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Romanitas between 'Pagans' and Christians: Christian Invective against Late Antique Roman Traditional Religions

Jacob Latham

University of Tennessee

Late antique Christian polemic against Roman traditional religions has typically been construed as “shadow-boxing”  against a defunct enemy or “trivial doggerel” re-mixing classical phrases, badly (Markus, 7-8; Cameron, 273). Not so. Targeting traditional religions performed crucial boundary work, distinguishing so-called “proper Christianity” and so also proper Christians from a “paganism [made] silly, stupid, and alien,” as Dennis Trout has argued (Trout, 225). However, such polemic was not only a matter of internal policing, it also attacked ancient Mediterranean traditional religions and their adherents—and with good reason: they (both) were still alive and active, despite Neil McLynn’s premature obituary (McLynn, 318). And so, late antique Christian authors repeated classical criticisms of a still vibrant cult of Magna Mater, for example, both to question the romanitas (“Roman-ness,” a term coined by Tertullian) of its aristocratic adherents and to claim that Roman-ness for themselves.

From its arrival at Rome in the late third century BCE until the high empire, the cult of Magna Mater was viewed with anxiety, if not always hostility, by the Roman elite. In Late Antiquity, by contrast, aristocrats increasingly participated in and advertised their affiliations with the cult (Rauhala; Latham). Such participation was unsurprising—over the centuries the cult had achieved a prominent public position among the religions of Rome—but it did stand in tension with earlier classical literature, especially Martial, whose invective against the cult bordered on camp, and the Poet, Vergil. This same literary tradition also happened to confer elite cultural distinction as attested by the often bloated honors listed on statue bases (e.g. EDCS-18100570). That is, elites made themselves noble, notable and noticed, by means of both the Metroac cult and classical literature (even if their literary achievements were rather minimal as Ammianus Marcellinus [28.4.6-27] bitterly contended).

And so, anonymous Christian authors could pose as defenders of Roman-ness against “oriental” alterity by repeating the polemic of classical literature, a central pillar of elite Roman identity. That is, Christian invective exploited a fault-line between late antique religious practice and Roman literary tradition. “Parroting” classical literature was not antiquarian, but effective strategy. The aristocrats who participated in the rites of Magna Mater (like the taurobolium and public processions) as a means to establish a traditional Roman identity were now, according to classicizing Christian rhetoric, no longer Roman. Participation had become an accusation. In other words, Christian authors deployed classical Latin literature in an effort to claim Roman-ness from the aristocracy of Rome, its ostensible standard bearers, and to stake a claim on the city itself.

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Late Antique Textualities

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