The First Great Culture War
Tensions with conservatives had been building for decades, but the 60s were the real turning point. That was when middle and upper-class teenagers began rejecting the future set out by their parents to become doctors and lawyers in favour of the ideas and lifestyle of a subversive underground movement. Rejecting materialism, they set off to live in religious communes in the desert or up in the mountains, and when they returned years later, their heads were filled with big ideas about fairness, equality and a new vision for the world. Their parents thought their ideas were dumb and just wanted them to get a job.
Many did embark on careers, only ones completely at odds with the values of the older generation. Starting as lobbyists, consultants and advisers they increasingly came to hold real power and began to freeze out those who did not share their ideas. By the 90s, this youthful movement of outsiders had become grown-up insiders, holding positions in the city that commanded big salaries. Over time the cosmopolitan ruling class was completely consumed, and the movement set out to irreversibly change society — for the better, in their eyes — by enacting laws to eliminate old thinking and practices they deemed toxic and harmful. A largely urban movement, they saw the beliefs of those in the country as repulsive and backwards, a hostility that often flared into civil unrest, cultural vandalism and occasionally urban warfare. As time wore on their victory became total, and the traditions, values and beliefs of their parents were consigned to history. In a bitter twist, the world they build was not an equal one, but another type of steeply hierarchical power structure.
This was not the US Pacific Coast of the 1960s, but the Roman-occupied Mediterranean of the 360s, a time in which the cultural tide changed and the once-persecuted Christian subculture seised the reigns of the Roman Empire. What started with the faith of a single Emperor in the early fourth century came to consume the entire state bureaucracy from top to bottom by the fifth. More than this, these events altered the cosmological and social dynamics of the West and set in motion a cultural dynamo that was to characterise its evolution down to the present day. This is the story of how it happened.
- Pax Romana
The cultural fabric of the Roman Empire in the days before Christianity.
- A rupture in time
The cosmological innovations of apocalyptic cults in Judea around the time of Christ.
- Religion of the network
Christianity spreads through the road and postal networks of Rome.
How “love of the poor” became an evangelical social cause that consumed the minds of the mobile middle and upper class.
- Toxic paganism
A new generation of Christian Emperors wage cultural total war, to try to legislate “paganism” out of existence.
- Cultural revolution
The culture war turns violent as pagan temples are looted by mobs.
- Seizing the means of reproduction
How Christianity became the cultural and intellectual filter of antiquity.
- Twilight of the gods
What became of the traditional religions of the Empire.
The sacred fire of Vesta had burned for almost a thousand years; from a time when Rome was an obscure village on the Tiber, to its zenith as the capital of a superpower in the third century. It was believed that if the fire was ever was ever extinguished, the arcane rituals botched, or the virginal purity of its priestesses ever compromised, it would spell disaster for the city and the state. It was also the public manifestation of the most numinous form of worship in the ancient Roman world; the family. For at the heart of every home sat a flame that was the heart of their own ancestral cult, a deeply private form of worship which Vesta drew into the public gaze with her annual public festivals. To the heads of each Roman household it was thought if the family flame ever perished, so would the family itself, and as such its maintenance was the central focus of their activities and ambitions, and had been — as far as they were concerned — since the dawn of time.
How long these fires were actually nurtured will forever be unknown. Today, from the perspective of the far future of ancient Rome, we think that our earliest prehuman ancestors carried around flames captured from bushfires or lightning strikes in bundles of moss long before we could even create it; perhaps half a million years ago. If these carefully tended fires were ever to be extinguished then the group also lost the ability to cook food or create campfires, and there was a very real chance the family would perish in a very literal sense. Even if it is unlikely that these elite families had tended exact same fire since prehistory, they nurtured sacred ideas perhaps older than humanity itself. But soon, these fires would be extinguished forever.
Vesta was just one cult in the colourful tapestry of deities in polytheistic Rome whose existences were woven into the lives of its inhabitants in rolling landscapes of shrines, groves and temples. Historian Edward G.Watts speaks of the;
“Vast sacred infrastructure that had been built up over the past three millennia. The size, age, and pervasiveness of this infrastructure likely would have made it difficult for anyone to appreciate fully all of the ways in which traditional religious practice influences the rhythms of public, domestic and family life.”
Some of the Roman Gods had Etruscan origin, such as Janus, the god of transitions, Minerva, goddess of handicrafts, and Mars, the god of war. Some shared deep cultural genealogy with the Greek deities. Vulcan, the god of technology seemingly had the same cultural roots as his Greek counterpart, Hephaestus. Mercury, the god of commerce shared origins with his Greek equivalent Hermes, and so on. Some gods faded into obscurity as the elites drifted from their agricultural roots, such as Vervactor, god of “turning over uncultivated land” and “Imporcitor”, god of “ploughing with wide furrows”. Later in the Republican period, some represented more abstract concepts or qualities, such as the goddess “Victory” and Elpis, goddess of “Hope”.
As the Republic became an Empire and was exposed through conquest to new cultures across Europe, North Africa and Mesopotamia, new sects were folded — mostly peacefully — into the Roman pantheon. This was often achieved by retconning their own overarching mythic system to present new additions as revivals of lost traditions. At times of social anxiety, there were spasms of persecution and scapegoating, notably of the transgressive, foreign “youth-culture” cult of Dionysius during the Punic War. Overall though, the Roman Empire was tolerant of different sects, proud, even, of the rich tapestry of beliefs woven over the 6.5 million square kilometres of Pax Romana where — it was presumed — local cultures could thrive in the absence of warlords and banditry. The price the ruled paid for this — other than taxes — was deference to the Roman way of life and its paideia; the systems of law and education that they thought alone could save humanity from brutalism and savagery.
But things are never simple. And Rome’s very success in maintaining peace within its borders came to undermine this key selling point of stability. Because for many young people growing up in the Empire peace meant escape from the shackles of rural life and the weight of family expectations. This mobility from the provinces to the city led to a growing cosmopolitan class who were thrown around the empire by chance, adventure and fate, and whose native culture gradually faded into memory. Classicist Peter Brown writes that it meant;
“wider horizons and unprecedented opportunities for travel; it meant the erosion of local differences through trade and emigration, and the weakening of ancient barriers before new wealth and new criteria of status. Imperceptibly, the Roman empire dissolved in the lower classes that sense of tradition and local loyalties on which the upper class depended.”
Rome didn’t just upset traditionalist parents whose children took to backpacking or fame-seeking in the cities, it was resented in much more explicit form as naked imperial domination. Having been subject to rule by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and Greeks for centuries, and recognising only their own god, Judean traditionalists were perennially rebellious. During the period of Greek dominance in 160 BCE there was a guerrilla war against the Hellenes triggered by a refusal to worship their gods. The “Maccabean revolt” was a success, resulting in compromise with the authorities, but even this did not satisfy the most pious of orthodox Jews who saw the victorious Hasmonean dynasty as sellouts. Seemingly traumatised by the eight centuries of oppression and the political chaos they saw around them they believed that the world itself was about to end. And that from this cataclysm their God would destroy their enemies and established a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth; an eternal theocracy. This community, the Essenes, practiced an austere form of religious communism of which the historian Josephus later wrote highly;
“Riches they despise, and their community of goods is truly admirable; you will not find one among them distinguished by greater opulence than another. They have a law that new members on admission to the sect shall confiscate their property to the order, with the result that you will nowhere see either abject poverty or inordinate wealth; the individual’s possessions join the common stock.”
While moderately successful for a time — reaching numbers of about 4000 — being all-male presented certain difficulties when it came to propagating itself, especially when the end-times stubbornly failed to materialise. This resulted in a tense relationship to women, and to keep their community alive they adopted orphan boys and indulged in sexual liaisons with women only if absolutely necessary as their “wantoness” was seen as a corrupting force. The Essenes may have become just another obscure reclusive sect in the cosmopolitan fabric of Rome had their central beliefs not been shared by a growing number of others in the region. This revelation (in Greek, apocalypsis) eventually came to be a widespread belief in the sects of the Near East and North Africa. Although it is not known for certain, it has been plausibly argued that John the Baptist was an Essene, for he shared a substantial number of their beliefs, including those the imminent end times. So too did his disciple, Jesus. Historian Bart Ehrman writes that;
“The earliest sources that we have consistently ascribe an apocalyptic message to Jesus… It appears that when the end never did arrive, Christians had to take stock of the fact that Jesus said it would and changed his message accordingly. You can hardly blame them.”
In short, the region of Judea was aglow with this apocalyptic frenzy and is perhaps something we moderns can recognise from more recent episodes of mass hysteria, such as Y2K and 2012. However in the classical world, the notion that the world could “end” for all eternity was revolutionary. And it was to go from obscure theological detail of Near Eastern cults to an idea that would come to channel the intellectual evolution of the West for the next two thousand years.
A rupture in time
In the cosmologies of archaic societies, time was not thought to only run in one direction. Rituals that invoked stories of the dawn of time were thought to literally reenact these events to draw on their sacred energy. It was thought by narrating the mythical origins of the cosmos all the way down to a place or an animal, it was possible to attain power over it. And while this was true for archaic communities in a mythic sense, it was also true in a practical one. Because while the stories were fantastical they were also the containers of very much practical information about how to find and exploit resources and thus survive in a given environment.
While the time of sacred origins was invoked to “remake” the world in archaic cultures, notions the “end” of the world were often absent, perhaps because notions of time itself were still vague. Later civilisations; Mesopotamia, India China, and the classical world all retained sacred creation myths, with the added innovation that time was cyclical; that a vanished golden age would come again after a great catastrophe; a cosmological innovation that emerged seemingly in parallel with the invention of the agricultural information technology of the calendar. Influenced by this, the cosmos was seen to repeat over and over again, for eternity. For the Aztecs, it was the concept of “Suns” that would end variously by fire or flood only to give birth to the world anew. In India it was “Yugas” of immense length, that ended in the cosmic dance of Shiva who would destroy the universe, only for it to be reborn. These disasters would be inflexion points; both the beginning and the end of the world — a cataclysm that would give rise to a new Golden Age that would decay as the cycle continued again. Christianity represented a rupture with this concept of time; there would still be a catastrophe at the end of the world, but now the new world that emerged at the end would continue for all eternity. As Mircea Eliade describes in Myth and Reality;
“The end of the world will occur only once, just as the cosmogony occurred only once. The cosmos that will appear after the catastrophe will be the same cosmos God created at the beginning of Time, but purified, regenerated, restored to its original glory. This Earthly Paradise will not be destroyed again, will have no end. Time is no longer the circular Time of the Eternal Return; it has become a linear and irreversible Time. Nor is this all: the eschatology also represents the triumph of a Sacred History. For the End of the World will reveal the religions value of human acts, and men will be judged on their acts.”
If Jesus were just one of a plethora of would-be Jewish apocalyptic preachers in ancient Juedea, what explains the appeal of his message in the rest of the Roman Empire? Recall the centrality of the ancestral alters tended by Roman families that were the centre of their spiritual world. By the Imperial period in the first and second centuries, this was largely the preserve of the Roman elites. Many of the lower classes did not have them, neither did slaves or their freeman descendants, or for that matter many of its conquered peoples whose cultural traditions were being slowly eroded by the imperial system. The new mobile cosmopolitan class of merchants and career-seekers too felt a growing spiritual vacuum as their roots gradually withered and their identities themselves became more and more of a phantom.
