Worshippers of the Gods

Mattias P. Gassman, Worshippers of the Gods: Debating Paganism in the Fourth-Century Roman West, Oxford Studies in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020). 9780190082444.

Reviewed by Colin M. Whiting, Dumbarton Oaks, whitingc01@doaks.org

Mattias Gassman’s Worshippers of the Gods is an engaging reappraisal of the fourth-century discourse about paganism and Christianity in the West. It offers incisive new readings of individual texts and historical moments as well as a compelling overarching narrative about the ways in which authors both pagan and Christian wrote and thought about Roman religion. The purpose of the book is plainly stated: “to move beyond the theories of ‘secularity’ and Christian boundary formation to an account of fourth-century ideas on Roman religion that is grounded more firmly in contemporaries’ own portrayals of traditional cults” (13–14). Gassman is largely successful in showing how both pagans and Christians drew upon the same well of tradition in their disputations over religio, itself not a particularly controversial statement, and also how pagans and Christians influenced one another in transforming how they conceived of Roman religio itself.

The book is organized chronologically around five case studies, totaling some 177 pages. The first two chapters are very specific, focusing on individual authors; the following three are less focused on specific texts and more on bodies of texts or events. Gassman generally opens his chapters with discussions of secondary literature, but the bulk of each chapter consists of deep readings of primary sources. Following the main text itself is a 50-page bibliography, a testament to the depth of knowledge found in this relatively slim volume.

First up, however, is the author’s introduction, which discusses the fundamental terms “religion” and “paganism” (the use of “paganism” instead of a euphemism like “traditional polytheism” is, we shall see, quite deliberate). One of the key themes of the book is that in the course of the fourth century, as a result of ongoing dialogue between pagans and Christians, religio among both pagans and Christians shifted in meaning from the traditional “worship of the gods carried out with moderation according to ancestral forms” (9) to something more akin to “worship of the true” (10). Gassman situates his argument somewhere in between previous narratives, which stress conflict or accommodation, in the course of a brief historiographical overview. It is here, too, that Gassman finds his opening: unlike other scholars of paganism in late antiquity (Alan Cameron, Garth Fowden, Averil Cameron, and Neil McLynn are cited, and R. A. Markus appears throughout), he does not see paganism as an “artificial category” wholly created by Christian polemic.

Chapter One, “‘Like a Stream of Tullian Eloquence’: Lactantius, Cicero, and the Critique of Roman Religion in the Divine Institutes,” opens with a discussion of the first comprehensive Christian response to paganism in Latin. The Divine Institutes is here refreshingly treated as a serious work of philosophy, and Gassman shows how Lactantius engaged with the basic structure of religious devotion as it is established in Cicero’s De natura deorum rather than merely pillaging the statesman’s dialogue for polemic material. This deep dive into the Divine Institutes moves through many of Lactantius’s well-studied rhetorical devices, such as appeals to Euhemerism and the relative antiquity of Christianity (after all, Lactantius argues, Adam must predate the gods). Observations are scattered throughout; the most interesting concerns Lactantius’s famous appeal to toleration at Div. Inst. 5.19, in which the Christian philosopher writes:

Religion is to be defended not by killing but by dying, not by savagery but by endurance, not by wickedness but by fidelity.…For if you wish to defend religion by blood, by torments, by evil, it will not be defended, but polluted and violated. There is nothing so voluntary as religion, in which, if the mind of the sacrificer is averse, it is already removed, it is already nothing.

Gassman argues that Lactantius’s vision was a narrow one, not a broad plea for toleration: “The end to which Lactantius is looking is neither a pluralist consensus nor imperial support for Christianity against paganism. It is divine vindication of the persecuted” (42). Most importantly for Gassman’s broader narrative is that Lactantius frames Christianity and its virtues firmly within the terms established by Roman pagan authors. Pagans have set the terms of the debate—for now.

