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Public and private in fourth-century paganism: Firmicus Maternus' aristocratic Roman audience

Mattias Gassman

The Calendar of 354 and a large corpus of inscriptions attest to the diversity and vitality of pagan cult at Rome in the second half of the fourth century AD (Salzman). Because of a gap in the epigraphic evidence, the 320s–340s are often seen as a period of decline from which the mystery cults, at least, only recovered decades later (Cameron: 152; Liverani); studies of Christian-pagan interaction, which have ample material in the 380s–390s (Cracco Ruggini), are typically limited to prosopographical and legal matters in the period between Constantine’s death and the sole rule of Constantius II (Barnes, Leppin). Building upon recent scholarship that challenges the idea of a pagan decline (Mulyran), this paper will argue that a robust combination of public and private paganism is fully attested in an important but neglected Christian work from the 340s: the treatise De errore profanarum religionum written by the uir clarissimus and ex-astrologer Julius Firmicus Maternus.

Despite strong scholarly interest in the religious-historical information provided by De errore (e.g. Turcan), Firmicus’ portrayal of pagan religion has rarely been studied as a whole. As this paper will show, Firmicus’ polemic bears a strong Roman and senatorial stamp: not only does Firmicus target numerous cults whose interest to Roman senators is well attested later in the century, he also conflates public and private piety in a way distinctive of fourth-century Roman senatorial paganism.

Firmicus had addressed his earlier astrological handbook, Mathesis, to an eminent Roman senator, Lollianus Mavortius, and fashioned himself as a Roman with Sicilian roots; the rhetoric of De errore is likewise centred on Rome, and aims to prove that pagan cults, rather than being genuinely Roman, are actually “foreign superstitions” focused on “parricide, incest, and death” (6.9, 16.3). Firmicus’ polemic nevertheless addresses a broad array of official and unofficial rites, including the annual, public celebrations of Isis and Magna Mater (2–3), the (private) mysteries of Mithras and Liber Pater (5–6), the public and domestic cults of Vesta, the Penates, and the Palladium (14–15), and the taurobolium and criobolium (27.8). All of these cults are attested in the Calendar of 354, later inscriptions (especially the epitaph of Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, CIL VI 1779), and Christian polemical texts such as the anonymous Carmen contra paganos. Firmicus’ portrayal of paganism is thus continuous with the interests of Roman senators later in the century.

Even more strikingly, Firmicus’ way of conceptualizing pagan cults is also paralleled on Praetextatus’ epitaph and similar inscriptions of other senators (e.g. Ulpius Egnatius Faventinus, CIL VI 504), which lump together their dedicatees’ official and unofficial cult titles without distinction (cf. Rüpke: 271, McLynn). Firmicus, like these senators but unlike previous apologists such as Lactantius (Divinae institutiones 1.11.49, 21.16) and Arnobius (Aduersus nationes 5.24), neither privileges private devotion nor acknowledges the special status of the sacra publica. Instead, his polemic conflates the official and unofficial aspects of contemporary paganism into a single category of profanae religiones differentiated only by their countries of origin and the (so Firmicus) specious rationalizations by which their adherents attempt to justify them. If late Roman senators were the “first pagan[s]” (Brown 101–2), then Firmicus is the first Latin theorist of the unified paganism espoused by some fourth-century aristocrats. The 340s were not, therefore, a time of inactivity, but of vitality in both traditional religious practice and Christian discourse about paganism, in which Firmicus’ treatise represents an important stage.

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Emperors, Aristocrats, and Bishops in Late Antiquity

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