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Paganism and Christianity: Differences and Affinities

All Roads Lead to Rome?: Decadence, Paganism, Catholicism and the Later Life of Oscar Wilde

Tous les chemins mènent-ils à Rome ? : décadence, paganisme et catholicisme chez Oscar Wilde
Shushma Malik


Cet article étudie les liens entre paganisme, catholicisme et décadence dans la vie et la correspondance d’Oscar Wilde, et se concentre en particulier sur la période qui suit son incarcération à Reading. Lors de ses voyages en France et en Italie entre 1897 et 1900, Wilde relit la période précédant son arrestation et la qualifie de « païenne » et de « néronienne ». Au cours de ses dernières années, Wilde tente de rapprocher le paganisme de sa jeunesse et son attirance pour le catholicisme, et voit dans Rome, ville à la fois païenne et catholique, l’espace d’une réconciliation possible, où il peut vivre pleinement tous les aspects de sa « romanité ».

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1The city of Rome has always occupied a unique space in religious history. As both the capital of the pagan Roman Empire and the home of the Catholic popes, Rome can simultaneously represent the idealised Classical past of Cicero and Virgil as well as the resting place of the apostles Peter and Paul. Significant work has been done on Oscar Wilde and Greek antiquity (notably, Ian Ross’s book entitled Oscar Wilde and Ancient Greece), and on the relationship between Wilde’s Hellenism and his religion, but I suggest that it is Wilde’s relationship with Roman antiquity that comes to the fore after his release from prison as he contemplates his pre- and post-prison lives in his letters to his closest friends. For Wilde in 1900, Rome is the place in which he can indulge in profligacy by spoiling his new companion Armando in a way reminiscent of his early relationship with Alfred Douglas, while at the same time making frequent visits to the Vatican and, for the first time since Berneval, debating the nature of his Catholicism with Ross (e.g. Wilde 2000, 1182, 1184, 1191). Wilde internalises the history of the city and uses it to narrate various points in his life—like Rome, he considers himself to have lived a life of paganism, then one of Christianity, before reconciling the two, in the same way as the city displays both aspects of its history, pagan and Christian, to its visitors. By examining his letters, this article will explore the ways in which Rome and its history gave Wilde a model with which he could articulate the key changes that occurred in his life during his final years. After struggling with Catholicism for most of his adulthood, it was not until he was able to live in Rome as both a pagan and a Catholic that he could come to terms with these aspects of his life.

Nineteenth-Century Decadence, Paganism and Catholicism

2The meanings behind, and the connotations of, the three key terms used in this essay, namely decadence, paganism and Catholicism, were the subject of much discussion in nineteenth-century literature as writers and thinkers negotiated the intimate relationship between the three ideas.

  • 1 See, for example, Verlaine in Gilman 5–6 and Moore 125.

3The word decadence, as used in the nineteenth century, looked back to the past. As Gilman wrote in his discussion of decadence as an epithet: ‘Certain words of a moral or behavioural kind, judgemental words, continue to insinuate themselves into contexts where they injure meaning and bring about confusion, since they carry with them a previousness, something once true, something, that is to say, once applicable’ (Gilman 5). Many key figures in the Decadent Movement invoked classical antiquity, particularly ancient Rome. Imperial Rome, with its colourful and omnipotent emperors, its varied literature and its immense spectacle, provided an archetypal model for many of the Decadents.1

  • 2 Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus, was a third-century emperor infamous in the ancient sources (...)
  • 3 Wilde himself collected Solomon’s works, see Wilde 2000, 713, and corresponded, in 1881, with Alma- (...)
  • 4 See also Icks 158, 162; Prettejohn 168.

4More specifically, certain figures appear time and again in Decadent literature, such as the so-called ‘bad’ emperors of Rome. In particular, Decadent writers were drawn to those decidedly ‘antinatural’ themes that define their Movement: overt sexuality, artistic license and individualism. In Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), Gautier described Tiberius, Caligula and Nero as the great and ‘misunderstood’ Romans of the empire (Gautier 127). All three of these emperors are notorious in the classical tradition as despots (see, for example, Tacitus Annals 6.51, Suetonius Gaius 22.1-4, Suetonius Nero 26.1-2). Elagabalus is another favourite of the Decadents.2 Lombard’s L’Agonie of 1888 is set during his reign, and Lorrain’s 1899 novel Le Vice errant sees its protagonist Vladimir Noronsoff compared to those degenerate Caesars Nero and Elagabalus (Carter 105, 115-6). In painting, Elagabalus is the subject of Simeon Solomon’s Heliogabalus, High Priest of the Sun (1866) and Alma-Tadema’s The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888).3 In the former, Elagabalus is depicted as a beautiful but bored emperor-priest(ess), whereas, in the latter, Elagabalus is debauched and cruel as he takes pleasure in watching the gradual suffocation of his dinner guests under a deluge of rose petals.4 These emperors provided powerful subjects for Decadent writers precisely because their inherent character traits were so unpalatable to mainstream society. Lombard uses Elagabalus as a symbol for androgyny, and Lorrain’s Noronsoff is Neronian because he throws debauched and opulent dinner parties. Further, the emperors of Rome could provide models for both the decadent writers’ literary characters and their own lifestyles. After his return from America, Wilde delighted in the thought that he could ‘amaze’ his friends with his own Neronian hairstyle, taken straight from a bust of Nero in the Louvre (Wilde 2000, 211).

