Carmen adversus paganos

I mentioned that Brian Croke and Jill Harries had put together a volume of documents around the fall of paganism and the final establishment of Christianity during the fourth century, entitled Religious Conflict in Fourth-Century Rome.  Some pages of this have reached me, and I have been pretty impressed.

Among the texts translated for the first time is the Carmen contra paganos which I was considering getting translated a little while ago.  Since it is short, I think I may quote it in full as an example of the truly vivid impression that the book made on me (or at least those bits I saw).  I’ve abbreviated the copious notes so that the general reader may still understand; but the notes are full and highly useful.

Anonymous, Carmen contra paganos (Poem against the Pagans)

Tell me, you people who worship the sacred groves and cave of the Sibyl and the thicket of Ida; the lofty Capitol of thundering Jupiter, the Palladium and the household gods [Lares] of Priam, the chapel of Vesta, and the incestuous gods, the sister married to her brother,[1] the cruel boy [Cupid], the statues of unspeakable Venus, you whom only the purple toga consecrates, you to whom the oracle of Phoebus has never spoken true, you whom the delusive Etruscan diviner forever mocks; this Jupiter of yours, overwhelmed with love for Leda, did he mean to cover himself with white feathers so as to change into a swan, when desperately in love to flow all at once to Danae as a golden shower, to bellow through the straits of Parthenope [Naples] as an adulterous bull? If these monstrous rites find favour are no hallowed things modest? Is the ruler of Olympus [Saturn] forced to retreat, in flight from the arms of Jupiter?  And does any suppliant venerate the temples of the tyrant, when he sees the father compelled to fight by his own son? Finally, if Jupiter himself is ruled by Fate what advantage is it to wretched men to pour forth prayers already foredoomed? The handsome young man, Adonis, is mourned in the temples, naked Venus weeps, Mars the hero rejoices, Jupiter in the middle does not know how to bring about reconciliation and Bellona urges on the quarrelling gods with her whip.

Is it fitting for senators to hope for safety from sacred leaders such as these? Should they be allowed to settle your quarrels? Tell me, what benefit to the City was your prefect, when, a plunderer in ceremonial attire, he had reached the throne of Jupiter, whereas [in fact] he scarcely atones for his crimes by a protracted death? This man who feverishly purified the whole city for three months finally came to the limits of his life. What madness of spirit was this, what insanity of mind? He was certainly able to disturb your Jupiter’s peace! Who, most beautiful Rome, provoked your suspension of public business? Was the populace, long since a stranger to them, to resort to arms?

But there was no one on earth more hallowed than he whom Numa Pompilius, the chief diviner among many, taught by an empty rite outrageously to pollute the altars in the blood of cattle with putrefying carcasses [2]. Is this not the very same man who once betrayed the wine of his country[3] and ancient households, overturning the towers and residences of the nobility, since he wished to bring destruction on his city, adorned his doorposts with laurel, gave banquets, offered unclean bread tainted with the smoke of incense, asking in jest whom he would give over to death, who was ever accustomed to put on the sacred garments, forever ready to corrupt the unfortunate with some new deceit?

How, I ask you, did your priest help the city? He taught the [Greek] priest to seek the Sun beneath the earth,[4] and when a grave-digger from the countryside happened to cut down a pear tree for himself, would say that he was a companion of the gods and mentor of Bacchus, he, a worshipper of Serapis, always a friend to the Etruscan diviners, the one who sought eagerly to pour for the unwary his draughts of poison, who sought a thousand ways of harming and as many contrivances. Those whom he wished to ruin he struck down — the ghastly snake! — ready as he was to fight the true God, in vain, he who always mourned in silence the times of peace, unable to proclaim his own deep grief.

Which initiate of the taurobolium persuaded you to change your clothes so that you, a puffed-up rich man, should suddenly become a beggar covered in rags and having been made a pauper by your small contribution sent underground, stained with bull’s blood, dirty, corrupted, to preserve your bloodied garments and hope to live pure for twenty years? [5] You set yourself up as a censor to cut down the life of your betters, henceforth trusting that your own actions would lie hidden, although you had always been surrounded with the dogs of the Great Mother,[6] you whom the licentious band (O horror!) accompanied in your triumph. The old man of sixty remained a boy,[7] a worshipper of Saturn, constant friend of Bellona, who persuaded everyone that the Fauns,  companions of the nymph Egeria, and the Satyrs and Pans are gods. He is a companion of nymphs and Bacchus and priest of Trivia,[8] whom the Berecynthian Mother inspired to lead the choral dances, take up the staffs of effeminacy and clash the cymbals; whom powerful Galatea [Venus], born of lofty Jove and endowed with the prize of beauty through the judgement of Paris, commanded. Let no priest be allowed to keep his shame when they are in the habit of chanting in falsetto in the Megalensian celebrations. Thus in his madness he wanted to damn many worshippers of Christ were they willing to die outside the Law, and would give honours to those he would ensnare, through demonic artifice, forgetful of their true selves, seeking to influence the minds of certain people by gifts and to make others profane with a small bribe and send the wretched people below with him to Hell. He who wanted pious agreements to replace the laws had Leucadius put in charge of the African farms, to corrupt Marcianus so that he might be his proconsul. [9]

