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Paganism and Christianity: Differences and Affinities

‘His Own Nearer Household Gods’: Pagans, Christians, and Marius the Epicurean’s Religious Hermeneutics

« His Own Nearer Household Gods » : Païens, chrétiens, et herméneutique religieuse dans Marius the Epicurean de Walter Pater
Jude Wright


Marius the Epicurean (1885) peut être lu comme un avatar de ce genre victorien qu’est le historical novel of early Christianity, représenté par des auteurs tels que John Henry Newman, Charles Kingsley ou Nicholas Wiseman. Mais si le roman de Pater retrace, comme les romans historiques de ces auteurs, le parcours religieux d’un héros qui se convertit au christianisme, Pater y dessine moins une trajectoire linéaire que la traversée d’un spectre de croyances intimement liées, de par leur dimension esthétique, au paganisme originel de Marius. Cet article montre comment l’expérience religieuse de Marius est avant tout un filtre à travers lequel le héros perçoit la réalité, une construction esthétique où se rejoignent paganisme et christianisme, et qui s’exprime à travers le style de Pater et ses stratégies narratives.

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1On one level, Walter Pater’s 1885 novel, Marius the Epicurean: His Sensations and Ideas can be placed within the curious subgenre of the Early Christian Novel, a field that flowered with an odd mix of historical novels during the mid to late nineteenth-century and was represented by the likes of John Henry Newman, Charles Kingsley, and Cardinal Wiseman. Yet, if Marius shares in this subgenre it is also important to note what makes the novel distinct. While it follows a plotline not dissimilar from these other works—Marius begins as a rural pagan, travels to Rome where he is exposed to the philosophical ideas of the Epicureans, Heracliteans, and the Stoics (coming into contact with numerous famous historical figures) and finally converts to Christianity and is martyred—the true distinction between Pater’s novel and those of Newman, Wiseman, and Kingsley is in its style. Pater’s style is part of a primary narrative strategy which represents religion as an aesthetic concern, an interpretive framework through which mundane reality is filtered. In this way Christianity functions not as a replacement of pagan religiosity, but as a fulfillment of artistic potential both religions engage with. The varieties of paganism in Marius are not so different from the Christianity that ultimately replaces them: both are aesthetic creations that are overlaid on top of reality. In this way they function as hermeneutic positions through which Marius—and through Pater’s narrative strategies the reader—engages with the world.

Hermeneutics, Aesthetic Experience, and ‘the Actual World’

2Pater’s vision of a complex relationship between aesthetics, religion, and reality is represented succinctly in chapter four where he writes:

There was meantime, all this—on one side, the old pagan culture, for us but a fragment, for him an accomplished, yet present fact, still a living, united, organic whole, in the entity of its art, its thought, its religions, its sagacious forms of polity, that so weighty authority it exercised on every point, being in reality only the measure of its charm for every one: on the other side, the actual world. (Pater 1985, 58)

  • 1 My usage of the term fantastic is primarily derived from Brian Attebery’s work rather than Tzvetan (...)

3This statement lays out the central relationship between Marius’s various understandings of religion as they evolve throughout the novel and his experience of reality. The pagan culture, particularly the religious implications of that pagan culture, is represented throughout the novel as a hermeneutic through which Marius reads ‘the actual world’. The novel’s plot, the tracing of Marius’s philosophical development from rural pagan immersed in the ‘Religion of Numa’ through Epicurean and Stoic philosophies and ultimately to Christianity, demands this kind of dual understanding which allows for the shifting way in which Marius constructs meaning. Marius’s conversions are not revelations of some objective and recognizable truth, but are rather acts of interpretation informed by religious and philosophical positions. Pater’s characterization of these various philosophical and religious modes of being is presented through an interpretive lens that mingles the literal mimetic realism of the historical novel with the fantastic (non-mimetic) worldviews that many of these positions embrace.1 The novel is further interspersed with mythological narratives that both inform Marius’s vision of reality, and serve to presage narrative events.

  • 2 It is worth noting that Pater represents a great variety of pagan activity throughout the book and (...)