The new gospels as recounted by Paul were a radical departure from both the family cults and the of the worship pagan gods, including the cult of the Emperor. Previously it was assumed inequality was inevitable and natural; something that humans just had to live with and work around. With Christianity came class and gender agnostic moral equality and a melting away of caste and ethnic distinctions; “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Jesus Christ.” At the same time, it opened the door to individual relationships with the divine that bypassed the need for any hierarchy or family bonds and placed emphasis on the will of the individual and their deeds. For a generation adrift and lost, either through agency or economics, Christianity offered a new type of fraternity and a new vision of eternity. Historian Larry Siedentop writes that;
“Now, through the story of Jesus, individual moral agency was raised up as providing a unique window into the nature of things, into the experience grace rather than necessity, a glimpse of something transcending death. The individual replaced the family as the focus of immortality.”
Rejecting hierarchy, the appeal of Early Christianity was of extreme equality derived from communistic sects like the Essenes, although for the time stripped of its more misogynistic elements. Unlike the priestesses of Vesta who were chosen randomly to serve for 30 year periods by drawing lots (and faced being buried alive if they ever took a lover), women from any strata of society could become Christian by their own free will and to do so was seen as a form of empowerment. This is supported by the first historical reference to Christianity in the Roman record, which was a mail exchange between Emperor Trajan and Pliny the Younger, who had been tasked with cleaning up the province of Pontus. In Pliny’s correspondence, he casually refers to the torture of two Christians, slave women “who they call deaconesses”. He concluded that it was “nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.” What exactly Pliny mean by “extravagant lengths?”
Descended from these apocalyptic, communistic cults, the early Christians were radical in their rejection of just about anything that did not fit into their vision of the world. What most wound-up the Romans was a contempt for the law and a refusal to acknowledge their gods and offer sacrifices to them. What’s so difficult? The Romans fumed. Such eccentricities made Christianity seem alien even by the standards of classical cults, so much so that they were referred to as “atheists”. It seemed perverse the way they turned poverty into a virtue and vilified wealth. The supposed pacifism of the Christians and their refusal of military service was a cause of much annoyance, as was their obstinate desire to martyr themselves at all costs.
Martyrdom was an outcome of the fetishisation of Christ’s suffering and led to a knack of escalating every brush with the law into a drama that may end in their torture or death. Some magistrates were frustrated during trials in which the defendant would answer every question with the phrase “I am a Christian” thus leading courtroom deliberations down a one-way path. What was most infuriating to the Romans was the explosion in popularity of this weird subculture with its “suicide by cop” mentality. Rumours abound. Why did they call each other “brother” and “sister” while holding hands? Were they incestuous? There were even rumours swirling around that they worshipped a crucified donkey.
The more educated of the old-guard knew this wasn’t so, but considered their singe-minded and inflexible monotheism as crude and unsophisticated. Contrary to today’s caricatures of polytheism, they did have a notion of a “One God” but considered it too immense a concept to be captured by any one deity. Only through living in the full tapestry of its multiple incarnations could one hope to be immersed in this expansive oneness. To them, Christian dogma was just stubborn and petulant. Roman intellectual Celsus had contempt for their credulous tendency to think and talk in slogans, saying they;
“Do not want to give or to receive a reason for what they believe, and use such expressions as “Do not ask questions; just believe”, and “Thy faith will save thee”.”
Celsus saw this habit to blindly “listen and believe” to be an existential threat to Rome; an attitude of unthinkingly accepting dogma which he put down to a lack of education. In about 180 CE he wrote a new book called The True Word, which was a muscular and humorous treatise seemingly designed to outrage them and the first systematic attempt to dismantle Christian thinking. Amongst other things, he accused The Virgin Mary of having been knocked up by a Roman soldier and mocked them for having “culturally appropriated” their holy books from the Jews. As for the eschatological idea of Judgement Day, he wrote that it was so stupid that “a drunken old woman would have been ashamed to sing…it to lull a little child to sleep”. Apparently, though, Celsus and the Roman elite were missing something, for the religion continued to grow year-on-year and in both numbers and influence.
Religion of the network
While the desire for martyrdom bewildered many a Roman magistrate, from a Christian perspective it was a new, egalitarian form of heroism. While the myths of the Romans and the Greeks were of remote, semi-divine aristocrats, Christian heroism was open for anyone to participate in, no matter how humble a background. In later centuries, the stories of the “Saints” would act as both role-models and adventure stories, much as the Greco-Roman canon did. Martyrdom offered a pathway for anyone to achieve immortality with the right amount of moral fortitude. Gender, social status, or even species was no impediment (Saint Guinefort was a dog). Sidenhop says tales of the Saints;
“Combined elements from stories of Wild West, crime novels and science fiction with morality tales… they democratised the ancient cult of the hero… It did not depend on birthright, gender, bodily strength or mere cunning.”
Besides offering this equitable fast-track to immortality, the success of the Christians also relied on an innovation of information technology; the Coptic Alphabet. It was a multicultural mashup of the Egyptian demotic script, which was syllabic and required too much training for the everyday person, and the Greek alphabet, which was easy to learn but otherwise lacked important phonemes used by Egyptians. The fusion of the two, however, made an easy to learn alphabet that matched the spoken dialects of North Africa, where the Early Church thrived. Its use helped forge a collective identity and sense of solidarity amongst poor and downtrodden elements of society.
