It has been just over fifty years since the publication of The Conflict between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century, an influential collection of papers by leading historians of the late Roman Empire delivered at the Warburg Institute in 1959 and edited by Arnoldo Momigliano in 1963. It is a testimony to the enduring vitality of the field of study that we call late antiquity that many of the same questions occupy scholars today, but the terms of the conversation are remarkably different. In particular, the notion of a “conflict” between pagans and Christians in the fourth century has been replaced by something far more subtle.1 Influenced by new trends in disciplines like sociology and the discovery of new texts that illuminate the later Empire ever more clearly, historians of religious culture are breaking down monolithic categories like “Christian” and “pagan” in order to represent more accurately the complexity and indeed the opportunism of the religious identity of late antique individuals. Christian identity has received the lion’s share of attention in recent years. Éric Rebillard’s Christians and Their Many Identities in Late Antiquity, North Africa, 200-450 CE (Cornell University Press, 2012) makes the strong case for identity salience in the Christian communities of North Africa from Tertullian to Augustine, while Jason Beduhn’s massive three-volume project entitled Augustine’s Manichaean Dilemma (two volumes have appeared; University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009 and 2013) offers a revisionist examination of the famous bishop’s evolving religious self-presentation from his decade-long adherence to Manichaeism, his rejection of it, and his subsequent conversion to Nicene Christianity. Inquiry into the character of late ancient paganism has kept pace, in no small part due to Alan Cameron’s magnum opus, The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford University Press, 2011), which demolishes many of the myths surrounding the vitality of the so-called pagan revival of the late fourth century. In short, historians have all but abandoned “conflict” as an analytical category for the study of late ancient religion and have turned their attention instead to what Peter Brown has called “a solid middle ground, bathed in a radiance all of its own.”2
Christopher P. Jones’ Between Pagan and Christian is an important contribution to the on-going discussion of this middle ground between pagans and Christians in late antiquity. In ten short chapters, Jones makes the case “not only that Christianity and paganism had much in common, with Christianity drawing heavily on the beliefs and practices of paganism [but also that] Christians such as St. Paul could use the traditional culture of Greeks and Romans to build a bridge from their own side to the other” (p. xiv). Chapter One is a concise discussion of the Latin and Greek terminology employed by Christians to identity those nonbelievers who were not Jews, like “idolater” ( eidôlolatrês) and “gentile” ( gentilis) and especially “pagans” ( Hellênes, pagani). Jones is admirably self-conscious about his use of the term “pagan” throughout the book, acknowledging that it is “a Latin term used primarily by an in-group [Christians] to denote an out-group [non-Christians], when the modern observer stands outside either group” (p. 6). The emphasis on paganism as a Christian construct raises the question of how so-called pagans referred to their own religious identity. Some discussion of the absence of Greek and Latin vocabulary for religious membership or the degree to which ancient people braided their religious loyalties with their political, regional or ethnic identities would have been welcome here. Chapters Two and Three survey the religious policies of Roman emperors from the ambivalence of Constantine to the “visible hardening of imperial attitudes toward paganism” (p. 26) under Theodosius I to the heavy-handed purges of Justinian, who in 529 ordered the closing of Plato’s Academy in Athens. Jones observes that “[u]ntil Justinian, the evidence does not suggest that emperors used the laws to coerce pagans into conversion” (p. 29). Indeed, most emperors were more concerned with the delicate issue of Christian unity and were content to ban overt pagan actions like public sacrifice without troubling themselves about the persistence of pagan beliefs. Chapters Four, Five and Six treat religious ideas and practices held in common by pagans and Christians (the belief in God and a host of divine intermediaries; attitudes toward the representation of the divine; and the means by which late ancient believers communicated with their divinities, like sacrifice and prayer) and how their conceptions of these issues divided them. Chapter Seven treats the discursive strategies used by pagan and Christian authors in their debate about the “true” religion. Jones reads the persistence of Christian apologetics into the sixth century as evidence that paganism remained a tenacious concern among Christian intellectuals long after the closing of the temples mandated by Theodosius I. Chapter Eight is on the topic of conversion and concludes with a provocative consideration of how comprehensible certain aspects of Christianity would or would not have been to a convert from paganism. Unlike the rest of the book, the brevity of this chapter does not serve the complexity of this particular topic, on which so much has been written. The last two chapters of the book chart the divergent trajectories of paganism in the western and eastern Empires beyond the fourth century. Chapter Nine (“The West”) is a litany of familiar Latin authors from Symmachus to Macrobius to Martin of Braga to Gregory the Great. Jones convincingly downplays the role of Symmachus as “a commander directing a last stand of Roman paganism” (p. 111) and compares him provocatively to his contemporary, the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus, “a religious traditionalist who does not write as one of a threatened minority” (p. 112). Marking the conversion of Clovis as a new Constantine as a turning point in this narrative strikes me as being a bit optimistic. The letters of Boniface and the sermons of Agobard of Lyons suggest that the countryside remained a sanctuary of non-Christian beliefs well into the Carolingian period. In contrast, Chapter Ten (“The East”) presents a series of highly illuminating regional case studies of Greece, Asia Minor, the eastern provinces of Syria and Mesopotamia, and Egypt. Based on a wide range of sources from letters and sermons to inscriptions and archaeological evidence, Jones argues that “Christianity advanc[ed] at an unequal pace in different regions, with paganism more tenacious in rural districts and in cities with a strong tradition of Hellenic culture” (p. 131). The book closes with a short conclusion and an appendix (“Was Macrobius a Christian?”) which argues that Macrobius was a pagan Neoplatonist.
Between Pagan and Christian is a learned and lucid treatment of the persistence of paganism long after the sea-change of the fourth century that made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. While scholars of late antique religion will ruminate at length and with great profit on Jones’ many insights, the clarity of his presentation and the vividness of his historical examples make this book especially appealing for use by advanced undergraduates. For this reason, I hope that Harvard University Press will not delay in publishing an inexpensive paperback edition. This would also allow for the correction of two errant dates in Chapter Nine: Hilary was bishop of Poitiers in the fourth century, not the third (p. 121); and Clovis converted to Catholic Christianity in the late fifth century, not the late fourth (p. 125). Between Pagan and Christian is a provocative contribution to the current debates about religious identity and its salience in the fourth century and beyond that deserves to be widely read by scholars and students of late ancient religious culture.
1. On the immediate post-war context that informed the tone of the Warburg papers, see Peter Brown, “Back to the Future: Pagans and Christians at the Warburg Institute in 1958,” in Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire: The Breaking of a Dialogue (IV th -VI th Century A.D.): Proceedings of the International Conference at the Monastery of Bose (October 2008), ed. Peter Brown and Rita Lizzi Testa (Zürich and Berlin, 2011), pp. 17-24.
2. Ibid., p. 22.