What was the divine custodian of Paphos [Venus], the matron Juno and elderly Saturn able to provide for you, their priest? What did the trident of Neptune promise you, O madman? (90) What responses could the Tritonian maiden [Minerva] give? Tell me, why did you seek the temple of Serapis by night? What did deceitful Mercury promise you as you went? What do you gain from having worshipped the Lares and two-faced Janus? What pleasure to you as priest did our parent Earth give, or the beautiful mother of the gods? (95) What barking Anubis; what the pitiable mother Ceres, and Proserpine below; what lame Vulcan, weak in one foot? Who did not laugh at your grieving, whenever you came bald to the altars as a suppliant to beseech rattle-bearing Faria [Isis] and when, after lamentation, you carried the broken olive branch when mourning wretched Osiris, [as Isis] sought the one she would lose again when found? We have seen lions bearing yokes wrought in silver, [10] when joined together they pulled creaking wooden wagons, and we have seen that man holding silver reins in both his hands. We have seen eminent senators following the chariot of Cybele which the hired band dragged at the Megalensian festival, carrying through the city a lopped-off tree trunk,[11] and suddenly proclaiming that castrated Attis is the Sun. While through your magic arts, alas, you seek the honours of princes, pitiable man, you are thereby brought low with the gift of a small tomb. Yet only the promiscuous Flora rejoices in your consulship, the shameful mother of games and mistress of Venus, to whom but recently your heir Symmachus [13] constructed a temple. You, stationed in the temple, continually worshipped all those monstrous things while your suppliant wife with her hands heaps up the altars with grain and gifts and prepares to fulfil her vows to the gods and goddesses on the threshold of the temple, and threatens the divine powers, desiring to sway Acheron with magic verses, yet sent him wretched headlong down to Tartarus. Leave off weeping after such a spouse, a sufferer from dropsy, he whose wish was to hope for salvation from Latian Jupiter.

[1] Juno and Jupiter.

[2] This refers to the augural ritual and the feast of the Parentalia (Prudentius, Contra Symmachum II.1107-8).

[3] This is apparently an allusion to some tampering with the wine supply during the City prefecture of Flavianus in 383 (Mommsen, ‘Carmen Codicis Parisini 8084’,. p. 363).

[4] Mithras as Sol.

[5] The initiation of the taurobolium was normally meant to last for twenty years according to contemporary inscriptions from Rome (e.g. CIL VI. 502, 504, 512).

[6] A reference to the dog masks worn at the festival of the Great Mother, the Megalensia. For similar instances: Carmen ad senatorem line 31 and Carmen ad Antonium lines 117-18.

[7] The word efebus here may refer to a grade of worship of the cult of Hercules.

[8] Trivia = Hecate. 

[9] Leucadius was an imperial financial official in Africa at the time. See ‘Leucadius 2′, PLRE I, p. 505. Marcianus became Prefect of the City of Rome in 409. After the defeat of Eugenius and Arbogast in September 394 Marcianus was compelled to pay back the salary he had acquired as Flavianus’ pronconsul in Africa (‘Marcianus 14’, PLRE I, pp. 555-6).

[10] The lions of Cybele; see M. Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis, London 1977, pp. 96ff.

[11] The pine trunk was carried in procession through the city on 22-23 March each year (ibid., p. 115).

[12] Attis was declared the Sun at the annual feast of the Hilaria, held on 25 March.

[13] This refers to the younger Flavianus who had married the daughter of Symmachus, rather than Symmachus’ son (‘Q. Fabius Memmius Symmachus 10’, PLRE II, p. 1047).

 I didn’t agree with all the footnotes; e.g. why introduce Attis, when Mithras is the Sol worshipped under the earth in a thousand inscriptions?  I wasn’t sure how we know that Attis was identified with the sun either. 

But … a tour de force.  Recommended.


3 thoughts on “Carmen adversus paganos

  1. Hello, Roger, you can check Julian’s Hymn for the Mother of the Gods for Attis and the Sun issue. He associates them. It can be no one but Attis in that section of the poem referring to the Metroac festivities.

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