BMCR 2023.11.25

Barbari e pagani: religione e società in Europa nel tardoantico

, Barbari e pagani: religione e società in Europa nel tardoantico. Cultura storica. Bari: Editori GLF Laterza, 2022. Pp. xxii, 268. ISBN 9788858146682

Giovanni Alberto Cecconi (Università degli studi di Firenze) is well known for his research on Late Antiquity, especially on Latin epigraphy as well as the social and administrative history of late antique Italy. In 2012, Cecconi published a monograph on pagans and Christians in the late antique West (Pagani e cristiani nel’Occidente tardoantico. Quattro studi, L’Erma di Bretschneider). The recent monograph Barbari e pagani. Religione e società in Europa nel tardoantico is an appropriate sequel to Cecconi’s previous research on late antique pagans.

The focus of the book is on the religions of barbarians before their conversion from paganism to Christianity in the Late Roman West. Both concepts—‘barbarians’ and ‘paganism’—are problematic and Cecconi analyses them in due course in the book. As these are the terms used in the book, I will abide by their use in this review. The western barbarians in Barbari e pagani are those ethnic groups that are conventionally called Germanic peoples—Goths, Vandals, Alamanni, Franks, Lombards—as well as Huns, Alans, and Avars.

Barbari e pagani consists of an introduction, six main chapters, and an epilogue. In his introductory remarks, Cecconi sets out one of his main points that he stresses throughout the book: even though barbarian migrants embraced Christianity in only a few generations, the conversion of barbarians as a linear and swift process is illusory. As he writes, the process may seem so “in campo lungo” but not “per una lettura da vicino” (p. xx). One might add that the same statement applies to numerous other historical phenomena, as a detailed and closer examination opens more complex worlds.

The first chapter “Prima delle grandi migrazioni” discusses the religious life of western barbarians before the barbarian migrant groups settled in the Roman Empire from the early fifth century onwards. The pieces of information that we get to know about the barbarians come from Roman writers, archaeological findings and much later medieval sources. All these have their problems, which Cecconi analyses; these include the problems concerning the interpretatio Romana in Tacitus’ description of barbarians in Germania as well as the challenge of using the interpretation of Scandinavian sagas for evidence of Germanic religions. Cecconi discusses the recruitment of barbarians into the Roman army. He also lists barbarians who succeeded in rising to the Roman leading elite but still, interestingly, remained pagans. The Roman writers’ mentions were often vague, so it is not always clear enough what paganism meant in each case. In his discussion, Cecconi uses the term “il processo di barbarizzazione dei vertici imperiali” (p. 20) which is, however, to take the moralizing tones of the contemporary writers like Ammianus Marcellinus at face value.

The second chapter “Stanziamenti barbarici in Occidente” discusses the movements of ethnic groups and their settlement within the Empire as they coexist with the Roman population in the western provinces. Cecconi links religious issues, such as the questions of the barbarians’ conversion, to the general discussion of barbarian settlements in the provinces which eventually developed into the post-Roman kingdoms. The barbarian violence in the provinces—by Goths led by Alaric, Huns led by Attila, or others—were not religiously motivated. In reaction to these attacks, the Roman Christian writers nonetheless created providential and teleological interpretations of history in which the barbarians were acting as the tool of God’s retribution. Cecconi offers balanced analyses of the conversion narratives, for example, in the much-discussed case of the Burgundians. As Cecconi points out, the account of the Burgundians’ conversion from paganism to Nicene Christianity described by Gregory of Tours follows the model set by the conversion narrative in the Acts of Apostles (2:41). The straightforward shift from paganism to Nicene Christianity is not probable, as other evidence suggests a strong Arian influence among the Burgundians in the fifth century. Cecconi also stresses the importance of not making any generalizations about the religious (or socio-juridical) circumstances in the post-Roman kingdoms. Each region had its own specific developments.

The third chapter “Guerra, cattività, schiavizzazione” focuses on slaves and captives that were the consequence of wars between the Romans and barbarians in Late Antiquity. What effect did the wars have on the religion of captives? Cecconi analyses several Roman sources that mention how Christian captives either lapsed or were forced into paganism by their barbarian harassers. Bishops (such as Ambrose of Milan and Leo of Rome) were concerned about captive women who fell victim to barbarian violence and captives in general who were forced to eat sacrificial food—in Christian terms, food sacrificed to idols. Because the sources are Roman, the perspective is inevitably Roman, and it is difficult to specify the circumstances. Cecconi, however, stresses that he is not reading these writers only as narratives in which the writers might have manipulated and bent the reality according to their own personal agendas.

