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Living (and losing) the First Culture War
Pagans just need to understand they’re on the wrong side of history
What do you do when you realise your worldview is dying? That your children and grandchildren will be raised in a culture with totally different values. That, were they to continue the old religion, they would need to do so discreetly, even secretly? Phew, really glad I don’t live in such a rapidly transformational moment in history, unlike those poor suckers in the Rome of Constantine.
In late Roman terms, the fourth century wasn’t the worst; the Plague of Cyprian from 249-262 had been a truly traumatic experience, almost splitting the empire for good. Then the late fourth century would see increasing pressure on the Western Empire, with large movements of Germanic tribes, many of them seeking refuge from the dreaded Huns.
It proved too much for the West, which from 410 saw a slow-moving collapse starting in the outer province of Britain and reaching its end with the destruction of Rome’s aqueducts in 537.
The intervening period might have seemed relatively benign, if you weren’t on the losing side of the first great culture war, and one of the Romans who grew up to see their way of life completely transformed by a radical new way of thinking.
Edward Watts’s The Final Pagan Generation tracks the cohort whose lives spanned the first three quarters of the century; who were raised in a society which had only known the old gods and the old ways since as far back as anyone had known. And who saw their world turned upside down.
Christians had started the third century as a miniscule minority, especially in the West, but the Plague of Cyprian changed that, the shock of the epidemic accelerating the rise of the new religion, and by the end of that traumatic century Christians were a sizeable minority in some urban areas.
For generations, Romans had been raised with the gods of their ancestors. ‘The geographer Strabo writes that these stories could create a living awareness of the gods that could regulate children’s behaviour’, and the sights and smells and sounds of polytheistic religion could be seen everywhere on Roman streets. The gods felt real.
But by the fourth century an unstoppable cultural shift had been set in motion, and as Christianity’s rise continued unabated, members of the Roman elite began to lose faith in their old gods. The Christians were unquestionably intolerant towards their rivals, and shut many temples by order of the law, but what proved fatal was that people just stopped believing. The symbols that once cast a revered awe were now mocked. Referencing Jupiter or Mars might provoke a sneer or a snigger. Irony is fatal to belief.
Christianity was ascendent, but a tipping point came in 313 when Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, ordering the official toleration of a religion which had suffered on-off persecution (although Christians would persecute each other with far greater fervour).
Then as now, however, there could be no neutral public square, and what followed was a steady ratcheting up of intolerance until in 391 the Emperor Theodosius ordered the closing of the temples. The weaker the old believers became, the less accommodating their old adversaries. Everyone believes in freedom of conscience until they’re winning.
Many aristocrats, in particular, couldn’t understand why Romans would abandon their own gods and wipe away a thousand years of tradition. Who are all these hysterical people screaming and shouting about some criminal from another country? Why are they adopting the historical tradition of an entirely different culture? What is ‘Jehovah’ to Romans? Why must my children learn about Abraham and Isaac?
Watts writes of the pagans, that ‘these men and women were the mid-fourth century’s silent majority.’ They could not foresee their old traditions going, and ‘reacted instead as if they could not imagine a world in which traditional religious practise did not have a part.’
As institutions were taken over by Christians, conservative-minded pagans were reluctant to overturn the system, even when emperors and their courtiers had now adopted a revolutionary creed. ‘Romans born in the first quarter of the fourth century consequently showed little inclination to challenge this prosperous imperial order,’ Watts writes: ‘And yet it was this generation’s faith in the foundations of the imperial system and their craving for political stability that enabled Christian emperors to mount increasingly powerful challenges to established religious life in the later fourth century.’
The Christians had a number of advantages, a major one being that they simply cared more. Tertullian had been against mixed marriages because the Christian spouse would be subject to the smell of burning offerings for the pagan gods. That kind of intolerance tends to win out, because many pagans would convert just to please their spouse, and Christianity gained huge numbers from secondary conversion (the majority of them husbands.)
On the issue of sex, the two cultures had very different attitudes. Christianity placed great restraints on male sexual desires, stigmatising adultery, divorce, prostitution and the sexual use of female slaves, which our Christian and post-Christian culture regards as rape but to a Roman man was perfectly accepted. Infanticide, practised especially against girls, was also prohibited, all of which helped give the new religion a large gender imbalance at first.
