by Edward J. Watts, author of The Final Pagan Generation: Rome’s Unexpected Path to Christianity
In 392 AD, a Christian mob destroyed the Alexandrian temple of Serapis, the biggest and most impressive temple in the eastern Mediterranean. The six-hundred-year-old Serapeum complex had stood on the Egyptian city’s highest hill and housed, among other things, a library containing books that remained from Alexandria’s Great Library. When it fell, many Christians around the Roman Empire rejoiced at what they believed to be the capstone of Rome’s dramatic transformation into a Christian empire.
For nearly 1700 years, the story of Christianity’s triumph has dominated historians’ account of the fourth century. The tale begins with the Great Persecution of Christians in the century’s first decade before shifting dramatically when the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312. It then winds through half a century of steady Christian growth under Constantine and his sons, takes another turn during the short reign of the pagan emperor Julian, and then resumes again in earnest as the emperors of the 380s and 390s institute ever tighter restrictions on traditional Roman religion. The toppling of Serapis’s temple then evocatively concludes a process of revolutionary religious change that unfolded across a single lifetime.
This is not the story that people born in the 310s would have expected us to tell about the decades during which they lived. The letters, speeches, and poems these men wrote show them to be consumed with their own careers, reputations, and fortunes. Great orations, witty repartee, and friendships with powerful people were the goals they pursued and the sorts of triumphs they celebrated. They were not ignorant that Christianity was growing more powerful and paganism was coming under threat, but they had no desire to risk their reputations by speaking out against a Christian emperor.
Why bother? The gods had been a fixture in Mediterranean life for millennia. Temples filled the cities, towns, and countryside. Alexandria alone had over 2000. Religious processions filled the streets of the capital nearly every other day of the year. And the smells of incense and sacrifices offerings wafted through the streets all day.
This made it easy for pagans born in the 310s to focus on their careers, their families, and the daily victories and setbacks that make up a life. In the meantime, Christianity advanced and traditional religion declined. It was not until they reached old age that these men, Rome’s final pagan generation, realized that their priorities had been misplaced. Their focus on the mundane had allowed Christianity to triumph.
The smoky, orange skies and unbreathable air now hovering over the cities on the American west coast seem as if they may be to my generation, Generation X, what the Serapeum destruction was to Rome’s final pagan generation. It is rapidly becoming clear that Gen Xers have spent our lives focused on the wrong things. We monetized the Internet, created apps that make pet food delivery easier, and invented social media platforms that allow us to show off to our “friends.” But these are not the stories that future historians will tell about us. If they speak about us at all, they will indict us for failing to respond while our world heated up and our countryside burned. And we deserve it. While we complain frequently about inaction on climate change, this issue would probably appear in our Zoom transcripts, email exchanges, and social media posts about as often as the letters of the final pagan generation spoke about the end of traditional religion. Like them, we know the change is happening. We know we will not like the results. But other things are on our minds.
It is tempting to blame Rome’s final pagan generation for not doing enough to save the way of life they valued. This criticism is valid, but it is also unfair. Theirs was as much a failure of imagination as it was a failure of will. After millennia during which the Mediterranean was dominated by gods like Zeus, Isis, and Serapis, these men could not imagine any other type of world existing. They knew intellectually that imperial policies supporting Christianity could adversely affect traditional religion, but they had no capacity to visualize such a world until it actually emerged. So, for much of their lives, they did not fight against it very hard.
The same can also be said for us. We know our climate is changing. We know that California is burning. But we struggle to envision the world that will result from our inaction. We too are not fighting very hard. If we don’t start doing more, we will be remembered as the generation that squandered the planet’s last chance to prevent climate catastrophe. And the consequences will be far more dire than the destruction of an Egyptian temple.