The fourth chapter, “‘Non possiamo non dirli Cristiani?’: devianze superstiziose o paganesimo”, focuses first on the question of human sacrifices in barbarian paganism and then on the different practices that bishops, councils, and legislators considered superstitious or pagan. Cecconi offers a thorough analysis of human sacrifice from earlier antiquity onwards. Both classical Roman and late antique writers mention barbarians immolating humans—some classical authors associated the Celts and Germani with human sacrifice. Late antique hagiography occasionally mentions pagan Goths, Huns, Saxons, Heruls, and others performing human sacrifices. Were these particular mentions designed to create an enemy image through hostile labelling? Cecconi surveys the problems concerning the sources, but considers that some cases of human sacrifice may be possible during wars in which captives were offered in honour of a war god. (As is well known, Livy reports that Romans also performed human sacrifices as an act of expiation during the Second Punic War). Furthermore, Cecconi appeals to archaeological evidence suggesting that humans were occasionally killed in rituals, even though he admits that the findings of the ancient texts and archaeology are not easily combined.

In his discussion of practices regarded as superstitious or pagan, Cecconi analyses the complaints of bishops and councils about people clinging to festivals such as the immensely popular New Year celebration, Kalendae Ianuariae. (These celebrations continue even in modern times, though in a somewhat different fashion.) Many of the Nicene bishops’ and councils’ complaints were connected to the competing missions of the Nicenes and Arians among the barbarians, especially in the post-Roman kingdoms like that of the Burgundians. Cecconi writes about late antique religious syncretism. In the middle of the discussion on Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum, he nonetheless asks whether the ‘pure’ paganism (il ‘puro’ paganesimo) had ceased to exist everywhere (p. 91). Even though there are certainly ‘scare quotes’ here, one is perplexed about the question about ‘pure’ paganism, especially as the whole concept of paganism was and is a versatile Christian construction, as Cecconi himself shows.

The fifth chapter “Itinerari regionali” gives a survey of different regions which extends from Britannia to the Rhineland and Frisia, further on to Gaul and Hispania, and finally to Italy. These local circumstances show that the populations were far from having been converted to Christianity. The sources vary from ecclesiastical writers’ letters (e.g., the Dialogi of Gregory of Rome) and hagiography to archaeological evidence, especially funerary sites and even runic inscriptions. Cecconi’s regional survey includes discussions on the reliability of hagiographies that modern scholarship has notoriously regarded as doubtful sources. He thus participates in the debates on the formulaic ways of depicting religious conflicts in late antique and early medieval literature, such as the conversion narratives and the destruction of pagan cult places in Vita Eligii. While recognizing that many depictions have been modelled on Sulpicius Severus’ Vita Martini, Cecconi nonetheless argues for the vitality of paganism in some cases, or syncretistic religion in other cases.

The sixth chapter “Politiche dei regni ariani verso il paganesimo” discusses an important, but less studied topic, the tolerant or intolerant attitudes of Arian Christians (or Homoian Christians—both terms are problematic). Cecconi asks whether the Arians were more tolerant towards paganism than Nicene Christians, and he replies with a cautious yes. Several Arian writings as well as legislation convey either tolerant or indifferent attitudes to pagans. One interesting example is the altercatio held between a Nicene Christian and the Arian Agila, conveyed by Gregory of Tours in his Histories (5.43). The Arian Agila (according to Gregory) says that it is not harmful if someone passes between the altars of pagans and the church of God and worships both. However, I am inclined to think that this anecdote may have just been a piece of Nicene denigration of Arians, who are portrayed as reckless or even paganizing. Cecconi suggests that the legislation of Arian rulers (e.g., Breviarium Alarici) indicates a level of neutrality or indifference to paganism; it is possible paganism was not considered a threat. The exception was Edictum Theoderici in which capital punishment was decreed for those who performed a sacrifice pagano ritu.

Barbari e pagani is a learned and important contribution to the field of late antique ethnic and religious history. Even though it is targeted to a general Italian-reading audience, it has a considerable apparatus of endnotes (almost 70 pages!) and the book takes an intensive part in recent scholarly debates. It is possibly due to the general audience level that it would sometimes be difficult for the average reader to distinguish which expressions come from ancient sources and which are the researcher’s characterizations; for example, in the case of Radagaisus, Cecconi states he was a fanatic (p. 18) devoted to the supreme god. A fanatic from whose perspective?