Christians brought what the French writer Chantal Delsol called a ‘normative inversion’ to pagan Rome. ‘They prized much that the Romans held in contempt and condemned much that the Romans prized, particularly in matters related to sex and family.’
Two of the temples closed by Constantine were centres of ritualised prostitution, the emperor believing that this ‘unlawful commerce of women and adulterous intercourse’. But others had merely offended Christian sensibilities with their graven idols of false gods.
Even as Rome’s elite came to embrace the new religion, conservative followers of the old faith maintained the fiction that the emperor protected their ways. In 325 sophist Nicagoras honoured the Emperor Constantine by calling him ‘the torch bearer of the most holy mysteries at Eleusis’ and ‘gave thanks to the gods and to the most pious emperor Constantine’.
Just as modern politicians today pay lip service to Britain’s Christian inheritance without really meaning it, perhaps it suited everyone to maintain the pretence. In 330 Athenian pagan Praxagoras wrote a history of Constantine’s reign without even mentioning his Christianity or religious policies. Perhaps they just didn’t seem relevant, because Romans would always worship Roman gods; perhaps he didn’t want to consider the implications.
Mostly, the Roman elite of the 4th century just got on with their lives. Paulinus of Pella ‘thrilled in wearing the latest fashions from Rome and spent his days racing his horses as fast as they would go…. Ausonius seems to have been something of a foodie. Ausonius once wrote forty-one lines of poetry devoted to a snarky description of all of the different types of oysters he had sampled: “These are known to me,” he claimed, “not from common company nor from taverns… but because I myself have often celebrated festivals… or gone to banquets as an invited guest when a friend observed a birthday or a marriage feast or a drinking party.”’
In 341 the co-Emperors Constantius II and Constans issued the prohibition stating: ‘Superstition shall cease; the madness of sacrifices shall be abolished.’ Firmicus Maternus, a public advocate and pagan astrologer who became a fervent Christian, wrote to the emperor appealing that ‘the severest laws so that the deadly error of this delusion no longer stains the Roman world’.
In 356 Constantius declared ‘If any persons should be proven to devote their attention to sacrifices or to the worship of images, We command that they be subjected to capital punishment.’
Yet there seemed to be no protest among Rome’s declining pagan aristocracy about the increasing intolerance of the new faith, partly because these laws were often unenforced, or theoretical. ‘There was little direct criticism and no violent protests led by men like Libanius or Themistius. They had too much to lose and little sense that resistance was necessary. Constantius’s political retribution touched only a few unlucky or stupid members of the elite, and his religious policies were largely ineffectual. Sacrifice continued despite Constantius’s ban, temples remained open despite his injunction to the contrary, and the emperor himself even toured the (still open) temples in the city of Rome when he visited in 357… Constantius’s policies may have been disagreeable, but they hardly seemed to be a pressing or universal threat.’
At any rate, crude laws are often less effective than mere social sanction. ‘There was no legal penalty per se for speech critical of the emperor or his policies, but possible social and professional consequences made such criticism inadvisable. The elite of the final pagan generation had better things to worry about. There was money to be made, honours to be gained, and fun to be had by those who could cooperate openly with the regime, even if they chose to criticise it privately. At the same time, there were different strategies that one could follow to not just survive but thrive in such an environment.’
One such strategy was enacted by Themistius, who was advanced by the emperor and rose to fame after he delivered a panegyric to Constantius in 347. ‘In it, Themistius first defined himself as a politically impartial philosopher who, because of his commitment to philosophical truth, would speak only as reason dictated. He then proceeded to praise Constantius as an ideal ruler who embodied philosophical virtues and whose policies reflected the principles of Plato and Aristotle. It was a masterful performance that immediately seems to have earned Themistius the gratitude and trust of the emperor.’
It was irresistibly tempting to please the new powers, to deny the reality of what was happening; one can only imagine the deep self-disgust felt by pagan writers as they penned the 4th-century equivalent of ‘the conservative case for closing down our temples’.
