I’m continuing to read Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD and in his discussion of Symmachus he has one of those brief and enlightening explications of a word that I can’t resist sharing (pp. 101-2):

There was, however, one fissure that had begun to develop across the smooth surface of a world held together by the old-time religion of friendship: the presence of Christianity. Symmachus was what we now call a “pagan.” He has even been acclaimed by modern scholars as one of the “last pagans” of Rome. It might be more accurate to call him the “first pagan.” He was the first member of the Roman nobility whom we can see adjusting to an unprecedented situation. He was being labeled by others in confessional terms as a “pagan”; this was not a label he would have chosen for himself.

The word “pagan” itself only began to circulate widely in the 370s. It was a word used in a religious sense only by Latin Christians. (“Hellenes,” followers of the religion of the ancient Greeks, was the term used by Greek Christians.) Originally the term had nothing to do with religion. Paganus originally meant a mere civilian—a person who did not enjoy the honors and prestige attached to service of the emperor. Christians used the term to brand those who did not serve the true emperor, Christ. Such persons were outsiders; they were not fully enrolled members of the empire of God.

“Pagan” was not necessarily a hate word. It was often used in a relatively neutral manner as a convenient, idiomatic term for non-Christians. But the term did a profound injustice to Symmachus. He was not a “pagan.” He “worshiped the gods” as he had always done, and that was all there was to it. He simply did not see his fellow Romans (Christians or non-Christians) as divided between insiders and outsiders in this sectarian manner. Whatever their beliefs, he wished to treat members of his class as peers held together by the old-fashioned “religion of friendship.”

For comparison, here’s the OED (updated March 2005):

Etymology: < post-classical Latin paganus (adjective and noun) heathen, as opposed to Christian or Jewish (probably 4th cent.: see below), spec. use of classical Latin pāgānus of or belonging to a country community, civilian, also as noun, inhabitant of a country community, civilian (opposed to mīlēs soldier) < pāgus country district (< the stem of pangere to fasten, fix: see page n.2) + -ānusan suffix. Compare earlier payen n., paynim n.

The semantic development of post-classical Latin paganus in the sense ‘non-Christian, heathen’ is unclear. The dating of this sense is controversial, but the 4th cent. seems most plausible. An earlier example has been suggested in Tertullian De Corona Militis xi, ‘Apud hunc [sc. Christum] tam miles est paganus fidelis quam paganus est miles infidelis,’ but here the word paganus may be interpreted in the sense ‘civilian’ rather than ‘heathen’.

There are three main explanations of the development:

(i) The older sense of classical Latin pāgānus is ‘of the country, rustic’ (also as noun). It has been argued that the transferred use reflects the fact that the ancient idolatry lingered on in the rural villages and hamlets after Christianity had been generally accepted in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire; compare Orosius Histories 1. Prol. ‘Ex locorum agrestium compitis et pagis pagani vocantur.’

(ii) The more common meaning of classical Latin pāgānus is ‘civilian, non-militant’ (adjective and noun). Christians called themselves mīlitēs ‘enrolled soldiers’ of Christ, members of his militant church, and applied to non-Christians the term applied by soldiers to all who were ‘not enrolled in the army’.

(iii) The sense ‘heathen’ arose from an interpretation of paganus as denoting a person who was outside a particular group or community, hence ‘not of the city’ or ‘rural’; compare Orosius Histories 1. Prol. ‘qui alieni a civitate dei..pagani vocantur.’ See C. Mohrmann Vigiliae Christianae 6 (1952) 9ff.


  1. Ethan Osten says

    If you’re interested in the topic, Alan Cameron’s “The Last Pagans of Rome” (2011) contains a long discussion on the etymology of “pagan,” which I suspect Brown was aware of (given his wry reference to its title) though they appear to disagree.

  2. Thanks!

  3. So “pagan” and “peasant” are basically the same (Not to mention Italian-American “paisan”)

    I’m reading (and enjoying) that book too, based on your previous comments on it. I found an electronic version and it’s been slowly dawning on me that the physical book (which I’ve never seen) must be thousands of pages long. It’s a very interesting read, but I had no idea of the size of the thing when I started! I know there are status bars and things which could help me estimate the size, but they don’t really give a sense of length like picking up an enormous book would have.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Presumably the word “heathen” and its Germanic cognates is itself a calque of “paganus”? (Somebody here will know …)

    It seems probable a priori, as pre-Christian Germanic speakers presumably lacked the concept and therefore would not have needed a word for it.

    “Hellene” still meant “pagan” in Modern Greek until remarkably late, the usual self-designation of the speakers being, of course, “Romans”, who spoke Romaic.

