[This is the third part of a review of Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome (2011); the first part is here.]
As I said, Cameron’s thesis is that there was no late fourth-century pagan revival that needed to be suppressed with violence at the banks of the Frigidus. Let’s focus on the battle, although it is only one chapter in this rich book. Cameron has access to more or less the same sources as Edward Gibbon, who mentioned eight sources and called the emperor Eugenius a pagan. One of these is a letter by Ambrose of Milan, published after the death of Eugenius and after Theodosius’ victory. In this letter, Ambrose addresses Eugenius and makes him several reproaches. Gibbon accepted these words as authentic, but Cameron points out that there is no certainty that Ambrose had really sent this letter.
Later, one of Ambrose’s disciples, Paulinus, interpreted the letter incorrectly, exaggerating the saintly bishop’s resistance against Eugenius. Another author, the church historian Rufinus, presents Eugenius’ usurpation as a pagan affair, and converted the battle of the Frigidus into an epic clash between orthodoxy and paganism. Later authors like Theodoret, Sozomenus, and Socrates, copied this and elaborated the story. Where Gibbon and his followers believed that Eugenius’ paganism was proved by several sources, Cameron points out that they are not independent, that some of them can be eliminated, and that others just don’t mention what has been read in them.
Now we may object that the youngest sources contain information that cannot be found in Rufinus. Cameron’s counterargument is that these authors never add the same information, and proves that the extra information is nothing but elaboration. There were no statues of Hercules and Jupiter at the battlefield, missiles thrown by Eugenius’ soldiers were not returned to them by a violent storm (which is of course impossible), and so on. Because Cameron refutes about every counterargument you can imagine, his book is complex – and very, very rich.
This was just one aspect of the book. Cameron offers many other new readings of well-known texts. Macrobius’ Saturnalia? Not a real evocation of ancient paganism and no proof that the author was pagan. Pagan priestly colleges? They continued to exist and people felt honored when they were invited to join, but many members did not fulfill their obligations. Prudentius’ famous description of a taurobolium? Unreliable, and no proof that these sacrifices still took place.
After reading The Last Pagans of Rome, the world of literature of Late Antiquity has another face. Pagan authors turn out to have been Christians. The pagan senator Symmachus, who has been considered one of the leaders of the revival of classical literature, turns out to be a bit old-fashioned; Christians like Augustine were better aware of the latest literary fashion. The main point is that no one appears to have associated the classical texts with a pagan opposition. The late fourth-century renaissance has, in short, nothing to do with a pagan revival that had to be suppressed violently at the Frigidus. Cameron needs a lot of words and pages to make his point, but his reconstruction is convincing.