Innumerable as the Starrs of Night,
Or Starrs of Morning,
Dew-drops, which the Sun
on every leaf and every flouer
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,
— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all
ye need to know.
E = M
Energy is eternal delight.
Impearls: 2003-06-01 Archive
Monotheistic Paganism — or, Just what was it Christianity fought and faced? by Michael McNeil
I was astounded years ago to discover that Hinduism — that supposedly “polytheistic” religion with many hundreds and thousands of deities — was actually, in essence, monotheistic: the supreme gods Vishnu and Shiva (according to different Hindu cults) partaking of the attributes of that Absolute Being from Whom all things emanate (usually termed capital-G “God” in Western monotheistic religions), while lesser deities in Hinduism possess characteristics one might attribute to angels or daemons (maybe even saints) in Christian parlance. (Hinduism is extraordinarily diverse, including within its orthodox folds schools as various as one [Samkhya] holding that no deities exist: i.e., atheistic. A fit subject for extensive discussion in its own right, Hinduism is beyond the scope of the present work.)
Somewhat later, however, I was even more astonished to learn that the so-called paganism — the heathen religions facing Christianity during their final struggle for supremacy in the Roman world of the third and fourth centuries A.D. — was itself, in essence, monotheistic. The pagan religions of late Roman times not only shared many characteristics with each other and the Christianity they all opposed, but formed a kind of single, multi-form, monotheistic religion, incorporating varied means of expressing (and reaching out and touching) the one Supreme Being that all envisioned.
To consider more deeply the nature of these non Judeo-Christian, “pagan” but fundamentally monotheist faiths, let's delve into that renowned comprehensive history of the Middle Ages, Cambridge University's (originally) eight-volume Cambridge Medieval History, which has become justly famed over nearly a century since the first volume's publication in 1911. Volume I of the series, entitled “The Christian Roman Empire and the Foundation of the Teutonic Kingdoms,” has now passed into the public domain, beyond even the multiply extended periods of copyright protection, so this fine work is available for wider distribution than the dusty university library shelves that had been its commonest abode.
As a result of Impearls' desire to see this excellent book better read, we're taking this opportunity to republish in its entirety Chapter IV from Volume I of the original Cambridge Medieval History, to wit, the Reverend T. M. Lindsay's powerful essay “The Triumph of Christianity” (in the Roman Empire of the third and fourth centuries), into which we are here segueing via the question, “Just what was it Christianity fought and faced?”
UPDATE: 2003-06-20 21:00 UT: A handful of typographical errors have been found and fixed in the text of Lindsay's essay since publication earlier this month. Sorry about that. Also, see this Update.
The Triumph of Christianity
1. Nature of the Triumph by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.
The old or official religions of Greece and of Rome had lost most of their power long before Constantine first declared that Christianity was henceforth to be recognised as a religio licita and then proceeded to bestow the Imperial favour on the faith which his predecessors had persecuted. Hellenism had destroyed their influence over the cultivated classes, and other religions, coming from the East, had captivated the masses of the people. If temples, dedicated to the gods of Olympus, were still standing open; if the time-honoured rites were still duly and continuously celebrated; if the official priesthood, recognised and largely supported by the State, still performed its appointed functions; these things no longer compelled the devotion of the crowd. The Imperial cult of the Divi and Divae, once so popular, had also lost its power to attract and to charm; the routine of ceremonial worship was still performed; the well-organised priesthood spreading all over the Empire maintained its privileged position; but crowds no longer thronged the temples, and the rites were neglected by the great mass of the population.
Yet this did not mean, as has often been supposed, the universal triumph of Christianity. It may almost be said that Paganism was never so active, so assertive, so combative, as in the third century. But this paganism, for long the successful rival of Christianity and its real opponent, was almost as new to Europe as Christianity itself. Something must be known about it and its environment ere the reaction under Julian and the final triumph of Christianity can be sympathetically understood.
2. Cosmopolitan Society by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.
During the earlier centuries of the Roman Empire the process of disintegration was completed which had begun with the conquests of Alexander the Great. Instead of a system of self-contained societies, solidly united internally and fenced off from all external social, political and religious influences, which characterised ancient civilisation, this age saw a mixing of peoples and a cosmopolitan society hitherto unknown.
If fighting went on continuously somewhere or other on the extended frontiers of the great Empire, peace reigned within its vast domains. A system of roads, for the most part passable all the year round, united the capitals with the extremities, from Britain and Spain on the west to the Euphrates on the east. The Mediterranean had been cleared of pirates, and lines of vessels united the great cities on its shores. Travelling, whether for business, health or pleasure, was possible under the Empire with a certainty and a safety unknown in after centuries until the introduction of steam. It was facilitated by a common language, a coinage universally valid, and the protection of the same laws. Men could start from the Euphrates and travel onwards to Spain using one lingua-franca everywhere understood. Greek could be heard in the streets of every commercial town — in Rome, Marseilles, Cadiz and Bordeaux, on the banks of the Nile, of the Orontes and of the Tigris.
With all these things to favour it, the movements of peoples within the Empire had become incalculably great, and all the larger cities were cosmopolitan. Families from all lands, of differing religions and social habits, dwelt within the same walls. National, social, intellectual and religious differences faded insensibly. Thinking became eclectic as it had never been before.
