BY JAMES J. O’DONNELL
Traditio 35(1979), 45-88
There exists a large, remarkably homogeneous literature on the conflict between paganism and Christianity in the last decades of the fourth century.[]This study is a preliminary attempt to re-examine that conflict and point out new lines for interpretation of familiar evidence. A redefinition of our conceptions of what paganism was at this period will be followed by a close study of the men and events around whom the traditional narratives of its last revivals have been constructed. A concluding section will outline the ways in which, according to the new definitions proposed here, paganism may be said to have survived its apparent destruction.
This is only, to repeat, a preliminary study. It focuses chiefly upon the same relatively narrow body of evidence which has formed the core of previous studies of the subject, in an attempt to show how even that evidence is susceptible of some radically new interpretations. The ideas contained in this paper grew out of a long-standing fascination with Augustine’s De civitate Dei and a desire to appreciate more precisely the polemical situation in which that work is to be understood. If the conclusions of this preliminary study have any merit, they will need to be refined and strengthened by further work on just such subjects as Augustine’s monument of apologetic. It is to facilitate such work and to excite discussion that this paper is published now.
Ammianus on Julian: ‘Illud autem erat inclemens, obruendum perenni silentio, quod arcebat docere magistros rhetoricos et grammaticos ritus Christiani cultores.’[] Hard words for the historian’s hero: perilously close to a kind of damnatio memoriae, in fact. The vehemence surprises because non-Christian religious ideas were something which Julian and Ammianus shared, something which helped make Julian a figure Ammianus depicted with sympathy and obvious pleasure. But Ammianus has another surprise for us: the same criticism is repeated, in many of the same words, at a later place in Ammianus’ account, when the achievements of the dead emperor are being assessed.[] Ammianus is not given to repeating himself.
Such an apparent inconcinnity makes a useful point of departure for a study which grows out of the conviction that the phenomenon of paganism in the late fourth century is more complex and confusing than the standard treatments seem to appreciate.[] That there was less homogeneity in the pagan ‘movement’ than has often been assumed can be seen further in an event which followed the death of Julian.
Julian died in battle on the Persian front. In retrospect we can see that his attempt to replace the Christian Church with an institutionalized Roman official religion died with him, but that need not have been the case. With Julian at the front was a close friend and associate, Saturninius Secundus Salutius.[] Secundus Salutius had been with Julian, with one brief interruption, since he joined him in Gaul in the late 350s; he was appointed praetorian prefect for the Orient when Julian moved to take over the machinery of imperial government in 361. In the administration of government, no man would have been closer to the throne. Himself a non-Christian, he would be the principal instrument of Julian’s religious policies. And yet, placed in such a position of importance in a tendentiously anti-Christian regime, he won a reputation for mildness. Christians praised him as a fair-minded administrator; he seems to have protected at least one bishop from Julian’s wrath.[] Another Christian source praised him for discouraging Julian from torturing Christians.[] Rightly or wrongly, Secundus Salutius was credited with exerting a moderating influence on Julian’s more fanatical anti-Christian tendencies; in that attitude, he seems to have resembled Ammianus.
When Julian died, Secundus Salutius was an obvious candidate to succeed him on the throne. The inner circle at the head of the army canvassed several possibilities; after some sparring, the courtiers of the palace and the rougher military elite settled on Secundus Salutius as the best compromise choice. A remarkable thing then happened: the candidate declined the post, on grounds of age and ill-health. In the ensuing turmoil, Jovian was acclaimed by the troops and took the purple.[] But Jovian was a Christian, at least nominally. Thus in a moment of crisis for the transition of imperial power, the pagan ‘party’ around Julian let power slip away from them — or so it would seem. Whatever disabilities Secundus Salutius sensed from his advancing years and declining vigor did not prevent him from continuing to serve in the demanding post of praetorian prefect for four more years, or from rebounding after numerous well-attested efforts to oust him, before finally capitulating to the last, successful intrigue. At the very least, it would seem, Secundus Salutius could have taken the throne himself, sacrificing his own last months or years to presiding over a caretaker administration while seeking out a suitable successor who might carry out the policies of Julian.[] By co-opting such a successor to the throne at the earliest opportunity, Secundus Salutius could have protected himself and the interests of paganism very easily.
A large assumption underlies our puzzlement at this turn of events. We accept as given a picture of fourth-century politics dominated by a conflict between two opposing factions: paganism and Christianity. We see in Julian an authentic representative of the frustrated adherents of the old religion, disgusted after years of the pro-Christian policies of Constantine and his sons. We assume that his movement was supported, openly or privately, by that substantial portion of the citizenry of the empire which had not yet given its heart to the new state religion. It is for that reason that it surprises us to see an adherent of Julian let the throne slip from his grasp and fall back into the hands of the hated Christians. The episode of Secundus Salutius, like the curious attitude of Ammianus noticed above, should warn us at the very least that the pagan ‘party’ was subject to division and disagreement. But it has always proved difficult for modern students to put aside their partisanship long enough to see these complexities. On the contrary, the scholarship on the subject takes a resolutely simple position: there were Christians in this period, and those who did not accept the new faith were pagans.[] Such a simple-minded division of society into two opposing segments is not new to the interpretation of the period. It was first introduced by the Christians themselves, who had axes to grind. The term paganus itself came into common use (only among Christians) at this period: a bit of sarcasm used behind the victim’s back, or occasionally, for the fun of it, to his face.[]
One danger of such a simple dichotomy of society is that we tend to make each side over in the other’s image. In this case, the tendency in that direction has chiefly taken the form of hypostasizing paganism as an organized, coherent movement, based on certain commonly held principles and led by striking and dynamic figures who occasionally fell out with one another over the right to control the movement.[] Sober reflection, however, should reveal the a priori unlikeliness of this situation.
The non-Christian side of society was nothing if not diverse in its religious inclinations. Ancient religion always recognized that differences of ancestry, geography, class, and culture led individuals to seek religious affiliations peculiar to themselves and to people like themselves. The panoply of religious experience in the Roman world before Constantine was simply bewildering: from back-yard fertility rites through public, state- supported cults to the mystical ascents of which Platonic philosophers wrote with such devotion — and everything between, over, under, and all around such phenomena. There were public cults indigenous to the various parts of the empire, certain generally (if often lukewarmly) accepted devotions such as that to the divinity of the emperors, and a vast array of private enthusiasms. That such a spectrum of religious experiences should produce a single-minded population capable of forming itself into a single pagan movement with which Christianity could struggle is simply not probable. It was convenient for the Christians to believe that this was the case, that the world they opposed could be so easily lumped into one hated ‘pagan’ movement. But we need not follow the Christians of the period in this easy solution to the problem.
A more reasonable approach to the problem begins this way. It is certain that by the late fourth century the word paganus could be introduced by Christian writers and thinkers to apply to something their audience would recognize. It may have been a Christian idiosyncrasy to lump all non-Christians into one mass, but it was not necessarily mere paranoia. We need not assume that the success of the term represents any essential feature of the various cults and creeds themselves. It manifests instead a growing consciousness on the part of Christianity that it was itself something different from all other creeds; that Christianity was not merely another oriental mystery cult which had gotten control of the empire by fair means or foul; that dividing the world into Christians and non- Christians was a useful intellectual distinction, not for anything held in common by non- Christians so much as for something which the Christians had which no other religious movement in the Roman Empire (except Judaism) could lay claim to.
To understand the peculiarity of Christianity (perhaps we should say its uniqueness) we may have recourse to the most famous early document of the confrontation of Roman tradition and Christian stubbornness: the exchange of letters between Pliny and Trajan.[] The texts are well-known and often discussed, yet perhaps one or two features could be profitably emphasized. Pliny had three questions for Trajan, of increasing seriousness: first, whether in punishing Christians he should make exceptions for those not of an age to be completely responsible for their actions; second, whether he should make allowance for those who repented their Christian past and abandoned the new creed; and third, whether it was the very name of ‘Christian’ that was to be punished or whether he was to examine for crimes committed as a result of adherence to that faith. Trajan’s response was simple: avoid witch-hunts and punish only those who refused to make their abhorrence of Christianity public by sacrificing to ‘our gods.’[] In answering this way, Trajan was obviously speaking to the underlying concern, beyond all legalisms, which had troubled Pliny in the first place. What Pliny could not stand about these people, in fact, was their pig-headedness: ‘Neque enim dubitabam, qualecumque esset quod faterentur, pertinaciam certe et inflexibilem obstinationem debere puniri.’[]
Why did the Christians seem so obnoxiously stubborn to a good Roman magistrate like Pliny? And why did Trajan settle upon the particular device of requiring Christians who would deny their faith to sacrifice? Both of these features of the Pliny-Trajan correspondence seem rooted in precisely the feature of Christianity which we have been seeking. It is characteristic of Christian doctrine to hold not only that the worship of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is a good and beneficial form of latreia for men to perform, but also that it is the only way to salvation. The doctrines of Christianity claim to be true and salvific in a way which no other religious movement in the world ever has been or ever can be. In a world in which differences of religious opinion were assumed to be perfectly normal and natural results of a polytheistic universe (‘I worship my god, you worship yours, and we may both be doing the right thing, for there are many different ways in which man can profitably come into contact with divinity’), this insistence on the exclusivity of one’s own cult is more than an annoyance; it threatens the whole basis of the peaceful coexistence of religious cults in society. To be sure, Christian exclusivity owed a great deal to the Jewish monotheism out of which it grew; but Judaism in antiquity was exclusive in a narrow sense only. Judaism held that it was itself the only acceptable form of worship, but held further that this worship was the private property of a chosen people, a special nation set apart by God to enjoy His blessings. Where Christianity differed crucially from Judaism, from a Roman’s point of view, was in its proselytizing spirit. Christians held not only that theirs was the only acceptable form of worship, but that it was incumbent upon all mankind to accept the tenets of their creed. For — and this is the central point — those beliefs were not merely useful, probable, or edifying: they were completely and absolutely true. Christianity possessed a privileged narrative of the salvation history of mankind as a whole; and it was the duty of Christians to bring that story to the unconverted world, to reproach unbelievers with their sin and ignorance. Christianity was thus always, from an official point of view, an uncivilized kind of religion, taking itself too seriously, and threatening the placidity with which society pursued, none too energetically, its religious destiny.
