Pagans by James O’Donnell

    I picked up Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity because even though I’ve studied Late Antiquity some, I’ve only ever really learned about the fall of paganism in passing. This book is a little unique in that it is divided into two main sections. The first half, entitled “Religion Without a History” goes into a variety of traditional Greco-Roman religious practices in detail from across the Mediterranean from the fall of the Republic through the first few centuries CE. The second half of the book, “A History of Paganism,” becomes more a traditional narrative of the tension between paganism and Christianity beginning with the era of about Diocletian through the last real vestiges of Greco-Roman paganism in western Europe.

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    Unfortunately, I found that there were several aspects of the book that were a little lacking. First of all, I found the book rather dry which is usually something I can tolerate quite well. Especially in the second part of the book, the narrative just sort of goes along with the historical events and really just didn’t have anything that stood out as overly intriguing or interesting. Secondly, the book deals quite a bit with semantics (though I agree that the term paganism had to be addressed fully) and took on arguments that I don’t think need to be really brought up and countered. For example, the charge that St. Augustine wasn’t really a converted Christian was a line of argument that I had never read before. Lastly, the book overall did seem to deal more with the elites of society and their religious views and thoughts without as much attention being brought to the regular people of the Roman Empire.
    The book did have some redeeming qualities though. I found the first half of the book very unique and much more interesting than the second half. Essentially each chapter focuses in on one aspect of Greco-Roman traditional pagan religion and goes over its history and practice in pretty good detail. These topics varied from Augustus’ priestly sacrifices on behalf of the Roman people, to the oracle at Delphi, to augury and divination. He freely admits that they are not going to be directly related together or form some sort of narrative as he makes the good point that traditional paganism did not have a set canon of rituals or a superstructure that these practices had to adhere to. I found these chapters enlightening on a few different Greco-Roman religious practices. The author also has a commanding use of the primary source literature from all periods of Roman history which was definitely appreciated. Also, the book uses good in-text citations for the end notes at the back of the book.
    Overall, the Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity was quite dry and a little boring for my taste. However, if you are really interested in the eras of the rise of Christianity or the fall of the pagans or with Greco-Roman religion in general, you could probably give this book a go and learn something from it.
    3.5 out of 5 stars.