[This is the third post in a series on “What is Paganism?“]
This is a bit of a long post. But the overall organization is simple enough: (1) First there’s some background on recent (relatively speaking) academic revisionism concerning classical, late antique and renaissance Paganism. (2) Then I look at Ronald Hutton’s “evidence” for his claim that the Pagans of late antiquity weren’t really Pagans, and I demonstrate (at some length) that the primary sources show the truth to be precisely the opposite of what Hutton asserts.
Why is this important? Because the Pagans in question are definitely (as Hutton himself admits) among the direct ancestors of modern day Paganism. Therefore, if our late antique ancestors were practitioners of the traditional Paganism of their ancestors, then the Paganism of today truly is the Old Religion.
[The beautiful painting to the right is “Diana Hunting” by Guillaume Seignac (1870-1924). The image was taken from mythindex.com]
Previously I looked at the strange idea that no such thing as Paganism ever really existed prior to the advent of Christianity. Now let’s look at the (possibly even stranger) idea that those who most stubbornly, openly, and successfully resisted Christianization … weren’t “really” Pagans!
Starting sometime in the late 1960’s (or possibly even earlier) a small industry arose in Academia comprised of scholars dedicated to building a theological firewall between modern Paganism (including Wicca) and ancient Paganism (comprised of the various religious traditions of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East that existed prior to the historical process of Christianization). Part of the story of this revisionist trend is told very nicely by Charles W. Hedrick, Jr., in hisHistory and Silence: Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity, especially in Chapter 3, Unspeakable Paganism. In that chapter Hedrick first gives a thumbnail sketch of the events leading up to the Pagan revolt of 394, led by Eugenius and Arbogast, which climaxed in the decisive defeat of the Pagan rebels in the Battle of the Frigidus River, and then he looks at the changing ways in which those events have been viewed by modern historians.
Until the late 60’s it was common to speak of a religious conflict between Christians and Pagans during the 380’s and 390’s. But starting with a paper published by Alan Cameron in 1966 (The Date and Identity of Macrobius), the narrative of “Pagans versus Christians” has been criticized by those who claim that rather than a scenario of Pagans confronting and resisting Christianization, in fact any kind of Pagan resistance at that time is actually “conspicuous by its absence.” Morevoer, the Pagan response to Christianization in the late 4th century, according to Cameron, is more aptly described in terms of “apathy” and “complacency”. Hedrick cautiously summarizes his view of things (34 years after the publication of Cameron’s article) like this:
It is difficult to say how influential these arguments [of Cameron’s and others who agree with him] are among specialists in late antiquity. Many scholars, however, continue to treat the 380’s and 390’s as a period of “pagan revolt,” the climax of which is the usurpation of Eugenius in 394. There have been some who would minimize the religious aspect even of this rebellion, but most scholars, even those who follow Cameron’s interpretation, regard it as motivated at least in part by religious sentiment.
Among Pagans today (including many so-called “Pagan scholars”) Alan Cameron is not necessarily a household name. But there is one proponent of this revisionist trend that is well known in Pagandom: Ronald Hutton. Hutton, however, is very much a minor player on the periphery of the real action which, in addition to Cameron, includes a number of other heavy hitters in Classical and Renaissance scholarship such as P.O. Kristeller, Gregory Vlastos, G.W. Bowersock, and Michael Frede, just to give a few of the most prominent names. It is possible to very briefly summarize the respective contributions of those five as follows:
Alan Cameron as described above, has devoted much time and effort to claiming that there was no meaningful Pagan resistance during the late fourth century AD, and that what appears (to some) to be Pagan resistance during that time is, at most, the harmless fantasizing of a few doddering antiquarians.
P.O. Kristeller (as discussed in greater depth here) was committed to convincing people that there were neither Pagans nor Paganism during the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century – instead there were merely variations on and degrees of adherence to Christianity.
Gregory Vlastos (as discussed in greater depth here) pursued an aggressive “divide and conquer” campaign to separate Socrates from Plato, and to separate both of them (and all of their philosophical descendants) from traditional Paganism.
G.W. Bowersock has a special place in his heart for the last Pagan Emperor of Rome, Julian “the Apostate”, whom Bowersock has attempted to portray as a psychologically damaged religious fanatic promoting an aberrant form of “Paganism” that only he believed in.
Michael Frede was one of the original and leading proponents of the “Pagan Monotheism” concept (also see here), which argues that the more philosophically inclined Pagans of late antiquity were practically Christians themselves.
