Thursday, May 21, 2015


Edward J. Watts, The Final Pagan Generation. Transformation of the Classical Heritage, 53. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015. Pp. xvii, 327. ISBN 9780520283701. $34.95.

Reviewed by Thomas M. Banchich, Canisius College, Buffalo, NY (

Version at BMCR home site

In another of his perceptive studies of various aspects of Late Antiquity, Edward Watts uses the lives and careers of Ausonius, Libanius, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, and Themistius as a foundation for generalizations about what he calls "the final pagan generation," for him "the last group of elite Romans, both pagan and Christian, who were born into a world in which most people believed that the pagan public religious order of the past few millennia would continue indefinitely" (p. 6). His book is well written, carefully structured, and clearly argued. Its Introduction offers a helpful overview, most chapters open with a preview of their contents and a glance back at what has come before, and its final paragraph concisely states Watts' overarching thesis: "Their [the final pagan generation's] fourth century was the age full of storehouses of gold coins, elaborate dinner parties honoring letter carriers, public orations before emperors, and ceremonies commemorating officeholders. [All of which] occurred in cities filled with thousands of temples, watched over by myriads of divine images, and perfumed by the smells of millions of sacrifices" (p. 220). Current scholarly concerns with "generations"—baby boomers, Xers, millennials—often inspire Watts and, when not explicit, are regularly discernible just beneath the surface of his narrative. Besides the heuristic value they impart, they will make a work already accessible and engaging for students and general readers even more so.

Chapter One, "Growing Up in the Cities of the Gods," is an evocative overview of the acculturation at the hands of family members, attendants, and teachers of youths born in the second decade of the fourth century into a world full of gods, temples, churches, and synagogues, whether fully functioning, recycled, looted, vandalized, or abandoned. Chapter Two, "Education in an Age of Imagination," concentrates on the school years of the final pagan generation, a time (the mid 320s to early 330s), Watts maintains, devoted to an education in grammar and rhetoric and to the joys and sorrows of student life. These formative years were spent largely in settings relatively insulated from religious developments and innovations central to our judgment of the reign of Constantine. Their overriding objective was to earn the emperor's attention and a position of status at his court, to become part of the establishment at its highest level. Consequently, many features of the Fourth Century which to us portend immense change made little or no impression on young men whose principal aim was prominence within what they thought to be a stable elite.

Chapter Three, "The System," relates how, in the 330s and 340s, the final pagan generation began their careers, focused on advancement and situated themselves in networks to gain influence, and began families, all the while oblivious to the establishment by Constantine's sons of the formal Christian domination of a formally Christian empire. Chapter Four, "Moving Up in an Age of Uncertainty," describes how career and kin again took precedent, this time during the 350s and 360s. Despite doubts about some of Constantius' Christian concerns, members of the final pagan generation continued to vie for prominence and prestige within an imperial system that yielded rich rewards to those who could use it to their advantage. Chapter Five, "The Apogee," examines the effects of Julian's and Jovian's brief reigns, during which the stock of some—Themistius, for example—fell, while that of others—notably Libanius—depended often on meeting the challenge of ingratiating one's self with the emperor while looking out for those adversely affected by that same emperor's policies. Chapter Six, "The New Pannonian Order," considers the period of relative tranquility with regard to religious affairs that prevailed during the reigns of Valentinian and Valens, a hallmark of which was an infusion of new men into a broad range of positions in the imperial bureaucracy. The consequences of this process for the final pagan generation varied. Ausonius, Praetextatus, and Themistius benefited, while Libanius' prestige fell. For all four, maintenance of their own status trumped cares about matters religious.

Chapter Seven, "Christian Youth Culture in the 360s and 370s," treats the impact of Athanasius' Life of Antony on the children of the final pagan generation. This, Watts maintains, manifested itself in two ways. Some rejected not only their parents' paths to success but also the very criteria by which they had defined their goals. Some became ascetics, others followed traditional routes, though to new destinations, prominent positions in the Christian institutional hierarchy, for example. Thanks to the growing riches and worldly power of the church, these now attracted the ambitious, and, once they were ensconced in office, permitted them to parlay their talents, connections, and the force of their personalities into heightened prestige and power.

