Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome is a work of monumental scholarship. The late author was a master of the textual sources to such an extent that no non-specialist can truly comprehend the force of his argument or its veracity in a deep manner. That being said, the book is essential reading in large part because it is an armamentarium against a conventional argument that the victory of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire was established and sealed by the victory of Theodosius the Great at the Battle of the Frigidus in 394. And, that that victory was contingent upon that battle.
The standard model is that the rise of Christianity among the ruling class of the Roman Empire after the conversion of Constantine in the first decades of the 4th-century triggered a conservative traditionalist reaction, centered around prominent Roman Senators, precipitating out into armed resistance in the 390s. The rebellion against Theodosius is framed as a pagan cause against the devoutly Christian ruler.
Cameron rejects this whole narrative to a great extent as a projection of contemporary sensibilities and preoccupations with the ancient past. The Last Pagans of Rome presents the case that it was Gratian’s removal of public subsidies from the traditional cults in the early 380s which marked the turning point.
The term “case” must be used because the author is so convinced of his argument and conclusions (reached after a lifetime of scholarship), that the text comes across as almost lawyerly in its tone. At some point, you realize that whenever there is ambiguity and uncertainty, the conclusion will always be drawn in a way so as to buttress the thesis favored by the author, rather than simply leaving the uncertainty as is. Whereas those presenting the contrasting thesis (that pagan revival and resistance was real in the 390s) might assume that a particular individual was a pagan, Cameron points out various reasons to be uncertain about this inference, and often will conclude “it is just as likely or perhaps more like that this person was a Christian!”
In the footnotes of The Final Pagan Generation, a more sober work, you actually see comments which argue that Cameron pushes his case for the decline and extinction of paganism too far.
Despite this qualm, I believe that Cameron’s thesis is broadly correct. First, it is entirely reasonable to suggest and suspect that modern authors are laundering their own romantic preoccupations into their interpretation of the past. I myself have been known to portray Quintus Aurelius Symmachus as a paragon of broad-minded latitudinarian tolerance, in sharp contrast with the narrow-minded intolerant scold, St. Ambrose. This is a common reflex among those given nourishment by the values of the Enlightenment. The Last Pagans of Rome casts doubt on the way in which these men have been depicted historically, suggesting that their own self-conceptions and place in society was fundamentally different from what we might assume (to obtain powerful Christian sympathy, Symmachus had to portray himself as a tolerant individual. To maintain Christian respect, Ambrose had to show that he was a zealout).
Second, our understanding of the anthropology of religion of the past flattens the true realities and imposes cartoonish identities which likely did not correspond with anything real. Our modern idea of religion and society is conditioned on the sectarian conflicts in the West in the wake of the Reformation, as well as the formal separation of confessions enriched in the legal framework of Islam. That is, individuals are seen to have delimited and exclusive identities. Though this framework is somewhat a difficult fit in South and East Asian societies, they have nevertheless integrated and accepted it in some fashion due to the hegemonic influence of the modern West, and in South Asia the historical legacy of Islamic rule.
Obviously none of this applied to the late Roman Empire. Though Christianity made exclusive claims upon its believers, just as the Jewish God made exclusive claims on the Jews, pagan religiosity was pluralistic and promiscuous. It was integrative, non-exclusive, and diffusely delimited. This was, in fact, one of the reasons that Judaism and Christianity became influential and widely practiced in the ancient world. In The Fate of Rome, the author suggests that civic public paganism declined in the late 3rd-century, after the Plague of Cyprian, and well before Constantine’s conversion. One could argue that the centrality and dominance of Christianity in the 4th-century had less to do with victory in the competition with paganism, than the fact that there was a vacuum at the center of the state which Christianity was suited to fill.
In The Last Pagans of Rome Cameron suggests that the elite pagans of the late 4th-century were not religious fanatics. On the contrary, their priestly duties were hereditary marks of prestige and status, rather than earned piety. One of the major reasons that they likely lagged in their adherence to the new favored religion was that it did not have a patina of prestige. As noted in Through the Eye of the Needle and The Making of the Christian Aristocracy, class prejudice, and snobbery against the decidedly middle-brow character of Christianity retarded adoption by the elite. The class origins of the early Christians was evident in the early translations of the Bibles into Latin: they were not of the aristocratic variant, but a more common register. Only when aristocrats began to convert to Christianity and join the Church in large numbers did the religion become part and parcel of the identity of elite society.
