It’s going to be a busy couple of months—for the “pagans.”
A book called The Final Pagan Generation was released by UC Press in February. Another book on late Roman religion, called Pagans, will be released at the end of March (by a distinguished authority on the topic, too!). In between, there’s mine. It’s also about “pagans,” but I’m fairly certain it takes the history of the Roman Empire into some new directions. In it, I explore some lingering notions about this word’s puzzling origins.
Does it really come from the Latin word meaning “peasant” or “rustic”? That urban myth (no pun intended) has been around for a while, even working its way into a National Book Award winner. I’ve argued, however, that this etymology has little to do with the social dynamics of the fourth century, when the word as we know it first comes crashing into history.
Maybe it was a neutral word, though, devoid of any malicious intent, an objective term which we can just freely toss about today? On that point, I’ve also suggested no. “Pagan” is a fiercely partisan slur whose pejorative connotations can’t be swept under the carpet (Moment of geek: The study of Latin inscriptions is crucial to this point). In effect, what I’ve explained in my work is why “pagan” went viral in later Rome. As the Latin word for “civilian”—a natural contrast to the Latin word for “soldier,” the latter of which happens to be the root of our word militant (Latin miles; plural, milites)—it gave Christians a powerful tool with which to chastise their Christian peers for not being “Christian enough.”
These are not academic word games, and they also can’t be ignored. This data has real world consequences for how we write and think about history, including the history of Christianity.
Now I have to confess, I thought I was being perfectly clear about what I was proposing when I published my article in the Journal of Early Christian Studies last year. The word “civilian” arose in fourth century A.D. conversations between Christians over the issue of whether Christians saw themselves as fighting God’s battle here on earth, or not. Unfortunately, I’m not sure this nuance was ever recognized—new ideas often move through the academy at a glacier’s pace—so I’m going to expand upon it here with language and examples I use in my book.
The word civilianism, or as we recognize it by its more proper, though unimaginatively translated Latinate form, paganism, had nothing to do with non-Christians at its start. Once we recognize that, we can start to describe, using our ancient sources, a historical conversation not discussed enough in Late Antiquity: the attempt to define “Christianity” in militant terms.
Let me explain why this approach is so important.
One of the things that has always hampered discussions of violence in Late Antiquity, for me, is the way scholars have struggled—awkwardly at times—when they talk about issues of Christian identity. Some see violence as an inevitable byproduct of “intolerant monotheism” (I won’t name names here; see a recent, bizarre Q&A after a panel at the SBL). Others see it as the product of social currents that were unique to Christians of the fourth century. Some would even prefer we omit this uncomfortable topic from our narratives entirely. (“Christians? Violent? Yes, but no need to actually study it as part of Christianity’s triumph.”).
I think we’re missing one of the most fundamental social dynamics of the empire here. For four hundred years, there was more than one way to be “Christian.” By Late Antiquity, these identity issues dovetailed only tangentially with issues of creed or council (Arianism, Nestorianism, and so forth), the theological topics historians usually discuss when they talk about Late Antique Christian identity today.
Many fourth-century Christians were engaging with each other on topics that cross the “denominational aisle”: like the relevance of spiritual warfare to daily life in the empire; the immediacy of the end times (when was Jesus coming back?) during political conversations; even the possibility of the “Antichrist” or the “Satanic” emperor Nero returning in moments when other Christians were suggesting continued accommodation to the Roman government.
By the middle of the fourth century, these strands of apocalyptic thinking—many of which can be traced back through every century of early Christian thought; others broadly date back the second century B.C., if not earlier—had even started to infect Roman politics. And by the century’s end, what had begun as an internal Christian debate, that Christians “not act too ‘civilian,'” would spill over into the Roman world with horrific side effects for everyone else, Christians, non-Christians, and Jews alike.
Statues would be torn down and, tragically, as at the Sanctuary for Serapis at Alexandria (see Serapis’ image, above), entire buildings would topple. Christians who saw themselves as God’s “soldiers” were now aggressively lashing out at the Roman culture around them. Other Christians, taught for centuries about the “dangers” of “seeming too Jewish” (a word in Christian sources scholars usually and unhelpfully translate as “Judaism”), would attack synagogues, even burn them. In sum, the “Christianity” that we assume took the Mediterranean by spiritual storm in the fourth century may not be the “Christianity” we think it was.
Jesus’ followers had walked straight into later Rome carrying some fairly significant cultural baggage, and many people inside the group must have looked on in horror as their teammates tried to move the goalposts on them during these intense cultural debates.
We haven’t been particularly good at letting the Romans who suffered the effects of these attacks have their place in history. But we also haven’t been anywhere close to describing the complex social factors that led to the eruption of this violence, either. Yes, Christians fought a long hard struggle to “come out” in Rome, but don’t be fooled by my book’s uplifting title. This is the story of one of the least studied eruptions in Roman history.
Coming Out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar’s Empire will be released in the U.S. on March 3rd and in the U.K. this May.
Image credit: Unknown artist, Panel with Painted Image of Isis and Serapis, c. 100 C.E. Tempera on wood 39.1 x 19.1 x 1.6 cm (15 3/8 x 7 1/2 x 5/8 in.). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California. Open Content Program.