Hence the stubborn inflexibility which annoyed Pliny; but from the same source sprang the cure Trajan proposed. It might be easy enough for a man in fear for his life to mumble vague promises that he would not associate with his Christian friends any more; but Christianity had an annoying doctrine of penance and remission of sins which such mild apostates could take advantage of.[] i Requiring sacrifice to acceptable Roman deities was a stroke of political genius; a public act of worship of the gods of the gentes (whom the Christians believed to be evil demons) was impossible for anyone whose Christianity meant anything to him at all. It was the ultimate rejection of the Christian’s characteristic belief in the exclusivity of Christian doctrine and worship. And even for those whose own belief might be latitudinarian enough to tolerate a gesture of respect toward the imperial cult, there was peer-pressure to be reckoned with. Such an act of public apostasy was the gravest kind of sin, for it threw the individual’s sincerity of belief permanently into doubt with his fellow Christians. Any Christian who complied with the requirement of sacrifice might confidently expect no end of trouble if he attempted then to convince his co-religionists that he was still a loyal Christian at heart. Both of the great persecutions of Christianity, those of Decius and Diocletian, led to serious disagreements and, in the latter case, to open schism in the African church over just this issue; Cyprian’s De lapsis was an attempt to settle the earlier disagreements, but such pacification of the puritanical wing of Christianity proved fruitless fifty years later. Donatist rejection of traditores, churchmen who had complied with the demands of the persecutors, led to the gravest and longest-lasting disorder the African church ever knew. And it was the consistent Roman policy of demanding, not (as one might expect) rejection of one’s own cult, but formal acceptance of another, that achieved this divisive impact with the minimum expenditure of effort. From the time of Trajan onward, Roman authorities realized that it was not necessary to tear Christians loose from their own sect, but only to coerce acceptance of some other cult; the stubbornness of the Christians themselves would accomplish the rest of the imperial policy.
I propose, therefore, that it is this unique feature of Christianity which makes the most sense of a division of Roman society in the fourth century into Christians and pagans. Pagans, by this interpretation, were those who held religion to be a largely private matter in which a variety of creeds and cults could exist side by side. One’s own private devotion to a particular deity stemmed perhaps from particular personal experience of the benevolence of that deity in a crisis, or from the habits of one’s family or associates, or from chance enthusiasm. At the same time, even (perhaps especially) the most philosophical of men recognized alternate forms of worship as profitable. This attitude is proverbial as far back as the time of Cicero: philosophical skeptics participating in the public cults for the good of society, reserving to their inner circle of philosophical friends their true interpretation of the rites in which they participated. Clearly this kind of paganism is not itself so much a religion or a religious movement as it is an attitude toward religion — a particularly tolerant one, at that.
The point of difference between such individuals and zealous Christians, therefore, was just this attitude toward religion. But it must be emphasizedthat the line between pagans and Christians was considerably more blurred than it has been the custom to assume. For there was nothing in Christianity, as it presented itself to the masses of new converts who came to its embrace after its rise to be the state religion, which absolutely forbade men from privately regarding their Christianity with the peculiarly ‘pagan’ attitude which I have just been describing. To a fourth-century pagan, in fact, just as to many modern scholars, the unique characteristics of Christianity might not have been immediately obvious. It could be regarded as just another mystery cult from the East, and Christ could be taken as simply another powerful mediator between the human and divine levels of existence.
For once it is admitted that paganism was not a religion but an attitude toward religion, it is necessary to admit that persons formally devoted to any religion can entertain that attitude. The converse is true as well: the Christians need not have had any monopoly on exclusivity. While the attitude of society at large may have been one of tolerance toward individual religion, nothing inherent in the nature of man prevented individuals devoted to non-Christian cults from making the same kinds of claims for their own worship that Christians made for theirs. In summary, it is necessary to look upon the religious sociology of the fourth century with two separate (if often, and confusingly, overlapping) distinctions in mind: that between worshippers of Christ and worshippers of other gods; and that between men who could accept a plurality of worships and those who insisted on the validity of a single form of religious experience to the exclusion of all others.
In this light, the anomalies of history which formed the point of departure for this paper can be convincingly explained. Both of them center upon the oddity of the individual case of the Emperor Julian and his own religious activities.
For there was one thing about the young Julian that set him apart from the mass of his fellow non-Christians in the fourth century: he began life as a Christian himself, with a Christian tutor.[] i Whether or not we can believe that the ‘revival’ of paganism which he undertook was deliberately modeled on the outward forms of Christianity, what remains is that Julian’s first ideas of religion came from Christianity. In his youth, he would have been imbued with something of the same ideology which modern scholars have themselves uncritically accepted, that there were just the two kinds of religion in the Roman Empire, Christianity and paganism. Trained at first to believe in the exclusive, absolute truth of Christianity, in his maturity Julian abandoned the faith of his youth for the opposition. But it is not too much to assert that Julian took with him from Christianity in large measure that attitude toward religion which Christianity particularly fostered.
Thus Julian made an odd sort of pagan. His decree forbidding Christians to teach the ancient classics was only the most obvious indication of his ‘unpagan’ attitude. Ammianus, a man whose paganism was untainted — as best we can tell — by any youthful fling with Christianity, represents a typically pagan response to the intolerance and zeal of Julian; for zeal and intolerance were the weapons of the Christians. On principle one did not use those weapons oneself; once they were legitimized, there was no longer any logical way to limit their use. So various were the cults and creeds of the empire that it would not be long before Julian’s revived paganism, even if it were successful in pushing Christianity back into the shadows, would find itself torn by internal dissension, as powerful men tried to make their own cult predominate.
Ammianus was thus willing to be vehement about only one thing in the matter of religion: a belief that vehemence in pressing one’s beliefs was inappropriate. The ultimate failure of paganism to make any successful stand against Christianity is foreshadowed in this attitude; a liberal attitude of gentlemanly indifference is always at a disadvantage when faced with zealotry.
The curious matter of Julian’s succession can be understood in the light of this appreciation of Julian’s peculiarities. We need not assume that Secundus Salutius, a man renowned in Christian authors for his tolerance of Christians and his tempering influence on the emperor’s zealotry, shared Julian’s ‘unpagan’ attitude toward religion. At the same time, nothing forces us to assume that the successful military emperors, like Jovian and after him Valentinian, who gave their allegiance to the Christian creed, were themselves — such was the temper of the age — as fanatical in their devotion to their religion as their bishops might have wished them to be. In fact, it seems characteristic of the Christian emperors of the fourth century down to Valentinian and Valens that they were almost all less than wholeheartedly devoted to the harsh pagan-Christian dichotomy which the ecclesiastical authorities tried to propagate. In religion, their tastes tended toward Arianism and semi- Arianism (a heresy notoriously adaptable to classicizing philosophical notions,[] open to the interpretation that the less-than- fully-divine Jesus was merely a mediator between the human and the divine, like any of the pagan deities), and their policy toward paganism tended toward lenience (tempered only by a revulsion from magical arts and nocturnal sacrifices — no doubt because those practices were so often employed in efforts to shorten the life expectancies of reigning emperors).
It is by observing this non-fanatical attitude in the Christian emperors of the mid-fourth century, and by recognizing the resemblance between this attitude and the attitude toward religion which we have identified as characteristically pagan, that we can understand the attitude of a Secundus Salutius. For it is thus altogether unlikely that the issue of the succession after Julian presented itself to him as a matter of choice between two warring factions, pagan and Christian. The pagan cults had little to fear as yet from Christian emperors; to be sure, Constantine and Constantius had pursued the advantage of their own cult while they reigned, yet no more so than did Julian, no more so than any emperor might be expected to do. Religious freedom for all seemed guaranteed (and the most easy- going of pagans might well have been relieved that the earlier policy of persecution of Christians had been abandoned — an intolerant policy distasteful to execute), and the decision on the succession could be made on other, more serious grounds. In that light the selection of a vigorous military man, of whatever religious persuasion, became the most important consideration as the Roman army teetered on the brink of disorder and rout in the crisis following Julian’s death.
To be sure, Secundus Salutius was proved right by events, at least in the short run. Not until after the death of Valens, when Gratian was joined on the throne by Theodosius, did the imperial court become devoted to the repression of the non-Christian cults — and, significantly enough, it began acting at almost the same moment for the final repression and defeat of Arianism.[] The long period of mutual toleration between Arianizing emperors and the non- Christian part of their subject population ended swiftly and unexpectedly after the disaster at Hadrianople in 378.
It is clearly not enough, however, to assert a new interpretation of the religious movements of the fourth century on the basis of two curious turns of events: they should be looked upon as no more than symptoms of a condition which permeated Roman society. The evidence for the prevalence of this condition can be amassed from a variety of sources. Perhaps the best place to begin this general survey is still Ammianus Marcellinus: almost universally admired as a historian, while his personal allegiance to something other than Christianity is not disputed.[] From Ammianus, our view can be extended to take in the senatorial aristocracy at large — for it is the senatorial aristocracy which is usually held to be the center of the violent anti- Christian movement.
First, Ammianus. There is a great deal of superficial non- Christian religion and religiosity in and about Ammianus. Some of it is merely literary mannerism.[] Divine activity controls human history; the summum numen watches over men, caelestis cura disposes events to its satisfaction, and Fortune and Nemesis (or, less frequently, Virtus and other personifications of moral qualities) lend a hand to the governance of human affairs.[] Conventional stuff; perhaps enough for the negative conclusion that Ammianus had little sympathy for classical Epicureanism, but that is a revelation neither surprising nor important.
