The Final Pagan Generation

The Final Pagan Generation

by Edward J. Watts


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520283701
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/06/2015
Series: Transformation of the Classical Heritage Series , #53
Pages: 344
Sales rank: 271,812
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Edward J. Watts is Alkiviadis Vassiliadis Endowed Chair and Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of Riot in Alexandria and City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria, both from UC Press.

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The Final Pagan Generation

By Edward J. Watts


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95949-1


Growing Up in the Cities of the Gods

The Roman Empire was full of gods in 310. Their temples, statues, and images filled its cities, towns, farms, and wildernesses. Whether they willed it or not, people living within the empire regularly experienced the sight, sound, smell, and taste of the gods' celebration. Traditional divinities also dominated the spiritual space of the empire as figures whose presence could not be sensed but whose actions many felt they could discern. Although such a situation seems quite foreign to the modern Western mind, people of the time saw this as an unremarkable reality that had existed for millennia. Later Romans could draw on a long history of living in a world like this, and they had developed ever more sophisticated technologies and techniques for interacting with the gods around them. The gods belonged to the empire's natural environment, and Romans had spent centuries learning how to make use of this vital resource.

The religious infrastructure of the Roman Empire cannot be equated to the aqueducts, pipes, and fountains that enabled Romans to redirect the water of rivers and streams into their cities and homes, but both systems attempted to channel in productive ways forces that could either sustain life or unleash immense destruction. Indeed, while a water system dependent on aqueducts and pipes differed dramatically from a spiritual system dependent on temples and rituals, both also produced a sort of passive and unconscious acceptance of their necessity. Temples, statues, and festivals were so omnipresent that they mostly faded into the sensory background as a sort of white noise or ambient odor that lurked without much acknowledgment within the empire's physical space.


A short fourth-century catalog of the types of buildings found in the city of Alexandria offers a window into this environment. It lists almost 2,500 temples in the city, nearly one for every twenty houses. Some of these were massive structures, like the Serapeum described in the introduction. The Serapeum sat on the highest spot in the city, an augmented limestone ridge at the southwestern edge of Alexandria's walls. Alexandria was a densely populated city of perhaps five hundred thousand filled with multistory houses and apartment buildings, but the Serapeum mount was visible in much of the city, and the tall temple perched atop it would have been a landmark. The senses of those who visited the site would have been altogether overwhelmed by the abundant and extravagant decorations of Serapis's temple and the other buildings around it. The site was crowded with statues and adorned with fine marbles, precious metals, rare woods, and (probably) jeweled objects. On most days, the indiscriminate rumblings of activity from worshippers and priests milling around the temple, scholars and students consulting the library, patrons and merchants doing business at the neighboring shops, and (on race days) the crowd of people filing into and out of the adjacent Hippodrome provided a wall of white noise that blocked out the regular cacophony of the city. The pleasant odors of incense and other offerings further set the complex apart from the filthy, smelly city that seethed below it.

The sense of physical and sensory separation that an urban monumental temple complex created for its visitors was, however, a luxury that few Romans enjoyed on a regular basis. This was not for lack of piety. Instead, it reflected a far more mundane reality. Massive temples like the Alexandrian Serapeum, the Roman Capitoline temple, or those on the Athenian Acropolis dominated the city's skyline, but their heights, locations, and many stairs made it inconvenient to access them regularly. The Serapeum, for example, was perhaps a thirty-minute walk from the center of the city, a walk that would force one to dodge traffic while enduring dust, smoke, and the stench of all sorts of dung and rot. Once one reached the temple, a climb up nearly a hundred stairs still remained. This could not be a regular part of most people's daily routine.

Fortunately, Alexandrians did not have to go far to encounter a temple. Neighborhood temples filled the city. They likely took many forms and ranged from imposing structures like the Serapeum to structures so modest that a distracted passerby would not notice their presence (see fig. 3). The diversity of Hindu temples one sees in cities in modern India can perhaps help one to imagine this type of environment. If one takes the city of Mathura in Uttar Pradesh as an example, a driver along the main highway to the west of the town will see massive temples like the Jai Gurudev mixed in with temples like the small one dedicated to Hanuman just four-tenths of a mile to its southeast (fig. 4) and another of similar size two miles to its north. Within the cities, one sees even greater diversity. The area around the center of Jaipur, for example, houses major temples like the Birla Mandir (fig. 5) and much smaller ones that are barely larger than a full-grown man (fig. 6). The bigger temples in India tend to have more visitors and dedicated attendants, while smaller temples attract less traffic and are not regularly staffed, but temples of all sizes play an active role in the larger religious life of Hindu communities.

One can see evidence that temples in the later Roman world functioned similarly. Rufinus's description of the Alexandrian Serapeum indicates the presence of a more or less permanent staff of priests and devotees of the god. In the neighboring city of Canopus, one hears about a philosopher who took up residence on the site of the large Serapis temple there and answered questions posed by visitors. Smaller temples, by contrast, were likely not staffed regularly. Priests and priestesses were summoned when their expertise was needed or a sacrifice required. Even without the constant presence of priests, however, these smaller temples could be used regularly. They often made cultic images visible to passers-by and permitted visitors to leave offerings in front of the building. This provided a more flexible way to approach and honor the divine that enabled devotees to worship when and where it was most convenient.

The Roman countryside housed an even greater array of sacred sites. These included large temple complexes, grottoes and other rustic sacred locations, and a large category of rural structures that served, in effect, as temples run by the household that controlled the land. Here too a focus on the size of the temple buildings can obscure their ubiquity. Houses across the empire had their own household shrines that ranged from wall niches to entire rooms that served as the focal point of domestic rituals. On estates, privately administered cult locations would be even larger and possibly designed to visually resemble temple-market complexes. Religion played an intimate role in defining the rhythms of agricultural life, and, for this reason, landowners often erected freestanding temples on their estates that could serve as cultic centers for their laborers. Many of these temples were placed where access points joined the estate to larger roads, a feature that made it possible for both travelers and workers to use them. Although the temples were open to the public, the priesthoods associated with them tended to remain firmly within the family of the estate's owner. The temples also could serve as the center for the family's funerary cult and the rituals associated with it.

The many thousands of temples scattered across the Roman world collectively held millions of images. The Alexandrian Tychaion, one of the 2,500 shrines in that city, occupied most of a city block and was "completely adorned from floor to ceiling" with statues and images of the gods and quasi-divine historical figures like Alexander the Great and Ptolemy Soter. The Tychaion was located across the street from a major bath complex and at a crossroads where two porticoed streets met. If one adds the statues found in the bathhouse and those likely housed in the niches of the porticoes to those housed in the Tychaion, there were probably upward of a hundred different images of gods in and around this one intersection. In the fourth century, the Tychaion was a medium-sized and middle-aged temple. Older and larger sacred precincts would have contained even more images of the gods. In Athens, for example, recent reconstructions of the statuary decorating the late antique Athenian Acropolis show it absolutely packed with nearly one thousand years of dedicatory statues honoring both men and gods. We even see in inventories from the island of Delos that temple precincts housed statues, vases, and other dedicated vessels in all conditions—including some that were broken but could not be discarded because of their cultic association. This undoubtedly would have been the case in the precincts of most major cultic centers by the turn of the fourth century.

Even more numerous were statues of divine figures located elsewhere in the city. Images of the gods decorated later Roman streets in much the same way that they now adorn modern Indian cities. When Rufinus spoke about the destruction of the Serapeum, he mentioned that it was followed by Christian mobs tearing images of Serapis from every street corner in the city. Despite this, an Alexandrian mob ninety-five years later was still able to find so many wooden statues of gods in and around the city that they could fuel a bonfire with them for an entire day. Halfway across the empire, in Rome, each crossroad in the city contained shrines at which honey cakes were offered to the Lares Compitales and, after 12 BC, images representing the Genius of the emperor.

Even more images were found in private homes. Every home in which a devotee of traditional religion lived likely housed representations of the gods. These took many forms. In the West, household shrines to guardian spirits (the lararia) contained representations of gods, either as statues or paintings. In some homes (like the House of Menander in Pompeii) these seem to have been confined to the servants quarters, but shrines like these could be located in any room of a house, including the public reception areas of elite homes. In the House of the Vettii in Pompeii, there were two lararia, one of which was hidden from view and the other of which was located amid a series of wall paintings. Some of these images of the gods were devotional, but many others were simply decorative. Collections of small mythological statuettes found in a range of Gallic villas reveal that representations of the gods and their associates were an unremarkable part of home decor. More intriguing is the case of Theophanes of Hermopolis, a traveler whose expense account has been preserved for us. In his ledger, he lists a tacky souvenir wine jug in the shape of Silenus among the purchases he made as he passed through Phoenicia in the 310s. No one would mistake that particular object for something connected to religious practice, but even that piece of kitsch contributed to the sense that one shared domestic space with the divine.

While temples convey the overwhelming architectural presence of the divine in later Roman cities, and images show their physical ubiquity, festivals offered some of the most powerful ways to interact with the divine. These festivals literally dominated the Roman year. An illustrated calendar listing the holidays and festivals celebrated in Rome in the year 354 gives a sense of how frequently the gods and their servants appeared publicly. The calendar classifies fully 177 days of the year as holidays or festivals. Not all of these were given the same weight. Those that lasted for multiple days and involved circus races mandated, among other things, a day of rest and the closure of the law courts. Less important were days whose festivals involved games or spectacles but no required closures. Days devoted to cultic ritual that involved neither races nor spectacles ranked the lowest. Overall the calendar marks the public celebrations of the cults of thirty-three different gods and goddesses—and this does not account for the various commemorations of imperial birthdays and divinized emperors. Some gods and goddesses had multiple days in their honor. So, for example, the calendar contains eleven festival days that involved the cult of the Egyptian god Isis. Isis was neither native to the city of Rome nor among the most prominent goddesses in the Roman pantheon. This was a specialty cult from the provinces, but it still stood among the many, many others that claimed multiple spaces on the city's very full festal calendar.

The large number of festivals and holidays did not mean, of course, that Romans spent half of the year on vacation or attending games. Many of these festivals were publicly funded, but participation in them was optional, and most people would have been too busy or disinterested to take part. Festivals honoring gods and goddesses frequently filled all of one or more days. By the fourth century, some celebrations had even blended together to form long, multiday events with activities taking place both in the home and in public spaces. Even those who attended part of the festivities need not have participated in all of them. In traditional Roman religion, there was usually no problem with people using their time for something other than a religious festival.

The individuals who opted not to participate in a given festival could not expect to remain unaffected by it. The novelist Achilles Tatius, for example, describes what it was like to arrive in Alexandria during the celebration of a festival for the god Serapis. "It was," he writes, "the single greatest spectacle I have ever beheld. For it was late evening and the sun had gone down, but there was no sign of night—it was as though another sun had arisen, but one distributed into small parts in every direction." This spectacle left the narrator so awestruck that he followed the procession until its end. For Alexandrians who chose not to participate, however, the Serapis parade represented a source of unwelcome but unavoidable traffic, noise, and light pollution. They could not escape it even if they wanted to do so.

Smaller festivals also intruded on the peace and quiet of those who did not participate. In the second century, Apuleius provided an extensive account of an Isaic procession. As one would expect, the procession was heard long before it was seen. When the parade came into view, costumed figures dressed as soldiers, huntsmen, philosophers, and magistrates led a motley crew of tamed bears, apes, shepherds, and women scattering flowers. Apuleius then describes women who combed the hair of the goddess's statue while sprinkling the street with scented unguents. They were followed by a parade of people carrying lanterns and torches, musicians playing pipes and flutes, and a choir of young boys singing a song that explained the origins of the festival. Linen-clad initiates followed the musicians, the priests who presided over the ceremony came next, and the procession concluded with people holding images of other gods. When the group reached the temple, the priests and initiates returned the divine images to their proper places. The priest said a prayer on behalf of the emperor, the senate, and Roman seamen, and then dismissed the congregation.

As Apuleius explains, Isaic celebrations were visually impressive, extremely loud, and very fragrant affairs. While only the devotees of the gods or goddesses being celebrated could take part in everything, many people throughout the city were involved in some aspects of the event—even if only to watch, march in one of the processions, or attend a related spectacle. In the same way that temples and sacred images helped form the early fourth-century visual background of Roman life, these festivals provided some of the noise common to all Roman cities in the period.

Less well recognized is the degree to which traditional religion also provided some of the olfactory backdrop to Roman life. Apuleius mentions two different moments in the Isaic procession when the devotees spread pleasant smelling things in front of the crowd. The significance of this can be lost on a modern audience, but such actions had a practical effect in antiquity. Between the smells of animal waste, trash, sewage, and general rot, the streets of an ancient city reeked unbearably. Unguents, flowers, burning incense, and roasting meat formed important components of a traditional religious festival precisely because they stood out from the foul odors common to public spaces. When combined with the bright lights and cacophonous sounds of a procession, these fragrances helped to create a distinctive environment that indicated the special status of the god. But they were neither enclosed nor self-contained. The sights, sounds, and smells of traditional religion spilled freely out into cities and towns to be enjoyed or endured by devotees and nondevotees alike.


Excerpted from The Final Pagan Generation by Edward J. Watts. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


1. Growing Up in the Cities of the Gods
2. Education in an Age of Imagination
3. The System
4. Moving Up in an Age of Uncertainty
5. The Apogee
6. The New Pannonian Order
7. Christian Youth Culture in the 360s and 370s
8. Bishops, Bureaucrats, and Aristocrats under Gratian, Valentinian II, and Theodosius
9. Old Age in a Young Man’s Empire
10. A Generation’s Legacy



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