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The Archaeology of Late Antique “Paganism”

July 2013 (117.3)

Book Review

The Archaeology of Late Antique “Paganism”

Edited by Luke Lavan and Michael Mulryan (Late Antique Archaeology 7). Pp. lxv + 642, figs. 60. Brill, Leiden 2011. $255. ISBN 978-90-04-19237-9 (cloth).

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Based on a 2005 conference in Leuven, the papers in this collection include revisions and bibliography up to 2008. Lavan’s introduction, a call for a “new narrative” (xv–lvi), sets a clear agenda of revisionist reexamination of the prevailing narrative of Late Antique religious conflict between “paganism” and Christianity, with special emphasis on the abandonment, closure, destruction, reuse, or conversion to churches of temples between the third and seventh centuries C.E. Eight core regional studies are preceded by two bibliographic essays and three studies of special topics and followed by two papers each on statuary and well or spring deposits, with a final paper on the decline of pagan iconography on domestic objects from Sagalassos. As directed by the introduction, the focus of most is very much on archaeological and material evidence for conversion to Christianity. The collection participates in the fast-moving debate that now includes Cameron’s compendious critique of the theory of “pagan conflict” or “pagan reaction” against Christianity and Christian emperors; any “new narrative” on these topics must consider his The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford 2011), more narrowly focused on the Roman aristocracy but also more radical and more detailed than most of these studies.

With Lavan’s introductory historiography, the core of the collection is the set of eight regional studies of late temples, half in the West and half in the East, between the late third and the seventh centuries. Three of four studies on temples in the West are unillustrated regional surveys of the archaeological evidence for abandonment, destruction, and reuse or overbuilding of temples. Goodman on Gaul, Arce on Hispania, and Sears on North Africa all find their regions to be exceptions to the accepted narrative of late fourth- or fifth-century violent destruction and conversion to churches. Goodman finds the archaeology of third-century abandonments, at most 10 destructions ca. 400 C.E., and reuse of temple sites only long after (as cemeteries, or sites or spolia for various domestic, civic, defensive, or church buildings) does not accord with the Christian literature, especially Sulpicius Severus on the mission of St. Martin. For Arce, the lack of a similar Spanish hagiography means that the local literary tradition supports the archaeological absence of evidence for any Christian violence against pagan sites in Spain. Abandoned temples and civic buildings alike are adapted to domestic and commercial uses in the fourth through sixth centuries. The single church in an ex-temple (Tarraco) is attested only in the eighth. Sears argues the likelihood that evidence from Numidia, Africa, and possibly Cyrenaica would conform to a similar chronology if reexcavation of dateable late layers, mostly cleared without documentation, were possible. Mulryan represents Italy by a case study of a restored temple of Flora (or Venus) near the Circus Maximus in Rome, which should be corrected by reference to Cameron (esp. ch. 8).

Four studies for the East present similar evidence for the rarity of violent temple destruction, the uncertainty of its causes, whether military or Christian attack or natural disaster, and the even greater rarity and usually late date of direct conversion of temples into churches. Conversion of secular buildings to churches is more common and earlier than conversion of temples, while temples are more often reused for other purposes, including as spolia. Saradi and Eliopoulos on Greece include a survey of evidences for other late pagan religious practices, conventionally attributed to the Neoplatonic elite of Athens. Deligiannakis, on the Aegean Islands, and Talloen and Vercauteren, on Anatolia, emphasize the extremely local conditions (often not retrievable in detail) that may lead to the observed range of outcomes for particular temples. Dijkstra on Egypt synthesizes the most coherent “new narrative” of the material from the First Cataract nome.

As the temple studies include bibliographies, the “Bibliographic Essays” pertain more to the framing thematic studies (Demarsin) and regional archaeology and material culture studies (Mulryan) on Late Antique “paganism.” Together, they afford newcomers access to the professional discourse, dominated as it is by problems posed by Christianization. Demarsin’s concise summaries of the main stages in scholarly interpretation of issues such as late history of particular cults and the secularization or Christianization of imperial cult or aristocratic culture favor traditional religious/cultural historical approaches over the more critical prosopographical analyses of scholars such as Barnes, von Haeling, Mathisen, and Cameron. His short account of burial at least contains a thread (Ferrua) that will lead a novice back to the long, continuous European tradition of scholarship on pagan-Christian shared cemeteries and tombs, which has apparently fallen out of current Anglo-American Late Antique studies. (It does not inspire confidence that Mulryan and his editors are apparently unaware that the Catacomb of Via Dino Compagni is the Via Latina Catacomb [76].)

Three thematic essays on the development of paganism in late antiquity begin with Van Nuffelen’s defense of philosophical sources for Eusebius’ characterization of paganism as a unitary un-Christianity based on concepts of one universal divine truth, accessible through mysteries. As such, it is a dialectical product of common Late Antique religious thought, not a deliberate Christian travesty. Caseau’s account of pagan “adaptation under duress” (111–34) correlates putative transitions from civic/public to private to secret pagan practice to stages of imperial legislation against particular practices, mostly in the Theodosian Code. She notes without explaining them the occasional evidences of Late Antique revival of cult practices at extra-urban (but not necessarily secret) pagan sites, especially caves and springs, disused in the high empire. Sixth-century lamps deposited at Vari are treated as remains of pagan night (secret) offerings by a closed circle of Athenian Neoplatonists (131), rather than evidence of the ambiguity of religious identity (archaeologically and perhaps in historical fact) in a common practice of ritual (Lavan [xlii, l–li]; Saradi and Eliopoulos [287–88, 304]). Gwynn rehashes some problems of the old case for late fourth-century classicism as evidence of “pagan revival” in Rome.

On statues, Lavan establishes an intermediate category of civic statuary (Victories, Tyches, founding heroes, emperors present and past, and possibly Minerva as a city godddess) that may have been considered a continuing requisite of state power and therefore handled differently from statues regarded as religiously challenging and statues treated as antiquarian art. Caseau summarily surveys destroyed, damaged, or preserved caches of “pagan” statuary and some problems of interpretation. Sauer suggests the discontinuities in Roman coin finds in (mostly German) springs reflect availability of coins more than changes in the religious meaning of springs, which might well continue unchanged into the Medieval period, to which the surviving texts pertain. Gerrard interprets the Drapers’ Gardens well deposit as a closure ritual at the end of the Roman period in London. Finally, Talloen describes the persistence of Dionysiac imagery (mostly on wine vessels) into the mid fifth century C.E. in Sagalassos and its gradual supercession by Christian or neutral imagery in the century following, when Christian figurines of mounted warriors also appear.

The collection fulfills the mission of the series to represent the state of research and admits the reader to active participation in the evolving debates, even among the contributors, over the proper interpretation of material evidences of religious change. It will be important for scholars of early Christianity as much as of late “paganism.”

Alice Christ
School of Art and Visual Studies
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky 40506-0022

Book Review of The Archaeology of Late Antique Paganism, edited by Luke Lavan and Michael Mulryan

Reviewed by Alice Christ

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 3 (July 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1173.Christ


I don't argue for a pagan revival or a 'pagan party', or any one particular temple restorer. The temple in question I suggest is also unclear. Cameron himself argues for a joint restoration of the Temple of Flora by Symmachus and Praetextatus (Cameron (2011) chapter 8: 296-98).

The only corrective I can see, therefore, in the light of Cameron's book is that he argues that 'paganism' had largely died out already by the mid 4th c. in Rome (it was 'mortally dead' in his words), whereas I argue that elements survived. In the light of compelling archaeological, legal and calendrical evidence for the remaining 99.9% of the population (cult object finds in late roman contexts, repeated anti-pagan laws, traditional festival culture in the calendar), I completely stick to my guns.

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