This growing community in habit of thought and even of religious belief was fed by something peculiar to the times. The soldier of many lands, the travelled trader, the tourist in search of pleasure, and the invalid wandering in quest of health were common then as now. But a special characteristic of the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth century was the widely wandering student, the teacher far from the land of his birth, and the itinerant preacher of new religions.
The empire was well provided with what we should now call universities. Rome, Milan and Cremona were seats of higher learning for Italy; Marseilles, Bordeaux and Autun for Gaul; Carthage for North Africa; Athens and Apollonia for Greece; Tarsus for Cilicia; Smyrna for Asia; Beyrout and Antioch for Syria; and Alexandria for Egypt. The number of foreign students to be found at each was remarkable. Young Romans enrolled themselves at Marseilles and Bordeaux. Greeks crossed the seas to attend lectures at Antioch, and found as their neighbours men from Assyria, Phoenicia and Egypt. At Alexandria the number of students from distant parts of the Empire exceeded largely those from the neighbourhood. At Athens, whose schools were the most famous in the beginning of the fourth century, the crowds of Barbarians (for so the citizens called those foreign students) were so great that it was said that their presence threatened to spoil the purity of the language. Everywhere, in that age of wandering, the student seemed to prefer to study far from home and to flit from one place of learning to another.
Nor were the professors much different. They commonly taught far from their native land. Even at Athens it became increasingly rare to find a teacher who belonged by birth to Greece. They too travelled from one university seat to another. Lucian, Philostratus, Apuleius, all who portray the age and the class, describe their wanderings.
Missionaries of new cults went about in the same way. Bands of itinerant devotees, the prophets and priests of Syrian, Persian, possibly of Hindu cults, passed along the great Roman roads. Solitary preachers of Oriental faiths, with all the fire of missionary enthusiasm, tramped from town to town, drawn by an irresistible impulse to Rome, the centre of power, the protectress of the religions of her myriad subjects, the tribune from which, if a speaker could only ascend it, he might address the world. The end of the third and the beginning of the fourth century was an age of religious excitements, of curiosity about strange faiths, when all who had something new to teach about the secrets of the soul and of the universe, hawked their theories as traders their merchandise.
3. Oriental Religions by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.
This mixture of peoples, this new cosmopolitanism, this hurrying to and fro of religious teachers, brought it about that Oriental faiths, at first only the religions of groups of families who had brought their cults with them into the West, made numerous converts and spread themselves over the Roman Empire. These Oriental religions prospered the more because from the middle of the third century onwards Rome was looking to the East for many things. From it came the deftest artizans and mechanics who gave to life most of its material comforts. It largely contributed to feed Rome with its grain. Its philosophy (for most of the greatest stoical thinkers were not Greeks but Orientals) gave the substructure to Roman Law; and the most famous Law School in the third, fourth and fifth centuries was not in Rome but at Beyrout. Ulpian came from Tyre and Papinian from Syria. The greatest non-Christian thinkers of these centuries were neither Greeks nor Romans but Orientals. Plotinus was an Egyptian; Iamblichus, Porphyry and Libanius were Syrians; Galen was an Asiatic. Oriental ideas were slowly changing Rome's political institutions themselves, and the Princeps of a Republic, as was Octavius, became, in the persons of Diocletian and Constantine, an Oriental monarch. Rome, by the discipline of its legions, by the mingled severity and generosity of its rule, by the justice of its legislation, had conquered the East. Eastern thought, wedded to Hellenism, was in its turn subjugating the Empire. Its religions had their share in the conquest.
Among those Oriental faiths which spread themselves over civilised Europe some were much more popular than others. All entered the Empire at an early date and won their way very slowly at first. Most of them seem to have made some alliance with the survivals of such Greek mysteries as those of Eleusis and of Dionysos. All of them, save that of Mithras, had been affected and to some extent changed by Hellenism before they entered into the full light of history in the beginning of the third century.
From Asia Minor came the worship of Cybele with its hymns and dances, its mysterious ideas of a deity dying to live again, its frenzies and trances, its soothsayings, and its blood-baths of purification and sanctification. From Syria came the cult of the Dea Syra, described by Lucian the sceptic, with its sacred prostitutions, its more than hints of human sacrifices, its mystics and its pillar saints. Persia sent forth the worship of Mithras, with its initiations, its sacraments, its mysteries and the stern discipline which made it a favourite religion among the Roman legionaries. Egypt gave birth to many a cult. Chief among them was the worship of Isis. Before the end of the second century it had far outstripped Christianity and could boast of its thousands where the religion of the Cross could only number hundreds. It had penetrated everywhere, even to far-off Britain. A ring bearing the figure of the goddess' constant companion, the dog-headed Anubis, has been discovered in a grave in the Isle of Man. Votaries of Isis could be found from the Roman Wall to Land's End.
