BMCR 1990.01.03

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

This book is for those sentimental moderns who think they share some common cause with the holy men of un-Christian late antiquity whose familiar story is retold here. The Tendenz of the author and the series editor is unmistakable, and the book will find its audience.

The title is striking—a ‘Chronicle’—and suggests the idiosyncrasy of the book. It contains little original research and no serious Auseinandersetzung with the learned literature; but it cannot be called an interpretive essay, for there is no novelty of interpretation whatever, and very little attempt to understand the events reported—for to understand is to forgive, and this book has no intention of forgiving.

The period covered is roughly that from Constantine to Justinian. To cover so much in such brief compass (no more than 40,000 words) requires deft footwork, and that is certainly achieved, but as ‘chronicles’ go this one is rather thin. The book is vividly written (at times one has the feeling that it is in fact a sly pastiche of Peter Brown) and makes entertaining, though not perhaps thought-provoking reading; a leisurely reader might require two sittings. Two defects with the approach may be suggested briefly. First, ‘pagans’ is a cultural construction imposed on ancient religious practitioners by Christians. To make it the subject of a modern study is to lump together a great many things that have no business in the same pot; to turn that study into a romantic narrative is to create something very odd indeed. That it has been done many times before (as by Sir Samuel Dill) has made us insensitive to the oddity. The discussion of the word ‘pagan’ in the first chapter is disingenuous and unsound and oddly neglects the last seventy years of research.

Second, it is an error not confined to historians of ‘paganism’ to lump eastern and western evidence on the same footing. The period under review is that in which it becomes painfully clear that there never really was a single unified Roman empire, but two very different cultures yoked uncomfortably under a military dictatorship. An attentive reader will see that the quantity and quality of the evidence for east and west is very different, and that as far as we can tell the phenomena reported are very different indeed. Aficionados of ‘paganism’ do best when they confine themselves to the Greek world; but they will project their fantasies onto the west, in order to be sure of including a few famous anecdotes and popular saints of the supposed ‘pagan’ party.

But to criticize a book of this sort is superfluous. Professor Tolkien told us that hobbits loved nothing so much as to hear stories they already knew, especially stories about themselves; this book is for hobbits.

1. The copyright page reports that this book is a translation of part 1 of Chronique des derniers païens (Paris, 1990), but does not indicate the contents of part 2 of that work.