The elite of the Roman world had seen sects and cults come and go. In the late 1st-century, Vespasian brought an affection for Isis to the center of the Roman world, while in the early 3rd-century a priestly Syrian family ascended to the purple. In the late 3rd-century Solar religion and Mithraism became quite popular. It is entirely likely that the many 4th-century Roman Senators viewed the rise of Christianity as just another religion, that would have its time in the sun and fade.
Cameron in The Last Pagans of Rome argues that rather than Christian and pagan (the latter being a set defined by all those who were not Christian or Jewish), many people in the 4th-century occupied a range of views in terms of religion and identity. Some individuals were exclusive and devout Christians, while others were convinced pagans. But many individuals were nominal and mercenary about their religious affiliation, moving with the winds. This is important because it implies that not all identified Christians would be unremittingly hostile toward pagan religion due to deep ideological commitments. The 4th-century man of letters, Ausonius, is perceived by many to have been Christian primarily due to its social advantage.
Conversely, many who were nominally pagans may have not had much opposition to becoming Christian in regards to their beliefs, but were held back by other considerations. For example, perhaps their role as pagan priests was socially advantageous in the locality to a far greater extent than the low probability of obtaining favor from the imperial center through conversion to the favored imperial religion. This example then suggests why the cessation of subsidies to the pagan cults in the 380s was so essential and critical: without public funds, the maintenance of the urban and elite segment of the old religions would fall back on the wealthy families. Instead of being a social boon obtained at no personal cost, the old religion would become a fiscal burden upon the traditional elites.
For many Westerners, the premodern shift of religious identity is framed by the Reformation. Religious lands were seized and secularized. Monks were defrocked. To a great extent, it was a rupture and a forcible one. This has analogs in other societies. China in the 9th-century saw the evisceration of the Buddhist establishment by Emperors who feared an over-mighty “First Estate.” Similarly, Oda Nobunaga in the 16th-century literally burned down the Buddhist monasteries of Japan because so many had become laws unto themselves. Cameron’s argument in The Last Pagans of Rome is that paganism in the Roman Empire expired of natural causes. It was not killed. The assault on the Serapeum was the exception, not the rule. Though some Christians in the 4th-century began to make the case for coercion in religious belief, this seems to have been rare (in contrast, practices offensive to Christians, such as animal sacrifice, were clearly sharply curtailed).
To understand what happened in the 4th-century, and later, it is useful to look at analogies in other societies and at other times. Both Tibet and Japan saw strong reactions against the adoption of Buddhism by elements of the nobility. This is strikingly similar to what reputedly occurred in the Late Roman Empire. There was resistance to the move away from Roman Catholicism in England in the 16th-century, from principled intellectuals such as St. Thomas More, to aristocrats such as the Duke of Norfolk, and peasants in the northern English countryside. In the Indian subcontinent, a succession of Muslim monarchs and elites presented the native peoples with a religious vision sharply distinct from the customs and traditions of the local religious movements. Finally, in Germany in the 17th-century several lines of rulers changed from the religion of their subjects, but were unable to convert any of their subjects.
In Tibet and Japan, the anti-Buddhist faction initially succeeded, arresting or reversing the spread of the religion, but ultimately failed in changing the long-term religious arc of the society. In India, the Muslims only converted a minority of the population, and those conversions were regionally concentrated (Islam was much more successful in the far west and east of the subcontinent). In England, there was a gradual shift toward Protestantism in the 16th-century, though a minority always remained Roman Catholic. Finally, in Germany, the confessional identities were deeply rooted enough that elite preferences were irrelevant.
It is clear that deeply rooted mass confessional identity in a modern sense did not exist in the ancient world. Some Protestant thinkers go so far as to assert that Europeans were not truly Christian until after the Protestant Reformation, which forced individuals into personal religious faith. This seems to go too far in light of broad-based popular religious movements in the late medieval period, but the relatively muted reaction of the peasantry of the rapid shift to Protestantism triggered by elite conversion and identification strongly indicate that religious identity was weak and diffuse in the pre-modern period. In the ancient world, Christians introduced a sharp and clear religious identity, but to a great extent, this was a feature of urban areas and urban sub-elites (see Rodney Stark’s unfortunately polemical Cities of God). Similarly, in the early modern period, Protestantism was initially rooted in urban areas around cultural and socio-political elites, only slowly transforming the religious life of peasants with a new sort of piety.
