Pompa diaboli


Maijastina Kahlos 

Published in Collection Latomus 287 (2005), s. 467-483.


In 397-398 Augustine of Hippo involved himself in a learned dispute with Faustus the Manichean (Contra Faustum). Among other things, Faustus had reviled mainstream Christians, labelling them pagans. According to Faustus, mainstream (Catholic) Christianity was not a real separate religion but a mere schism from paganism. These Christians had adopted and adapted pagan customs and rituals, and furthermore they took part in pagan festivities with pagans during pagan holidays, for example, the Calends and the solstices. They had just changed pagan sacrifices into love feasts and idols to martyrs. The shades of the dead were appeased with wine and food. Virtually they had made no change at all since they share the same doctrine and rites with pagans – with some slight alterations; the only difference was that they were segregated from pagans.[1]

Faustus’ invective is harsh. Whether his abuses were justified, i.e., whether Christians were pagans or paganising when they were celebrating pagan festivities, is not relevant here. The purpose of this article is not to examine the historical circumstances of urban ‘pagan’ festivals and spectacles in the fourth and fifth centuries. I will not discuss what exactly the celebration of urban festivals involved or how ‘pagan’ they were.[2] Instead I concentrate on what Christian writers, church fathers, bishops and other opinion leaders wrote about urban festivals. What sort of significations and connotations were connected with these feasts and what kinds of dangers were seen in them? To some extent, I have to detach the discussion of the church fathers from its historical circumstances in order to abstract the argumentation and structures. Though this approach may violate the historical complexity, something more essential and fundamental will be gained.

What emerges from the writings of fourth and fifth century church fathers is that there were Christians who took part in ‘pagan’ urban festivals. In modern scholarship they have sometimes been called conformists or opportunists, sometimes half-Christians, lukewarm Christians or crypto-pagans. I prefer to call them incerti, a term which refers to unclassifiable and indefinable individuals between pagans and Christians.[3] I have developed this new concept in order to illustrate the grey area between hard-line polytheism and hard-line Christianity in Late Antiquity. My concept incertus includes the hesitation and vagueness on the level of emotions and intentions as well as the atmosphere of ambiguity in a multicultural society. Furthermore, on the scholarly level, it calls strict classifications and definitions into question, referring to individuals hovering between paganism and Christianity, who do not fit into straightforward categories.

I will discuss how the church fathers dealt with these incerti and their participation in urban ‘pagan’ festivities and spectacles. Public festivals, spectacles and various rites of Greco-Roman communities formed a vague and problematic borderland for Christians. It was not self-evident at all in which feasts and ceremonies Christians were allowed to participate and which rituals were forbidden. Therefore, bishops and church councils had to take a stand and define what was permitted as a harmless celebration of community and what was forbidden as idolatry.

This article focuses on the discussion of the church fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries but first, the views of the third century writers Tertullian and Novatian are discussed in comparison with fourth and fifth century church fathers. Then, I will introduce some texts in which the voices of the incerti can be heard and the concern that the Christian leaders felt for the souls of the incerti is sensed. I will examine the attitudes of Augustine and other church fathers as well as the tightening of atmosphere and legislation in 399-401. Finally, the polarised positions expressed in Gelasius’ letter on the celebration of the Lupercalia are analysed.


Tertullian and Novatian, hard-liners – Festivals and spectacles as the cult of demons

In Christian opinion-leaders’ various attitudes to urban festivities, it was of crucial importance whether the feasts and spectacles were regarded as religious ceremonies or as more or less secular festivals of community. If they were considered religious, they necessarily were – from a Christian point of view – demonic and diabolic.[4]

In the third century, the leaders of Christian communities were afraid of becoming too assimilated with the surrounding culture and felt a growing urge to more sharply define Christian identity. They reacted to the pressure and allurements of the surrounding society by drawing clearer outlines and dissociating Christians from traditional public celebrations. The situation was irksome for church leaders since Christians were active in the urban festivities and spectacles as the repeated rebukes of the church fathers attest.

In his De spectaculis, Tertullian reproaches Christians who flocked to the theatre shows and circus games as eagerly as pagans did. It was obvious for everyone in Roman society that these shows were connected with deities and their cults – deities, for example, were involved in the solemn pompa circensis before the circus games and they were offered a sacrifice before the spectacles. However, Christians, who took part in spectacles and in banquets in honour of a deity, did not necessarily think that their participation in communal celebrations was to be regarded as idolatry (idolatria).

This is why Tertullian reports with such thoroughness on the origins of spectacles.[5] He aims to make the connection between spectacles and idolatry strikingly manifest for his fellow Christians.[6] Tertullian regards spectacles – the spectacles of the circus, theatre, amphitheatre and stadium – as simply the cult of the devil and his demons, pompa diaboli and daemoniorum conuentus[7] because, in connection with these events, pagan rituals (sacra) and sacrifices (sacrificia) were performed to deities that were demons for Christians.[8]

Later in the third century, Novatian also severely reprimands Christian participation in urban festivities and entertainment. These people, whom Novatian labels as “ingratiating champions and indulgent advocates of vice”, uitiorum assertores blandi et indulgentes patroni, were not ashamed to pose as believers and Christians, fideles homines et christiani sibi nominis auctoritatem uindicantes. They tried to justify their participation, arguing that the pleasure derived from the spectacles was blameless because it was merely a means of relaxation. They also found excuses for their vices in the Scriptures, explaining, e.g., that even Elijah had been a charioteer of Israel, David had danced before the ark and Paul the Apostle had used a boxing match and a footrace as metaphors. These people did much mischief in the Christian community because they thus attempted to exculpate their own vices but they also tried to win authorisation for their participation in idolatry.[9]

Tertullian, Novatian, Cyprian and other Christian opinion leaders in the third century clearly forbade their fellow Christians to participate in urban festivities and spectacles.[10] Novatian asks what a Christian was doing among such things if she/he really abhorred idolatry.[11] Tertullian stresses that it was pagans who frequented these events, and thus, if a Christian took part in them, her/his involvement proclaimed her/him a pagan. A person was recognised as a Christian because she/he repudiated the spectacles, de repudio spectaculorum.[12]


The voices of the incerti

It has been said that the prime obstacle to Christianisation lay in the Christians themselves.[13] This is particularly apparent in Christian attendance of urban festivals. Despite the admonitions of the hard-liners Tertullian, Novatian and Cyprian, not every Christian regarded it necessary to dissociate themselves from the activities of the surrounding society. During the fourth century, the situation was even more varied and confusing since the relations between the Christian church and the state had radically changed, and Christianity was now favoured by the emperors.

