When in Rome, Leave the “Hicks” Alone

Is new research rewriting the origins of a centuries’ old slur?

Douglas Boin
Jun 20, 2016 · 8 min read
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Orosius, the Spanish Christian writer, in a medieval manuscript. Don’t try to put out an all-points-bulletin with this sketch. Men drawn like him are a dime a dozen. From Wikimedia Commons.

Updated Wednesday, June 22, 2016.

“Pagans are people who get their name because they come from the farmlands and from rustic places on the outskirts of town.” So explained a Spanish Christian, Orosius, writing in Latin at the start of the fifth century A.D. Hicks would be a better translation.

Orosius believed that non-Christians deserved this label because, at the time he was writing — when Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire — many non-believers could still be found in the backwaters of the Mediterranean. And since the Latin word for describing the rustic outskirts of a city is pagus and the one who lives there a paganus, non-Christians acquired the name “pagans.” That, at least, is what Orosius wanted us to believe. But is it true?

Orosius’ opinions have worked their way into generations of history books, and for many Christians, there’s a comforting faith-history here. The story behind the slur conjures up masses of well-educated, urbane, and cosmopolitan Romans waking up to the “true faith,” Christianity, whereas ignorant, unsophisticated, rubes — people who believed that Jupiter thundered and Juno and Minerva protected the state — were the stubborn ones dragging their feet.

These word-origins would be an academic parlor game if they weren’t fundamental for understanding the triumph of Christianity. And new research is suggesting scholars may have gotten the picture wrong.

In Latin, the word paganus did not always mean “rustic, country bumpkin, or rube.” It could also mean “civilian.” In this meaning, which was common throughout the first three centuries of the Roman Empire, the word paganus functioned as an antonym for “soldier“ (in Latin, miles; the English word “militant” is related to the Latin plural, milites). For Romans, a paganus and miles were sharp opposites, as different as black from white, night from day. A “soldier” had bravely enlisted in the army; a “civilian” had not taken up that cause.

This ancient opposition gave rise to two modern schools of thought. Early in the 20th century, some scholars tried to argue that Jesus’ followers had used the word paganus to talk about non-Christians because they had not yet seen the light of truth and signed up to join the the army of the Messiah (“Christ”). Later, scholars swapped this military metaphor for the agricultural one. In both cases, scholars believed paganus referred to people outside the Christian community. That’s the way scholar James O’Donnell explained the history of the word in his important articles on the topic; and in 2015, he used that research as the focal point of a story about Christianity’s rise in a book he called, simply, Pagans. In it, O’Donnell “trenchantly interprets how an oddball religious cult became the official faith of Rome,” according to the The New York Times, March 15, 2015, edition.

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(New York: Ecco, 2015)

All these approaches share a basic assumption, one that goes back to Orosius: that Christians used the word paganus to talk about people who were not originally part of their own group. But was Orosius right?

In 2014, the peer-reviewed Journal of Early Christian Studies published a paper that called into question Orosius’ claim. Titled “Hellenistic ‘Judaism’ and the Social Origins of the ‘Pagan-Christian’ Debate,” the article put forward a new way of thinking about the “triumph of Christianity.” For, as the author made clear marshaling some overlooked linguistic evidence, the word paganus was first used by Christians to mock the behavior and the beliefs of other Christians — not outsiders.

Here’s a helpful way of thinking about what that would look like. In Rome, militant believers would accuse members of their own faith group of “acting too civilian.” The -ism form of their slur could then be translated with a word like “civilianism.” That’s how I translated it my 2015 book, Coming Out Christian in the Roman World, which was based on the article of which I happen to be the author.

Let’s think about the historical problem here a bit more, though. So what if Christians in Rome were accusing each other of “civilianism” (in Latin, paganismus)? Well, for one, there’s a lot more at stake here than just the usual image of a disgruntled urban Christian calling non-Christian friend a “hick” or “rube.” But it might be hard to see this big picture on first glance. So let’s back up and put this in some context.

The political conversations that consumed the later Roman Empire were driven by people of faith who understood the social requirements of their faith in different ways.

To find the proof I needed for my argument, I had to go back in Roman history quite a bit: to a time before Christians even existed — when Rome itself was still a backwater city on a swampy Tiber. In fact, I had to go all the way back to the period of the Hellenistic kings. There, in the stories of the Maccabean resistance to Hellenistic customs in Jerusalem, events which are still celebrated at Hanukah, I found evidence for the ways in which Jews were fiercely divided amongst themselves about the spread of Greek customs. Think globalization on a smaller scale.

A model of Jerusalem during the first century C.E., the time when the Second Temple was still standing. Currently in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Author’s photo.

