Review: A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (4)

18 June 2011

[This is the fourth part of a review of Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome (2011); the first part is here.]

Cover

I argued that Cameron’s thesis that there was no late fourth-century pagan revival looks convincing. However, this could also be said of Gibbon’s reconstruction of the events, which looked convincing for no less than two centuries. How can we establish which theory is better, in a field of scholarship where eight sources is many? We cannot test the two theories empirically: the necessary facts are too ‘soft’.

In situations like these, we need a logical principle to proceed. To paraphrase Karl Popper: the theory that tells most, is to be preferred. That is to say, a theory that has more empirical content: covering more ancient information of a more diverse nature. Now Cameron covers more ground than all of the earlier scholars: even though the number of sources has not expanded very much, he deals with more coins, more inscriptions, more objects of art. Our lack of information about this age is still disastrous, but Cameron uses his small advantage completely. There is not a single aspect of Late Antiquity – or at least the Latin part of it, because I would have loved to read more about the eastern half of the Empire – that he does not discuss.

This means that his book is also very long: 808 pages of text, excluding the index, an appendix and a “selected” bibliography of forty-six pages of fine print. You need to know something about Late Antiquity (don’t consider buying it if Rutilius Namatianus is unknown to you), but Cameron offers at least two weeks of intellectual adventure. This was the most interesting and rewarding book I have read since the fourth volume of Meyer’s Marginal Jew.

Complex and detailed, but The Last Pagans of Rome is superb. Summarized unfriendly, Cameron proves that paganism did not resist Christianity. How could it have been different? Christians were well-organized, while the pagans did not recognize themselves as one group, and never organized themselves.

But as Cameron indicates, there’s another, more positive way to look at it. The classical tradition was so completely absorbed by Christianity that we often cannot identify who was pagan and who was Christian. Both parties cared for the classical heritage. This has still consequences for us: the classical canon that we know, which includes texts in “silver Latin”, is not identical to the set of texts that was most popular when Rome was at its cultural zenith. What we can read today, reflects the taste of Late Antiquity.

The opposition between Christians and pagans, in which only the last-mentioned were the keepers of the classics, is a false one. Not the fathers of the Church and the fanatical pagans are typical for the late fourth century, but the moderates, who changed religion but did not abandon the classics. I imagine they were just too polite and well-mannered to make religion a divisive issue. With one host, they joined in a Christian prayer; upon entering another house, they burned some incense for the ancestors. And when they went home, they invited a rabbi to bless the crops: his blessing had been beneficial in the past, so why stop now?

This ambiguity may explain why Bacurius, the officer I mentioned in the first part of this laudatio review, was considered a Christian by a Christian, and a pagan by a pagan.


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