This volume, derived from a 2012 conference, is structured in three sections: “Senatorial Politics and Religious Conflict,” “The Construction of New Religious Identities,” and “Pagans and Christians: Coexistence and Competition.” As the title suggests, the overall thesis of the volume is that the relationship between Christianity and paganism has been misunderstood as conflict, rather than healthy competition or peaceful co-existence. This is typically explored within the framework of Rome, and from the later fourth century onwards. However, while most, but not all, of the contributors write on subjects specific to Rome, the book's scope is wider than it might initially appear, including topics extending back to Constantine I and ranging much further afield than Rome itself. There has already been a review giving time to a wider range of the contributors (BMCR 2017), but at this point, I think it would be more productive for those deciding whether to purchase the volume to be aware of the significant positive contributions of several authors. Therefore, I have focused my review on three chapters, one from each section.
The editors acknowledge in their introduction that the late Alan Cameron's authorship of The Last Pagans of Rome provides much of the framework for this volume. In his contribution to the volume at hand, “The Correspondence of Symmachus,” he offers the same detailed analysis and judicious reasoning that made that monograph so valuable, and indeed cautions against knee-jerk assumptions that some other contributors to the volume would have done well to absorb. Cameron argues against the assertion by various scholars that Symmachus’ lack of explicit pagan content in his letters was due to fear of Christian reprisal. He defuses conspiratorial claims, frequently employing comparisons to Ciceronian and Plinian correspondence to correct misunderstandings regarding frequency of writing, additions of memoranda, use of language, conventions of brevity and the practice of preserving brevity by passing certain information orally through the messenger, etc. In one example of clear argumentation, Cameron points out that the well-known gap in Libanius’ correspondence (365-88 C.E.) was likely not a measure to protect himself from persecution, as has been claimed, but more likely the loss of a codex in transmission. After all, deleting over two decades of letters in their entirety would only be necessary if they uniformly contained damaging admissions, and more than enough pagan content remained in the surviving letters if persecution was a genuine threat. Indeed, Cameron brings forth evidence indicating that some of Symmachus’ extant letters were chosen to highlight their pagan content, with recipients including those holding multiple Roman priesthoods, and content including the business of pontifical colleges.
Thomas Jürgasch takes on one of the more persistent vexations of studies in Late Antiquity, namely the naming of “pagans.” There is no entirely adequate title for this group, though we all know who is meant, and the title persists because no other alternative commands that ready understanding. Jürgasch argues that it requires an understanding of the dynamic relationship between Christianity and paganism in order to identify the boundaries of the two terms. In his view, the term “pagan” originated in the Christian view of non-Christians as outsiders to their group, not serving Christ and his Kingdom as his milites. Accelerated by the role of the Emperors in convening councils and attempting to unify the church theologically, this process also caused an uncomfortable reassessment of their own place in the Empire, with understanding coming only when considered in opposition to the non-Christian Romans. He draws upon several sections of the Theodosian Code suggesting that this distinction was more social than theological. Contemporary Christian authors employing the term are explained as recent converts distinguishing themselves from their former identities. While this chapter spends great effort on digesting the views of other secondary authors, and as a result lacks the magisterial tone of Cameron's chapter, it is a useful and thought-provoking contribution.
In “Poetry and Pagans in Late Antique Rome,” Neil McLynn offers a careful examination of the Carmen ad quondam senatorem ex christiana religione ad idolorum seruitutem conuersum, highlighting the concern of conservative Christians regarding both the theological liberties taken by members of leading families, and the probative employment of paganism and its literature. Following a discussion of authorship and date (an unknown hand in the second half of the fourth century), McLynn provides a close reading of the text that offers a great deal of information about the author's strategy and his social and cultural context. He suggests that the careful and sorrowful tone indicates that past arguments for a fictional subject are faulty, and that the subject is a powerful senator. Similarly, reference to the hairline does not mandate a shaven-headed priest of Isis, but is more likely a humorous reference to that hairline's receding. The broad flaying of the subject posited by previous interpreters is replaced by a clever and cautious skewering of limited scope. McLynn suggests that the absence of mention of the church suggests a subject who was merely a catechumen. The reconstruction is a model of reason and restraint.
While I would agree with the volume's overall thesis that the relationship between Christianity and paganism is usually understood too simplistically, I find the argument for competition over conflict unconvincing in light of Julian's very aggressive attempts to use the power of the state. Since the volume includes the Roman Empire as well as the city of Rome, and since it includes periods as far back as Constantine, it is a shame that Julian is skirted around, as here is an example of a contemporary who was not at all interested in “non-competitive relations” or “peaceful co-existence.” This factor deals quite a blow to the new model of peaceful relationships, and it is telling that Julian is hardly acknowledged, only mentioned tangentially by Cameron (pp. 66, 68-9), Boin (p. 150), Slootjes (p. 191, misattributed in the index), and Saghy (p. 323, with no citation).
There are a total of eighteen contributors, and with that much diversity, one would expect a certain inconsistency in the quality. Some contributions push that expectation to the limit, including one chapter that refers to and incorporates copious sources, without providing citations for any. Despite this, I would argue that these three chapters reviewed here, while perhaps not typical of the rest, offer a positive reason for libraries to obtain a copy of the volume.