In 2011, Alan Cameron capped an improbably productive career with his The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford University Press: reviewed here BMCR 2011.12.35.), a work foreshadowed in significant articles and chapters going back fully forty years. In it, he makes the complete and comprehensive case against a modern Romantic interpretation of the religious and cultural politics of Rome in the late fourth century according to which a die-hard pagan resistance warred against onrushing Christianity to the last gasp and beyond. This interpretation was deeply planted in the scholarship of mid-century and animated one of the most important books in the early history of Anglophone late antique studies, Momigliano’s edited volume, based on a Warburg symposium, The Conflict between Paganism and Christianity (Oxford 1963). To summarize 878 pages of magisterial argument is unfair and misleading, but Cameron shows conclusively that there was no organized pagan resistance and that the bulk of the evidence supporting the old view consists of Christian imagination and projection from that period, compounded by a modern willingness to be persuaded that there really were anti-Christian holdouts as Christianity “triumphed”.
From Cameron’s earlier work, it was easy to predict the main lines of his conclusions in a book that was long anticipated. Other work in that period has variously chipped away at the old view and significantly dislodged it from the position of authority it held in the 1960s. Working on very different lines, for example, Ramsay MacMullen’s Christianizing the Roman Empire (Yale, 1984), told a story hard to reconcile with the old notions of romanticism and revival. The present writer met Cameron in 1977 and had long conversations with him about mutual interests and lines of inquiry and wrote some articles then as a very junior scholar in hopes of getting them into print before Cameron’s book could appear; that hope was fulfilled, but my own projected book on parallel themes will not appear until 2015, complementing Cameron but examining a wider context.
But no anticipation could have prepared even the most attentive reader for the mighty work that Cameron produced. With a sharp focus on the late fourth century and Italy and mainly Rome itself, it offers exhaustive and persuasive argument and documentation. To give only one example, many eminent scholars since Mommsen had worried at the so-called Carmen contra paganos of the manuscript Par. Lat. 8084. Cameron has now nailed down the identity of the object of the poem’s obloquy and even of the author himself, beyond question.
The book reviewed here reviews Cameron’s Last Pagans, in twelve substantive contributions, mainly by Italian scholars but all writing in English, first presented and discussed at a seminar in Perugia in 2011. I think it fair to say that the book will be of little interest to anyone who has not read Cameron, but it is also fair to say that no one likely to read this book with any interest would not best first read Cameron attentively, and I daresay the scholars in this volume would agree with me on that. Individual scholars were assigned chapters and sets of chapters, so this is not a case of a dozen overlapping reviews, but rather of a dozen specialized analyses of sections and components of the larger book. The work has to be judged a considerable success. On balance, the reviewers accord high praise to Cameron and launch no counteroffensives, not even (that I could see) passive aggressive ones. One senior scholar takes exception to Cameron’s rhetoric and claims about the work of others, but in doing so ends by agreeing with the main lines of Cameron’s position. That said, there is much to be learned here, for where Cameron has bathed the landscape in nearly blinding halogen light, there are things to be seen that were hard to see before, as in Lellia Cracco Ruggini’s treatment of the chapters on the subscriptiones in classical and not-so-classical Latin texts copied in elite circles in this period.
This volume, in short, offers Cameron’s masterpiece the twin compliments of high praise and serious scrutiny. For anyone looking to work in these fields in the wake of Cameron, it will be suggestive and instructive reading.