The worship of Isis may be taken as a type of those Oriental faiths before whose presence the official gods of Olympus were receding into the background. The cult had a body of clergy, highly organised, a book of prayers, a code of liturgical actions, a tonsure, vestments, and an elaborate impressive ceremonial. The inner circle of its devotees were called “the religious,” like the monks of the Middle Ages; those who were altogether outside the faith were termed “pagans”; the service of the goddess was a “holy war,” and her worshippers of all grades were banded together in a “militia.” Apuleius, himself converted to the faith, has, in his Metamorphoses, described its ceremonies of worship and enabled us to see how desires after a better life drew men like himself to reverence the deity and enroll himself among her followers. He has described, with a vividness that makes us see them, the stately processions which moved with deliberate pace through the crowded narrow streets of oriental towns, and drew after them to the temple many a hitherto unattached inquirer. We can enter the temple with him and listen to the solemn exhortation of the high-priest; hear him dwell upon the past sins and follies of the neophyte and the unfailing goodness and mercy of the goddess whose eyes had followed him through them all and who now waited to receive him if he truly desired to become her disciple and worshipper. The initiation was a secret rite and Apuleius is careful not to profane it by description; but we learn that there was a baptism, a fast of ten days, a course of priestly instruction, sponsors given to the neophyte, and, in the evening, a reception of the new brother by the congregation, when every one greeted him kindly and presented him with some small gift. We can penetrate with him into the secret chamber reserved for the higher initiation where he was taught that he would endure a voluntary death which he was to look upon as the gateway into a higher and better life. We can dimly see him excited with wild anticipations, dizzy with protracted fasting, almost suffocated by surging vapours, blinded by sudden and unexpected flashes of light, undergo his hypnotic trance during which he saw unutterable things. “I trod the confines of death and the threshold of Proserpine; I was swept round all the elements and back again; I saw the sun shining at midnight in purest radiance; gods of heaven and gods of hell I saw face to face and adored in presence.” We can understand how such an hypnotic trance marked a man for life.
Isis worship, humanised by Hellenism, extracted from the crude wild legends of Egypt the thought of a suffering and all-merciful Mother-Goddess who yearned to ease the woes of mankind. It raised the beast-gods of the Nile and the tales about them into emblems and parables. It captured the common man by its thaumaturgy. For the more cultured intelligences it had a more sublime theology which appealed to the philosophy of the day. In all this it was a type, perhaps the best, of those Oriental cults which were permeating the Empire.
4. The New Paganism by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.
All those religions, whatever their special form of teaching or variety of cult, brought with them thoughts foreign to the old official worships of Greece and Rome; though not altogether strange to the Mysteries which had for long been the real people's religion in Greece nor to the cult of Dionysos which in various forms had preserved its vitality.
They taught (or perhaps it would be more correct to say that the action of the subtle Greek intellect, playing upon the crude ideas which these Oriental religions presented to it, evolved from them) a series of religious conceptions foreign to the old paganism, and these became common parts of the newer non-Christian intelligence which was powerful in the third and fourth centuries.
A sharp distinction, much more definite than anything previous, was drawn between the soul and the body. The soul belonged to a different sphere and was more estimable than the body. The former was the inhabitant of a higher and better world and was therefore immortal. The thoughts of individuality and personality became much clearer. In the same way the thoughts of Godhead as a whole and of the world as a whole — conceptions scarcely separate before — were distinguished more or less clearly. Godhead became what the world was not, and yet Something good and great Which was the primal basis of all things.
The earlier philosophical depreciation of the world of matter became more emphatic, and raised the question whether the creation of the whole material world and of the body which belonged to it was not after all a mistake; whether the body was not a prison or at least a house of correction in which the soul was grievously detained; whether the soul could ever become what it really was until it had undergone a deliverance from the body. Such a deliverance was called salvation, and much practical thinking was expended on the proper means of effecting it. Might not knowledge and the means it suggested of living purely or with as little bodily contamination as possible while this life lasted, be the beginnings of entrance into the real and eternal life of the soul? Was it not most likely that souls had been gradually confined in bodies, and must not the process of delivery be gradual also? The gradual Way of Return to God became a feature in almost all those Eastern cults, by whatever means they sought to accomplish it.
Perhaps however the most novel thought was the conviction that something more than knowledge, beyond any means of living purely which human wisdom could suggest, something outside man and belonging to the sphere of divinity, was needed to start the soul on this gradual Way of Return and sustain his faltering footsteps along the difficult path. Contact with the Godhead was needed to save and redeem. Such contact was to be found in a consecration (mysterium, sacramentum, initiation) wherein the soul, in some hypnotic trance, was possessed by the deity who overpowered it and for ever afterwards led it step by step along the path of salvation or Way of Return. Perhaps something more than any such consecration was needed; might not some surer way be found if only diligently sought for? It might be in some of the older cults whose inner meaning had never been rightly understood; or in some mystery not yet completely accessible; or in a divinely commissioned man who had not yet appeared. It might even be found within the soul itself, if men could only discover and use the true powers of the human soul (Higher Thought). At all events it was held that true religion really implied a detachment from the world, and included a strict discipline of soul and body while life lasted.
