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Earthdate 2003-06-02

15.  Paganism in the West, and its influence on literature and Christianity  by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.

In the West paganism shewed itself much stronger.  It displayed its greatest tenacity in Rome itself, and there were many reasons why it should do so.  The old paganism had been closely connected with the State and when it ceased to be the privileged religion it had no common centre round which to rally.  In Rome it was otherwise.  Its stronghold was the Senate, and all the elements of opposition to Christianity could group themselves round that venerable assembly.  The Senate had lost its powers but its prestige remained, and the Emperors were chary of attacking its dignity.  It represented the ancient grandeur of Rome and was the heir and defender of old Roman traditions.  The city was full of monuments of Rome's past greatness.  They were, for the most part, temples built to commemorate signal victories, and were visible signs of the old religion under which Rome had grown to greatness.  The Senate took pride in preserving these witnesses of the past splendours of the Imperial city and in seeing that the old ceremonial rites were duly performed in spite of anti-pagan legislation.  During the second half of the fourth century and into the fifth, the pagan senators of Rome flaunted their religion in the face of the world.  They were at pains to record on their family tombstones and other private monuments that they had been hierophants of Hecate, had been initiated at Eleusis, had been priests of Hercules, Attis, Isis or Mithras.  In spite of the edicts and efforts of the sons of Constantine and of successors of Julian paganism was the state religion of Rome down to 383.  Its worship was performed according to the old rites.  The days consecrated to the old gods, and others added in honour of the newer Oriental deities, were the Roman holidays.  Every year on 27 January the Praefectus urbi went down to Ostia and presided over “games” in honour of Castor and Pollux.  All these costly ceremonies, sacrifices and shows were provided for out of the Imperial treasury.  They were part of the state religion, and the Senate were determined that they should be so regarded.  The Emperor might be a Christian, but he was nevertheless Pontifex Maximus, the official head of the old pagan religion, and they believed themselves justified in performing its rites in his name.

The Emperor Gratian delivered the first effectual blow against this state of matters.  He refused to assume the office of Pontifex Maximus, probably in 375.  In 383 he ordered that the great pagan ceremonies and sacrifices should no longer be defrayed out of the Imperial treasury, and saw that he was obeyed.  He took from the ancient priesthoods of Rome the emoluments and immunities which they had enjoyed for centuries.  He removed from the Senate House the statue of Victory and its altar on which incense had been duly burnt since the days of Octavius.  The last great battle for the official recognition of paganism raged over these decrees.  It lasted about ten years.  Symmachus and Ambrose, both representatives of old Roman patrician families, were the leaders on the pagan and on the Christian side.  The pagan party in the Senate fought every inch of ground against the advancing tide of Christianity.  Its leading members enrolled themselves in the ancient priesthoods and assumed the dignities of the sacra peregrina.  They provided for the sacrifices and other sacred rites at their own expense.  They spent their means in restoring ancient temples and in building new ones.  They had high hopes of a pagan reaction under Maximus, who had defeated and slain Gratian; under the short-lived Emperor Eugenius, who promised on his leaving Milan to meet Theodosius in battle that, on his return, he would stable his horses in Christian basilicas.  The victory of Theodosius (394) on the Frigidus ended these hopes.  They revived again for the last time when Alaric made Attalus a rival emperor to Honorius and when that ruler gathered round him counsellors who were for the most part pagans professed or secret.  But paganism was not destined to obtain even a temporary victory.  Perhaps, as Augustine said, it only desired to die honourably.  Its political defeats did not quench the zeal of its lessening number of votaries.  They engaged in polemical contests with their opponents.  They wrote books to prove that the invasions of the barbarians and the weakness of the Empire were punishments sent by the gods for the abandonment of the ancient religion, and called forth such replies as the Historia adversus paganos of Paulus Orosius and the De Civitate Dei of St Augustine.

The tenacity of paganism in the West was not confined to Rome.  The poems of Rutilius, the Homilies of Maximus of Turin and of Martin of Bracara, the Epistles of St Augustine, the history of Gregory of Tours and the series of facts collected in the Anecdota of Caspari, all shew that paganism lingered long in Italy, Gaul, Spain and North Africa, and that neither the persuasions of Christian preachers nor the penalties threatened by the State were able to uproot it altogether.  The records of district ecclesiastical councils tell the same tale.

