BMCR 2022.04.32

Worshippers of the gods: debating paganism in the fourth-century Roman West

, Worshippers of the gods: debating paganism in the fourth-century Roman West. Oxford studies in late antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 252. ISBN 9780190082444 $85.00.
Mattias Gassman’s book is an intervention in scholarship on “paganism,” “Christianization,” and religious identity in late antiquity more broadly. According to Gassman, scholarship on traditional religion, or “paganism,” in late antiquity, its survival and/or metamorphosis, has largely missed the way Christian and non-Christian discourse and identity developed both through participation in a common cultural milieu and in actual debate and dialogue. Building on many of the themes and insights of his 2018 article, “Debating Traditional Religion in Late Fourth-Century Roman Africa” Gassman seeks to do justice to the interactions—conflict, appropriation, and compromise—between those who sought to maintain worship of the “traditional” gods and the Christians who were crafting a different vision.[1] One of the main payoffs of this analysis is Gassman’s contention that Christian polemicists were not distorting their non-Christian interlocutors beyond recognition—Christians did not “invent” “paganism,” at least not unilaterally.

Gassman’s narrative attends to both literary sources and epigraphic and archaeological data, the latter being especially significant for his reconstruction of the perspectives of non-Christians. While he is clear that the paucity of evidence will leave gaps in his story, he argues that his analysis will make clear several important episodes in the religious history of the fourth century (16). Gassman’s narrative, with a connecting line provided mainly by imperial legislation, focuses on five crucial moments and the figures acting in the midst of these episodes. Gassman only attends to Latin, primarily Roman, sources so as to create an account of “authors who shared a common education and common intellectual concerns”—a decision briefly explained in his introduction (14–15).

Chapter 1 (19–47) is about Lactantius’ Divine Institutes, which Gassman reads as fundamentally a response to the Diocletianic persecution. Indeed, Gassman argues that, despite some of the obvious contemporary commentary and political critique contained in the Institutes, Lactantius is writing a work that assumes an essentially hostile polytheistic society. Even after Constantine’s ascension, something Lactantius celebrates and welcomes, Lactantius continues to propagate the notion that the adherents of the public cults would persist in oppressing and persecuting Christians until the eschaton (27). Gassman masterfully demonstrates the way Lactantius uses and subtly alters Cicero, particularly his works De Natura Deorum, De Re Publica and De Legibus (24–26). Cicero, in this reading, provides a vivid example of the limits and dangers of reasoning apart from divine aid (26). For Gassman, there is a fundamental irony in the Divine Institutes: they eschewed a narrow political focus in favor of a sort of ultimate apologetic text that would allow at least some people to live faithfully in a enduringly hostile environment; yet, these grandiose ambitions were quickly rendered obsolete following the new political situation under Constantine (46-47).

Chapter 2 (48–75) focuses on Firmicus Maternus, especially his De errore profanarum religionum, contextualized as a response to the uneven and moderate anti-pagan legislation of Constantine and his immediate successors (48–54). While Firmicus’ work has received less scholarly attention than it warrants and has often been dismissed as theologically unsophisticated or the product of a pathological psyche, Gassman provides a far more subtle reading that attempts to take Firmicus seriously as a writer and thinker (57–59). In contrast to Lactantius, Firmicus makes sparing use of classical literature and instead provides detailed, albeit polemical, descriptions of profanae religiones (59–61). While Lactantius was almost entirely focused on the legally privileged civic cults, Firmicus makes no distinction between private and public cult. Instead, Gassman argues that Firmicus’ choices when he is attacking pagan religion are dictated by the appeal various cults held for his Roman contemporaries (62). Gassman notes an audacity in Firmicus’ appeal to the emperors to destroy all profanae religiones; the practices he is asking them to abolish are those that are particularly appealing to elite Romans whose support a shrewd emperor would be keen to cultivate (67). Firmicus makes liberal use of Scriptural quotations, a practice criticized by Lactantius, but, Gassman argues that, this is largely done to draw Christianity into sharp relief with the profanae religiones (67–73). For Firmicus, Christianity and the profanae religiones are two competing religious systems. The profanae religiones, though ostensibly quite diverse, are united in a singular, demonic origin. They are counterfeit Christianity and the emperors are morally obligated to use the power of the state to squash them. Firmicus’ writing thus provides not only important information on the religious attitudes and tastes of his non-Christian contemporaries, but also a snapshot of the ways the pro-Christian religio-political landscape of the 340s had altered Christian apologetic and its relationship to imperial policy (73–75). Gassman’s extended engagement with Firmicus, taking him at least as seriously as Christian writers such as Lactantius, fills a gap too often present in previous discussions of Christian-pagan debate in the fourth century.

