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Balanced on the Thin Edge of Democracy, Can We See the Tipping Point?

The Trump-bolstered radical right are akin to fourth-century Christian fanatics who -- in the space of a single generation -- transformed the Roman empire from a state of broadly tolerant religious plurality to one of violence and societal destruction.

The Final Pagan Generation: Rome's Unexpected Path to Christianity
Edward J. Watts
University of California Press
August 2020 (paperback)

There is a common notion that incoming President Joe Biden has a responsibility to “heal America”.

“It’s time to put aside the partisanship and the rhetoric designed to demonize one another,” Biden tweeted on 24 November. “We have to come together.”

This presupposes that America’s partisan politics are characterized by a passing rift – a matter of hurt feelings, misunderstandings, mistrust, and suspicion that can be rectified by the policy equivalent of warm hugs and fair play.

But there’s an alternate interpretation: that the radical right that found voice under and through Donald J. Trump’s presidency are violent fanatics intent on destroying a social structure and lifestyle. And that the many Republicans, Proud Boys, and other right-leaners remain precisely that: an imminent threat not just to America but to democratic ways of life.

In this, they might be akin to the fourth-century Christian fanatics who relentlessly, violently transformed the Roman empire from a state of broadly tolerant religious plurality to one in which failure to adhere to Christian tenets could be punishable by death. And they did so in the space of a single generation.


Photo by ASTERISK on Unsplash

Perhaps the most important insight of Edward WattsThe Final Pagan Generation is that the intellectuals, officials, and policymakers who lived through those tumultuous decades barely recognized the dramatic transformation of their society as it was going on. They were busy making money, earning promotions, dealing with the day-to-day minutiae of ambitious career men. Their belief in their civic rights and political institutions’ immutability led them to ignore the growth of fatal threats to those institutions until it was too late.

Watts undertakes a forensic examination of this shift, seeking to understand what it was like to live through a moment of profound social and political transformation that leaves your world an entirely different place by the end of your life. It’s a question with profound implications for the present.

It’s easy to put faith in our own political and social institutions as having a sort of immortality – they may bend or stretch, but they cannot be broken. It’s hard to distinguish between social and political stresses that are routine parts of the way society operates and those that threaten to fundamentally overturn and transform that society, sometimes in deeply unpleasant ways. There is a broad belief that humanity as a species has passed certain thresholds against which we will never revert – the ends of slavery, state-sanctioned genocide, concentration camps. But as we have seen in this very century, there is no form of evil or primitivism to which humanity does not have the capacity to revert.

Our present crisis is one in which the principles of liberal democracy are under threat from an increasingly militant and vocal cadre of racist, fascist, misogynistic, homophobic white supremacists. Nowhere was this illustrated more clearly than in Trump’s presidency. For many Democrats, this was simply a matter of routine political seesaw in which sometimes the right wins, sometimes the left. That is the impression routinely conveyed by mainstream media, with its adoption of an allegedly impartial, colour-commentator approach to ‘power and politics’ news coverage.

According to this view, the people running America’s institutions might be disagreeable and narcissistic during any particular term, but the institutions themselves will survive. But another perspective might see Trump’s presidency as a moment of rupture, and Republican policymakers as agents determined to destroy the very institutions to which they were elected.

How to tell the difference? Taking the long view helps, and the work of scholars like Watts is invaluable. The fourth-century Roman world was one in which traditional Roman religion – paganism – existed side-by-side with a wide array of other faiths and sects from all over the world, including Christianity. (To be fair, some were tolerated more than others.) Religious plurality was a fact of life for those born into the early 300s.

No matter which faith one adhered to, evidence of this broad plurality was everywhere: a diversity of temples and shrines lining the streets representing faiths from all over the world; a steady sequence of religious processions and festivals; religious iconography and diverse forms of public sacrifice (animals, incense, craft, and food products) in marketplaces and public fora. The ubiquity of hundreds of different faiths co-existing alongside each other throughout the Empire was part of the taken-for-granted reality of those born into it, much as the plurality of religious, social, and political ideas today might be taken for granted by those born into a democratic nation-state.

But by the final years of that generation, an entirely different reality would prevail. Sacrifices would be illegal, temples destroyed or replaced by Christian churches, adherence to non-Christian ideas were made illegal, or at the least punished by professional and social ostracism.

How did it happen? And why did those raised to respect religious plurality fail to stop the voracious spread of radical Christianity in its quest to assert primacy for itself and institutionalize intolerance for everyone else? Watts, who remains broadly impartial, explores the political, social, and historical trends that accompanied this process in the fourth century in his fascinating study.

Constantine, the first overtly Christian emperor, is often credited with making the Roman Empire Christian, but it was a more complex process than that. When he became Emperor, he ended persecutions against Christians. He introduced policies that quietly benefited his chosen faith (for example, reducing or eliminating the provision of public funds for non-Christian religious institutions, incentivizing the hiring of Christians into public institutions). Still, he refrained from actively moving to suppress other religions, despite pressures to that end from militant Christian radicals.


From the cover of Watts’ The Final Pagan Generation

His sons Constantius and Constans, when they succeeded him, also refrained from moving actively against other faiths while they jointly ruled the Empire, each concerned that doing so might provoke social instability or rebellion. When Constantius finally defeated his brother and assumed sole leadership without rivals, he became more amenable to militant Christian leaders’ demands to persecute other faiths. He brought forth legislation removing non-Christians from public posts, authorized the destruction of temples and shrines, and proclaimed the death penalty for some pagan practices. But the latter was a symbolic gesture only, and the laws were phrased vaguely enough to allow local governments to overlook them when and where enforcing them might undermine political stability.

The ascent of Constantius’ nephew Julian to the throne in 361 changed everything. Julian was raised pagan and moved quickly to reverse the pro-Christian policies of his predecessors and restore the pre-Constantine status quo. For many who suffered persecution under the new policies, this came as a relief: the restoration of a more sane and tolerant world. But it also provoked some unexpected outcomes: the pro-Christian policy shifts of the past few decades had been such that reversing them proved tumultuous. A whole new class of prestigious Romans had adapted to benefit from the pro-Christian policies, and now these people faced persecution of their own. Christian officials had formerly protected their pagan friends from persecution; now it was the ascendant pagans who had to protect their Christian colleagues.

Julian’s policy shifts didn’t last long: he died in 363. His successors – the Emperor Jovian and co-Emperors Valentinian and Valens – reversed many of Julian’s policies, but not the extremes of Constantius’ more militant Christianity. Although Christian themselves, they sought to restore the Empire’s fraying stability by avoiding initiatives that benefited or persecuted any particular faith. Yet as time went on, the power dynamic undergirding imperial might shifted.

While many young upper/middle-class Romans continued to pursue traditional paths to respectable careers in imperial administration, other rich young Romans “dropped out” to pursue lives outside of regular Roman career trajectories, becoming ascetics or pursuing other forms of the spiritual life, much akin to hippie New Age ‘dropouts’ of the 1960s (and they were treated the same by their parents). These ascetics and future bishops eventually began to assume real power, especially as imperial officials began drawing on their influence to gain the upper hand in local political squabbles.

As the nascent Christian establishment began to flex its political muscles, this led to the entrenchment of a Christian religious hierarchy comprised of ambitious, power-seeking young men. No longer simply spiritual hippie “dropouts” of the traditional Roman system, they were now participating in the same age-old pursuit of power as other Romans via a new channel: Christianity.

Advocates of traditional religion – including many ageing voices in the imperial political establishment – fought anti-pagan policies in the courts, in senatorial forums, in appeals to the Emperor. But the fight wasn’t for everyone – many pagans decided it simply wasn’t worth using up their political capital to defend religious tolerance and their right to traditional religion.

At the same time, militant radical Christians deliberately pushed the bounds of legality. They organized riots, stirred up mobs to destroy temples, and murdered opponents. Law-abiding Roman leaders appealed to successive Emperors to do something about the Christian mobs. Their appeals were shrugged off in a tacit acknowledgement to the radicals that they were free to persecute, destroy, and murder their way to ascendancy.

Such is the broad outline of the period Watts explores. It’s a fascinating chronicle, but one that resonates with particular power in the present. There are limits to reading our present dilemmas into the past, but there are also undeniable resonances from which the present may learn. When we consider the imminent threats to democracy posed by Trump, Putin, and so many other contemporary neo-fascist populist leaders and their followers, we see similar patterns: behind-the-scenes nudging to favour anti-democratic policies, and a refusal to rein in those who break the law. Trump’s tacit encouragement of white neo-fascist violence and his pardoning of criminal allies is profoundly representative of that process.

In the Roman world, legislative change was mostly slow; but the effect of a passive response to radical violence was such that power shifted inexorably into the hands of the Christians, while traditional Roman institutions – courts of law, republican decision-making bodies, temples and schools of philosophy – withered or were deliberately destroyed. Meanwhile, many of the bureaucracy and upper administration were quite willing to allow this process play out, whatever their personal feelings, so long as they continued to do well for themselves and their families.

The shifts appeared minor at first – not the sort of battle on which most aspiring politicians were willing to plant their flag and fight. Watts observes, for instance, of Constantius that:

“Constantius’s policies may have been disagreeable, but they hardly seemed to be a pressing or universal threat. There was no legal penalty per se for speech critical of the emperor or his policies, but possible social and professional consequences made such criticism inadvisable. The elite of the final pagan generation had better things to worry about. There was money to be made, honors to be gained, and fun to be had by those who could cooperate openly with the regime, even if they chose to criticize it privately. At the same time, there were different strategies that one could follow to not just survive but thrive in such an environment.”

The lack of will to take action on the part of those who could have stemmed the tide is a recurring theme. The Christian militants had nothing to lose by pushing boundaries, really, but their politically established opponents had a great deal to lose if they fell into imperial disfavour. Given a choice between fighting for principle or profit, most chose the latter. As Watts observes from later in the fourth century:

“They certainly did not approve of the sort of policies that Christian extremists like Maternus had been pushing, but they also saw little that could be gained by actively opposing them. Most temples remained open despite the laws, statues and images of the gods stared down from every corner of cities, public sacrifices continued to be offered in many parts of the empire (including in Rome itself), and the traditional religious routines of households throughout the empire could continue unaffected. At the same time, there were careers to advance, honors to be earned, positions to be gained, transfers to better jobs to be secured, deaths to mourn, issues of inheritance to resolve, new marriages to arrange, and fun to be had. This was not a good time to raise concerns about ineffectual religious policies or to wage foolish crusades against a powerful emperor. It made much more sense to swallow one’s discomfort with a set of largely symbolic policies and work with the emperor and his administration. While great rewards awaited those who could succeed in doing so, principled opposition to the regime promised nothing and posed significant risks. On balance, these seemed like foolish risks to run.”

How deeply does this echo the present, with Republican senators and prestigious business leaders who could speak out against Trump’s law-breaking choosing instead to temper their critiques, complaining in private but praising the value of compromise in public?

Cronyism was endemic to the Roman Empire at this point, and that inadvertently facilitated these processes. Powerful and ambitious Romans and their families felt obligated to each other for favours given or received and placed a higher priority on building ambitious networks of cronies than on working toward policies that would benefit and strengthen the Empire as a whole. Here too we see echoes with an America increasingly driven by cronyism. (See, for example, Scott Galloway ‘s article, “America Has Replaced Capitalism With Cronyism“, New York Magazine, 13 April 2020.)


Photo by Henry Ravenscroft on Unsplash

During the reign of Constantius, for example, pro-Christian imperial policies had permitted and even encouraged the dismantling of pagan temples and appropriation of goods and materials they contained. Many influential upper-class Romans took advantage of these policies to enrich their private collections or incorporate temple material in their villas and construction projects. The pagan Emperor Julian reversed these policies and ordered the return of goods and materials looted from pagan temples.

