Nothing equals the “conversion” of the many-gods worshipping Greeks and Romans to the one-god Christianity. In terms of ferocity and sheer barbarism, this mass conversion is unique in history. It had never taken place before the fourth century and it never repeated itself anywhere in the world. But in the fourth century such conversion became the policy of the Roman Empire and its subservient Christian Church. The clash of Greco-Roman and Christian civilizations unraveled the edifice of Greece and Rome, wrecking Hellenic and Roman culture and society forever. The result of that violent metamorphosis was the fall of Rome to the barbarians and the ensuing Dark Ages. The costs have been incalculable.
First of all, Greeks and Romans did not fight religious wars. Their polytheistic faith was tolerant of other religions and, in fact, easily accommodated other gods. The Roman gods were Greek gods with Latin names. Greek and Roman polytheism had neither sacred scriptures nor professional clergy. Thus the idea of converting foreigners to the Greek and Roman gods was alien to the Greeks and Romans.
Nevertheless, Greeks and Romans woke up one day in early the fourth century and heard the unbelievable: their emperor, Constantine I, had adopted an unknown Jewish cult as his own religion. As an autocrat, Constantine intended to replace the millennial polytheism of Rome with this Jewish one-god cult. He probably convinced himself it was easier to control people who feared one god. The many-gods religion he inherited was not as easily amenable to political manipulation.
Constantine reigned as sole emperor from 312 to 337. His cult was Christianity. Its early followers were mainly Jews, the poor, women and children. During its first three centuries of existence in Rome, Christianity was a despised sect, harboring anti-social and anti-Roman sentiments. Its name came from Christ (the “anointed” in Greek), a Jew supposedly the son of the Jewish god Yahweh.
Emperor Julian, 361-363, nephew of Constantine, rejected Christianity and temporarily revived the many-gods faith of the Greeks and Romans. For that, Christians branded him an “apostate,” an insult Christian theologians and “scholars” hurl against him to this day.
However, the other emperors of the fourth century and after followed in the footsteps of Constantine, slowly but steadily pushing polytheism out of the picture. They put the screws ever more tightly on their subjects to become Christians. Constantine even moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome, Italy, to Byzantium, a Greek city on the European side of the Bosporus next to Asia. He did that primarily because he wanted to be away from polytheistic Rome. He probably knew he was starting a catastrophic project.
Constantine ordered the plundering of temples. His agents removed some choice statues from Greek temples and brought them to Byzantium, now Constantinople or the polis of Constantine. Constantine also presided over the first ecumenical Church council at Nicaea, which fixed Christian doctrine. Any Christian disagreeing with the decisions of the council of Nicaea or subsequent councils was automatically a “heretic” who suffered dreadful consequences, sometimes death.
The imperial successors of Constantine passed and enforced legislation that made Greek and Roman polytheists into non-persons. A mid-fifth-century Christian apologist named Theodoret described non-Christians and Greeks as “enslaved by impiety,” “devoted to the deceit of idols,” “idolaters,” “impious,” and “unholy ones.”
In addition, Christian emperors and the Church turned the Roman Empire, including Greece, upside down. What had been millennium-old traditions of worshipping the gods and the cosmos suddenly became a sin – and a crime. The Greco-Roman sacred culture also included the earth, the temples and altars of the gods, thousands upon thousands of statues and other works of art, groves of trees, athletic stadia and theatres. The Church said all this had to be destroyed. And destroy it the Christians did. In fact, to speed up this horrific devastation, in 396, the Christian emperor of the East, Arcadius, outsourced the job to the Visigoths, the same tribes headed by Alaric who captured Rome in 410.
The Christian Church was the power behind the Roman imperial throne. In 396, Christian monks led Alaric and his barbarians to their devastation of Greece. Monks also specialized in demolishing temples. Bishops slowly replaced civil authority, especially in the West. And Christian preachers rewrote history to make the conversion of Europe to Christianity a blessed event.
Christian apologists started with one book, the Bible. In the next sixteen centuries they have filled libraries with their books—basically commentaries on the Bible. Augustine (354-430), perhaps the most eloquent of the Christian fathers of the West, said the Christians needed no other books but the Bible. The “Scripture” had all one had to have to be “saved.” Augustine argued in The City of God that the Scripture also had “divine authority,” putting it “above the literature of all other people.”