But by the second and third centuries Christianity was no longer the exclusive religion of slaves and servants. The floating class of mobile cosmopolitans were easy converts to the growing faith, as the ephemeral and impersonal nature of cities set their spiritual compasses spinning and yearning for a new identity. Almost unknowingly, Christianity became the religion of the network, spreading through the dendrites of the Cursus publicus and the stories of travelling merchants and evangelists. And over time, from this network emerged a hierarchy.
In both cities and rural backwaters from Gaul to Pontus, a newly invented caste of Christians called “Bishops” sprung up in around the middle third century and soon became part of the social fabric of the city; tying together both local and distant communities in a way the Roman state itself struggled to do. This power was maintained through activism; on a city level, Christians became a kind of emergency service, able to orchestrate food distribution and burials during plagues and natural disasters. Bishops became in effect lobbyists, who in alliance with communities of monks, wielded considerable social and political influence on a local and state level. It was an emergent, parallel power structure described by historian Hendrik Willem van Loon as a “supertheocracy”; the pragmatic outcome of the failures of the end-times to arrive.
“As soon as it became apparent that the end of the world was not at hand, that the death of Jesus was not to be followed immediately by the Last Judgement, and that Christians might expect to dwell in this vale of tears for a good long time, the need was felt for a more or less definite form of government.”
As the emergent Church gained more power and influence, so was the vilification of wealth gradually downgraded. In the late second century, Clement of Alexandria argued The Rich Man’s Salvation that, actually, wealth can be used for good or ill and was not in fact evil in and of itself. As it slowly gained material power, the socialistic origins of the faith were increasingly mythologised as something that existed amongst early Christian communities, and — importantly — ideals of extreme equality were bundled into the ambiguous “Kingdom of Heaven” in the days beyond the Second Coming. Inequality and hierarchy could be endured in the here-and-now if the payoff was just around the corner.
As Christianity spread, it coincided with a growing unease amongst devout followers of the old religion that the all-important act of sacrifice — so important to keep the gods on-side — was in decline. This was used to explain some of the poor luck that the Empire had been having around the same time. Similar anxieties gripped the regions of Greece who thought the ritual of their sacred groves and oracles — thought to have been conducted since the dawn of time — were accumulating errors through neglect, leading to natural disasters.
In the year 250 CE, the Emperor Decius demanded that citizens across the Empire perform a sacrifice to the cult of the Emperor as a sign of loyalty. The Christians refused, which was perceived as a form of sedition and as a result mobs took to the streets to persecute them. Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria went into hiding in the Libyan desert and sent out messages in the Coptic script to help consolidate and organise Christian resistance, much as the Ayatollah Khomeini would do with cassette tapes in Iran over a thousand years later.
Rome’s run of bad luck continued. A decade after the Decian persecution Valerian suffered an unfortunate historical first by becoming the first Emperor to be taken prisoner by the Persians after losing to them at the Battle of Edessa. It was said his fate was to have been enslaved and used as a human footstool before being killed and stuffed as a trophy. Baring in mind that the Romans considered the Emperor divine, these did not indicate the gods were particularly amused. By the end of the third century, a new strongman, Diocletian took the reins of the Empire in an effort to turn things around, which he did militarily in a successful campaign against the Perians which resulted in him sacking their capital Ctesiphon.
After this triumph, he gathered rounds priests of the old gods — consultants basically — with the hope of forecasting the future of his reign. Their trusted predictive technology, the haruspex, failed to yield any meaningful predictions and blame was put on the presence of Christians in the royal court. This had a knock-on effect of Diocletian demanding sacrifices be made by everyone in the army, which in practical terms meant an early retirement for Christians, followed by all those in the state bureaucracy. Surrounded by anti-Christian hardliners, such as his co-Emperor Galerius, he claimed that it was “the greatest crime to undo what has been fixed and established by antiquity”. After consulting the oracle at Delphi in 302, he decided to launch a general persecution of Christians, which resulted in Churches being destroyed and their scriptures burned. Galerius pushed for them to be burned alive, and although Diocletian forbade this, fiery death did come to some unfortunate Bishops in the East. One member of the royal household suspected of treason, Gorgonius, was slowly boiled alive. For those seeking identity in oppression and glory in martyrdom, this was their hour.
Diocletian’s edicts were enforced unevenly across the Empire but resulted in the deaths of around three thousand people. This bloody persecution, however, was to be the last. For within a few decades, a seismic shift would sharply change imperial religious policy; and a revolution would be launched against the old gods themselves.
The Great Persecution initiated by Diocletian ended in 311. The following year, the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity after seeing a glowing cross in the sky during the Battle of Milvian Bridge. By 324 he became the first Christian Emperor of a united Roman Empire. This changed everything.
Less than a tenth of the inhabitants of Rome were, in fact, Christian at that time, which meant there were over fifty million “pagans” practising what Constantine considered “the pollutions of idolatry”. Constantine saw at his religious duty to change this and enacted laws, mostly ignored at first, that forbade animal sacrifice in pagan temples, and others to ensure that “no one should erect images, or practice divination and other false and foolish arts, or offer surface in any way”. He said that the “madness of polytheism” was to be banished, and that “pretty nearly all of mankind would henceforth attach themselves to the service of God”. This, as can be imagined, shocked the old-guard.
One temple of Aphrodite — a place of sacred prostitution — was claimed to be coincidentally sitting on the spot where Christ was to be resurrected, so it was torn down and replaced with a Church. Deemed “sanctuaries of falsehood”, Eusebius claimed that Constantine began to strip the pagan temples of their statues and precious items to fund the construction of his new imperial capital, Constantinople. At the same time as the Church was given tax-free status.
