begins by pointing out that it is not immediately obvious what a pagan was - or is, for that matter. Cameron makes a very good case that 'pagan' was not originally a derogatory or demeaning term, although some Christian writers certainly tried to make it so. Rather, to the Romans a 'pagan' was simply an outsider, one who was not a member of a particular group, community or circle. Thus to the army, a pagan was any non-soldier. To citified types such as Cicero, pagans were rustics, and to Christians, pagans were non-believers. As Cameron points out, before Christianity there were no pagans. Just because Christians saw pagans as a single group, the pagans themselves did not do so. Neoplatonists had little in common with worshippers of Isis.
From here, Cameron goes on to convincingly knock away almost every prop in the 'big bang' thesis. Sacrifice in Rome was not banned. State subsidies for sacrifice were banned, and later public sacrifice as well. The statue of Victory was not removed, but the accompanying altar was. The Frigidus was not a showdown between Christians and pagans, but a political clash which happened to feature pagans but also Christians of different persuasions on both sides. The idea that this was the final armed confrontation with paganism did not exist at the time, but is an invention of later Christian writers.
Then comes a study of the pagan intellectual resistance, which makes up the most substantial part of the book. This entails textual analysis at a depth to which even many historians do not regularly plunge. The dating and even authorship of sometimes relatively obscure texts is based on not just their style, but on 'echoes' of that style by other authors. It is here that one feels that Cameron is working at the very limits of the evidence.
For example the authorship of a particular text the Carmen contra paganos is attributed to Damasus on stylistic grounds, though Cameron admits 'it is never possible to ascribe an anonymous work with complete certainty'. Yet by p.317 this text is referred to as 'indisputably Damasus'. When I queried this with him Cameron remarked 'The argument ... is more than just stylistic. The shared avoidance of 'et ' [here and in a text known to be by Damasus] is such an extreme and unparalleled feature that I think it really does settle the question'. Thus by p.327 'we know' that the author of the CCP was Damasus and this fact is used as the basis for further conclusions.
In short, given the state of the evidence, one has the impression that Cameron is forced occasionally not only to make bricks with a severely limited amount of straw, but to go on to use those bricks to build an entire case. That he succeeds is a testament to his immense knowledge of both the period and earlier Roman history. It is startling and instructive to read a modern historian magisterially correcting the misunderstandings of late Roman 'pagans' about their own fetial and pontifical procedures. ('Pagans' is given in quotes as Cameron also demonstrates that not all writers perceived as pagan were necessarily so.) Overall, it is hard to dispute his conclusion that the late antique enthusiasm for Vergil was shared by pagan and Christian alike, and the intellectual resistance simply did not happen.
- ...more Book Reviews!
- The Last Pagan by A. Murdoch
- Empire at Bay by S. Williams
- Gods of Rome by R. Turcan
The last pagans in Rome were busy administrators who happened not to be Christian. Most of the Christians with whom they dealt likewise did not see the issues of the day purely in terms of who worshipped what. This was after all a time when the Roman empire was undergoing huge changes, with invading armies sweeping across the provinces and economic collapse a stark reality.
While there were fanatics - mainly on the Christian side - for most aristocratic Romans religious belief was simply not the deciding factor in the issues of the day. However, conversion was a convenient option in an ever more Christian empire, and Rome's last pagans eventually succumbed - with hardly a whimper.