Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Victoria Leonard - Nefarious Acts and Sacrilegious Sacrifices: Live Burial in the Historia adversus paganos

This paper is concerned with the spectacle of live burial in the Historia adversus paganos, a seven-book History written by Paulus Orosius in the early fifth century AD. The text provides one of the earliest etymological definitions of the term ‘pagan’, an example that was influential for later post-classical understandings of the word. This paper will examine the construction of paganism within the Historia, considering the representation of pagan religious practice in Christian apologetic. This will give specific attention to the leitmotiv of live burial and its function within the text. In Plutarch’s Life of Numa the description of the live burial of a Vestal Virgin prompts the reflection that ‘No other spectacle is more appalling, nor does any other day bring more gloom to the city than this.’ (10.3) The Historia sees live burial as a punishment most frequently enforced upon the Vestal Virgins for the sins of ‘defilement’ and ‘pollution’. The connection between the custom of live burial and the city of Rome is recurrent. But it is also more widely connected in myth and history with ‘unnatural crimes’ such as parricide and incest, and most notably, the practice of pagan sacrifice and theatrical performances. This paper seeks to demonstrate the pejorative yet subtle rhetoric of deprecation enacted against the pagan in the polemical discourse of the Historia and how this contributes to the representation of paganism in the text. 

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