- The Final Pagan Generation by Edward J. Watts
While much scholarship has been devoted to the Christianization of Rome in the fourth century ce, the lives and experiences of those who were not swept up in religious changes are often overlooked. Watts seeks to correct this imbalance with The Final Pagan Generation. A natural development from his previous work on social interaction in the Roman academy and the roots of religious dissent which culminated in riots in fifth century Alexandria, The Final Pagan Generation captures the religious timbre of the late Roman Empire, filtering historical and religious change through the eyes of those born in the early fourth century, when Roman institutions seemed unshakeable and Christianity was a marginal force in Roman life. Watts problematizes the view that the triumph of Christianity was inevitable, arguing instead that the changes of the fourth century, although writ large in hindsight, were incomprehensible to those living through them. Instead, he suggests a generational divide existed which isolated the final pagan generation from a younger cohort which sought new social and religious possibilities in a changing empire.
The Final Pagan Generation investigates these changes through the case studies of four Roman elites: Libanius, a pagan rhetorician; Themistius, a pagan political advisor and philosopher; Ausonius, a Christian rhetorician; and Praetextatus, a Roman official and high-ranking pagan. Their lives are contextualized within the wider historical and social landscape of [End Page 296] the Roman Empire. Watts chronologically surveys a period beginning around 310 ce, when these men were born, and ending in 394 ce, a time when the final pagan generation passed away literally and metaphorically, making way for the younger Christian generation and new Christian institutions. Watts builds his case through literary evidence such as letters, orations, poems, and contemporary historical accounts. What emerges is a vivid account of the final pagan generation and a detailed view of their social and professional environment.
The first three chapters consider the early world of the final pagan generation, one which “contained a vast sacred infrastructure that had been built up over the past three millennia” (35). It was a place where pagan religion dominated the landscape through architecture, festivals, familial observances, and educational texts, all of which normalized traditional Roman theology and rituals. The ubiquity of Roman religion created an environment where a world without paganism was difficult, if not impossible, to imagine, and the final pagan generation was oblivious to the fact that they were coming of age in a changing empire. The conversion of Constantine and his subsequent religious policies were obscured by the public endurance of the pagan gods and private obligations of academic life, where pagan teachings prevailed and social bonds mattered more than religious identity (40–57). Watts argues in chapter three that the final pagan generation entered a public life where Roman structures, already long in existence, persisted as these men began their careers. These elite systems of success demanded a complex balance between social favours and professional advancement, and lucrative careers were based on judicious social negotiations, one’s social status, and well-placed acquaintances (70–79). The system these men entered in their early careers would have been relatively untouched by imperial religious changes, and political stability further created the illusion of continuity for the final pagan generation (59–65).
Chapters four, five, and six follow the final pagan generation as they negotiated careers amidst rapid change. The death of Constantine was followed by civil unrest and administrative uncertainty. As imperial instability reverberated through the professional ranks, the final pagan generation tempered their ambitions with calculated measures which preserved their positions in the face of religious and administrative change. After Constantius II successfully managed civil disputes and decisively handled threats to his rule from the formidable, yet religiously moderate, Magnentius, he initiated a number of intemperate laws in 355 which curtailed pagan practices and strengthened Christianity. Roman elites, cowed by the threat of professional reprimand, were content to play the system they believed they knew so well and offered no significant resistance to these changes (86...