What Did “Pagan” Mean In Ancient Rome?

Ancient Rome

Evolution of the Term “Pagan”

The word pagan itself only began to circulate widely in the 370s AD. It was a word used in a religious sense only by Latin Christians. And, Hellenes, meaning followers of the religion of the ancient Greeks, was the term used by Greek Christians.

Originally, pagan had nothing to do with religion. The term pagan is derived from paganus, a Latin word, which originally meant a mere civilian – a person who did not enjoy the honors and prestige attached to service of the emperor. Christians used the term to brand those who did not serve the true emperor, Christ. Such persons (pagans) were outsiders – they were not fully enrolled members of the empire of God.

Pagan was not necessarily a hate word. It was often used in a relatively neutral manner as a convenient, idiomatic term for non-Christians.

Was Symmachus a Pagan?

Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (345-402 AD), better known simply as Symmachuswas a Roman statesman, orator, and man of letters. He sought to preserve the traditional religions of Rome at a time when the aristocracy was converting to Christianity. He “worshipped the gods” as he had always done.

Symmachus was the first person of Roman nobility who was forced to adjust to what amounted to an unprecedented situation. He was being labeled by others in confessional terms as a pagan, yet it wasn’t a label he would have chosen for himself. He did not see his fellow Romans (Christians or non-Christians) as divided between insiders and outsiders in this sectarian manner.

Whatever their beliefs, Symmachus wished to treat members of his class as peers held together by Rome’s old-fashioned “religion of friendship.” Symmachus was neither inert nor oblivious to the world in which he lived. He simply had better things to do than apply religious labels to his friends and colleagues.

Being Aware of Historical Trends

When considering how use of the term pagan evolved, it can be seen that we moderns are the heirs of what originally were novel Christian attitudes, which only became fully public in the 370s and 380s AD.

Through the Eye of a Needle
Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD
Peter Brown


Peter Brown
Peter Brown
Born 1935

Peter Brown is Rollins Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. He is credited with having brought coherence to the field of Late Antiquity, and is sometimes regarded as the inventor of the field.

Brown’s work has concerned, in particular, the religious culture of the later Roman Empire and early medieval Europe, and the relation between religion and society. He is a prolific author and editor, and has won prizes in the field of ancient history.

Books Peter Brown has written include:

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