Such a paganism was very different from the polytheism with its furred, feathered and scaly deities which first confronted Christianity and was attacked by the early Christian apologists. The later ones recognised its power. Firmicus Maternus, writing in the time of Constantine, dismisses with good-humoured scorn the deities of Olympus and their myths, but criticises with thorough earnestness the Oriental religions. It had, in spite of its external multiformity, a natural cohesion in virtue of the circle of common thoughts above described. It hardly deserves the name of polytheism; for its idea of one abstract divinity, separate from the world of matter, made it monotheism of a kind; and evidence shews that its votaries regarded Isis, Cybele and the rest more as the representatives and impersonations of the one godhead than as individual deities. Inscriptions from tombstones reveal that worshippers did not attach themselves to one cult exclusively. The varying forms of initiation were all separate methods of attaining to union with the one divinity, the different ceremonies of purification were all ways of reaching the same end, and, as one might succeed where another failed, they could be all tried impartially. Just as we find men and women in the beginning of the sixteenth century enrolling themselves in several religious associations of different kinds (witness Dr Pfeffinger, a member of thirty-two religious confraternities), so in the third and fourth centuries members of both sexes were initiated into several cults and performed the lustrations prescribed by very different worships, in order to miss no chance of union with divinity and to leave no means of purification and sanctification untried. The tombstone of Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, the friend of Symmachus, who took part in the Saturnalia of Macrobius, records that he had been initiated into several cults and that he had performed the taurobolium. His wife, Aconia Paulina, was more indefatigable still. This lady, a member of the exclusive circle of the old pagan nobility of Rome, went to Eleusis and was initiated with baptism, fasting, vigil, hymn-singing into the several mysteries of Dionysos, of Ceres and Koré. Not content with these, she went on to Lerna and sought communion with the same three deities in different rites of initiation. She travelled to Aegina, was again initiated, slept or waked in the porches of the small temples there in the hope that the divinities of the place in dream or waking vision might communicate to her their way of salvation. She became a hierophant of Hecate with still different and more dreaded rites of consecration. Finally, like her husband, she submitted herself to the dreadful, and to us disgusting, purification won in the taurobolium. A great pit was dug into which the neophyte descended naked; it was covered with stout planks placed about an inch apart; a young bull was led or forced upon the planks; it was stabbed by the officiating priest in such a way that the thrust was mortal and that the blood might flow as freely as possible. As the blood poured down on the planks and dripped into the pit the neophyte moved backwards and forwards to receive as much as possible of the red warm shower and remained until every drop had ceased to drip. Inscription after inscription records the fact that the deceased had been a tauroboliatus or a tauroboliata, had gone through this blood-bath in search of sanctification. Evidence from inscriptions seems to shew that in the declining days of paganism, the energy of its votaries drove them in greater numbers to accumulate initiations and to undergo the more severe rites of purification.
5. Neoplatonism and Christianity by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.
This multiform and yet homogeneous paganism had the further support of a system of philosophy expounded and enforced by the greatest non-Christian thinkers of the age. Neoplatonism, the last birth of Hellenic thought, not without traces of Oriental parentage, has the look of a philosophy of hesitation and expectancy. It had lost the firm tread of Plato and Aristotle, and feared that the human intelligence unaided could not penetrate and explain all things. The intellectual faculty of man was reduced to something intermediate between mere sense perception and some vague intuition of the supernatural, and the whole energy of the movement was concentrated on discovering the means to follow out this intuition and to attain by it not only communion but union with what was completely and externally divine.
Its great thinker was Plotinus (d. 269). His disciples Porphyry (233-304) and Iamblichus (d. circa 330) made it the basis and buttress of paganism when it was fighting for its life against a conquering Christianity. If the Universe of things seen and unseen be an emanation from Absolute Being, the Primal Cause of all things, the fountain from which all existence flows and the haven to which everything that has reality in it will return when its cycle is complete, then every heathen deity has its place in this flow of existence. Its cult, however crude, is an obscure witness to the presence of the intuition of the supernatural. The legends which have gathered round its name, if only rightly understood, are mystic revelations of the divine which permeates all things. Its initiations and rites of purification are all meant to help the soul on the same path of return by which it completes its cycle of wanderings. The new paganism can be represented to be the collected flower and fruit of all the older faiths presented and ready to satisfy the deeper desires of the spirit of man. Neoplatonism could present itself as a naturalistic, rational polytheism, retaining all the old structures of tradition, of thought and of social organisation. The “common man” was not asked to forsake the deities he was wont to reverence. The Roman was not required to despise the gods who, as his forefathers believed, had led them to the conquest of the world. The cultured Hellenist was taught to overstep, without disturbing, creeds which for him were worn out and to seek and find communion with the Divine which lies behind all gods. The very conjuror was encouraged to cultivate his magic. Pantheism, that wonder-child of thought and of the phantasy, included all within the wide sweep of its sheltering arms and made them feel the claim of a common kinship. Jesus Himself, had His followers allowed, might have had a place between Dionysos and Isis; but Christianity, which according to Porphyry had departed widely from the simple teaching of the mystic of Galilee, was sternly excluded from the Neoplatonist brotherhood of religions. Its idea of a creation in time seemed irreligious to Porphyry; its doctrine of the Incarnation introduced a false conception of the union between God and the world; its teaching about the end of all things he thought both irreverent and irreligious; above all things its claim to be the one religion, its exclusiveness, was hateful to him. He was too noble a man (philosophus nobilis, says Augustine) not to sympathise with much in Christianity, and seems to have appreciated it more and more in his later writings. Still his opinion remained unchanged: “The gods have declared Christ to have been most pious; he has become immortal, and by them his memory is cherished. Whereas the Christians are a polluted set, contaminated and enmeshed in error.” Christianity was the one religion to be fought against and if possible conquered.