The narrative that these five eminent scholars all tell together can also be easily summarized:
(1) Philosophically minded Pagans, taken as a group, differed fundamentally in their religiosity from other Pagans. (Vlastos, Frede)
(2) In particular, the philosophical Paganism of late antiquity (represented by the likes of Iamblichus, Julian and Proclus) was fundamentally at odds with traditional Paganism, and may have even served to prepare the way, so to speak, for the transition from polytheistic Paganism to monotheistic Christianity by way of the “missing link” of so-called Pagan monotheism. Julian, in particular, was not really a “Pagan” at all, but, rather, was actually a proponent of an “inverted” Christianity. (Frede, Bowersock)
(3) Pagans offered no real resistance to the process of Christianization, in the face of which they were apathetic and complacent. (Cameron, Bowersock)
(4) Later figures, like the Renaissance Platonists such as Marsilio Ficino and the 11th century Byzantine philosophers Psellos and Italos, who were strongly influenced by late antique Paganism, are actually far more closely allied in their beliefs with Christianity than with traditional Paganism, or, put more bluntly, Ficino et al were Christians, not Pagans. (Kristeller)
There are other prominent scholars who have made themselves available to this project, such as Mary Beard, Garth Fowden, Polymnia Athanassiadi, James Hankins, and Avril Cameron. Beard, author of a number of books on ancient Paganism, especially that of the Roman Empire, recently provided us with a fascinating glimpse at her own opinions concerning Pagans old and new. When a group of modern day Hellenes gathered at the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens in the winter of 2007, Beard sneeringly expressed her utter contempt for them in her blog:
One of the good things about working on ancient “pagan” religion is that no one actually believes in it any more …. It’s easy to debate paganism because you’re not always looking over your shoulder at a community of contemporary believers…. Or so I thought. But last week a group of modern Athenians, dressed in ancient Greek costume (so they claimed), descended on the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, prayed to Zeus to bring about world peace and held a ceremony to celebrate the marriage of Zeus and Hera. A few months before they had gained official recognition as a religious organization from the Greek government.
At first sight not good news for me. But on closer inspection I needn’t have worried.It isn’t entirely clear what this group (“Ellenais”) believes; but it is clear that, whatever they say, it bears very little relationship to ancient Greek religion. You can tell that already from the rather charming prayer to Zeus to bring about world peace. From an ancient point of view, whatever myths are peddled about the “Olympic Truce”, there could hardly be a less likely divine candidate for putting a stop to war in the world.So far as I can tell they have rather airy fairy ideas about living in tune with nature under the pagan gods (as well as asking Zeus for peace, they put in an additional pleas for rain) – again not something that bona fide paganism put much stress on.
“Don” Beard forgot herself for a moment there, allowing the scholar’s mask to slip more than a little. Imagine if she had ridiculed modern day Jews for practicing “Judaism without blood” – or if she had gone further and insisted that there are no “real” Jews anymore anywhere, so she can say whatever she wishes to about them? For that matter, if there really were no Pagans anymore, does Beard stop to ponder how that came to be, and whether or not it is appropriate for any person with a conscience to trivialize, let alone express gratitude for, the systematic extirpation of the religious tradition of tens of millions of people?
Does the sidewalk of Pagan history end in late antiquity?
Having worked our way down to Mary Beard, let us continue our descent by focussing on Ronald Hutton. By the late ’90’s, Hutton had attracted a good deal of attention by claiming, loudly, that modern Paganism and ancient Paganism “have nothing in common other than the name.” As was shown above, this attitude was already being aggressively promoted by scholars far more prominent than Hutton. What made Hutton stand out was not what he said, or how he said it, but who was saying it, for Hutton is himself a Pagan, and there he was, critiquing the “traditional” view of modern Pagans: that our religion is “the Old Religion”.
But no sooner had he made a name for himself in this way (not unlike some Pagan version of Alan Keyes) than we were treated to the spectacle of Hutton trying to explain that, well, yes, in fact, during late antiquity there was already a “new kind of ancient Paganism”, and that, well, yes, modern Paganism does, indeed, share a great deal in common with this two millennnia old form of Paganism “other than the name”.
Hutton admitted that we can find, during late antiquity, “certain types of ancient religion” that “closely resemble” modern Paganism, that have “certainly influenced it”, and that even can be shown to possess “certain linear connections with it” [quotes from Witches, Druids and King Arthur p. 87]. But Hutton also insisted that while we can trace modern Paganism back to late antiquity, once we get there we can go no further! In other words, Hutton is peddling a map of Pagan history according to which if you go too far, you fall off the edge. Can Hutton really be unaware of how ridiculous and untenable such a claim is? Where, one wonders, did late antique Paganism come from? Nowhere? The skull (or thigh) of of Zeus? England??? (“Modern Pagan Witchcraft is the only religion which Britain has given to the world.”)
The essential thing is that Hutton (and his kind) can no longer deny that modern Paganism has ancient roots, or at least roots that go back over 18 centuries (as opposed to no further than the 18th century.) Therefore Hutton must, at all costs, come up with something, anything, to the effect that late antique Paganism doesn’t count – that it wasn’t “really” Paganism at all. The solution was to simply move the goalposts back 2000 years:
One conspicuous way in which the new kind of ancient paganism differed from the old was in denying or qualifying polytheism…. In 1999 a group of scholars published a collection of essays to drive home the point that by the late Roman period … a change of emphasis [from polytheism, to qualified polytheism, to Pagan monotheism] was quite widespread, especially among educated people in the Greek speaking east of the empire.
To support this claim they mustered a set of quotations from well-known pagan authors from the second century onward, including Apuleius, Celsus, Aelius Aristides and Maximus of Tyre…. By the late fourth century the last pagan emperor, Julian, could close a letter by speaking repeatedly of ‘God’, as the master, guide and arbiter of the world. The recipient of the letter, the pagan orator Themistius, went on to inform Julian’s Christian successor, Jovian, that the deities of polytheists were really only forms and aspects of the single God whom Christians also worshipped. One of Julian’s friends, the philosopher and politician Salutius [aka Sallustius], declared that the traditional goddesses and gods were as much parts of the single creator god as thoughts of the mind. A generation later, the Roman senator Symmachus spoke for the pagans of his city by echoing both Salustius and Themistius. He added that ‘whatever each person worships, it is reasonable to think of them as one. We see the same stars, the sky is shared by all, the same world surrounds us.’
[Witches, Druids and King Arthur, p. 89]
Hutton has called a number of very distinguished witnesses: Celsus, Aelius Aristides, Maximus of Tyre, the Emperor Julian, Themistius, Sallustius, Symmachus, and some fellow named Apuelius. But having given their coached testimony under Hutton’s highly selective questioning, it’s now time for them to be cross-examined.
As for Celsus (2nd century AD, precise dates unknown), he explicitly rejects the monotheism of both Judaism and Christianity, and minces no words in the process. The following is from his Alethes Logos (often translated as “On the True Doctrine”):
Yet without rational cause the goatherds and shepherds followed Moses, who taught them that there was but one God – deluded, apparently, by his rather naive beliefs – and caused them to forsake their natural inclinations to credit the existence of many Gods. For our part, we acknowledge the many: Mnemosyne, who gave birth to the Muses by Zeus; Themis, Mother of the Hours; and so on. Yet those goatherds and shepherds came to believe in one God and called him the Most High – Adonai, the Heavenly One – or sometimes Sabaoth, or whatsoever – and came to discredit all other Gods….
The Christians ignore the good offices of the Dioscori, of Herakles, Asclepios and of Dionysus, and say that these are not Gods because they were humans in the first place. Yet they profess belief in a phantom god who appeared only to members of his little club, and then, so it seems, merely as a kind of ghost.
[using R. Joseph Hoffmann’s translation/reconstruction]
At the age of 61 Aelius Aristides (AD 117 – 181) became the priest of the God Aesclepius for the city of Smyrna, which is a rather interesting line of work for a “monotheist”. The backstory is that Smyrna was devastated by an earthquake in 178 AD, and Aristides (who was residing in Smyrna at the time) convinced the Emperor Marcus Aurelius to send a substantial amount of aid to the area. The people of Smyrna were so grateful for this successful intervention on their behalf, that they built a statue of Aristides and offered him a wide variety of rewards and honors – all of these he refused, except for the office of priest of Aesclepius.
Aristides was a life-long devotee of Aesclepius as well as a student of rhetoric. Half of the surviving works of Aristides are religious in nature, many of them recounting dreams and visions he had of Aesclepius (many of which came while he was living in the God’s Temple at Pergamon), but also including works on a variety of other Deities as well, including Sarapis, Athena, Zeus and Poseidon.
Here is how Aristides ended his famous Roman Oration, delivered personally before the Emperor Antoninus in 155 AD:
Let us pray that all the Gods and their children grant that this empire and this city flourish forever and never cease until stones float on water and trees cease to put forth shoots in spring, and that the Great Governor [the emperor] and his sons be preserved and obtain blessings for all.
In another oration, Aristides praised the God Sarapis as ‘himself both giver and receiver of donations’ (which closely parallels one of the most famous passages from the Bhagavad Gita, as a matter of fact), and also declares that with this God in particular human beings are able to ‘celebrate in a special way the sacrificial fellowship in the the true sense of the word.’ [Oration 45]
Maximus of Tyre (flourished late 2nd century AD) did, in fact, speak of a supreme God, but the name he gave that God was Zeus, which makes him exactly as monotheistic as Homer and Hesiod. In one of his Philosophical Orations, Maximus approvingly tells us that Socrates revered both Zeus and Apollo, while his accusers only revered Pericles. Elsewhere Maximus states:
[Y]ou will see one according law and assertion in all the earth, that there is one God, the king and father of all things, and many Gods, sons of God, ruling together with him. This the Greek says, and the barbarian says, the inhabitants of the continent, and he who dwells near the sea, the wise and the unwise. And if you proceed as far as the utmost shores of the ocean, there also there are Gods…. I wish I had an oracle from Jupiter or Apollo, and which could answer neither obliquely, nor dubiously; for then I would interrogate the God, not concerning the kettle of Croesus [a reference to a story in the first Book of Herodotus’ Histories] … nor concerning the measures of the sea, or the number of sands …. Nor should I ask, how shall I take Sicily, which I design to invade…. But let the Delphic Apollo clearly answer my inquiries respecting Jupiter, or let Jupiter himself answer for himself, or some interpreter of the Gods from the academy, an attic and prophetic man.
[Dissertation I, quoted from Thomas Taylor’s translation.]
Maximus himself makes a point of telling us in another Dissertation [XXV] that Homer “denominates Jupiter the father of Gods and men.” So at least in his own eyes he is not putting forward any new “monotheistic” view that in any way diverges from Homer, or from Greeks, barbarians, “the inhabitants of the continent, and he who dwells near the sea.”