The atmosphere of pluralistic coexistence and tolerance of the fourth century extolled by modern scholars caused quite a headache for Christian clergy.[14] It was in these circumstances that Faustus the Manichean sneers at mainstream Christians who celebrated the Kalendae and solstices among pagans.[15]

Christians certainly reacted in different manners to different circumstances. Participation in urban ‘pagan’ festivals caused troubled consciences for some Christians while some of them saw no contradiction between ‘pagan’ celebrations and their Christian religion.[16] The Christians who took part in urban pagan festivities might be referred to as incerti.[17] Echoes of the voices of the incerti are heard in the writings of the church fathers when, facing the severe reproofs of the church fathers, they attempt to justify their participation in spectacles and feasts. Their arguments were already related and refuted by Novatian (see above).

The reactions of these incerti naturally varied: some were troubled by their attendance of urban festivals and particularly because the Christian leaders condemned their behaviour, while others saw no contradiction between urban amusements and the Christian religion. As late as in the mid-fifth century, Petrus Chrysologus in his sermon for the New Year[18] complains of Christians who regarded urban festivities as quite harmless entertainment without any particular religious significations. They defended themselves, saying “all this is not practice of sacrilegious rites, but only a desire to take part in the games. It is merely a celebration of the new, not the error of the old. It is the beginning of the year, not the offence of paganism.”[19] In a similar way, Augustine of Hippo refers to fellow Christians who kept on visiting idols and consulting magi and fortune-tellers and still claimed: “I have not abandoned the Church, I am a Catholic.”[20]


Augustine, the sof-liner? – Festivals and spectacles as human institutions

It was not pagan outsiders and their impiety that caused distress for the Christian clergy in the fourth and fifth centuries but rather the main concern and target of the bishops were Christians themselves. In one of his sermons on Psalms, Augustine of Hippo complains that his parishioners preferred the uanitates et insanias mendaces to the church rituals and frequented the circus games. He stresses that he does not refer to either pagans or Jews, but to Christians, and furthermore, he did not speak of catechumens but of the already baptized: Neque enim loquimur de paganis, neque de Iudaeis, sed de christianis; neque de his adhuc catechumenis, sed de multis etiam baptizatis.[21]

Prior to the years 399-401, Augustine’s views seem to have been milder and more conciliatory than, for example, Tertullian’s and Novatian’s attitudes. In his De doctrina christiana, he classifies the social institutions into three categories: first, the superstitious (superstitiosae), second, the useful and necessary (commodae et necessariae) and third, the useless and luxurious (superfluae et luxuriosae). The first category, the superstitious institutions, was connected with demons and was inspired by them. Augustine does not regard theatrical performances as superstitious but only as useless and extravagant, and therefore, in Late Antique studies, Augustine’s views on theatre have been considered as ‘notably mild’.[22] It is true that in relation to theatre Augustine is ‘notably mild’ but in his theoretical classification of institutions, theatre as a luxurious institution is to be avoided anyway.

According to R. A. Markus, Augustine also shows understanding of the social functions of urban spectacles, games and races, implying that festivities might even be useful for human communities in securing greater cohesion and admitting that it was not necessary to interpret urban amusements as idolatry.[23] I am not very convinced that Augustine regards theatre or any other urban spectacles as useful and cohesive for human communities. What he writes in De doctrina christiana is that all human institutions that “contribute to the necessary ordering of life are certainly not to be avoided by a Christian.”[24] In previous passages, Augustine has discussed theatre and dance performances, determining them as human but superfluous and containing falsehoods and lies. Then he turns to the necessary human signs and institutions, contrasting them with the superfluous falsehoods. These useful institutions, which humans share with one another are to be learned and made use of, on condition that they do not involve a Christian in superstition, i.e., a cult of demons and are not luxurious or superfluous.[25] It seems that Markus has read here more understanding for spectacles than can be attributed to Augustine.

On the practical level, Augustine shows a certain sense of proportion in relation to banquets and spectacles connected with urban festivals, as he recommends his audience to abstain – as far as they can – from worthless amusements.[26] In another sermon, he advises his fellow Christians to tolerate a local banquet organised in honour of Venus (epulae uenerales), stating, “these things are to be endured, not loved.”[27]


Anxiety about the incerti 

In one of his sermons,[28] Augustine stresses that, even though some stronger Christians would not associate any religious significances with their participation in popular festivities, these festivities had to be avoided because of other Christians, the weaker ones who could blunder and interpret them as religious acts. The bishop lays emphasis on supporting brothers weaker in their faith. It was the interpretation of celebrations that was essential for Augustine. Christians frequenting urban festivals could plead the harmlessness of festivals. For them, urban feasts were not idolatry because they themselves were quite aware that the deity of the feast – in this case the genius of Carthage – was not a real god. The feasts caused no problems for Christians firm in their faith but for their frail brothers all this was not clear enough, and this is why they should not tempt their brothers. If the weaker brothers saw their fellow Christians taking part in festivals, they might come to think that these Christians were showing respect to idols. The strong Christians might say to themselves: “My God knows my heart.” Augustine warns them that their weaker brothers did not know their brothers’ hearts. “If you are infirm, beware of becoming more ill; if you are strong, take care of your brother’s illness.” When the weak Christians see the strong ones taking part in banquets, they would be inspired to not only to eat the food dedicated to pagan gods but also even to sacrifice to pagan gods. “Thus, the weaker brother would perish through your knowledge.”[29]

For the sake of their weaker brothers, staunch Christians were to abstain from urban festivities and serve as a model for them. It was also important to set a good example for the remaining pagans. As a matter of fact, the Christians who celebrated among pagans were a stumbling block in the way of pagans moving towards the right religion. Augustine wanted to collect the rest of the pagans and called out to his Christian audience: “You are the stones in their way.” When pagans saw Christians frequenting urban festivities, they thought: ”Why should we give up our gods when Christians keep on honouring them among us?” and those pagans who could have come and joined the Christian church would feel insulted and would return to their paganism.[30] Augustine wanted to remove all the obstacles for the final conversion of the still extant pagans but he realised that it was not very convincing to preach on the total abandonment of pagan gods if Christians themselves could not keep away from pagan celebrations.

In several sermons, Augustine stresses that many pagans led far more decent, sober and chaste lives than those Christians who occupied themselves with amusements, banquets, inebriety and debauchery. Christian dissoluteness and extravagance both insulted these good pagans and gave occasion for mockery. He claims that some pagans did not want to be converted because Christians did not improve their own way of life, and therefore, pagans were impeded from salvation (impediuntur a salute). Thus, a pagan, whom Augustine prefers to call morally good rather than a depraved Christian, stayed in the darkness with eyes wide open while a Christian, leading a corrupt life, stayed in the light of Lord eyes shut.[31] This juxtaposition of pagans and Christians and the inversion of moral hierarchy must have offended his audience and thus it must have an effective rhetorical device.


Hard-line policies and attitudes after 399

What makes Augustine’s views on urban festivities particularly interesting is a change in his own attitudes that can be traced in his writings during the years 399-401. His positions had already varied between a more conciliatory and a more severe mode based on his audience and circumstances. However, there is an obvious hardening of attitudes perceptible in 399-401 – not only in Augustine’s or the church fathers’ writings but also in tensions in the general atmosphere as well as in harsh measures taken by the imperial government and in religious legislation.

It is impossible – and here irrelevant – to determine the complex chain of causes and effects in the interaction between the imperial government and the Christian opinion leaders, i.e., whether the Christian leaders merely followed the general imperial policy or actively influenced the government or both.[32] In any case, Augustine and other bishops reflect the tense atmosphere of the whole Empire, when clarifying Christian identity and separating Christians from pagan practices and celebrations.

Augustine asserts that the Lord did not promise to bring peace but a sword to divide (gladium ad separationem) and a fire to burn (ignem ad ustionem). Both would be salubrious for a Christian: the sword would separate her/him from her/his evil habits. Christians should separate themselves from their parents if they were pagan and also from all previous life and ancestry. Everyone had some connection with the pagan past, Augustine states and adds, “we are separated from that which we were before (separati sumus ab eo quod eramus).” [33] The Lord also came to spread fire on earth, to burn and set on fire his enemies on every side, those enemies who rejected the Christian god and adored the idols.  The fire would consume them if they were evil and purify, i.e., convert them if they were good.[34] One can no longer speak of peaceful coexistence.

In these altered circumstances, Christians are repeatedly urged to take sides. In order to identify themselves better with their church, Christians had to separate themselves from pagans and their feasting, theatres and spectacles. Augustine illustrates the distinction with a play of words congregari – segregari and the use of such terms as misceri, commixtio and separari, separatio. If the feast of the pagans (in this case New Year festivities), which was celebrated with such worldly and fleshly joy, did not please Christians, they were to be congregated (congregabimini) from among the nations and be saved. Those who were intermingled (miscentur) with the pagans were not saved. Christians distinguished themselves from pagans by their beliefs and habits: they were congregated (congregaris) and segregated (segregaris) from pagans.[35]

Christians need not let the physical contacts (commixtio corporalis) with pagans trouble them; pagans and Christians were forced to live together in this world. What was decisive was the separation on the mental level (separatio mentis). Although mixed with pagans physically (mixtus corpore), Christians who were dissimilar in their way of life (dissimili vita) were segregated from them.[36] Augustine also stresses elsewhere that during the course of time in this world people lived intermingled bodily (permixtae in corporibus), but separated in will (uoluntatibus separatae). The absolute separation was to come in the transcendence.[37] All kinds of inseparated people swam in the net of the church until they were brought ashore.[38]

Church leaders insisted upon a decision between only two alternatives: either a Christian assimilated herself/himself with the pagans or followed Christ. One could not take other routes. In Petrus Chrysologus’ words, ”he who has been willing to joke with the devil will not be able to rejoice with Christ. No one plays with a serpent without danger, and no one jokes with the devil unpunished with the devil.”[39] It is ironic that the same Christian opinion leaders who elaborated this dichotomy between Christians and pagans or the Christian community and this world, illustrating it with the metaphorical antithesis of Jerusalem and Babylon,[40] then kept on complaining about ambiguous incerti who did not fit in their narrow definitions and dichotomies.

In the eyes of the church fathers and bishops, these people led a double life. Augustine states that Christian attended the churches at the celebrations of ‘Jerusalem’ but the very same crowds filled the theatres at the feasts of ‘Babylon’. Many people, who were called Christians, engaged themselves in all evil pagan things and tempted others to imitate them.[41] Again, the bishop castigates his parishioners who bodily entered the church but left their hearts outside in the world.[42] Similar complaints continued during the following centuries. In the sixth century, Severus, Bishop of Antioch was grieved because he had to see the same lips which praised God the Father uttering demonic words at pagan spectacles.[43]

The repressive imperial legislation in 399-401 and the attempts to bring it into force created tension in the relationships between polytheists and Christians as well as between Christian extremists and Christian incerti partaking in urban festivals. There were disturbances and riots in different parts of the Empire though the most evidence we have comes from the Eastern and North African provinces.

Although Augustine’s attitudes had became severer than earlier, he seems to have tried to protect the incerti Christians of his episcopate from the aggressions of the hard-line Christians. In the sermon cited above (sermo 62), he tried to convince his listeners that he believed that the Christians who had participated in urban festivals had acted with a clear conscience and been aware of the vanity of idols; nevertheless, in their strength they might have endangered their weaker brothers.[44]

Augustine also attempts to calm down the excited feelings of riotous crowds on several occasions. Extremist Christians were not allowed to attack and destroy pagan shrines on private property because that would be illegal, he asserts. He adds that when they are admitted to devastate shrines, they may do it but as long as the power has not been given them, they ought not to do it. Sooner or later even local authorities will become Christians and God will give the shrines into Christian hands. In the meantime, idolatry should be demolished in another, more spiritual way. The idols should be broken in the pagans’ hearts, i.e., they should first be converted to Christianity and then they would invite Christians to tear down shrines or do this themselves. Before they were converted, the only thing that the Christians could do was to pray for them. Augustine affirms that Christians should deal gently with pagans so that they might convert. Meanwhile, their celebrations and spectacles should be forsaken. Augustine’s approach is tactically well thought out since the initial impression of his position is tolerant. Nevertheless, his attitude shows a patronising sense of superiority towards otherness, the wretched pagans who are still extant, particularly when he compares them with foolish children, playing in the mud and dirtying their hands. Finally, their strict teacher cleans the mud from their hands.[45]

The purpose of Augustine’s sermon was twofold: on the one hand, he had to soothe agitated feelings so that the too eager hard-liners of his flock would not commit crimes against the local government. On the other hand, he had to assure the hard-liners that Christianisation was in progress and procedures against idolatry would be taken when the time was ripe. Once again, Augustine’s main concern is the incerti Christians. It was useless to demolish idols in shrines and temples if idols still remained in the hearts of converts.[46]

In spite of Augustine’s efforts to defuse the heated situation, in 401 in Carthage Christian crowds attacked pagan shrines, thus reacting against the moderation of the legislation by the government and local authorities. Christian enthusiasts shaved off the gilded beard from a statue of Hercules. Augustine was forced to balance between condescending leniency towards pagans and harsh language against paganism. He had to calm down Christian aggression and illegal actions and at the same time to throw rhetorical compliments to hard-liners and praise their religious fervour.[47] Augustine stresses the unity and obedience of his flock in action: Christians were not to proceed until their priests and bishop ordered them to do so. Though their goal, the total annihilation of paganism, was mutual, the clergy wanted to introduce other, more legal, methods to Christian crowds and control their actions.[48] After his appeal for moderation, Augustine comforts Christians, saying that the Christian God had decided and had foretold that all the pagan superstition will be destroyed. Then, the bishop passes on to his routine criticism of pagan deities, in this case ridiculing Hercules.[49]


Tempting pagans

After the years 399-401, the tone in the exhortations of Christian leaders (Augustine, Quoduultdeus, Caesarius Arelatensis) does not differ much from the absolute ban on frequenting urban entertainments by Tertullian and Novatian. Spectacles and feasts were the cult of the devil and his demons.  Caesarius of Arles and Quoduultdeus denounce the spectacles with very similar expressions to those employed by Tertullian and Novatian, e.g., Caesarius brands all the spectacles as the pomp of the devil (pompa diaboli) and Quoduultdeus urges Christians to flee the diabolic theatre and spectacles.[50]

The polarisation of positions is reflected in the relationship with the imperial government. The attitudes of bishops, including Augustine, to religious coercion evolved into more rigorous positions. Several bishops gave their spiritual support to the imperial policy of religious coercion.[51] In legitimising the harsh legislation and procedures of the imperial government, Christian opinion leaders argued that, in fact, it was the duty of the emperors to force people to adopt the uera religio Christiana.[52] For the most part, the legislation was targeted at Christian sects defined as heretical but also at polytheists.

The Christian church exerted effective pressure on imperial government, for example, the council of Carthage held in 401 insisted on removing the pagan shrines and idols still extant and forbidding banquets (conuiuia). In the records of the council, it was stated that these banquets tempted Christians to pagan falsehood in such a manner that pagans compelled Christians to take part in these celebrations (quae ab errore gentili adtracta sunt, ita ut nunc a paganis christiani ad haec celebranda cogantur). In an interesting reversion, the bishops argue that in this way a new persecution had begun, even under the Christian emperors (ex qua re temporibus christianorum imperatorum persecutio altera fieri occulte uideatur).[53] According to the bishops, it was the Christians who were coerced, not the pagans. In other texts Christian leaders complain of the temptations and pressure that the pagan crowds put on infirm Christians. The abductions where pagans ‘kidnapped’ their Christian friends to attend the circus, amphitheatre, feasts and banquets are a recurrent theme in these lamentations.[54]


Hard-liners in the fifth century
The incerti Christians and their participation in urban festivities were quite a nuisance for bishops as late as in the mid-fifth century, and even later, as the persistent New Year celebrations (Kalendae Ianuariae) demonstrate. Games in the circus (ludi circenses) were still as essential as the distribution of grain for the urban population. The bishops of Rome, Leo and Gelasius, complain of continuous attendance at festivals, games and spectacles. They both insist on making the choice between Christian and pagan. In one of his sermons, Leo writes: “I am shamed to say this but I may not keep silent. People spend more (money) on demons than on the apostles and frequent more often insane spectacles than the holy places of martyrs.”[55]

In a similar way, Salvian of Marseille, in the sixth book of his De gubernatione Dei, attacks Christians who participated in festivals and spectacles, reminding his readers that the spectacles were idolatry and therefore to be abhorred. At baptism, Christians had sworn to give up the devil, his pomp and spectacles. By frequenting pagan spectacles, Christians took part in idolatry and offended the Christian God.[56]

The well-known incident concerning the Lupercalia in the fifth century is an example of the controversy over urban festivities. Gelasius, Bishop of Rome, forbade Christians to take part in the celebration. I am not going to reiterate the whole episode; what I am interested in is Gelasius’ argumentation in which he gives reasons for his decision which was criticised by Christian aristocrats.[57]

Before Gelasius, most laywomen and laymen as well as the clergy had regarded the Lupercalia as quite a neutral and harmless festivity. The celebration tolerated by Gelasius’ predecessors was now redefined as suspicious and dangerous for Christian souls. It is essential for Gelasius to label this local festival not only as a useless but also a harmful pagan superstition. The Christian aristocrats, who argued for the celebration, had obviously pleaded the beneficial effects of the Lupercalia for the community since Gelasius reverses their arguments: the aristocrats had themselves offended against the festival because they no longer observed the rites meticulously enough and in the proper way of their ancestors. Therefore, it would be far better not to celebrate the festival at all. If the aristocrats were to celebrate it properly, they should themselves take part in it, gambolling naked like their forefathers, and should not let the plebs perform the rites in their place. Because the aristocrats were ashamed to participate in the performance proper, it was clear that the celebration was a public offence (crimen publicum), neither a salutary rite (salus) nor a cult of a divinity (diuinitatis cultus). It was merely an instrument of perversion (instrumenta prauitatum).[58] When ancestral customs were futile and empty (uentilata), they should be abandoned. Gelasius rejected the leniency of his predecessors, stating that participation in the Lupercalia was not justified even by imperial policies.[59]

According to Gelasius, the Lupercalia belonged only to pagans, and no baptised person, no Christian was allowed to celebrate. Gelasius applied the pagan – Christian dichotomy introduced by Tertullian and other churchmen and insisted upon segregation from the pagan: a Christian could not sit at both the Lord’s table and at the banquet of demons.[60] Gelasius demanded that Christians take their stand clearly, to fix their steps firmly (figite gradum), to decide who they were. Sneering at the aristocrats, who performed the ancient rites in an insufficient manner, he aimed at polarising the positions. Romans had to EITHER celebrate pagan rites completely as pagans OR give up them as vain superstition (uana superstitio). They had to make an EITHER – OR choice. The vague self-identification of the ambiguous incerti Christians was the most annoying feature for the bishop piloting the Christian church. Gelasius called the defenders of the Lupercalia non-Christians and non-pagans (nec Christiani nec pagani).[61] He wanted to insult his opponents in this manner but at the same time he articulated what incerti Christians really were: at the same time they are and are not Christians and pagans.


[1] Aug. c. Faust. 20.4.1: … sacrificia uero eorum uertistis in agapes, idola in martyres, quos uotes similibus colitis; defunctorum umbras uino placates et dapibus. Sollemnes gentium dies cum ipsis celebratis, ut Kalendas et solstitia. De uita certe mutastis nihil: estis sane schisma a matrice sua diuersum nihil habens nisi conuentum. … Quare constat uos atque Iudaeos schismata esse gentilitatis, cuius fidem tenentes et ritus modice quamuis inmutatos de sola conuentuum diuisione putatis vos esse sectas.

[2] I have decided use the term ‘pagan’ because no suitable expression has evolved. Changing the word ‘pagan’ to, e.g., ‘polytheist’ would not alter the hierarchical opposition of Christian – non-Christian. Furthermore, telescoping the abundant variety of Greek, Roman and other cults, beliefs and practices into a single ‘pagan’, polytheist or non-Christian pattern distorts them anyway.

[3] M. KAHLOS, Incerti in Between – Moments of Transition and Dialogue in Christian Apologetics, (an article forthcoming); M. KAHLOS, Antithese und incerti – Vorwürfe und Umwürfe (an article, forthcoming).

[4] It is hardly a coincidence that the same either–or -formulation is still repeated in modern scholarship. Like the church fathers, modern scholars often ask what made the ’pagan’ celebrations ’pagan’. 

[5] Tert. spect. 5.1-8 surveys the origins of spectacles in order to verify their idolatrous (i.e., cultic) foundation. For the same reason, he lists (6.1-2) the deities involved in various spectacles.

[6] Tert. spect. 4.4: It was of utmost importance to clarify item by item what was idolatry and what was not, what had to be rejected and what was safe: Si quid ex his non ad idolum pertinuerit, id neque ad idololatriam neque ad nostram eierationem pertinebit.

[7] Tert. spect. passim, e.g. 4.1: Quid erit summum atque praecipuum, in quo diabolus et pompae et angeli eius censeantur, quam idololatria?; 4.3: … quae diabolo et pompae et angelis eius sint mancipata, scilicet per idololatriam. Similarly Novat. spect. 4.1-5 calls idolatry the mother of all games: Idololatria … ludorum omnium mater est, and Lact. div. 6.20.34 connects games to the cult of pagan gods: Nam ludorum celebrationes deorum festa sunt.

[8] Tert. spect. 7.3.

[9] Novat. spect. 1.3-2.4. Cf. Tert. idol. 14.3; spect. 20.1-2.

[10] Cyprian in his Ad Donatum 7-8. Irenaeus (haer. 1.6.3) already found it suspicious that Gnostic Christians frequented spectacles and ate the meat offered in sacrifice to pagan gods. For a survey of the attitudes of church fathers, see W. WEISMANN, Kirche und Schauspiele, Würzburg, 1972.

[11] Novat. spect. 4.2: Quid inter haec christianus fidelis facit, si idolatriam fugit?

[12] Tertull. idol. 24.3. See also Tert. spect. 4.1-3; 24.1-3; 3.2: non ibis in circum, non in theatrum, agonem, munus non spectabis; 8.7: Animaduerte, Christiane, quot nomina inmunda possederint circum. Aliena est tibi regio, quam tot diaboli spiritus occupauerunt.

[13] R. LANE FOX, Pagans and Christians, London, 1986, p. 666.

[14] M. KAHLOS, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus – A Senatorial Life in Between, Roma, 2002 (Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae 26); M. R. SALZMAN, On Roman Time: The Codex Calendar of 354 and the Rhythms of Urban life in Late Antiquity, Berkeley & Los Angeles & Oxford, 1990, p. 21-22, 197, 219; M. BEARD – J. NORTH – S. PRICE, Religions of Rome I, Oxford, 1998, p. 377-378, 382-383. The Codex Calendar of 354 by Philocalus, which lists both traditional urban festivals and Christian feasts, is an example of the atmosphere of the peaceful coexistence in mid-fourth century Rome.

[15] See n. 1.

[16] For the reactions, see e.g. M. BEARD – J. NORTH – S. PRICE, Religions of Rome I, p. 377-378; G. FOWDEN, Polytheist Religion and Philosophy in The Cambridge Ancient History Vol. XIII, The Late Empire, A.D. 337-425, ed. Averil Cameron & P. Garnsey, Cambridge, 1998, p. 538-560: p. 542; K. SHELTON, The Esquiline Treasure, London, 1981, p. 65.

[17] Tertullian (spect. 20.2 and coron. 6.3) calls them suauiludii, lovers of games.

[18] Both pagans and Christians took part in the celebrations of the New Year (Kalendae Ianuariae), in which various elements, ‘religious’ ones as well as the elements of the social life of community, have been intertwined in an inseparable amalgam. The celebration of Kalendae Ianuariae was allowed in imperial legislation but the church fathers objected to the celebration because public and private sacrifices and auspices, nocturnal dances and drunkenness were involved in it, e.g., John Chrysostom, hom. in Kalendas 1-3 (PG 48.953-957) and Maximus of Torino, serm. 98. For the history of the Kalendae Ianuariae, see M. MESLIN, La fête des kalendes de janvier dans l’empire romain, Bruxelles, 1970.

[19] Petr. Chrys. serm. 155, CC 24B.964: Sed dicit aliquis: non sunt haec sacrilegiorum studia, uota sunt haec iocorum; et hoc esse nouitatis laetitiam, non uetustatis errorem; esse hoc anni principium, non gentilitatis offensam.

[20] Aug. enarr. in ps. 88.2.14: Ad idola quidem uado, arreptitios et sortilegos consulo, sed tamen Dei ecclesiam non relinquo; catholicus sum. Cf. Jacob of Seroug, hom. de spect. 5 (Homily on the Spectacles 5), cited by R. A. MARKUS, The End of Ancient Christianity, Cambridge, 1990, p. 104: “I do not go there that I may believe but that I might laugh.”

[21] Aug. enarr. in ps. 50.1.

[22] Aug. doctr. 2.25.38. MARKUS, The End of Ancient Christianity, p. 112; V. BURRUS, In the Theater of This Life: The Performance of Orthodoxy in Late Antiquity in The Limits of Ancient Christianity. Essays on Late Antique Thought and Culture in Honor of R.A. Markus, ed. W.E. Klingshirn & M. Vessey, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1999, p. 80-96: p. 80; H. JÜRGENS, Pompa diaboli. Die lateinischen Kirchenväter und das antike Theater, Stuttgart, 1972; W. WEISMANN, Kirche und Schauspiele. Die Schauspiele im Urteil der Kirchenväter unter besondere Berücksichtigung von Augustin, Würzburg, 1972. Augustine describes his youthful enthusiasm for theatre in Conf. 2.3.

[23] MARKUS, The End of Ancient Christianity, p. 118-119, 121.

[24] Aug. doctr. 2.40.25: Sed haec tota pars humanorum institutorum, quae sunt ad usum uitae necessarium proficiunt, nequaquam est fugienda christiano; immo etiam, quantum satis est, intuenda memoriaque retinenda.

[25] Aug. doctr. 2.40.26: … ea uero quae homines cum hominibus habent, assumenda, in quantum non sunt luxuriosa atque superflua. … Vtilia sunt ista nec discuntur inlicite nec superstitione implicant nec luxu eneruant, …

[26] Aug. serm. 9.17: … abstinete uos a detestabilibus corruptelis, a detestabilibus inquisitionibus, a mathematicis, ab haruspicibus, a sortilogis, ab auguribus, a sacris sacrilegis; abstinete vos, quantum potestis, a nugatoriis spectaculis.

[27] Aug. serm. 104 (probably in 393). J. W. HALPORN, Saint Augustine Sermon 104 and the epulae venerales in JAC 19, 1976, p. 82-108.

[28] Aug. serm. 62 was delivered in Carthage in 399 when some of his parishioners had taken part in the local feast in honour of the genius of Carthage and had thus insulted other, stricter Christians. In his sermon, Augustine tried to calm down the agitated feelings of the hard-liners.

[29] Aug. serm. 62.4.7: Nouit, inquit, deus cor meum. Sed frater tuus non nouit cor tuum. Si infirmus es, caue maiorem aegritudinem: si firmus es, cura fratris infirmitatem. Qui uident ista, aedificantur ad alia, ut non tantum ibi manducare, sed et sacrificare desiderent. Ecce perit infirmus in tua scientia frater. … Et cum recubuerint in idolio, ueniant et impleant ecclesiam. Augustine cites Paul the Apostle (1. Cor. 8) and appeals to the firmer Christians with exactly the same arguments as Paul.

[30] Aug. serm. 62.6.9: Paganos reliquos colligi uolumus, lapides estis in uia; uenire uolentes offendunt, et redeunt. Dicunt enim in cordibus suis: Quare nos relinquamus deos, quos Christiani ipsi nobiscum colunt? Absit, a me, inquit, ut ego deos gentium colam. Noui, intelligo, credo. Quid facis de conscientia infirmi, quam percutis?

[31] Aug. enarr. in ps. 25.2.14: Ita et paganus quidem (et de illis potius loquamur uelut bene uiuentibus) patentibus oculis est in tenebris; quia non agnoscit lucem suam dominum; christianus autem male uiuens, in luce quidem est nonnisi Dei, sed clausis oculis.

[32] P. BROWN, Religious Coercion in the Late Roman Empire: The Case of North Africa in History 46, 1961, p. 283-305 = P. BROWN, Religion and So­ciety in the Age of Saint Augustine, London, 1972, p. 301-331: p. 302 criticized the rigid dichotomy between church and state often constructed in modern scholarship and speaks of a ‘symbiosis’ between the imperial and episcopal authority in religious coercion.

[33] Aug. enarr. in ps. 96.7 (in 399): sic ignem, quomodo gladium; nam et quodam loco ait non se uenisse pacem mittere in terram, sed gladium. Gladium ad separationem, ignem ad ustionem; sed utrumque salubrem, quia et gladius uerbi ipsius salubriter nos separauit a consuetudine mala. Gladium enim adtulit, et separauit unumquemque fidelium aut a patre suo qui in Christum non crediderat, aut a matre similiter infideli; aut certe, si de parentibus christianis natus est, saltem a progenie sua priore. Nemo enim nostrum non aut auum, aut proauum, aut aliquam antiquam originem in gentibus habuit, et in illa exsecrabili deo infidelitate: separati sumus ab eo quod eramus.

[34] Aug. enarr. in ps. 96.7: Quos inimicos eius? Qui deserto deo a quo facti erant, adorabant simulacra quae fecerant. Ipsi incendebantur, si mali erant, ad consumtionem; si boni erant, ad reparationem; aut ipse incendebatur, qui nolebat credere, illo igne, audito uerbo dei factus peior, inuidia sua exustus atque consumtus; aut si conuerteretur et crederet, nec sic in illo nihil arsisset. Arserat enim fenum, ut purgaretur aurum.

[35] Aug. serm. 198.1: Et modo si solemnitas gentium, quae fit hodierno die in laetitia saeculi atque carnali, in strepitu uanissimarum et turpissimarum cantionum, in conuiuiis et saltationibus turpibus, in celebratione ipsius falsae festiuitatis, si ea quae agunt gentes non vos delectent, congregabimini ex gentibus; 198.2: Si non credis quod credunt gentes, non speras quod sperant gentes, non amas quod amant gentes; congregaris de gentibus, segregaris, hoc est separaris de gentibus.

[36] Aug. serm. 198.2: Nec te terreat commixtio corporalis in tanta separatione mentis. Acturus es celebrationem strenarum, sicut paganus, lusurus alea, et inebriaturus te … Segregaris enim de gentibus, mixtus corpore gentibus, dissimili vita. Si autem misceris gentibus, non vis sequi eum qui te redemit: misceris autem gentibus vita, factis, corde, talia credendo, talia sperando, talia diligendo.

[37] E.g. Aug. cat. rud. 19.31. For the theme of the interwovenness in this lifetime and the ultimate separation at the end of this world, see M. KAHLOS, Incerti in Between – Moments of Transition and Dialogue in Christian Apologetics (forthcoming).

[38] Aug. ciu. 18.49. The theme of the nets of the church full of fish recurs in Augustine’s sermons 248-252.

[39] Petr. Chrys. sermo 155.5: Qui iocari uoluerit cum diabolo, non poterit gaudere cum Christo. Nemo cum serpente securus ludit: nemo cum diabolo iocatur inpune.

[40] The juxtaposition of the Christian community and this world and the metaphors of Jerusalem and Babylon recur numerous times in apologetic literature. J. VAN OORT, Jerusalem and Babylon, Leiden, 1991.

[41] Aug. enarr. in Ps. 61.10: Qui sollemnitatibus Ierusalem implent ecclesias, sollemnitatibus Babyloniae implent theatra; et tamen seruiunt, honorant, obsequuntur, non solum ipsi qui portant sacramenta Christi et oderunt praecepta Christi, uerum etiam illi qui nec sacramenta ipsa portant, pagani licet sint, Iudaei licet sint; honorant, laudant, praedicant, sed ore suo benedicebant. Non adtendo ad os; nouit ille qui me instruxit, corde suo maledicebant; Aug. cat. rud. 25.48: Animaduersurus etiam quod illae turbae impleant ecclesias per dies festos Christianorum, quae implent et theatra per dies sollemnes paganorum; et haec uidendo ad imitandum tentaberis. … non enim nescis multos qui appellantur Christiani, haec omnia mala operari … Et aliquanto fortasse grauiora facere homines non ignoras, quos nosti appellari Christianos. Sed si hoc animo uenisti, ut quasi securus talia facias, multum erras.

[42] Aug. serm. 62.12.18. Cfr. Aug. enarr. in ps. 30.1.2; 80.2; 84.15; Aug. serm. 51.1.

[43] Sever. Antioch. cath. hom. 26 (PO 36.541-557).

[44] Aug. serm. 62.(4).7; 62.(6).9-10. Cfr. n. 30.

[45] Aug serm. 62.(11).17-62.(12).18.

[46] Aug serm. 62.(11).17-62.(12).18.

[47] Aug. serm. 24.5: Animus uester et studium fidei, et flagrantia caritatis, et abundantia sancti zeli domus dei.

[48] Aug. serm. 24.5: Sed quoniam uoluntas agendi de his de quibus acclamastis, una est et nostra et uestra – modus uero agendi par esse non potest – putamus, carissimi, ideo oportere ut uoluntas accipiatur a uobis, consilium implendae uoluntatis uestrae expectetur a nobis.

[49] Aug. serm. 24.6: Vt enim omnis paganorum et gentilium superstitio deleatur, deus uult, deus iussit, deus praedixit, deus implere iam coepit, et in multis iam terrarum locis etiam ex magna parte compleuit.