What Neoplatonism did theoretically the force of circumstances accomplished on the practical side. The Oriental creeds had not merely gained multitudes of private worshippers; they had forced their way among the public deities of Rome. Isis, Mithras, Sol Invictus, Dea Syra, the Great Mother, took their places alongside of Jupiter, Venus, Mars, etc., and the Sacra peregrina appeared on the calendar of public festivals. As most of these Oriental cults contained within them the monotheist idea it is possible that they might have fought for pre-eminence and each aspired to become the official religion of the Empire. But they all recognised Christianity to be a common danger, and M. Cumont has shewn that this feeling united them and made them think and act as one.
6. Growing strength of Christianity by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.
Such was the paganism which faced Christianity in the fourth century — a marvellous mixture of philosophy and religion, not without grandeur and nobility of thought, feeling keenly the unity of nature, the essential kinship of man with the Divine, and knowing something of the yearning in man's heart for redemption and for communion with God. It was able to fascinate and enthral many of the keenest intellects and loftiest natures of the time. It laid hold on Julian.
Christianity was the common opponent of all these cults. It had entered the field last and seemed easily outstripped in the race. In its beginning it was but a ripple on the surface of a Galilaean lake. Now, in the fourth century, it had compelled Imperial recognition and alliance. In strength and in weakness its claim had been always the same. It was the one, the only true, the universal religion.
From its beginning it had never lacked at least a few wealthy and cultured adherents, but during the first two centuries the overwhelming majority of its converts had come from the poorer classes — slaves, freedmen, labourers. It had early drawn upon itself the contempt of society and the hatred of the populace. It was held to be something inhuman. Its votaries were “the third race.” They had all the unsocial vices of the Jews and even worse vices of their own. Christians had appropriated the epithet flung at them in scorn. They were “the third race,” a peculiar people, separate from the rest of mankind, a natio by themselves.
The last decade of the second century witnessed the beginnings of a change. Men of all ranks and classes became converts — members of the Senatorial and Equestrian Orders, distinguished pleaders, physicians, officers in the army, officials in the civil service, judges, even governors of provinces. Their wives, sisters and daughters accompanied or more frequently preceded them. Then the tone of society began to change, gradually and insensibly. Scorn and contempt gave place to feelings of toleration. Before the end of the third century no one gave credit to the old scandalous reproaches which had been flung at the followers of Jesus, even when an Emperor tried to revive them. Statesmen were compelled to consider the movement — not now because it affected a town or a province, but as something pervading the Empire. They found that it possessed two characteristics which were enormous sources of strength — a peculiar power of assimilation and a compact organisation.
From the first Christianity had proclaimed that the whole life of man belonged to it. This meant that everything that made man's life wider, deeper, fuller; whatever made it more joyous or contented; whatever sharpened the brain, strengthened and taught the muscles, gave full play to man's energies, could be taken up into and become part of the Christian life. Sin and foulness were sternly excluded; but, that done, there was no element of the Graeco-Roman civilisation which could not be appropriated by Christianity. So it assimilated Hellenism or the fine flower and fruit of Greek thought and feeling; it appropriated Roman law and institutions; it made its own the simple festivals of the common people. All were theirs; and they were Christ's; and Christ was God's.
Then the Christian churches were compactly organised. Their polity had been a natural growth. Its power of assimilation had enabled Christianity to absorb what was best in Roman civil and temple organisation, to exclude the worst elements of the bureaucracy, and to preserve much democratic popular life. Its local rulers belonged to the people they at once ruled and served. No over-centralisation crushed the local and provincial life. Christian societies formed themselves into groups, more or less compact, and made use of the synod to effect the grouping. One common life throbbed through the network of synods. The feeling of brotherhood did not exhaust itself in sentiment. If one part were attacked all the others were swift to help. Nothing within the Empire save the army could compare with the compact organisation of the Christian Church.
In the middle of the third century the Emperor and the Empire learnt to dread this organised force within their midst. The despised “third race” had become indeed a natio within the Empire. The first impulse was to exterminate what seemed to be a source of danger. One well-organised universal persecution followed another. From each Christianity emerged with sadly diminished numbers (for the lapsed were always a larger body than the martyrs), but with spirit unbroken and with organisation intact and usually strengthened.
Constantine himself had watched the last, the most prolonged and relentless of all — that under Diocletian and his successors — and had marked its failure. From his entrance into public life he made it plain that, while his rivals clung to the method of repression, he had completely abandoned it. Christianity won toleration and then Imperial patronage.
7. Legislation against Paganism by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.
It cannot have been difficult for Constantine to carry out his policy towards the Christian religion. We cannot ascertain the proportion of Christians to pagans at the close of the second decade of the fourth century, but it may be assumed that, when their organisation is taken into account, they were able to control public opinion in the most populous and important provinces of the Empire. All he had to do “was to let the leading provinces have the religion they desired”; the rest of the Empire would follow in their wake. He was content to adopt the principle of toleration; though for himself Christianity became more and more the one religion in which “crowning reverence is observed towards the holiest powers of heaven.” He probably carried the public opinion of the Empire with him. The paganism of the fourth century was for the most part quiet and desired only to be left in peace. Perhaps Ammianus Marcellinus, himself a pagan, expressed the general opinion of his co-religionists when he praised the Emperor Valentinian because he tolerated all creeds, gave no orders that any one divinity should be worshipped, and did not strive to bend the necks of his subjects to adore what he did.
