There was nothing inevitable about the triumph of Christianity. The short reign of Julian ‘the Apostate’ in AD359-63 may have been ended by his assassination in the midst of battle at the hands of Christians, as they later claimed. Had he lived, paganism, then known as Hellenism, might have survived better. Julian wanted religious freedom and stopped using taxpayers’ money to build Christian churches.
A later and neglected emperor also proposed religious freedom. He was Eugenius, who is called a usurper in Roman histories. However, he was appointed perfectly regularly by the Roman Senate as Western Emperor from 22 August 392 to 6 September 394, when he was murdered after losing the Battle of the River Frigidus to Theodosius.
Although he was himself a Christian, Eugenius recognised the traditional Roman beliefs and rededicated the Temple of Venus and Rome, restored the Altar of Victory within the Curia (the Senate building, still standing and now a church), a source of contention and held by many pagans to be a deliberate provocation. The arrival of Eugenius at the imperial palace in Milan caused St Ambrose to leave his see. Eugenius also fired most of the senior imperial officers including the praetorian prefect of Italy and the urban prefect of Rome. Although he relied on the Frankish army commander Arbogast, he was not ruled by him (unlike Honorius, utterly dependent on Stilicho from AD395 to 407). This picture of him used for his coins shows him bearded, like Julian, and not shaven like Constantine and the other emperors whom Julian called ‘beard haters’ (they took too much care in their appearance, unlike the Hellenes, according to Julian in his book Misapogon, the Beard Hater).
|Emperor Eugenius, Bearded|
There was therefore a window of opportunity from the reign of Julian to that of Eugenius for the older religion to hold its own. Clearly the religion of the emperor was a crucial factor, as elite Romans could feel the benefits of imperial favour if they accepted certain religious beliefs. Christianity was itself riven by conflict between Catholic and Arian factions, which held rival Church Councils to condemn each other. This reached a head when the Christian philosopher Priscillian was executed by the Western Emperor Maximus in Trier in AD385 on trumped-up charges of sorcery: Christians had begun to murder each other. Even St Ambrose and St Martin of Tours opposed this judicial murder, on the grounds that Christian rulers ought not to execute priests for doctrinal matters.
While the Christians were beginning to slaughter each other, the pagans were holding dinner parties.
A fictionalised account of one of these is the book Saturnalia by Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, probably an African, around AD390. The form of this book owes much to the classical table talk works such as the Symposium of Plato, Table Talk (Ton Hepta Sothon Symposion) of Plutarch and the Attic Nights (Noctes Atticae) of Aulus Gellius. The party was held at the house of Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, who died in AD384. One person’s dinner party is someone else’s conspiracy.
Vettius was a leading figure in the late flowering of paganism in the empire. He was a politician and author, and held numerous priesthoods in the ancient colleges of Roman cults. He had to know Greek because he was a quindecimvir sacri faciundi, one of the fifteen men who were permitted to consult the Sibylline Books at times of national crisis; the books were burnt by Stilicho in 405.
Vettius and his wife Aconia Fabia Paulina lived in middle of Rome in a palace amid huge gardens, the Horti Vettiani, close to the Termini railway station, which was excavated in the late 19th century; this is where they celebrated Saturnalia with Macrobius and friends. In the year of his death, AD384, he was urban prefect and consul-designate for 385. Although his death at the age of 69 was not abnormal, it was very convenient. The actual western consul for 385 was Arcadius, the future emperor, and the eastern consul was Bauto, a powerful Frank, whose daughter he would marry a decade later. Would it be too far-fetched to wonder whether Theodosius tried to cancel the consulship of Vettius and when he refused, had the old man bumped off? 1 January 385 was Arcadius’s eighth birthday, so maybe the consulship was a rather elaborate birthday present?
We do have a quite long dedicatory verse from Paulina, Vettius’s wife:
The splendor of my kinship granted me
no greater gift than this: that I seemed fit
to be your wife. For in my husband’s name,
Agorius, I find my light and grace.
You, created from proud seed, have shone
on fatherland, on senate, and on spouse
with rightness of conduct, of learning, and of mind.
You won the crown of virtue in this way.
Whatever has been penned in either tongue
by sages free to enter heaven’s door
(whether poetry composed in expert lines,
or prose that’s uttered with a looser voice),
you’ve read, and left it better than you found.
But these are little things. You piously
in mind’s most secret parts had hid away
the mysteries you learned of sacred rites.
The many-faceted numen of the gods
you knew to worship; and your faithful spouse
you bound to you as colleague in the rites,
now sharing what you knew of gods and men.
Why speak of earthly powers, public praise,
and joys men seek with sighs? You called
them fleeting, counted them as small,
while you won glory in the priestly garb.
The goodness of your teaching, husband, freed
me from death’s lot; you took me, pure,
to temples, made me servant to the gods,
stood by while I was steeped in mystery.
Devoted consort, you honored me with blood
of bull, baptized me priestess of Cybele
and Attis; readied me for Grecian Ceres’ rites;
and taught me Hecate’s dark secrets three.
On your account, all praise me as devout;
because you spread my name throughout the world,
I, once unknown, am recognized by all.
How could my husband’s spouse not win applause?
Rome’s matrons look to me as paradigm,
and if their sons resemble yours they think
them handsome. Women and men alike
now long to be upon the honor roll
which you, as master, introduced of old.
Now all these things are gone, and I, your wife,
am wasting in my grief. I had been blest
if gods had granted me the sooner grave.
But, husband, even so I’m blest: for yours
I am, and was, and after death will be.
(translation made by Peter Donnelly)
|Statue of a Vestal Virgin, believed a replica|
The cult of Vesta remained important, and Vettius was a priest in that cult and associated with the Vestal Virgins, as was his friend, the author Symmachus. Even Christian emperors like Valentinian I and Gratian respected Vettius and allowed such things as the restoration of the Porticus of the Di Consentes in AD367, the last pagan shrine allowed in Rome; these are the classic ‘twelve Olympians’, the ‘gods we have consented to’, the set brought over from the Greek world in the fourth century BC. It may not be a coincidence that the emperor, Valentinian, was gravely ill that year and made his son Gratian co-Augustus with him in the event of his sudden death. Permission to restore the Porticus may have been conditional on pagans praying for the restored health of the emperor; in any case, it was not a good time to be making enemies.
|Porticus of the Di Consentes, Rome (restored)|
Vettius made an important contribution to order in Rome by settling a vicious papal dispute between a faction loyal to Ursinus and one loyal to Damasus, both of whom were ordained pope late in 366; hundreds on both sides died in major riots. Vettius, urban prefect for 367 ruled in favour of Damasus, who continued as pop until 384. Is it a coincidence that both Vettius and the pope died so closely together? Information on the dispute is found in Ammianus, Jerome and many others; an excellent modern commentary on the incident is by Maijastina Kahlos ‘Vettius Agorius Praetextatus and the Rivalry Between the Bishops in Rome in 366-367’ in Acta Philologica Fennica Vol. XXXI, 1997.
The murderous struggle between Ursinus and Damasus was not one of conflict between Catholics and Arians, but a straight shot for power between nobles for whom the papacy was the supreme prize: the pope couldn’t be fired by anyone, least of all the emperor. According to Jerome, Vettius joked with Damasus ‘Make me bishop of Rome, and I’ll become a Christian’.
Kahlos proposes that Vettius’ ability to solve this dispute was not because as a pagan he was outside of the struggle. However, he had the backing and confidence of the emperor; the previous urban prefect, Viventius, a Pannonian, ran away from the mobs to lie low in the suburbs, but maybe Vettius was made of sterner stuff. Ammianus refers to his virtus and common touch. It does seem, however, that Vettius was allowed to restore the Porticus of the Di Consentes in 367 by a sick emperor and with the connivance of a newly pope as a reward for choosing Damasus over Ursinus.
|Emperor Valentinian II|
The key incident which soured relations between Christians and Hellenes in the late fourth century, and which led to much damage to the empire, was the Altar of Victory Crisis. This was a gold statue placed in the Senate House in 29BC by Augustus to mark the Battle of Actium; it carried an ancient figure of Nike captured in 272BC. Constantius II had it removed in AD357, but it was restored after a couple of years by Julian, then removed again by order of Gratian in 382; after his death in battle in 383, Symmachus and Vettius wrote to Valentinian II in 384 for it to be restored, but this was denied because of the influence of Ambrose of Milan, as was a further petition to Theodosius in 391. Eugenius restored it in 392-4, and it was again removed in 394 or later by Theodosius or Stilicho and is never heard of again. Given the aggressive anti-Hellene attitudes of both men and their bishops, it was probably melted down for its gold and jewels.
|Augustan coin showing gold statue of the Altar of Victory|
After the death of Vettius, the head of the Vestals, Coelia Concordia, raised a statue to him at the Temple of Vesta. She turned out to be the final Chief Vestal, as her beliefs were suppressed in 391 on the orders of Theodosius, occupying Rome after the defeat of Maximus in 388, and the temple and its supporting building were seized in 394 and turned over to house more of Rome’s bloated quasi-military civil service. The fate of the second temple at Alba Longa is unknown.