His successors, the two emperors Constans and Constantius, were even more enthusiastic about suppression of the old gods. Books that criticised Christianity were banned, including the works of Celsus, almost all of which are now lost. Much of the work of the philosopher Democritis — who pioneered the theory of atomism — were also rooted out and destroyed. In 356AD, Constantius introduced the death penalty for animal sacrifice or the worship of images. While again the laws were largely ignored, the cultural momentum was gravely at odds with the old religion, which was perceived by Christian fundamentalists as malevolent sorcery. In 364 AD the two emperors Valentinian and Valens introduced laws outlawing magic rituals intended to bring harm to others; “No person during that night time should try to celebrate either wicked prayers of magic preparations or destructive sacrifices”. What was “wicked” was open to interpretation and in practical terms it would have resulted in a crackdown on pagan nighttime rituals, essentially killing them. Eventually Valentinian was talked out of imposing the law, for fear of the social unrest it would cause.
“Making it” in the preceding centuries was often down to family ties and nepotism, and the upper Senatorial class were often of Italian origin and from old and wealthy families. Reforms in the fourth century changed this, and the state began to look for new blood from across the provinces. This new system rewarded Christians; but not blindly. It included a safety mechanism in which competence was also considered an important factor (One could not be embarrassed for promoting a “brother” or “sister” that was completely hopeless at their jobs). While this Christian form of nepotism had a meritocratic streak, it still had the had the effect of gradually isolating and freezing out non-Christians from the imperial bureaucracy. Believers in the old gods that did retain their positions did not seem too concerned, or were indifferent, to the cultural changes happening around them.
The cultural tide was turning, and a key decade was the 360s with the publication of a bestseller by Athanasius of Alexandria called The Life of Saint Anthony. The book recounts an archetypical religious story of a young man in the mid-third century who flees the wealthy trappings of his Egyptian landowner family to pursue spiritual truth. Athanasius wrote that a preacher inspired the teen with the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:21.
“Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me”.
So he did exactly that. What follows was a montage scene of Anthony learning under a series of the famous Christian sages before spending 15 years living in a tomb in silent contemplation. Ultimately he founds a communistic monastery near the Red Sea where his followers live lives of austere piety. It was said that he was so ashamed of his earthly body that he blushed whenever he had to eat, but whatever he was doing seemed to aid his longevity, as he lived to the methuselan age of 105 — quite a feat for the fourth century. The Life of Saint Anthony though was more than just a biography; it was the first book to describe Christian mystical thinking in terms that resonated with Roman elites and stood on equal footing with the classical canon. It was, in other words, a rival paideia. The impact of the book was remarkable. As Edward J Watts summarises;
The first three chapters of the Life of Anthony offer an idealised blueprint for how a member of the local elite could extricate himself from personal relationships, financial obligations, and social aspirations that defined mid-fourth century elite life.
The story of Saint Anthony inspired a generation of the young Roman elites to evade the dreary 9–5 of imperial drudgery mapped out by their parents; training to be doctors, teachers, lawyers, bureaucrats and so on. Instead, they dropped out of school to live a life of religious simplicity as monks in remote communes. In this sense, the 360s in the Roman Empire was something like the 1960s in the U.S. West Coast. This, naturally, led to estrangement parents and their children, severing as it did the primordial bonds of family that they presumed immortal. It also led to practical problems of household economics akin to a death in the family. Despite the door-slamming teenage dramas must have sprung from this tension, this pious new generation set up support networks for one another to deal with these traumatic episodes and ease their conversion into the new faith. It is not without a certain sense of irony that the roots of Christianity were in the destruction of the family.
Some of the monasteries such as that of Shenoute in Egypt became famous for its iron discipline. When entering the complex, initiates handed over all their worldly possessions so that the could achieve complete equality within its walls. This community grew to number in the thousands; all synchronised to eat, sleep and pray simultaneously. The monastery of Pachominis was similarly enormous, monks numbered seven thousand by the late fourth century. Throughout the third century, new monasteries sprung up across the Roman world, in deserts, mountains and the edges of cities. From Antioch and Tur Abdin in southern Turkey, to the mountains around Milan and Carthage.
One can understand the concern of affluent parents whose children fled to live lives of religious poverty and sign over their inheritance to some monks in the mountains instead of pursuing lucrative and influential careers. However, “love of the poor” was not necessarily a dead-end job. By the 370s, a revolving door policy between communes and bishoprics meant kids who spent their 20s in religious piety could gain lucrative posts as Bishops, whose salaries were swollen from imperial grants, private donations, charitable contributions and growing estates. Arts historian Catherine Nixey writes that “Bishops were paid five times as much as professors, six times as much as doctors — as much even as a local governor.” Historian Peter Brown describes how their rhetoric of protecting the oppressed gained them growing power and influence.
“The theme of ‘love of the poor’ exercised a gravitation pull quite disproportionate to the actual workings of Christian Charity in the fourth century… in the name of a religion that claimed to challenge the values of the elite, upper-class Christians gained control of the lower-classes of the cities.”
Coming from well-connected families, Bishops knew the workings of the system and could speak its jargon. And they began to make their influence felt. In his book, The City of God Against the Pagans Saint Augustine wrote that pagans were “teachers of depravity, delighting in obscenity.” He lays out his mission statement thus;
“All superstition of pagans and heathens should be annihilated is what God wants, God commands, God proclaims!”
While believers in the old gods were deeply frustrated at the Christian’s obstinate refusal to acknowledge the traditional faith, Christians viewed paganism with a much more visceral revulsion. One former monk turned Bishop, Basil of Caesarea, developed a whole philosophy of censorship in regards to classical literature, rooted in the theory of poisonous ideas. Writing of the Roman canon, he said that “just as in culling roses we avoid the thorns, from such writings as these we will gather everything useful, and guard against the noxious.” Whole works were edited to ensure the soul of the reader was not damaged by the problematic themes or topics of classical literature. This even included the irreverent Roman comedies that poked fun at the old gods.
