Monday, August 25, 2014

"Inexhaustible Source": Reflections on Vergil and Augustine

[Another golden oldie. This one was originally posted waaaaay back when, on April 5, 2009.] 


Contra Paganos

In the year 413, Anno Deceptoris, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and Doctor of the Church, began writing his magnum opus, "City of God, Against the Pagans." The main catalyst that impelled Augustine in this undertaking was that, for the first time in almost 800 years, the city of Rome had been entered by an invading force. The sacking of Rome in 410 by the Visigoths under the command of Alaric (who was himself a Christian, albeit a heretic in the eyes of the Church) had sent shockwaves through the (only recently) Christianized Roman world. Jerome had summed up how many felt: "If Rome can perish, what can be safe?"

A century earlier (in 312) Constantine (at the time not yet sole Emperor, but already ruler of half the Empire) had had his famous vision of the cross, marking the beginning of what would come to be known as the "triumph" of Christianity, a pleasant sounding euphemism for the forceful imposition of one single monolithic ideology on about one fourth of the earth's population, while simultaneously destroying (systematically and intentionally) a significant portion of the cultural heritage of humanity. From Constantine to Augustine, each passing generation had witnessed a relentless ratcheting up of the pressure on all those who dared to cling stubbornly to the old ways and the old Gods.

In 381 the Emperor Theodosius had removed any lingering fig leaf of tolerance and declared the practice of all religions other than Nicene Christianity punishable by death (although this proved far easier to decree than to enforce). Ten years after Theodosius' edict, the temple honoring Isis and Serapis in Alexandria, including the famed statue of Serapis (nearly 700 years old), was reduced to rubble by a Christian mob--a fate that had already befallen most of the other major sacred sites of the ancient oikoumene (the "known world"). And as the destruction of the Serapaeum illustrated, it was not only legal penalties (up to capital punishment, but also including fines, imprisonment and torture), but also vicious mob violence, usually incited and led by Christian monks, that incentivized conversions to the new religion of the "creed making fishermen", as one notable fourth century Pagan critic labeled the Christians.

Augustine was writing his anti-Pagan polemic, De Civitate Dei Contra Paganos, over thirty years after Theodosius had outlawed Paganism. So, apparently, or at least in Augustine's mind, Christianity's "triumph" over Paganism was still in some doubt. But perhaps Augustine was merely kicking those who were already down and defeated, if only to ensure they stayed that way? To what extent did Pagans continue to pose a substantial threat in reality (that is, not just in Augustine's literary imagination)?

Peter Brown, Augustine's most notable modern biographer, had this to say about the potential lingering danger to Christianity still posed by just a single Pagan book, Vergil's Aeneid:
"The Christian Emperors had abandoned the title of Pontifex Maximus, but Vergil might still replace them in performing this office for [Pagan] religious readers. From being a school text-book, Vergil could become, like the Bible, an inexhaustible source of precise religious information."
What basis is there for the fear that Brown ascribes to Augustine as the motivation for bothering to write a book "Against the Pagans"? Well, after all (and as Brown rightly points out) the Bible itself is just a book, and anyone who wished to suppress Christianity would certainly see the Bible as a potential source of problems in that regard.

Pagans versus Christians

Lets take a moment to look more closely, if only briefly, at the situation, with respect to Pagans and Christians, in the Roman Empire in 413. Just eight years earlier, in 405, a high ranking political official named Stilicho (who was also a celebrated general) had ordered the destruction of the Sibylline books, ancient and revered Pagan oracles which had played a central role in the religion, and the history, of the Roman people since the 5th century BC. Just a little over a year later, on December 31, 406, a mixed group of Vandals, Alans, and Seubi crossed the Rhine river, thereby virtually erasing (forever, as it turns out) the boundary separating the Empire from the "barbarians". Numerous Roman cities were attacked by these invaders, and in addition there now occurred a wave of unrest within the Roman army itself, including mutinies in which senior officers lost their lives at the hands of the soldiers they commanded.

This also coincided with an intensification of the ever-present internecine political intrigues and subversive plotting (both real and imagined) among officials at all levels of the Roman state. Like all powerful men, Stilicho had acquired powerful enemies, and in 408 those enemies (fellow high ranking Romans) managed to have Stilicho arrested and lost no time in putting him to death, and soon thereafter his son Eucherios was also murdered. More executions followed and a general state of chaos, confusion and panic was taking hold throughout the Western Empire, including Italy itself.

After the execution of Stilicho, the Visigoth leader, Alaric, began planning another attack on the city of Rome. For it had been Stilicho who had defeated Alaric's previous assault on Rome, and, in fact, destroying the sacred Sibbyline books had been part of how Stilicho had chosen to commemorate his victory over Alaric and the Visigoths (when Stilicho returned triumphantly to Rome in 405 he accused the remaining Pagan holdouts in the city of using prophecies taken from the Sibylline books to attack the Christian government, and so had the books seized and burned). Alaric, himself a Christian, probably did not care (or possibly even know) about the fate of the sacred Pagan texts, but he certainly knew of and cared a great deal about the death of his nemesis Stilicho, especially since it coincided with a disastrously low ebb in both the political and military cohesion of the Western part of the Roman state. This string of catastrophes culminated in 410 when the city of Rome was entered by a foreign invading force, Alaric's Visigoths, for the first time since the sack of Rome by the Celts in 387 BC.

