Learning From ‘The Final Pagan Generation’

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Constantine the Great, Roman emperor whose 4th-century conversion to Christianity following a vision before battle radically changed the ancient world (javarman/Shutterstock)

By Rod Dreher, The American Conservative, July 9, 2018

I’ve been re-reading today The Final Pagan Generation [1], a history book by Edward Watts. What follows are notes I made from my reading. Stay with me, because there’s a major point I want to make from all this.

In it, Watts focuses on the final generation of Romans born into a world in which paganism was uncontested as society’s dominant religion — that is, those born in the early 4th century. By the time they died, the Empire was officially Christian, and paganism was fast rapidly declining, though Watts says we have evidence for active pagans as late as the 7th century.

The world of childhood for the final pagan generation was a world in which the gods were intimately woven into everyday life. You couldn’t imagine that they wouldn’t always be there. Children were initiated into the pagan life by household rituals that made religion part of the wallpaper. Reading this early part of the book was a challenge to me. In reading other historians of the early Church, as well as cultural anthropologists, I learned that a religion has to have strong cultural and social expression to last. Paganism certainly had this early in the Christian era. But it wasn’t enough. Why not?

From my reading of Watts, it’s because paganism had become strictly cultural for most Romans. Watts writes that if a Roman elite did not understand festivals and religion, it was not so much a sign of impiety as a sign of a lack of cultivation. You see the difference?  You didn’t have to believe it, but you had to know what it meant.


“The final pagan generation was born into a world that contained a vast sacred infrastructure that had been built up over the past three millennia,” Watts writes. Most Christians of that time, like most pagans, didn’t even notice the ubiquity of the gods in everyday life.

“Their children and grandchildren would not either,” he writes. “This was simply a natural consequence of growing up in a world that was fool of gods, and always been full of gods, and always would be full of gods, at least as far as anyone could tell in 310.”

Sounds a lot like many American Christians now, especially the #MAGA Evangelicals.

The educational system was focused as much on socializing the ruling class as educating them in Roman culture. To maintain the elite social system, the children of the elites had to know each other, and become indebted to each other. The closed system of elite education kept elites from perceiving the massive changes that were coming over the Empire after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312, and consolidation of power in 324. Even Christians didn’t grasp the meaning of it all at the time, says Watts; it was as easy to imagine a Christian Roman Empire as it was to imagine a Roman imperial rail network, Watts writes.

This part of the book made me think of all the elites — myself included — who did not see Trump coming, and who still struggle to grasp the meaning of Trump.

Anyway, as Watts tells it, in fourth century Rome, the educational system was overwhelmingly pagan, and socialized the students into an overwhelmingly pagan hierarchy. They learned to identify with this, and simply assumed things would always be this way.  This was an educational system designed to educate kids into thinking things would be the way things were for their fathers.

I thought here about what so many Christians have said to me about Christian secondary and university education: that it’s built on the assumptions that things are always going to be the same way for Christians, despite the rapidly changing culture, and that Christian education is about socializing young Christians for leadership in that familiar social order.

Watts says it’s very important to remember that the first 50 years of the lives of the final pagan generation were quite stable in terms of government. Thus they were socialized into believing that things would always be that way. Elites did very well under the stable Constantinian system. Wealth concentrated in their hands. Personal connections became vital to entering and maintaining oneself in the elite classes. Cronyism was common.

By mid-century, when the elites of the FPG (final pagan generation) were well-established in their careers, the state’s attempt to privilege Christianity and marginalize traditional religion picked up. Constantine died in 337, and civil conflict followed. Roman leaders faced pressure from more radical Christians to step up the de-paganization, and tried to walk a balance between their demands and not upsetting the still large pagan population. In 356, Constantius stepped up the anti-pagan laws.

Interestingly, the pagan elites didn’t take all this too seriously, according to Watts. A lot of temples remained open despite Constantius’s orders that they be closed. The emperor’s policies “might have been disagreeable, but they hardly seemed to be a pressing or universal threat.”

Towards the end of his reign, Constantius’s anti-pagan laws grew even stronger, but paganism was still such a vivid and powerful presence in daily life that the pagan elites felt confident that the danger would pass when the emperor did. Watts judges that in retrospect, the elites ought to have stood up to the emperor in some way, to protect their religion. Instead, they chose to take the easier route, protecting their careers and their money-making opportunities by not antagonizing a powerful emperor. That seemed a reasonable bet.

Constantius was succeeded in the 360s by Julian the Apostate, so called because he had been raised a Christian, but left the faith and sought to re-establish paganism. He rolled back some of his predecessor’s pro-Christian laws, and most controversially, promulgated a law that would have prevented Christians from teaching in schools. Watts points out that these laws were strange, in part because Julian involved the state in regulating pagan belief in ways that it had not been before, even when the Empire was pagan. The laws didn’t survive Julian. According to Watts, the reality of the Empire, at least among the elites of that time, was such that pagans and Christians were already knitted together in a social fabric that could not effectively be sundered by imperial decree. That is, pagans didn’t want to see Christians thrown out of their jobs, or punished.

The fundamental conservatism of that social order meant that radical initiatives on either side couldn’t really work. Watts says that despite the anti-pagan policies of the Christian emperors, temples remained open, and life went on much as it had before. Even though Christian radicals who had the ears of the Christian emperors exhorted them to de-paganize the Empire, the reality on the ground in most places remained largely unchanged.

What’s interesting about this is that even though daily religious realities for most Romans were not very different than they had ever been, this hid from most people the massive changes that were actually taking place. This seems contemporary to me. Liberals may well see Trump as a Julian the Apostate figure, trying to roll back the progressive Sexual Revolution. And there are certainly conservatives who regard Trump that way, and love that about him. But the cultural changes that have overtaken America, and that are continuing to do so, are fundamental, and aren’t going to be undone by government policy.

Furthermore, I believe that Christians see daily life going on locally much as it always did, with the exception, maybe, that their churches don’t attract as many people. Nothing radical is happening in most places. Maybe they think that a sympathetic president in Washington is going to turn things around for the faith. The situation strikes me as rather like that of the pagan believers in Rome in the 360s.

Jovian succeeded Julian, and after a brief reign, was himself succeeded by brothers Valens and Valentinian. They de-emphasized religion. They inherited a Roman state that was struggling to pay the debts Julian and Jovian had accrued through mismanagement. Watts points out that even then, “the Roman world remained largely governed by the same basic social rules that [the emperors] had learned as children.” Sacrifices and prayers at pagan temples continued.

The big shift came with the generation of young Christian elites who came of age in the 360s and 370s. They rejected their parents’ wishes for them to join the system. Instead, in the face of strong opposition from their parents, teachers, and other authority figures, they took up ascetic life, or at least life in the service of the Church. Watts says that prior to the 370s, the men who went into church life tended to be mediocrities who couldn’t have made it in the secular world.

“Beginning in the 370s, however, men who had once served as teachers, advocates, and even imperial governors entered into bishoprics, a trend that accelerated as the fifth century approached,” Watts writes. St. Ambrose of Milan, born in 339 into a senatorial elite family, is the best-known example. Watts says that these men wanted to live and to work outside the imperial system, but the fact that they were well-connected elites meant that realistically, they were still part of that system.

Here’s something fascinating: in the fourth century, ascetics — monks who moved out of the cities to live austerely in the desert — became quite popular. They were so popular that bishops realized that they had to accommodate them, or they would stand as rivals within the Church. St. Athanasius was exemplary in this regard, promoting monastic piety. It was Athanasius who wrote the famous Life of Anthony, about St. Anthony the Great [2], regarded as the founder of monasticism. You can read the entire short book here.  [3]

Athanasius showed that Anthony, a man of means and position, abandoned all of it to set out for the desert. Athanasius shows that Anthony gave it all up, went to the desert to pray, to fast, to combat demons, and to grow in holiness, then became influential in the world because of his renowned holiness. Athanasius’s Life of Anthony became hugely popular in the Christian world. According to Watts:

Ultimately, Athanasius returns Antony to the world as a figure whose radical renunciation of conventional social and personal ties lent him a new, powerful type of authority whose value elites could immediately understand. Antony offered a better, more virtuous path to these ends, but the achievements of ascetics, like those of bishops, now could be understood in elite terms.

Watts says that Athanasius’s Life of Anthony lit up the imaginations of elite young men across the Empire. They came to see in the ascetic life something superior to what they were otherwise being offered. Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, and Basil the Great are leading examples of promising young men of the establishment who extricated themselves from the worldly system, and turned to the Church. Basil found his vocation after meeting an ascetic who was also a bishop, in the 350s. Basil wrote:

I had wasted much time on follies and spent nearly all of my youth in vain labors, and devotion to the teachings of a wisdom that God had made foolish. Suddenly, I awoke as out of a deep sleep. I beheld the wonderful light of the Gospel truth, and I recognized the nothingness of the wisdom of the princes of this world.

Watts writes that the pull of the world on these young men was often quite strong, and they had to fight fiercely to renounce it. Check this out:

Some elites, like Pachomius’s Egyptian protege Theodore, did join the larger cenobitic communities that were springing up throughout the empire. But young elites like Chrysostom, Theodore, and the courtiers at Trier tended to avoid large institutional enterprises like the Koinonia. They instead formed small, collaborative enterprises that used social relationships like those members of the elite formed at school to provide positive reinforcement for certain behaviors that most of society did not endorse. Instead of creating a schoolboy camaraderie that reinforces one’s commitment to the aspirations of traditional aristocratic life, these smaller ascetic groups existed to give young men the strength to pursue goals that diametrically opposed those endorsed by their parents, teachers, and many of their peers. They were, in Seth Schwartz’s conception of a counterculture, embracing solidarity over reciprocity. As modern sociologists have shown, creating this type of socially isolating community is one of the most effective ways to get people to adopt and maintain behaviors well outside of established social norms. In the schools, these structures encouraged antisocial behaviors like rioting and excessive drinking that nonstudents shunned. In elite ascetic circles, they promoted a withdrawal from the social and material objectives to which most of their peers aspired.