The beginnings of a transformation are manifest in the second chapter, “On the Error of Profane Religions: Emperors and Traditional Religion after Constantine.” Gassman here examines another text by a Christian written in answer to pagans, Firmicus Maternus’s De errore profanarum religionum. But this text has one crucial difference from the Divine Institutes: it was composed under Christian emperors, not under the tetrarchy. It is once again stimulating to find Gassman take a text like De errore seriously. Where previous scholars have seen a “Christian ayatollah” (Paschoud, cited on 58) or an embarrassed ex-pagan fervently trying to cover up his past embrace of astrology, Gassman sees a devout, baptized Christian entering the lists with paganism as a religious system. Having just discussed Lactantius, he also finds fruitful material for comparison, and the differences are predictably stark. While Lactantius embraced the pagan framework established by Cicero as a way to prove that Christianity was a more logical and moral religious system than paganism, Firmicus focuses instead on cultic practices; whereas Lactantius offers a competing history in which Christianity predates paganism and is therefore more “true,” Firmicus argues that Christianity is a morally superior system that is more “true” because paganism is a deceit created by the devil. In short, Lactantius engaged paganism on its own terms; Firmicus engages it on Christian terms. Nevertheless, like Lactantius, Firmicus makes even this argument on the terms set by his opponents: “Firmicus accepts the premise, vital to pagan philosophical allegoresis, that the cults and myths of traditional religions really are intended to instruct their adherents” (65).

We skip ahead a few decades in Chapter Three, which begins with the Christian author known only as Ambrosiaster and the development of the term paganitas before discussing a variety of inscriptions listing pagan priesthoods. As a result, the chapter feels more disjointed than the previous two. The purpose of this chapter demands the structure, though, as it seeks to demonstrate that while the religious application of the Latin term paganus might be a Christian invention, the idea that the wide varieties of pagan gods might be considered facets of a single divinity, and be worshiped as such, was concurrently developed by pagans (see especially 106). The most interesting discussion in this chapter concerns the fourth-century inscriptions listing an individual’s cursus of pagan priesthoods (and, notably, including both publica and privata sacra) but omitting any civic offices. Gassman presents these as evidence that pagans not only conceived of their religious activities as belonging to a single belief system, one that included both public/civic and private cultic activities, but that they took these religious duties seriously. As he sums up, with reference to Firmicus, Ambrosiaster, and these inscriptions, “The senators’ inscriptions and the polemicists’ anti-‘pagan’ works adopt a basically parallel approach to traditional religion, combining interest in numerous cults of diverse social and geographic origins with a belief that all polytheistic cults ultimately lead to the same spiritual reality” (94). Paganism is not, then, just a Christian invention.

Chapter Four re-examines the Altar of Victory controversy, in which the Roman senator Symmachus attempted in 384 to convince Valentinian II to restore the Altar of Victory (which had been removed by Gratian in 382) to the Senate over the objections of the Christian bishop Ambrose of Milan. This is academically well-trodden ground, but Gassman finds new life in it by treating the relevant texts as guides to how paganism and Christianity could even be conceived. Gassman’s Symmachus plays on old-fashioned notions of religio as a public, civic duty; Ambrose, by contrast, appeals to Valentinian’s sense of personal devotion, marking a new change in how Christians imagined religio related to the public sphere. We have come a long way in a few short decades, from the time when Lactantius and Firmicus argued in favor of Christianity by virtue of it being more “traditional” than traditional religio. Gassman’s greatest contribution here is in his analysis of Symmachus’s account of the affair in his third Relatio. While scholars have long questioned Ambrose’s account(s), Symmachus has (until now) emerged relatively unscathed: as Gassman notes, Symmachus is often taken as a spokesman for toleration in an increasingly intolerant Christian age. But Gassman is surely correct when he observes (125) that Symmachus’s famous plea—“What difference does it make by what wisdom each person seeks the truth? It is not by one route alone that one can arrive at so great a secret”—was an attempt to restore a status quo which favored pagans, not to establish equality between pagans and Christians, even if it was couched in the language of tolerance. The historiographer may find a reflection of the dismal media landscape of the twenty-first century lurking behind narratives like this—but after all, as Gassman shows, fourth-century religious discourse was a product of its times, too.

The fifth and final chapter, “Commemorating Vettius Agorius Praetextatus: Senators and Traditional Religion in 380s Rome,” is in many ways the most successful. While the death of Praetextatus has, naturally, been discussed elsewhere, this chapter takes a fresh and fruitful approach by comparing the diverging reactions to the event on the part of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus and other members of the Senate (Relationes 10–12), the Vestal Virgins (Symmachus, Ep. 2.36), Praetextatus’s wife Paulina (CIL VI 1779), and the Christian scholar Jerome (Ep. 23). In surveying these varying responses, we find a “complicated tangle of competing religious visions and political strategies, in which the shared values and pursuits of the senatorial aristocracy divided as much as they united their proponents” (166). Paganism, then, was not only a religious system, it also had the tensions and internal conflicts inherent in religious systems.

