Praetextatus – Religion … The peaceful coexistence (Ch. 2.2)


Maijastina Kahlos, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus – Senatorial Life in Between. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae no. 26, Roma 2002.


Both pagans and Christians shared similar values and cultural heritage. In some aspects the Christian religion differed from the polytheistic environment of the fourth century but it also had very much in common with the pagan religions and philosophies since pagans as well as Christians recognized the universal order based on the supernatural will.[1] Pagan and Christian basic positions tended to assimilate in the fourth century as the pagan environment changed Christianity and Christianity also influenced contemporary paganism.

It is sometimes difficult to find any differences between pagan and Christian senators for there existed a cultural unity within the senatorial aristocracy in spite of religious diversity. Pagans and Christians used a common language of forms and themes in the decoration of their tombs, sarcophagi and other objects; Christians also used the contemporary classical repertory and classical and Christian themes, forms and ideas tended to be mixed. The cosmetic case of Secundus and Proiecta of the Esquiline Treasure as well as the erotes in the mosaics of Sta Costanza in Rome are good examples of the classical allegorical themes and forms that – though ‘pagan’ in origin – should not interpreted as anti-Christian or manifestly pagan.[2] Augustine’s mother Monica is an illustrative example of the assimilation of rites; she had to give up her African practices in honour of Christian saints because in Milan they were forbidden as quasi parentalia superstitioni gentilium simillima.[3]

Christian converts could not change radically their way of thinking and expressing religious ideas and feelings since the way they understood their new faith was structured by the thought pattern of their old religion. Therefore, both church fathers and pagan philosophers used the Platonic terminology: Julian, for instance, resembles Christian apologists whereas his Christian opponents seem pagan philosophers. Philosophers Synesius of Cyrene in Alexandria and Marius Victorinus in Rome are illustrative examples of the assimilation of pagan philosophy and Christian ethics.[4]

The period of about thirty years from Constantius II to Valentinian I was a long period of transition since the Christianization of Roman society was a slow, gradual process. The reign of Valentinian I in particular seems to have been a period characterized by peaceful coexistence between pagan and Christian cults. Some scholars even speak of the symbiosis between pagans and Christians rather than of rivalry since on the level of daily reality pagans and Christians certainly accommodated themselves to peaceful coexistence. The 360s and 370s in Rome appear especially as an age of tolerance and compromise in our sources, and Cracco Ruggini even suggests that the years of tolerance were exactly the period dominated by the great personality of Praetextatus.[5] Philocalus’ calendar of 354, which records traditional festivals associated with pagan gods and feasts in honour of Christian martyrs in the same book, reflects this atmosphere of assimilation, accommodation and tolerance.[6] Pagans and Christians lived side by side within the same families, e.g. in the family of the Caeionii,[7] and they were even buried side by side as the private hypogeum of the Via Latina in Rome and other cemeteries indicate.[8]

Pagans were continuously appointed to the magistratures of the Empire and pagan aristocrats remained in high offices, especially in Rome and elsewhere in Italy, as Praetextatus’ example shows. Though the emperors were Christians, as practical politicians they often followed Realpolitik and did not let religious affiliation influence official appointments. The city prefects of Rome, for example, were pagans and Christians by turns under Constantius II and under Valentinian I.[9] Even as late as in the 380s eminent pagans held the supreme offices, Praetextatus the praetorian prefecture, Symmachus the city prefecture of Rome, Nicomachus Flavianus the praetorian prefecture, Themistius the city prefecture of Constantinople.

The privileged position of Rome. Paganism in Italy and especially in the city of Rome enjoyed a special privileged position in the imperial religious policy and it seems that the religious legislation, e.g. of Constantius II, was not always even intended for Rome and that the senatorial aristocracy was powerful enough to prevent the enforcement of laws against pagan cults in Rome.[10] The political instability and usurpations in Italy in the 340s probably forced Constantius to seek for the support of the pagan aristocracy of Rome and consequently he made concessions for Rome. His visit to Rome in 357 illustrates the respect that even the Christian emperors felt for the Urbs Aeterna. Ammianus describes how Constantius admired all the marvels, ancient buildings and temples of Rome and Symmachus stresses that even though the emperor himself followed different rites, he preserved pagan rites, cumque alias religiones ipse sequeretur, has servavit imperio, leaving untouched the state subsidies for Roman cults and temples and the privileges of the traditional priesthoods and remaining himself as pontifex maximus.[11] As Philocalus’ calendar of 354 indicates, the public festivals and spectacles of Roman state religion were still vital in Rome thanks to special aristocratic attention and imperial backing.[12] It was as late as 391 that sacrifice was forbidden in the city of Rome.[13] P. Wormald is probably right in pointing out that the imperial religious legislation against paganism at the end of the fourth century should be seen as the symptom rather than the cause of the conversion of the Roman aristocracy and the emergence of a respectable aristocratic Christianity.[14]

The gradual Christianization of the aristocracy. The dating of the Christianization of the senatorial aristocracy has been a much debated issue in modern scholarly literature. The term Christianization is far from clear since the content and interpretation of the term has been changing for centuries.[15] Here it is used as referring to the formal and public attachment of an individual or a group to a Christian community, either to a mainstream community or to a community defined as heretic. It would be difficult – even impossible – to define the conversion of individuals or groups with some intimate feeling and inner convictions. For my discussion of the simplified pagan-Christian dichotomies and ambiguities in late antique culture, see Ch. 1.

In his prosopographical research on the Christian senators before Constantine, W. Eck has proposed that the Roman aristocracy was solidly pagan at the beginning of the fourth century[16] while T.D. Barnes has recently argued that it became Christian significantly earlier than modern scholars have usually presumed and that Constantine and Constantius preferred Christians in appointments to high office.[17] Barnes has based his claim on tables where the portion of the incerti, that is, of those whose religious sympathies are unknown, is considerable, which makes his conclusions remain quite uncertain.[18]

It is clear that the majority of the Roman aristocracy became Christian within 95 years of Constantine’s victory but the Christianization of the Roman Empire was wave-like process, depending on the religious policies of each emperor, and the final turning point from paganism to Christianity occurred as late as during Gratian’s reign in 375-383. In any case, the Christianization of the Roman aristocracy was well advanced at the end of the century. Christianity was an obvious instrument of career advancement, at least at the imperial court and therefore new senatorial families adopted it first.[19]

The Roman senate consisted of both pagan and Christian senators but it is uncertain whether pagan senators formed a majority in the 360s and 370s. In his Confessions, Augustine writes that almost the whole Roman nobility was still pagan about 350. In 384 Ambrose asserted that pagans were not a majority in the senate but admitted that many Christian senators were influenced by their pagan fellow senators. Ambrose’s claim belongs to the propaganda of the Christian side in the (in)famous dispute over the altar of Victory which may cover the historical circumstances. Even if Ambrose is right and Christian senators had become a majority in the senate by the 380s, pagan senators at least remained very influential at the end of the fourth century. Some scholars have regarded the years 394-395 as the turning point in the Christianization of the senatorial aristocracy; according to this view, most pagan senators converted to Christianity after the defeat of Eugenius by Emperor Theodosius in 394. This view, however, labels Eugenius’ usurpation as manifestly anti-Christian or ‘pagan’, exaggerating thus the effects of the defeat on the religious affiliation of Roman aristocrats.[20]


[1] Brown 1998b, 652; Bowersock 1993, 544, 546; Barcelò 177, 184, 189; Clemente 1982, 63; Frede 56-58.

[2] For the decoration of sarcophagi, Février 1983, 22-46, esp. 31-32, 37 and Ward-Perkins  637-652 who emphasize the unity of pagan and Christian imagery in the fourth century. Shelton 1981, 64-70; Shelton 1989, 105-108 introduces the cosmetic case of Secundus and Proiecta of the Esquiline Treasure with an image of Venus and a Christian inscription as an example of the coexistence of paganism and Christianity, stressing that classical iconography was not necessarily anti-Christian or pagan as the earlier scholarly literature often claimed. For the erotes in the mosaics of Sta Costanza and other examples, see Elsner 252-255.

[3] Aug. conf. 6.2.

[4] Synesius of Cyrene: Marrou 1963, 127-128, 138-144. Marius Victorinus: P. Hadot 1971, esp. 248-250; Markus 1990, 28. For religious conversion in general, see Ringgren 12.

[5] The term ‘la convivenza pacifica’ used by Cracco Ruggini 1972, 192 and Lizzi – Consolino 967. Weiss 125 speaks of ‘une sorte de consensus minimal’, Mazzarino 1951a, 142 of ‘ambiente di compromesso’, Salzman 1990, 195 of an ‘ambience of compromise’. P. Hadot 1971, 42-46, 58 defines the years 318-356 as a period of tolerance, from 356-358 onwards the rivalry between pagans and Christians becomes clearer.

[6] Salzman 1990, esp. 21-22.

[7] Chastagnol 1960, 165 calls this tolerance towards persons, intolerance towards ideas. Mixed marriages were accepted even by church fathers: Aug. de fide et operibus 19.35; 21.37. For the coexistence of pagans and Christians within the same family, see Chastagnol 1956 and O’Donnell 1979, 62-63. Chastagnol 1956, 251, Salzman 1992, 464 and Yarborough 156-157 have proposed that the fathers of the aristocratic families wanted to designate the male child (the principal heir) to continue the pagan tradition of the family.

[8] Kötsche-Breitenbruch 11-12; Marrou 1956, 77-81; Ferrua 1960, 93-94; Quacquarelli 218.

[9] Von Haehling 532-533, 557-558, 615; Vera 1979, 386; Chastagnol 1960, 428-429. However, the number of Christians as city prefects increased progressively.

[10] E.g. CTh 16.10.2 (in 341) was not intended for Rome. Moreover, CTh 16.10.3 (Nov. 1, 342) addressed to the prefect of Rome directs him to protect even the pagan temples outside the walls. Salzman 1987, 179; Salzman 1990, 197, 205-208.

[11] Amm. 16.10.13-17; Symm. rel. 3.7; Them. or. 3.3. Salzman 1990, 116, 218-223. Constantius, however, removed the altar of Victory from the curia (Symm. rel. 3.4-6) and probably did not sacrifice to Iuppiter Capitolinus.

[12] Salzman 1990, 197, 219; Beard – North – Price 1998a, 382-383.

[13] CTh 16.10.10 (391) directed to prefect of Rome. Cf. Liban. or. 30.33 who affirms that Rome was not yet robbed of its sacrifices.

[14] Wormald 1976, 218.

[15] Reflection on the term christianization: Markus 1990, 1-17 and Brown 1998b, 651-663.

[16] Eck 1971, 381-406, e.g. 395-396: “Das Ergebnis ist äusserst mager, zumal wenn man bedenkt, wieviele Senatoren und Anhörige ihrer Familien wir … kennen”; also Lippold 1983, 10-11, A.H.M. Jones 1963, 19 and Lane Fox 311 are as careful as Eck.

[17] Barnes 1995, 135-147.

[18] Barnes 1995, 144 admits himself that there may still have been a majority of pagans among Roman senators under Constantine as well as under Constantius but that the majority of e.g. the city prefects appointed by both emperors were Christian.

[19] Matthews 1975, 362; Salzman 1992, 452, 465-471; O’Donnell 1979, 82-83.

[20] Aug. conf. 8.2.3: sacrilegiorumque particeps, quibus tunc tota fere Romana nobilitas inflata spirabat. Ambr. epist. 17.9-10; 18.8. Matthews 1975, 206, Cracco Ruggini 1979a, 141, Clemente 1982, 63, Heather 1998, 199 and Fowden 1998, 551, for example, assert that Christians were in the majority in 384 while Demandt 1989, 287, Mazzarino 1974, 391-393 and Klein 1971, 124 believe that pagans had the majority as late as 394-395. Aug. civ. 5.22 for the conversion of the sons of Theodosius’ enemies.


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