  • 5 At this point, Nordau is talking about Gautier, Baudelaire and Huysmans, but he later goes on to de (...)

5The idea that decadence is tied to the Roman past also has significant repercussions for interpretations of Christian antiquity, as epitomised by the nineteenth-century polemicist Max Nordau. In Degeneration, he writes: ‘The truth is that these degenerate writers5 have arbitrarily attributed their own state of mind to the authors of the Roman and Byzantine decadence, to a Petronius, but especially to a Commodianus of Gaza, an Ausonius, a Prudentius, a Sidonius Apollinaris, etc., and have created in their own image, or according to their morbid instincts, an “ideal man of the Roman decadence”’ (Nordau 301). Commodian, Prudentius and Sidonius are all late-antique Christian writers. Commodian probably wrote during the persecution of the Christians by the emperor Decius in the 250s AD, although it has also been suggested that he was writing as late as the fifth century AD (see Moreschini and Norelli 1: 381). Prudentius wrote in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, and Sidonius Apollinaris in the mid to late fifth century AD. The ‘lateness’ of these writers is significant as decadence is itself a phenomenon that is fundamentally linked to the idea of decline (Morley 574-577, Vance 247). Nordau expresses concern that his own society suffers from ‘the impotent despair of a sick man, who feels himself dying by inches in the midst of an eternally living nature blooming insolently for ever’ (Nordau 3). This illness is quickened, and reveled in, by purveyors of decadence, such as Huysmans’s protagonist Des Esseintes in À rebours, who claimed that the Latin language ‘had attained supreme maturity in Petronius’ (Huysmans 32, see also Symons 858–859).

  • 6 See Masurel-Murray 184–205.
  • 7 For example, in the fourth century, Bishop Marcus built a basilica in Rome in or near the area that (...)

6Providing the string that ties the three themes together is the perceived paganism of a Catholicism founded in Roman antiquity, which was seen by its opponents as unchanged in the nineteenth century.6 In antiquity, early Christian writers did their best to separate Christianity from the legacy of traditional Graeco-Roman religion. This was not an easy task as traditional religion was so deeply imbedded in the idea of Rome and its empire. Post-Constantinian emperors and bishops enacted building programmes that changed the topography of the city, with Christian buildings redefining ‘pagan’ space (Curran 116-157),7 and preachers urged their congregations to remember that being Christian meant they could no longer follow pagan customs and perform pagan rituals (John Chrysostom Address on Vainglory 39, 48). However, such entreaties demonstrate that the separation between pagan Rome and Christian Rome in antiquity was not entirely clear cut, suggesting that nineteenth-century advocates of the ‘No Popery’ had some sense of an antique grounding for their accusations.

7A key criticism of Roman Catholicism by those making the ‘No Popery’ cry was its inherent and fundamental link to the paganism that preceded, and coexisted with it. In 1850, William Bennett claimed that Catholic rituals were the ‘wretched sweepings from the deserted shrines of Paganism’ in his sermon entitled Popery (Bennett reprinted in Norman 173; see also Ralls 242-256). Similarly, in 1878, Reverend H. C. Leonard released a pamphlet, entitled ‘Ritualism Traced to its Pagan Origins’, which proclaimed ‘In the 5th century pictures were introduced, and, later, images of Christ, the Virgin and Saints. Some there were who protested against this heathenising of the church, but in vain. The pagan ritual came in. The Lord’s supper took the place of the “unbloody sacrifices” of Old Rome’ (Leonard in Masurel-Murray 186). Early Christian writing was frequently discussed in the literature of the Tractarians of the Oxford Movement. As Faught states, ‘For the Tractarians, antiquity became the bedrock, the unquestioned locus of authority within the Church’ (Faught 36). This did not just include Scripture; in Tracts for the Times 34, ad scholas, Newman cites Chrysostom, Tertullian and Basil in his discussion of the ‘Rites and Customs of the Church’. Although Newman struggled with the ostentation of Catholic ritual, early exegetical works and the words of the patristic fathers remained valuable to his own understanding of Christianity. The way in which Catholicism was shaped by its antique origins was a controversial topic in the nineteenth century and, as we will see, the legacy of the Oxford Movement was still present when Wilde went up to Magdalen College, Oxford in 1874.