4In fashioning his narrative of religious conversion as a product of tensions between fantasy and the ‘actual world’ Pater unifies religious experience and aesthetic experience, turning the former into a type or instance of the latter. It articulates what Ellis Hanson presents as a kind of Christian humanism in the novel, rooted in a religiosity where ‘religious and aesthetic experience are deeply intertwined . . . if not wholly indistinguishable’ (Hanson 202). This is further represented as a function of religion itself, present at all stages of Marius’s conversion trajectory from youthful pagan to mature Christian.2

  • 3 For a thorough analysis of the trope of the dangerous book in Pater and the decadents who follow hi (...)

5This perspective is built into Pater’s mediated narrative style, and it is this startling quality of style which made the novel controversial. Marius, like the many books that feature as plot elements in decadent works of fiction, has been viewed (somewhat hysterically) as an influential or even dangerous book.3 As Matthew Potolsky states ‘There has long been a threatening air surrounding accounts of Walter Pater’s influence on his students and disciples. The reserved Oxford don, whose staid but quietly subversive writings set the tone of the English fin de siècle, is regularly credited with destroying lives, undermining morals and contributing to the perversion of countless students’ (Potolsky 701). W. B. Yeats too focused on Pater’s influence on his generation in both his autobiographical work and in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Yeats points to the troubling, indeed dangerous, impact that he sees Marius the Epicurean having on his associates, and indeed himself:

it still seemed to me, as I think it seemed to all of us, the only great prose in modern English and yet I began to wonder if it, or the attitude of mind of which it was the noblest expression had not caused the disaster of my friends. It taught us to walk upon a rope, tightly stretched through serene air, and we were left to keep our feet upon a swaying rope in a storm. (Yeats 235)

6Yeats is unclear here as to the direct source of the book’s danger, unsure of whether it is the quality of the writing as ‘the only great prose in modern English’ or the also vague ‘attitude of mind’ that proves to be so troubling. As Potolsky points out ‘the danger presented by this education centers upon the impact of reading Pater’s novel . . . he refers repeatedly to “its” effect, and to the “attitude of mind” it embodied, rather than to the effect of Pater himself or of any specific idea he taught. This rather staid and almost plotless novel seems at first to be a surprising source for so much peril’ (Potolsky 703). Potolsky locates Yeats’s criticism, and the criticism of those who follow him, primarily in the mediated narrative relationship Pater presents. Marius offers art in place of direct communication. In as much as these hermeneutics are an imaginative construct overlaid on to ‘the actual world’ as Marius terms it, Potolsky is correct. We are rarely given a direct representation of the novel’s setting and events; rather, that representation is consistently filtered through Marius’s own interpretations. Stephen Arata refers to this dynamic as ‘impersonal intimacy’ and points to a striking example: the title protagonist has only one actual line of dialogue, upon his friend Flavian’s death. The rest of the novel is indirect discourse (Arata 134). The quality of that indirect discourse reflects the role that the religious/aesthetic plays as it shapes the representation of the ‘actual world’. The curious ‘attitude of mind’ Yeats discusses is a product of a novel that continually presents the reader with visions of reality mediated by artifice. Pater’s style locates the reader (alongside Marius) at the middle ground between perception and interpretation, so that the reader is able to view the process of meaning-making as a dramatization of Marius’s reading of the world through a hermeneutic informed by religious and aesthetic discourses.

7As Pater traces Marius’s development throughout the novel, a striking pattern begins to unfold, one which focuses on the subjective (phenomenological) experience, rendered as fantastic as it is mapped upon the world around it. In Heraclitus Marius finds a system of philosophy that echoes Pater’s own aesthetics as presented in The Renaissance. For Heraclitus (as Pater understands him) the source of the world’s illusions is the narrowness of our perceptions. Once these perceptions have been widened we come to see existence as a miraculous fluctuation of elements:

The one true being—that constant subject of all early thought—it was his merit to have conceived, not as sterile and stagnant inaction, but as a perpetual energy, from the restless stream of which, at certain points, some elements detach themselves, and harden into non-entity and death, corresponding, as outward objects, to man’s inward condition of ignorance: that is, to the slowness of his faculties. It is with this paradox of a subtle, perpetual change in all visible things, that the high speculation of Heraclitus begins. (Pater 1985, 74–5)

  • 4 All references to The Renaissance are to Donald Hill’s scholarly edition of the 1893 text (the last (...)

8This Heraclitean flux echoes Pater’s more formally presented aesthetics, particularly in the conclusion to The Renaissance where he discusses the way in which the ‘whirlpool’ (Pater 1980, 187) of existence is constantly bringing forth new things as others fade away: ‘It is with this movement, with the passage and dissolution of impressions, images, sensations, that analysis leaves off—that continual vanishing away, that strange perpetual, weaving and unweaving of ourselves’ (Pater 1980, 188).4

9Pater’s work here points to the subjective nature of the kind of seeing that Heraclitus offers. Pater begins The Renaissance by quoting and swiftly modifying Matthew Arnold: ‘“To see the object as in itself it really is”, has been justly said to be the aim of all true criticism whatever, and in aesthetic criticism the first step towards seeing one’s object as it really is, is to know one’s own impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realize it distinctly’ (Pater 1980, xix). While Heraclitus would more than likely point to the importance of seeing ‘the object as in itself it really is’—through widening one’s perception to peer beyond the ‘illusion’ of permanence—it is important to note the implications of Pater’s qualification for Heraclitean ideas of reality. These fancies are, as Pater’s critical work demonstrates, very much focused on overlaying the subjective onto the objects whether those objects be art objects or the objects of life. Thus Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa becomes ‘older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her’ (Pater 1980, 99). Pater extends this further, pointing to what he sees as Da Vinci’s own kind of private imaginative mapping. Da Vinci finds in traditional subjects an expression of his own perceptions and interests and overlays those onto his subjects ‘using incidents of sacred story, not for their own sake, or as mere subjects for pictorial realization, but as a cryptic language for fancies all his own’ (Pater 1980, 97). Marius provides the reader with a similar relationship between reality and the phenomenological experience of religion, placing the novel’s varieties of paganism alongside Christianity as part of an aesthetic lineage.

‘The Golden Book’: Aesthetic Conversions

10It is fascinating to note that while Yeats will describe Marius as a dangerously influential book, the novel contains its own influential work. While Marius’s conversions are interpretive engagements that stretch back to the early chapters of the novel, it is important to note that the pattern of conversion seems to be set down in a book Marius encounters early in the narrative. While in most Decadent literature the influential book is a work of corruption which leads a protagonist to disgrace or doom, the book presented in Marius serves to provide a narrative framework that leads Pater’s protagonist further down the path towards Christian conversion. This book is Apuleius’s The Metamorphoses, more commonly known as The Golden Ass, called simply ‘The Golden Book’ in Marius.

11Pater introduces Apuleius’s text in a way very similar to the way the ‘fatal book’ is often presented (in a chapter titled ‘The Tree of Knowledge’ no less), highlighting its influence on Marius:

He was acquiring what it is the chief function of all higher education to impart, the art, namely, of so relieving the ideal or poetic traits, the elements of distinction, in our everyday life—of so exclusively living in them—that the unadorned remainder of it, the mere drift or débris of our days, comes to be as though it were not. And the consciousness of this aim came with the reading of one particular book, then fresh in the world, with which he fell in about this time—a book which awakened the poetic or romantic capacity as perhaps some other book might have done, but was peculiar in giving it a direction emphatically sensuous. It made him, in that visionary reception of every-day life, the seer, more especially, of a revelation in colour and form. (Pater 1985, 31–2)

12The book is instrumental to Marius’s developing philosophy of beauty, but it is also significant in regard to its subject matter. Apuleius’s book is, like Pater’s book, a conversion narrative, though a thoroughly pagan one. And as such, in addition to presenting an aesthetic experience through which Marius interprets reality, it also provides him with a narrative model to follow. The fantastic stories in the Golden Ass inform Marius’s vision of the ‘actual world’.