In his Dissertation On the Daemon of Socrates, Maximus makes clear his respect for and acceptance of that most hoary and traditional of ancient Pagan institutions: the Oracle. He specifically mentions Delphi (the Oracle of Apollo), Threspotia (the so-called Oracle of the Dead), Dodona (an Oracle of Zeus), the Oracle of Ammon in Libya, Claros (another Oracle of Apollo), and others. Not only does Maximus wish to associate Socrates’ famous “sign” (or Daemon) with the phenomenon of ancient Pagan Oracles, he also compares the “sign” to the divine intervention described by Homer in a famous scene from the Iliad, in which Athena pulls back Achilles just as he is about to strike Agamemnon. As part of the conclusion of this Dissertation, Maximus declaims:
Divinity, therefore, being established in his proper region, governs the heavens, and the order which they contain. But there are secondary immortal natures proceeding from him, which are called secondary Gods, arranged in the confines of earth and heaven. These are, indeed, less powerful than divinity, but more powerful than man. They are, also, ministers of the Gods, but the governors of men, and they are very near to the Gods, but the curators of mankind. For the mortal with respect to the immortal would be separated by too great an interval from the survey of celestial beings and association with them. Unless this demoniacal nature, through its alliance to each of these, harmoniously bound human imbecility to divine strength. For as the Barbarians are separated Grecians by the ignorance of language but the race of interpreters, receiving the language of each and associating with both, conjoins and commingles their converse; in like manner it appears to me the race of Daemons must be conceived to be mingled with Gods and men: for it is this race which appears to and converses with men, is rolled in the midst of the mortal nature, and extends from the Gods those things of which mortals must necessarily be in want.
Maximus’ vision of the Cosmos, with the Gods in the heavens above, humanity on the earth below, and intermediary beings able to “mingle” with both, is simply a restatement of what Socrates, according to Plato’s Symposium, claimed to have learned about Eros and the other Daemons from his teacher, Diotima (over five centuries before Maximus was born). Obviously, then, rather than propounding some newfangled late antique monotheizing theology, Maximus’ ideas concerning the divine are very much in line with those of Homer and Plato. [The very nicely tattooed quote from Plato’s Symposium is a detail taken from a pic at Thaozilla’s photostream at flickr.]
Julian (AD 331-363) should certainly count as Hutton’s star witness, for if that greatest of Pagan champions, Julian “the Apostate”, somehow turned out to be a monotheist whose concept of the Divine had more in common with the Bishops of the Church than with the average Pagan peasant, then Hutton would certainly have made his case.
Here is how the Pagan orator Libanius described Julian in his Oration Upon Avenging Julian:
The Gods are concerned about men even when they are dead, and they would wish men still alive to show concern for them, too. Were it not so, they would never have translated those they admired to the Islands of the Blest, nor would they have honored their bones with oracles, as they did with those of Orestes and Theseus. And now, I believe, the Gods in their assemblies have taken note of Julian’s fate and his neglect after death, and they are indignant and call upon each other to avenge him. If Hector deserved to be lamented by Zeus because of his many sacrifices, if Zeus is accused by Athena during the wanderings of Odysseus for neglecting a man who had sacrificed to Him, what were the remarks they made about Julian, do you think, since he in ten years offered more sacrifices than all the rest of the Greeks put together?
He it was who divided up his life into preoccupations for the state and devotion to the altars, associating with Gods in countless initiations, mourning for our desecrated Temples, while ever mourning was all that he could do, but then, when the opportunity came, taking up arms for them. He restored the ruined Temples to their places, and he restored their ritual to them and all others: he brought back, as it were from exile, sacrifice and libation, and renewed the festivals that had fallen into abeyance. He did away with the danger that was attached to the worship of the higher powers, never allowed his intellect to be diverted form consideration of the Gods, dispersed the mist that enveloped so many, and would have done the same for us all, had he not been untimely taken from us.
Zeus is concerned for him, an Emperor for an emperor, as one of his own craft: Athena, Zeus’ daughter, also because of his gifts of intellect: Hermes because of his oratory of every kind: the Muses because of his poetry: Artemis, because of his continence, and Ares because of his valour in war.
And this is from Libanius’ Funeral Oration for Julian:
First of all, as I have said, he restored piety, as it were, from exile. Some Temples he built, others he restored, while he furnished others with statues. People who had built houses for themselves with stones of the Temples began to contribute money. You might have seen pillars carried by boat or by wagon for our plundered Gods. Everywhere there were altars, fire, blood offerings, fat and smoke: the mystic ritual was performed, seers were freed from fear, and on the the mountain tops were pipings and processions, and the same ox served as worship for the Gods and a feast for men.
But since it was not easy for the emperor to go from the palace to the Temples every day, and yet continued intercourse with the Gods is a matter of the greatest moment, a Temple to the God who governs the day was built in the middle of the palace, and he took part in his mysteries, initiated and in turn initiating. He also set up altars to all the Gods separately, and his first task on rising from bed was to associate with our Lords by means of sacrifice, in which he was more assiduous even than Nicias. So far did he extend the limits of the his zeal in this matter, since he desired first to restore the lost rituals once again to their original position, and secondly to add fresh ones to the traditional rites.
Rowland Smith, in his Julian’s Gods, says the following about applying the label of monotheist to Julian:
[T]here is no shortage in Julian’s writings of ostensibly polytheist utterances; they are not obviously dissembling, and his public actions and prescriptions relate to a variety of cults and do not on the face of things commend exclusive allegiance to a single god…. In my view his writings and actions disclose a mentality that remains in important aspects an irreducibly polytheist mentality.