So the issue then is not the whole society, it is the nature of the conversion of the political and cultural elite of the Roman world. The Neoplatonists of the 6th-century remained non-Christian because their metaphysical system could not be fully integrated into Christianity (though it clearly influenced Christianity). In contrast, it seems that the social and political elite became predominantly Christian much earlier. Why? As suggested above the disconnect between the state and traditional religion starved the old cults of fiscal support, and their withering removed any prestige accrued to elite lineages through patronage and priestly duties. Additionally, it took several generations after the initial patronage of Constantine for Christianity to produce the sort of highly cultured elite individuals which added a luster of cultivation to the religion which was attractive to the sensibilities of the aristocracy. It was a much easier task to convert nobles if those who preached Christianity to them were from their own class, sharing broad values and educations.
The spread of Christianity can be analogized to the spread of Islam in the Christian and Zoroastrian world in the 7th and 8th-centuries. Aristocratic Christians such as John of Damascus had a role within the Islamic polity so long as Greek language and forms were the dominant administrative culture of the Ummayyad state. The shift to Arabic changed the incentive structure. In The Rise of Western Christendom Peter Brown contends that the movement to Arabic by Christians was the dominant variable in the conversion of the Near East. In Iran, the emergence of Islam as a majority religion was coincident with the conversion of the local nobility and the defeat of the last independent Zoroastrian warlords.
We tend to carve reality into distinct and striking categories. The Last Pagans of Rome argue that the categories “pagan” and “Christian” divided into two classes what was really a spectrum. Similarly, the Christianization of antiquity was a gradual affair, and numerically the punctuated nature of events such as the Battle of Frigidus was probably far less striking than we wish them to be.
There are similarities to the situation of early Muslims in India to early imperial Christians in Late Antiquity. Islam in the subcontinent was very much a court religion. Though Hindu rulers persisted around the peripheries for nearly the whole time, the pinnacle of rule by and large took on a Turkic and Islamic cast in the subcontinent for many centuries. And yet Hinduism, or what we call Hinduism, but was truly a multiplicity of native Indian religious forms, persisted in the face of Islam. This is a contrast to Zoroastrianism and Christianity, which eventually lost their demographic preponderance in the face of Islam.
The situation of ancient paganism may have been even more hopeless. Rather than terming these “pagans,” an appellation that some Christians might apply to Hindus and Buddhists, I think a better way to think of the Greco-Roman traditional religions is that they were tribal religions. The Greco-Romans had a sophisticated set of metaphysics and ethics elucidated in their philosophies, but these remained sealed off from the traditional religion. Christianity integrated some elements of philosophy into the tribal religion of the Jews and then universalized it. In the short term, there were strong incentives for individuals and communities to resist Christianity, but its cultural innovativeness made its final victory likely inevitable, just as in Tibet and Japan Buddhism returned after the initial persecution.
India and China both resisted assimilation by foreign religions because they had more than simply tribal religions. In China Buddhism in the 9th-century became overbearing, which resulted in concerted persecution by the state (a practice which would reemergence several times in Chinese history). But there was also a strong anti-Buddhist elite critique from Neo-Confucians. Neo-Confucianism presented itself as a better alternative, rather than simply a reversion to a tribal religion. In China, the tribal religion persists in the form of local folk religion. But this is an entirely plebian affair. In India the religious traditions were fertile and robust, giving birth to the first world religion in the form of Buddhism, and pioneering the idea of the mobile religious community, the sangha. Some of the same could be said of the Hinduism of the period, which had integrated insights from Buddhism, and developed a complex fusion of philosophy and spirituality that became the Vedanta. The Hindu-Muslim tension and conflict which has been a feature of Indian history in various forms emerges from the fact that the assimilation of Hindus into Islam as converted Muslims is not inevitable due to the latter’s clearly superior sophistication over the former.
The Last Pagans of Rome describe a world in which inchoate and decentralized paganism was confronted with a new cultural innovation, a universally oriented exclusive religious community that synthesized popular devotionalism with elite rationality. The Christianization of the aristocracy was a matter of establishing the details of the accommodation, not whether that accommodation would happen.