In turn, Vettius’ widow, Paulina, raised a statue in honour of Coelia Concordia, the base of which has been found in excavations of the couple’s house. Coelia seems to have lived on for many years.
Even amongst the Christian and other non-classical believers in Rome, the idea developed that because Rome had deserted the gods, the gods had deserted Rome. Classical Roman public religion had never been theological, but rather transactional. The Latin tag is Do Ut Des, I (the supplicant) give so that thou (the god) mayst give. Acts of piety included restoring and even building new temples.
This sentiment of desertion led to the revision of history to downplay Rome’s increasing weakness and dependence on peripheral and adversarial people, such as the Goths, Franks, Sarmatians and Arabs, seen in Orosius’ revisionist Septem Historiae Adversus Paganos, issued shortly after that. From the reign of Valens onward, it became necessary for the emperor to be backed by a warlord, who would hold a series of Roman titles and dignities, but who would work outside the traditional Roman systems.
Bauto, mentioned above, is a good example of early success. He was a Frank, and rose to be consul in AD385. His son was Arbogast, the power behind the throne of Valentinian II and Eugenius. Theodosius in AD394 defeated Arbogast, who is believed to have committed suicide shortly after; neither of them was to see Bauto’s daughter Eudoxia marry Theodosius’s son Arcadius in May 395 and become the de factor ruler of the eastern empire and mother to joint rulers Theodosius II and Aelia Pulcheria, his sister. Bauto was a Frank and a Catholic, which contradicts the idea that the Franks were all pagans.
Another powerful figure was Victor, a Romanised Sarmatian. The Sarmatians were an Iranian people living in what is now Ukraine. They alternated between being Roman allies and Roman adversaries, as so many people did, and served as far west as Britain as armoured cavalry, both men and horses wearing chainmail, as can be seen on the Arch of Trajan in this picture.
|Sarmatians in Chainmail, Arch of Titus|
Victor served Rome loyally and rose to become Consul in AD369. He married the daughter of Arab queen Mavia (Mawiyaa), someone who deserves to be better known. Her story is quite similar to that of the famous Zenobia of Palmyra a century earlier in that she took over in AD375 from her husband Al-Hawari as ruler of the Tanukh, an Arab people who had come to dominate Syria and Palestine.
The Tanukh were strongly Christian and looked to Constantinople to provide them with bishops. However Valens, with his usual ability to make the wrong decision, was an Arian and they were Catholics, and he sent them an Arian bishop, whom they rejected. Mavia met a monk called Moses, whom she raised to be the bishop, probably of Aleppo. Commanding her own armies, she swept across Roman Arabia, Syria, Palestine and threatened Egypt, easily beating the Romans.
The Romans had to sue for peace, which she accepted on her own terms: formal recognition of Moses as a Catholic bishop. She then married her daughter Chasidat to the imperial commander Victor. Tanukh cavalry forces then supported Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in AD378, which of course the Romans and Arabs together lost to the Visigoths. Sidelined by the new emperor, Theodosius, the Tanukh eventually rebelled again in AD383; Mavia outlived them all, dying in Anasartha (Khanasir) a town east of Aleppo in AD425, having ruled her tribal alliance for fifty years.
Victor was powerful enough within the eastern empire to confront his emperor, Valens, about the latter’s Arianism and antagonism of the Goths. He tried in vain to have Valens wait until western imperial forces could arrive at Adrianople, but was ignored, and tried to rescue Valens from the field of battle and successfully enabled his own troops to emerge unscathed. He seems also to have died in AD383.
We seem to be finding a lot of people dying in 383-4 and again in 393-4. All of them seem to be connected with the Arian-Catholic and Catholic-Hellene disputes, added to which seem to be the malign influence of the emperor Theodosius I, adding imperial politics to Christian hatred to ignite fear and hatred of Hellenes.
|Emperor Theodosius I, Unbearded|
In the late fourth century, we have a curious mix where orthodox Catholic Christian barbarians – Franks, Arabs and Sarmatians from the Ukraine – were trying to correct doctrinal disputes between heterodox Christian emperors, while wise and educated followers of traditional Roman religion were brokering peace between Christian mobs and were rewarded with the right to co-exist. It is possible to see that that they might have survived and through their wisdom prevented the terminal stage of the western empire from happening.