Quite by chance I found myself looking at a vivid description of the pagan revival of the late 4th century AD, in the elderly pages of Rudolpho Lanciani’s Ancient Rome in the light of recent discoveries (1888). Lanciani was an Italian archaeologist who was digging in Rome, and unearthing all manner of ancient inscriptions. His books seem designed to stir interest in this very necessary work, by interweaving stories of his finds in a popular narrative of Roman history; and this they do very effectively.
The second half of the fourth century of our era was one of the most exciting periods in Roman history, on account of the stupendous fight between the Christian majority and the minority of those who still clung to polytheism in its decrepitude. Both parties were determined to put an end to a state of things which had become intolerable to each; both were determined to strike the final blow; and although the emperors themselves were disposed personally to gain the victory with time and persuasion, the impatience of the pagan leaders in Rome caused the catastrophe to be violent and marked by bloodshed.
It is rather difficult to describe the character, the feelings, the behavior, of those who distinguished themselves during the fight, because contemporary writers are not impartial; they judge of men and things from their own point of view, from the interest of their party. This discrepancy of appreciation is noticeable even in points of supreme importance, in events which had been seen and shared by thousands and thousands of witnesses. Christian writers; as a rule, attribute to their antagonists any amount of depravity, even in private life and affections; pagan writers reproach their opponents with conspiring to destroy the Empire, with being determined to open the gates of the Eternal City to the barbarians, provided the triumph of their new faith could be secured. The author of the libel against Virius Nicomachus Flavianus, the leader of the pagan aristocracy in the Senate, describes him as being polluted by unmentionable vices; whereas Theodosius II and Valentinian III., in their official messages to the Senate, A. D. 431, proclaim him nominis illustris, et sanctissimce apud omnes recordationis, an illustrious name, a man whose character was as pure as gold. Another instance of this more or less sincere discrepancy of opinions is supplied by the well-known quarrel about the statue of Victory in the Curia or Senate-hall, which statue for centuries had been considered as the personification of the power and destinies of imperial Rome. This statue, formerly worshipped at Tarentum, had been placed by Augustus himself on the tribune of the Curia, and ornamented with the rarest kind of jewelry, which he had collected in Egypt. An altar stood before it, to receive the votive offerings of the patres conscripti. From the day of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity to the year 382, the statue and the altar had been left undisturbed. In 382, however, they gave rise to the memorable duel fought between S. Ambrose on the Christian and Symmachus on the pagan side before Valentinian II. and Theodosius. Symmachus accused his rivals of enmity, not toward the statue of Victory, but toward the symbol of the fortune of the Roman armies, just then engaged in trying to check the invasion of the barbarians. S. Ambrose, on the other hand, never mentions the statue, venerated by every one because of its glorious origin, wonderful beauty, and great age; he contends simply that the altar and the official worship of the goddess should no longer be imposed on the Christian senators, or offend their feelings and trouble their consciences.
The want of trustworthy contemporary documents is compensated to a certain extent by the admirable series of inscriptions collected in class five of the sixth volume of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, which refers to Roman patrician magistrates of the fourth century, from the time of Diocletian to the fall of the Empire. These inscriptions derive their importance from the fact that, in describing the political, religious, and military career of each statesman and senator, they reveal at the same time absolutely authentic particulars otherwise unknown and events and names concerning which contemporary writers have not spoken, or have spoken with passion and prejudice. These marbles tell us the names and the exploits of the last champions of polytheism in the Senate. They describe how, during the last outburst of fanaticism, the most absurd superstitions, the most mysterious and contemptible ceremonies, were revived, — those especially which bore a certain analogy with the ceremonies of Christian worship. They throw a new light also on the catastrophe which brought to an end the worship of Vesta, and the life, eleven centuries old, of the sisterhood of the Vestal Virgins.
The leaders of the pagan faction in the Curia were Clodius Hermogenianus, Caelius Hilarianus, Clodius Flavianus, Petronius Apollodorus, Sextilius Agesilaus, the two Rufii Ceionii, Nonius Victor, Aurelius Victor, and other representatives of the old aristocracy. But, alas! how miserably they represented the former conquerors of the world! The whole party was initiated into the mysteries of secret Eastern sects, and their religious fanaticism stood in contrast to the original purity and simplicity of Roman religion as did their civil and military virtues to the wisdom and valor of the statesmen and generals of the Republic, and also of the Empire, in its first three centuries of glorious life.