13Pater summarizes a great amount of The Golden Ass, spending half of a chapter describing it and its effects on Marius and his tutor Flavian. Pater then interposes the story of Cupid and Psyche drawn from Apuleius’s novel, seeking to reproduce the narrative incident that impressed the two young men most: ‘the tale of Cupid and Psyche, full of brilliant, life-like situations, speciosa locis, and abounding in lovely visible imagery (one seemed to see and handle the golden hair, the fresh flowers, the precious works of art in it!) yet full also of a gentle idealism, so that you might take it, if you chose, for an allegory’ (Pater 1985, 36). Pater’s characterization here of the story’s ‘brilliant, life-like situations’ could in a less sincere writer be taken for mockery. It is hard to think of very much that is life-like in the story of a nymph forbidden to gaze on the face of the love god she has married. But Pater’s suggestion that the story is ‘life-like’ for Marius and Flavian demonstrates again that this is a fantastic work that they will use to construct the meaning around them. Indeed, upon concluding his detailed recounting of the story Pater writes:

So the famous story composed itself in the memory of Marius, with an expression changed in some ways from the original and on the whole graver. The petulant, boyish Cupid of Apuleius was become more like that ‘Lord, of terrible aspect,’ who stood at Dante’s bedside and wept, or had at least grown to the manly earnestness of the Erôs of Praxiteles. Set in relief amid the coarser matter of the book, this episode of Cupid and Psyche served to combine many lines of meditation, already familiar to Marius, into the ideal of a perfect imaginative love, centered upon a type of beauty entirely flawless and clean—an ideal which never wholly faded from his thoughts, though he valued it at various times in different degrees. (Pater 1985, 53)

  • 5 While this is the most extensive use of mythology in the work, it is certainly not the only one. An (...)

14It is clear from this passage that The Golden Ass, and particularly the incident of Cupid and Psyche, functions as a kind of aesthetic touchstone for Marius, one which shapes his personal understanding. The intertext thus provides a representation of material which Marius directly appropriates and uses to construct his own understanding of the world, changing it and using it to combine ‘many lines of meditation’ into a worldview steeped in aestheticized mythology.5

The Religio-Aesthetic Experience in Pagan and Christian mythologies

  • 6 It is useful here to think of these fantastic interpretations in light of the passage from chapter (...)

15This aestheticized mythology is present throughout the text, emerging as the fantastic interpretation mapped onto the mundane matter of the antique world.6 This narrative mapping is exemplified by the narrative’s treatment of dreams, the liminal state of the dream ultimately being overlaid on top of the waking-world. Marius’s ancestral country estate, White Nights is characterized as a place where the imaginative matter of dreams impacts daily life. Pater invokes an unnamed ‘German mystic’ to express what he calls the mystery of ‘whiteness’:

  • 7 While this may be intended to invoke Meister Eckhart (who used the example of whiteness as a qualit (...)

‘ever an after-thought—the doubles, or seconds, of real things, and themselves but half-real, half-material—the white queen, the white witch, the white mass, which, as the black mass is a travesty of the true mass turned to evil by horrible old witches, is celebrated by young candidates for the priesthood with an unconsecrated host, by way of rehearsal’. So, white-nights, I suppose, after something like the same analogy, should be nights not of quite blank forgetfulness, but passed in continuous dreaming, only half veiled by sleep. Certainly the place was, in such case, true to its fanciful name in this, that you might very well conceive, in face of it, that dreaming even in the daytime might come to much there. (Pater 1985, 9)7

16A ‘white-night’, in Pater’s strange and striking analogy, is one spent in a kind of dream state that somehow pours over into wakefulness as it is ‘only half-veiled by sleep’. Pater then aligns the place called White Nights with this particular state of consciousness as place where ‘dreaming even in the daytime might come to much’ defining White Nights as a place where that boundary is permeable. This liminality continues at the temple of Aesculapius where Marius is unsure of what was dream and what was not, and the interpenetration of Marius’s psychic life and the physical world he inhabits often punctuates the text.