The language used by the Christians to describe their ideological enemies is of particular interests. Romans would never have described themselves as “pagan”; this was a term derived from “Pagani”, which just meant “country people” and its sudden usage to describe believers in the old god represents an inversion of the elitism of Celsus. It was also around the time that the word “heretic” — which meant “the ability to choose (a sect)” — first starts to be used as a pejorative by the Supertheocracy. In fact, a whole new language of hygiene revolved around this revulsion of the old gods. Nixey writes that;
”A newly violent vocabulary of disgust started to be applied to all other religions and anything to do with them — which meant almost everything in Roman life. Religion ran through the Roman world like lines through marble… The worship of the old gods began to be represented as a terrifying pollution and, like a miasma in Greek tragedy, one that might drag you to catastrophe.”
In place of the preoccupation with insufficient sacrifice as being the cause of Rome’s difficulties, the supertheocracy sought to cleanse the Empire of pagan elements in order to achieve the favour of God. In 380 the three Emperors; Gratian, and Valentinian II of the West and Theodosius on the East, made the Nicene Christian theological school the official religion of the empire and expected the tens of millions of pagan Romans to follow suit. Unfortunately, this alone did not win the favour of the Almighty, as Theodosius suffered humiliating defeats against the Goths after they invaded and settled in Roman territory. Compensating for these failures, he pivoted, and decided to wage another kind of battle; a culture war.
He surrounded himself with Christian hardliners and appointed former monk Gregory of Nazianzus to be Bishop of Constantinople. The former ascetic encouraged him on to “legislate piety” and praised Theodosius on his “written laws of persuasion”. Theodosius added muscle to long-ignored laws that had functionally outlawed paganism and introduced new laws that expanded restrictions on sacrifice, diplomatically stating that temples were not to be closed and should be appreciated for their artistic merits, but neither should they be used as places of worship and sacrifice, effectively shutting them down.
In 391, he went after pagans in the legal profession, enacting new laws that fined judges who were “devoted to profane rites and entered a temple” as well as fines for colleagues who did not report them. Nowhere was off limits. He banned ceremonies at the Olympic Games which honoured the old gods, leading to their eventual demise and outlawed common pagan practices like tree binding. Making offerings to the old gods inside your own home was also made illegal.
John Chrysostom, one of the generation of Christians who converted against the wishes of their pagan parents, became the Archbishop of Constantinople in the late fourth century. He argued that happiness was to be found “in God alone” and began to lecture against the perils of banter.
“Laughter often gives birth to foul discourse, and foul discourse to actions still more foul. Often from words and laughter proceeds railing and insult; and from railing and insult, blows and wounds; and from blows and wounds, slaughter and murder…. avoid not merely foul words and foul deeds… but unseasonable laughter itself — and the very language of raillery — since these things have proved the root of subsequent evils.”
In the piety preached by Chrysostom we see echoes of the Essene’s strained and misogynistic relationship with women, teaching that they should be avoided if possible as they were the cause of the unclean thoughts of men. By dressing in a manner men found seductive; “You have made another sin in his heart, how can you be innocent?” before comparing their beauty to poison which “murder[s] not the body but the soul”. A long way, then, from the empowerment of Deaconesses.
In the Western Empire, Gratian played along and cut funding for the temples of the old gods. Perhaps the most symbolic of Gratian’s enforcement of the Theodosian Code was to close the Temple of Vesta and extinguished the fire that was said to have burned since Rome was founded a thousand years before. The statue of the goddess Victory which had sat in the Senate chamber since the time of Augustus had been the centre of a political dispute for decades. Christian Senators, offended by its demonic presence stench of the incense, demanded that it be removed. It became a political football, removed, restored, and with Gratian ultimately removed permanently. Pleading in vain for toleration, the statesman Quintus Aurelius Symmachus argued for upholding the pluralist traditions of Rome, which offered multiple pathways to seeking truth;
“We ask, then, for peace for the gods of our fathers and of our country. It is just that all worship should be considered as one. We look on the same stars, the sky is common, the same world surrounds us. What difference does it make by what pains each seeks the truth? We cannot attain to so great a secret by one road; but this discussion is rather for persons at ease, we offer now prayers, not conflict.”
Alarmed by these developments, Symmachus travelled to Milan to get an audience with Gratian, but his meeting was denied by people who he describes as inprobi (wicked men). Whether this was a group of monks of shadowy court advisers, we will never know. Symmachus continued in vain to fight against the laws, but was up against newly powerful Bishops like Aurelius Ambrosius (Later Saint Ambrose), who was to whisper “Emperors serve god in the same way Romans serve the emperor”, thus a change of policy on the pagan temples was out of the question. Themistius, an adviser to Theodosius, rationalised this focus on cultural matters by arguing that “order is manifestly stronger than disorder, system than chaos… these are the weapons with which men will conquer other men”. With order at the back of his mind, The Theodosian Code both outlawed the old gods but stopped short of calling for the destruction of the temples.
“Although all superstitions must be completely eradicated, nevertheless, it is Our will that the buildings of the temples situated outside the walls shall remain untouched and uninjured“’”
Many temples were already in a decrepit state after funding for them had been pulled, or wealthy donors had converted to Christianity. Some had already fallen into ruin, or were stripped of religious icons and repurposed as secular buildings, so perhaps Theodosius was playing the long game. In practice though, this did not always pan out. Sectarian violence against pagan places of worship did occur, undertaken not by the state but by the supertheocracy; mobs of monks whipped into pious frenzy by the Bishops. The Praetorian Prefect Cynegius went on a grand tour of Syria, Mesopotamia and Egypt with a mob of monks and Bishops in tow, and systematically vandalised pagan religious sites including the sacred grove to Daphne outside Antioch and a famous temple to Zeus in Syria. Jews, too, were subject to persecution and had their synagogues burned down.