Wilde’s Religion

8Deciphering Wilde’s own religion is a complicated matter. Alongside the influence of broader nineteenth-century concerns about decadence, paganism and Catholicism, Wilde also encountered varying forms of paganism and Christianity as a boy and young man in Ireland. From a young age, he was introduced to a number of belief systems that encouraged him to think about the relationships between ancient, modern, Celtic and Roman forms of paganism and Christianity.

  • 8 See, for example, Irish Popular Superstitions 38, in which W. Wilde discusses the appropriation of (...)

9The strict upbringing Oscar received from his Protestant father in Ireland (Killeen 6–7) was perhaps softened by William Wilde’s own fascination with Irish folklore. William Wilde, in his publication Irish Popular Superstitions (1852), argues that Irish Catholicism is full of pagan elements that predate Christianisation.8 The young Oscar would accompany his father to the ‘ancient sites’ of the west of Ireland (Wilde 2000, 85), where William could collect folktales from the peasantry he met. Moreover, Oscar’s mother, Speranza, organised an unofficial second baptism into the Catholic faith for the young Oscar and his brother, which further blurs the picture of a Protestant childhood (Ellmann 18, Killeen 13, Hanson 257, Schuchard 372).

10Wilde’s university career began at Trinity College, Dublin, where his tutor John Pentland Mahaffy severely disapproved of Catholicism. Rome was both corrupt and corrupting, and Greece was the home of proper paganism. George MacMillan, who a year later would go on to be one of the founders of the Hellenic Society, commented in a letter to Wilde’s father in March 1877:

Being very impressionable [Oscar] is just now rather fascinated by Roman Catholicism, and is indeed on his way to Rome, in order to see all the glories of the religion which seems to him the highest and the most sentimental. Mahaffy is quite determined to prevent this if possible, and is using every argument he can to check him. At first he tried hard to persuade him to come to Greece with us, pointing out to him by the way all the worst faults of Popery. (Wilde 2000, 43–44)

  • 9 See the book, Catholic Orthodoxy and Anglo-Catholicism, published in 1866 by Julian Joseph Overbeck(...)

11We can begin to see here a distinction drawn between Greek and Roman antiquity, owing in no small part to the legacy of Catholicism. While, for Mahaffy, Roman paganism had been tainted as a result of its appropriation by Roman Catholicism (the reverse of the argument made by Bennett and Leonard), the Greek Orthodox Church was far enough removed from Classical Greek paganism that neither one was spoiled.9 The views on Catholicism that Wilde had encountered in these early years came to the fore as he entered Oxford and began to contemplate conversion.

12Wilde came close to Catholic conversion whilst at Oxford. In 1877, he had an audience with Pope Pius IX in Rome as arranged by his recently-converted Catholic friend David Hunter-Blair. However, the conversion did not take place (see Wilde 2000, 44, to Reginald Harding). In 1878, Wilde visited Reverend Sebastian Bowden at the Brompton Oratory in London to discuss a possible conversion, but finally, on the appointed day of his baptism with Fr Bowden, he sent a bunch of altar lilies in his place (Schuchard 374, 376; Wilde 2000, 792n). It is also in these two crucial years of indecision on Wilde’s part that he turned to the writings of the members of the Oxford Movement, particularly John Henry Newman and Cardinal Manning (Wilde 2000, 41, 19n.). He confesses that he wants to visit Newman ‘not of course to argue, but merely to be in the presence of that divine man’ (Wilde 2000, 41). Wilde himself provides a practical reason for his non-conversion—his father would financially disown him if he converted: ‘I have suffered very much for my Roman fever in mind and pocket and happiness’ (the emphasis is Wilde’s. Wilde 2000, 57; see also Wilde 2000, 54 and Ellmann 32, 52). However, we might also see in Wilde’s actions the influence of the distinction between Greek and Roman paganism placed in Wilde’s mind by Mahaffy. Wilde’s Oxford career singled him out as a distinguished Hellenist. It is better, thought Wilde perhaps, to stay as a Protestant and a Classical Greek scholar, than a Roman Catholic faced with the worst parts of Roman pagan and Christian culture.

The Road to Rome

13We can see fully the impression that these early encounters with paganism and Catholicism left on Wilde when we consider his process of self-contemplation and self-reflection following his release from prison. Preoccupying Wilde at this time, other than money, was the part of his life that led up to his arrest and conviction, the part that in April 1897 he described as his ‘Neronian hours’: ‘For yourself, dear sweet Robbie, I am haunted by the idea that many of those who love you will and do think it selfish of me to allow you and wish you to be with me from time to time. They might see the difference between your going about with me in my days of gilded infamy—my Neronian hours, rich, profligate, cynical, materialistic—and your coming to comfort me, a lonely dishonest man, in disgrace and obscurity and poverty’ (Wilde 2000, 858). This ‘Neronian’ time, above all, was time that Wilde spent with Lord Alfred Douglas against (what he can in Berneval see as) his better judgement, in a relationship that he now recognises as inherently destructive. He explains to Alfred Douglas in De Profundis:

  • 10 De Profundis was first published by Robert Ross in 1905 without the parts that referred to the Quee (...)

You admired my work when it was finished: you enjoyed the brilliant successes of my first nights, and the brilliant banquets that followed them: you were proud, and quite naturally so, of being the intimate friend of an artist so distinguished: but you could not understand the conditions requisite for the production of artistic work. I am not speaking in phrases of rhetorical exaggeration but in terms of absolute truth to actual fact when I remind you that during the whole time we were together I never wrote one single line. Whether at Torquay, Goring, London, Florence or elsewhere, my life, as long as you were by my side, was entirely sterile and uncreative. And with but few intervals you were, I regret to say, by my side always.10 (Wilde 2000, 685)

14Wilde’s ‘Neronian hours’ are not full of the heady pleasure and idealised decadence that Verlaine or Huysmans describe, but are instead, in Wilde’s eyes at least, characterised by decline in artistic productivity. Wilde tells the Governor of Reading Gaol, Major J. O. Nelson, in May 1897: ‘I am horribly ashamed of the materialism of the life that brought me here. It is quite unworthy of an artist’ (Wilde 2000, 863). Instead of providing inspiration for a life of artistic freedom, Wilde’s ‘Neronian hours’ in the 1890s inhibit his art, as what he retrospectively perceives as decline overpowers him.

15Moreover, the adjectives ‘cynical’, ‘profligate’ and ‘materialistic’ remind us of the scenarios that Wilde had used before to invoke the damage that a misreading of Roman decadence can bring. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, the protagonist’s obsession with ancient Rome and the practice of Catholicism is characterised in a materialistic fashion. Chapter 11 draws out some of the central themes on the nature of the body through the protagonist’s encounters with the Catholic Church, which appear alongside descriptions of his yearnings for the decadence of the Roman Empire. Wilde is careful to emphasise Dorian’s yearnings for objects, which in a Catholic context mean the material of the vestments and the physical body of Christ (see Wilde 2003, 105; Roden 144f). Dorian’s materialism is demonstrative of his inability to transcend the bounds of his physical body into the realms of his soul. His soul is captured in a painting, and therefore all that he can identify with are the physical aspects of what he desires, the priest in his ‘stiff flowered vestment’, the ‘bread of angels’, and the ‘grave boys’; these are the aspects of his flirtation with Catholicism that provoked his ‘fascination’ (Wilde 2003, 101). Masurel-Murray (215) explains that there is a certain irony apparent in this scene: Wilde knows that his protagonist is providing a corrupt mouthpiece for the values that he himself is accused of holding by his critics. To the editor of the Scots Observer, Wilde writes: ‘Your critic then, sir, commits the absolutely unpardonable crime of trying to confuse the artist with his subject-matter. For this, sir, there is no excuse at all.’ (Wilde 2000, 439, see also Mason, Art and Morality).

16This part of Dorian’s experience in life is back-lit by Henry Wotton’s preaching on new Hedonism that prioritises the scientific and intellectual over the ‘passionate experience’ of the soul (Wilde 2003, 99; see also 28-9). However, as Willoughby points out, ‘the variant of “hedonism” Lord Henry proposes to Dorian is one that he himself does not care to follow’ (Willoughby 67, see also 74). Only Dorian professes his wish to return to the times of the lower Roman Empire and, in the chapter where Wilde deals with Dorian’s material religiosity, we also encounter Nero. Under the probable inspiration of Huysmans’s À rebours, Dorian ‘found, indeed, a subtle pleasure in the thought that he may really become to the London of his own day what to imperial Neronian Rome the author of the Satyricon [Petronius] once had been, yet in his innermost heart he desired to be something more than a mere arbiter elegantiarum’ (Wilde 2003, 99). Dorian confesses to desiring an even more sensuous experience than was had by Petronius, who was notorious for being an amoral product of the Neronian age (Tacitus Annals 16.18). However, the soulless Dorian does not experience life as others do, and, significantly, it is this tainted character that invokes the young despotic rulers of Rome and can only appreciate the ritual of Catholicism in terms of its vestments and objects. This is the sort of ‘cynical’ and ‘profligate’ materialism that Wilde appeals to when discussing his ‘Neronian hours’—one that is simultaneously tied to the decadence of pagan Rome and the decadent ritual of Roman Catholicism, and expressed through the unnatural, soulless desires of Dorian Gray.

