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Debating Paganism in a Christian Empire

Mattias Gassman

University of Cambridge

From Tertullian to Augustine, Latin Christian writers treated traditional Roman religion on a scale and frequency unmatched since the late Republic and early Empire. Modern scholars, however, have often criticized Christian works on Roman religion for their reliance on Classical texts, accusing them of being disconnected from contemporary pagan religiosity (Cameron: 621, Turcan: 35–6, Chadwick: 22). Although recent studies have offered sophisticated analysis of Christian polemicists’ use of Classical literature (Trout, Van Nuffelen, Tornau) and re-emphasized their awareness of contemporary religious attitudes (Salzman, North), the accusation of Christian misdirection has not been adequately tested, since few texts allow systematic comparison of Christian and pagan approaches to particular cults. As this paper argues through close analysis of a rare exception, the epistolary exchange between Augustine and the grammaticus Maximus of Madauros (Augustine, Ep. 16–17), there was no fundamental gap between Christian and pagan ways of conceptualizing traditional religion. Classical literature continued to play a vital role in shaping educated late-antique perspectives on Roman religion, just as it had in the late Republic and early Empire (Feeney).

An open reply to a now-lost letter from Augustine, Maximus’ epistle is an apologia for Madaurian civic cult and traditional polytheism more generally. Maximus does not name any models for his presentation of traditional religion, but its structure clearly reflects the influence of a theorist well known to Augustine: Varro, the great Republican polymath, who identified three main discourses on the gods (tria genera theologiae), philosophical theory, civic practice, and poetical mythology (Clark, Lieberg). In contrast to Augustine, however, who would deconstruct the Varronian theory in De ciuitate dei 6–8, Maximus makes all three genera theologiae endorse his local cults. Accordingly, he interprets the ‘salutary powers’ of the Madaurian forum as ‘limbs’ of a single most-high God, the ultimate object of all religiones. He then turns the Latin poetical tradition against Christianity, conflating the Punic martyrs with Lucan’s deified shades (De bello civili 7.459) and the Egyptian ‘monsters’ of Vergil’s Actium (Aen. 8.698–700); the gods of Madauros’ forum are the Roman deities, who will soon triumph yet again. The influence of Classical literature on Maximus’ presentation of his religion is profound: not only does his approach mirror that taken by an eminent Republican antiquary, he also makes Roman historical mythology paradigmatic for his understanding of his own religiosity and its relationship to Christianity.

In order to unsettle Maximus’ confidence in his cults, Augustine plays the Varronian genera theologiae against one another. His response underscores his superior knowledge of Classical literature and of the ritual and material details of Madaurian civic cult, using precise description of statues in the forum of Madauros and selective citations from Cicero, Euhemerus, and Vergil to prove that Maximus’ gods are actually dead men or demons, rather than subordinate parts of the supreme God. For Augustine, too, however, literary discourse and civic practice flow together; thus, he alludes to Vergil’s account of the madness of Dido (Aen. 4.298–303) in his description of the parade performed by upper-class initiates of Liber Pater, whose presence at Madauros is confirmed by an inscription (Gsell 2131). For Augustine, as for Maximus, Classical literature provides a vital lens through which to view traditional religious practice.   

Though brief, the debate between Maximus and Augustine provides a corrective to modern dismissals of ancient Christian polemical methodology. As it shows, Classical literature provided a means not only, as Robert Markus suggested, for Christians to get a clear view of the ‘indeterminate and polymorphic reality’ of polytheism (Markus: 80), but also for pagans to conceptualize and defend their own religious beliefs and practices. The traditional literature of the Roman Empire was not merely a source for opportunistic Christian polemic; it was a crucial means through which all educated people could approach and think about traditional religion.

Session/Panel Title

Ritual and Religious Belief

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