Notice that they didn’t abandon the larger church structures, but rather set up smaller groups outside the bigger institutional structures, to support each other in discipleship. They used the knowledge and tools given to them as elites to create a true counterculture. More Watts:

The achievements these ascetic circles celebrated differed from those that marked a successful bishop and diverged dramatically from those that most members of the fourth-century Roman elite valued. … The ascetic circles created by Chrysostom’s friends and the courtiers in Trier looked like nodes in an elite social network, but they exerted a different sort of social pressure. Instead of encouraging the pursuit of conventional success, they pushed young elites to drop out of the imperial system. These groups of friends explicitly framed their embrace of asceticism as a rejection of the system in which they had been trained to excel. They spoke repeatedly about the folly of the rewards that system promised. They supported one another when unsympathetic friends and family members pushed them to return to it. And some of these men began to write extensively so that they could better articulate the alternative value structure that guided them. As these ideas spread among young elites, they diluted the power of the social incentives that the empire used to guide elite conduct.

What we have here is a proto-Benedict Option [4]We have to be careful here; obviously the social dynamics of our time, and fourth-century Rome, are quite different. Nevertheless, knowing what came next in history, we can see that major change came through a determined, convinced ascetic elite who renounced mainstream success (even mainstream success as defined by the Church), and who, in so doing, began to move their countercultural ideals into the mainstream.

By the 380s, according to Watts, there was a significant group of young elites who were not totally cut off from the imperial world — they were still members of the elite social networks — but they had distanced themselves interiorly from the views of those networks. Watts:

Unlike the men who entered episcopal service [Emphasis mine — RD], the young ascetic dropouts often formed insular groups that monitored each other’s behavior, criticized any aberrant tendencies, and rejected any worldly things that conflicted with their spiritual objectives. These were the first elites of the fourth century who immunized themselves against the rewards that imperial officials could offer and the punishments that they could inflict.

These ascetics, some of whom became bishops, would quickly gain support from the people.

To be sure, most elites didn’t follow the path of the greats like Basil and Chrysostom, but, says watts, “their generation tended to be both more Christian and less wedded to the rhythms and protocols of elite life than their parents had been.” By the 380s, though, the first pagan generation was elderly, and the empire was facing huge administrative challenges, not the least of which was increasingly military pressure from the barbarian armies to the north.

A number of younger Christians did enter into imperial service — Christians who had not been part of the counterculture of the 360s and 370s. Watts:

They were creatures of the establishment, the fourth-century version of fraternity brothers dressed in dinner jackets who walked impatiently by the hippies playing drums on the quad. They were selected not to challenge but to perpetuate the system … .

One thinks of the kind of men — and, in some churches, women — who rise to positions of leadership within our own churches. The particular aspect of the system they, in their niches, are perpetuating may be conservative or it may be liberal, but it is still the same system. They are chaplains to the consumer society.

Anyway, guided by Ambrose of Milan, Emperor Gratian began to suppress paganism, in part by pulling all state funding for traditional religion. Then, in the 380s, his successor Theodosius made Nicene Christianity (as distinct from the Arian heresy) the religion of the empire. Watts writes that as the fourth century drew to a close, administration of empire was moving into the hands of younger men who did not have the sensibilities of their parents with regard to preserving the stability of the empire. Some, like the influential and assertive bishop Ambrose of Milan, were more interested in pursuing religious goals than in protecting stability and the “institutional inertia” preferred by their parents. In other words, the worn-out old vision could not survive both the turmoil within the administrative state, as well as the loss of faith of the younger generation.

By the 390s, the old-school voices had lost so much authority with power holders, especially when it came to countering anti-pagan Christian leaders, that “the final pagan generation sometimes seemed as influential as the president of Polaroid in the age of the smartphone.”

Christian mobs began to destroy pagan temples, with the tacit approval of Theodosius. “Change was effected not by laws issued from the court but by actions taken by monks, bishops, and other Christians who operated outside its political constraints,” Watts writes. He explains that the older pagan elites knew how to fight anti-pagan laws within the imperial system, but they had no idea how to combat this “asymmetrical religious warfare.”

Interestingly enough, despite all this, most pagan temples in the Empire remained open, and images of the pagan gods were still ubiquitous in Roman cities. Pagan festivals continued to be observed. Writes Watts, despite the anti-pagan laws, “traditional religion remained very much alive throughout the empire.”