And it was easy to convince oneself there was no intolerance. As Watts writes: ‘Most temples remained open despite the laws, statues and images of the gods stared down from every corner or cities, public sacrifices continued to be offered in many parts of the empire (including in Rome itself), and the traditional religious routines of households throughout the empire could continue unaffected. At the same time, there were careers to advance, honors to be earned, positions to be gained, transfers to better jobs to be secured, deaths to mourn, issues of inheritance to resolve, new marriages to arrange, and fun to be had. This was not a good time to raise concerns about ineffectual religious policies or to wage foolish crusades against a powerful emperor. It made much more sense to swallow one’s discomfort with a set of largely symbolic policies and work with the emperor and his administration.’
As with the laws against sacrifices from 324, there seemed to be virtually no prosecutions and there is evidence they were still going on up to at least 361. The later Theodosian Code against temples was ignored largely.
There must have been private mumblings among pagans about what was happening. Maybe they thought it was a fad, like various other foreign religions that had been successfully integrated into Roman life. They didn’t understand that Christianity was different, that it was a totality; it wasn’t enough to allow the pagans to continue, because pagan ideas caused harm, to the believer and to the wider community.
Hope was restored in 361 when conservatives got one of their own on the imperial throne: Julian, a former Christian who had returned to the old gods and so would become known to history as ‘the Apostate’. Now he would turn things back.
Yet even in trying to fight the new faith, he had absorbed their ideas. Julian encouraged philanthropy, a belief being that ‘money with all men’ should be shared, even with Christians, because we are all humans — yet this idea of universal charity was an obviously Christian idea (and one reason for their success). Despite being a pagan, Julian was already Christianised, had adopted their assumptions and premises. Railing against the tide of Christianity was hopeless when you had already absorbed Christian assumptions.
Julian had Christians banned from teaching because he saw that their cultural domination stemmed from control of education. Libanius supported Julian’s anti-Christian policies but ‘frequently found himself compelled to ask that exceptions be made for friends and relatives who were adversely affected by them. Libanius intervened for colleagues who had lost influence after Constantius’s death, he worked to secure exemptions from curial service for friends despite Julian’s desire to strengthen the councils, and he advocated for Christian sophists like Prohaeresius who had lost their positions because of Julian’s teaching laws. Most intriguingly, Libanius helped friends work around some of the very religious initiatives that he elsewhere praised.’
The political situation led to much dissimulation and moral cowardice, people praising the dominant ideology in public, cursing it in private, with whispered apologies to friends they could not back up. The other side of this story was that the culture war mellowed when it hit against personal friendships.
Yet Julian died within two years and the pagans didn’t get a second chance; besides which, it was too late now anyway. Christianity had been popular among the despised and poor but as it became hegemonic so the upper class took over the Church, and in particular control of the bishoprics. By the 370s large urban churches owed a great deal of land, and ‘Churches now needed bishops who knew how to manage large estates, diverse properties, and complicated political relationships. This led them increasingly to turn to talented members of the upper class to manage their affairs. In return, the churches offered these men a way to do recognisably elite activities in a new context of Christian service.’
The earlier Christians had been quite radical, but the later cohort, men like Hesperius, Thalassius and Gracchus, were not natural rebels. ‘These younger Christians belonged to the same generations as Ambrose and Chrysotom, but they did not participate in the Christian counterculture of the 360s and 370. They were creatures of the establishment, the fourth-century version of fraternity brothers dressed in dinner jackets who walked impatiently by the hippies playing drums on the quad. They were selected not to challenge but to perpetuate the system.’
It was all over. Some ‘pagan communities continued to thrive in the Roman world into the seventh century and beyond’ but their days were numbered. They had lost control of Rome’s institutions, but more importantly they had lost control of society’s taboos; Christians might now dictate what could and could not be said, and what god was real. If you lose the courage to attack your opponents’ weak points, because of the threats to your livelihood or status, to offend their sacred ideas, then you will lose.
Things would only get worse from then. In time, and following the fall of the West, Christianity’s hold on what remained of the Roman Empire became stronger than ever. Eventually Emperor Justinian banned polytheist professors from the Academy in Athens, saying they were ‘diseased with the insanity of the unholy Hellenes’. In the West, St Augustine suggested that pagans would have to ‘wake up’ to being a minority. They had lost the culture wars and were on the wrong side of history.