The philosopher Libanius, a proponent of the traditional religion, publicly praised Julian’s policy reversals as an approach that was only fair and respectful toward the faiths persecuted under Constantius. However, he also privately used his influence to intercede on behalf of friends and acquaintances, seeking exceptions for them if they’d been ordered to, say, dismantle a house that had been constructed with material looted from a temple.

Cases like this reveal the pervasive, intractable grip of cronyism on the Roman Empire. A state that had once been praised for its republican, democratic principles had regressed to a state of cronyism in which it was not public virtue but mutual obligation between rich and powerful men that came to drive people’s actions in the political sphere.

Ultimately, by the time the tide had turned inexorably in Christianity’s favour, it was too late to put up an effective fight. Moreover, many of those in power found ways to adapt to the new system and were uninterested in a fight that might undermine their political or financial prestige. Ordinary Romans continued traditional religious practices for centuries, but they were forced increasingly underground as a newly empowered Christian elite reshaped imperial legislation and launched persecutions without opposition.

Watts formulates his study by charting the historical twists and turns of this process and providing in-depth case studies of four of the individuals affected by it. This is characteristic of his excellent work as a classicist; he often uses his work to illustrate the realities of everyday life for the particular group under study (his previous work Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher (2017) is another excellent example of this). In The Final Pagan Generation he picks four upper-class Romans from that generation and closely follows their lives and careers. The method allows him to show how they navigated changing social realities and how they failed to see the big picture threats until too late. These extended snapshots are fascinating and offer a vibrant glimpse into fourth-century Roman life.

His account of the scholar Libanius’ school days, for example, reveals a boisterous college scene similar in many ways to that of our own, although perhaps more extreme in others. Rival schools of rhetoric considered themselves like families:

“Teachers saw the boys they taught as their children…[giving] orations that recounted students’ achievements on their birthdays and celebrated their recovery from serious illnesses. Students reciprocated by cheering if their professors gave a public performance, avoiding the lectures of other professors, and even fighting the students of rival schools…Later in his life, Libanius even speaks fondly about the fathers who used to take pride when they saw ‘on their sons’ bodies the evidence of the battles they fight on their teacher’s behalf, the scars on the head, face, hands, and on every limb.’ Among the other activities Libanius had heard about and longed to take part in were ‘the kidnapping of arriving students, being taken to Corinth for trial on kidnapping charges, giving many feasts, blowing all [his] money, and looking for someone to give him a loan.'”

Libanius was troubled by the shifting religious policies he witnessed throughout his life, but he was too busy to do much about them despite his prestigious position. Later in life, he grew much more concerned as Christians gained in strength, but by that point, “he had neither the stomach nor the resources necessary to lead any type of armed resistance. Instead, he continued to lodge complaints about anti-pagan initiatives from within the confines of the old imperial administrative process of appeal…Christian attacks on the gods clearly bothered Libanius, but the temples were only one item in a long list of things that concerned him in the early 390s.”

There is, surely, a lesson here for today. For every public figure urging restraint in the face of assaults on democracy and encouraging people to protest peacefully and legally (much as Romans like Libanius tried, ineffectually), there are also the equivalents of Maternus Cynegius, the fourth-century Christian Roman prefect who destroyed temples and fanned mob violence against pagans and Jews, often counter to the official edicts of his own Emperor (who turned a blind eye to the excesses in any case). In the case of Libanius and others, the faith they placed in legal institutions proved ineffectual against the militant radicals willing to operate outside those institutions.

The presidency of Joe Biden will doubtless be a critical moment in deciding whether America’s democratic institutions can be bolstered to resist the ongoing assaults being made against them. But will Biden be a second Julian, a doomed last-ditch effort to restore a vanishing status quo? Or will America’s incoming stewards realize the historical scale of the challenge they’re up against and act more firmly to protect our collective institutions than did their Roman predecessors?

Only time will tell.