Welcome to Randomness Wednesday! On this first installment of random things I learned in researching my books, but don’t get to use in them, we are talking about the fascinating history of the word “Pagan”.
Most people associate this particular noun with Christianity believing it to mean someone who does not follow one of the Judeo-Christian faiths. And, they would be correct. That is the new meaning of that word. However, the word actually comes from the Roman word “Paganus”.
The ancient Romans coined the term first. It originally meant “area outside of a city, countryside”. Yep, it was the Roman word for a rural area. Once the Roman Empire expanded in earnest, the term took on a new meaning. They needed a way to distinguish between the newly conquered areas and those who were still outside of the empire. Paganus moved into this new form of expression. Everyone in Rome, or who acted distinctly Roman, was… well, Roman. Those outside the empire, or who defied Rome’s cultural identity were labeled a paganus.
During this period of rapid expansion Rome experience a sense of over-zealous patriotism. Many of the Roman nationalists (people from old school Rome) viewed those who were recently conquered as inferior and historical records show heavy persecution of these new citizens. In other words, they were big meany-headed bullies and used the term as a derogatory insult.
It wasn’t until the 4th century CE that ancient Catholics and Christians adopted the term and flipped the meaning on its head. Now the Romans with their multiple Gods and strange celebrations were the pagans and everyone else was simply misinformed.
So, now you know. The ancient Romans were jerks and a lot of their words and customs were stolen, spun around, and used against them.
As with all of these posts, I will include a brief bibliography. It is amazing what you can find on the internet, and everyone deserves the credit for their own work.
*Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, Ed. Harry Thurston Peck, Harper & Brothers, New York, NY (1898)
*An Elementary Latin Dictionary, Charlton T. Lewis, Harper & Brothers, New York, NY (1891)
*Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, Glen Warren Bowerstock, Peter Brown, Oleg Grabar, Harvard University Press (1999)