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Showing 1-8 of 8 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 17 reviews
on March 25, 2003
Most readers of religious history are familiar with the pagan roots of Christmas, such as tree candles and the date of the feast itself. In this magnificently researched monograph, MacMullen digs far deeper and finds paganism lurking in the dimmest corners of Christianity. His book focuses on the first millennium, but even today's Christians (especially Catholics) will recognize many of the rituals and beliefs he discusses.
The book is not without controversy. The traditional view has been that, during the century after Constantine's conversion, most of the Roman Empire (and lands beyond) converted to Christianity with wholehearted gusto, and pagan beliefs survived only in remote pockets. Not so, according to the author's overwhelming evidence: paganism had an extremely long half-life. MacMullen also dispenses with the long-held traditional argument that women and slaves converted to Christianity because paganism did not offer them much. (If anything, as he clearly and succinctly shows, the reverse is true.) Furthermore, MacMullen discusses how, beginning in the fourth century, upon subsuming power, Christians dealt with pagans in the traditional (non-Christian) way: they persecuted them with intimidation, torture, forced conversions, and death. Persecutions continued for many centuries, indicating that the underlying pagan culture was indeed very hearty.
The problem with the early Church's aggressive approach is obvious: many converts were not true believers, or they didn't quite understand what they were accepting. In addition, the relatively new Christianity, "a religion of the book" that was strong on doctrine, lacked a distinctive culture or the ability to satisfy everyday needs and desires (whether worldly or supernatural). Still, the Christian elites--the educated or the anointed--placed far more faith in the supernatural (God) than did their pagan predecessors, who viewed the reliance on superstition (gods) as a crutch for the lower, especially rural, classes. This difference ironically gave Christianity an advantage: believers at both ends of the social spectrum, from bishops to peasants, looked to the supernatural for explanations of everyday occurrences, from the weather to illness to death. Thus, many pagan rituals provided the basis for Christian traditions: offerings to the gods became cults of the saints, pagan feasts became Christian festivals, etc. As Jerome acknowledged, in MacMullen's paraphrase: "better, worship of the saints in the pagan manner than none at all."
MacMullen marshals an impressive parade of evidence, both in the text (only 160 pages) and in the notes and bibliography (which occupy only slightly less space). Unlike most scholars, he entirely avoids unfamiliar terminology and spices his treatise with glib comments and wry witticisms--it's been a long time since I've chuckled while reading a scholarly monograph. Unfortunately (alas, like most scholars), MacMullen is just not a very good writer. Perfectly lucid passages alternate with sentences that resemble very rough lecture notes. He has an aversion to direct statement and a fondness for pronouns that will send the most alert reader hunting for an antecedent. A not atypical sentence: "Within tradition, what lacked any supporting scripture or even any conscious reason they might think foolish; but they accepted it as harmless." "They," whose antecedent appears three sentences previous, refers to pagan civic leaders. Even armed with this discovery, most readers will find this sentence difficult, I wager. Other sentences are backwards for no good reason: "But in the ideas and rites just described a large area of new loyalties opened up." And, finally, there are run-on sentences of such length that a lethal dose of caffeine is required to follow the sense from beginning to end. Such idiosyncratic sentence structures might be amusing affectations when used sparingly, but their overuse in this volume is frustrating and unnecessary.
It's too bad that MacMullen isn't kinder to his readers. Although the book is certainly meant for a scholarly audience, it contains little material that wouldn't be within reach of interested readers outside the academy. (Even professional historians must tire of such sloppiness.) Nevertheless, if you're willing to slog through tortuous prose, you'll find treasures on every page.
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on August 25, 2011
There are many disgraceful tales to tell about the early Christian communities and early imperial church, as one would expect. But MacMullen is not an honest scholar, and so one cannot tell the true stories from the false. He regularly misrepresents texts, using the impenetrability of his hilariously confused footnotes to hide his dishonesty. He assumes that none of his readers will think to go back to the originals to see if he is being honest (and he's probably right about that). Those of us who have studied the texts, however, know that this man is a disgrace to his profession, a person who violates every rule of scholarly integrity, and who simply, unambiguously, and shamelessly tells lies. What a pity he's taken seriously.