Below are some excerpts from Julian’s Oration to the Mother of the Gods:
Who then is the mother of the Gods? She is indeed the fountain of the intellectual and demiurgic Gods who govern the apparent series of things: or certainly a deity producing things, and at the same time subsisting with the mighty Jupiter; a Goddess mighty, after one mighty, and conjoined with the mighty demiurgus of the world. She is the mistress of all life, and the cause of all generation, who most easily confers perfection on her productions, and generates and fabricates things without passion, in conjunction with the father of the universe. She is also a virgin, without a mother, the assessor of Jupiter, and the true parent of all the Gods: for receiving in herself the causes of all the intelligible supermundane Gods, she becomes a fountain to the intellectual Gods.
But let not anyone suspect that all this is said as of things which were once performed or really existed; as if the Gods were ignorant what they should fabricate, or had any concerns which it was proper they should correct. For the ancients in interpreting the causes of things which have a perpetual subsistence, or rather in exploring the nature of the Gods under the inspiring influence of the Gods themselves, when they had discovered the objects of their investigation, concealed them under the veil of incredible fables, that through the paradoxical and apparently incongruous nature of the fictions, we might be secretly excited to an enquiry after the truth; an utility which is merely irrational, and which takes place through symbols only, being, in my opinion, sufficient for the simple part of mankind; but to those who are prudentially skilful, an emolument respecting the truth of the Gods can then alone take place, when any one inquiring after it, discovers and receives it under the guiding influence of the Gods themselves. And such a one, indeed, will be admonished by the ænigmas, that it is necessary to investigate something concerning them; and when he has discovered their signification, will advance through contemplation to the end, and, as it were, summit of the concealed truth; and this not through reverence and faith of a foreign opinion, rather than by the exercise of another energy, which subsists alone according to intellect.
What therefore now remains for us to say; especially since we have composed this Oration without any respite in a short part of one night, without any previous reading or meditation on the subject, and without even intending to discourse on these particulars, till we called for these note books in order to commit them to writing? The Goddess herself is a witness of the truth of my assertion. What then remains for us to accomplish, except recalling the Goddess into our memory, together with Minerva and Bacchus, whose festivals the law establishes in these purifying rites? And this indeed took place, in consequence of the authors of these ceremonies perceiving the alliance of Minerva with the mother of the Gods, through providential similitude in the essence of each; from perceiving likewise the partial fabrication of Bacchus, which this mighty god receiving from the uniform and stable life of the mighty Jupiter, in consequence of proceeding from him, distributed to all apparent natures; at the same time administering and ruling over every partial fabrication. But it is proper likewise to call to mind, in conjunction with these, Hermes Epaphroditus; for thus is this god denominated by the mystics, who are said to kindle lamps in honour of the wise Attis. Who, therefore, is so dull of apprehension as not to understand that all things which entirely subsist for the sake of generation are called upward through Hermes and Venus? And this recalling power is especially the characteristic of reason; but is not Attis he, who, a little before being imprudent, is now, through his castration, denominated wise? For he was before unwise, because he connected himself with matter, and undertook the government of generation: but he is now wise, because he has adorned with beauty the sordid nature of matter, and has so vanquished its deformity, as to surpass all the imitative art and intelligence of man.
But what will be the end of this discourse? Is it not evident that it should close with a hymn to the mighty Goddess!
O mother of Gods and men! O assistant and partner in the throne of mighty Jupiter! O fountain of the intellectual Gods! O thou whose nature concurs with the uncontaminated essences of intelligibles, and who, receiving a common cause from all intelligibles, dost impart it to intellectual natures! Vivific Goddess, Counsel and Providence, and the fabricator of our souls! O thou who didst love the mighty Bacchus, who didst preserve the castrated Attis, and when he had fallen into the cavern of earth, didst again lead him upwards to his pristine abode! O thou who art the leader of every good to the intellectual Gods, with which thou dost likewise fill this sensible world, and who dost impart to us all possible good in every thing belonging to our nature! Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods: but especially grant to the Roman people in common, that they may wipe away the stains of their impiety; and that they may be blessed with prosperous fortune, which, in conjunction with them, may govern the empire for many thousands of years. But with respect to myself, may the fruit of my cultivation of thy divinity be the possession of truth in dogmata concerning the Gods, perfection in Theurgy, in all the actions which I shall undertake, both political and military, virtue, in conjunction with good fortune; and lastly a departure from the present life without pain, and attended with glory, together with good hope of a progression to thy divinity.
Next we call Themistius (AD 317 – ca 387) to the stand. The following is from Themistius’ funeral oration to his father:
The holy gathering of Gods and the assembly of benevolent Daimones received you. They blessed you, went forth to meet you and welcomed you because you had fulfilled the task for which they had sent you to the earth and then returned promptly in an unblemished and holy state. neither Rhadamanthys nor Minos find any imprint or mark of defilement on your soul. Those two men sit you next to Socrates and Plato, having also brought out your favorite, the divine Aristotle… And it seems to me that the Gods, wanting to show and remind the human race once again that the virtue of the human soul can reach great heights, brought you, father, to earth and made you here in the recent past, after a long lapse of time, just as they had brought Heracles long ago and, after him, Socrates.
