When times were good, the dockworkers of Portus, the maritime port of Imperial Rome, enjoyed a surprisingly diversified diet. But new analysis of ancient animal and human remains — detailed in the journal Antiquity this week — suggests the diets of the city’s working class shifted as Rome fell into decline.
True, I am sure. But the article does not mention the fact that dockworkers historically skimmed off cargo, so I suspect that when “the dockworkers of Portus ate diversified diets featuring animal proteins, imported wheat, olive oil, fish sauce and wine from North Africa,” they were helping themselves to cargo.1)The invention of the “Conex box” and subsequent larger shipping containers certainly reduced casual theft of cargo, but no system is perfect.
As the union dockworker says in the classic movie On the Waterfront (1954), “One thing you’ve got to understand, Father, on the dock we’ve always been ‘D and D.'”
Edward J. Watts, The Final Pagan Generation(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015) 344 pp., 29 B&W photographs, map. $34.95 (hardcover, ebook).
At the beginning of the fourth century CE, the Mediterranean world—the Roman empire—“was full of gods. Their temples, statues, and images filled its cities, downs, farms, and wildernesses… Traditional divinities also dominated the spiritual space of the empire as figures whose presences could not be sensed but whose actions many felt they might discern.” So writes Edward J. Watts at the beginning of The Final Pagan Generation. By the century’s end, he notes, “The cities of the empire remained nearly as full of the sights, sounds, and smells of the traditional gods in the 390s as they had been in the 310s.”
Yet much had changed. After Julian’s attempt in the 360s to sustain Pagan temples and education with imperial favor and financing—as those had sustained them in the past—the pendulum swung back, and it swung hard. Emperors such as Gratian (r. 367–83) in the West and Theodosius I (r. 379–95) in the East sought to cut the financial aqueducts that sustained large temples and celebrations. In those times, subsidy was not merely a matter of line items in the imperial budget, but a cut could mean handing over agricultural estates whose profits had sustained a temple to new owners. With sacrifice already banned, Theodosius by the 390s was punishing judges who set foot in Pagan temples and also forbidding private household rites. That these edicts were not always enforced is not the issue; the point is that Nicene Christianity enjoyed imperial favor while traditional religion no longer did.
From the days of Edward Gibbon (1737–1794), who essentially blamed the “fall of Rome” (the Western Empire, at least) on its embrace of Christianity, the question has been asked: “What changed?” The question also obsesses some contemporary Pagans (and not just members of the Julian Society), who ask, “Why did our ancestors abandon the old gods? Were they bribed, coerced, or tricked?” In the case of the four upper-class men on whose lives Watt concentrates, we can only use Gibbon’s favorite adverb, insensibly. Gibbon writes, for instance, that “the active and successful zeal of the Christians had insensibly diffused them through every province and almost every city of the empire” (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 1, chapter 16). Likewise, these men are presented as insensible to the structural changes that occurred while they rose to the pinnacle of their careers.
Three of four were rhetors and philosophers who left extensive writings behind: Libanius (314–c.393), a high-profile teacher of rhetoric, something like a tenured professor today; Themistius (317–390), another rhetorician, statesman, philosopher, and counselor to sev- eral emperors; and Ausonius (310–395), poet, teacher of rhetoric in the imperial household of Valentinian I, later a consul and praetorian prefect variously of Gaul, Italy, and Africa, also the only Christian of the four, converting late in life. The fourth was Vettius Agorius Praetextatus (315–384), a wealthy aristocrat, holder of various Roman priesthoods, and praetorian prefect of Rome, a post that might be compared to a cabinet ministry. As prefect of Rome, he oversaw the reconstruction of major temples, sponsored public rituals, and reinforced the city’s Pagan identity as against that of Milan, seat of the now-Christian Western emperors of the late fourth century.
Watts describes these men’s careers against the changing political landscape of the century, including Julian’s short reign. The last Pagan emperor, he writes, had a different, more Christian upbringing than Watts’ four exemplars: “Unlike those older men, Julian understood that Constantius’ [who preceded him] initiatives pointed toward a world in which traditional religious practices were suppressed and temples replaced by churches”
Lacking Julian’s imperial authority, Libanius, for one, fought a long rear-guard action against the erasure of traditional religion, denouncing how “the black-robed tribe [of monks], who eat more than elephants … hasten to attack the temples with sticks and stones and bars of iron, and in some cases, disdaining these, with hands and feet.” His methods were speeches, letters (perhaps the equivalent of an op-ed in the New York Times today), and appeals to the current emperor’s vanity, arguing that letting extralegal Christian power structures develop would harm the emperor’s authority and prestige. These stratagems worked for a time, but as each of the “final Pagan generation” passed away from their worlds of senates, classrooms, and dinners with important people— becoming truly insensible —the imperial world, which might still have looked, sounded, and smelled much as it did in their childhoods, was irrevocably altered.
Some of the links that I saved that never turned into blog posts . . .
• The Internet loves quizes, so “What Kind of Witch Would You Be?” (answer: hearth witch). I always suspect that the answer is based on just one question, while the others are there just for fluff and decoration.
This is, indeed, one of the roots of many problems in modern polytheism – people being unwilling to wait and let things naturally evolve. My biggest concern here isn’t the specific examples of mis-assignment (though they do exist, and are indicative of a serious lack of understanding in some cases). It is the fact that these folks are sitting around trying to artificially assign gods to places and things as if it’s just a game, or at best an intellectual exercise.
We arrived in Corfu late in the evening of the 12th of September and had about fifteen minutes of worry when the agent of the apartment’s owner was not present to meet us at the airport, as promised. And I had neglected to get his number!
But I did have the number for Yannis, the owner, who lives in Athens, and I called him. He promised to call Nikos, the agent. Soon he called back to say that Nikos had car problems but would soon be in touch, which he was. Before too long Nikos arrived — on a Vespa — got us a taxi, and we were off.
He showed us the apartment, gave us the keys, and said that he would be back inthe late morning to collect the rent (assuming we liked the place — which we did) and give us a quick tour of the neighborhood.
“At home” at last, but too jittery to sleep, we took a walk through part of Corfu’s old town, quickly locating Sasha Chaitow’s Icon Gallery, where something was waiting for me.
She sent a preliminary sketch. We went back and forth by email — laurel wreath or imperial diadem? — and so on.
It came from a sort of a quickly fantasized alternative history, one in which Julian had not died in that cavalry skirmish with the Persians in 363 CE in what is now northern Iraq, but had lived and had succeeded in his quest to re-institute and reform the old Pagan practices, and become venerated after his death.
That’s my alternative history, and I’m sticking to it. The day after I arrived in Corfu, I was holding it in my hands. Now it hangs on the study wall, glowing.
Sasha holds an MA in Western esotericism from the University of Exeter and a PhD in myth and literature from the University of Essex, as well as being an accomplished painter. She takes commissions, and you can contact her through the gallery website, Facebook,Academia.edu, or LinkedIn.
Myth #1– Vesuvius Did Not Erupt on 24 August AD 79. Everybody confidently quotes this as the date of the eruption, but everybody is probably wrong! At the turn of the 20th century, everybody claimed the eruption occurred in November. But Wallace-Hadrill thinks late September or early October is a likelier date. His clue is a lot of ripe pomegranates found near a buried villa at a place called Oplontis between Pompeii and Herculaneum. (This villa is known as the Villa Poppea or Villa Poppaea because it was owned by Nero’s wife Poppaea.) In Italy, pomegranates ripen in late September/early October. The problem is not with Pliny the Younger, whose famous letters tell us the date of the disaster, but with the monks who interpreted his dates as they copied his manuscripts.
The headline was just to grab you, because she begins, “OK, the Romans didn’t actually have Christmas. And even Christian Romans didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birthday on 25 December until at least the fourth century AD. ”
A few Roman writers enter into the spirit of the occasion. Catullus, for example, called it “the best of days”. But mostly they were supercilious lot, complaining about the forced jollity and the forced shut-down (just like me . . .!). The philosopher Seneca tut-tuts about all the dissipation and fact that you can’t get any public business done.
I don’t put myself in the same class as Seneca (or Mary Beard), but I will probably be thinking on Thursday that I should go pick up the mail at our little post office . . .
Back in the 4th century CE, Western Christianity had a problem. During the Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, which began in 303 and was severe in some areas, some Christian clergy in the Berber communities of North Africa had surrendered copies of Scripture and otherwise complied with the emperor’s edicts.
When Diocletian was replaced by the pro-Christian Constantine, the hold-outs who had resisted the persecution denounced the first group as impure. Led by a bishop named Donatus, they argued that clergy who had followed imperial orders were sinners who could no longer baptize or celebrate the Eucharist.
But the bishops in Rome, busy hitching the Christian church to the imperial chariot, said no, it’s all good. Or in Latin, ex opere operato, meaning that even if the priest is a sinner, the sacrament is still valid because it comes from God.
Now it’s Marion Zimmer Bradley. That her husband Walter Breen was an aggressive pedophile is old news. But now the finger points at her: it’s all summed up here.
So who is throwing away their copies of The Mists of Avalon? Or is there an escape clause for artistic works? Is the creative act the equivalent of a religious sacrament? Must we judge the creation according to the morals of the creator or may we invoke the religion of Art: ex opere operato?
Oh yeah, Greenpeace executive Pascal Husting will now take the train, it is said. He made a “misjudgment.” But read the comment st the Guardian website by “E McBain”: it sounds like one rule for the clergy and one for the rest of us.