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Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity

3.38  ·  Rating details ·  714 ratings  ·  120 reviews
A provocative and contrarian religious history that charts the rise of Christianity from the point of view of "traditional" religion from the religious scholar and critically acclaimed author of Augustine.

Pagans explores the rise of Christianity from a surprising and unique viewpoint: that of the people who witnessed their ways of life destroyed by what seemed then a power
Kindle Edition, 400 pages
Published March 17th 2015 by Ecco
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Chris Jaffe
Nov 20, 2015 rated it it was ok
I had two major problems with this book. First, I had trouble grasping the main argument. I felt like I was getting parts here and there, but the overall greater picture eluded me. I wasn’t fully sure what was going on. Second, maybe I shouldn’t have read this in the first place, as I don’t fully trust O’Donnell. Years ago I read his earlier work, “The Ruin of the Roman Empire.” There, his main argument was that Justinian ruined the classical world and ushered in the Dark Ages. It was a provocat ...more
Daniel Farabaugh
May 28, 2015 rated it it was ok
This book was disappointing in the attitude of the author. His research was good and his point well made, but he had such a condescending view to the ancients that it made the work distasteful. He went out of the way to say that there gods did not exist and even questioned whether they really believed in them. This level of disdain was unwarranted. He did not make the same statements about Christians even though there is no actual proof of their god's existence. It was disappointing. ...more
Sep 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was a great history of the late Roman/early Christian time period. It wasn’t quite what I thought I was getting, but it was still very interesting and written in an easy-to-read style. I thought I was going to get more about the pagan religions of the time. Instead, I learned that the whole idea of being pagan, as opposed to being Christian, was a creation of the Christians once they found themselves in the position to be able to form public opinion. As the author puts it, “Outside Christia ...more
Jo Walton
Mar 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is exactly the way popular non-fiction ought to be, erudite, insightful, but not assuming background knowledge of the reader. I learned valuable things, I enjoyed reading it, and it made me think about some things I thought I knew. Excellent book all round.

If you're interested in the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages, if you're interested in religion at all -- especially if you're interested in building religions for fantasy worlds -- do read this.
Dee Arr
Nov 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
“Pagans” is an amazing book, presenting history and culture while at the same time opening the reader’s senses to a world that can’t be examined through the today’s lenses. Jumping back in time 1500-2000 years can be confusing if not viewed through the mindset of those alive at that time. While the author states this can be enjoyable, he cautions that “…we should remind ourselves at the beginning and end of such stories is how easily we assume that the people in them are really just like us.” Th ...more
Apr 24, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed reading this book and found it thought-provoking, but I can't quite muster that final star. It took a while to figure out where O'Donnell was going. I decided to read Pagans because of the book summary that talked about how this was a history of the rise of Christianity as told from the viewpoints of the non-Christians whose religion(s) were destroyed by it. That's not entirely off-base, but having read the book, I'd say O'Donnell is arguing that "paganism" was created by Christianity ...more
May 20, 2017 rated it did not like it
Shelves: abandoned
Not going to finish this one. Not a cohesive relating of history and full of snark.
Read with GR group Nonfiction Book Club.

I should have known that I would likely not like this book. The publisher Harper Collins is not Shambala Books (for example). But since the group I read with would give me extra points for a reading challenge, I thought to give the book a try. I knew better.

Reading through the length of the Prologue, of Chapter 1, of Chapter 2, I kept wondering when O'Donnell would put aside the narrative to start the argument. When I read the very first paragraph of Chapt
May 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
I suppose the argument of the redoubtable James J. O'Donnell in this book ought to surprise no one in this day and age: then, as now, one of the essential strategies to building a movement is to identify the enemy, define it as a threat, and, if necessary, make up the evidence. O'Donnell points out that no one thought of themselves as a "pagan" until the Christians adapted an old word for that purpose. He finds much of the rhetoric of the early Christians, warning about resurgences of old modes ...more
Not easy to review as the author stretches out his main point covered at the very end of the book: the Roman gods faded away within a generation after Constantine as they weren't "needed"any longer; saints and martyrs replacing them. Recommended for those with a strong interest in Roman history or early Christian theology (and history), otherwise this one could end up on the Did Not Finish heap. ...more
Nov 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction-read
O'Donnell has done a nice job of making a complex topic approachable by non-specialists. This works well when read together with The Final Pagan Generation by Edward J. Watts, a somewhat more demanding work for the non-specialist reader but one that provides useful background about some historical figures mentioned by O'Donnell and brings up some interesting points not covered in this work. The author's thesis is that "paganism" is a concept invented initially by the Christians to differentiate ...more
Jul 07, 2015 rated it did not like it
Ancient Christian History and Classical Studies are two main interests of mine. I have read scores of books on the subject, including many primary sources. I have to say this was the worst I have ever read. The author adopts a superior tone throughout the work that causes him to question and degrade almost every subject he touches and degrade every character he encounters. He does show some small sympathy for some of the "pagan" writers, though he never misses a chance to point out that their fa ...more
Beth Kakuma-Depew
Apr 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing
What an engaging writer! His chatty voice is like a scholarly uncle, sipping a drink and telling you what the Roman Empire was REALLY like. He covers the usual story of Roman gods, which he calls "traditional religion" rather than polytheist or pagan. And then he tells you why this is all wrong. He discusses Augustine, and what he did to invent traditional religion. He covers the conventional pious story of Constantine and then tells you what he thinks the great emperor was really like. But he d ...more
Nov 30, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Did you know that the word PAGAN basically means "peasant" or "mountain-dweller"? That there really was no such thing as PAGAN as we know it until 5th century Christianity needed it to exist? James O'Donnell's Pagans is a fascinating look at how the pre-Christian Romans lived and worshiped and how it all changed and got redefined by the rise of Christianity. ...more
Aug 13, 2020 rated it did not like it
Obnoxious. Would not recommend in any circumstance. Condescending towards its subject matter and audience.

Please never again say “let’s imagine we go back in a time machine......” this is not the Magic School Bus.

One star conceded because when the topic was allowed to speak for itself, it was informative. I may have even learned a few things. Whatever brief ecstasy I found was swiftly cut short by Doctor Man Professor Pants getting in the way with his patronizing commentary. I honestly couldn’t
Michael Burnam-Fink
May 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, 2018, academic
Give me that old time religion! The kind with bloody sacrifice, sacred groves, portents and oracles. By Jove! And Athena, and Serapis, and Ba'al, give me that old time religion.

In Pagans, O'Donnell tackles the question of what happened to the traditional religion of the Mediterranean. How, in the 4th century, did the rites of the old gods up and vanish? The mundane argument is pretty simple. The Emperor Diocletian (284-305) massively reformed the civil service, centralizing power and finances at
This book tackles the creation of our modern perception of what could be described as traditional western religion, or what we now call paganism. It makes an interesting enough argument but it’s reliability is thrown somewhat into doubt by the author’s boosting of Christianity in the final chapters. His argument is essentially that the idea that there was this dramatic clash of religions ending with a gloriously triumphant Christianity is a story of Christian invention. In order to separate and ...more
Aug 24, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The author is the editor and commentator of the standard three-volume edition of Augustine's Confessions, so it risks being a bit presumptuous to disagree with him, even when he's being flippant and snarky; but I have to agree with another Goodreads reviewer who thinks he pushes his arguments a bit too hard. His book is written to debunk the received idea of how Christianity developed: a few weak, scattered communities, their leader executed, try desperately to hold on to their beliefs in the fa ...more
1.5 Star, maybe?

DNF @70ish %.

