The Final Pagan Generation – Life in 4th Century Rome


The ‘Final Pagan Generation’ by Edward J. Watts describes life in 4th Century CE in the Roman Empire. Watts uses 4 Roman elites; Ausonius, Themistius, Libanius and Praetextatus, as characters around whom a narrative of history is woven. They belonged to “The Final Pagan Generation” (which was not exclusively Pagan), that lasted from ~ 310-390 CE and the last generation that could not imagine a Roman Empire dominated by a Christian majority.

My review will focus more on aspects relating to the traditional religion, although it covers other topics too.

An overview of the Traditional religion in the Empire

Christianity’s victory was not inevitable but rather continent on intellectual, political and social factors. Traditional religion so overwhelmed life in the Empire that it just slid into the background, as some sort of white noise. In fact, even Christians could not escape a regular interaction with aspects of traditional religion. Tertullian, a Christian extremist for example, could not answer the question of how to live, in an empire where pagan practices were prohibited.Temples, statues and festivals were commonplace. A bimodal distribution of temples – luxurious, well-maintained, tall complexes distant and inaccessible from urban centers on one hand. Small shrines, sparsely attended, but located in the midst of urban areas and more flexible for worship. Temples were placed on intersections of large roads and estates by landowners, to make them accessible to workers and travelers alike. Private homes also had devotional shrines, as well as decorative images.

Festivals played a key part in public life, with as many as 177 days of holidays/festivals noted in the year 354. They incorporated circus races, games, spectacles and cultic ritual. Not all mandated participation, and there was freedom to spend time on other things. These were very loud and fragrant affairs, and were visually impressive – overwhelming the senses. Festivals also stood out in that they provided olfactory relief to residents otherwise subject to foul smells of animal waste, sewage, etc that were common to public spaces. The ability to reduce foul smells in homes was mark of an elite, and it was aided by religious practice of offering incense, laurel wreaths and scented lamps. In fact, Christians railed against the soul being carried away by pleasant odors, suggesting that it was a critical part of traditional religion. Persecution was not the experience of the average Christian (at that time). It was easy to absent oneself from practices and festivals

Christians did not have a blueprint/vision on making their religion the dominant one in the Roman Empire, when Constantine came to throne. One of the reasons was that it was a matter of habit, due to past persecution. Another was that they imagined their present as a midpoint to the kingdom of god to be ruled by christ; they did not envision a state that backed their religion. There existed a generational divide to anti-pagan state policies, by the end of the 4th Century: the older generation did not have a clear self non-self distinction of Pagans opposed to Christians. They could not imagine a future where their religion would cease to exist. Meanwhile, the younger ones who appreciated the momentous nature of their times and strove to abide by sharply defined religious identities.

Note: Overlap in Emperors from 364 CE onwards is due to the fact that the duo divided the Empire into the western and eastern halves and ruled separately

Constantine – a beginning of the push

When Constantine came to power, he had to appeal to both Pagans and Christians, thus he crafted policies and propaganda to suit both parties. “The most effective emperors chartered new social directions not by using coercion but by communicating their preferences and creating legal mechanisms that could advance their goals without prompting resistance.” However he also started to have a vision of spreading Christianity via measures such as:

  1. Fund bishops with money and goods to increase congregations
  2. Exempt bishops from financial obligations to city councils
  3. Increase judicial power of bishops
  4. Sponsor construction of new churches.

Above was hard to implement because of checks and balances in the Roman legal system. No legal evidence that first 2 points of the above were implemented in practice, apart from polemics by Eusebius. The following is the chain through which laws had to be filtered past, in order to reach the bottom:

prefect/bishop -> emperor -> imperial consistory -> imperial quaestor -> emperor -> praetorian prefects -> provincial governors.

A strong hypothesis is that Emperor issued the above measures as imperial letters (equivalent of directive principles in Indian constitution), i.e. just principles but no enforcement mechanisms. It was also not unusual for temples to be pulled down, as many were ill-maintained. What was new was replacing them with churches. Most such actions were tolerated by the public, except for the destruction of the temple of Asclepius at Aegae. Constantine remained Pontifex Maximus, allowed temple honoring him and his family, and issued laws reiterating well-established religious practices, during his reign.

Education – good living, sound learning, forceful speaking

The vast majority of young in the empire probably received little education. Broadly, education was devoted to the study of language, and cultivation of friendships with fellow students. Education was led by devotees of traditional religion. The grammatical and rhetorical curricula focused extensively on classical mythology and pagan theology, and offered direct instruction on “how a man must bear himself in his relationships with the Gods.” Both pagans and Christians were students. Elites of final pagan generation were aloof from the changes in the religious scene (at least during their student lives) and their study did not involve religious policies of emperors.

This also had to do with the fact that environment was so overwhelmingly pagan that they did not have to worry about what was happening outside. They were more concerned with classical literature and rivalries between schools; their surroundings could be roughly described as an “Ashram”, with students leaving family to live with other students and their teachers. The relationship between them was that of a son-father relationship. The recruitment process for education was two-way, in that teachers sent letters either to prospective students or their fathers, and then vetted these prospective students.

Conventionally, students started their education in their preteens, gaining a flexible education under a grammarian, from reading to writing to rhetorical composition. Then around 13/14, they moved to schools of rhetoric, until they reached 20 (many left midway, however). Education was rigorous and geared toward orations, with literary and mythological situations forming the backdrop of many of these.

The Roman imperial system

Monetary system reforms by Diocletian lead to increase in economic and career opportunities for Roman elites, at the same time an increase in risk/reliance on the Emperor by the elites.There was no centralized mechanism for recruiting elites. Instead, elite social networks were relied upon to identify and incorporate talent. Young men would get letters of recommendation from family/ friends/acquaintances sent to imperial administrators, who would host these young men; if all went well, a patron-client relationship would be established, leading to a job in the imperial administration. Once these young men were established, they were expected to repay favors to those who helped them. They were pushed to be ambitious and politically relevant so that there would be greater dividends for those who helped them. In this way, the emperors created a capable, ambitious and obedient group of administrators, teachers and soldiers. However, the cronyism of this system made it self-perpetuating. Once you were in, it would be extremely hard for you to get out, with the benefits of money and prestige on one hand, and the problem of social debt accrued on the other hand.

An idea of the system should help us understand why the final pagan generation was largely measured in its response to anti-pagan emperors like Constantine and Constantius. The response mainly consisted of public support for emperor mixed with private expressions of dissatisfaction. They also had many personal obligations to take care of; deaths of wives, children and parents due to poor healthcare, responsibility for family lands and fortunes, etc. The infant mortality, for example, was possibly at least 50%. This made the final pagan generation very risk-averse.

Good cop and bad cop

Extremist Christians were very impatient about wanting to close temples and ban sacrifices. Constantius and Constans positioned themselves as what we may today call ‘centrists’; this allowed them to push policies through the consistory without much resistance. After the death of the moderating Constans, Constantius proclaimed capital punishment “if any person should be proven to devote their attention to sacrifices or to the worship of images.” He also proclaimed “The governors of the provinces shall be similarly punished if they should neglect to punish such crimes.” However, the law was not implemented as well as desired. Quite a few governors ignored it, public festivals involving sacrifice continued, and there was no record of anyone charged under this law.

To summarize, under Constantine and Constantius, imperial policy carefully and gradually created a reality in which traditional religion eroded, not through any single extreme action.

Julian the Radical

Julian wanted to revive Hellenic religion by modeling the priesthood around imperial administration model; worthy figures to be appointed as governors of all temples for a defined region. Their conduct was guided to be anti-blasphemic and philanthropic, however the role was more of an administrative nature than a spiritual one. He also passed laws to regulate religious belief, unprecedented in the history of the empire. One of them was that teachers had to be approved by the municipal senate, who had to adjudge his character. One of the metrics was that a virtuous teacher had to only teach ideas that he believed to be true. This also implicitly outlawed Christian teachers, since Julian had a central registry of teachers to be able to enforce a teaching ban top-down.

This move created a sharp divide in an otherwise hitherto continuous distribution of identities. What did it mean for one to think Homer and Hesiod were honorable? There was no unanimity in pagan traditions, so how would this be enforceable?

There was disruption in the elite networks because of this. Pagan elites may have personally supported Julian’s pro-pagan outlook, but were stuck in an interlocking system of mutual favors with Christians. They grew up in a decentralized, non-confessional religion that allowed for recycling of old religious structures, and were to face a future of obligatory religious participation and centralized priesthood. Libanius, for example, used his proximity to Julian to protect his acquaintances from the wrath of the religious laws, while supporting his moves to rehabilitate temples.

As a result of the Roman imperial system, 20 months was not sufficient for Julian to successfully turn the wheel back, and he suffered an early death in a conquest against Persia.

