I’ve been reading Edward Watts’ book, The Final Pagan Generation. Watts focuses on Roman elites born during the reign of Constantine in the 310s. These Romans were born when paganism was still dominant in the empire, and they died near the end of the century, when pagan temples were being ripped down and destroyed. Christianity slowly crept through the empire between the 310s and the 390s, but even pagan Roman elites did very little about it. Why? Trying to oppose Christianization could result in loss of imperial favor. It was a risky career move. But it goes further than this. Roman elites relied on patronage networks. These patronage networks were predicated on exchanges of favors. When these elites began their careers, there was broad toleration of both paganism and Christianity. The religious division had not yet become the primary marker of political identity. Consequently, elite patronage networks often contained both Christians and pagans, and this meant that pagan Roman elites often owed favors to Christian elites and vice versa. During the reign of Julian, the last pagan emperor, pagan elites often defended their Christian friends from Julian’s effort to purge the Roman school system of Christian teachers. The Christian teachers were part of the elite network, and individual pagan elites felt a loyalty to their network that was more powerful than religious identity. They owed their positions to the patronage system and they put the patronage system first. In the United States, we have made an effort to eliminate patronage systems in favor of ostensibly fair, impersonal, meritocratic mechanisms. But while our system of elite reproduction differs from Rome’s, we have not fully eliminated the role of interpersonal ties in elite reproduction. I want to suggest that our system of elite reproduction is caught between the old patronage model and a more impersonal, technocratic model. Both the old and new models have some disturbing features, and this keeps us from fully embracing one or the other. But in trying to balance the two models together, we have created a system of elite reproduction that is too opaque to function properly.
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