A meandering discussion of how Christianity rose and its relationship with the more traditional religions (“paganism”) that existed during that period. I spent the first half of the book wondering what the author was trying to argue for. All I came up with was that since those people never considered their religions as paganism, so in fact paganism never really existed. Furthermore, even back then those people didn’t really believe of the existence of actual gods, so
Pablo Flores
May 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Even risking cliché, I'd have to say Pagans... was refreshing. Its main thesis, if I understood correctly, is that "paganism" as a concept was invented by Christians after the fact--or rather, there was no such fact, since there never was an ancient Roman religion, or an ancient Greek religion, in the sense we've been accustomed to imagine. We've been taught about a coordinated system of gods and legends, somehow materializing as temples, priests and rites along a well-defined area of Greco-Roma ...more
Steven Paul Leiva
Jul 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
Scholarly yet conversational, O'Donnell charts the slow and not necessarily inevitable rise of Christianity partly by the demonizing of traditional religions of millennia past as Paganism and partly from political expediency. Eye-opening for anyone who thought the demarcation between BC and AD to be a bold, definite line. ...more
Jul 01, 2019 rated it did not like it
Shelves: dnf
DNF'd. The authors approach is quite condescending and his language feels childish. It is not an academic book. After I stopped reading I saw the author is a college professor and his style made more sense. It feels like it was written for a classroom of freshman with zero baseline and not much common sense. ...more
Sep 12, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: partial, 2020
Title is misleading, it's not what you get. I stopped 25% in because it got so tedious. How are you going to understand and convey understanding of religion when you spend all of your time arguing that gods did not and do not exist? Obviously religious people believe(d) their gods exist and the only way to understand their conception of the world is to acknowledge that. Reading other reviews, I think the main point may end up being that the concept of Pagan religion was a construction of the Chr ...more
Juan Font
Jun 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Not completely sure of what is the point of the book, but pretty nice nonetheless.
Arthur George
Aug 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
The author clearly knows the material from the classicist perspective, but this is less clear from the perspective of biblical studies. The text is enjoyable to read and the author writes nice sentences, but overall the text is disjointed, meandering, and too chatty. I prefer books that have a more straightforward analysis. The book makes a number of valuable points, but for what one gets out of this, the book could have been much shorter.
Dec 18, 2018 rated it it was ok
His bias screams. The Romans were luke warm on their religion and didn't take it seriously, the Christians were over come with it and too serious (except for those that didn't). Granted every group of the faithful contains the lukewarm and extreme, but the author's thumb was on one side of the scale.

Great comment on the spread of Christianity due to the written word theologically unifying believers across great distances, but "pagans" (a stereotype created by Christians) had no unifying element
Conan Van Der Crom
Dec 27, 2016 rated it liked it
Generally an interesting review of perhaps the most important religious shift in Western History. O'Donnell is at his best when articulating the idea that the shift to Christianity was not really a titanic struggle between two opposing ideologies- traditional religion in the Roman Empire simply did not have the organizational capacity to really set itself up as an alternative to Christianity.

However, the book does suffer from a significant flaw, though it is unlikely to trouble most readers. (I
Jul 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is a fairly well written treatment of the rise of Christianity and of "traditional religion" during Late Antiquity. The author effectively argues that "Paganism" and "Pagans" were a term of art retroactively applied by Christianity to traditional religious practices and beliefs following Christianity's rise to power. Before this occurred, there were no "Pagans" or "Paganism," as such, because the peoples of this era did not think on or reify their beliefs in that fashion. He then makes the ...more
Rodney Harvill
Dec 07, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, christianity
I don’t know how obvious it is from the subtitle, but Dr. O’Donnell characterizes paganism as “traditional religion,” a stark corollary being that Christianity is non-traditional from the perspective of the ancient world. For that matter, he also argues that paganism is nothing more than a Christian invention. This requires a little unpacking. Because “pagan” referred to the other in an us vs. them perspective, he posits that paganism was really nothing more than what early Christians referred t ...more
Apr 27, 2016 rated it really liked it
I didn't think this was as awesome as O'Donnell's biography of Augustine, but it's a much quicker book to read so that's to be expected. The scholarship is still impressive. If you are interested in religious history, this book might be one to pick up because it deals with how the 4th century Christians created an identity for themselves. (Pagans didn't call themselves that until very recently.)

There were times I started to get confused about which ancient Roman did what, but O'Donnell (true to
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James Joseph O'Donnell is a classical scholar and University Librarian at Arizona State University. He formerly served as University Professor at Georgetown University (2012-2015) and as Provost of Georgetown University from 2002–2012. O'Donnell previously served as Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing at the University of Pennsylvania (1996–2002). He is a former President of the Ame ...more

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