Ammianus does not always, moreover, use his terminology with any special care. He makes Christian emperors use the same language to describe divine intervention as he himself does when writing in his own name.[] (When he portrays the Emperor Jovian participating in sacrifices, however, we may perhaps credit Ammianus with veracity and Secundus Salutius with knowing the malleability of his candidate.[]) i That the one non-Christian emperor, Julian, holds a central place in the work is, to be sure, evidence for some of Ammianus’ sympathies; but at the same time Ammianus the soldier and patriot was at least as impressed with Julian’s personal, military, and administrative qualities as with his religious ones.
It is a diverse world of religious phenomena which Ammianus reports. Christianity obtrudes itself on our attention, but chiefly in secular connections. The Church historian gleans little information from Ammianus; when he does, it is often unsavory.[] i About non-Christian religious and quasi-religious events we are better informed. Ordinary worship of sundry gods is reported evenhandedly. Various magical arts are spoken of or alluded to, not enthusiastically but not critically. A gray area intrudes here: persons are reported to have practiced pravae artes, which sounds like black magic, and they turn out to be mere poisoners.[]Worse, i numerous cases of individuals’ using ancient techniques to divine the future are reported; but, as indicated above, imperial repression of these arts had as much to do with self-preservation as with Christian devotion. Indeed, there can be little doubt that Christian emperors are clearly and faithfully depicted as themselves believing in the veracity of the information the prognosticators provide.[] Ammianus seems to be fondest of philosophers, even when they dabble in exotic religious practices, but he loses patience with them when they turn out to be frauds — strong evidence, surely, of affection for the real thing.[]
The literary disposition of the surviving books adds one piece of information. By a rough count, twenty-two major digressions appear in books 14-31 (twenty of them in the books finished as a single unit, 14-25, only two in the six books appended last, when the narrative becomes sketchier and Ammianus seems to lose interest). Most of these deal with geography and natural history, and only incidentally mention religious lore. Four alone focus on what seem to be religious topics — all of them in books 21 to 23, covering the events between Julian’s elevation at Paris and his departure for Persia. Of these four digressions, two deal with topics about which, as we have suggested, even Christians might have been credulous: divination and oracles.[] The other two, on genii familiares and sacrificial animals, would have been repugnant to any Christian audience.[]Apart from showing Ammianus’ general interest in and approval of non-Christian religions and religious practices, the presence of these digressions provides an answer to a larger question: censorship.
For it must be answered: Was Ammianus writing under any real constraint? Did he fear that the contents of his work would be scrutinized and himself punished for them? Are his real attitudes about religion hidden behind a cloak of fear? All of Ammianus’ work was probably written at Rome, the alleged hotbed of pagan sympathies, during the central years of the supposed resistance movement, a decade or so after Gratian removed the Altar of Victory from the senate house. That he would include gratuitous digressions on religious ideas offensive to the party in power is evidence that his fear was minimal. Again, Julian’s place in the narrative indicates the author’s fearlessness.[] At the same time, something about the moderation of Ammianus’ attitudes can surely be inferred from his confinement of religious digressions to the narrative of the reign of the one emperor whose sentiments most nearly matched Ammianus’ own, and from the generally unpolemic tone of the whole work.
Still, Ammianus knows a good Christian when he sees one. He speaks respectfully of provincial bishops distinguished for the simplicity of their lives.[] He does not doubt the patriotism of a bishop who goes out to negotiate with the Persians from a besieged city and is later suspected of having betrayed it.[] He notices and admires a bishop of Rome who stands up to political pressure from the imperial court.[] But he does not seek out news about Christianity; what he has to report is therefore, as often as not, unflattering. Death and slaughter attend an election to the Roman see; political intrigue leads to religious politics of a distasteful variety. In particular, he rebukes Constantius’ theological habits with the almost humorous remark that the coming and going of bishops to synods in his reign seriously taxed the capacity of the imperial postal service.[] And yet, despite his virulent dislike for Valentinian, he claims to approve Valentinian’s noted moderation on the issue of religion.[] He even finds room to censure individuals who profess a Christian creed but engage in pagan practices frowned on by their Church.[]
The singular thing about Christianity in Ammianus is thus its unsingularity. Ammianus treats it as just another cult in the diverse world of late Rome. It is difficult to ignore our traditional pagan-Christian dichotomy and see this, but the evidence is there. Ammianus, more characteristically pagan in his attitudes than Julian, responds to Christianity by denying it the special status it claimed. To treat it sine ira et studio, fair-mindedly, with respect for the truth, was for him the best response.
Christianity simply does not deeply interest Ammianus; for that reason, and in accordance with the literary tradition of Tacitean history in which he wrote as well, much more appears in his work about pagan practices.[] Most of the participants in his dramas, insofar as they reveal their allegiance, live in a non-Christian world. Omens surround them, and come true. Ammianus reports them, and shows his credulity thereby. Julian is Ammianus’ most enthusiastic omen-watcher: excessively so, some think, and Ammianus seems to agree with them.[] He reports without comment the diversity of opinion on the interpretation of an omen affecting Julian which arose between the traditional haruspices in the imperial entourage and the more modern philosophers who surrounded Julian; the haruspices read the omen as unfavorable, the philosophers disagreed — wrongly, as it turned out.[]
Is Ammianus representative of the attitudes of non-Christian Roman society ? If we confine our examination to the Western empire at this period, the answer must be yes. To be sure, our evidence of private pagan attitudes is largely confined to the senatorial aristocracy, a further limitation on an already narrow field of study. This limitation is common to the study of Roman historians at all periods, but never more dangerous than at the time of which we speak here.
As a penetrating recent study has documented abundantly, the fourth century marked a watershed in the historical role of the senatorial aristocracy.[] The whole movement of society in the centuries after Augustus had tended to take political power and authority away from the landed aristocracy and put it into the hands of less well-born but better qualified professional administrators. The Diocletianic reforms accelerated this process. Nevertheless, in the late fourth century we must confess the occurrence of a genuine revival, of sorts, in the ranks of this aristocracy.[] Yet this was not so much general revitalization of a sleepy upper class, as it was the by- product of a growing external crisis faced by imperial government. As emperors and their courts spent more of their time exclusively on the military frontiers of the empire,[] the importance of the great landowners (in a society in which the lower and middle classes were gradually losing what liberty they had) increased — but this importance was chiefly for government at the most elemental local level. From time to time, these aristocrats won positions which they thought they deserved in the central administration of the empire; Matthews has shown clearly just how unfortunate these appointments were in practice.[] Crudely put, when the governing of the empire was left to professionals, it ran reasonably well; when handed over to wealthy amateurs, it suffered.
In the fifth and sixth centuries, if we may look ahead just a bit, the transfer of civil authority into senatorial hands continued, with unimpressive results. In fact, what occurs at this period is a division, sharper than ever before, between the military and civilian aspects of government. The rise of the senatorial aristocracy to positions of authority in the civil government parallels the fossilization of the professional bureaucracy and the increasing irrelevance of civil government to the concerns of the men who held real power in the empire: emperors, barbarian magistri militum, eventually barbarian reges like Odovacer and Theoderic. By the time of the Ostrogothic kings, the ruling tribe contented itself with holding the military forces under its direct control. The civil government had passed entirely into the hands of the senatorial aristocracy; but one sees, as often as not, that it was the largely hereditary, reasonably professional staff of civil servants who actually ran the country. The ephemeral nature of this arrangement became obvious in the late sixth century. When the Ostrogothic military forces were put to rout, the civil government collapsed shortly after, the senate itself disappeared from the stage of history, and the way was cleared for an ambitious ecclesiastic like Gregory the Great to begin assuming temporal authority over the city of Rome by sheer default.[]
Thus our period witnessed the return to some political importance of the class about whose religious opinions we know more than any other. But just as the political importance of this class, even at its height, was limited and largely dependent on the toleration of military men, so too the religious opinions of this class were of only marginal concern to anyone in the inner circles of imperial counsel. While pagan resistance may have been a political factor in the eastern half of the empire (and thus the occasion for the anti-pagan crusade of Maternus Cynegius in the 380s), no such concern is ever demonstrated by the throne in the west.[] A few Christian prelates showed some concern for putting the pagans in their place — most notably Ambrose, as we shall see — but very little survives to show serious imperial concern with the issue. What is remarkable about the imperial legislation against paganism is its matter-of-fact quality: the order was given, assumed to be executed, and promptly forgotten.[] Almost a generation after the banning of sacrifice by Theodosius in 391, additional steps were taken to oust pagans from the imperial service;[] but one may doubt whether such laws represented more than a passing fancy.
Still, the traditional interpretation of the pagan ‘revival’ of the late fourth century centers upon precisely this senatorial class. The evidence is worth reviewing, after a parenthesis. Outside the western ruling class proper, we know of several important figures in fourth-century politics and letters whose allegiance to at least some non-Christian religious ideas is not seriously doubted; they provide a useful background for our consideration of the senatorial aristocracy of Rome itself because of the similarity of their attitudes. There was Themistius, for example, a pagan sophist thriving at the Constantinopolitan court, favored by egregiously Christian emperors while practicing a policy of ‘live and let live’;[] there was Claudian, the Egyptian poet at the side of the zealously Christian Stilicho, even entering the public eye as panegyrist of two consuls from the gens Anicia, sturdiest pillar of the Christian faction in the aristocracy;[] and there was Synesius of Cyrene, always recognized as a paradoxically tolerant figure, accepting a Christian bishopric while retaining an affection for his pagan teachers (especially the bewitching Hypatia, herself murdered by a Christian mob). Now, thanks to a lucid study by Henri Marrou, we can perceive the extent and depth of Synesius’ ambivalences still further:[] like so many figures of the period, his allegiance was to class and culture first, and a remarkable indifference to details of creed ensued.[]
That order of allegiances ought to be given greater prominence than it has hitherto held in our appreciation of the aristocracy, too. In considering the ambiguous religious sociology of this class, its wavering allegiances, it is important to realize that these ambivalences — insofar as they can be perceived — occurred on both sides of the traditional pagan/Christian dividing line now artificially drawn through late fourth-century society.