We are thus led directly into the general conclusion of the book: things were complicated. As Gassman writes, “This diversity precludes a single grand narrative of pagan evolution, decline, or resistance, or even of the formation of a new, universally accepted vocabulary and concept of ‘paganism’ or of ‘religion’” (169). To some this may sound unsatisfactory, but Gassman has attempted to draw an honest picture, not a simple one. Christian attitudes toward paganism in the fourth century were bound by some of the central tenets of Christianity, and consequently fell within a defined spectrum—but they also developed from engagement with pagans. Critically, pagan attitudes toward paganism likewise varied but fell within a defined spectrum in which we can, then, identify a “paganism”—and by the end of the fourth century, this spectrum had also developed in part from engagement with Christians.

The book begins with an anecdote set in North Africa, and here in the conclusion we at last once again encounter the figure that looms over all these discussions: Augustine. His massive and influential De civitate Dei is, in many ways, the culmination of the many threads that Gassman has followed throughout the book. While I am loathe to encourage more work on Augustine, who has never in over 1,500 years lacked for readers and commentators, I would have welcomed a more thorough discussion of late antiquity’s most substantial summa theologiae. Still, the brief note makes for a nice summation of the book’s argument and as an indication of what future research might reveal.

One of the book’s great strengths is its success as an adaptation of a dissertation. Digressions that would have bogged down a book are relegated to thankfully terse footnotes. While the book presents five case studies, they are not treated as five discrete articles strung together thematically but as a unitary whole. Gassman should also be praised for regularly taking his sources more seriously than is sometimes fashionable among historians. When Lactantius writes about a “golden age,” Gassman takes him (37–39) to mean some past golden age, explicitly rejecting the common interpretation that this is just a “clever” way for Lactantius to write about the tetrarchy. When Paulina places Praetextatus’s religious offices before his civic ones on his funerary altar, Gassman takes this (156) quite naturally as a sign that Praetextatus’s priesthoods were for Paulina a more important marker of his character than his civic offices. Yet despite taking his sources so sincerely (or because he does), Gassman routinely finds new and interesting ways to interpret them.

The West and in particular the city of Rome are privileged, as are Latin sources. Gassman makes this limitation explicit and justifies it by correctly pointing out that a full survey of all polytheistic belief throughout the Roman Empire would be both impossibly unwieldy and, given the limitations of our sources, impossible (14). Similar studies on other parts of the Empire, then, would be welcome indeed. One wonders, for example, how the concept of “paganism” developed in the other great intellectual centers of late antiquity, Alexandria and Antioch, where we do have a similar surfeit of literary and epigraphic material from which to draw. Graduate students in search of dissertation topics might take note.

Some omitted elements are a little more surprising. The influence of Julian is dismissed almost entirely on the grounds that “his Platonist philosophy and pro-pagan legislation exercised little influence on contemporary Western writers” (16). But one wonders about his place as a lingering nightmare at the edges of late antique Christian thought. Even if Julian himself was ineffective in achieving his goals, did the specter of an emperor “given over to the oracles of those gods” (Aug. De civ. Dei 4.29: deorum illorum oraculis deditus) in any way influence Christian discourse on paganism? Heresy and Judaism are also passed over, despite a very long history of Christians defining themselves and the “worship of the true” partly in response to the definitions proffered by Jews and other Christians. These omissions are not as clearly explained as the book’s centering of the Latin West is.

Even so, Gassman’s insistence on complexity rings true. Despite their rhetorical similarities, Christians and pagans were operating from different base assumptions: “Polemic sharpened and clarified the distinctions that already obtained between the worshippers of Christ and the worshippers of the gods,” Gassman writes, “It did not create them from nothing” (172). If we are looking for an overarching narrative, then, we must turn to the shifting ways the discourse between Christians and pagans itself was framed. Although Christian responses to paganism were in their incipient forms derived in dialogue with pagan philosophy and ritual, as Christians gradually achieved political power, they were able to transform the sense of “what was possible” among pagans and Christians alike. Just as Lactantius could not conceive of a Christian empire in the early fourth century, Symmachus could not conceive of a pagan empire in the late fourth century. He was left humbly petitioning Christian emperors so that just a few traditional pagan elements might be left to the city of Rome—and did not even get that. This stunning reversal, a shift that occurred in less than a century’s time, is well served by this volume, rich in scholarship, which is sure to find a place on the shelf of any scholar of paganism and Christianity in late antiquity.

