BMCR 1990.01.02

A Chronicle of the Last Pagans

, A Chronicle of the Last Pagans. Revealing Antiquity 4. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990. 188 pages. ISBN 9780674129702

Who would you rather have as a dinner guest, Symmachus or St. Ambrose? The answer will reveal much about one’s approach to the conflict between pagans and Christians which forms the subject of this book. Chuvin would prefer the company of Symmachus. His pagans are lively, tolerant, and humane. They acknowledge the cultural and aesthetic value, and perhaps the moral and philosophical truths, of their civilization’s traditional religion, but they are not so naive as to take its mythological narratives or bizarre injunctions literally.

On the other side, the Christians, once Constantine’s Edict of Toleration gives them access to the seats of government, seem to combine low bureaucratic cunning with intolerant anti-intellectualism. Their carefully worded edicts of repression leave popular festivals untouched but degrade antique sanctuaries and mock or abolish the picturesque rituals dear to the old pagan intelligentsia. They are blind to the beauties of prose and poetry; literature in their eyes has worth only insofar as it reflects the authenticity of its writers’ lives and the correctness of their ideology.

Chuvin’s Chronicle of the Last Pagans, then, will present a world whose dynamics are familiar to readers of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Chuvin would be the first to caution us against making too much of this familiarity. In his Introduction, he rejects the projection of present attitudes onto late antiquity’s reality and urges us to lay down the advantages of hindsight. The fact that the Christians won should not lead us to see the pagans as destined losers. Chuvin’s paganism is vigorous and unaware of its own decline. His approach to it is subtle and sympathetic.

Although Chuvin’s pagans are defined by their eventual defeat in the struggle with the Christians, he does not chronicle the decline of every non-Christian or non-orthodox belief. He has little to say about Manichaeans, Mithraists, Arians, or Gnostics. He treats the “indigenous polytheism” of the Greco-Roman world, and his chronological limits are, loosely, from the Diocletianic persecutions to Justinian’s closing of the philosophical school at Athens in 529.

Nor, except for a little etymological speculation and a few ornamental observations on surviving cults and superstitions, is he much interested in the pagani who were countryfolk. His pagans are urbane, civilized, and literate, in fact the pagans who have told us about themselves and who are most like us. They belong to the governing class, and their struggle with the Christian s has for them less to do with religion than with power and culture. When the struggle becomes nasty, in the late Fourth Century (Chuvin sees a turning point in 353), they retreat into a sterile hyper-intellectuality, into aestheticism, vegetarianism, Orphism, Chaldaean calculations, magic, and mysteries. Describing Proclus, Chuvin speaks of “the contrast between his shining intelligence, his active temperament, and the marginality of his life.” Not every pagan had Proclus’ brilliance and energy, but soon er or later all shared his marginality.

A short book on a complex topic needs structure. Chuvin articulates his model of a vigorous, cultured, and increasingly marginal late paganism on an armature which is, as his title promises, a chronicle. His narrative proceeds from imperial edict to imperial edict, each imposing further restrictions on paganism in the governing class.

Within this structure appear interpretations of pagans, sites, and cultural issues. Hypatia is there, of course, and Macrobius, Alexandria and Constantinople, and the debate over the statue of Victory in the Curia. But Chuvin’s scholarship ranges far beyond the usual topics of books on late antiquity. Although he has written for a non-specialist audience, even scholars well-informed about the current state of work on the late Roman world will find treasure in his notes. English-speaking readers—thanks to B. A. Archer’s unobtrusive translation—now have a lucid, intelligent introduction to late antiquity’s version of the continuing conflict between the right but repulsive and the wrong but romantic.