Literature may almost be called the last stronghold of paganism for the cultivated classes all over the Empire.  It is hard for us to sympathise with the feelings of Christians in the fifth century for whom cultivated paganism was a living reality possessed of a seductive power; who could not separate classical literature from the religious atmosphere in which it had been produced; and who regarded the masterpieces of the Augustan age as beautiful horrors from which they might hardly escape.  Jerome had fears for his soul's salvation because he could not conquer his admiration for Cicero's Latin prose, and Augustine shrank within himself when he thought on his love for the poems of Vergil.  Had not his classical tastes driven him in youth from the uncouth latinity of the copies of the Holy Scriptures when he tried to read them?  Christianity had mastered their heart, mind and conscience, but it could not stifle fond recollection nor tame the imagination.  In some respects paganism ruled over literature.  The poet Claudian, whether he was heathen or Christian, lived and moved and had his being in the world of pagan thought.  Sidonius Apollinaris could not string verses without endless mythological allusions.  Rutilius, a hater of Christians and of their religion, adored with heart and soul the Dea Roma, Urbs Aeterna.  Perhaps the dread of the power which seemed to lurk in literature was heightened by the courteous and kindly intercourse of Christians with pagans during the years of the last struggle.  The Church owed much to the schools and was almost afraid of the debt.  Basil and Gregory had been fellow-students with Julian at Athens.  Chrysostom had been a pupil of Libanius, and acknowledged how much he owed to the great anti-Christian leader.  Synesius had sat in the class-room of Hypatia at Alexandria, and never forgot some of the lessons he had learned there.  And paganism never shewed itself to greater advantage than during its last years of heroic but unavailing struggle.  Its leaders, whether in the Schools of Athens or among the Senatorial party at Rome, were for the most part men of pure lives with a high moral standard of conduct — men who commanded esteem and respect.  Immorality abounded, but the pagan standard had become much higher.  Christians and heathen were full of mutual esteem for each other.  The letters exchanged between Symmachus and Ambrose reveal the intimacy in which the nobler pagans and earnest-minded Christians lived.  Even the caustic Jerome seems to have a lurking but sincere affection for some of the leaders of the pagan Senatorial party.  It is curious too to find that many of those stalwart supporters of the old religion of Rome were married to Christian wives, and that their daughters were brought up as Christians while the sons followed the father's faith.  Jerome has drawn no more charming picture than that of the old heathen pontiff Albinus, the leader of the anti-Christian party in Rome, sitting in his study with his small grand-daughter on his knees, listening to the child while she repeated to him a Christian hymn she had just been taught by her mother.  Theodosius II, most theological of emperors, married the daughter of a pagan who had taught philosophy in the Schools of Athens.

Yet however near pagans and Christians might approach each other in life and standard of conduct, a great gulf separated them.  In the grey twilight of that fifth century, when men whose sight seemed clearest looked forward to the coming of a night of chaos, the Christian whisper of consolation was better than the pagan thought of destiny.  The difference went further than ideals.  If it be strange to find practical statesmen like Ambrose and Augustine, able to see that the pressing need of the times was upright citizenship, defending that ascetic life which threw aside all civic duties and responsibilities, surely it is stranger still to find those pure-minded, noble pagans forced by religious partizanship to be the zealous defenders of the bloody gladiatorial spectacles and the untiring opponents of all attempts to better the unhappy lot of actors and actresses condemned to life-long slavery in a calling which then could not fail to be disgraceful.  If the dying world was to be requickened, it was not paganism that could bring salvation.  So it slowly, almost unconsciously, passed away before the advancing tide of Christianity.

Means were found of reconciling many festivals to which the populace was devoted, both in town and in country, with the prevailing Christian sentiment.  It was evil to fete Bacchus or Ceres, but there could be no harm in rejoicing publicly over the vintage and the harvest.  The Lupercalia themselves were changed into a Christian festival by Pope Gelasius.  Many a tutelary deity became a patron saint.  The people retained their rustic processions, their feasts and their earthly delights.  The temples were left standing.  They became public halls where the citizens could meet, or exchanges where the merchants could congregate, while the statues of the gods looked down from their niches undisturbed and unheeded.

So when the Teutonic invasion seemed to overwhelm utterly the ancient civilisation, the Church with its compact organisation was strong enough to sustain itself amid the wreck of all things, and was able to teach the barbarian conquerors to assimilate much of the culture, many of the laws and institutions of the conquered, and in the end to rear a new and Holy Roman Empire on the ruins of the old.



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