In chapter 3, Gassman begins to consider non-Christian theology alongside Christian polemic (76–106). He begins by considering the 114th entry of Ambrosiaster’s Quaestiones Veteris et Novi Testamenti in which the author contrasts lex sua with lex paganorum—assuming that there is a unified, singular, theological system of “paganism” (77–81). This is followed by a lengthy analysis of non-Christian, Roman religious devotees roughly contemporary with Ambrosiaster, especially the Taurobolium inscriptions (83–94). Gassman’s careful analysis leads him to the conclusion that “the idea that the many cults of the gods all reflected the same spiritual realities and contained a common doctrine was shared by both pagans and Christian in fourth-century Rome” (94). Nevertheless, Gassman notes that there are complications and difficulties beyond this affirmation. The only visible adherents of pagan religion left by the evidence are upper class, mostly senatorial, worshipers—and even here the evidence is uneven and sometimes difficult to interpret (94–101). There’s evidence of some diversity in purpose and belief, rituals remained distinct, and, Gassman argues, though there must have been less elite members of the cults, they are invisible to us (101). One of the most interesting and important sub-arguments of this chapter is Gassman’s discussion of the language of paganism (paganitas). While the word is primarily a Christian invention created to designate something deplorable, “the idea—and, crucially, the practice—of a polytheistic religion that united the worship of many gods was not” (106). Additionally, while the development of the word and its cognates that emerges in the Christian discourse of the mid-to-late fourth century is significant, it never eclipsed more common designations such as “idolator” or “gentile” (105–106). Thus, Gassman’s argument here is an important contribution to scholarly debates about the origin and import of the designation “pagan.”

Chapter 4 centers on the much-discussed Altar of Victory Affair that involved the famous pagan senator Symmachus and his opponent the bishop Ambrose (107–139). Gassman essentially narrates the conflict between these two men in terms of an argument about pagan religion vis-à-vis the state, attempting to refute recent accounts that have tended to highlight Ambrose’s subtle and occasionally disingenuous political maneuverings while ignoring Symmachus’ (110–112). Symmachus, according to Gassman, should not be read as advocating “tolerance,” but a partial compromise in which the traditional religions of Rome would hold sway publicly and Christianity would be relegated to the private, individual sphere (128). Symmachus claims that state sponsorship and maintenance of the traditional cults are essential for the prosperity and survival of the res publica. Symmachus thus sets up the Senate as an institution specially committed to safeguarding and perpetuating the rites and rituals that have been essential for Roman success. Ambrose agrees with Symmachus that the health and safety of Rome are at stake, but argues that the emperor’s “private” faith is precisely what needs to determine the way he rules (129–137). Moreover, Ambrose deftly points out (and exaggerates) that the senate is not univocally “gentile” in its position and the rituals surrounding the Altar of Victory, which include a senatorial oath before it, would require Christian senators to participate in rites they consider impious (134–135). Ambrose finally appeals as a bishop who can claim authority on the basis of the subject at issue (135–137). The emperor, as a Christian, needs to listen to Ambrose because Ambrose is a shepherd of Christian souls on matters of religion. In contrast to past interpreters who have tended to take seriously, or even trust, one man or the other, Gassman’s analysis of this famous debate succeeds in taking seriously the political maneuvering and intellectual content of both Ambrose and Symmachus’ texts.

The final chapter peers deeper into the religiosity, Christian and non-Christian, of late fourth century Rome in an attempt to add texture to the portrait that has been sketched in the preceding chapters (140–167). The death of Praetextatus in 384 provides a window into some of the variety that could be found even amongst those of similar religious persuasion. Gassman compares and contrasts the portraits of Praetextatus offered by Symmachus, Paulina (Praetextatus’ wife), and Christian antagonists in their respective reminiscences or memorials. The fascinating and masterful argument of this chapter is drawn into sharp relief in its final section in which Gassman situates his own reading against the prevailing narratives of “resistance” and “accommodation” amongst pagan senators (165). Gassman writes, “What our sources from 384–385 present…is a complicated tangle of competing religious visions and political strategies in which the shared values and pursuits of the senatorial aristocracy divided as much as they united…” (166). Even Christian writers could agree on the significance of Praetextatus and the importance of his memory, the debate was over whether this famously pagan senator was significant as a “model of civic virtue,” “a well rounded priest of the public cults,” “a mystic devoted to the res publica, to learning, to his wife, and above all to the gods,” or an idolator filled with pride singularly important as a negative example (ibid.).

Gassman forcefully and compellingly provides a narrative of the “polymorphic” discourse on “traditional Roman Religion” in the fourth century (168). His book is very good, very clear and erudite, but also dense. Simple stories of the character or fate of paganism and its Christian critics in this period are nuanced, recalibrated, and, where necessary, contradicted in Gassman’s study. Indeed, simple stories with singular arcs (e.g., decline or absorption) are precisely the sort of thing Gassman’s analysis contradicts (169). Nevertheless, although harder to follow and slower to tell, the story Gassman narrates, with all of its twists and turns, is far more interesting. Those who teach or research Christian polemic or apologetic, fourth century paganism, or Roman religious history more broadly will need to reckon with Gassman’s book. And those working closely on one of the figures or works he considers closely, such as Lactantius or Symmachus’ Relatio 3, will be well served by Gassman’s erudite and often unique analysis in the relevant sections.


[1] Mattias Gassman. 2018. “Debating Traditional Religion in Late Fourth-Century Roman Africa,” Journal of Late Antiquity11.1, 83–110.