17When Wilde is released from prison, Neronian decadence encapsulates for him the materiality of Roman paganism and Catholicism. In Berneval, he rejects the decadent aspects of both of these ‘religions’ in order to follow the new chosen model for his life. This includes rejecting the traditional symbols of classical paganism as, at this point, they threaten the purity of his Catholicism. The result is his adoption of an un-decadent (and un-Bennett-like) Catholicism. We see the manifestation of this in his proceeding letters:

I am going tomorrow on a pilgrimage. I always wanted to be a pilgrim, and I have decided to start early tomorrow to the shrine of Notre Dame de Liesse . . . Yesterday I attended Mass at ten o’clock and afterwards bathed. So I went into the water without being a Pagan. The consequence was that I was not tempted by either Sirens, or Mermaidens, or any of the green-haired following of Glaucus. I really think that this is a remarkable thing. In my pagan days the sea was always full of tritons blowing conches, and other unpleasant things. Now it is quite different. (Wilde 2000, 865)

18While Wilde himself confesses that his ‘pilgrimage’ constituted of walking 12 minutes from his hotel to the chapel of Notre Dame de Liesse and back, this does not, I suggest, negate Wilde’s attempt to rehabilitate and release himself spiritually from the lifestyle that led to his incarceration by leaving behind ‘unpleasant’ pagan ‘things’ and turning his full attention to worthier—if not entirely strenuous—pursuits. Wilde encourages Ross to write to him about religion, and is dismayed that his friend is not always forthcoming in his replies: ‘You conceal your religion from me in a monstrous way’ (Wilde 2000, 866). The change in Wilde is further underlined, perhaps unsurprisingly given the subtext of ‘Neronian hours’, by the outright rejection of a symbol of Neronian Rome in a following letter. Wilde tells Selwyn Image that Sporus (the castrated freedman and ‘wife’ of Nero, see Suetonius Nero 28) is as wicked as the notoriously immoral wife of Nero’s predecessor Claudius, Messalina, because they are both guilty of succumbing to ‘sensual pleasures that wreck the soul’ (Wilde 2000, 879). Neronian Rome can represent (if Wilde so chooses) paganism at its worst. The young Nero (17 years old upon his accession) is arguably the most infamous of all the Roman emperors as it was by his order that Christians were first persecuted in the Roman Empire in AD 64/5 (Tacitus Annals 15.44). Nero, in the early Christian tradition in which he was also an Antichrist, wilfully rejected Christianity because of his veneration of the pagan gods (see, for example, Lactantius On the Deaths of the Persecutors 2.6; Ambrosiaster Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 2.7). By invoking a figure from Nero’s reign, Wilde’s rejection of Roman paganism and decadence is complete; Wilde has thrown out both, in an attempt to disassociate his own religiosity from these concepts entirely and forge a new ‘pure’ life for himself in Berneval. At this time we see Wilde retreat into this life and convey an almost child-like vulnerability—he is scared to go somewhere as big and bright as Paris. He tells Ross that Berneval is ‘simple and healthy’. He goes on, ‘I am frightened of Paris. I want to live here’ (Wilde 2000, 869, see also 889, 895). Whether this fear is an exaggeration or not, Wilde seems, temporarily at least, to be attracted by the remedies that a frugal life, with regular attendance at Mass on Sundays, could offer.

19However, Wilde’s out-and-out rejection of classical paganism and decadence does not, arguably because it cannot, go on. We can gather from his body of work and his degrees in Classics at Trinity College Dublin and at Oxford that Wilde’s intellectual, philosophical and theological connection with classical literature and society would make it impossible for him to walk away from their example permanently (see Wilde’s Oxford notebooks published by Smith and Helfand 1989). Thus, in September of 1897, three months after his rejection of Sporus and his pledge to remain in Berneval, the writer professes that now he ‘simply cannot stand Berneval’, and tells Robert Ross ‘I was so bored’ (Wilde 2000, 934). The pendulum has swung back the other way. Wilde leaves for Naples, and we do not hear anything about church visits either while he resides there with Alfred Douglas, or in the period after that during which he resides in Paris. Although I would not go so far as to say that Wilde stopped thinking about his religion in any meaningful sense, as it is clear that he did not ever stop thinking about paganism and antiquity (even if his thoughts were of rejection), the two could not co-exist with equal importance in Wilde’s life at the same time. We see this in two letters to Ross from Paris, his next stop after Naples, in which icons of Roman paganism and Roman decadence take precedence.

  • 11 Antinous, unlike Elagabalus (see above, n.1), was not an emperor but the companion of the second-ce (...)