Despite the zeal of the Christian establishment at its highest levels, by this period we are beginning to hear of conversions away from Christianity.[] Under Julian, we know of several individuals who received appointments to high office and abandoned their Christianity in the process: Felix, the comes sacrarum largitionum of 362, Helpidius, comes rei privatae in 362-363, and the emperor’s uncle, Julian, comes Orientis in 362-363.[] The transience of these eminently convenient conversions, moreover, is clearly visible in the case of a professional sophist, Hecebolius, who went with the prevailing opinion against his earlier Christianity when Julian took the throne, but later returned to Christianity when it seemed profitable.[]
Contemporaries were aware of the ambiguities involved in the conversions of this period. Augustine devoted a perplexing sermon of A.D. 401 to defending the sincerity of a convert from paganism, then being welcomed into the church at Hippo.[] The case of Mallius Theodorus (consul in 399) was more widely known. A Christian of philosophical inclination (and perhaps more like the Platonist- leaning-toward-Christianity that Augustine was once thought to have been in the years 386-391 than Augustine ever was himself), he returned to public life in 399 as consul after a span of retirement that was clearly more senatorial otium than monastic or ascetic retreat from the world.[] i In later years, Augustine could not be entirely happy with the way he had honored this man in the dedication of his philosophical work De beata vita of 386: ‘displicet autem illic quod Mallio Theodoro ad quem librum istum scripsi, quamvis docto et Christiano viro, plus tribui quam deberem.’[] It is not necessary to assume, as some have done, outright apostasy by Theodorus, but only an increasing realization on Augustine’s part of the shallowness of this aristocrat’s Christianity. North Africa, in the time of Augustine and a century later, is the site of one last oddity of latitudinarian practice: two inscriptions attesting the careers of two different individuals at Ammaedara in Africa Proconsularis, both clearly Christian but both holding the unmistakably pagan title (undoubtedly in connection with some local cult activity) of flamen perpetuus; the two men are probably related, as one is named Astius Vindicianus, vir clarissimus (of late fourth/early fifth century) and the other Astius Mustelus (whose inscription can be dated to 525/6).[]
There were ambiguities on the other side of the religious street as well. The most famous case, perhaps, is that of Volusianus, the educated inquirer after truth for whose benefit, at least indirectly, Augustine seems to have undertaken the task of writing the De civitate Dei.[] In the early 410s we find him in Africa, probably a refugee from the sack of Rome, corresponding rather naively with Augustine on matters of religion, participating in religious discussion groups (perhaps acting in the character, actively sought or not, of a catechumen), and clearly open to Christian arguments.[] Less than five years later, however, he accepted the urban prefecture back at Rome, and with it the praises of Rutilius Namatianus, a man of undoubtedly non-Christian religious sympathies.[] Volusianus, despite an apparently increasing leaning toward Christianity throughout his family, seems to have stayed formally outside the Church until his death in 437, when he finally accepted baptism.[] But this ambiguity was almost a family tradition.
For Volusianus’ mother and sister were Christian; that sister married the son of the distinguished Christian matron Melania the elder and herself became the mother of Melania the younger.[] Meanwhile, Volusianus’ father, Ceionius Rufius Albinus, apparently remained outside the Church, as did his uncle, Publilius Caeionius Caecina Albinus, in whose family the same story was acted out. Caecina Albinus was a pagan whose daughter married Toxotius (probably a Christian, but his father was a pagan; his mother was Jerome’s devout friend Paula, but we are still only guessing in Toxotius’ case), and her daughter, named Paula after her grandmother, was the object of Jerome’s educational theories in a famous letter.[] That letter is more noteworthy for our purposes, however, for the story of the baby’s pagan grandfather, Caecina Albinus (Volusianus’ uncle again — the tangled relationships of these aristocrats are typical of the inbreeding of late Roman society and its deliberate tendency to extend family ties), dandling the child on his knee and benevolently doting on the baby’s first words, which happened to be ‘Alleluias’ from a Christian nursery song. Jerome appreciated the irony of the situation, but we should also try to see the broad pattern of coexistence implied by such a relationship.[] (We will return to the fond grandfather Caecina Albinus shortly, when we consider his closest friend, Symmachus the orator.)
Closer to the throne, we know of intellectual pagans coming to hear sermons of Ambrose, no doubt drawn by the bishop’s reputation for learned discourses informed by his reading in the Platonists.[] But should we number among those pagans the most famous ‘convert’ Ambrose won to the Church, Augustine? Here again, traditional definitions are inadequate. Augustine was a man of many moods, but the sequence of his stages of belief is significant for the whole period. First, he started life as a Christian catechumen — a status he never really relinquished until the day of his baptism.[] At age 18 he was ‘converted’ to the pursuit of wisdom by Cicero’s Hortensius, a book likely, at this period, to lead to the sort of philosophy which folded all kinds of ideas in an uncritical embrace.[] There was an episode of fervent devotion to Manichaeism, perhaps a foreshadowing of what was to come. But what is significant, and often neglected, about that third phase is what followed it: a return to skepticism and ambivalence. By the time Augustine came to Milan in 384, he had decided to keep his status as a catechumen — no doubt thinking it useful in pursuit of the career in government that his appointment at Milan seemed to betoken — while waiting for something to turn up.[] In practice, his allegiance at this time seems to have been given to nothing more substantial than the doctrinaire skepticism (that the phrase is an oxymoron demonstrates the feebleness of any such allegiance) of the Academic style of thought. After he had come to his moment of conversion in 386, the first thing he was moved to write, a few months later, was a refutation of Academic philosophical notions: a final farewell to the last non-Christian ideology to hold his fancy.[] In all this, I hold that Augustine was more a typical pagan of his period than he has been given credit for being.[] He was never a fanatical adherent of particular mystery cults, but from a man educated in the West in the tradition of rhetoric and philosophy this was not to be expected. Instead, he was a spiritual drifter, pursuing his quest of wisdom from his late teens into his early thirties in bouts of indolence and ardor. The alternation of these fits is probably more typical than we realize, especially when combined with the willingness to appear to be a Christian for the material benefits it would bring.[] Many of the enthusiasms recorded in inscriptions of this period — including receptions of the taurobolium, for example — were by their nature isolated events in the life of the cultist and probably meant little to most of them a year or two afterward.[]
The cases of two other prominent citizens will have to suffice for our partial catalogue. One Claudius Octavianus was appointed proconsul of Africa in 363 by Julian; his appointment is reported by Ammianus along with the appointments of three other individuals known to be pagan in their sympathies.[] i This same man is mentioned in an inscription before 363 as having held the rank of pontifex maior.[] But by 371 Octavianus appears as party in a curious case where he seems to have been taken under the protection of a Christian presbyter (for political crimes?) at the cost of that churchman’s own life.[] This must bespeak some kind of friendly cooperation with Christians, at the very least. If one case, however, can be taken as typical of attitudes at this period, it might well be that of Sebastianus, a military man of considerable reputation.[] On the one hand, Christian sources style him a Manichee, but at the same time a supporter of bishop George of Alexandria.[] Yet Libanius addresses him in terms that would suit a pagan;[] Julian trusted him, and Eunapius praised him highly for his moral as well as military virtues.[] In a turn of events which recalls the death of Julian and its aftermath, Sebastianus was feared as a leading candidate for the imperial throne by Merobaudes in 375, who went to some trouble to get him out of the way before the choice could be made.[] Once again, talent seems to have been the primary qualification and religion only an incidental concern.
The dilemma in which Christianity found itself, faced with ambivalence and ambiguity of this magnitude among the population and troubled by its own past compromises, is well summarized by Augustine in a letter of 395, worth quoting at length:
Post persecutiones tam multas, tamque vehementes, cum facta pace, turbae gentilium in christianum nomen venire cupientes hoc impedirentur, quod dies festos cum idolis suis solerent in abundantia epularum et ebrietate consumere, nec facile ab his perniciosissimis et tam vetustissimis voluptatibus se possent abstinere, visum fuisse maioribus nostris, ut huic infirmitatis parti interim parceretur, diesque festos, post eos quos relinquebant, alios in honorem sanctorum martyrum vel non simili sacrilegio, quamvis simili luxu celebrarentur: iam Christi nomine colligatis, et tantae auctoritatis iugo subditis salutaria sobrietatis praecepta traderentur, quibus iam propter praecipientis honorem ac timorem resistere non valerent; quocirca iam tempus esse, ut qui non se audent negare christianos, secundum Christi voluntatem vivere incipiant, ut ea quae ut essent christiani concessa sunt, cum christiani sunt, respuantur.[]
Paganism — the worship of false gods — was fast departing from the Roman scene; but paganism — a tolerant, even careless attitude toward worship in general — was a more tenacious institution. < h3>II
In what has gone before, the reader has no doubt been pining to hear some familiar names in this story of the last pagans: Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, Virius Nicomachus Flavianus, the heroes of the traditional, romantic accounts of modern scholarship. Their turn comes now.
Praetextatus is first. There can be no question that among the non-Christian members of the senatorial aristocracy, no man was held in greater respect than he. The simplest proof of this is Macrobius’ decision, almost a half-century after Praetextatus’ death, to make him the centerpiece of a literary tribute to that entire generation, the Saturnalia.[]What is not so certain, however, is just how Praetextatus’ undoubted religious fervor manifested itself in action, and what effect his actions had on his contemporaries. Was he the leader of the pagan ‘party’ at Rome, rallying the aristocracy to oppose the conversion of the empire to Christianity? Or was he only a would-be leader, suffering from a perpetual shortage of followers ?