  5. It’s not clear. Quoth the OED1 (1898):

    As [heathen] is used in all the Germanic languages in the sense ‘non-Christian, pagan’, which could only have arisen after the introduction of Christianity, it is thought probable that, like some other terms of Christian origin (e.g. church), it was first used in Gothic, and thence passed to the other tribes. This is supported by the use by Ulfilas, in Mark vii. 26, of the feminine form haiþnô (Vulgate mulier gentilis, all Old English versions hǽðen).

    The word has generally been assumed to be a direct derivative of Gothic haiþi ‘heath’ n., as if ‘dweller on the heath’, taken as a kind of loose rendering of Latin pāgānus (originally ‘villager, rustic’, later, after Christianity became the religion of the towns, while the ancient deities were still retained in rural districts, ‘pagan, heathen’).

    But in this there are difficulties chronological and etymological, especially in reference to the form and use of the suffix; and Prof. S. Bugge (Indog. Forsch. V. 178) includes this among several words which point to Armenian influence on the language of Ulfilas; he takes haiþnô as indicating a masculine haiþans, which he refers to Armenian het῾anos ‘heathen’, < Greek ἔθνος ‘nation’, (plural) ‘nations, Gentiles, heathens’. This would explain the Old High German form heidan, while in Old English, etc., the suffix was, as in cristen, levelled under the ordinary -in, -en, < -în. But even so, the stem-vowel has probably to be explained by assimilation to haiþi ‘heath’.

    Note that Gothic ai is /e/, as in modern Greek. The first use of Hellene in English to mean modern Greeks in the OED3 is C. Thirlwall Hist. Greece I. 379 “A general congress of the Hellenes” (1835)

  6. “The older sense of classical Latin pāgānus is ‘of the country, rustic’ (also as noun). It has been argued that the transferred use reflects the fact that the ancient idolatry lingered on in the rural villages and hamlets after Christianity had been generally accepted in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire”

    This is consistent with Rodney Stark’s claims about early Christianity. (Stark is a sociologist who has studied and written about early Christian history from a sociological perspective.) Early Christianity was largely urban and coastal. So, an association of rustic and non-Christian could easily lead to ‘pagan’ becoming a pejorative term.

  7. squadron leader squiffy von bladet says

    (AG: Amazon offers a convenient pre-heft preview or “pagecount”, which in this case gives: “Paperback: 792 pages”.)

  8. Yeah, it’s big but not monstrous. And almost half of it is notes!

  9. J. W. Brewer says

    I am trying to understand the historical mechanism via which a word hypothetically absent in Proto-Germanic but innovated in Gothic under Armenian influence would have made it into Old English. Especially since the early Gothic-speaking Christians tended to be Arians, I’m not thinking that the missionaries sent to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons several centuries after the life of Ulfilas would have all gone to Gothic-language bootcamp, or had a how-to-gloss-Latin-terms-into-something-Germanic-sounding Berlitz guide prepared using Gothic precedents. But maybe I’m wrong about that, or there could have been some other vector.

  10. A member of the Esetroth Fellowship, a neopagan association, once told me that the word heiðinn (heathen) was of uncertain origin but that he pretty much embraced two theories simultaneously (and I got the feeling that a lot of his fellow neopagans shared his sentiment).

    The word is most commonly thought to be derived from heiði (heath) but he maintained that it could also be derived from heiður (adj) which means clear or bright — as in clear skies or clear thinking.

    Dubious etymology perhaps but a great outlook.

  11. JWB: Consider a case about which there’s no doubt: church. In Gothic we find two words for it: keiriko for the building < Greek κυριακόν (δῶμα) ‘the Lord’s (house)’ and aikklesjo < ἐκκλησία. Versions of the first are found throughout the Germanic languages and eventually spread semantically to both meanings. The date of its borrowing shows that it came into Gothic specifically, not into Proto-Germanic, so the only route into the other Germanic languages is by borrowing. It’s unlikely that any kind of West Germanic should have borrowed it directly from Greek, so it must have come through Gothic.

    In addition, it’s anachronistic to think of Ulfilas as “an Arian”. In the 4C, Arianism was not yet a sect, simply an opinion that plenty of Christians (including Constantine) held. Indeed, it might well have become the Orthodox view if things had gone differently in 381 (at which point Ulfilas had only two years to live). Pretty much any group converted to Christianity in the 4C had a good chance of adopting Arian views. Not until the 5C conquest of Rome by the Ostrogoths do we see “Arians” and “Orthodox” as opposing sects.

