- The Last Pagans of Rome by Alan Cameron
As Alan Cameron reminds us in the acknowledgments, The Last Pagans of Rome is the result of more than forty years of scholarly work on the so-called “pagan reaction” in late fourth-century Rome. In the course of the book’s nearly 900 pages he seeks to demonstrate that “there was no pagan revival in the West, no pagan party, no pagan literary circles, no pagan patronage of the classics, no pagan propaganda in art or literature, no pagans editing classical texts, above all, no last pagan stand” (801).
The most valuable parts of the book are the chapters in which Cameron reviews the literary texts of the period, particularly chapters 10 to 14. These deal with the role that is traditionally thought to have been played by Roman aristocrats in preserving and promoting classical literature. Here the literary scholar is at his best, showing, for instance, that there was a revival of the Silver Age writers (Lucan, Statius, Juvenal, to mention only the most prominent), and that this reflected a general change of taste (ch.11). The pièce de résistance are the two chapters on subscriptions, where Cameron corrects a number of misapprehensions: subscriptions do not imply editorial work, but only the checking of the copy against the exemplar; they appear on the manuscripts of Christian as well as pagan texts; subscribers themselves were both pagan and Christian. Notation of the name and rank of subscribers is a new practice in the fourth century, but it remains the exception and—beyond being, in most cases, a “signature” of ownership—it attests to the scarcity of trained correctors (chs. 12 and 13).
As is inevitable for a program of such scope, some sections do not offer so full a discussion as might, ideally, render their arguments more convincing. I will mention only the treatment of Rutilius Namatianus (207–18) who, I agree, is too quickly described as “incontestably” pagan by his most recent editors (É. Wolff, S. Lancel, and J. Soler, eds. Sur son retour [Paris 2007]). The discussion, however, should have addressed, among others. S. Ratti’s paper on Rutilius’ anti-Christian convictions (“Rutilius Namatianus, Aelius Aristide et les chrétiens,” Antiquité tardive 14  235–244).
More importantly, Cameron seems to have been, to some degree, captured by the very thesis he strives to refute. In chapter 2, he offers a revised narrative of imperial religious policies between Constantine and Theodosius and, following other scholars, he urges us to relinquish the view that Gratian’s measures in 382 and Theodosius’ laws in 391–392 were pivotal moments in the relationship between pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire. At the same time, however, he represents the laws of 382 or 391 in precisely such a way in a number of places. For instance, 382 is defended as the dramatic date of the Saturnalia on the basis of a very traditional understanding of the significance of Gratian’s measures (ch.7).
Finally, the very quantity and nature of material gathered calls for a more extensive paradigm shift than that which Cameron proposes. The division between pagans and Christians is clearly too simple, as he suggests (176), but to posit “five overlapping categories” as a substitute is not a solution. In essence, Cameron proposes but a more nuanced version of the old paradigm: at the two extremes, committed pagans and committed Christians; then, center-pagans on one side and center-Christians on the other; in the middle, a large group of people that “resisted straightforward classification” (176–77). There is first a problem with classificatory systems of this type, as the categories they invoke [End Page 297] tend to be confused with groups (see R. Brubaker, Ethnicity without Group, [Cambridge, Mass. 2004]). Second, religious affiliation is given a prominence that it precisely does not seem to have had in many contexts.
This said, the book contains a wealth of new material and ideas. In years to come scholars will be profitably engaged in...