October 3, 2006


REVIEW: of Pierre Chuvin, A Chronicle of the Last Pagans (Lee T. Pearcy, Bryn Mawr Classical Review)

Who would you rather have as a dinner guest, Symmachus or St. Ambrose? The answer will reveal much about one's approach to the conflict between pagans and Christians which forms the subject of this book. Chuvin would prefer the company of Symmachus. His pagans are lively, tolerant, and humane. They acknowledge the cultural and aesthetic value, and perhaps the moral and philosophical truths, of their civilization's traditional religion, but they are not so naive as to take its mythological narratives or bizarre injunctions literally.

On the other side, the Christians, once Constantine's Edict of Toleration gives them access to the seats of government, seem to combine low bureaucratic cunning with intolerant anti-intellectualism. Their carefully worded edicts of repression leave popular festivals untouched but degrade antique sanctuaries and mock or abolish the picturesque rituals dear to the old pagan intelligentsia. [...]

Although Chuvin's pagans are defined by their eventual defeat in the struggle with the Christians, he does not chronicle the decline of every non-Christian or non-orthodox belief. He has little to say about Manichaeans, Mithraists, Arians, or Gnostics. He treats the "indigenous polytheism" of the Greco-Roman world, and his chronological limits are, loosely, from the Diocletianic persecutions to Justinian's closing of the philosophical school at Athens in 529.

Nor, except for a little etymological speculation and a few ornamental observations on surviving cults and superstitions, is he much interested in the pagani who were countryfolk. His pagans are urbane, civilized, and literate, in fact the pagans who have told us about themselves and who are most like us. They belong to the governing class, and their struggle with the Christian s has for them less to do with religion than with power and culture. When the struggle becomes nasty, in the late Fourth Century (Chuvin sees a turning point in 353), they retreat into a sterile hyper-intellectuality, into aestheticism, vegetarianism, Orphism, Chaldaean calculations, magic, and mysteries. Describing Proclus, Chuvin speaks of "the contrast between his shining intelligence, his active temperament, and the marginality of his life." Not every pagan had Proclus' brilliance and energy, but soon er or later all shared his marginality.

And good riddance.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 3, 2006 12:00 AM
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