[50] Caes. Arelat. serm. 12.4: Omnia spectacula … pompae diaboli sunt. Quodu. symb. 1.2.3: Fugite, dilectissimi, spectacula, fugite caueas turpissimas diaboli, ne uos uincula teneant maligni; 2.1.4: renuntiemus diabolo, pompis et angelis eius. Cyrill. Hieros. cat. myst. 1.6; Ioann. Chrys. hom. in Io. 1.4 (PG 59.29); Salv. gub. 6.6.31-34. The older Augustine was explicitly severe in his denunciation of theatre and spectacles, e.g., Aug. ciu. 1.31; 1.32; 4.26: diabolo seruiretur; Aug. serm. 301A (= serm. Denis 17.7).

[51] BROWN, Religious Coercion, p. 308 stresses the decisive role of local bishops in religious coercion and holds Augustine indirectly responsible for riots in 399.

[52] Around 400, Augustine (e.g., c. Faust. 13.7; 13.9; 22.38; 22.60) rejoices in the Christianisation process promoted by the Christian emperors. However, after 410, his views of the secular Christian government have become more reserved (particularly shown in ciu. 18.33. For the changes in Augustine’s attitudes towards secular power, see P. BROWN, St. Augustine’s Attitude to Religious Coercion in JRS 54, 1964, p. 107-116 = P. BROWN, Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Au­gustine, London, 1972, p. 260-278; R. A. MARKUS, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of Saint Augustine, Cambridge, 1970, p. 22-71 and K. FLASCH, Augustin. Einführung in sein Denken, Stuttgart, 1994, p. 382-383.

[53] Council of Carthage in 401, Reg. eccl. Carth. 60, CC 149 (p.197): Illud etiam petendum ut, quoniam contra praecepta divina conuiuia multis in locis exercentur, quae ab errore gentili adtracta sunt, ita ut nunc a paganis christiani ad haec celebranda cogantur – ex qua re temporibus christianorum imperatorum persecutio altera fieri occulte uideatur …

[54] E.g., Aug. enarr. in ps. 80.11; 50.1; Aug. enarr. in ps. 80.2-3 complains of Christians who, after the church services, rushed to the spectacles. The pressure of friends: Aug. enarr. in ps. 85.15; 90.10; Aug. conf. 6.8.23-24 of Alypius, whom the friends dragged to the amphitheatre.

[55] Leo serm. 84.1 (SC 200, 71.1): Pudet me dicere, sed necesse est non tacere: plus impenditur daemoniis quam apostolis, et maiorem obtinent frequentiam insane spectacula quam beata martyria. It was hardly a coincidence that several feasts in memory of martyrs were celebrated on the same days as Roman spectacles. A. FRASCHETTI, La conversione: da Roma pagana a Roma cristiana, Roma, 1999, p. 307-309. In 400 (CTh 2.8.23), the performance of spectacles was prohibited on Sundays in order to prevent Christians from neglecting the rituals of the Church: Die dominico, cui nomen ex ipsa reuerentia inditum est, nec ludi theatrales nec equorum certamina nec quicquam, quod ad molliendos animos repertum est, spectaculorum in ciuitate aliqua celebretur.

[56] Salvian. gub. 6.59-61: … maiestas divina uiolatur. Dubium non est quod laedunt deum, utpote idolis consecratae … Admisceri enim huic (sc. spectaculo) Christianum hominem superstitioni genus est sacrilegii, quia eorum cultibus communicat, quorum festiuitatibus delectatur; 6.31: renuntiare diabolo ac pompis eius et spectaculis atque angelius eius. See also Salv. gub. 6.22-23; 6.34; 6.58.

[57] Gelas. ep. 100 ad Andromachum. The writer is usually identified with Gelasius, sometimes with Felix III. Gelasius’ letter is discussed by G. POMARÈS, Gélase Ier, Lettre contre les Lupercales, Paris, 1965 (Sources Chrétiennes 65), p. 20-51.

[58] Gelas. ep. 100.16-17: si offensio Lupercaliorum nobis aduersa procurauit, uestra culpa est. … Satius fuerat non agere quam ea cum iniuria celebrare … ipsi celebrate more maiorum, ipsi cum resticulo nudi discurrite, ut rite uestrae salutis ludibria peragatis … ipsa uerecundia uestra uos doceat crimen esse publicum, non salutem et non diuinitatis cultum, de quo sapiens nullus erubescit, sed instrumenta prauitatum.

[59] Gelas. ep. 100.28-31: Nihilominus multis temporibus paganitatis superstitio uentilata est. Sacrificetur in templis daemonum et in Capitolio profana uanitas celebretur! … cur portio quantouis tempore uentilata non possit auferri? Si temporibus praescribitur, imputate maioribus vestris, qui cum hac temporis praescriptione non usi sint, posse, quod superfluum est, et debere remoueri, dum plura et maiora submota sunt, indicarunt.

[60] Gelas. ep. 100.30: Postremo, quod ad me pertinet, nullus baptizatus, nullus Christianus hoc celebret et soli hoc pagani, quorum ritus est, exsequantur; 100.9: Non potes enim mensae domini participare et mensae daemoniorum nec calicem domini bibere et calicem daemoniorum, non potes templum dei esse et templum diaboli, lux simul et tenebrae in te conuenire non possunt. (Cfr. 1. Cor. 10.21; 2. Cor. 6.14.); 100.29: … cur tardius auferatur, quod superstitiosum constat et uanum, quod certe Christianae professioni non conuenire manifestum est.

[61] Gelas. ep. 100.19: Dicite nobis, nec Christiani nec pagani, ubique perfidi nusquam fideles, ubique corrupti nusquam integri … Lupercaliorum patroni et re uera digni talis ludibrii et cantilenarum turpium defensores, digni magistri uesaniae.



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