Skip to content

The troubles of the 4th Century

Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians. Edward Armitage, 1875.

Julian, by Gore Vidal. Vintage International, 1962, 502 pages.

On the Gods and the Cosmos, by Sallustius, mid 4th Century.

Paganism’s last stand occurred in the 4th Century. Early in the 4th Century, the Roman emperor Constantine established Christianity as the state religion. A few decades later, the emperor Julian did his best to reverse it. Julian did not succeed.

I think it would be fair to say that the pagan intellectuals of that era did not see the conflict as a competition between the old gods and Christianity. Rather, they saw the conflict as a rational and living philosophy versus lifeless doctrine and dogma. These pagan Romans spoke Greek. Julian was trained as a philosopher at Athens. To them, Christian doctrine was (to put it bluntly) hickish and childish.

I have found it remarkably difficult to read up on the 4th Century. The 4th Century is covered in many general histories, of course, but I have been looking for sources that are limited to the 4th Century in particular. There are some new books by university presses, but they’re very expensive and narrowly focused (for example, on the city of Rome as an urban center). The old references — Gibbon, for example — are outdated. There are oodles of biographies of Constantine. But I’m not very interested in Constantine. After all, we now live in Constantine’s world. I couldn’t figure out what to read first, so I settled on Vidal’s novel.

Vidal is a good writer, in that, unlike so many people who write for a living these days, Vidal has an excellent command of the English language. But Vidal is not a good storyteller. He seems to lack a sense of drama. It’s as though he’s just dutifully writing up his research. That’s a shame. I can’t help but compare Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, or Mary Renault’s Alexander novels. Yourcenar and Renault bring their subjects to life and make them human. Vidal is just not good enough as a novelist to do that.

Vidal, however, was a formidable intellect and a fearless heretic. I wonder if any other writers have ever really dared to write about the formation of Christianity as the cultural castastrophe it actually was in the eyes of philosophers such as Julian — the triviality of its texts; the depravity of its early bishops and theologians; its expropriation from the pagans of anything the Christians found useful; its lust for wealth, property and dominance; its habit of violence, persecution, and inquisition; its tendency toward quibbling and schism; its self-delusion about its absoluteness; the hypocrisy of its carnality vs. its other-worldly posturing; its imperial usefulness as a tool for subduing, pacifying, and, as necessary, exterminating the masses. “No evil ever entered the world quite so vividly or on such a vast scale as Christianity did,” says Vidal’s Priscus.

Gore Vidal died in 2012. I don’t think that we now have any public intellectuals who are quite like him or who can take Vidal’s place.

For a short, sweet read on how the last pagans saw the world, you probably can’t do better than Sallustius’ On the Gods and the Cosmos. Sallustius was a trusted friend and military leader in Julian’s army. What stands out in Sallustius’ writing is his sophisticated use of reason. He understands perfectly well that the pagan gods were myths and that the meaning of the myths had to be teased out with the tools of philosophy. Reading Sallustius, one becomes aware of how reason was smothered for centuries by Christian doctrine and didn’t get its head above water again until the Enlightenment. In many ways, it seems to me, this 4th Century conflict is playing out yet again.


  1. chenda wrote:

    David – You may be interested in a theory called Domains of belief, formulated by a Prof Kaikhosrov Irani. There is an excellent four part interview with him on you tube. He suggested that humans have an intrinsic need to fulfil four different belief systems; the need to explain things, the need to control our environment, the need to justify actions and the need to seek significance in our existence. Historically, mythology was used to explain all these areas (e.g. the earthquake was cause by an angry god, we should look for signs from the gods for ethical guidance etc) Gradually, the four domains separated, slowly and painfully, into science, technology, ethics and religion.

    Ancient Greek philosophy separated ethics from religion, as earlier the Persians did under Zoroastrianism. Christianity led to a huge backward step which demanded total control over all the domains, and succeeded for 1500 years until Galileo successfully separated science from religion. Like you, in a world of climate change denial and religious fundamentalism, I fear this delineation is once again being lost.

    Monday, October 30, 2017 at 10:04 am | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Chenda: That is a very interesting way of looking at the actions of the church, historically. A question, since you’re British. What would you say about Henry VIII’s break with Rome and how that might have changed English history?

    Monday, October 30, 2017 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  3. chenda wrote:

    Only yesterday someone left an anti-catholic leaflet in my post-box. Even in very secular Britain it is still divisive. Max Weber famously attributed much of the origins of the industrial revolution and scientific thinking to the reformation, although historians have not been kind to his ideas.

    Despite my misgivings of Christianity, there was undeniably a huge cultural loss to the reformation, and not just with the destruction of the monasteries. ‘The Stripping of the Altars’ by Eamon Duffy paints a very vivid (if controversial) picture of the apparent vibrancy of the late English Catholic church, with its plethora of saints, feast days, statutes and colourful artistry. At a push, you could say the veneration of saints reflected some of the richness of pagan practice, with people choosing their favourite saints, as their ancestors had followed their favourite gods. So much of this was destroyed.

    An interesting ‘what if’; when Henry confiscated the monastic properties he sold most of them off to raise cash quickly. Had he retained the lands, the monarchy would have had a huge independent source of income, reducing the dependency on parliament to raise tax. The later civil war and the subsequent ascendency of parliament might never have happened as it did.

    Tuesday, October 31, 2017 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  4. Henry Sandigo wrote:

    Cool, history lessons here

    Wednesday, November 1, 2017 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *