From periphery to centre: pagan continuity and revival in Britain and Rome during the late fourth century AD

From periphery to centre: pagan continuity and revival in Britain and Rome during the late fourth century AD

By Carmela Maria Ranieri

Master’s Thesis, Durham University, 2008

A Latin map of the British Isles (Insulae Britannicae): Ireland (Hybernia) and Britain (Alvion), based on Ptolemy's Geography. Note the positioning of Scotland at a right angle to the rest of Britain.

In light of recent archaeological evidence regarding rural temples and the Christianisation of the countryside in the Roman Empire, a re-examination af the cancept and forms of pagan worship existent in the late fourth century is necessary in order to accommodate these new findings. Firstly, it is af vital importance to attempt to defme the extremely broad term that is ‘paganism’ and to select the specific areas that will be addressed. The colloquial term pagani, which frrst appeared in Christian inscriptions of the early fourth century, ‘likely referred to civilian non-believers who had not been baptised. However, it must be noted that the oldest sense o f the classical Latin term paganus meant ‘of the country’ or ‘rustic’. It has been argued that the transferred use reflects the fact that the ancient idolatry lingered on in the rural villages and hamlets after Christianity had been generally accepted in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire.

From its earliest beginnings, Christianity is believed to have spread much more rapidly in major urban areas (such as Antioch, Alexandria, Corinth and Rome) than in the countryside. In fact, the early church was almost entirely urban and saon the word for country dweller became synonymous with someone who was not a Christian, giving rise to the modem meaning of ‘pagan’. This may, in part, owe much to the conservative nature of rural people, who could have been more resistant to the new ideas of Christianity than those who lived in major urban centres. However, it may have also resulted from early Christian missionaries focusing their efforts within major population centres rather than throughout an expansive yet sparsely populated countryside.

The term ‘cult acts’ has also been posited as a mare apt description of Roman religious practice, and this certainly does account for the panoply of practices of a religious nature that existed in the Roman world; differences in culture, class, geography and ancestry led individuals to seek religious affiliations unique to themselves? A distinction must also be made between state supported cults and regional private cults which never received official consecration of their places of worship. Long before Theodosius I closed sanctuaries and outlawed sacrifice, public funding, imperial grants and city taxes no longer funded temples belonging to cities in the second half of the fourth century. However, there is evidence to suggest that in the countryside especially, cult acts were far from defunct at this time and even survived well into the fifth century. This is true regarding the status of temples also during the second half of the fourth century, at a time when the legislation of the Christian emperors was being passed against places of worship as well as certain ritual acts such as sacrifice. Some have claimed that cults were only valid due to the fact that they enjoyed centuries of uninterrupted support and ensured social cohesion as the pillars of tradition within Roman society. However, a large number managed to survive for a time even when support, including fmancial, had ceased.

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