20In February 1898, Wilde criticises those who object to his choice to live with Douglas in the style of the young and notoriously decadent emperor Elagabalus (here mentioned by his alternative name Heliogabalus) during the day, and the emperor Hadrian’s young lover, and defied demi-god, Antinous at night: ‘Who are the people who object to my having been with Bosie at Naples, and spent my days with Heliogabalus, and my nights with Antinous? I mean are they people who were ever my friends?’ (emphases are Wilde’s, 2000, 1022).11 These are ‘Neronian hours’ to the extreme; the figures are later, younger and even more decadent than before (recall the earlier discussion of Nordau’s objections to Late Latin and Huysmans’s decadent veneration of it). Moreover, while Elagabalus and Antinous are both renowned as freely homosexual figures from the Roman past, they are also important in terms of their religious significance. Elagabalus deposed Jupiter from the head of the Roman pantheon and replaced him with the solar deity Sol Invictus Elagabal, of whom Elagabalus had been a priest in Emesa, Syria (Scriptores Historiae Augustae Heliog. 1.5-7). Wilde’s knowledge of Elagabalus’ religious position is clear as he commonly refers to the young emperor as the ‘Priest of the Sun’, as opposed to his customary name (Wilde 2000, 742, see also Wilde 2003, 109). Owing to his veneration of an eastern solar deity above Jupiter, in the historical tradition Elagabalus is most infamous for his crimes against religion. In addition to ‘orientalising’ Roman religion, he is accused of marrying a Vestal Virgin, attempting to extinguish the fire of Vesta, and performing human sacrifice (SHA Heliog. 6-7). By mentioning Elagabalus, Wilde not only appeals to the freedom of ancient sexuality, but also to a figure who, according to the historical tradition, dared to threaten the gods of the Roman pantheon themselves.

  • 12 John Addington Symonds’s homoerotic text ‘Antinous’ (1879) , with which Wilde is likely to have bee (...)
  • 13 Augustus witnessed the spirit of Julius Caesar ascend in the form of a star and declared that this (...)
  • 14 In several letters, Wilde tells his friends that his reunion with Bosie was inevitable, Wilde 2000, (...)

21Although not a threat like Elagabalus, the religious significance of Antinous is also, I suggest, too pronounced not to have been in Wilde’s mind when invoking his name. Such was the extent of Hadrian’s love for Antinous (whose death may have been the result of a prophecy that demanded a voluntary sacrifice in order that Hadrian might live, Cassius Dio 69.11.2-3; SHA Had. 14.6), that Hadrian established a cult for the young boy in the eastern empire upon his death in the River Nile.12 Hadrian built a city on the spot at which Antinous died (on the east bank of the Nile), and named it Antinopolis. The emperor then set up sacred images of him and declared that he had seen the spirit of Antinous rise up like a star, a sign of deification in the Roman world (Cassius Dio 69.11).13 The homosexual freedom that Antinous represents through his relationship with Hadrian is profoundly connected with the pagan cult that the emperor founds for his young dead lover. By referring to Antinous and Elagabalus, Wilde finds figures from antiquity that can represent the true nature, as he sees it, of his relationship with Douglas. Their reunion in Naples reminded Wilde of the intensity of his love and adoration for Bosie,14 a love which could rival Hadrian’s for the deified Antinous or Elagabalus’ for Elagabal. Wilde worships an almost divine Douglas; he explains again and again, ‘He [Bosie] is a most delicate and exquisite poet, besides—far the finest of all the young poets in England . . . He is witty, graceful, lovely to look at, loveable to be with. He has also ruined my life, so I can’t help loving him—it is the only thing to do’ (Wilde 2000, 952).

22After he parts from Douglas in Naples, Wilde’s life in Paris is not as extravagant as the one he had led with his companion (Wilde tells More Adey: ‘The intellectual atmosphere of Paris has done me good, and now I have ideas, not merely passions. Naples was fatal.’ Wilde 2000, 1023). However, Wilde still does not seem to be visiting churches, and does not debate (or request debates about) Catholicism with Ross. He describes a typical day in his Parisian life to Ross, but religion is absent: ‘Also my dear Robbie, do not listen to stories about my being expelled from Paris; they are childish. I live an ordinary life. I go to cafés like Pousset’s where I meet artists and writers. I don’t frequent places like the Café de la Paix. I dine in modest restaurants for two or three francs. My life is rather dull. I cannot flaunt or dash about: I have got no money, nor the clothes’ (Wilde 2000, 1072). Wilde’s language here is telling: it is not that he does not want to ‘flaunt or dash about’; it is simply that he ‘cannot’ because of financial constraints. Despite his comment to Adey that ‘Naples was fatal’, it seems as though we could be forgiven for thinking that if Wilde could afford to live in Paris as he had in Naples, he would. And, in fact, when Wilde does get some money, a sign of decadent paganism in the form of Neronian Rome returns: ‘I went to Cannes to see the Bataille des Fleurs. The loveliest carriage—all yellow roses, the horses with traces and harness of violets—was occupied by an evil-looking English man: on the box, beside the coachman, sat his valet, a very handsome boy, all wreathed with flowers. I murmured “Imperial Neronian Rome”’ (Wilde 2000, 1121).

  • 15 Wilde invokes here the Tannhäuser legend, in which Pope Urban IV tells the knight and poet Tannhäus (...)