The sons of Constantine changed all this. They proposed to destroy paganism by legislation. Their laws, doubtless, inflicted much injury on individual pagans, and, in the hands of such unprincipled Imperial sycophants as Paulus and Mercurius, were the pretexts for many executions, banishments and confiscation of goods; but they remained inoperative in all the greater pagan centres. The worship of the gods went on as before in Rome, Alexandria, Heliopolis and in many other cities. But they could not fail to irritate. If the laws were inoperative, they remained to threaten. Proposed destruction of temples and prohibition of heathen ceremonies meant in many cases the abandonment of the games and spectacles to which the careless multitude were strongly attached. Scholars saw in the advancing power of the Church the destruction of the old learning which gave its charm to their lives. Christianity itself, troubled by the meddling of the heads of the State, seemed to be rent in pieces by its controversies, to have lost its original purity and simplicity, and to have degenerated into “old-wife superstitions” (Ammianus). So wherever paganism abounded, and in places too where it only lingered, there was a general feeling of discontent ready to welcome the first signs of a reaction and eagerly listening to whispers that the last of the race of Constantine, if he lived to assume the Imperial purple, would undo what his kinsmen had accomplished.
8. Julian's youth and education by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.
At the death of Constantine his nephew, Flavius Claudius Julianus, was six years old. The child escaped, almost by accident, the massacre of his family connived at if not ordered by Constantius. He lived for more than twenty years in constant peril, in the power of that suspicious cousin who scarcely knew whether he wished to slay or to spare him. He was kept secluded, now in one or other of the great cities of the East, for long in a palace far from the haunts of men, solacing himself with hard uninterrupted studies. Then for seven brief years he startled the Roman world by his meteor-like career, and died from wounds received in battle against the Persians at the age of thirty-two. Two things about him filled the imagination of his contemporaries and have drawn the attention of succeeding generations: that he a recluse, suddenly snatched from his loved studies in poetry and philosophy, proved himself all at once not merely an intrepid soldier but a skilful general, and a born leader of men; and that he, a baptised Christian, who had actually been accustomed to read the lessons at public worship, threw off like a mask the Christianity he had professed and spent the last years of his short life in a feverish attempt to restore the old and expiring paganism. It is this last fact that made him the object of undying hate and unconquerable love to his contemporaries, and still excites the interest of mankind.
His own writings which have survived make it plain that from his earliest years he looked at Christianity and Christians through the blood-red mist of the massacre of his relations — father, brother, uncles, cousins. His education did little to remove the impression. The lonely imaginative, lovable child had never known his mother's care, but he inherited her fondness for Homer, Hesiod, and the masters of Greek poetry. Mardonius, who had been his mother's tutor, was his also, and the boy went through the same course of study. The tutor was passionately fond of Greek literature and especially of Homer, and he imbued mother and son with his own tastes. For the rest he was something of a martinet. The young Julian had the strictest moral training and never forgot those early lessons. He was taught to be temperate and self-restrained; to look with dislike on pantomimes, races, and the other more or less licentious amusements of the populace. His tutor made him read in Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus and other pagan moralists, and was unwearied in enforcing pure living after these examples of antiquity. Julian was all his life a puritan pagan, and this puritanism of his was perhaps his greatest obstacle in accomplishing the task to which he subsequently dedicated himself. He never entered a theatre save when he was commanded to do so by the Emperor, and was seldom on a race-course in his life. He was naturally a dreamy, sensitive child, full of yearning fancies, which he kept to himself. He tells us that from early boyhood he felt a strange elevation of soul when he watched the sun and saw it dispensing light and heat; that he worshipped the stars and understood their whispered thoughts. He was filled with enthusiasm for everything Greek and the very word Hellas sent a thrill through him when he pronounced it. Seven years were spent under the care of the kindly, stern preceptor, and the impress they made was lasting.
In 344 Constantius suddenly sent Julian into obscurity. His elder brother, Gallus, who had escaped the massacre of 337 because he was so sickly that he was not expected to live, accompanied him. They were sent to Macellum, a palace in a remote part of Cappadocia — splendid enough with its baths, its springs and its gardens, but which Julian looked upon as a prison. There he was supplied with teachers in abundance, Christian clergy who were supposed to teach the faith to the young princes, and from whose instructions Julian doubtless acquired that superficial knowledge of the Scriptures he afterwards shewed that he possessed. Books were granted him, and he seems to have been permitted to send to Alexandria for what Greek literature he desired. He mentions specially volumes from the library of Bishop George because, along with many treatises on Christianity for which he did not care, they included the writings of philosophers and rhetoricians. But he bitterly complained that neither he nor his brother were allowed to see any suitable companions, and he believed that all their attendants were imperial spies. The boy, reserved before, shrank further into himself. Outwardly he was a pattern of devotion. He received Christian instruction; was taught the “evidences of Christianity” and used the knowledge later to expose its weaknesses; was trained to give alms, to observe fasts, to venerate the shrines of saints to the extent of aiding to build them with his own hands; and occasionally to officiate as reader at public worship. Privately he fed his mind on the lessons of Mardonius and studied such books of philosophy and rhetoric as he could command. Ammianus Marcellinus, who knew him well, says that from his early years he felt attracted to the worship of the gods.
After six years in the gilded prison of Macellum the brothers were summoned to Constantinople — Gallus to be made Caesar or Vice-Emperor, to misgovern frightfully the province entrusted to his care, and in consequence to meet a not undeserved death, though to his brother it was another crime to be charged against Constantius, a Christian and the murderer of kinsmen; Julian to meet soon the supreme moment of his religious life. He was set at first to pursue his studies in the capital city and the scholar appointed to take charge of him was Hecebolius, the fourth century Vicar of Bray, whose religion was always that of the reigning Emperor. But too many admiring eyes followed the princely student, and Constantius ordered him to Nicomedia, the centre of the cultured paganism of the East and the home of its acknowledged leader, the great rhetorician Libanius. Julian had promised not to attend the lectures of Libanius; he kept his pledge in the letter and broke it in the spirit. He got notes written out for him and pored over them day and night. But more important than all lectures was the intercourse with men such as he had never met before. At Nicomedia, Julian first came in touch with those for whom the old gods were living, who had the gift of “seers,” to whom prophecies and prodigies were matters of fact. He saw and conversed with men who “had easy access to the ears of the gods,” who could “command winds, waves and earthquakes.” He knew Aedesius who was said to receive oracles from the deities by night, and whose wife Sosipatra had “lived from girlhood amid prodigies of all kinds.” He was told of the wonderful séances presided over by Maximus and of the marvels which occurred at them. This Maximus was one of the most celebrated theurgies or “mediums” of fourth century Neoplatonism. His favourite occupation, he said, was to live in constant communion with the gods. He had long white hair, brilliant magnetic eyes, and his disciples boasted that his influence was irresistible over all those with whom he came in contact. Eusebius of Myndus, also a Neoplatonist, told Julian of his powers. “He made a number of us descend into the temple of Hecate. There he saluted the goddess. Then he said: ‘Be seated, friends, see what happens, then judge whether I am not superior to most men.’ We all sat down. He burnt a grain of incense and chanted a whole hymn in a low voice. The statue began to smile, then to laugh. We were afraid at the sight. ‘Do not be alarmed,’ he said, ‘you will see that the lamps which the goddess holds in her hands will light of themselves.’ As he spoke the light streamed from the lamps.” Julian eagerly begged to be introduced to the man who was so powerful with the gods, and Maximus was even more ready to gain one who stood so near the Imperial throne. No accounts survive of the spiritualistic séances at which he assisted; but their effect on the nervous, sensitive young man was irresistible. Maximus converted him heart and soul to the new paganism and was the confidential adviser of Julian from that time onwards. The young man entered into a new life. The religion which Homer and Hesiod had sung, which Plato and Aristotle had speculated upon, which he had known as a student from books, became all at once living to him. His day-dreams of the past vanished, or rather changed into an actual present. The passion for Greece which had gradually grown to be the ruling force in his character had now the support of every-day experience. The gods sung by the old Greek poets, and many a passionate Oriental deity unknown to them, could be seen and their presence felt. He could himself have communion with them through mysterious rites of divination. They had created the noblest thing on earth, Greek civilisation; they were even now moulding and controlling events; they could give courage and inspiration to their votaries. From his sojourn at Nicomedia onwards, Julian believed that all his actions were determined by divine voices which he heard and obeyed. This natural religion was not the crude polytheism his Christian teachers had said. Hellenism had made it a unity. A great First Cause, the Father and King of all men, had parcelled out the lands and peoples among the deities, His viceroys. They were the real rulers of provinces and cities and governed them according to their natural habits and dispositions. What was Christianity when compared with this ancient and universal worship, supported by the wealth of civilisation which had come down from the past? It was a cult of barbarian origin, born in an obscure province, ignorant of Hellenic culture, its very Scriptures written in a barbarous Greek offensive to the ears of educated men. Was Greece to abdicate in favour of Galilee? Perish the thought! So Julian believed, and longed to steep himself in Hellenism at its purest source — the Schools at Athens.
He gained his wish through the sisterly kindness of the Empress Eusebia. At Athens, as at all the schools of higher learning, the majority of the teachers were pagans, and Julian with more than his usual eagerness devoted himself to their lectures and to all the benefits of the place. “He was continually seen surrounded by crowds of youths, old men, philosophers and rhetoricians.” Outwardly he was still a Christian, for his life depended on his conformity to the Imperial creed; but inwardly he had consecrated himself heart and soul to paganism, had already become conscious that he had a divine mission, and that he was a favourite of the gods. The double life he had to live, the knowledge that he was surrounded by spies ready to report anything compromising to his Imperial cousin, must have acted upon his naturally nervous and emotional temperament and betrayed itself in many outward ways. His portrait drawn by a fellow-student, Gregory of Nazianzus, though the work of an enemy, needs only a little toning down — twitching shoulders, eyes glancing from side to side, something conceited in nostrils and face, feet that were never still, hasty laugh, sentences begun and never finished, irrelevant answers. Julian had more to do at Athens than study philosophy; he had to penetrate to the centre of Greek religion. He was secretly initiated into the ancient mysteries of Eleusis; and there are hints of other initiations either there or afterwards — of the worship of Mithras, of the purifying rite of the taurobolium.