Read Robin Lane Fox or E. R. Dodds, but skip this fraud.
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on November 24, 2001
Continues the story of MacMullens' "Christianizing the Roman Empire" with a solid scholarly look at the reasons Pagans converted to Christianity in the period after Christianity took over the central government of the Roman Empire. 
Christian Roman Emperors outlawed Pagan ceremonies, taxed Pagan temples, and gave Christian Romans preferences in official advancement. By the end of this period everyone was Christian and the Empire was gone. 
By a famous Yale historian, an essential text for serious students. Highly recommended. And like everything MacMullen writes, it is hard to read.
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This is a very important book, one that every student of religious history should read. Ramsay MacMullen has undertaken the task of speaking on behalf of a people who were not allowed to speak for themselves: the pagans of the Roman Empire. He points out that the focus of history has been on Christianity; after all, Christians wrote the histories of that era. But he notes as well that the estimates on Christian numbers by Tertullian and Eusebius are "manifestly absurd", an expression "of the authors' zeal and their sense of the distance traveled by their church since the first century." What this amounts to, in MacMullen's view, is that "the Christians, not only in their triumphant exaggerations but in their sheer bulk, today, seriously misrepresent the true proportions of religious history."

Orthodox Christianity was not interested in voices raised in protest. What were seen as heretical writings were burned, as were non-Christian texts and "copyists were discouraged from replacing them by the threat of having their hands cut off." And Christianity's own historians were not interested in giving a balanced accounting of events. MacMullen comments that Eusebius "disclaimed the telling of the whole truth. Rather, he proposed to limit his account to 'what may be of profit.'"

This book attempts to set the record straight. MacMullen notes that previously scholars had thought that paganism had been defeated by the end of the fourth century and all converted to the new faith. This is not true, he tells us. "Stain Augustine did not live in a Christian world" he says and in the book's five chapters proceeds to demonstrate the truth of this assertion.

We see that paganism of the late Roman Empire was alive and well. "It used to be thought that, at the end, the eradication of paganism really required no effort" and that paganism had become a hollow husk. "But historians seem now to have abandoned this interpretation...The real vitality of paganism is instead recognized; and to explain its eventual fate what must also be recognized is an opposing force, an urgent one, determined on its extinction." And we see the extreme measures to which Christianity was willing to resort to stamp out all opposition: fines, confiscation, exile, improsionment, flogging, torture, beheading, and crucifixtion. "What more could be imagined? Nothing. The extremes of conceivable pressure were brought to bear." Nor was this violence restricted to pagans. Speaking of the fourth century, MacMullen says "more Christians died for their faith at the hands of fellow Christians than had died before in all the persecutions."

Like Pagans and Christians before it, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries must be read for the truth of the past to be understood. The facts have for long been misrepresented and misunderstood, and MacMullen brushes these obstructions away with a masterful hand to reveal the vibrancy of a pagan world scholarship has long consigned to oblivion. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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on May 22, 2011
The book did a nice job of demonstrating how much of paganism flowed into Christianity and that it lasted far longer and was much more vibrant than many might think. It confirmed much of what I already knew but also added nice touches along the way. It's easy to read but pictures would complimented and made the experience more fulfilling.
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on January 10, 2010
I love the content of the book, but it's way too much like a Master's Thesis and written in a way that is not for everyone. The style of writing really put me off and distracted from the content. I gave it 3 stars because of the convoluted, prosey, highbrow style. The content gets 5 stars. If you want to spend your evening sitting in a wing-back chair in front of a fireplace wearing a smoking jacket and smoking a Meerschaum pipe, this is the book for you; otherwise, don't bother. This book is referene material only.
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on August 21, 2005
McMullen has an interesting style that some may find irritating but I rather enjoyed. At times he uses orotund and convoluted sentences reminiscent of Gibbon or Samuel Johnson. At other times he lapses into the first person and uses contractions and old-fashioned slang such as "argy-bargy." It is rather like listening to conversation over the port in the Senior Common room of some ancient college.

I was irritated by the references. These occupy a large part of the book and are grouped as end-notes (Gibbon had footnotes). They often give only a single name of author without date or place of publication. If you track down the author in the bibliography (which is separate) you often still don't get anywhere, even if you remember where in the text you started off. Sometimes the references contain references.

The question of which festivals and folk customs represent survivals of pre-Christian religions is more complex than he acknowledges. It's better dealt with by Ronald Hutton in "Pagan religions of the Ancient British Isles."

I've always been intrigued by the names of the days of the week in Indo-European languages. In French you have Vendredi for Friday. In Welsh we have Dydd Gwener. Who was Gwener?
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on August 19, 2010
While this is a very good, concise look in to Late Antiquity, the author writes in such a manner that he comes across as arrogant. I say this because he "over does" the way he writes. It is as if he wanted to impress the academic community with his eloquent language. What you really get is a difficult to read version of history. If this was not an assigned reading for my graduate course, I would have NEVER purchased this book! I read historical books all of the time, I think some historians forget that they WANT people to read their book. It's painful to read.
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