Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Pierre Chuvin's "A Chronicle of the Last Pagans": Book Review

This French professor of Greek provides a poignant, scholarly, yet briskly told survey of the decline of paganism in late antiquity. Roughly the two centuries between Constantine (ca. 312) and Justinian span the erosion of the old beliefs and Roman-sponsored state cults. Those living then felt perhaps imperceptibly, most decades, the ebb of what seemed the "natural" faith, but around 392 onward, accelerating before the "fall of Rome" in 410, Christianity under such propagandizers as Augustine, backed by the empire, broke the back of the pagan resistance.

Chuvin shows this pivot-point at work. In Alexandria, the Serapeum may not be well-known today, but its fall after a 391 Milan edict prohibited sacrifices to the gods proved for Egyptian believers a catastrophe. Chuvin follows its demolishment, showing how "in the summer of 392 the god of the Nile inudated the Egyptian countryside as always and fertilized it with his silt, mindless of the sacrileges committed the year before. He did not send torrents of blood or create a hecatomb among the people. The presence of that glimmering ribbon of water must have caused more confusion than we can imagine among all those who, like Libanus, believed the prosperity of the empire depended on the accomplishment of the ancient rites." (68-9)

As this passage demonstrates, Chuvin even in B.A. Archer's translation comes across vividly. Other sections discussing the perpetuation of such (today unlikely) centers as Beirut and Gaza as pagan cities show just how long their histories have been as places of worship, cosmopolitan trade, and factional doggedness in the name of ideology. I did find the treatment of emperor Julian too hasty, and would have liked more about Hypatia-- Chuvin finds her not a martyr for paganism so much as a pagan put in a vulnerable position in sectarian riots turned deadly. The book can brush over the more famous characters but it does show you by a close reading of the historical evidence, mainly textual but sometimes archeological or topographical, the often incremental weakening of the pagan cults and the marginalization of believers as gradually they were prevented from serving in the palace or military.

The parallels to later medieval "court Jews" for influential pagan advisors later on are suggestive; men of action had to become men of learning as the Christians consolidated power in first the court and then the establishment. The learned were the last sometimes to give in, but under pressure, they did. Those in the countryside stereotyped even back then as "pagani" or "country-dwellers" by the urbanized Roman Christians (if not always the urbane Hellenes who also shared in non-Christian practices on the other side of the Empire) are not only those who became, in later usage "peasants." Chuvin reminds us: "Pagani or pagans are quite simply 'people of the place,' town or country, who preserved their local customs, whereas the alieni, the "people from elsewhere," were increasingly Christian."(8)

He does not condescend or exaggerate the last pagans, content to track where they appear in texts and what they did or, by their enemies, were alleged to do. It's a straightforward monograph, and may appeal more to academics than New Agers or those enamored with less-than-solid scholarship. For those, and for a general reader wanting a no-nonsense, yet sensitive, description of how Christians and pagans traded places, so to speak, in advantage and clout over two centuries, this is a good starting point for such an orientation. Yet, Chuvin early on warns: "As for the paganism of our contemporaries who style themselves 'new pagans,' this more often than not perverse form of romanticism has nothing to do with the faith of those who shared Julian's or Proclus' religious beliefs, nor with the ancient civic or imperial cults that such people dreamed of restoring." (6)

This is a sober telling of the fate of those who hang on to a belief that their contemporaries insist, and then enforce, as outmoded. I do wish we had more insight here into everyday people's customs and attitudes towards paganism. While I expect many sources have been destroyed and we rely more on the history as rewritten by the victors, Chuvin does appear to stick too closely to a few accounts that show his main points. If he had branched out more into popular religion and social history, I might have been more interested in parts of this somewhat unadorned tale.

I was reminded, although Chuvin keeps his scholarly circumspection, of the later imperial expansions and political upheavals that accompany the spread of religion and sectarian allegiance. It's unsettling to read in the Mediterranean and Middle East that so many ancestors of those vowing today in those places unswerving fidelity to one version of one God in the past worshipped many gods, rulers, and saw deities in rocks, trees, and stars. It's a lesson perhaps in how our beliefs are linked far more to who's in power than we realize.(Posted to Amazon US 11-18-09)


Bo said...

This is interesting. I shall have to get it!

Greg said...

A very useful review.

Your point about belief and power is interesting in relation to the emergence of modern neo-paganism as part of the 'alternative' society although by now, perhaps, no longer restricted to this.

tamerlane said...

Harold Mattingly's "The Man in the Roman Street" which still stands out as an intellectual nugget after 60 years, devotes three chapters to the role of religion in the Roman Empire.

Mattingly, too, notes that "pagani' derives from the same root as "paisan" or "peasant", and that worship of the old gods lingered longest in rustic areas, whereas Christianity began as a fad among the urban elite.

Worship in Rome was intertwined with civic life, and was perceived by the Roman more as a civic duty -- like our present-day jury service -- than a charismatic, spiritual relationship with gods. Christianity didn't directly replace the Roman state religion (in people's minds at least); it made it obsolete by offering an entirely new "product".

Fionnchú said...

Greg, keep posted for my next reviews this coming week-- timed for the holidays-- about neo-paganism & witches. Observers wonder if its modern varieties can keep up their oppositional spirit once they turn respectable alternatives.

Bo, thanks for the nod as always; after all you share with me, I'm happy to return the nudge.

Tamerlane, great comment from Mattingly, and about jury duty. I guess the Roman enforcement indeed counters the spin of the modern pagan movement, which tries to be a more energetic replacement for mainstream monotheistic ceremony, dulled by repetition. In time perhaps circles and covens too get to be the same old same old? I wonder if our ancestors got as bored in oak groves as many will this season in wreathed churches?

tamerlane said...

I'd imagine that the ancient pagan rituals were intensely immediate & relevant to the practitioners, as they stemmed from the same rhythmic, cyclical tasks as everyday life -- fertilization of the soil and fertility rites dovetailed, both being ostensibly pragmatic means of manipulating one's surroundings.

If modern christianity bores, it is because it offers no relevancy, either via direct intercession in mundane affairs, or with its promise of an idyllic afterlife as relief from a world that, for most, is far from a vale of tears.

Modern pagans sought to get back in tune with nature, but needed to consciously 'unlearn' our enlightened understanding of its workings. Why bother appeasing a gaia spirit via a dance, when we can achieve our results through the miracle of nitrogen fixation via a winter crop of vetch?