PAGAN (Lat. paganus, of or belonging to a pagiis, a canton, county district, village, commune), a heathen, one who worships a god of nature, or one who belongs to a race or nation which practises idolatrous rites and professes polytheism. In its early application paganus was applied by the Christian Church to those who refused to believe in the one true God, and still followed the Greek, Roman and other ancient faiths. It thus of course excluded Jews. In the middle ages, at the time of the crusades and later, "pagan" and "paynim" (O. Fr. paenime, Late Lat. paganismus, heathenism or heathen lands) were particularly applied to Mahommedans, and sometimes to Jews. A special significance attaches to the word when applied to one who adopts that attitude of cultured indifference to, or negation of, the various theistic systems of religion which was taken by so many of the educated and aristocratic classes in the ancient Hellenic and Roman world.
It has long been accepted that the application of the name pagaims, villager, to non-Christians was due to the fact that it was in the rural districts that the old faiths lingered. This explanation assumes that the use of paganus in this sense arose after the establishment of Christianity as the religion generally accepted in the urban as opposed to the rural districts, and it is usually stated that an edict of the emperor Valentinian of 368 dealing with the religio paganorum (Cod. Thcod. xvi. 2) contains the first documentary use of the word in this secondary sense. It has now been shown that the use can be traced much earUer. TertulKan (c. 202; De corona militis, xi.), says " Apiid hunc (Christum) tam miles est paganus fidehs quam paganus est miles infideUs." This gives the clue to the true explanation. In classical Latin paganus is frequently found in contradistinction to miles or armatus (cf. especiaDy Tac. Hist. i. 53; ii. 14, 88; iii. 24, 43, 77), where the opposition is between a regular enrolled soldier and the raw half-armed rustics who sometimes formed a rude militia in Roman wars, or, more widely, between a soldier and a civilian. Thus the Christians who prided themselves on being " soldiers of Christ " (milites) could rightly term the non-Christians pagani. See also Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (ed. Bury, 1896), ch. xxi. note ad fin.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)