23Nonetheless, Wilde cannot live for long without talking about his Christianity any more than he could without indulging his paganism in Berneval. As Heliogabalus and Antinous were invoked in Naples after the piety of Berneval, in 1900 Wilde’s fascination with the Pope resurfaces. Up until this point, since Wilde’s release from prison, one of either paganism or Christianity had always overpowered the other. Almost as soon as Robbie Ross mentions that he is going to Rome, religion enters Wilde’s mind once again (Wilde 2000, 1175). In a significantly different style of letter from the one in which he had professed his wish to live a quiet and pious life in Berneval, Wilde confesses to Ross ‘I really must become a Catholic’ (Wilde 2000, 1177). Now, Wilde is playful as he contemplates Rome, positing the idea that the Pope’s ‘blossoming rod’ (i.e. the papal ferula) will turn into an umbrella in his (unworthy) presence.15 The aid of the papal shepherd in tending to his pious flock turns into a prosaic, everyday object in Wilde’s presence—it is no longer a symbol of protection against sin, but now protection against rain, or so he muses. This playful tone signals the beginning of Wilde’s attempt to reconcile the pagan, the Christian and the decadent under one ‘umbrella’.

At Rome

24On his journey from Paris to Rome, Wilde tells Robbie Ross of his stopover in Palermo and his encounter with a fifteen-year old boy, Giuseppe Loverde. As well as admiring the porphyry sarcophagus of Fredrick the Second in the Cathedral of Palermo, Wilde also describes how he ‘gave him [Giuseppe] many lire, and prophesied for him a Cardinal’s hat, if he remained very good, and never forgot me. He said he never would: and indeed I don’t think he will, for every day I kissed him behind the high altar’ (Wilde 2000, 1179). While returning to churches, Wilde’s experience there is not focused on the spirituality of religion, but the material decadence of the sarcophagus and the beauty of the young boy. Just a month later, Wilde tells Robbie Ross of another young boy, Dario, with whom he goes to see the Pope. Unlike in Palermo, Wilde will not let Dario kiss him out of doors; he tells Ross, ‘I have become cruel to boys, and no longer let them kiss me in public’ (Wilde 2000, 1186). Wilde does not deny himself such pleasures, but instead decides to affect a form of separation between the decadent space in which he kisses, and the spiritual space in which he does not.

25In Rome, owing to the city’s unique ability to allow Roman pagan and Roman Catholic traditions to co-exist in a single space, Wilde can find a balance between paganism, Catholicism and decadence that allows him to reconcile the pre- and post-prison parts of his life. In other words, Wilde is able to appreciate the spiritual and ‘serious’ sides of Catholicism and paganism whilst also finding pleasure in their materiality. On the one hand, Wilde tells his friends in letters written from April to May 1900 that he can ‘do nothing but see the Pope: I have already been blessed many times, once in the private Chapel of the Vatican’ (Wilde 2000, 1184). On the other hand, Wilde writes a great deal to Robert Ross about the way in which the Pope looks and dresses (Wilde 2000, 1186), suggesting that the material side of Catholicism is not absent from the writer’s experiences in Rome, but that it does not come at the expense of spirituality, as it had in Palermo.

26In Rome, Wilde also ‘bade goodbye, with tears and one kiss, to the beautiful Greek boy who was found in my garden—I mean in Nero’s garden’ (Wilde 2000, 1187). This boy could be one of several companions that Wilde mentions in his Rome letters, including Armando, ‘a very smart elegant young Roman Sporus’ (Wilde 2000, 1182). Thus, Wilde once again casts himself as the decadent artistic emperor Nero, except this time his ‘Neronian hours’ are not destructive and all-encompassing. He enjoys a young boy in his garden, but it is not the only thing he does. Instead, the mention of Nero’s garden demonstrates the progression of Wilde’s allusions to pre-Catholic Rome. In Wilde’s post-prison time of lament for his ‘Neronian hours’, Sporus is ‘vile’ and indulges in ‘sensual pleasures [that] wreck the soul’ (Wilde 2000, 879). Now Wilde can ally himself with a ‘smart, elegant’ Sporus whilst also expressing the seriousness of his Catholicism. Wilde has found his solution: to experience the pagan and the Catholic simultaneously in Rome.

27Further, the solution works so well for Wilde because paganism in Rome can be represented by a whole host of things other than Nero. Wilde’s relationship with ancient Rome (and paganism) manifests itself in other ways. Away from Nero’s gardens and the young boys within them, Wilde visits the Vatican Gallery and sees the ‘Greek gods and the Roman middle-classes’ (Wilde 2000, 1185). The writer demonstrates his respect for Rome’s history as a pagan city and its traditions by visiting its sculptures and its monuments. He writes to More Adey from Rome, ‘Sicily was beautiful: and the golden chapel at Palermo—all Byzantine mosaic—the marvel of marvels: when one was in it one felt as if one was in a precious shrine, consecrated almost in a tabernacle. Naples was evil and luxurious. Rome is the only city of the soul’ (Wilde 2000, 1185). If Sicily represents unbridled beauty and Naples represents evil luxury, then Rome represents spirituality. His relationship with ancient Rome through modern Rome is measured, and encompasses all sides of his engagement with religion without one overwhelming the other: decadent while spiritual Catholicism, and decadent while pious paganism.