We know, first of all, that Praetextatus outstripped all his known contemporaries in the variety and number of his religious activities[] His funerary inscription recounts a long list of priesthoods. He was augur, pontifex Vestae, pontifex Solis, quindecemvir sacris faciundis, curialis Herculis, sacratus Libero et Eleusinis, hierophanta neocorus, tauroboliatus, and pater patrum.[] Behind this profusion of religious adhesions, there seems to have lurked a rather typical late antique philosophical syncretism, itself a manifestation of the typically pagan toleration of various religions of which we have spoken. The most explicit evidence for Praetextatus’ own religious beliefs is, to be sure, somewhat indirect. It comes in the form of a long speech put in Praetextatus’ mouth in Macrobius’ Saturnalia, which has been treated, with good reason, by earlier scholars as a reasonably accurate picture of Praetextatus’ own views.[] This speech does not seem to come from any special literary source, although in Macrobius it is more often the case that extensive discourses are borrowed from earlier authors such as Aulus Gellius. Moreover, so central is the position of Praetextatus in that dialogue, so obviously is it the purpose of the work to honor his memory above all others, that this central statement of principle and belief placed in his mouth must be taken to represent at least the opinions he was thought by his peers (and his peers’ grandchildren) to stand for. In the speech the dominant theme is solar syncretism, developed under the authority of the paramount Platonic philosopher, Plotinus.[] Praetextatus’ clearest statement of principle in the speech is this: ‘quod omnes paene deos, dumtaxat qui sub caelo sunt, ad solem [poetae] referunt, non vana superstitio sed ratio divina commendat.’[] What follows then is a series of discourses connecting a long list of gods with sun- worship, each by turn. Virtually every religious enthusiasm represented by the funerary inscription quoted above appears again on this list; the gods discussed include Apollo, Liber, Mars, Mercury, Aesculapius, Hercules, Sarapis and Isis, Adonis, Attis and Cybele, Osiris, Nemesis, Pan, Saturn, and Jupiter. The mixture of oriental and traditional Roman deities is significant, because it is so perfectly typical of the period.[] Elsewhere in the Saturnalia, Macrobius reflects Praetextatus’ posthumous reputation for religious authority by making him praise Vergil above all else as an expert in ius pontificium, and by letting him make a long speech (now mutilated) on the subject.[]
Praetextatus’ public career was a distinguished one, marked at almost every turn by his efforts to use public office and the connections it afforded to advance the cause of the old religions. Significantly, however, his entry into the higher ranks of public life came precisely under the aegis of the one individual we have been so far able to identify as actively engaged in advancing the cause of paganism: the emperor Julian.[] i He must have found some particular favor with the apostate emperor, for he won from him, and held through the years 362-364, the post of proconsul of Achaea.[] Given Julian’s predilection for things and people Hellenic, his settling on a westerner to hold this comfortable position at the capital of Hellenism would seem to imply that his qualifications, religious as well as official, merited special attention in Julian’s eyes.[] During Praetextatus’ tenure as proconsul, he was honored by an oration of the sophist Himerius, a leader of the non-Christian intelligentsia of Athens.[] i He continued to hold office into the first months of the reign of Valentinian I, and is credited by Zosimus with exacting from the new emperor lenience in the enforcement of a law against nocturnal sacrifices.[]
His next official post was the city prefecture at Rome (367- 368). He is recorded as having acted justly and intelligently in settling the aftermath of the nasty skirmish between followers of Damasus and Ursinus that had attended the election of the former to the papacy; he underwrote Damasus’ authority, banned Ursinus from the city, but then granted the defeated candidate’s partisans an amnesty and succeeded in restoring peace to the city.[] Two actions of Praetextatus known from this period were openly non-Christian in nature. He undertook a program of demolishing private buildings which had grown up adjacent to temples (apparently to restore the dignity of the shrines by rescuing them from urban clutter);[] in a similar vein, he restored a temple in the forum belonging to the Dei Consentes.[]
After a properly senatorial interlude of withdrawal from public affairs, Praetextatus’ last year of life was marked by renewed service in high office and renewed pro-pagan activities. He served as praetorian prefect for Italy and the surrounding dioceses during the year 384, and was scheduled to receive the ordinary consulship in 385.[] We know directly of only one of his actions as praetorian prefect: he seems to have been the moving force behind an investigation of the demolition of pagan temples by Christians.[] He died late in that same year, before assuming the consulship; the Saturnalia has a dramatic date of December 384.
But Praetextatus had the services of a useful ally, who survived him and carried his pro-pagan activities just a bit further: the man who served as urban prefect while Praetextatus was praetorian prefect, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus. Symmachus has usually been taken as the leader of the pagan aristocracy in the late fourth century (except by one recent scholar, who makes him the leader of a faction of that movement), without serious scrutiny of the evidence for his religious opinions. He was long thought to be a cultural leader as well, the center of a ‘circle of Symmachus.’[] Before considering in detail the events of 384 and 385, we might profit from a digression on Symmachus’ religion.
Symmachus’ actions and pastimes are better known to us than those of any of his non-Christian contemporaries, through the happy chance of the survival of his vast collection of letters, edited shortly after his death by his son. It is a commonplace to bemoan the tedium of those letters; scholars who have actually read through the more than 900 surviving documents often seem to be demanding sympathy for the suffering they have undergone. Yet it is precisely the vapidity of the letters which is their most fascinating quality; rarely do we get so comprehensive a literary portrait surviving from antiquity of so thoroughly wearisome, fatuous, and pompous an individual. The letters are simply as preposterous as their author was. The collection seems to be as full as piety could make it; if any censorship was imposed by filial caution, it only excised events of the late 380s, when Symmachus was actually so indiscreet as to associate himself with the cause of an imperial usurper who did not succeed — a mistake he did not repeat.[]
The reader approaches Symmachus’ letters aware of his reputation for authority within the pagan ‘party’ of his time and expecting to find a treasure trove of material; he is sure to be disappointed. It cannot be asserted too strongly that religious concerns did not loom at all large in the consciousness of the man who wrote those letters. What inspired Symmachus’ enthusiasm was, more than anything else, himself and his family; the occasions of the praetorian and quaestorial games given in his son’s name were opportunities for his real passions to manifest themselves. Religion is very much a minor consideration.
Religion, moreover, was a matter extraordinarily limited in the kind and number of occasions on which it was an appropriate subject of discussion. By the most liberal accounting, I can find barely 100 allusions of any kind to the ancient religions in the more than 900 documents (letters, relationes, orations) which survive.[] By far the most common sort of allusion is the most innocuous: purely formal, brief remarks invoking divine aid in the affairs of everyday life or expressing thanks for aid received. Over eighty per cent of the references to religion are of this harmless kind. Prayers for improved health, requests for divine assistance in maintaining and expanding friendships,[] hope for the safe and successful completion of a journey,[] hope for the success of his son’s praetorian games, and best wishes for matrimonial happiness are the most common expressions, in that order, totaling almost seventy cases. Apart from these, a dozen vague expressions of trust in divine guidance remain.
Symmachus naturally had occasion to mention religion in passing (as when he mentions that two friends to whom he has sent copies of his speeches are sacerdotes), and made allusion to the gods in purely literary contexts (as when a friend, spending his vacation writing and hunting, is called a ‘sectator Apollinis et Dianae’).[]In much the same vein are another ten remarks of only superficially religious purport; these are mostly places where religious terminology is used, as it was conventionally by Christians and non-Christians alike at this period, to describe imperial actions and attributes.[]
When the vague, the insipid, and the irrelevant have been sifted out of Symmachus’ allusions to religion, only sixteen cases survive in all his works in which the allusion is significant of anything more than the most conventional, habitual association with the traditional religion and the culture whose iconography it furnished. At the risk of according trivia more importance than they deserve, I shall catalogue all of these cases, with brief explanations. These allusions fall into three principal categories: official business of the priestly college; correspondence with known pagan enthusiasts; and documents from the controversy of the year 384.[]
The most substantial items deal with official business of the priestly college in which Symmachus served as a matter of civic duty. In this category fall the following passages:
Ep. 1.46: To Praetextatus (before 380), on ordinary business of the college of pontifices.
Ep. 1.49: To Praetextatus (378), reporting on a disturbing omen for which the college will have to try to find some remedy.
Ep. 1.51: To Praetextatus (c. 383), on ordinary business of the college, containing the famous observation, ‘nunc aris deesse Romanos genus est ambiendi.’[]
Ep. 1.68: To Titianus, Symmachus’ brother (380), commending the treasurer of the college to his brother in his capacity as proconsul of Africa, where the treasurer was going on official business.
Ep. 2.36: To Nicomachus Flavianus (385), concerning deliberations of the college (this letter is discussed further below in connection with documents of the third category).
Ep. 6.29: To the son of Nicomachus Flavianus (Oct./Nov. 397), on an ordinary bit of disciplinary business of the college.
Ep. 9.108: To a Vestal Virgin (no date), who wanted to leave the order. The reply is stern and legalistic.
Epp. 9.147-148: To the urban prefect and the governor of a neighboring province (no date), attempting to get either of those authorities to impose capital punishment on an adulterous Vestal and her co-respondent. The urban prefect evaded the task on technicalities and the couple apparently fled to the neighboring province where Symmachus tried to have them hunted down (with uncertain success). Symmachus may have had some formal authority within the collegium of pontiffs for disciplining the Vestals.
The second category of allusions to paganism in Symmachus’ works comprises those made in letters to a very limited list of individuals: Praetextatus, Nicomachus Flavianus, or the latter’s son.
Epp. 1.46, 1.49, 1.51: already listed above.
Ep. 2.7: To Flavianus (apparently written in 383), lamenting the neglect of religious rites at Rome (presumably after Gratian’s actions on the Altar of Victory and cult subsidies) and blaming the famine of that year on the neglect of the gods.
Ep. 2.34: To Flavianus (no date), reminding him of the approaching festival of the Mater Deum.
Ep. 2.36: To Flavianus, already mentioned, to be discussed as part of the third category of allusions.
Ep. 2.53: To Flavianus (no date), another reminder of approaching ‘caerimoniae deorum et festa divinitatis imperata.’
Ep. 2.59: To Flavianus (no date), reporting Symmachus’ impending return to Rome in time for the festival of Vesta.
Ep. 6.29: To the younger Flavianus (no date), mentioned above.
Ep. 6.40: To the younger Flavianus (April 401), on the accident befalling a suffect consul who fell from his processional vehicle at the festival of the founding of Rome and broke a leg; this probably should be considered an allusion of the first sort as well, since it concerned an omen which might perplex the collegium.
Apart, therefore, from a few allusions to official business and mentions of religion in letters to three individuals known to be particularly enthusiastic devotees of the old ways, only two new documents remain to be catalogued in our third category.[] These items return us at length to the events of 384 and 385, since both are official relationes made by the urban prefect to the emperor in that year.
Judging by what we have seen so far in this brief survey of Symmachus’ religious opinions, we should be slow to assume that he was the sort of individual who would push himself forward as the leader of any kind of religious movement. His religion was a matter of convenience, tied rigidly to considerations of class and culture, completely unfanatical, in just the pattern we have come to identify as typical of pagan attitudes. The tendency to wear religion on the sleeve for the benefit of the more devoted correspondent alone is noteworthy. Yet in 384 Symmachus became the author of the single most important defense of pagan claims to survive from antiquity, his Relatio 3.[] It was convenient for Christianity that this particular document should survive: if it had not existed it would have had to be invented. In fact the document survives, not only with manuscripts of Symmachus’ own works, but also in the corpus of Ambrose’s letters and in the collection of papal documents known as the Collectio Avellana; and Prudentius could not resist the temptation to make it the object of his detailed refutation in his Contra Symmachum.
A work so useful to the Christian opposition must be looked upon as somewhat less than completely successful when considered in relation to its original purpose: the restoration of the state subsidies to the religious cults and of the Altar of Vicotry to the senate house. The genuinely pagan character of the work, in the sense we have been delineating, should be stressed. First of all, it is not anti-Christian in any way; it is purely and simply a request to extend the traditional policy of tolerance in religious matters to the cults which had benefited from (and indeed fostered) such a policy for so long. The most famous sentence in the Relatio, quoted in every discussion of our subject, is completely representative of this attitude: ‘uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum.’[] The emperors were only being asked to restore what had so long been tolerated, to recall the precedent of Christian emperors — precisely the Arianizing, pagan-tolerating Christian emperors of the mid-fourth century, like Constantius — who had continued the subsidies.
Even so unexceptional a document of the ambivalence and feebleness of late paganism, however, is an unusual product of the temperate and timorous pen of a Symmachus. Might he have acted on other than his own initiative? The likelihood approaches a certainty, for we must remember that Symmachus held office as urban prefect at just the time when his mentor and friend, Praetextatus, was at the imperial court in Milan as praetorian prefect, looking forward to his own consulship the following year. In such circumstances, it is not at all implausible that Praetextatus would have encouraged Symmachus’ literary skill to produce the Relatio, hopeful that he himself would be able, from his strategic position al court, to win a favorable imperial audience for the proposal. Indeed, the very coincidence of Praetextatus’ year of office at Milan with Symmachus’ at Rome smacks of intrigue:[] an attempt to hijack the will of a complaisant senate to achieve a purpose dear to the heart of Praetextatus, at least — and dear to the heart of Symmachus to the extent that he was impressed and influenced by Praetextatus.
Whether or not there had been an earlier attempt by Symmachus to make the same representations to the emperor is really beside the point;[] the hand of Praetextatus is still to be discerned. The evidence for the influence of Praetextatus over Symmachus’ actions at this time is to be found in the last document of Symmachus’ own composition that shows an involvement in religious affairs, his Relatio 21. In this document he defended himself against charges by unnamed parties that he had been harassing Christians at Rome. On the face of it, his defense was excellent: he could call on the testimony of Pope Damasus himself[] that he had neither jailed nor tortured Christians (though, to be sure, Damasus’ testimony is limited in scope, and makes no mention of other possible forms of harassment). The brunt of the charge he summarizes thus: ‘suggestionibus viri excellentis et de republica bene meriti Praetextati praefecti praetorio abusus existimor.’[] Thus whatever the charges were — and they seem to have involved his having investigated Christian temple-vandalism — the names of Praetextatus the praetorian prefect and Symmachus the urban prefect were linked in the minds of the Christian population at Rome. Even if there was nothing to the charges, they indicated a tendency to see Praetextatus and Symmachus as working together to the detriment of Christianity.
The influential role Praetextatus played in Symmachus’ public career was further revealed at the time of Praetextatus’ death in 384. Literally the first thing Symmachus did upon hearing of his friend’s death was to write a relatio to the emperor with the sad news (Praetextatus is to be presumed, therefore, to have died at Rome), proclaiming that he, Symmachus, was so overcome with grief that he wanted to be allowed to resign the urban prefecture immediately. The request, as it happened, was denied, and Symmachus lingered unhappily in office into 385. Once he had retired, however, he never accepted any position of administrative responsibility again; only the formal office (and accompanying prestige) of the consulship appealed to him after that date.
We are probably justified, therefore, in seeing in Symmachus a man not much drawn to involve himself in the great affairs of the world; the atmosphere of his letters is probably not deceiving. He believed in living the good life appropriate to his class, in enjoying the benefits of wealth and culture (though his taste in culture is to be faulted — it is significant that his friends who were poets and historians were men of inferior talent, while Ammianus and Claudian escaped his notice).[] If he did let himself get involved, in the last year of his life (402), in a final embassy to the court, there is at least an even chance that he was still flogging the dead horse of 384: seeking the restoration of the Altar of Victory, pursuing the single, failed cause which he had learned to believe in at the instance of his beloved mentor Praetextatus.[]
The motivation of Praetextatus in this whole affair over the Altar of Victory should by now be obvious. The kind of coexistence between religions which had been forged over the years since the conversion of Constantine had been only momentarily disturbed in Julian’s reign; we need not assume that Praetextatus dreamed of a complete restoration of the old religion, any more than did the influential pagans at Julian’s own court. But the disruption of the ancient equilibrium by Gratian and Theodosius, as they moved boldly against Arianism and paganism in the first years after Theodosius’ accession to the throne, must have puzzled Praetextatus as much as it bothered him. He must have felt that a little rhetoric purporting to have the will of the senate behind it, bolstered by a little backstage influence on his own part at Milan, would suffice to set things right again after a temporary upset. He was, of course, utterly wrong. In fact, Praetextatus’ activities at court at this time are not recorded. Instead, we have a vivid picture of Ambrose (who took care to leave behind vivid pictures of himself on every suitable occasion), swiftly dashing off a preliminary response to the emperor before he ever saw Symmachus’ Relatio 3, then pursuing the issue again with another, more detailed refutation after he had seen the offensive document.[] It was Ambrose, not Symmachus, who made the issue one of Christians versus pagans, escalating the rhetoric and painting the issues at stake in brilliant colors to intimidate the docile Catholic emperor, Valentinian II.[] The episode is a good example of the misinterpretation which characterized pagan response to Christianity at all times; the pagans did not understand their rival, they underrated its strength, and they were continually baffled and thwarted in attempting to hold their own against it.
With Praetextatus gone, the very slight tendency toward organized resistance and action which he represented among the pagan aristocracy disappeared as well. One may assume that had Praetextatus lived, he might have seen the error of his assessment of the religious situation and have charted his future action differently; his followers, like Symmachus, were not so shrewd. The only response to his death we know of among the pagans of Rome was one which led to disagreement and dissension. The college of Vestal Virgins requested permission from the college of pontifices to erect a statue to his memory.[] Praetextatus had been the most senior and distinguished religious authority among the pagan upper classes at this time, a member of the college of pontifices himself. In the absence of the emperors from the deliberations of this body over the years, someone must have chaired the meetings: presumably the most senior and distinguished member. When, however, Gratian rejected the title of pontifex maximus in 382, a new situation was created; in the minds of some individuals, Praetextatus himself must have been considered the logical and lawful heir to the title. Such, at least, is the implication of the letter in which Symmachus told Nicomachus Flavianus of the proposal for the statue and declared his own opposition to it; he clearly set the action in a line with traditions concerning the pontifices maximi.[] This has usually been interpreted as representing moderation on Symmachus’ part, against the greater pagan fanaticism of other ‘leaders’ of the movement;[] the contrary is probably true. For the position Symmachus was taking may better be interpreted as a refusal to recognize the emperor’s abdication from the pontificate. This was in fact the more rigorous and optimistic position to take: it assumed that the rejection of the title was a momentary aberration, and that by refusing to recognize the abdication, the college would clear the way for the emperors quietly to resume their title when they realized the error of their ways. On the other hand, to set up a statue to Praetextatus as though to a pontifex maximus would only needlessly irritate the imperial authorities, and would represent a more pessimistic view of future events. Symmachus’ position was, ironically, more ambitiously pro-pagan than that of his contemporaries.[] We know, in fact, that he was overruled and the statue constructed; nothing seems to have come from the episode, one way or another. Again, Symmachus had misread the religious temper of his time.