This was then the main message of Christianity in the fourth century and early fifth century: forget the many gods of the Greeks and Romans; smash their altars and temples; don’t read the books of the Greeks; the Bible is all you need. This is the period covered by Alan Cameron’s book, The Last Pagans.
Cameron is an American academic who could easily have come out of the ranks of Christian apologists of late antiquity. In fact, Cameron is a far superior Christian apologist than the run of the mill preachers of early Christianity. He has spent at least 50 years writing about why Christianity was the best thing that happened in the history of Europe. He has no problem that Christian authorities stamped out Greeks and Romans who refused to convert to Christianity. He agreed that the “Church triumphant” was right in eradicating “every trace of paganism, including abandoned shrines in remote areas that could no longer be identified.”
Cameron uses “paganism” like the Americans used “communism” when denigrating opponents of capitalism. Pagans, like communists, were evil and blind not to embrace the “true” god of Christianity. But these pagans, according to Cameron, offered no resistance to the moral superiority and overwhelming force of Christianity. The Roman nobility did not put up a fight. Nobles converted to Christianity in order to keep their privileges intact. In fact, Cameron says, Roman paganism “died a natural death” and “petered out with a whimper rather than a bang.”
Of course, such a claim is highly exaggerated. Roman paganism died because of extreme violence applied without mercy for centuries. Moreover, resistance against Christianity was very much alive and fierce in Rome and Roman provinces like Greece—for centuries. No monastery was built in Peloponnesos, Greece, before the ninth century. Some polytheistic Greeks survived all the way to our times. The greatest Platonic philosopher and follower of the Greek gods in the fifteenth century was George Gemistos Plethon who almost single-handedly sparked a limited Renaissance in Peloponnesos. His pupil, Besarion, a cardinal of the Catholic Church, brought to Italy from Greece a huge collection of Greek texts that became the heart of the Renaissance. Yes, Besarion was a Cardinal, but he loved his ancient Greek culture.
If the Christians had been successful in abolishing even “traces” of paganism in the Roman Empire, we would have no ancient Greek texts; there would have been no Renaissance and the Dark Ages would still be with us.
But, fortunately, in the East conversion to Christianity left some space for Greek culture. Not that Orthodox Christianity was generous with the ancient Greeks. In the eleventh century, it anathematized them, especially Platon and those who studied the Greek classics. However, the attraction of ancient Greek culture was so powerful to the “Christian” Greeks that some of them found ways to accommodate Hellenism and Christianity. For example, Greek children continued reading Homeros and the classics. And rich nobles, including occasionally emperors and patriarchs, funded the copying of the classical texts, which is why those texts eventually reached the West and triggered the Renaissance.
In the West, however, the barbarians captured Rome, accelerating the dramatic decline of culture brought about by the violence of Christianization. Here again Cameron is rewriting history because he wants to show that Christianization was a good thing. In order to do so he tries in vain to demonstrate that not only Roman nobles failed to resist Christianity but also they were no better than literate Christians who read the classics. The nobles are at the heart of Cameron’s book.
Thus Roman nobles are Cameron’s “last pagans.” These Romans were very wealthy and powerful with extensive land holdings all over the Roman Empire. Cameron examines the conversion of these nobles to Christianity but, more than that, he follows how they survived as pagans, the defense they put up in support of their polytheistic culture.
Pagan nobles were the majority in Roman nobility throughout the fourth century. The fifth century witnessed a decline in the number of pagan nobles but not a decline in power. These pagan nobles resisted Christianity stubbornly. In that process, they changed from land-grabbers to fearless defenders of senatorial privilege, champions of literature and classical culture, particularly Greek civilization and polytheism.
Cameron ridicules this view as a “romantic myth.” He wrote “The Last Pagans of Rome” primarily to dismantle that history of Greek and especially Roman resistance to Christianity. He resents that Roman nobles spearheaded a “pagan revival” and even military resistance to Christian authority in late fourth century. This was the time when the state and Church abolished the Olympics, instigated the burning of the famous Greek library in Alexandria, imported barbarians for the smashing of Greek temples, forbade sacrificing to the gods, and tortured and killed the defenders of polytheism. Cameron associates noble pagans resisting Christianity to “upper-class freemasons” rather than genuine worshippers of the traditional Greek and Roman gods.
