Saturday, May 26, 2012


Stéphane Ratti, Polémiques entre païens et chrétiens. Histoire. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2012. Pp. 304. ISBN 9782251381121. €25.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Maijastina Kahlos, University of Helsinki (

Version at BMCR home site

Stéphane Ratti is a renowned expert on Late Antique literature, especially historiography. His more recent publications include his 2010 collection of articles, Antiquus Error. Les ultimes feux de la résistance païenne (reviewed in BMCR 2011.08.44), Écrire l'Histoire à Rome (2009), and Les empereurs romains d'Auguste à Diocletian dans le Bréviaire d'Eutrope (1996).

Ratti's recent work Polémiques entre païens et chrétiens is part of the long-standing and sometimes intense debate on 'pagan resistance' and the person of Nicomachus Flavianus. The debate has centred on not only pagans and Christians, but also on different research trends. Therefore, after an analysis of Late Antique pagan-Christian polemic, I will make some remarks on the scholarly debate.

There is not much that we know for certain about Virius Nicomachus Flavianus. He was a Roman senator and held several high administrative offices (including quaestor sacri palatii, praetorian prefect). He was a friend of Q. Aurelius Symmachus, the renowned orator, and their families were also connected twice by marriage. During the usurpation of Eugenius, Nicomachus Flavianus chose to side against Theodosius I and died in the battle of Frigidus in 394. We can glean some pieces of information about him from those of Symmachus' letters addressed to him and from some inscriptions (e.g., his well-known rehabilitation in CIL VI, 1783 in 431).

In his Polémiques entre païens et chrétiens, Ratti argues that Nicomachus Flavianus was the writer of the Historia Augusta (between 392-394) as well as the target of the anonymous Carmen contra paganos (Cod. Par. Lat. 8084). Ratti has also discussed these hypotheses in greater detail in his articles republished in Antiquus error.

Polémiques entre païens et chrétiens is divided into two sections. The first part ('Le malaise païen') deals with combat and competition between pagans and Christian on the level of literature and forms the background to the second part in which Ratti discusses his hypothesis concerning Nicomachus Flavianus.

In the first part, Ratti discusses the 'war with hidden words' ('une guerre à mots couverts') in late fourth-century literature, stating that pagans lacked freedom of speech during the Christian Empire. While freedom of speech was certainly limited under Christian emperors (though perhaps not in such a straightforward way as Ratti implies), I am inclined to think that these limits concerned not only pagans but everyone in the Empire. Furthermore, as Marie Theres Fögen has shown, emperors since the early Principate aimed at controlling knowledge, especially that of the future, because of their fear of conspiracy and treason.1 In the cases of Libanius' criticisms of Caesar Gallus and the Emperor Jovian, and his consequent fear of police inquisition, Ratti regards the issues as 'la question religieuse' (pp. 39-40). Could we arrive at a more nuanced interpretation by also considering the cases as political? Moreover, Ratti states that the histories by Festus and Eutropius lack references to religion because of censorship (p. 44), but one might ask whether the issues of religion even belonged within the type of historiography which Festus and Eutropius wrote.

According to Ratti, it was the fear of repression and loss of property as well as fear for his family members that made Nicomachus Flavianus hide his political and religious message behind the pseudonyms of the Historia Augusta (p. 26-27). However, one may doubt whether a wealthy landowning aristocrat who held remarkable administrative positions would really have been in peril of his life if he wrote anything pro-pagan or anti-Christian. Theodosius I and his men, moreover, may have had plenty of other concerns at that time.

The second part of Polémiques entre païens et chrétiens is dedicated to Nicomachus Flavianus. Ratti's discussion is based on the old paradigm which saw Eugenius' usurpation in 394 as a pagan rebellion. He defends this paradigm against a new interpretation that, according to Ratti, has interpreted the narratives of Christian writers as manipulation and imposture (p. 28) for half a century. He criticizes this view as a sanitized vision (p. 113) of what he regards as a religious war. This is supported, Ratti argues, by the fact that, in the eyes of Rufinus and Augustine, the war was fought over the correct faith of the Empire. It is absolutely true that these Christian writers and many other later authors construed Eugenius' usurpation and the battle of Frigidus in religious terms. Nonetheless, it is not that clear that those involved in the usurpation saw themselves as champions of pagan resistance. In the aftermath of Theodosius' victory, it was a convenient propaganda tool to denigrate one's opponent on moral or religious grounds. 2

Ratti identifies Nicomachus Flavianus as the target of the Carmen contra paganos as well as the writer of the Historia Augusta. The former identification sounds more plausible even though Vettius Agorius Praetextatus would be an even more suitable alternative.3

The latter identification, Nicomachus Flavianus as the author of the Historia Augusta, is refreshing and creative, but less convincing. Do we really know enough of his studies in history to conjecture his authorship of a particular work? All we actually know of Nicomachus Flavianus' dealings with history come from two inscriptions (CIL VI 1782 and 1783) in which he is called historicus disertissimus and is said to have written annales. According to Ratti, his hypothesis is reinforced by the medieval catalogue in the abbey of Murbach that shows that during the Carolingian period the Historia Augusta was divided into seven books. Ratti connects this information with a remark in Ordo generis Cassiodororum that Memmius Symmachus (cos. 485)wrote a Roman history in seven books in imitation of his kinsmen. (Ratti gives fuller documentation in an article reprinted in Antiquus error, p. 219.) Nicomachus Flavianus was one of Memmius Symmachus' ancestors, but I still cannot see how this validates the the Historia Augusta hypothesis.