If there had been a pagan ‘party’ at this time, it would be worth inquiring about the transfer of leadership within such an organization upon the death of Praetextatus. What we see instead is the abrupt return of Symmachus to private life, and a period of continued rustication for himself and for the other candidate for leadership most commonly advanced by modern scholars, Nicomachus Flavianus.[]
It is during this interlude, in 389-390, that a period of chill is supposed to have occurred in relations between Ambrose and Theodosius. The origin of this alleged disagreement lay in the issue which arose in 388 of whether Christians should be punished for burning heretic and Jewish shrines.[] On this theory, however, it took a year and a half for Theodosius to take action on his disillusionment with the leaders of the Church by going to Rome to appease the pagans. The episode described by Quodvultdeus, in which Symmachus appeals for the restoration of the Altar of Victory, has also been assigned to the same period to help bolster this theory, but without much success. At Rome, Theodosius was panegyrized by a pagan (Pacatus) and the panegyrist was appointed proconsul of Africa; Nicomachus Flavianus was made praetorian prefect, and Symmachus eventually appointed consul. Such is the extent of the evidence for this fleeting ‘revival of paganism’: a scholar’s fantasy and nothing more.[] That the senatorial aristocracy, which numbered in its midst some distinguished figures who had been associated with the usurper Maximus (including Symmachus himself), would risk the wrath of the notoriously Catholic emperor Theodosius at this time is improbable in the extreme. On this theory, too, the slaughter at Thessalonica in 390 actually drove Theodosius back into Ambrose’s camp, burdened by guilt; were Theodosius not already highly solicitous of Ambrose’s good offices and opinion, however, one would have expected that the episode — and Ambrose’s arrogant response to the imperial delinquency — would have had just the opposite effect, and have driven another wedge between prelate and emperor.
It is at this point that we should consider two other pieces of evidence which have customarily been made part of the pagan ‘revival’ of the period: the contorniates and the Isis tokens. Both of these numismatic sources have been discussed at length in tendentious and influential works by Andreas Alf_ldi, who sees in their undeniably pagan motifs signs of a tradition of pagan ‘propaganda’ among the senatorial aristocracy, bravely holding out against the imperial policy of repression.[] Several difficulties arise.[] First, the expression of opinion, even opinion favoring pagan gods and traditions, was never made the object of imperial repression. Second, no direct correlation can be shown between the appearance of the tokens and any of the events assumed to be part of the pagan ‘revival.’ Third, Alf_ldi fails to take into account the tolerant policies of the emperors of the mid-fourth century. Throughout our period it would be surprising if purely traditional and conventional practices of a vaguely pagan character were not continued. In the years after Theodosius began his crackdown on pagan sacrifices, this type of quasi-religious art eventually did disappear: not in response to repression but out of diffidence and inanition. As soon as such things showed any sign of becoming controversial, they simply faded away.
It is traditional among scholars to believe that the period of apathy and disorganization which affected the pagan aristocracy after Praetextatus’ death ended in the early 390s, behind the leadership of Nicomachus Flavianus. I have already discussed these events elsewhere and will only summarize my conclusions briefly here.[]
In outline, the traditional story is that a delegation went to Valentinian II in Gaul in 391/392 to seek the restoration of the Altar of Victory once again. The significance of this episode is debatable, but it is worth noting that all the aristocracy could ask for — still — was what it had sought almost ten years before under Praetextatus. As Matthews has pointed out, one reason for this was almost surely their desire to see the public cults performed publicly and at public expense: a respect for tradition that need not imply religious devotion. At any rate, this delegation was no more successful than any of its predecessors had been.
But Valentinian II died in 392 (by murder or suicide — the former more likely), and his magister militum Arbogast raised up a successor: a nominally Christian grammarian and civil servant, Eugenius. Eugenius sought recognition from Theodosius and failed to get it. (Why? Theodosius probably had dynastic ambitions. He was not so old that he could not hope that his two sons would be able to reign in their own right by the time he died.) Eugenius and Arbogast marched into Italy; Ambrose fled from Milan in fear (he protests too much when he claims that fear had nothing to do with it). In Italy, Eugenius was approached by a representative of the aristocracy — probably Nicomachus Flavianus, who was praetorian prefect under Theodosius and resumed the post under Eugenius — who sought the restoration of the cults and the Altar once again. Eugenius offered, in a half- hearted way, to co-operate, proposing to ‘launder’ the money needed for the restoration by providing it through private hands. The offer was refused because the efficacy of the cults was not guaranteed unless the funds were publicly offered. We hear nothing more of the incident; presumably the funds were not granted.
Nicomachus Flavianus, meanwhile, who is known to have had religious interests of his own,[] seems to have found indiscretion to be the more amusing part of valor. At the very least, he is fairly reliably reported to have threatened to make Ambrose’s church a stable after Theodosius was defeated (and one may assume that the vehemence of Ambrose’s reaction to the whole affair was conditioned by this threat as much as anything else), and he may have gone to Rome to perform traditional sacrifices. He is possibly alleged to have urged two different people to accept office at the price of giving up their allegiance to Christianity;[] and Eugenius’ troops may have carried images of pagan gods into battle against Theodosius.
The episode, however, found no resonance in the population at large. Flavianus’ closest friend, Symmachus, the man so long thought to be a leader of the pagans, remembered the dangers of siding with a usurper from his misadventure of 388 and chose discretion over devotion to the pagan cause. No other member of the senatorial aristocracy can be certainly connected with the usurpation of 392-394, or with the pro-pagan enthusiasm of Flavianus. Flavianus himself could have hoped for mercy at imperial hands after the war, but chose suicide instead.[] His son went on to have a distinguished career in imperial government and succeeded in restoring his father’s reputation handsomely.[]
Zosimus’ tendentiously pro-pagan history, written perhaps a century or more after this period (but with Eunapius’ lost history as a reliable source), records a much-debated scene in the Roman senate in late 394 or early 395, in which Theodosius harangues that body, still largely pagan according to Zosimus, on the question of religion, and the senate holds fast to its paganism.[] The difficulties with this text are numerous, some well-known, some not. The most important point, however, has not been advanced before: it is simply that the episode repeats the arguments of a decade before so closely — modified only by an awareness (anachronistic in 395) that the barbarians were laying waste to the empire in the absence of the traditional gods — that it is probable that we should interpret the passage as a reworking and misinterpretation, at a century’s distance, of the episode of 384 (which Zosimus does not report).[] Theodosius probably never made this controversial visit to Rome.
If the traditional sequence of pagan revivals and the traditional theory about the leadership of a pagan ‘party’ are misinterpretations, what finally can be said of the religious tendency of the senatorial aristocracy and of official imperial policies in the closing years of the fourth century ? Sacrifice, to be sure, was banned in 391, during the prefecture of Nicomachus Flavianus and the consulate of Symmachus — putting pagans in government seemed to have no effect on policy. Throughout these years, the movement in government had been unremittingly toward Christianity. This is probably the best explanation for the actions of the aristocracy; there was simply no ‘party’ for Flavianus or Symmachus to lead.
It was becoming unprofitable not to be a Christian. The consulship, the highest dignity the senatorial class could seek, had been going to Christians for a long time.[] Outside of the imperial family, the first holder of the consulship who may have been a Christian was Sextus Anicius Paulinus (.325); the first definite Christian was Flavius Gallicanus (330). After that beginning, this purely honorific office (which was therefore to be handed out on arbitrary grounds of favoritism, rather than with any regard for military or administrative ability) was held by Christians almost exclusively. Between the death of Constantine and the accession of Julian, only six known pagans held the consulship in twenty-four years: Fabius Titianus (337), L. Aradius Valerius Proculus (340), M. Maecius Furius Baburius Caecilianus Placidus (343), Vulcacius Rufinus (347), Aco Catullinus (349), and Q. Fl. Maesius Egnatius Lollianus (355). A number of these nominees were of extremely distinguished families; thus even when a pro-Christian bias became important, class and family could still hold the deciding vote. Only five pagans held the consulship between the end of Julian’s reign and the death of Theodosius: Richomer and Clearchus held the office jointly in 384 (and military ability played a part in this honor), Eutropius (a possible pagan) in 387, Symmachus in 391 (perhaps as a way of showing that the emperor held no lasting grudges toward those senators who had sided with Maximus in 388), and Flavianus in 394 (but only in those parts of the empire held by Eugenius, for Theodosius had his own consuls in that year).
The pattern is similar in the praetorian prefecture, an office held at court under close imperial scrutiny. There we see only six individuals after Julian and before 395 who may have been pagan — and two of these are doubtful cases:
Vulcacius Rufinus (praetorian prefect for Italy, Africa, and Illyricum, 365-368), the consul of 347, who was probably in his sixties by this time. The evidence for his paganism dates only from 347; meanwhile, his nephew Gallus had been Caesar in the 350s. Was he brought back to office in the late 360s, after the death of the last emperor of the Constantinian house, because of his family ties with the old order? Was he a Christian by this time?
Saturninius Secundus Salutius (praetorian prefect for the Orient, 361-365, 365-367), an appointee of Julian, already discussed at length above.
Domitius Modestus (praetorian prefect for the Orient, 369- 371), who may have turned Christian by the time of his prefecture.[]
Eutropius, who held a praetorian prefecture for Illyricum (or a part thereof) only in 380-381; he was a particular favorite of Theodosius even though he may have been pagan.
Flavius Eutolmius Tatianus (praetorian prefect for the Orient, 388-392).
Nicomachus Flavianus (praetorian prefect in Italy, 390-392).
Only the first and last of these figures served in the western empire. Here and in the list of consuls, the hypothesis that pagans were being rewarded for good behavior in the late 380s and early 390s is at least as compelling as the suggestion that they were appointed to office as part of a deliberate tilt toward paganism on Theodosius’ part.
Only the urban prefecture, of the three highest dignities to which the aristocracy aspired, remained a likely place to find pagans. Unlike the other offices, the urban prefecture boasted only four possible Christians before Julian. In the three decades after Julian’s death, ten Christians held the office, as against eleven known pagans.[] This tendency of pagans to find success here if nowhere else, however, probably reflects above all the imperial neglect of the eternal city; the wishes of the aristocracy itself were probably consulted for this post more than for either of the others. What is significant, then, is that even for a post in which Christianity gave the candidate no distinct advantage, the pagans barely held their own.
