This week saw a double-bill of persuasion and polemic. We began with “Roman paganism in the 340s: the evidence of Julius Firmicus Maternus, De errore profanarum religionum”. Just how Christian was the Roman Empire at the time of Constantine? The toleration of Christians granted by the emperor did not sweep away paganism overnight. Mattias Gassman, a second-year PhD, introduced us to a little studied Christian work from the 340s, a treatise written by a Sicilian senator and ex-astrologer and the way it reveals the persistence of both public and private paganism at the time. The author, Firmicus, makes passionate (and often highly tendentious) case for Christianity, takes aim at all pagan cults, amalgamating their official and unofficial aspects, labeling them as foreign and focused on ‘parricide, incest and death’. Mattias argued that parallels between the way this treatise envisages pagan cults and the way paganism is described in the inscriptions of contemporary pagan senators like Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, show that paganism was still vigorous in Rome and was generating a lively Christian discourse.
Demosthenes the arch-enemy of Philip II is well-known. But before Demosthenes found his mission in foreign affairs, the young orator focused on the financial crisis Athens found itself in at the close of the Social War (355/4). In “Financial Crisis and Demosthenes’ Political Debut” Rob Sing, a fourth-year PhD, explored the rhetoric Demosthenes uses to resist the body of contemporary opinion that wished to address the crisis but extracting more money from the rich in three of his earliest speeches (Speeches 14, 22, 20). Athens funded its two largest expenses of war and festivals by obligatory benefits laid upon the richest citizens, who in turn received public gratitude. It is easier to read Demosthenes’ resistance not as evidence of bias in favour of the rich, but an awareness that the long-term viability of public finance required the willing cooperation of the rich. That cooperation that might be jeopardised if public demands became too harsh. The rhetoric is also significant for explaining the exceptional stability of Athenian democracy. The moral arguments Demosthenes frequently deploys on matters of political economy suggest that financial policy was not simply dictated by the majority but also involved the negotiation of mutual obligations between rich and poor via rhetoric.