28In Rome, Wilde can simultaneously play with Armando, Arnaldo, Omero, Philippo or Dario in the private Gardens of Nero, make his peace with Nero’s lover Sporus, and visit the Vatican daily to receive blessings from the Pope, even if he does not go so far as full conversion. Wilde does not entirely commit to institutional Catholicism, but neither does he ignore the pagan things that were absent from his almost baptismal bath in Berneval, which provide him with so much pleasure. Thus, the unique place of Rome as pagan and Christian capital allows Wilde first to negotiate and then to reconcile his impulse to turn to religion following his release from prison with his decadence, his materialism, his paganism and his Romanness. Through his visit to Rome, Wilde can adopt or reject aspects of these concepts in order to create a personal religiosity that can be termed distinctly Wildean.

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1 See, for example, Verlaine in Gilman 5–6 and Moore 125.

2 Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus, was a third-century emperor infamous in the ancient sources for his sexual immorality, wild parties and cruelty, owing in no small part to his age—he was only 14 upon his accession to the principate and 18 at the time of his death (see, for example, SHA Heliog. 1.1-2, Cassius Dio 80.11-12, and Icks 2011).

3 Wilde himself collected Solomon’s works, see Wilde 2000, 713, and corresponded, in 1881, with Alma-Tadema, see Wilde 2000, 105.

4 See also Icks 158, 162; Prettejohn 168.

5 At this point, Nordau is talking about Gautier, Baudelaire and Huysmans, but he later goes on to describe Wilde as ‘the chief’ of the decadents in England (317).

6 See Masurel-Murray 184–205.

7 For example, in the fourth century, Bishop Marcus built a basilica in Rome in or near the area that stretched from the Capitol to the Circus Flaminius, as Curran puts it, ‘so close to the “pagan monumental heart” of the city’ (Curran 119).

8 See, for example, Irish Popular Superstitions 38, in which W. Wilde discusses the appropriation of a May festival to the pagan Sun god Beal by Christian missionaries; see also Killeen 19.

9 See the book, Catholic Orthodoxy and Anglo-Catholicism, published in 1866 by Julian Joseph Overbeck for an example of the distinctions drawn between what he terms as ‘Romish’ Catholicism and the truth-preserving Orthodox Church. Overbeck had himself been a Roman Catholic priest in Germany, before he became disillusioned with the Catholic Church, moved to England (1857) and eventually converted to the Orthodox Church (1864).

10 De Profundis was first published by Robert Ross in 1905 without the parts that referred to the Queensbury family. The manuscript was donated to the British Museum and made public in 1960.

11 Antinous, unlike Elagabalus (see above, n.1), was not an emperor but the companion of the second-century emperor Hadrian from the age of c.14 until his death at c.20 (see SHA Had. 14.5-7).

12 John Addington Symonds’s homoerotic text ‘Antinous’ (1879) , with which Wilde is likely to have been familiar given his interest in Symonds’s work (see Nisbet 2013), discusses in detail the subject of Antinous’ death, deification and cult, and introduces Hadrian’s companion as ‘of decadent Paganism’ (Symonds 47).

13 Augustus witnessed the spirit of Julius Caesar ascend in the form of a star and declared that this signified his deification, thus establishing the precedent for later emperors; Suetonius Divus Julius 88.

14 In several letters, Wilde tells his friends that his reunion with Bosie was inevitable, Wilde 2000, 942, 948, 950, 952.

15 Wilde invokes here the Tannhäuser legend, in which Pope Urban IV tells the knight and poet Tannhäuser that his sins are as likely to be absolved as the Pope’s papal staff is to blossom. Tannhäuser sinned by living in a hollow mountain with the goddess Venus for a year as her companion. Three days after Tannhäuser left Pope Urban, the staff blossomed, but the poet could not be found.

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Shushma Malik, « All Roads Lead to Rome?: Decadence, Paganism, Catholicism and the Later Life of Oscar Wilde »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 80 Automne | 2014, mis en ligne le 22 janvier 2015, consulté le 04 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Shushma Malik

Shushma Malik currently lectures in Roman History at the University of Manchester. She was awarded her PhD in Classics by the University of Bristol in 2013. Her doctoral thesis examined the conception and reception of the Emperor Nero’s association with the Antichrist in late antiquity and the nineteenth century. Her research interests continue to include the appropriation of ancient characters and themes in nineteenth-century history and literature, and how the classical tradition has influenced the modern understanding of the ancient world.

Shushma Malik enseigne l’histoire romaine à l’université de Manchester. Sa thèse de doctorat, soutenue à l’université de Bristol en 2013, étudiait la façon dont l’empereur Néron a été associé à la figure de l’Antéchrist à la fin de l’Antiquité et au xixe siècle. Ses recherches actuelles portent sur la récupération de personnages et de thèmes issus de l’Antiquité par dans le discours historique et la littérature du xixe siècle, et sur la réception de l’Antiquité gréco-romaine.

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