In addition to this external evidence, Ratti draws on evidence internal to the Historia Augusta in his search for the 'signature of the author'. Among these signatures, according to Ratti, are the connections between the laws that Nicomachus Flavianus oversaw as quaestor sacri palatii (probably in 389-390), and references to the same issues in the Historia Augusta: e.g. the law of 390 against male homosexuality and the condemnation of homosexuality in the Vita Cari. As a minimalist, I would hesitate to deduce such far-reaching conclusions from similar themes, parallels or reminiscences.

Another ever-vexing question is the rationale of the Historia Augusta. The German and French scholarly tradition (following Johannes Straub and André Chastagnol) regarded the work as permeated with a pagan agenda. Accordingly, Ratti also characterizes the Historia Augusta as a vehement defence of pagan and Roman values and, moreover, an attack against Christianity. However, is the work necessarily anti-Christian? It has even been suggested that the Historia Augusta could have been written by a Christian.4

Ratti's contribution to Late Antique literature and historiography shows wide and deep learning. In addition to his hypothesis concerning Nicomachus Flavianus, Ratti discusses numerous other themes in connection with pagan- Christian polemic, e.g. the competition between illustrious men in which Christian writers in aemulatio with pagan tradition substitute Christian saints for ancient heroes (p. 57). Within this discussion, Ratti gives an interesting, multi-layered analysis of the myth of saint Lawrence (Laurentius).

Finally, I conclude with some remarks on scholarly debate and polemic. Ratti ends his Polémiques entre païens et chrétiens with an epilogue that is harshly critical of Alan Cameron's Last Pagans (2011). Ratti blames the 'Anglo-Saxon school' (including Cameron) for an irenic idealization of Antiquity that minimizes antagonism and resistance. (In his introduction he also opens the discussion with a similar critique.)

Ratti refers to the antagonism between the two schools that he identifies as representing Anglo-Saxon and European (continental) scholarship. As a background to this split, Ratti mentions power games, difficult personal relations, American political correctness, personal religious convictions, deconstructionism and postmodern thinking. Unfortunately he does not explain these in detail, and consequently, these references are not always clear to an outsider. For instance, 'postmodern' turns out to be as versatile a term as 'heretic' in Late Antiquity: it seems to stand for almost anything that a speaker dislikes.

Ratti complains that the Anglo-Saxons, especially Cameron, discuss matters with their European colleagues in a less than pleasant tone. True enough. In Last Pagans, Cameron dismisses scholars (such as François Paschoud) who burden Nicomachus Flavianus' annales with great expectations as 'Flavian fanciers' (p. 629) and 'true believers' (p. 676). Ratti's somewhat sarcastic introduction and epilogue is matched by Cameron, who discards Ratti's hypothesis of Nicomachus Flavianus as the writer of the Historia Augusta with the words 'Bizarrely enough . . .' (Last Pagans p. 636). Despite these interesting insights into the sociological aspects of scholarly life, one is inclined to ask whether we are dealing with dialogues between the deaf in which the interlocutors are talking past one another. Let us hope not.


1.   M. T. Fögen, Die Enteignung der Wahrsager: Studien zum kaiserlichen Wissensmonopol in der Spätantike (Frankfurt am Main, 1993).
2.   For an excellent account of the varying interpretations of Frigidus, see Isabella Gualandri, 'Claudiano e Prudenzio: Polemiche a distanza' in F. E. Consolino (ed.), Letterature e propaganda nell'occidente latino da Augusto ai regni romanobarbarici (Roma, 2000), 145-71.
3.   Cf. Lellia Cracco Ruggini, 'Il paganesimo romano tra religione e politica (384-394): per una reinterpretazione del Carmen contra paganos', Rendiconti della classe di scienze morali, storiche e filologiche dell'Accademia dei Lincei 8.23, 1979, 3-141; and my own tentative suggestion in Vettius Agorius Praetextatus: Senatorial Life in Between. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae XXVI. (Rome, 2002), 163-8.
4.   For an interesting discussion on the Christian traces in the Historia Augusta, see Felix Mundt, 'Die Maske des Christen – Spuren christlicher Literatur in der Historia Augusta' in G. Thome, J. Holzhausen and S. Anzinger (eds.), Es hat sich viel ereignet, Gutes wie Böses. Lateinische Geschichtsschreibung der Spät- und Nachantike (Munich, 2001), 37-56.

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