The writer Libanius describes these monks as cynical and self-serving , saying that “after demolishing one they scurry to another, and to a third, and trophy is piled on trophy”. He talks of a “black robed tribe, who eat more than elephants… [that] hasten to attack temples with sticks and stones and bars of iron, and in some cases, disdaining these, with hands and feet. Then utter desolation follows.” That it is “nothing less than war in peace time waged against the peasantry.” Temples, sometimes containing books and knowledge stowed away for safekeeping, were raided by mobs and their contents destroyed. In Egypt, a hotbed of Christian fundamentalism, a 6 temples were destroyed, including one of the most spectacular buildings of antiquity.
The ancient and magnificent Temple of Serapis in Alexandria had been described as “one of the most unique and uncommon sights in the world. For nowhere else on earth can one find such a building.” It had become the last pagan temple in the predominantly Christian city, and in 391 religious riots broke out after rumours spread that they had been kidnapping and torturing Christians. Bishop Theophilus led a raid on the temple, and it was looted, its statues destroyed, its priests and followers brutalised. Its entire contents “burned to ashes before the eyes of the Alexandria which had worshipped him”. The head of Serapis’ statue was then dragged through the streets in triumph, to the horror of the remaining pagans. A prominent landmark since the time of the Ptolemies, the emotional shock to the city would be like the sudden destruction of St Paul’s Cathedral today, or the collapse of the Twin Towers. Though nominally against such disruption, The Emperor Theodosius, congratulated the monks for taking the law into their own hands. A few decades later the people of Alexandria they did so again and committed one of the most notorious crimes of the early Christians when Neoplatonist philosopher and mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria was stripped naked and stoned to death with roof tiles.
The activities of one particular forth century community of monks called the Circumcellions were particularly nasty. A communistic Christian suicide cult, they wore all-black robes and referred to themselves as the “fighters for Christ”. They talked the big talk about equality and freeing slaves, but on a practical level they conducted home invasions, set fire to rival churches and people’s houses (and themselves) and randomly beat people up in the street . All of this in the hope they would provoke retaliation in which they would be “martyred”. One innovation was particularly cruel, and too much for the more educated, upper-class Christians like St Augustine, who described it as a “new and unspeakable kind of violence, a piece of cruelty deserving of the Devil Himself” These were acid attacks designed to blind pagan priests or anyone they considered enemies of the faith. Too extreme to be tolerated, they were eventually outlawed.
Libanius and others of the old guard used to use their influence within the imperial system to blunt the excesses of the Christian legislation. But as he approached his dotage, the tactics became less and less effective, and he would even lament that he was being pushed out of his day job of public speaking and delivering lectures, while his former student, Christian hardliner John Chrysostom, continued to enjoy power and influence. As Libanius and his friends passed into memory, the new generation of Bishop Theophilus, who laid waste to Serapis, Saint Martin and Benedict of Nursia, were committed to the ideological extinction of his way of life, thinking themselves engaged in a cosmic battle against the forces of evil.
Seizing the means of reproduction
In the era of the old gods, the world was animated by a large cast of natural and conceptual roles that represented a facet of the unknowable and alien “One God”. Daimones were thought to be at best neutral forces, like spirit guides, or ghosts. As Christians gained influence, these were one-by-one reinterpreted as evil demonic spirits animating and inhabiting every corner of the natural world, even your own mind. “Demons” were blamed for all woes, placing ideas, usually infernal notions about money, food or sex, in the minds of men. For the monk or pious believer harangued by such thoughtcrimes, there was the book Talking Back by Evagrius of Pontus, which contained no less than 498 slogans used to banish troublesome ideas from the conscious mind. Things like fancying a glass of wine, or having erotic thoughts about a young woman. If they found the idea of living in self-imposed poverty not a lot of fun, they could console themselves with Psalms 22:1 “The Lord shepherds me, and I will lack nothing”. If they are having sinful notions about treating themselves to a nice plate of vegetables, they could chant to themselves Romans 14:2; “The weak eat vegetables“. And so forth.
There was heated discussion about the lengths to which individual will could triumph over earthly passions, like weakness for sexual procreation and vegetables. Curiously, it came to resemble quarrels of the current era regarding social constructionism vs innate human qualities. This can an be traced to theological disputes in the early fifth century between the Tunisian Saint Augustine and the British theologian Pelagius. St Augustine dwelled on our fallen nature, our inner struggles and torments within us as we tried to live up to our own morals. In his view, human nature made the perfect society impossible. Pelagius, on the other hand, thought complete obedience to the will of God was attainable; “Since perfection is possible for man, it is obligatory.” Pelagius’ frustration at Christian Rome’s inability to live up to its ideals coincided with the gradual erosion of the Western Roman Empire to the barbarians and Rome’s sacking by Alaric the Goth in 410AD (an event that in fact empowered Bishops in the Western Empire who filled the power vacuum). He insisted that a new type of society could be built if we could just control ourselves. But what did this society look like on the ground? Pelagius’ disciples were so notorious for street violence that he was eventually excommunicated. Augustine won this battle of ideas, but the notion of human perfectibility was to appear again in different guises down through the ages.
What was agreed upon is that there would be no tolerance for ideas that offended Christians. When the illiterate and book-hating Emperor Justinian came to power in 527 CE, he set out to extinguish the remnants of the Athenian schools of philosophy forever. And then he went one further and looked to finally close the last sanctuary of the art of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, bringing to an end a tradition over three thousand years old. As detailed by van Loon;
“By order of an illiterate farm-hand known as His Imperial Majesty, the temple and the adjoining school were declared state property, the statues and images send to the museum in Constantinople, and the priests and the writing-masters were thrown into a gaol. And when the last of them had died from hunger and neglect, the age-old trade of making hieroglyphics had become a lost art.”
The censorship of ideas and traditions had become so effective because the Christians had seized the means of reproduction of ideas themselves; the art of transcription, over which they now held a virtual monopoly in the monasteries. Part of this was by accident. The publishing industry in the age of Augustus in the early first century was reliant on a steady supply of slaves to perform the tedious task of transcription as librarii. However, even by the time of Diocletian the expansion of the Empire had stalled and the slave supply dried up. As such the cost of book had already steeply risen by the time the Christians had taken over. By dominating the transcription industry, Christianity acted as a vast filtration system on the knowledge of antiquity.
For ideas that lay outside of this system of knowledge-reproduction, for instance, books left over from the earlier publishing boom, there was still the law and by wielding it more and more vestiges of pagan thought were made illegal. By the seventh century, according to Sidenhop “legislation by the church councils was directed against seeing different parts of the physical world as habitations of spirits or demigods.” Homes were raided seeking out books that were deemed “hateful to God” which were then burned in public. We know much of the knowledge that was lost, but of course there will forever be “unknown unknowns”, things consigned to intellectual oblivion.
In some instances, knowledge survived by the skin of its teeth. One collection by Archimedes including The Method of Mechanical Theorems was only rediscovered in 2007, behind the pages of a liturgical book from the 13th century (being expensive items many books were recycled during this period by having the original text painted over). It contained mathematics that laid the foundations of calculus, only rediscovered in the 17th century by Newton and Leibniz. Had the Christian purges never taken place, it could have sent the Romans to the moon a thousand years ago. Nixey concludes that;
“At some point, a hundred or so years after Christianity comes to power, the transcription of the classical texts collapses. From AD 550 to 750 the numbers copied plummeted. This is not, to be clear, an absolute collapse in copying: monasteries are still producing reams and reams of religious books. Bible after Bible; copy after copy of Augustine is made…
Less than ten per cent of all classical literature has survived into the modern era. For Latin, the figure is even worse: it is estimated that only one hundredth of all Latin literature remains.”
Twilight of the Gods
Despite the intensity of the persecution of pagans from the fourth century, they did not die out completely. Laws were enforced unevenly, for a start, and in traditional pagan centres such as Athens public worship and even sacrifice to the old gods continued for another century. Christianity came to dominate in the cities while old ways still endured in the countryside, increasingly in secret. There is also much evidence to suggest that their worship shifted from the public sphere of the grand temple into the private sphere of the home, in the Cubiculum. These were “the most ‘secret’ place within the household, where its occupants might expect to conceal their activities to certain degrees from certain audiences.”
Forced into near extinction, the “pagan” religion in effect went underground. For over a thousand years this would fuel an unending paranoia within Christendom that “satanic” practices were going on behind closed doors, flaring up as witch-hunts, conspiracy theories and subversion myths centring around secret societies and subcultures that continues to this day. That, however, is a story for another time.
In another sense, the old gods maintained their cosmic immortality despite this erosion. Peter Brown wrote that;
“In the stars at night, the gods had found shapes more suitable to their impassive eternity than perishable human statues. For, in the stars, the diffracted colours of earth were concentrated into a steady, imperturbable glow. The stars and the planets swung safely above the heads of the last pagans, glittering statues of the gods far removed from the vandalism of the monks.”
What motivated all of these leading Christian thinkers, Ambrosius, Basil, Augustine and Chrysostom all firmly believed that the world was about to end and that Jesus was to return soon to conduct the Last Judgement. When they too passed into memory, and the messiah stubbornly refused to return to earth to perform his cosmic duties, their disciples continued the campaign to suppress all other forms of thought and to root out all ideas that it found heretical, pagan or toxic. What triumphed in the fourth and fifth centuries was not just Christianity, but ideological totalism itself.
Swept away was the colourful cauldron of sects and cults that had been strewn across the classical Mediterranean, Europe, and North Africa, leaving behind new social dynamic. On the one hand, Christianity reigned triumphant. On the other, the world promised by Jesus and his followers had continually failed to materialise. As time wore on the Empire itself receded to the solitary city of Constantinople, while throughout Europe and Western Asia and the Church crystallised into a robust new social and spiritual hierarchy. As it did so, the world-to-come of total equality promised to generations of Christians sank into the event horizon at the end of time, a conceptual mirage forever hovering out of reach, numinous in its moral purity and captivating in its bold and unfulfilled vision. A blank canvas one which succeeding generations would map increasingly elaborate visions of future worlds. On earth, men made do with the monasteries; island idyls of piety and communistic simplicity amidst a world of growing lawlessness. As antiquity gradated into the medieval world, Christian eschatology eclipsed the cyclical cosmos of antiquity, but by forever anticipating the end of time created its own form of historical cycles. Mircea Eliade observes that;
“For centuries the same religious ideas recurs again and again: this world — the world of History — is unjust, abominable, demonic; fortunately, it is already decaying, the catastrophes have just begun, this world is cracking everywhere; very soon it will be annihilated, the powers of darkness will be conquered once and for all, the “good” will triumph, Paradise will be regained. All millennialist and eschatological movements display optimism.”
Just as the Pax Romana laid the seeds of its own destruction by its success, so did Christianity’s ghostly vision of a world-to-come pave the way to its future instability. Its theology created tension between those inspired to try and craft a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, and an increasing paranoia of those out to subvert the status quo. A dynamo that was to power the intellectual development of Europe and beyond down to the present day.