Review: Watts’ The Final Pagan Generation

The Final Pagan Generation (Edward J. Watts, 2015) covers the 310s – 390s CE. It looks at four elites of the Roman social world — Libanius, Themistius, Praetextatus, and Ausonius. Three were traditional religionists, and one was Christian. Watts follows this cohort’s lives to answer the questions of how the radical social, political, and religious transformations would have been perceived by people living through them.

I’ve had a fascination for this period of history ever since I was a child. Fourth-grade me apostatized from Christianity in favor of the Egyptian goddess Bastet, whom I saw in glory in the Field Museum of Chicago a short while later when my mother brought us to the American Libraries Association conference held in that city once every few years.

Seventh-grade me began a process of needing context primarily out of desperation. While I had been school bullied mercilessly since second grade due to being bookish, weird, and too candid for a girl, a girl moved into the house next door during the summer between sixth and seventh grade. She was from Massachusetts, and her mother practiced Jewish mysticism. She knew that my family’s Unitarian Universalism was a thin veneer over the actual truth of our Neopaganism. On starting school that year and realizing that I was the class pariah, she outed my religion to the entire school. This was the Bible belt. I had to deal with a lot growing up. My mom had personal connections to people in the Missouri ACLU, so this could have been worse than it was. It was still horrible.

Trying to grapple with the hostility of my classmates occupied a lot of my mental time. One side effect of this is that I’ve been Cassandra-ing about the Christian Right wanting to bring back theocracy since I was seventeen or eighteen. (Autostraddle has recently run a lot of pieces from someone inside the movement that have been fascinating, primarily because they gave me fresh insights into the psychology of the public school-attending warriors for Christ I grew up with.)

I think about the 4th century, the Emperor Julian, and Christian evangelism frequently. I took a Classical Mythology course from Scott Bradbury my senior year of college (about a year, maybe less, after converting to Hellenism). While in the class, I discovered and read his short-form work on blood sacrifice and religious prohibitions — some of which I have actively used to inform my religious practice. I was too anxious and afraid to actually approach him about any of these interests. In fact, I spent a lot of college really anxious. Growing up where I did taught me that I couldn’t put any pagan/polytheistic leadership on my resumé because people would assume I was unscientific and stupid and not fit for employment, and yet most of my leadership experience was in the Association of Smith Pagans (ASP). To this day, I think that a lot of pagan/polytheist college students don’t participate in groups because they know it could impact their careers due to the media perceptions. I had an experience my first year at Smith sitting on the PVTA 43 bus to pick something up at Target when someone in my dorm whom I didn’t know got on and started trash-talking Wicca with her friend, which was close to the form of Neopaganism I was raised in. It really hurt, and I obviously haven’t forgotten it. I had chosen Smith in part because I wanted a religious community, paradoxically.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that Watts cites Bradbury at one point, and I was immediately reminded of that college class. In addition, comparing the anxieties of growing up Neopagan and not being treated like a serious intellectual to an environment where texts written by and about polytheism and its philosophical schools were the core educational material is an important mental exercise I engaged in while reading the book.

That said, I valued The Final Pagan Generation most for how it took a complex and fast-moving century and broke it out into pieces that were easy to digest while not sacrificing the period’s complexities. Here are some other things I found interesting:

  • It reiterated that the earlier edicts against sacrifice were often unenforceable and that sacrifice — and traditional religion — continued into the Christian policy-dominated empire.
    • Modern Christians often summarize this period as if everyone suddenly heard about Jesus and dropped everything they were doing to become pious Christian soldiers overnight.
    • We, to the contrary, tend to date active persecution of traditional religionists too early. A lot of stressors built up over time and culminated in persecution that picked up in that century’s latter half. This is due both to overcompensating for how much (at least American) history books downplay the persecution of traditional religionists and residual Christian beliefs about the importance of martyrdom.
  • The way the narrative progressed reminded me of the Cultural Revolution in China. I also drew parallels to other ideological upheavals and policing in totalitarian regimes.
  • The traditional Roman elites’ inability to recognize the threats in the 4th century made me think of some of the intergenerational tensions I see in America regarding how seriously we should take the youth surge in white supremacist groups.
  • From a religious perspective, the outline of how the multicultural polis actually operated in this period was actually really valuable. It underscores efforts among the Hellenic polytheistic community to focus on the oikos (household) and its rituals, as these spaces are within our locus of control.
  • Watts explicitly describes Christian reactions to being exposed to traditional religious behaviors, specifically smells and the ashes of sacrifice. Apparently, going into a traditional religionist’s home was spiritually fraught and potentially soul-imperiling because one couldn’t know if scents came from religious offerings or from secular attempts to keep the house from smelling like sewage. This eventually escalated into the removal of sacrificial altars from the Roman Senate, as many Christians said that having sacrifice itself was an assault on their religion. This does not surprise me given certain recent stories.
    • I still have no idea what to say to people who believe I am persecuting them by just lighting incense in my own fucking apartment.
    • Also, reading about banning sacrifice/incense/&c. stresses me out, so maybe I ordered more incense than usual for my religious offerings.
  • A lot of synagogues and Jewish worship spaces were destroyed alongside the shrines and temples of gods and goddesses.

As a non-historian, I can’t really speak to the narrative’s historical approach. It was coherent, well-researched, and engaging. Watts also made no disparaging and passive aggressive comments about traditional polytheistic religions. I think it’s a useful read for anyone in modern polytheisms centered around Mediterranean pantheons or for thinking about modern conversions and religious intimidation worldwide.

5/5 stars.

2 thoughts on “Review: Watts’ The Final Pagan Generation

  1. Thanks for this review. I’m very interested in Late Antiquity. Various published reviews dissuaded my interest in Watts’ book, but perhaps I need to read it after all.

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    1. You’re welcome! The reviews I saw about this at the time were quite decent. As long as one keeps in mind that the book focuses on upper-class men, it’s a very illuminating work.

      Liked by 1 person

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