17White Nights is also connected with Marius’s eventual conversion, and his Christian aesthetic experiences echo forward through the novel. Hanson notes that the invocation of the ‘white mass’ aligns this space and Marius’s experience in it with the ultimate trajectory of his conversion: ‘For Marius, the dream [of White Nights] is of his own generative capacity for life. And it is also the dream of a new vocation, his preparation for a priesthood beyond the religion of Numa . . . White Nights is Marius’s “church in progress”, the ghostly and material beginnings of his progression of philosophical conversions, his perpetual spiritual rehearsals’ (Hanson 207). The trajectory of Marius’s conversion ranging from paganism to discourses of Stoicism and Epicureanism is consistently presented in terms tied not to representations of theological truths, but to personal experiences. It is linked through this kind of interpretive understanding to Marius’s previous religious experiences. Vincent A. Lankewish points to the very Hellenic way in which Marius’s experience of Christianity is constructed, focusing on the homoeroticism that underlies the novel’s representation of the aesthetic religious experience throughout: ‘Although Christ is obviously the companion whom Marius craves, Pater’s construction of Christianity as aesthetic experience reveals Christian males’ marriage to Christ as a trope that, within the tradition of the Early Christian novel, enables homoerotic representation and establishes a strong link between that trope and Hellenism’ (Lankewish 264). Lankewish is right in pointing to the aestheticization of Christianity as a major conduit connecting Marius’s pagan religious experiences and his Christian ones. Marius’s transformations (and the routes he takes to reach them) consistently widen in-scope, ranging from the backwater (yet still beautiful) childhood home, to the Temple of Aesculapius, to Rome itself. Even while Marius is martyred a millennium and a half before their creation, one can perceive Pater’s work echoing forward to his celebration of Da Vinci’s works built upon the bones of Christianity in The Renaissance.

18Marius’s introduction to Christianity comes in his tour of Cecilia’s home chapel and the family tombs associated with it, and it is his contemplation of ‘Christian superstition’ that starts him on his path to conversion. While Marius is aware of Christianity earlier in the novel, it is at Cecilia’s house that he has his first religio-aesthetic experience, prompted by his feelings in the tomb:

And yet these poignant memorials seemed also to draw him onwards to-day, as if towards an image of some still more pathetic suffering, in the remote background. Yes! the interest, the expression, of the entire neighbourhood was instinct with it, as with the savour of some priceless incense. Penetrating the whole atmosphere, touching everything around with its peculiar sentiment, it seemed to make all this visible mortality, death’s very self—Ah! lovelier than any fable of old mythology had ever thought to render it, in the utmost limits of fantasy; and this, in simple candour of feeling about a supposed fact. (Pater 1985, 200)

  • 8 This invocation also recalls Richard Dellamora’s appraisal of Pater’s early essays as portraying ‘r (...)

19Marius reads this ‘peculiar sentiment’ through the lens of pagan myth-making, placing it within the same realm of hermeneutics that previous images of the escape from death inhabit: ‘Hercules wrestling with Death for possession of Alcestis, Orpheus taming the wild beasts, the Shepherd with his sheep, the Shepherd carrying the sick lamb upon his shoulders’. In this long-line of images rooted in paganism comes the Christian shepherd. The linkage between the shepherd and Orpheus demonstrates a kind of lineage, placing Christianity at the end of a larger trajectory, one which Pater characterizes as ‘partly pagan’, when he invokes what he argues is the most apt image of what the tomb represents: ‘A figure, partly pagan in character, yet most frequently repeated of all these visible parables—the figure of one just escaped from the sea, still clinging as for life to the shore in surprised joy’ (Pater 1985, 200).8 The religious experience of the tomb is represented here in mythic terms and is placed in line with the pagan mythological figures. The scenes in the tomb complex mirror the scenes set at White-Nights, to the point that Pater begins the passage by quoting the same ‘mystical German writer’ who provided ‘the mystery of so-called white things’ in the White Nights chapter. And as at White Nights, Marius’s religious contemplations were presented in relation to the dead, so are they in Cecilia’s.

20Pater’s examination of Christianity as a hermeneutic, and its relationship to the broader picture of religion that he paints, are evident in discussions of early Christian ritual, a subject which unites for Pater the religious, aesthetic, and human: ‘the ritual system of the church, as we see it in historic retrospect, ranks as one of the great, conjoint, and (so to term them) necessary, products of human mind. Destined for ages to come, to direct with so deep a fascination men’s religious instincts, it was then already recognisable as a new and precious fact in the sum of things’ (Pater 1985, 211). This notion of ritual as the ‘conjoint’ product of ‘human minds’ speaks directly to its hermeneutic nature. Ritual is a process of meaning-making, something which Pater acknowledges here, as well as throughout his text.

