European Pagan Memory Day

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Under the title Carmen contra Paganos (poem against pagans) we know 122 verses found in a unique version, as a secondary work in a manuscript containing a work by Prudentius. It's an anonymous poem, defamatory towards roman religion, composed against a praefectus Urbis of Rome; in the poem there are no names, but since the Carmen was probably written in the last third of the fourth century, we can identify its target in Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, tireless champion of the ancient religion, or in Virius Nicomachus Flavianus, supporter of the usurper Eugenius and leader of pagan propaganda for him, though Eugenius was actually christian, and against Theodosius. Both Agorius and Nicomachus belonged to Symmachus' circle, who was another known defender of Ancient Rome religion.

The Carmen must therefore be written in the Eighties of the fourth century: in the Eastern part of the Empire we have Theodosius, who has just claimed Christianity to be the State religion, in the Western part, Gratian, opponent of paganism, has just died and Valentinian II has succeeded, to whom Symmachus presented his petition for the Victory's altar to return to the Senate. These are the years during which Ambrose bishop of Milan uses all his influence on both the emperors, while the pagan aristocracy tries, for the last time, to restore ancient cults, often on the basis of the mere appearance and of the civic meaning of the ceremonies and on the prestige of initiations, never reaching a permanent result. This time lapse will end with the battle of the Frigidus between Theodosius and Eugenius, this being an usurper, Christian but supported by the pagan aristocracy and therefore ready to establish a way of pacific coexistence between the two religions. The Carmen must be a reaction to this pagan renewal.

This is the most probable context in which we can set the poem; according to other scholars, the Carmen could address against another pagan renewal, in 407-8, weaker than the previous, led by another praefectus Urbis Romae, Pompeianus. This hypothesis is based on the match between really happened events and some events the Carmen seems to refer to; since in the Carmen there are only hints to them, the hypothesis can't be fully proved. Furthermore, the cult practices for which the prefect is charged of involvement are more fit for an activist like Flavianus, whose story ended in the battle of the Frigidus, than for the less enthusiast Pompeianus. The controversy about the date of the Carmen is summarized in Matthews' article whose reference is at the bottom of this page.

The Carmen begins with an immediate attack to those who practice pagan cults, because by honouring 'the sister married to her brother' they would legitimize every immodest and dishonourable thing; the author focuses from time to time both on moral and theological issues, like all contemporary anti-pagan literature does, and on political matter: how can pagans call Jupiter for salvation, if Jupiter himself is subject to the Fate? How can the Gods be a guide for the human kind, how can they act as inspiration for the senators' right behavior, when they're so profligate and pugnacious?

The Carmen's controversy follows two main directions: one is to ridicule both the gods because of the myths portraying them in non-fit to their status situations and the 'spectacular' practices like the taurobolia, Cybele's rites, and so on, to which pagans in general and that senator in particular take part; the other is to see behind the same practices a diabolical will to distance the Christians from the 'right' cult.

Read the text in English translation (at Roger Pearse's website)

The question against pagan cults is badly set: it exploits old leanings by some pagans themselves, especially philosophers, to justify some unenlightening myths. The assumption was that a god must be an example, a model to which the man must tend, so the content of some myths was excused with a bit of shame by giving it a metaphorical value. It's true that the myth is a metaphor in its content, but from a religious point of view is more correct to separate the deity which we perceive in the world and with which we interact, from its mythological description, that is a product of rationality and therefore must use metaphors to communicate something that actually is beyond rationality. The critics against bloody sacrifices, superstitious belief in mysteric or foreign cults, passive expectation for salvation from the Gods, were already spread in pagan environment and Christian authors of invectives just take them and to the extreme.

These latter are nevertheless subtleties, interesting for pagans and above all for the modern ones, who must face the same remarks since two thousand years ago: the aim of the Carmen is to stress the unworthiness of its target for what concerns public duties, and to represent pagan practices as a sum of cruel, immoral and superstitious rites, carefully avoiding any contextualization or comprehension of religious meanings. Most of the remarks made to paganism still nowadays are the same: we must be particularly careful against the attempt of applying a monotheistic or christian theological conception (i.e. the omnipotence of the Gods, the unavoidability of the fate as unchangeable predestination, an idea of virtue not belonging to all kind of paganisms) to the critic of polytheism.

Reference works

Manuela Simeoni


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