Chapter Eight, "Bishops, Bureaucrats, and Aristocrats under Gratian, Valentinian II, and Theodosius," treats the transfer of power from the final pagan generation to that of their children, while Chapter Nine, "Old Age in a Young Man's Empire," surveys the behavior of the generation of Ausonius, Libanius, Praetextatus, and Themistius during the period from 384 to 394. Themistius' urban prefecture of 384 was resented by the younger generation, whose reaction prompted Themistius' "silent retirement." On the other hand, Libanius' correspondence, reveals his wish to remain connected to those he judged important, despite the challenges of age and his increasing isolation as he coped with the loss of correspondents, colleagues, friends, and family. But these letters reveal, too, that their author's view of precisely who mattered was still determined by the values of the fourth-century imperial system within which Libanius' career had unfolded and which had determined with whom he had established and maintained connections. For all their diversity, this group did not include increasingly prominent, younger Christians whose clout and inclinations now counted as much, if not more, than the power and predispositions of members of the milieu in which Libanius had attempted to situate himself. To the end, the final pagan generation remained engaged "on their own terms" (p. 210) with a world it hardly recognized had changed in fundamental and irreversible ways.

Chapter Ten, "A Generation's Legacy," considers the reception of the final pagan generation by its immediate successors. Here religion comes prominently into play. While the pagan Praetextatus, who died in 384, may have been buried with honors and respectfully represented for his learning by Macrobius in the Saturnalia, the author of the Contra Paganos dismissed him with disdain. One Christian, Ausonius, became a foil to another, his grandson Paulinus, the former a success within the framework of the old imperial system, the latter deemed a success precisely because he forsook that system for an ascetic life. Themistius became a rational advisor of emperors rather than the champion of not-necessarily-Christian religious sensibilities. Libanius, who had ridden rhetorical virtuosity to fame in the old system, was compared to his disadvantage to his alleged star pupils John Chrysostom and Basil.

Eighty-three pages of informative notes, together with a twenty-one-page bibliography, contain much of the very best recent scholarship. There is one map—the clarity of which just compensates for its small size—and fourteen well-chosen illustrations, these ranging from images of coins to photographs of modern Indian temples. Duces for dux on p. 60 is inconsequential, and, by time of its publication, what Watts refers to as The Cambridge Companion to Libanius had become Libanius: A Critical Introduction.1

Watts' book is far more than a rehash of the careers of its principal protagonists. His interests and objectives have required that he set them within historical contexts. In the process of so doing, he often sketches with admirable clarity and succinctness what changed and what remained constant in the course of the Fourth Century. Not just non- specialists will be appreciative. A good example of this strength is Watts' treatment of what the reigns of Valens and Valentinian meant to those who aimed to make their marks in the service of the emperors, their courts, and the imperial system (pp. 129–137).

To use Ausonius, Libanius, Praetextatus, and Themistius as a basis for generalizations about a "final pagan generation" will strike some as problematic at best. "Generation" itself is a slippery concept, and even if one accepts Watts' chosen four as representative of one segment of the Fourth Century elite, it is a big step from that to accepting them as standard-bearers for even a small majority of those born in the late Third or early Fourth Centuries. They are, of course, among the very few about whom we possess enough evidence to permit us to appreciate their lives in any depth. Yet all are atypical and unrepresentative of anything apart from the circles in which they moved. And even if one ignores or minimizes variables of momentary circumstance and locale, is it possible to tease out from them the hopes, dreams, and disappointments of a generation? Whether they are "the final pagan generation" or four representatives of a small subset of that generation is a question worth asking. Regardless of the answer, Watts has given us a clearer and much more empathetic vision of what mattered most to four fascinating figures and of what was, in their hearts, minds, and memories, an "age of gold" (p. 220).


1.   Edited by Lieve van Hoof, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014, with a contribution by Watts himself.

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