Table of Contents

Introduction (1-18)
1. ‘Like a Stream of Tullian Eloquence’: Lactantius, Cicero, and the Critique of Roman Religion in the Divine Institutes (19–47)
2. On the Error of Profane Religions: Emperors and Traditional Religion after Constantine (48–75)
3. ‘The Manifold Divinity of the Gods’: ‘Paganism’ in Fourth-Century Rome (76–106)
4. Rome, Religion, and Christian Emperors: Rethinking the Altar of Victory Affair (107–39)
5. Commemorating Vettius Agorius Praetextatus: Senators and Traditional Religion in 380s Rome (140–67)
Conclusions (168–77)


1. There is a clear line in your study from the rhetoric of Lactantius to that of Ambrose, and another clear line among pagans from the tetrarchs to Symmachus and the reactions to Praetextatus’s death. Are there any instances where these two strands seem to meet one another? Was there any middle ground?

The two lines of rhetoric reflect fundamental differences—evident also in Greek religious controversy, as Guy Stroumsa has shown in the case of Origen’s Contra Celsum and Celsus’s Alethes Logos—between Christian, inwardly focused and traditional, publicly focused approaches to religion. Public cult is by no means the whole of traditional religiosity, and many pagans did engage in theological speculation or seek to experience the divine. That said, I know of nothing outside Christianity and Judaism like the biblical demand for obedience to this God and worship of him alone, of which Lactantius and Ambrose are so conscious. There was, however, certainly a middle ground, in the sense that many people embraced Christianity but thought the worship of many gods was valid or even necessary (and indeed it is against such opinions that Ambrose is anxious to guard). Some who did not adopt Christianity also seem to have admired its worship of one God. An example of the latter is Augustine’s correspondent, Nectarius of Calama (Epistle 103).

2. Your case studies are very focused despite the broad scope of the questions you ask. Are there any texts or bodies of evidence that you wanted to discuss more in this study but could not, for one reason or another?

The main one is Augustine, on whom I am writing a rather longer book right now (so he would have been quite a bit too much to fit into this one, despite initial plans to do so!). I think the Platonist commentator Calcidius, who is now experiencing something of a renaissance, could have provided an interesting comparison for some of the authors I studied. There might, likewise, have been a place for reflecting more broadly on texts that try to locate “paganism” within a wider network of religious “sects” or “heresies”; here, one could have expanded on the brief treatment of Ambrosiaster by considering his contemporaries, the catholic bishop Filastrius of Brescia and the Manichaean bishop Faustus of Milevis, famous as Augustine’s associate from Confessions 5 but also author of an anti-catholic handbook refuted in the gigantic Contra Faustum. Within the themes of this book, I think those three would have made for the most fruitful discussion, especially in selective comparison with the Greek heresiologist Epiphanius.

3. Your book focuses on Latin sources and largely on the city of Rome. I know this is asking you to speculate some, but to what extent do you think the developments you identify in Rome reflect developments in the empire at large, and to what extent might Rome be exceptional?

That’s a big question, and can be answered both on narrow and on large scales. To pick one famous issue: the drive toward religious eclecticism and theological speculation that we see in the Roman inscriptions does reflect wider cultural currents, which surface in more developed form in Platonists such as Iamblichus, the emperor Julian, and Proclus. It’s simply hard to say how deeply someone like Praetextatus was influenced by their works or by direct contact with committed Neoplatonists. Were the Roman senators reading Porphyry or Iamblichus? Some were likely reading the former, whether in Greek (as Firmicus Maternus did) or in the Latin translation by Marius Victorinus. Were they thoroughgoing Platonists, however, or inspired in any way by Julian? To assert either hypothesis goes far beyond our evidence.

On the wider scale, the political and social changes happening at Rome are also paralleled elsewhere, but not in exact synchrony—a point made by Ambrose, in fact, and (revealingly) by the Antiochene pagan Libanius in his famous Oratio 30 Pro templis. It is striking, however, that we can find a definite delay in anti-pagan moves, relative to those at Rome, in North Africa, a region close to Rome in both cultural and human terms. As late as June 401 (the probable date of Sermo 24), Augustine’s audience at Carthage can take Rome as a model for Christianization—and imply that idols, officially demolished in March 399 (as City of God 18.54 reports), were still standing. That suggests that Rome, if it really was exceptional, had ceased to be so, even in those parts of the empire over which it was most culturally dominant.

I thank you for your responses, and I am delighted to hear that your work will continue with Augustine. I imagine including him in this book would have made it considerably longer indeed! But a reexamination of Augustine in general and the City of God in particular in light of your work in this book is the next logical place to go, and I very much look forward to seeing it.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s