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.]


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]


The sign of Socrates

5 February 2011
A stylized starburst


Yet another chunk of Plutarch: the De Genio Socratis; just in English, since the Greek text, along with a French translation, is already available at Philippe Remacle’s site.

We need not be misled by the title, “On the Genius (Sign, Daemon) of Socrates”; maybe a third of it discusses in what his guardian voice might have consisted, and it is embedded in a typically Greek matrix of (1) moral concerns, (2) mysticism, and (3) murder — this last, the Theban uprising of 379 BC, forming the unlikely setting and in fact the main topic: after a spirited discussion of Buddhist reincarnation, virtue and the paths of the planets thru the Milky Way, the philosophers run off to assassinate the heads of their government.

Samples of (1), (2), and (3), in order:

For if it is a noble act to benefit friends, it is no disgrace to be benefited by them; for the favour, requiring a recipient no less than a giver, needs both to be made perfect in nobility. He who refuses to accept the favour, like the man who refuses to catch a well-directed ball, disgraces it, allowing it to fall to the ground without achieving its end. For what target is so delightful to hit and so painful to miss, as a man deserving kindness at whom we aim a favour? Yet in the case of the target the man who misses has only himself to blame, as the mark is fixed; whereas with favours, the man who declines and moves aside is guilty of an offence against the favour, allowing it to fall short of its goal.

Some of it was of the pure hue of the high seas, while elsewhere the colour was not unmixed, but turbid and like that of a pool. As they crested the surge the islands came back, without, however, returning to their point of departure or completing a circle; but with each new circuit they advanced slightly beyond the old, describing a single spiral in their revolution. The sea containing these was inclined at an angle of somewhat less than eight parts of the whole toward the midmost and largest portion of the surrounding envelope, as he made out; and it had two openings receiving rivers of fire emptying into it across from one another, so that it was forced far back, boiling, and its blue colour was turned to white. All this he viewed with enjoyment of the spectacle. But looking down he saw a great abyss, round, as though a sphere had been cut away; most terrible and deep it was, and filled with a mass of darkness that did not remain at rest, but was agitated and often welled up. From it could be heard innumerable roars and groans of animals, the wailing of innumerable babes, the mingled lamentations of men and women ….

[W]hen Melon, the first to make a move, set out through their midst, his hand on his sword hilt, Cabirichus, the magistrate appointed by lot, caught his arm as he passed and shouted: “Isn’t this Melon, Phyllidas?” Melon, however, disengaged himself, drawing his sword as he did so, and rushing at Archias, who was having trouble getting to his feet, did not slacken his blows until he had killed him. Philippus was wounded by Charon near the neck, and as he defended himself with the goblets set before him, Lysitheüs threw him from his couch to the ground and dispatched him. We endeavoured to quiet Cabirichus, adjuring him not to lend aid to the tyrants but help us set his country free, as his person was sacred and consecrated to the gods in that country’s behalf. But as he was not easily to be won over to the wiser course by an appeal to reason, the wine also having its effect, but was getting to his feet, excited and confused, and couching the spear our magistrates are accustomed to keep always with them, I seized it in the middle and raising it above my head shouted to him to let go and save himself, as he would otherwise be cut down; but Theopompus came up at his right and struck him with his sword, saying: “Lie there with these you toadied to: may you never wear the chaplet when Thebes is free and never sacrifice again to the gods before whom you have invoked so many curses on your country in your many prayers for her enemies.” When Cabirichus had fallen, Theocritus (who was standing near) caught up the sacred spear from the blood, while we dispatched the few servants who had ventured to fight back and locked up the rest ….

There’s still a lot of Plutarch left: right now, only 45% of the Moralia are onsite.

Socrates’ Obscene Last Words

20 May 2010

The Silenus-like Socrates (Louvre)

I recently made a remark on this blog that Socrates‘ last words were obscene, to which Mr Steven Saylor replied that he liked me to elaborate on it. I gladly do so, because Mr Saylor is the author of several nice novels (here‘s his website).

The story is told by Plato and can be found in the Phaedo (118a). Socrates has drunk from the poison cup, walks around to make the venom do its work, sits down, and the executioner touches him, telling him that his body will become stiff; when this stiffness will reach his heart, he will pass away.

Now when the stiffness reaches the lower part of Socrates’ torso (ἦτρον), Socrates “uncovers himself”. The now naked part of his body is not mentioned, but there is no reason to assume that it was his head, as nearly all painters represent this scene. (The custom to cover one’s head when one senses one was going to die, was Roman.) With at least one part of his body uncovered, Socrates’ final words are, “We owe a cock to Asclepius”. The Greek word that Plato uses, “ἀλεκτρυών”, has the same meaning as the English “cock”.

Being touched, stiffness, the lower part of the body, uncovering oneself, a cock: Plato offers no less than five signal words, and the listener must have understood what Plato did no say, that the dying Socrates had, to use the medical phrase, a “terminal erection”. Socrates’ last words, fitting for a man whose portrait is modeled on Silenus, were a joke.


Eva Keuls, The Reign of the Phallus (1985)