While some Jews were embracing this cultural change, others, it turns out, were fighting against it. One of the hallmarks of their fight was the way the hard-line, culturally uncompromising Jews denigrated their own Jewish friends and neighbors for “acting too Greek.” What I was able to show in my research is how the sound and feel of this intra-Jewish debate was later picked up by early Christians.

In the Greek-speaking world of the Eastern Mediterranean, where social customs had retained a Greek flavor ever since the time of Alexander and his successors, Christians would soon begin to accuse their more politically-accommodating peers as “acting too Greek.” “No trips to the baths! No visits to the racetrack!” the Christian writer John Chrysostom would inveigh, in the late fourth century A.D. Christians were not to be seen fitting it, or “acting too Greek.”

In the Latin-speaking world of the Western Mediterranean, where every person with a modicum of social ambition wanted to be seen embracing Greek language and customs, the terms of this intra-Christian argument evolved differently. Whereas “real Christians” in Rome saw themselves as “soldiers” (milites) waging a cultural war on God’s behalf, other Christians were now being called out for acting “too civilian” (paganus). The use of the word paganus in this way can be documented as early as the middle of the fourth century A.D., precisely the time when it became legal for Christians to move freely about Roman cities and to be open about their faith.

Do we go to games at the circus which feature processions for the gods? Do we go to the theater where the gods are honored? Should we go to the baths, where the gods are honored, too? Jesus’ followers had walked straight into fourth-century Rome carrying some fairly significant cultural baggage.

This development makes perfect sense because that’s the time when Christians had won legal standing in Rome. That’s why we see many of them begin to wonder out loud whether they should adapt to Roman culture — by attending circus races, going to the theater, or enjoying the baths. The Christian community of Rome was tied in a knot about whether to embrace it, push back against it, reject it, or try to overturn the entire foundation of Roman society by writing new “Christian” laws appropriate for a “Christian” state.

Do you see now why it’s so important to show that the slur paganus developed inside the Christianity, not outside it? It points to a existence of a conversation, in Rome, that sounds eerily familiar to ones taking place today, such as the many difficult conversations taking place about what it means to be “real” Muslim, a “real” Christian, or a “real” Mormon.

That’s why I was able to make the argument, in Coming Out Christian in the Roman World, that what ultimately changed Rome to an officially “Christian Empire” was not a growing preference for Christianity, lit by a wildfire of conversions. It was the political will of religious hard-liners who fought for their uncompromising vision of Christianity — and won.

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An illustration of how the concepts of acting too “civilian” [“pagan”] and acting too “Greek” were used by Christians to slander people who were already considered part of their group. According to this model, at its origin, “pagan” was not a word used to describe “hicks,” or outsiders, as the Christian writer Orosius’ later understood it. It was word used to draw distinction between Christians themselves. From the Journal of Early Christian Studies (2014). Author’s illustration.

Whether Orosius knew any of the history I have reconstructed is uncertain. His fanciful but highly influential etymology about “pagans” being non-Christian “hicks” was written in 416 - 418 A.D., almost four decades after Christianity was proclaimed by law as the only religion of the empire.

The usual story about the “rise of Christianity” goes like this. When Christianity conquered Rome, the “pagans” stood by as all their beloved religious traditions came under attack, swept aside by the triumphant rise of this new superior faith. In the course of this political tsunami, non-Christians were targeted for not converting fast enough. Soon, a slur was invented to push them into the church. That’s why, as the great historian of the church, Henry Chadwick, once said, “The pagans didn’t know they were pagan until the Christians told them so.”

The research I outlined above tells a different story. Instead of making history out to be to an intensely political conversation between two distinct parties of “pagans and Christians” — allowing for all the usual gray space in between rigid categories, of course — Rome’s hottest maneuvering would have taken place between Christians. In short, the political conversations that consumed the later empire were driven by people of faith who understood the social requirements of their faith in different ways.

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(New York: Bloomsbury, 2015)

On one side, there were Christians who saw themselves as “soldiers” fighting in God’s heavenly army; on the other, there were Christians who weren’t militant enough about their beliefs, the “civilians.”

So instead of dancing gingerly around the idea of culture clash between “the Christians and the Romans” — a war leading to the transformation of the empire — or instead of assuming that the religion of the Roman people died and withered in the face of Christianity’s innate superiority, we might begin to see Rome’s transformation a bit differently. Rome was a place where Christians were arguing vociferously with each other over how all of Jesus’ followers should live in the messy, cosmopolitan world around them.

Should we go to games at the circus which feature processions for the gods? Should we go to the theater where the gods are honored? Should we go to the baths, where the gods are honored, too? Jesus’ followers had walked straight into fourth-century Rome carrying some fairly significant cultural baggage, and many people inside the group must have looked on in horror as their teammates tried to move the goalposts on them during these intense cultural debates.

This post was edited and updated on December 5, 2017.

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