21This understanding of ritual is not reserved for the Christianity of Marius’s ultimate conversion; rather it is an important force throughout the novel beginning with the protagonist’s early devotions and continuing to the representations of Marcus Aurelius. And if the aesthetic and religious experiences Marius has at White Nights prepare him for the on-going conversion that eventually leads him to Christianity, it is important to note the fantastic way in which his journey begins, and the various interconnected instances of hermeneutic mapping that occur along the way.

22As a young pagan, living at a distance from the capital of Rome, Marius begins his life as devotee of what Pater characterizes as the ‘Religion of Numa’. As its name suggests, this more primitive religious view veers towards a kind of pantheism containing numerous small gods, and ancestors:

The names of that great populace of ‘little gods’, dear to the Roman home, which the pontiffs had placed on the sacred list of the Indigitamenta, to be invoked, because they can help, on special occasions, were not forgotten in the long litany—Vatican who causes the infant to utter his first cry, Fabulinus who prompts his first word, Cuba who keeps him quiet in his cot, Domiduca especially, for whom Marius had through life a particular memory and devotion, the goddess who watches over one’s safe coming home. The urns of the dead in the family chapel received their due service. They also were now become something divine, a goodly company of friendly and protecting spirits, encamped about the place of their former abode—above all others, the father, dead ten years before, of whom, remembering but a tall, grave figure above him in early childhood, Marius habitually thought as a genius a little cold and severe. (Pater 1985, 6–7)

23The novel represents these deities through Marius’s perspective as living parts of the world given meaning by Marius’s religion. Recalling Roman ancestor worship and the tributes paid, Pater writes ‘They loved those who brought them their sustenance; but, deprived of these services, would be heard wandering through the house, crying sorrowfully in the stillness of the night’ (Pater 1985, 7). The ‘goodly company of friendly and protecting spirits’ is represented as real figures, and the reader is presented with them as such through the narrative’s mediation.

24This antique religion is explicitly tied to an aesthetic meaning-making, ‘A religion of usages and sentiments rather than facts and belief, and attached to very definite things and places—the oak of immemorial age, the rock on the heath fashioned by weather as if by some dim human art, the shadowy grove of ilex, passing into which one exclaimed involuntarily, in consecrated phrase, Deity is in this place! Numen Inest!’ (Pater 1985, 3). This understanding of the ‘Religion of Numa’ that invests reality with divine figures is a prime example of the interpretive framework at the heart of Pater’s representation of paganism. This is linked directly to not only a numinous belief in a natural divinity, but also in the practices associated with the ‘nearer household gods’ and the ancestors for whom Marius leaves offerings. Pater’s first description of Marius explicitly ties his religiosity to his interpretive frameworks together: ‘there was a boy living in an old country-house, half farm, half villa, who for himself, recruited the body of antique traditions by a spontaneous force of religious veneration such as had originally called them into being’ (Pater 1985, 4). Marius’s offerings are motivated by the ‘Religion of Numa’, and they are related directly back to it by Marius‘s spontaneous force of religious veneration’.

25This viewpoint is expressed again at the temple of Aesculapius where the physical space of the well takes on larger significance based on its associations:

Legend told of a visit of Aesculapius to this place, earlier and happier than his first coming to Rome . . . and it was then that that most intimately human of the gods had given men the well, with all its salutary properties . . . Marius was told many mysterious circumstances concerning it, by one and another of the bystanders:—he who drank often thereof might well think he had tasted of the Homeric lotus, so great became his desire to remain always on that spot: carried to other places, it was almost indefinitely conservative of its fine qualities: nay! a few drops of it would amend other water; and it flowed not only with unvarying abundance but with a volume so oddly rhythmical that the well stood always full to the brim, whatever quantity might be drawn from it, seeming to answer with strange alacrity of service to human needs, like a true creature and pupil of the philanthropic god. (Pater 1985, 21–2)

26Here the well expands its importance. Marius’s (and the reader’s) understanding of this place is inseparable from the stories that are told about it. Pater’s work here, as his work throughout the novel, seeks to dramatize Marius’s phenomenological experience of reality, and that phenomenological experience is explicitly one of the fantastic mapped upon ‘the actual world’ Pater invokes in chapter four.

27This kind of privileging of private imaginative experience—the holy myths mapped onto a landscape—informs Marius’s understanding of even that most literally stoic figure: Marcus Aurelius. In chapter 12 Marius witnesses the emperor’s return to Rome and the ceremonies of the Ovation accompanying it. Marius reads the emperor through the larger religious framework that Pater has been building since the early chapters at White Nights:

And now, as the emperor, who had not only a vague divinity about his person, but was actually the chief religious functionary of the state, recited from time to time the forms of invocation, he needed not the help of the prompter, or ceremoniarius, who then approached, to assist him by whispering the appointed words in his ear. It was that pontifical abstraction which then impressed itself on Marius as the leading outward characteristic of Aurelius; though to him alone, perhaps, in that vast crowd of observers, it was no strange thing, but a matter he had understood from of old. (Pater 1985, 110–11)

28Marius recognizes Aurelius in a way which others in the crowd perhaps do not, because of his own commitment to religious hermeneutics. Aurelius and Marius share a similar mythic worldview, one grounded in the Religion of Numa: ‘For Aurelius, indeed, the old legend of his descent from Numa, from Numa who had talked with the gods, meant much’ (Pater 1985, 110). This passage serves to both underline the connection between Aurelius and Marius, while also investing Aurelius with the sacred story of the Roman Emperor: he is a divine figure. The importance of this dynamic is made even more manifest when we take into account that these rituals are primarily, according to Pater (and his Aurelius), public spectacles. Pater opens this chapter by acknowledging this fact: ‘MARCUS AURELIUS who, though he had little relish for them himself, had ever been willing to humour the taste of his people for magnificent spectacles, was received back to Rome with the lesser honours of the Ovation’ (Pater 1985, 108). The ceremony then, which Marius draws so much from, and which Aurelius puts so much into, is primarily a show. And Pater recognizes that while Aurelius performs the Ovation in order to ‘humour the taste of his people’, like all public pageants, particularly in the context of the state, the Ovation is charged with constructed meaning. Pater represents this meaning in a particularly interesting way:

Some fanciful writers have assigned the origin of these triumphal processions to the mythic pomps of Dionysus, after his conquests in the East; the very word Triumph being, according to this supposition, only Thriambos—the Dionysiac Hymn. And certainly the younger of the two imperial ‘brothers’, who, with the effect of a strong contrast, walked beside Aurelius, and shared the honours of the day, might well have reminded people of the delicate Greek god of flowers and wine. (Pater 1985, 111)

  • 9 It is also interesting to note that the way in which Pater gets at the processions’ Dionysian linea (...)

29This passage is particularly interesting as it points out the ‘fanciful’ position some writers have taken on the origin of these ceremonies, while at the same time providing a certain aesthetic support, in offering the younger of Aurelius’s consorts as a figure of Dionysius.9

30The Ovation sequence points to the importance of hermeneutics in this kind of religio-aesthetic worldview. The procession is a spectacle, an endeavour to please the Roman populous. But its nature as an aesthetic endeavour endows the Ovation with a greater significance, one which Marius recognizes from his own religious up-bringing. Even a ceremony intended to pacify the public’s taste for glory, something Aurelius views as almost perfunctory, carries with it a great religious importance.

31Ultimately, it is all hermeneutics for Pater, and all part of a broader engagement with religion as a source for constructing meaning. Absolute theological truth is unremarked upon in Marius. Rather religion is presented as an aesthetic endeavour, one which is concerned with widening perceptions and allowing broader (and more interesting) interpretive frameworks. The Ovation, like all of the other religious events represented in the novel, from the experiences with ‘his own nearer household gods’ to his conversion in Christian tombs, is not about theological truth, but is rather about the aesthetic experience and how that experience is utilized to construct a meaning distinct from the theological. Paganism and Christianity are thus tied together, not as opposing forces, but as responses built from the same matter and directed toward the same goal: an imaginative understanding of the world that nurtures perceptions of beauty. While neither the Roman authorities who execute Marius nor the austere Christians who bury him can find the connections the novel presents, Pater’s style—the narrative mediation which places the reader in the middle ground between perception and interpretation—dramatizes this constructive meaning-making and forces the reader to view ‘the old pagan culture’ and the new religion of Christ in conjunction with one another.

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1 My usage of the term fantastic is primarily derived from Brian Attebery’s work rather than Tzvetan Todorov’s. Attebery pragmatically defines fantasy (in The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature) as ‘Any narrative which includes as a significant part of its make-up some violation of what the author clearly believes to be natural law’ (Attebery 2). He also argues, in Strategies of Fantasy, that the fantastic as a mode (or as a genre) relies on the mimetic in order to maintain sense. The fantastic for Attebery ‘invokes wonder by making the impossible seem familiar and the familiar seem new and strange’ (Attebery 3).

2 It is worth noting that Pater represents a great variety of pagan activity throughout the book and that it is truly a trajectory both temporally and geographically. Marius begins as a rural pagan deeply embedded in an agrarian pantheism he terms ‘the religion of Numa.’ He then proceeds to the temple of Aesculapius, and eventually proceeds through the philosophical circles of Rome, the public paganism of the Roman state to ultimately Christianity, the religion of the future.

3 For a thorough analysis of the trope of the dangerous book in Pater and the decadents who follow him see Linda Dowling’s chapter ‘The Fatal Book’ in Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siècle, 104–74.

4 All references to The Renaissance are to Donald Hill’s scholarly edition of the 1893 text (the last version Pater himself oversaw).

5 While this is the most extensive use of mythology in the work, it is certainly not the only one. And that mythology is both pagan and Christian. See the ‘Christian legend,’ invoked at the end of chapter 24, for instance (Pater 1985, 237).

6 It is useful here to think of these fantastic interpretations in light of the passage from chapter four previously quoted which juxtaposes ‘that old pagan culture’ with ‘the actual world’.

7 While this may be intended to invoke Meister Eckhart (who used the example of whiteness as a quality of being when writing about the Neo-Platonic existence of God), the sentiments are more than likely of Pater’s own invention. This is a common narrative strategy of Pater’s. In ‘Apollo in Picardy’ for instance, Pater invokes ‘a writer of Teutonic proclivities’ (suggesting Heinrich Heine) and invents a passage which echoes Heine’s ‘The Gods in Exile’. (Pater 1964, 185)

8 This invocation also recalls Richard Dellamora’s appraisal of Pater’s early essays as portraying ‘renewals’ that function as ‘a profane analogue of Christian resurrection’ (Dellamora 53), See ‘The Androgynous Body in Pater’s “Wincklemann”’. As I have sought to argue here, this pagan resurrection is not, from Pater’s position profane, but rather inhabits an aesthetic spectrum alongside Christianity. Dellamora, however, is right to point to the connection between the resurrections of figures like Dionysus and Apollo and Christ as they appear in Pater’s writing.

9 It is also interesting to note that the way in which Pater gets at the processions’ Dionysian lineage is through language, urging us to read the word ‘triumph’ through the hermeneutic of Thriambos.

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Jude Wright, « ‘His Own Nearer Household Gods’: Pagans, Christians, and Marius the Epicurean’s Religious Hermeneutics », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 80 Automne | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 janvier 2015, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.1474

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Jude Wright

Jude Wright is a Visiting Affiliate Assistant Professor at Loyola University. He received his PhD in 2013 from the University of South Florida where he was a Presidential Doctoral Fellow. He is currently at work on his book-length study ‘Of That Transfigured World’: Realism and Fantasy in Victorian Literature, which examines the role that overlaid fantastic narratives play in constructing meaning in the works of Charles Dickens, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde. He also has a significant interest in adaptation theory especially as it relates to film and drama. His work has appeared or will appear in Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, Adaptation Studies in Film and Performance, and Princeton University Press forthcoming pedagogical collection, The Pocket Instructor: Literature.

Jude Wright est Visiting Affiliate Assistant Professor à Loyola University (États-Unis). Il travaille actuellement sur un livre intitulé ‘Of That Transfigured World’: Realism and Fantasy in Victorian Literature, tiré de sa thèse de doctorat, qui analyse la façon dont le sens se construit à travers des récits fantastiques superposés à une intrigue réaliste dans les œuvres de Dickens, des sœurs Brontë, de Pater et de Wilde. Il s’intéresse aussi à la théorie de l’adaptation, et ses travaux sont parus ou vont paraître dans Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, Adaptation Studies in Film and Performance, et The Pocket Instructor: Literature (Princeton University Press).

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