  12. J. W. Brewer says

    John C.: but by the time the Anglo-Saxons were being Christianized the distinction which might have been anachronistic to apply to Ulfilas over two centuries earlier was no longer so. One online source for “church” says “An example of the direct Greek-to-Germanic progress of many Christian words, via the Goths; it probably was used by West Germanic people in their pre-Christian period.” I suppose I hadn’t considered the possibility that it would be something that would come up frequently in conversation before conversion, but maybe that’s wrong. Although “church” seems like a more plausible concept for a not-yet-Christianized West Germanic language (whose speakers had some degree of contact with let’s say Romanized Celts who were already Christian) to need a word for than “heathen.”

  13. David Marjanović says

    Gothic influence in West Germanic isn’t unheard of. There are still people in Austria and Bavaria to whom Tuesday isn’t Dienstag, but Ertag, after good old Ares – from Greek rather than Latin.

    aikklesjo < ἐκκλησία

    With e rather than i? Maybe that’s a loan from Latin rather than directly from Greek.

  14. I suspect that the pronunciation of η as /i/ postdates written Gothic. The η-like letter in the Gothic script means /h/, as in Latin, and /ɛ/ is written αι.

  15. In Croatian, the first A changed into an O. The resulting word “pogan” now means “naughty” as in naughty children = pogana djeca.

  16. On Gothic words in West Germanic: don’t forget that during the “Great Migrations” of the 4th-5th centuries, there would have been lots of possibilities of Gothic Christian terminology to spread to the West Germanic peoples, as people from all kinds of Germanic and non-Germanic tribes seem to have mixed in the various migrating groups. And, perhaps for similar reasons, there’s a comparable layer of Common Slavic Christian terminology that seems to have spread before the individual Slavic people became Christianised.

  17. AThRd, not just dubious, but pretty much impossible. Old Norse _heiðr_ ‘bright, clear’ comes from Germanic *haidra-, and is related to Sanskrit citrá- ‘bright, variagated’.* The _r_ is part of the stem, not a grammatical ending. Modern Icelandic _heiði_ ‘heath’ looked even more similar in Old Icelandic (heiðr), but the _ð_ here is from Germanic *þ (*þ and *ð/d fell together in Norse), and the _r_ is inflectional. In most of Germanic, an adjective *haidra- and a noun *haiþī- wouldn’t have seemed anywhere near as similar (and only the noun is related to ‘heathen’).

    *Does anyone use ‘variagated’ in real life? It often seems like its sole reason for existing is to translate difficult ancient words related to multicolouredness.

  18. I see I forgot to actually make my point, which was that the η in ἐκκλησία probably was raised from /ɛ/ to /e/ when Gothic borrowed the word, but not yet to /i/, its modern value. That accounts for the spelling aikklesjo, where the ai means /ɛ/ and the e means /e/.

  19. Variegated (note spelling) is a standard botanical term for ‘multi-colored’, as in leaves or flowers.

  20. Which raises the question: how exactly is variegāre derived from varius?

  21. variegāre derived from varius?

    + ago L. “make”, through the Latin verb variego “To make diverse / multicolored”?

    Variegated can be considered “the” word which brought me to DNA and [epi]genetics when, as an undergrad, I got totally fascinated by variegated position effect in the fruitfly which clearly demonstrated that the meaning of the information contained in DNA can be substantially altered by some factors stuck to it. But the word is also in use in mycology and geology.

  22. + ago L. “make”, through the Latin verb variego

    Thanks, that makes sense. My Latinity is, as I have often confessed, shaky.

  23. Sanskrit citrá- ‘bright, variagated’.

    Kind of opening us a window at PIE or early post-PIE aesthetics 🙂 since the word for shine and multi-coloredness also stands for beauty and respect.

    Supposed conservation of ‘r’ in the stem immediately made me think of Russian пестрый / Proto-Slavic *pьstrъ “motley, variegated” which Vasmer derives from *pьsati “to write” ( as in “to paint / to make various marks”), without explaining how “r” got there.

    But Frisk entry on related πικρός “sharp, bitter” explains it ultimately from PIE *piḱro- `motley, painted’ / *piḱros, “sting, cut, embroider, paint” with a separate line leading to Sk. piṃśáti “carve, ornament” => Slavic pьsati “write” and also mentions Skt śilpá– “motley” decribed as an inversion of *piślá-.

  24. Rodger C says

    The _r_ is part of the stem, not a grammatical ending.

    If your interlocutors are clever, they can appeal to the variant heathern.

  25. David Marjanović says

    I suspect that the pronunciation of η as /i/ postdates written Gothic.

    The Chrestus/Christus confusion argues otherwise, doesn’t it?

  26. I’m doubtful. Chrestos ‘good, useful’ was a common slave name in Rome; Christos could easily be misheard so even if the vowels were still distinct.

  27. David Marjanović says


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