The Roman Empire on the Side of the Vanquished

February 23, 2023

By publishing an anthology of texts written by pagan historians of the late Empire, the La Pléiade Library provides readers with an understanding of the reasons for the definitive victory of Christianity over paganism, from Constantine I to Theodosius the Great.

It is a document that Stéphane Ratti – associate professor of classics and professor emeritus of late antiquity history at the University of Burgundy Franche-Comté – has exhumed from the dust bin of history, by deciding to translate, present and annotate, in La Pléiade, Historia Augusta and other pagan historians, a work which recounts the lives of about 30 emperors.

It is often called a forgery because until the end of the 19th century, it was thought that the Historia Augusta had been written by six different historians; but it is now accepted that the work “was written by a single hand, not at the beginning of the 4th century, as the dedications to Diocletian and Constantine fictitiously proclaim, but at the very end of the 4th century,” explains Stéphane Ratti.

According to the latter, the anonymous author could have been one of these pagan aristocrats opposed to Theodosius. He was a pagan aware that he has almost lost the game, faced with the Christian power that had become dominant, because his world was being turned upside down.

As such, a picturesque anecdote is reported in the “Life of Alexander Severus”: this emperor, whom our anonymous author ranks among the best heads of state of the empire, had wanted to “build a temple to Christ and count the latter among the gods.” All of this took place in the third century.

Those close to the emperor dissuaded him from carrying out this project on the grounds that “everyone would become a Christian and all the other temples would be abandoned.” It is an episode that was “half authentic, since we know that it was actually Tiberius who had this idea,” but which “proves that, in the mind of the author of the Historia Augusta, Christianity constituted a real threat to the old paganism,” analyzes Stéphane Ratti.

The ancient pagans also saw in Christianity a threat to their heritage and their way of life, because under Theodosius, the practice of bequeathing part of one's property to the State or the Church developed. St. Augustine, in one of his sermons, exhorts his listeners in these terms: “Make a place for Christ among your children!” The message could not be more clear.

For the translator of the Historia Augusta, the fundamental reason for the fall of paganism comes from the emperor himself: “Constantine and Theodosius decided by force of law that Christianity would win. Which was realized. Imperial authority shaped the religious fate of Late Antiquity,” says Stéphane Ratti.

It is possible that – even if this opinion is not shared by the translator – these two emperors had grasped how much the syncretism of paganism was its Achilles' heel: too many cults, too many philosophies of life. Conversely, with Christianity, only one way of salvation, through Christ, is open. This was an opportunity to unify and galvanize the heterogeneous populations of the empire against the danger of the barbarians.

15 centuries later, at a time when Christianity is tending to fade away and become diluted within a secularized West, would the anonymous author of Historia Augusta see in the 21st century the opportunity for a posthumous victory?

Probably not, because the author, resigned to the victory of the Christians at the end of the fourth century, wanted above all – this appears throughout the book – to see in ancient paganism a form of respect for the customs of the ancient world, a culture that puts man above the savagery of the barbarians.