Diehard Pagan Resistance to Christianization

Despite persecution, the "ancestral traditions, coeval with time" had remained stubbornly entrenched in the hearts of many of the inhabitants of the city built on seven hills. And now the Roman Pagans voiced their bitter satisfaction over the disaster that had befallen them, blaming this on the Christians. The sack of Rome was proof, if any was needed, that it had been a grave mistake to abandon the Old Gods, to destroy the sacred sites and sacred texts (like the Sibylline books), and to punish and even murder pious Pagans, including Priests and Priestesses.

Well before Alaric's sack of Rome, a resurgence of Paganism had already been underway during the second half of the fourth century. In 360, during the brief (less than two year) reign of the Pagan Emperor Julian ("the Apostate"), there was, for example, "a resurgence of [Pagan] temple building in the rural areas" of far away Roman Britain, according to Dorothy Watts in her "Christians and Pagans in Roman Britain" [p.140]. Watts also notes that "the demise of some presumed [Christian] churches coincide with this revival of Paganism." Theodosius' edict of 381 can also be seen as rather strong evidence that such a revival of Paganism was quite real and widespread.

At the opposite end of the Empire from Britain, and nearly thirty years after Julian's death, when the Temple of Serapis and Isis in Alexandria was destroyed in 391, the Christian mob had to first fight their way through Pagans who had gathered to defend that holy place. And in 394 Pagans attempted a revolt against the Emperor Theodosius. This revolt, under the leadership of Eugenius and Arbogast, enjoyed support among the remaining Pagans in the Roman Senate. Like all revolutions, this one was far from "pure" in its alliances and motivations, and there was certainly as much politics to it as religion, if not more (although to a very great extent the two cannot be separated), nevertheless it amounted to an all-out Pagan revolt against the Christian Emperor, albeit an unsuccessful one.

The defeat of Arbogast and Eugenius was felt as a body blow to those who had continued to hope for a frontal assault on Christendom by Pagan die-hards. And yet the struggle was far from over. And so, when the Christian God was unable to defend the city of Rome against invaders who were themselves Christians, there were still plenty of Pagans around to take cold comfort from that catastrophe.

Many, both Christians and Pagans, fled Rome in 410, and many of them ended up in the cities of North Africa, where Augustine lived. Peter Brown describes the Christians who "flocked" to North Africa in 410 as "uncertain of themselves." According to Brown these same Christians had only recently "boasted of a 'Christian era'", but now "found themselves unpopular" because of the "unparalleled disasters" that had befallen the Christian Empire.

Religious tensions were already very high in North Africa. For years the fanatic Christian Bishops had been orchestrating a reign of terror against Pagan hold-outs, using both legal and extra-legal means without restraint. Peter Brown describes the super-critical situation in North Africa in 410 in these words: "For over a decade, the Bishops in Africa had provoked the destruction of the old ways. Public Paganism had been suppressed: the great temples were closed; the statues broken up, often by Christian mobs; the proud inscriptions ... used to pave public highways."

In one incident a group of Pagans had managed to gain the upper hand and nearly killed a Christian official who was trying to break up a public procession in honor of an ancient Pagan festival in the town of Calama in 408. Afterward these local Pagans feared for their lives as the Christians debated what manner of collective punishment to mete out against them. Augustine himself was dragged into the conflict over how best to teach a lesson to the unruly Pagans of Calama. In the end there is no record of executions in the wake of the Calama "riot", but ruinous fines were imposed on local Pagans, and temples, statues and other Pagan holy objects that had survived up to then were ruthlessly destroyed.

When things went from bad to worse in 410 with the sack of Rome and then the stream of refugees (a mixture of newly disheartened Christians and long embittered Pagans) into Africa, Augustine roused himself to action. He was in his late 50's and in ill health. But he was increasingly fearful that, far from being merely inconsequential dead-enders, the remaining highly educated Pagans constituted "a wide intelligentsia, spreading throughout all the provinces of the West." And far from being just a bunch of irrationally stubborn troublemakers, this Pagan intelligentsia was comprised of "deeply religious" men and women committed to "the preservation of a whole way of life", despite the fact that their way of life had long ago been officially abolished.

"The great Platonists of their age, Plotinus and Porphyry," Peter Brown tells us, painting a vivid picture of the mental universe of these deeply religious and just as deeply rational Pagan intellectuals of the early fifth century, "could provide them with a profoundly religious view of the world that grew naturally out of an immemorial tradition. The claims of the Christians, by contrast, lacked intellectual foundation. For such a man ... to accept the Incarnation [of Jesus] would be like a modern European denying the evolution of the species; he would have had to abandon not only the most advanced rationally based knowledge available to him, but, by implication, the whole culture permeated by such achievements."

At first Augustine limited himself to writing letters, giving sermons, and even engaging directly with Pagan intellectuals. But he had already established his reputation as the great intellectual of Western (that is, Latin-speaking, as opposed to Greek speaking) Christendom. And as fears mounted that Paganism might yet rise from it's own ashes, Augustine was implored to go further, much further, and to accomplish nothing less that a "final exorcism of the Pagan past." [p.310] The result took him almost 20 years to complete, and even the author could not restrain himself from calling it "a giant of a book". Apparently he did not realize that he thus cast Christianity as Goliath, and Paganism as David.

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