Valentinian and Valens

After an unimportant interregnum by Jovian, Valentinian and Valens gained power. They did not give much emphasis to religious policies early on, and the reversal of Julian’s policies was not a priority. Due to Julian’s generous usage of the imperial treasury, Valentinian and Valens took aggressive measures to reduce fiscal deficit. While helping the empire out of this crisis, they helped provoke a political crisis in the form of a revolt by Procopius. To prevent such future actions, they decided to leave implementation of such reforms only to trusted and capable officials. They brought laws to centralize recruitment of bureaucrats, via an empire-wide registry of student progress.

Christian youth counterculture

From the 350s onwards, the children of many Roman elite turned their back on secular careers and moved towards a more spiritual life; a bimodal distribution of either service in the Church or a Christian ascetic life. One of the catalysts for this was the release of Life of Antony by Athanasius, glorifying leaving behind riches and prestige for an ascetic life. This overall shift helped accelerate the demise of traditional religion. Previously, bishops used to be of middling rank, but with this youth movement, attracting children of elite background, the position received the social and financial resources befitting a member of the senatorial elite. This increase in status allowed the Church to gain new followers and to build more churches.

One of the main problems for ascetics was a longing for family and love; this was overcome with a mindset of a counterculture, embracing solidarity over reciprocity. Embracing such a socially isolating community helped the members follow norms that were outside the social order. These dropouts prized religious goals over stability and institutional inertia that their parents had protected. These outsider voices threatened the broad religious and social consensus of the status quo. As a result, the Roman imperial system soon began to lose its power.

Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius

By 380s, the empire became more and more anti-pagan. Some measures by the Emperor Gratian included:

  • removal of the Altar of Victory from the Roman Senate
  • elimination of imperial funding for public cult rituals
  • confiscation of properties that belonged to traditional Roman cults, as well as endowments that had funded rituals and maintained temples for centuries.

It is important to note that by now, the final pagan generation were seriously worried about these developments. However, the common masses still did not show much importance to these changes. An embassy of concerned pagan elites had tried to meet the emperor, but they were blocked by courtiers from doing so; the imperial administration itself was starting to change with demographics.

With the change of power to Valentinian II, a teenager, there was a power vacuum in the imperial system, and the lines between Christian dropouts and elite establishment figures blurred. To give an example, in 384, Symmachus, a pagan elite, forwarded a senatorial motion asking for Valentinian II to reverse Gratian’s anti-pagan policies. This received assent from some Christian members of Valentinian II’s court too. However, the voices of Christian outsiders like Ambrose were extremely influential (in part because of previous favors done to Valentinian II, for the case of Ambrose), and they essentially vetoed this motion. Never before were the elites so powerless.

In the East in the 380s, the most impactful assaults on paganism came from these outsiders(including monks and bishops), rather than imperial laws, which did not change drastically. Theodosius did not explicitly call for temple destruction, but he encouraged informal channels to sack temples, so as to setup plausible deniability. It is important to note that Theodosius was the first emperor to do so, and some Christians saw this to be the turning point in the Christianization of the Empire. The pagan elites could not match the extralegal tactics of their opponents, accustomed to always fighting within the system.

It is important to note that, despite the increase in gradient of attacks, pagan religiosity did not greatly lower by the end of the 4th century. The author says,”The cities of the empire remained nearly as full of the sights, sounds, and smells of the traditional gods in the 390s as they had been in the 310s.” In fact, by the end of their lives, the final pagan generation still could not imagine a future without their religion.What changed, then? The imperial system went greatly in favor of the Christians. It was only a matter of when, not if, even if the pagan elites still could not see this.

The Destruction of the Serapeum

392 was the year when the Destruction of the Serapeum occured, in Alexandria. It was one of the most momentous events in Roman Empire, if one uses attention from contemporary sources as a metric.
In the midst of communal riots in 392, the Pagans retreated to the Serapeum, a temple dedicated to the God Serapis, on a hill above Alexandria. They achieved great success in their resistance to the Christians from here, and if Christian sources are to be believed, even tortured their opponents. It was only by the offer of a full pardon from the emperor that the defenders cleared the temple.

As soon as the defenders cleared, the temple was attacked by Christian Alexandrians and soldiers, and the idol of Serapis was desecrated by them. This set off a frenzy of violence against idols of the deity Serapis in Alexandria. This was probably THE moment that signaled a Christian future for the Roman Empire. However this was also a culmination of gradual anti-pagan developments in the Empire, as we have seen above.

-By @Niyogin1

(This article first appeared on the author’s blog and is being reproduced with permission)

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