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The Libri Pontificales at the End of Paganism

Mattias Gassman

University of Oxford

Tucked away in Augustine’s vast corpus is an account of a conversation held, ca. 406–410, with members of his congregation (De divinatione daemonum 1.1–2.5; den Boeft 1999). These laymen argued that the publica sacra, defined according to the libri pontificales, had once been acceptable to God. Now in his disfavor for mysterious reasons, they were not evil and had nothing in common with clandestine polytheism, which the libri pontificales had also forbidden.

This paper seeks to explain why Augustine’s interlocutors appealed to the libri pontificales and what that appeal tells us about attitudes toward the no-longer public sacra in Roman Africa. Omitted from the key study of the libri (Rohde 1936), De divinatione daemonum has received only passing attention. The laymen have thus been seen as ignorant of Christian teaching (Bardy, Beckaert, and Boutet 1952) or as sincere admirers of old-fashioned religion (Brown 2004). Neither reading convinces. Augustine says that the laymen were playing the devil’s advocate and invites pagans to reply (Divin. daem. 1.1, 10.14); the laymen’s position is coherent with pagan henotheism, as well (cf. Cerutti 2010). The laymen were presenting a typical pagan response to Christian arguments.

The appeal to the libri pontificales, which Augustine took to be a reflection of pagan opinion (Divin. daem. 2.4), owes particularly little to Christian preconceptions. Older apologetic writers offer only scattered references to the libri, while Augustine’s own engagement at De civitate dei 4.8, 7.35, is insubstantial. Where the laymen or their pagan friends learned about them, De divinatione daemonum itself suggests. Augustine’s apologetic works ordinarily cite Classical literature freely, but De divinatione daemonum quotes only Vergil’s Aeneid. That suggests his interlocutors had not had an advanced education; it also points to the Vergilian commentary tradition as their source for the libri. Servius and Servius Danielis make six explicit references to the books, amid many generic allusions to sacral lore, and their high view of the books’ authority coheres with the laymen’s.  

The laymen’s pagan interlocutors thus shared with pagans of the preceding generation a respect for Vergil and conflation of traditional Roman cult with the practices enshrined in Classical literature. Two vital differences nonetheless divide the laymen’s arguments from those of Symmachus (Relatio 3) or Augustine’s grammarian correspondent, Maximus of Madauros (Ep. 16). In defending traditional Roman cult, they are defending something explicitly past, and they reject contemporary pagan practice in its favor. Those moves are interlinked. After imperial restriction of traditional cult, pagans could choose either to carry on with private, typically mystical piety or to insist on the value of the public cult that had animated men such as Symmachus. The laymen’s friends chose the latter. In them we may find the this-worldly adversaries of De civitate dei 1–5, and in them we may also see how educated Roman men of the early fifth century could appeal to a venerable textual authority to maintain the memory of the public cults in a world that had, as it seemed, capriciously rejected them.    

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Pagans and Christians

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