[This is the second part of a review of Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome (2011); the first part is here.]
In the twenty-seventh chapter of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon describes the battle of the Frigidus, a small river in western Slovenia, which took place in September 394. The Christian emperor Theodosius I, with the help of among others the Bacurius mentioned above, defeated the army of the usurper Eugenius and his general Arbogast. In a note, Gibbon mentions no less than eight sources, which is a lot for an event in the fourth century. Feeling confident, the British historian accepted all information, and he repeated that Eugenius was a pagan, or supported paganism, as is indicated by several authors. In the next chapter, Gibbon described how Theodosius’ reign marked “the total extirpation” of ancient paganism.
For two centuries, no one has doubted this reconstruction. In fact, it was used to support new theories. Eugenius’ reign was believed to be the political aspect of a pagan revival in the late fourth century, a desperate renaissance in which many old texts were copied again and new texts were written. The idea that there was an Indian Summer for paganism is very common: to offer but one example from popular culture, it is the assumption beyond Gilles Chaillet’s well-documented series of comics, La dernière prophétie. The recent movie Agora also presupposes a sometimes violent conflict between Christians and pagans.
Unfortunately, the reconstruction is not correct. That is the central message of Alan Cameron’s book The Last Pagans of Rome. The Italian pagan elite did not offer resistance. In 382, the emperor Gratian put an end to state payments to the pagan cults, forcing the pagan aristocrats to make a choice between on the one hand paying for the shrines themselves and making themselves unpopular at court, or accept the demise of the cults and remain eligible for the magistracies to which they owed their fame. As was to be expected, the great men found their own honor more important than the honor of the gods. The liberal arts were to flourish one last time, but not because pagans were making a last stand.