They had selected as the scene of their grand exploits, as a place for confidential meetings, two sanctuaries, both of recent construction, — the shrine of Cybele and Atys on the Vatican hill, and the grotto of Mithras in the Campus Martius. The shrine of Cybele is mentioned by ancient writers among the buildings of the fourteenth region, Transtiberim, under the name Phrygianum. Although there was no doubt that such a name belonged to a place of worship of the Phrygian goddess, and that such a place was in the neighborhood of the Vatican, still no positive notice of its history and exact situation was obtained until the reign of Pope Paul V., Borghese. In laying the foundations of the southeast corner of the new facade of S. Peter’s, between 1608 and 1609, at a depth of thirty feet below the level of the ground, several altars and pedestals were discovered, on which the history of the shrine was engraved. These marbles apparently had been hammered and split into fragments at some unknown period; perhaps after the great religious catastrophe of 394, of which I shall presently speak. The sacred grotto of Mithras, in the Campus Martius, was within the limits of the seventh region, on the east side of the Via Lata, between the modern Corso and the general post – office in the Piazza of S. Silvestro in Capite, and, more precisely, in the plot of ground which is now occupied by the Marignoli palace. It was discovered at the end of the fifteenth century, but no satisfactory account of the discovery has come down to us. Fra Giovanni Giocondo and Pietro Sabino, who seem to have witnessed the event, only copied the inscriptions of the sanctuary, without describing any details of its architecture and disposition. Both places, the Vatican Metroon and the Mithraeum Campense, as they were officially named, had been filled with numberless altars and pedestals, as was said above, to commemorate the initiation of eminent men, mostly senators of the Empire, into those horrid mysteries and into the various degrees of the sect. And do the records engraved upon these marbles enumerate according to the ancient custom, the civil, military, and diplomatic offices honorably discharged in the interest of their sovereigns and country? Not in the least. These men pride themselves upon titles and names which would have made their noble and gallant ancestors blush with shame and burst with indignation. They call themselves pater sacrorum, father of mysteries; hierocorax invicti Mithrae, sacred crow of Mithras the omnipotent; archibucolus dei Liberi, great shepherd of Bacchus; hierofantes Hecatarum, high-priest of Hecate, and so forth. And they make use of a peculiar kind of phraseology, unknown in classic times, and evidently copied in a ridiculous manner from Christian models. One speaks of the gods animae suae mentisque custodes; another proclaims himself delibutus sacratissimis mysteriis, or else in aeternum renatus, after the baptism of blood; all of them, likewise, testify with unbounded pride to having received this bloody baptism, under the form of criobolium or taurobolium, or to having renewed the ceremony after a lapse of twenty years, because it appears that the abominable sacrament was thought to lose its redeeming power after a certain time, like some of our cutaneous injections.
Two senators, Nonius Victor Olympius and Aurelius Victor Augentius, presided over the Mithraeum Campense, and were the grand-masters of this kind of Free-masonry. In the tablets discovered there nearly four centuries ago, we can follow step by step the career of many illustrious adepts. Between A. D. 357 and 377 Nonius and Aurelius administered right and left the degrees of corax (raven), cryphius (secret), miles (soldier), leo, Perses, Heliodromos, and pater. In 377, the practice was stopped, probably, by the prefect of the town, Gracchus, who attempted to destroy all the Mithraic grottoes in Rome.
The worship of Vesta was not forgotten in this last outbreak, in this last revival of pagan superstitions. We are glad to acknowledge, however, that our virgins did not contaminate the last days of their life by altering the ancient purity and simplicity of the institution; they fell nobly and gallantly, faithful to the rules of the order eleven centuries old, free from any suspicion, and respected even by their enemies, in whose diatribes we are happy to find a certain sense of kindness and respect every time the Vestals are mentioned. We are also glad to testify that their name is not profaned in the records of the Phrygian and Mithraic sects; the senators, who caused those records to be engraved on marble, only occasionally call themselves pontifices Vestae and pontifices Vestales.
The infidel majority in the Senate fought the last battles under two able and determined leaders: Virius Nicomachus Flavianus, the senior (with his relatives the Symmachi), and Vettius Agorius Praetextatus. Flavianus took little or no interest in the Vestals, perhaps because the simplicity of their worship did not sufficiently excite a soul vitiated by the violent mysteries of the Phrygian and Persian rites. The author of the libel discovered by Delille, and mentioned above, ridicules Flavianus for his performances of the Amburbalia, of the Isia, of the Megalesia, of the Floralia; but he never speaks of the Vestalia, of the perennial fire, or of the Palladium. Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, on the contrary, was intensely devoted to the Virgins, as was also his wife, Fabia Aconia Paullina. Their palace stood at the corner of the Via Merulana and the Via delle sette Sale, on the site of the new palazzo Brancaccio. It was surrounded by a garden, which extended as far as the present railway station. Many monuments concerning the history of their family have been discovered within these limits. I shall mention, however, one only, on account of its connection with the events which I am relating. When the house of Praetextatus was excavated for the first time in 1591, there were found a pedestal and a statue erected in honor of Caelia Concordia, the last (or next to the last) abbess of the Atrium Vestae. The pedestal bore the following dedication: “Fabia Aconia Paullina sets up (in her own palace) this portrait-statue of Caelia Concordia, the Abbess of the Vestals, not only as a testimonial to her virtues, her chastity and her devotion to the gods, but also as a token of gratitude for the honor conferred by the Vestals upon her husband Praetextatus, to whom they have dedicated a statue in their own convent.” By a remarkable chance, this last-named statue has been discovered in our excavations. Its head, at first missing, was found by accident two years later. It is represented in the accompanying illustration. There seems to be no doubt of its being the very one alluded to by Fabia Aconia Paullina. It represents a senator in the official robe of the fourth century, and it is the only male statue found in the Atrium Vestae; its presence there would have remained almost inexplicable, had we not heard of it before, from the above-quoted inscription.
The work is easy to read, and contains material guaranteed to interest us all on many pages, even if sometimes we may wonder whether the matter is quite as simple as it is represented!
UPDATE: I find that I am by no means the only enthusiast for this work: Bill Thayer went so far as to retype the lot! It’s very freely available on the web: but some things are best read in book form.
-  Lanciani refers here to the Carmen Contra Paganos, found on three leaves at the back of a 5th century manuscript of Prudentius. ↩