Review: A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (3)

18 June 2011

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

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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.

[to be continued]

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Review: A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (2)

18 June 2011

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

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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.

[to be continued]


Review: A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (1)

18 June 2011

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

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Bacurius was an officer in the Roman army of the fourth century AD. The church historian Rufinus calls him a Christian. He may be right: the two men had met in Jerusalem. Bacurius’ friend Libanius of Antioch, however, considered the officer a pagan. There may be an easy explanation, like conversion, but that’s not my point. Far more interesting than Bacurius’ religion is the question what modern historians would have thought if only Rufinus’ History of the Church had survived and Libanius’ letters were lost. I am quite sure that no one would have suspected that Rufinus’ information might have been incorrect. Bacurius would have been considered a Christian.

This example illustrates the central problem of the study of Antiquity: there are not enough sources. Researchers are not able to check whether their information is correct. The problem is sometimes identified with a proverb from Roman law: testis unus, testis nullus. Disagreeing sources are, therefore, any historian’s dream: finally a way to contrast evidence and check information.

Usually, ancient historians have only one source. Of course they ask – or should ask – which information might refute that one source, whether that information has ever been around, why that information no longer exists, and by which miracle the surviving source has come down to us. The ancient historian who believes that he has done his job by merely quoting a source, uses a method that is often called naïve positivism.

In the eighteenth century, this was the best historians could offer. Edward Gibbon was sometimes incredibly naïve when he wrote his Decline and Fall; uncritically, he accepted the information from the Historia Augusta, never realizing that this source was a hoax, never asking which sources were used by its author, never preferring that information to the Historia Augusta. In a sense, it is to be regretted that the master of irony is still in print, because it has led generations of amateur historians to believe that “telling a story based on the sources” is all a historian has to do.

[to be continued]


Ba’al

13 July 2010

Baal (Louvre, Paris)

After several postings on updated old webpages, I am happy to be able to announce a completely new page: Ba’al, the name or title of one of the main deities of the ancient Near East. He is of course notorious as one of the favorite targets of the Jewish prophets of the Old Testament, but gods named Ba’al are known from Syria and Phoenicia as well.

Ba’al is especially well-known from a series of tablets from Ugarit, which tell the story about his fight against the sea god, his palace, and his temporary defeat in a conflict with the god of death. The god was also venerated in Carthage, had a twin named Bel in Babylonia, is mentioned on the Mesha stela, and is known from countless personal names.

The most famous story is, of course, that about the prophet Eliah, challenging the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. When I was preparing my article, I received a message from a friend who has been there several times, and remarked that the ancient altars, which were apparently still there, had been removed, because conservative Jews might take umbrage over those pagan objects.

The new page is here.