[quoted from Robert J. Penella’s The Private Orations of Themistius pp. 53-60]
And here is Themistius on philosophy, the Gods, the Muses, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle:
[T]hese accusers of mine are doing nothing new on the present occasion. What has been customary for a long time and part of human nature since philosophy appeared on earth from the Gods is now reappearing, once again, like a cyclically recurring disease. When it comes to things other than philosophy, this human trait certainly causes people to envy, plot against and harrass those who have more than they do, even if no injustice is done to them. It is not pleasant for a poor person to set eyes on someone glorying in wealth, or for someone who cannot ride a horse to see someone who can, or for a weakling to look at a strong man. To the extent that wisdom is a greater and fuller blessing than any other, it rouses and stirs up all the more people against the man who possesses or seems to possess it.
This situation first obtained back in the days of Pythagoras; and, like some legacy unavoidably transmitted to future generations, it continued to affect his descendants. As for the son of Mnesarchus himself [i.e., Pythagoras], he, of course, was so possessed of that much famed wisdom that he spent his whole life on the move because of those who envied and discredited him. he went from Samos to Croton because of Polycrates, and from Croton to Locri because of Cylon. At Locri, it was not one person but the whole citizen body who could not abide Pythagoras’ virtue and consequently made him leave and sent him to Tarentum. The Tarentines again sent him off, this time to Metapontum, like an item of cargo; and there he died in the precinct of the Muses, having taken no food, as they tell it, for forty days. And why would one rehearse the story of Socrates? Our ears are full of the names Meletus, Anytus, Lycon! Don’t people even now inveigh against Plato … and … Aristotle?
[The Sophist quoted from Private Orations
And here is Themistius to the Emperor Jovian (this is usually referred to as Oration 5):
[Y]ou are the only one, or so it seems, who has recognized that it is not possible for the emperor to compel his subjects in all matters, but that there are things which have escaped compulsion and are above threates and commands – such as the whole area of virtue and especially devotion to the divine; you have recognised that you need to take the lead in these good things if you are truly to possess theml you have very wisely understood that the impulse of the soul is to be unforced, independent, and free to make its own choices. For if it is not possible even for you, O Emperor, to legislate kindness in someone who has not made an internal choice to be so, how much more is it impossible for someone to be devout and loving towards God through fear of human words, transient constraints and feeble bogeys, which time has often brought but has also often taken away? Most absurdly, we are guilty of showing reverence to the imperial purple, and not to God …. But you are not like this, most godlike of emperors; absolute ruler that you are, and will be to the end, in everything else, you ordain by law that everyone is to have their share in religious worship, emulating God in this respect, who has made the inclination to appropriate religious devotion a common trait of human nature, but has made the way in which that worship is expressed dependent on the decision of each person. Employing compulsion deprives people of the power to choose, which was granted by God. For this reason, the laws of Cheops and those of Cambyses scarcely lasted as long as those who issued them. but the law of God, which is also yours, remains unchanged forever, setting free each person’s soul for the path of religious devotion which they think best. No confiscation of property, no punishment, no burning has ever overcome this law; it may happen that the body is broken and dead, but the soul will depart, carrying with it the knowledge of the law of freedom, even if its expression has been constrained.
But I have been persuaded, O Emperor, that, having understood the reason for this divine legislation – that it is inherent in man – you are going to pursue it step by step; for things done from a sense of competition are seen through to completion with greater purpose, whereas things done without rivalry are carried out carelessly. Lack of competition in everything fills us with yawning and idleness, but the soul is always easily stirred into diligent action by a contest. So you do not stand in the way of healthy rivalry in religious devotion and you to not blunt the keenness of enthusiasm for the divine which comes from competition and vying with one another. Everyone competing in the stadium heads for the judge awarding the prize, but they don’t all take the same route. Some start in one place, others in another, and those who don’t win are not completely without honor; in the same way you understand that there is one great and truthful judge of the contest, but that there is not just one route to him – there is the route that is very difficult to travel along and the more direct one, there is the rough route and the level one; but they all alike converge on the one destination. Rivalry and eagerness come to us from the same source, but we don’t all walk the same route. But if you allow only one path, you block off the rest and restrict the scope of competition. This is the nature of man from ancient times: “Each man sacrificed to a different God’ [Iliad 2.400] is a truth older than Homer.
[Quoted from A.D. Lee’s Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity pp. 104-105]
There is no difficulty in providing many more passages where Themistius refers to multiple Gods, as well as to the Muses and to specific Goddesses and Gods such as Demeter, Persephone, Asclepius, Hermes, Athena, Apollo, Dionysus, Zeus (note to Mary Beard: Themistius specifically refers to “rain bringing Zeus”, and quite appropriately so, in his Oration on “Should one engage in farming”), etc.
Where Themistius might be translated as saying “God” what he has actually written (in Greek, of course) is ho theos. One must be extremely cautious about ever thinking that when Greek speaking Pagans say ho theos that their meaning is accurately conveyed by the meaning(s) associated with the English word “God”.