We now know from history that the fourth century was when the Roman world changed fundamentally, and became Christian. But that’s not how it appeared to members of the final pagan generation, at the end of that century, and their lives. Here’s how Watts’s book ends:

The fourth century has come to be seen as the age when Christianity eclipsed paganism, and Christian authority structures undermined the traditional institutions of the Roman state. Modern historians have highlighted the rising influence of bishops, the emergence of Christian ascetics, the explosion of pagan-Christian conflict, and the destruction of temples. This is one fourth-century story, but it is neither the story that the final pagan generation would have told nor the one that later generations told about them. Their fourth century was the age of storehouses full of gold coins, elaborate dinner parties honoring letter carriers, public orations before emperors, and ceremonies commemorating office-holders. These things occurred in cities filled with thousands of temples, watched over by myriads of divine images, and perfumed by the smells of millions of sacrifices. This fourth century was real, and the men who lived through it told its story in ways that mesmerized later Byzantine and Latin audiences.

What are the lessons I draw from all this for Christians in our own time? Let’s stipulate that the world of 21st century Europe and North America is very different, in obvious ways, from that of fourth-century Rome. But there are parallels.

  1. Christianity today is like traditional religion of the fourth century. We are at the end of the Christian age, not at its beginning. Christianity back then had muscle. It is now decrepit, as a social force. The fact that we Christians believe that our faith is true can blind us to the fact that what is obvious to us is by no means obvious to others.

  2. It is not clear what the Roman pagans could have done to have slowed or stopped Christianity, but it is quite clear, in retrospect, that they did not take it seriously enough as a threat. This was a failure of imagination on their part. They assumed that the world would always be as it was, because it always had been.

  3. Worldly power matters. If Constantine had not converted, the future of Christianity in the West would have looked different.

  4. Yet worldly power is limited. Julian the Apostate failed miserably. You cannot legislate belief.

  5. Talented elites who form, and who are formed by, a counterculture, can have an outsized effect. Bishops and priests who saw their function as to serve the imperial system were not as inspiring to the young as those who rejected it, and its promises.

  6. The old ways of resisting anti-religious forces — fighting within the system — don’t work. This makes me doubtful about the strategy that people like me have generally adopted: fighting within liberalism for liberal goals, like religious liberty. The asymmetrical strategies of opponents, like LGBT rights groups, overwhelm us. But what can we do?

In the main, the story of the final pagan generation ought to be a severe warning to us complacent 21st century Christians. Ours is also a time of “storehouses full of gold coins, elaborate dinner parties honoring letter carriers, public orations before emperors, and ceremonies commemorating office-holders.” Christians are complicit in all of these. But the deeper shifts in the culture are clear for those with eyes to see. The old religion — Christianity — is fast fading. The young believe in a new religion of self-worship, hedonism, and materialism. The laws are not yet anti-Christian, but the broader culture is moving to push Christianity to the margins quickly. This is not likely to change. Christians need to prepare for this.

By “prepare for this,” I mean several things, all of which can be summed up with: Stop the complacency. Details:

  1. Stop thinking that it’s always going to be this way, and that anything short of radical action is sufficient. The mindset of older Christians may actually be a hindrance, because they don’t understand how radically different the world today is.

  2. Do not mistake the presence of Christian churches and symbols in public life for the true condition of Christianity in the hearts and minds of people.Remember, the pagan temples and statues of the gods remained long after paganism was a dead letter.

  3. Clean up our own churches. Stop tolerating corruption within the church — especially corruption that benefits the leadership class, at the expense of the church’s authority and integrity. Watts presents no evidence that pagan temples were corrupt. I bring this up simply to point out that Christians are in an existential fight, and cannot afford to have our own positions weakened by internal corruption.

  4. Train ourselves and our children to stand aside from the promises of the world, and to cultivate asceticism, like the elite Christians of the mid-fourth century did. Only then will we develop the heart and the mind to resist.

  5. Understand that we, like the final pagan generation, might think we are fighting for tolerance, but our opponents are fighting for victory. We have to change our tactics. We are bad at asymmetrical warfare. Frankly, like an old pagan of the fourth century, I would prefer to fight for tolerance — but that is not the fight that’s upon us.

  6. Neither abandon politics entirely, nor put too much faith in princes. Elites cultivated relationships within the imperial power structure, and served that power structure. But the real work of conversion happened among the people, through the labors and examples of saintly ascetics and charismatics.

All of this is more or less present in my book The Benedict Option [4], but I wish I had paid more attention to Watts’s book as I was writing my own. I had read it, but had forgotten most of its lessons. Anyway, I hope creative and dedicated Christians in all the churches today will take my book, and Watts’s book, and come up with effective ways to prevent ourselves from going the way of the final pagan generation.