The general picture, moreover, is clear: if an ambitious aristocrat wanted to make his way in the world, Christianity was an obvious instrument of advancement. As emphasized throughout this study, that kind of Christianity need not have been the most devoted, and may even have been ‘pagan’ in the sense of the attitude with which the believer regarded his cult. Ambition was part of the senatorial heritage. It ran directly counter, at times, to the religious traditions of class and culture, and eventually it overcame them.
Official Christianity, in the years after the death of Theodosius, tended to rejoice in its final triumph over its hated rival, paganism. Theodosius II, a few decades later, permitted himself the luxury of believing that there were no pagans left anywhere in the whole empire.[] Even on the old interpretation of what it meant to be a pagan, he was surely deluded. If our interpretation of the meaning of paganism is correct, it is all the more evident that the struggle to eradicate the characteristically pagan attitude toward religion – - as essentially a matter of indifference — was far from won by the Christian party. The tendency to see the world as neatly divided into Christian and pagan camps, with the former expanding at the expense of the latter, was a delusion shared with modern scholars by fourth- and fifth-century Christians themselves. It was their willingness to deceive themselves that led to their giving up the struggle too soon. Christianity triumphed, but paganism survived. To conclude this study, therefore, we shall survey briefly the ways in which paganism — according to our new understanding of the term — survived the apparent catastrophe of the late fourth century.
To be sure, various further ‘revivals’ of paganism have been detected by sundry enthusiasts. After the death of Ambrose and the Gildonic war, Stilicho is alleged to have entered into a kind of detente with paganism, restoring the Altar of Victory to the senate house: but this rests on a misinterpretation of Claudian.[] Again, we have a story from Zosimus that in 408 the prefect of the city (himself a Christian) considered trying pagan sacrifices to ward off the approaching Visigoths, but thought better of it after the pope, in a private consultation, indicated that he would only tolerate secret rituals (which would not be efficacious, on the familiar theory that the public cult had to be public to have its effects).[] The prefect later died in a bread riot, an unsurprising fate for such an official in time of crisis, and one which had nothing to do with his alleged ‘softness’ on paganism. And there was something of a preference for ‘Hellenism,’ too, in the late fifth-century revolt of Illus at Constantinople.[]
But it is not in such debatable and short-lived episodes that the real ‘survival’ of paganism is to be sought. It is not even in the lingering abhorrence of Christianity itself by such individuals as Rutilius Namatianus. In his case, for example, it is difficult to know just how far revulsion went; the only passages in his poem dealing with religion are short and digressive. The longer of them is devoted to expressing contempt for Judaism, but the way in which the sentiment is phrased indicates that at least part of that displeasure may have been with the way in which Judaism opened the door for Christianity.[] The only openly anti- Christian passage in Rutilius’ work is, in fact, more properly anti-monastic, occasioned by his passing a monastic community on the island of Capraria on the way to Gaul.[] To be sure, there is a tendency nowadays to see in Rutilius’ poem a ‘discreet reply’ to Augustine’s De civitate Dei, the first five or six books of which Rutilius may have known.[] The argument for such a dependence, however, hangs in the end upon both authors’ use of a single common source;[] and the stridence of Rutilius’ remarks about Jews and monks makes one wonder why the reply need have been so ‘discreet.’
The poet’s sentiments, in any event, are unexceptional, the sort of thing any purblind Roman patriot might have said at a favorable moment in the contest with the barbarians.[] We know that Rutilius, moreover, was close to the same Volusianus discussed above who was the apparent inspiration for the De civitate Dei: a man who was associating with Christians as early as 411 and resisting baptism as late as 436. Rutilius’ attitude need not even be seen as inconsistent with a resignation to the inevitability of Christian rule; he may simply have been as ambivalent and as snobbish as any of his contemporaries.
A more typical example of the way in which Christianity was kept from absolute triumph can be found at the court of Theodosius II in the 430s. Theodosius chose for his wife the beautiful Eudocia, daughter of a non-Christian sophist, Leontius of Athens. She herself patronized Cyrus of Panopolis, praetorian prefect for the Orient- and prefect of the city of Constantinople around 439. He was a poet, a friend of the verbose poet Nonnus,[]and is distinctly reported to have been a ‘Hellene.’ But Cyrus, failing into disgrace around 442, was rusticated to the post of bishop of Cotyaeum. His first sermon was a model of its kind, hinting at the ambivalence which marked his true feelings. The complete text of the sermon: ‘Brethren, let the birth of God, our savior, Jesus Christ, be honored by silence, because the Word was conceived by the holy Virgin through hearing only. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.’[]
In the Roman West, what is remarkable at this period is the way in which considerations of class and culture prevailed in the end. Peter Brown has astutely pointed out that the continuation of Roman secular traditions was perhaps the most characteristic feature of the Christianization of the Roman aristocracy, and probably the way in which the transformation of society was made palatable.[]The most striking document of this transformation is surely Macrobius’ Saturnalia. With the work now redated to the 430s, we can see it in new light. It is not, surely, any kind of pagan ‘propaganda.’[] Macrobius, as best we can tell, was a philosophically minded man (his commentary on the Somnium Scipionis reveals his own views), who felt a nostalgic affection for the generation of Praetextatus. The hallmark of the religion of both Praetextatus and Flavianus in the Saturnalia, however, is erudition. Macrobius went to great pains to counterfeit a lofty level of learning for these two men, and what they share with their fellow participants in the dialogue is just that learned character, equally manifest in each of them. There is nothing tendentious about the presentation of religion in the Saturnalia; it is treated simply as part of the tradition to which these great and learned men of the former generation had belonged. There is equally no bashfulness about its presentation.
There was no bashfulness, moreover, half a century later when (a manuscript subscription informs us) an apparent descendant of the Saturnalia’s author, Macrobius Plotinus Eudoxius, joined with yet another Symmachus (the great-grandson of the orator of 384) to have the works of Macrobius recopied.[]This bit of evidence takes us further into the last generations of the senatoriaI aristocracy, of whom this Symmachus, his step-son and son-in-law Boethius, and their contemporary Cassiodorus are the figures best known to us.
There can no longer be any doubt that all of these figures were themselves believing Christians. Their involvement in the ecclesiastical struggles of their time gives evidence too clear to be denied that they cared deeply about how such disputes were resolved, and on grounds of principle rather than self- interest.[] Yet the ambivalences of their traditionalism, occasioned by their fidelity to ideals of class and culture, have led some modern scholars to see an allegiance to paganism, open or covert, in both Boethius and Cassiodorus. In the latter case, the accusation is simply preposterous, but it is more plausible in the case of Boethius.[]
Boethius, despite his active involvement in theological politics, had no difficulty in pursuing his own true career as a philosopher. According to the most credible recent scholarship, he may have studied in the Platonic school at Alexandria, under teachers who were not Christian but occasionally quarreled over abstruse points with Christian thinkers.[] Some of the controversial positions of these non-Christian teachers seem to be represented, moreover, in Boethius’ own work.[] His great project was to translate all of Plato and Aristotle into Latin, provide commentaries, and demonstrate the essential harmony of their two systems.[] Deflected in that purpose, he found himself under house arrest far from home, and sought to pass the time composing the famous Consolatio Philosophiae.
This is not the place to determine the motives behind that work with certainty. The two principal possibilities, however, can be canvassed. Even if we accept the romantic theory that, in the hour of his greatest trial, Boethius deserted his religion and fled to the consolations of philosophy, we must recognize that he could do this in good conscience. His pagan philosophy must not have seemed to him so very inconsistent with his Christian religion, whatever ecclesiastical dignitaries of his own day might have thought. The Consolatio shows definite traces of this. On every point the argument is directed in such a way as to be as innocuous as possible to a Christian audience (and the success of the work in the Middle Ages shows how effective Boethius was in achieving this). The more moderate position, to which I subscribe, is that Boethius’ religion was never in doubt. He may even have vaguely contemplated the production of a ‘Consolation of Theology’ to complement the work we have. In any event, he wrote as a professional philosopher. That his work is squarely in the middle of completely non- Christian philosophical traditions is probably no more than evidence of the general acceptability of these traditions by the middle of the sixth century.
And yet the essentially pagan teachings of the Consolatio did find a lasting audience. This itself must tell us something about the nature of medieval Christianity. In our haste to dismiss the period as an age of faith, we do not often do justice to the tensions and ambiguities which have remained in Christianity at all periods. If paganism is, as I have described it, an attitude toward one’s religion more than a religion itself, the eradication of non-Christian cults did not necessarily lead to the eradication of that attitude. Even Christians might come up with the curious notion, in the late fifth century, of reviving some of the ceremonies of the Lupercalia, much to the dismay of Pope Gelasius.[] Curious isolated survivals of pagan rites lasted well beyond the time when the last imperial laws were thought to have stamped out the pest.[]
Moreover, medieval Christendom was never an entirely insular world. While there were, in any medieval century, relatively few individuals inside the boundaries of the great Christian kingdoms and empires who openly rejected the Christian faith, there were always new races to convert and new groups to assimilate, however imperfectly. That the core of Augustinian, rigorist, orthodox Christianity was mingled with a more vulnerable idea of Christianity as a success religion left the permanent possibility that Christianity would be embraced for the power it possessed, not for the truth it taught.[]
The innovation of Christianity was its insistence that religions were to be judged by their essential relation to objective reality, not by the wonders they could perform or the protection they could offer. And yet the purity of Christianity on this point was never absolute. In the positive virtue of tolerating different opinions lay the seed of the notion that one’s own opinions might be no better than those of one’s neighbors. In that form, if in no other, paganism survived the triumph of Christianity.