A passage from Plato’s Timaeus shows us just how misleading it can be to translate “ho theos” as simply “God”. Toward the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates says to his friend Timaeus (after whom the dialogue is named):
Socrates: Bounteous and magnificent, methinks, is the feast of speech with which I am to be requited. So then, it will be your task, it seems, to speak next, when you have duly invoked the Gods. [27b]
To which Timaeus responds:
Timaeus: Nay, as to that, Socrates, all men who possess even a small share of good sense call upon God always at the outset of every undertaking, be it small or great; we therefore who are purposing to deliver a discourse concerning the Universe, how it was created or haply is uncreate, must needs invoke the Gods and Goddesses (if so be that we are not utterly demented), praying that all we say may be approved by them in the first place, and secondly by ourselves. Grant, then, that we have thus duly invoked the deities. [27c]
Socrates refers to “theous”, the plural, masculine accusative of “theos”, “God”. In his direct reply, Timaeus refers to “theon” (singular masculine accusative), “theous” (pl masc acc), and “theas” (pl fem acc). In other words these two (fifth century BC) Pagans make little or no distinction between:
1. God (theos)
2. Gods (theoi)
3. Gods and Goddesse (theoi kai theai)
Where the above list gives the Greek in the nominative case rather than the accusative used by Socrates and Timaeus.
As for Sallustius (fourth century AD), he is primarily known for his On the Gods and the Cosmos (peri theon kai kosmou), the very title of which is explicitly polytheistic. Hutton defends his identification of Sallustius as a monotheizer by claiming that he, in that same work, “declared that the traditional goddesses and gods were as much parts of the single creator god as thoughts of the mind.” First of all, Sallustius completely rejects the notion of a “creator god”: “The cosmos itself must of necessity be indestructible and uncreated,” we read in section VII. Second of all, here is the passage Hutton is referring to:
They [“those who would learn about the Gods”] must be taught that the Gods never came into existence (what is immortal, possessed of the first power and impassive, cannot come into being), are incorporeal, are not limited by space, and are not separated from the First Cause or from one another any more than thoughts from the mind, knowledge from the soul, or perceptions from any living being.
[section II, using A.D. Nock’s translation]
Obviously Sallustius’ meaning is completely different from what Hutton wishes to ascribe to him. Sallustius does not say that the Gods don’t exist (or that they don’t “really” exist). That the Gods are all and each inseparably part of “the divine” (to theion) does not mean they are not real and existing. The noted classicist Gilbert Murray wrote approvingly concerning the subtlety of Pagan Greek theology: “they do not instinctively suppose that the human distinctions between ‘he’ and ‘it’, or between ‘one’ and ‘many’, apply to the divine.” [See Murray’s Five Stages of Greek Religion, chapter 2, The Olympian Conquest, p. 70 of the 2003 Kessinger edition.] In fact, Sallustius begins that section with the declaration that the Gods have always existed!
Moreover, Sallustius also proves himself to be a committed defender of traditional Greek Paganism. He insists that the myths themselves are divine (theoi), and he calls as witness to this “inspired poets, the best philosophers, the founders of the mysteries, and the Gods speaking in oracles.” So far, in just a few sentences, Sallustius has asserted that the Gods have always existed and that the myths concerning the Gods are divinely inspired, and he has embraced those hallowed institutions of traditional Greek religion: the mysteries and the oracles, as well as those two pillars of classical Greek culture: philosophy and poetry.
Sallustius also provides a fascinating overview of the traditional Olympian Gods, telling us for example, that
Those who make the world are Zeus, Poseidon, and Hephaistos; those who animate it are Demeter, Hera, and Artemis; those who harmonize it are Apollo, Aphrodite, and Hermes; those who watch over it are Hestia, Athena, and Ares.
One can see secret suggestions of this in their images. Apollo tunes a lyre; Athena is armed; Aphrodite is naked (because harmony creates beauty, and beauty in things seen is not covered).
[section VI, using Murray’s translation]
And what of Symmachus (ca 340 – ca 402)? Here is a much more complete quotation that includes the snippet so carefully excised by Hutton:
Man’s reason moves entirely in the dark; his knowledge of divine influences can be drawn from no better source than from the recollection and the evidences of good fortune received from them. If long passage of time lends validity to religious observances, we ought to keep faith with so many centuries, we ought to follow our forefathers who followed their forefathers and were blessed in so doing. Let us imagine that Rome herself stands in your presence and pleads with you thus, ‘Best of emperors, fathers of your country, respect my length of years won for me by the dutiful observance of rite, let me continue to practise my ancient ceremonies, for I do not regret them. Let me live in my own way, for I am free. This worship of mine brought the whole world under the rule of my laws, these sacred rites drove back Hannibal from my walls and the Senones [Gauls] from the Capitol’….And so we ask for peace for the Gods of our fathers, for the Gods of our native land. It is reasonable that whatever each of us worships is really to be considered one and the same. We gaze up at the same stars, the sky covers us all, the same universe compasses us. What does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for the truth? Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so tremendous a secret.
[The quote is taken from here – it is from Relatio III, the full text of which is here.]
This is the quote that Hutton produces to prove that Symmachus promoted a “new kind of ancient religion” that had abandoned polytheism in favor of monotheism?? “[W]e ought to follow our forefathers who followed their forefathers and were blessed in so doing … And so we ask for peace for the Gods of our fathers, for the Gods of our native land”!!! Of course Hutton only wants us to see where Symmachus says “It is reasonable that whatever each of us worships is really to be considered one and the same.”
Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, understood Symmachus’ Paganism perfectly well. After all, the context is that Symmachus was making a plea to the Emperor to restore the Altar of the Goddess of Victory to it’s traditional place in the Roman Senate, a fact that Hutton is either unaware of or (very) conveniently neglects to mention. Ambrose vehemently argued against Symmachus’ plea, even before he had read it, and addressed the Christian Emperor with these words:
Salvation will not be assured unless each one truly worships the true God, that is, the God of the Christians…Since you have truly shown your faith in God, most Christian Emperor, I am amazed that your zeal for the faith, and our protection and devotion, have inspired hope in some that you are now obligated to erect altars to the gods of the pagans and to furnish funds for the upkeep of profane sacrifices…If today some pagan emperor–God forbid!–should erect an altar to idols and compel Christians to hold their meetings there, to attend the sacrifices, so that the breath and nostrils of Christians would be filled with the ashes from the altar, cinders from the sacrifice, and smoke from the the wood…the Christian, compelled to come into the Senate, would on these conditions regard it as persecution….Now that you are Emperor, will Christians be forced to take their oath on an altar?…A decree like this cannot be enforced without sacrilege. I beg you not to make such a decree, nor pass a law, nor sign a decree of this sort.
[Ambrose, Epistle XVII]
In addition to Bishop Ambrose, Symmachus was also strongly opposed by the the Christian rhetorician Prudentius, who produced two books Against Symmachus, in which he argued that Rome does not owe her greatness to the Goddess Victory, or any other Pagan God or Goddess. Rather, Prudentius declaims, it was the Christian God who chose to unite humanity under Roman rule so as to prepare the way for Christ. For more see the Loeb Prudentius Volume I and Volume II, as well as Terrot Reaveley Glover’s Life and Letters in the Fourth Century, Chapter VII of which is devoted to Symmachus, and Chapter XI to Prudentius.
Finally, at last, we come to Apuleius (c. 123/125 – c. 180 – whom I have saved for last although he is not chronologically last). It is difficult to imagine a more incredibly stupid claim than that Apuleius might have in any way shape or form been a monotheist. He is the single most famous Initiate of the Mysteries of Isis, and he was also a devotee of Hermes and Asclepius. According to his own account he was “initiated into various of the Greek mysteries” and he also proudly claimed to “preserve with the utmost care certain emblems and mementoes of my initiation with which the priests presented me” [Apologia 55]. Among these “emblems and mementoes” was a small statue of the Hermes – a fact we know from the proceedings of a trial against him for practicing illicit magic (to bewitch a wealthy woman to marry him). The local artist who had made the statue was even called as a witness in the trial. Apulieus declared during the trial that he always took this statue with him wherever he went, for his personal devotions. [see Apuleius: a Latin Sophist pp. 74-5] In his Apology, his own published version of the proceedings of that trial, he also mentions his great devotion to the God of healing, Asclepius.
In his Florida we learn that the city of Carthage bestowed on him the office of “Chief Priest”, which office he refers to in the following passage (in which Aesculapius is a variant spelling of Asclepius):
Now, therefore, I will begin by speaking of the God Aesculapius. With what more auspicious theme could I engage your ears? For he honors the citadel of our own Carthage with the protection of his undoubted presence. See, I will sing to you both in Greek and Latin a hymn which I have composed to his glory and long since dedicated to him. For I am well known as a frequenter of his rites, my worship of him is no new thing, my priesthood has received the smile of his favor, and ere now I have expressed my veneration for him both in prose and verse.
[Florida, Chapter 18, H.E. Butler translation]
Summary and Conclusion
Celsus mocked “the goatherds and shepherds [who] followed Moses, who taught them that there was but one God.” Aelius Aristides was a priest of Asclepius who also revered Sarapis, Athena, Zeus and Poseidon. Maximus of Tyre believed, like Homer and Hesiod, that Zeus is the Supreme God, and he also worshipped the other traditional Gods and accepted the authority of traditional Pagan oracles, and also accepted the existence of “intermediaries” between the Gods and humans called Daemons. Julian “associated with Gods in countless initiations”, “set up altars to all the Gods separately”, and “desired first to restore the lost rituals once again to their original position, and secondly to add fresh ones to the traditional rites.” Themistius honored Demeter, Persephone, Asclepius, Hermes, Athena, Apollo and Dionysus, and began his funeral oration to his father by saying “The holy gathering of Gods and the assembly of benevolent Daimones received you.” Sallustius declared that the Gods have always existed, speaks of the specific characteristics and symbolism of each Olympian Deity, and also accepts the divine authority of the traditional myths and oracles as well as the ancient mystery cults. Apuelius was proud of being an Initiate in multiple mystery cults, is the most famous devotee of Isis, and was also intimate with Hermes and Asclepius.
And so it turns out that all of the late antique Pagans that Ronald Hutton referred to were polytheists committed to the preservation of ancient traditions, not monotheists seeking to radically alter (or do away with) those traditions. Having traced Pagan history back to late antiquity, and having shown that the Paganism of that time was itself a seamless continuation of the Paganism that preceded it, there can be no doubt that the Paganism of today is, indeed, the Old Religion. I will close by repeating these words of Symmachus, words that are as true for Pagans of today as when they were first spoken almost 17 centuries ago:
If long passage of time lends validity to religious observances, we ought to keep faith with so many centuries, we ought to follow our forefathers who followed their forefathers and were blessed in so doing….let me continue to practice my ancient ceremonies, for I do not regret them. Let me live in my own way, for I am free.
See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)
Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)
Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism