Classical Folia 31(1977) 163-69

The quarrel over the evolution and use of paganus in late antiquity is a leisurely one, with new contributions about once in a generation. There are at present three principal interpretations to choose among, none of which has won universal acceptance. This paper presents a hypothesis -- nothing more than that -- which may prove more useful than the existing theories.

A bibliographical survey of the history of the quarrel would be superfluous, since the most recent major contribution has already performed that service.[1] A brief summary of the issues will suffice.

The 'traditional' view of paganus is that its obvious derivation from pagus and its original sense in classical Latin (= 'rustic, hick') governed its adoption by Christian writers. In spite of counter-arguments supported by Harnack, this is the view taken by the most comprehensive survey of the question, that of J. Zeiller.[2] This view interprets the evidence as showing that 'paganism' survived most tenaciously in the country districts, thus the attachment of the old word for country-dweller.

The 'modern' view observes that paganus had taken on a special sense in the early empire, coming to mean 'civil, civilian' as opposd to 'military'.[3] The most recent and circumspect defense of that view was made by B. Altaner.[4] This argument holds that the new spcial sense of paganus was much the most common in the Roman Empire and that its Christian adoption looks to the paganus as someone who is not a miles Christi.

A third view attempts to mediate between the two so far summarized; it received its classical formulation by C. Mohrmann.[5] By minute analysis of texts, this view notes that the use of paganus to mean 'civilian' was a special case of a more general use to mean 'outsider' -- whether the general or the special sense came first is not clear.[6] In that view, paganus comes to mean 'pagan' simply as a non-tendentious term for someone who is outside the Christian community; the pejorative connotations of the earlier interpretations are missing.

The three interpretations just summarized seem to suffer from two deficiencies. First, it is unwise for modern scholars to enter so fully into the late antique way of thinking that they become enmeshed in disputes over (often somewhat fanciful) etymologies. Derivation does not always govern a word's meaning. Second, all three interpretations ignore some curious features of the surviving evidence as a whole, while emphasizing certain special proof texts according to the conclusion the author wishes to draw.

Prescinding for the moment, then, from semantic interpretation, let us look at the whole dossier of surviving evidence to make an inventory of our resources.

The earliest possible texts are in Tertullian.[7] If one wants to prove that the Chrsitian sense derives through the military, one seizes upon these passages as indicative of Tertullian's usage; the argument is plausible but not certain.[8]

After Tertullian, there is silence for a century. Numerous terms are used by Christians who wish to characterize their opponents: nationes, gentes, gentiles, ethnici, occasionally Graecus.[9] Two funerary inscriptions which can with some confidence be dated to the first third of the fourth century seem to show the word in accepted use in the Christian sense.[10] The appearance of the word in literary texts follows, somewhat erratically.

The 'first appearance' of the new sense had been thought to be in the Theodosian Code, in a law dated to 370.[11] At least one author, however, predates the Code: Marius Victorinus, who converted to Christianity c. 355, died in 361.[12] Victorinus uses the term frequently in scriptural commentary, equating it to Graecus. Other late fourth-century authors to use the term include Ambrosiaster (particularly if the pseudo-Augustinian Quaestiones edited by Souter are his, for they include a whole article "against the pagans" using the term heavily),[13] Pacianus of Barcelona, Optatus of Milevis, Philastrius of Brescia, Prudentius, and, especially, Augustine. Augustine was followed by Orosius in the early fifth century and the term caught on almost universally after that, as the thing it described was dying out. Two names of particular weight are missing from that list: Ambrose and Jerome, in whose works learned searchers have not found the word used.[14]

What seems to me instructive about this pattern of us of the new term is the identity of many of the users: converts and controversialists. Against a belief that the word was lacking in pejorative connotations there stands its most frequent use in precisely those authors who held the strongest brief against 'paganism'. Such a judgment is inevitably subjective, at least in part. Two pieces of concrete evicence seem to support it to a considerable degree.

First, Augustine's practice in the De civitate Dei. Zeiller's catalogue of testimonia reveals that Augustine was an author from whose pen the word slipped easily and frequently.[15] De civitate Dei, however, was Augustine's only major work directed at an audience including non-Christians and designed to refute attacks on Chrsitianity, winning converts by persuasive force of rhetoric in the process. But Augustine's use of paganus in this work bears a strong resemblance to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time in Conan Doyle's "Silver Blaze": the word is almost never used. Almost: it appears in five passages.[16] Circumlocution, often clumsy, is a far more common way of identifying opponents.[17] The breviculus of the work's contents, which Augustine addressed to a Christian reader, contains more mentions of the term numerically than the whole body of the work's text.[18]

Second, Prudentius' practice reveals a similar discrimination. Nowhere in his most extended treatment of 'paganism', the Contra Symmachum, addressed at least formally to pagan ears, does the word itself appear. Once only its presumed etymology from the original sense of 'rustic' is alluded to with some clarity.[19] But in the preface to the first book, most likely added to the poem when it was included in a collection of the poet's works directed at a Chrsitian not pagan, audience, the word is used frankly almost at the very beginning.[20]

What these two authors have in common is their diffidence in using the word when writin to persuade, not simply mock, a pagan audience; parallel with that, these authors use the word casually and commonly when writing to other Christians. These two pieces of evidence join with the earlier subjective observation about the character of authors using the word to produce at least a marginal probability that the pejorative connotations were there, and fairly strongly felt. It is, then, in authors like Orosius, of whom the word 'diffident' could hardly ever be used, that paganus appears, with explicit reference to the derivation from the sense of 'rustic', in works attacking paganism virulently. [21]

There is a final curiosity to be uncovered in the evidence. Isidor of Seville derives the term thus: "Pagani ex pagis Atheniensium dicti, ubi exorti sunt. Ibi enim in locis agrestibus et pagis gentiles lucos idolaque statuerunt, et a tali initio vocabulum pagani sortiti sunt." [22] He was followed in the first of the two etymologies he proposes (he seems not to have known that Greek pagos meant almost precisely the opposite of Latin pagus) by pseudo-Cassiodorus, commenting on the Canticle of Canticles -- but that author is probably the much later (Carolingian) Haymo of Auxerre. [23]

The evidence is both patchy and complex, requiring a more complex explanation than has been given in the past. I propose the following hypothetical reconstruction of the word's history.

If etymology is necessary, the original derivation of the term from the later military sense of paganus (= 'civilian') seems the most likely; whether Tertullian by his use of the word exemplifies that derivation precisely, he seems at least to be aware of it. What is striking, however, if this view of the origin is correct, is the long period in which the word hardly appears. If paganus was used to mean someone who was not a miles Christi, it may have appealed originally only to the relatively sophisticated. Alternatively but without contradiction (and the state of the evidence does not allow certainty -- as with so much of third century history) the usage may have survived strictly in common speech. What is known is that the word was not, so far as we can tell, part of the literary vocabulary of Christians in the third century.

Whether the word lapsed completely from use or passed exclusively into common parlance, the effect was the same: the sophisticated, witty derivation of the word was forgotten. When Chrsitianity finally found itself in a position to sneer at paganism (after Constantius II had begun the first acts of genuine repression) the word was recovered from the oblivion of either erudition or ignorance and pressed into common use with new connotations. For the fourth century authors who pause to tell us what they think the word means are unanimous in attributing its origin to paganus ('rustic'); there is no reason to suspect that they may not have been as wrong on this etymology as their contemporaries were on so many others.

The pertinence of the word was in its particularly humorous connotations. Even when the laughter was hollow (as under Julian's brief apostasizing reign), it was Christian practice to mock its non-Christian enemies. [24] It is therefore beside the point to argue, as scholars have done, whether paganism was more tenacious in the senatorial class of the cities or in the poorer and more ignorant class of farmers: for the whole point of the word's usage by late fourth-century Christians, I suggest, was to lump those two groups together eliberately to the discomfiture of the proud senatorial pagans. To address someone like Vettius Agorius Praetextatus as a 'hick' on the ground of a worship shared with men whose boots squished with more than mud was both funny and biting. The late fourth century (recalling that our first literary testimony comes from c. 360) was the great age of pompous, sophisticated, rich man's paganism. These connoisseurs of the old religion were called 'hicks' behind their backs and, for deliberate and (I should think) devastating effect, to their faces in the heat of controversy; but when they were being cajoled to accept Christianity the word was discreetly avoided. (Some authors, Ambrose and Jerome being the best examples, abided in discretion at all times, whether by choice or by habit.)

What followed then was the final, neglected stage in the development of ancient words and their meanings: the period of bogus etymology. In this case particularly, the claim that Greek pagos lay behind the origins of paganus seems so precisely opposed to the true sense of the term as it was in common use that one has to suspect deliberate, humorous perversion of the facts for literary purposes. The role of word play in ancient etymological speculations deserves further attention.

The interpretation proposed here, therefore, of the development of the Christian sense of paganus combines the arguments of the previous interpretations with new ones. In so doing it recognizes the vagaries of development over long periods of time and the unpredictability of human wit. Whether it is the final interpretation or whether it will merely contribute to further debate remains to be seen. [25]

James J. O'Donnell
The Catholic University of America
Washington DC


1. C. Mohrmann, Études sur le latin des chrétiens (Rome 1958-65) 3.277-79.

2. J. Zeiller, Paganus: Étude de terminologie historique (Paris 1917).

3. E.g., Tacitus, Hist. 3.24, et saep.; Juvenal 16.33.

4. B. Altaner, "Paganus: Eine bedeutungsgeschichtliche Untersuchung," Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 38(1939) 130-41.

5. C. Mohrmann, "Encore une fois: paganus," Études sur le latin des chrétiens 3.277-89; orig. pub. in Vigiliae Christianae 6(1952) 109-21.

6. E.g., Persius Sat. prol. 6. But Persius' opacity is always difficult to interpret, never more so than in his prologue.

7. Tertullian, De pallio 4; De corona militis 11.

8. Zeiller, op. cit. 25-28.

9. Zeiller, op. cit. 5-7; these terms are influenced by the commonest New Testament expression, ta ethne.

10. CIL 10.7112 (= ILCV 1.1549); and CIL 6.30463 (= ILCV 1.1342): "interfideles fidelis fuit, inter (al)ienos pagana fuit," of a young woman who had married a pagan, a text which would seem to deny that its author had ever heard the word explained as Mohrmann does.

11. Cod Theod. 16.2.18 (17 February 370): Valentinian I speaking to Claudius, proconsul of Africa, of a time "cum paganorum animi contra sanctissimam legem quibusdam sunt excitationibus excitati."

12. Marius Victorinus, In Gal. 2.3, 4.3, et saep.; cf. Zeiller, op. cit. 9.

13. Ps.-Augustine (= Ambrosiaster?), Liber quaestionum (ed. A. Souter, CSEL 50), Q. 114, "Adversus Paganos."

14. Such a blanket statement is still susceptible of amendment.

15. Zeiller, op. cit. 86-98.

16. Augustine De civ. Dei (ed. Dombart-Kalb, CCSL 47-48) 5.23.22, 8.26.14-18, 9.19.13, 21.6.12, 22.3.23-25. This list is authorized by independent searches by Zeiller and myself (before I had seen Zeiller's work).

17. The first such passage is perfectly typical: Aug. De civ. Dei 1.praef.7, "eos qui conditori eius deos suos praeferunt."

18. Printed in CCSL 47.v-xlv; on the origins of this breviculus separate from the text, for which my observations offer new evidence, see H.-I. Marrou, "La division en chapitres des livres de la 'Cité de Dieu'," Mélanges J. de Ghellinck (Gembloux 1951) 1.235-249.

19. Prudentius, C. Symm. 1.449.

20. Ibid. 1.praef.6.

21. Orosius, Historiae 1.prol.9.

22. Isidore, Etymologiae 8.10.1.

23. See the discussion of this latter passage in Zeiller, op. cit. 31-32; he accepted the then-current attribution of the work to Justus of Urgel, of the mid-sixth century; on the reattribution, see the references in E. Dekkers, Clavis Patrum Latinorum (rev. ed. 1961) no. 1220.

24. The practice is notorious from Tertullian to Augustine, but the contrast in tone is well epitomized in Augustine's letters. Epp. 16-17, from and to the pagan grammarian Maximus of Madaura (390 A.D.), show Augustine in a sharp and mocking mood in strong contrast to, for example, Ep. 23 to the Donatist bishop Maximinus of Siniti (392 A.D.), who is treated with great deference adn courtesy -- for the Donatists at that time were opponents Augustine both respected and feared.

25. A separate question, in great need of discussion, is how far the term paganus fairly and accurately identified the movement to which it was attached by that movement's enemies. Does it make sense to speak of 'paganism' as a self-conscious movement aprt from the jumble of religions and philosophies which it comprised? Are Julian and Ammianus and Symmachus and Claudian and Rutilius Namatianus 'pagans' with critical beliefs in common, or do we do violence to the facts by lumping them together as their enemies did?