The most important pagan nobles that resisted Christianity include Vetius Agorius Praetextatus, Q. Aurelius Symmachus and Nicomachus Flavianus or Flavian. Cameron does not like these men. He uses chapters 7, 10, 15, and 16 to explain away why the Roman writer Macrobius defended the ideas of the pagan nobles in his “Saturnalia.” In chapters 2, 3 and 5, Cameron dismisses the implications of the pagan revival in late fourth century.
In 357, Emperor Constantius II ordered the removal of the altar of Victory from the Roman Senate. In 362, Emperor Julian returned the altar of Victory to its place. In 382, Emperor Gratian removed the altar of Victory from the Roman Senate. He also terminated state funding for the temples. Symmachus and other Roman senators protested the imperial policies of punishing traditional Roman culture. In 384 when Symmachus was Prefect of Rome, he appealed to Gratian’s successor, Valentinian II, to restore the altar of Victory to the senate and funding for traditional religion. Valentinian refused. Nothing further happened until 391 when Emperor Theodosius I accelerated the attack of Christianity against traditional Greek and Roman polytheistic culture. In 390, Theodosius ordered the slaughter of 12,000 Greeks in Thessalonike, Greece. In 392, the pagan aristocracy proclaimed its own emperor: Eugenius who immediately restored all that the pagans wanted. Flavian became the Praetorian Prefect of Rome.
Cameron disputes this story, calling Flavian a “pagan fanatic and paladin.” Then Cameron shows his true colors by insulting classical civilization. He equates traditional Greek and Roman religion to “nonsense.” This was the religion of the best of the Greeks, philosophers and scientists like Thales, Herakleitos, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Platon, Hippokrates, Aristoteles, Eukleides, Archimedes, Hipparchos, Ptolemy and Galen; politicians like Perikles; and poets like Homeros, Aischylos Sophokles and Euripides.
The Christians butchered the mathematician and philosopher Hypatia in Alexandria in 415. Cameron remains silent about Hypatia. She finds no place in his book. In chapter 17, Cameron is unfair to the Greek sources for the history of the fourth century, especially Eunapios and Zosimos. These men worshipped the gods and, not surprisingly, their account of Christianity did not match the rosy picture of Christian apologists.
In chapter 3, Cameron disputes the war between Eugenius and Theodosius had anything to do with a clash of paganism and Christianity. In fact, he asserts without proof that by the time of Theodosius paganism was doomed. He says the pagan nobility did not support Eugenius. In chapters 11, 14 and 15, he slanders Symmachus. He suggests Symmachus had little interest in traditional Greek and Roman culture and that he was less well read than his Christian opponents. This is also a highly exaggerated claim. Symmachus was a defender of Greek and Roman culture. In his appeal to the emperors Valentinian II and Theodosius I for the return of the altar of Victory to the Roman Senate, he reminded them that Rome became great only because Romans worshipped the gods. We ask, Symmachus said: “[T]he gods of our fathers, our native gods, be left in peace.”
Underneath the tiny print of his massive book of 808 pages of text, full of tremendous scholarship, Cameron is rewriting history in defense of Christianity. He seems to be saying, Christianity was so superior to the “pagan nonsense,” that it’s not worth crediting the resistance of pagan nobles, much less the centuries-long resistance of the Greeks, to the violent Christianization of the Roman Empire. He would rather convince you that the so-called pagans rushed to be converted to the desert delights of Jesus.
In a curious way, and at a time when Christianity is, once again, on the warpath, the book shows the persistence of Christian apologists not merely to deny the history of Christianity, but to beautify its horrible past. Christianity taught its followers for centuries the Earth was there for the taking. Now the Earth is at risk. Cameron ignores this effect completely. Second, instead of expressing sorrow for the environmental negligence of many of its faithful and for the countless victims of the Christianization of the Roman Empire and the near loss of the Greek classical texts of science, philosophy and literature, Christian apologists like Cameron perpetuate a delusion of a religion “better” than the traditional polytheistic religion of the Greeks and Romans. That Christianity never existed.
Despite these handicaps, the book is worth reading because of its admirable learning.
1. Augustine, City of God 11.1, tr. Gerald G. Walsh et al. (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1958).
2. Symmachus, “Relatio (State Paper) III” in Brian Croke and Jill Harries, eds. Religious Conflict in Fourth-Century Rome (Sydney, Australia: Sydney University Press, 1982), pp. 35-39.
Evaggelos Vallianatos, is the author of several books, including The Passion of the Greeks: Christianity and the Rape of the Hellenes. He can be reached at email@example.com