9. Julian in Gaul by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.
Constantius was childless — the punishment of the gods whose temples he had despoiled, said the pagans; a retribution for the slaughter of his kinsmen, his own conscience sometimes whispered. The needs of the Empire demanded assistance. It is hard to say whether the Emperor or the student was the more unwilling, the one to summon and the other to obey the call. Julian was ordered to Milan where the Court was. He was made Caesar, was married to Helena, the Emperor's sister, and was sent to Gaul to protect the province from invading Germans. The recluse bookworm, the man whose emotional nature had succumbed without suspicion to the suggestions of spiritualist séances, was suddenly confronted with one of the hardest tasks that practical life could offer. He had to restore a half-ruined province and to overcome an enemy grown bold by success. He was totally ignorant of the arts of war and of administration. It need not cause surprise that he proved an intrepid soldier. He was the last of a race of warriors, and the blood spoke. His studies had taught him the need of concentration and thoroughness; he set himself to learn and speedily mastered the elements of drill and discipline. But what the world did wonder at was that, hampered as he was by the assistants whom the jealousy of the Emperor had forced upon him, he shewed himself a general who defeated his foes as much by strategy as by fighting.
The Germans had been driven back; the administration of Gaul was improved and its finances reformed, when the legions, irritated at commands from the distant Emperor, mutinied and called upon their general to assume the purple (Jan. 360). After long hesitation Julian consented. It meant civil war. But the gods encouraged him, his mission called him, the soldiers rallied round him, and he marched against Constantius. There was no battle. Constantius died before the armies met, and Julian became sole ruler over the Roman Empire.
During the whole of Julian's five years' stay in Gaul he publicly professed the Christian religion which privately he had repudiated. He allowed his name to be attached to the persecuting edicts of Constantius, while in secret he began the day with a prayer to Hermes. His dissimulation went the length of joining with Constantius in threatening anyone with torture who took part in the very ceremonies of divination which he himself was all the while practising in private. The only trace of his real feelings is that no Christian emblems appear on the coins which he struck in Gaul. This double life did not cease when he assumed the purple. He ostentatiously joined in the public devotions of the people during the festival of Epiphany (361), while in private he was practising all manner of secret incantations and divinations aided by an adept in the mysteries of Eleusis. It may be that he waited until he was sure of the sympathies of the army. He seems to have taken care that most of the soldiers who followed him from Gaul were pagans; and that the Christian troops were left behind to guard the province. At all events it was not until he reached Sirmium on the lower Danube, where the magistrates, citizens and soldiers received him with acclamations, that he declared himself a pagan, and could write to Maximus: “We worship the gods openly; most of the soldiers who follow me reverence them! We have thanked the gods in the sight of men with many hecatombs.” He entered Constantinople a professed pagan, believing himself commissioned by the gods to restore the ancient religion, a Dionysos and a Hercules in one, the prophet and king of a pagan revival.
10. Julian's religious policy by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.
In his treatment of Christianity he believed that he shewed impartiality and refrained from persecution, and, if due allowance be made for his private hatred of those whom he contemptuously called Galilaeans, it is possible to believe that he was sincere in his professions.
His first act was to issue an edict permitting all bishops, exiled by Constantius for their attachment to the Nicene theology, to return and resume possession of their confiscated property but not their sees. More than once the leaders, clerical and laic, of the various parties into which Christianity was then divided, were summoned to his palace and told that they were at liberty to follow and advocate any form of belief they pleased. Ammianus Marcellinus, himself a pagan and a devoted admirer of Julian, declares that the Emperor did this in the firm belief that the Christians were so thoroughly divided that this liberty would end in their destroying each other by their mutual quarrels. If so the intention shews how little Julian understood the faith he despised. The bishops who had thronged the antechambers of Constantius and used backstairs intrigues against their rivals were very poor specimens of Christianity. The freedom of discussion which Julian permitted, the absence of Imperial interference, were the means of uniting not destroying the Church.
The greater part of the Emperor's edicts against Christianity were undoubtedly meant by him to make restitution to paganism and to the State of property and privileges which had been wrongly bestowed. The churches were commanded to restore the temple-sites and lands which had been given them for ecclesiastical purposes. If churches had been erected they were ordered to be demolished and the temples rebuilt at the expense of the Christians. The clergy and Christian poor had been granted sums of money from municipal treasuries; and these grants were to cease. Constantine's legislation had given to the Christian clergy privileges enjoyed by the heathen priesthood. To Julian's mind paganism was the religion of the State and alone it carried privileges with it. So the special laws guaranteeing to the Church rights of inheritance, and laws exempting the clergy from personal taxation and freeing them from the obligation to serve on municipal councils, were abrogated. Ammianus Marcellinus probably expresses the popular opinion when he declares that this legislation, however just in theory, was harsh in practice from its cumulative weight and the haste with which it was enforced.
No edict of Julian's excited the indignation of the Christians so thoroughly as that upon education. It was enacted that no Christian was to be allowed to teach in schools where the literature of Greece and Rome formed the basis of education; that all teachers must expound and insist upon the religion of the authors studied; but that Christian children might attend the schools. Perhaps the Emperor's reasons for his legislation increased their wrath; for pedantry is more irritating than force, and Julian's pedantic nature is displayed in his reasonings. “Homer, Hesiod, Demosthenes, Thucydides, Isocrates, Lysias, all founded their learning on the gods. Did not some of them believe themselves to be consecrated to Hermes and others to the muses? It seems therefore absurd to me that those who explain their works should not worship the gods they reverenced.” He did not like to remember that Mardonius, his own honoured teacher, had been a Christian. His fixed idea was that Christianity could have no connexion with Hellenic thought or civilisation, that its affectation of interest in ancient Greek literature was hypocrisy, and that it was his duty as ruler to keep men from occasions of practising such a vice. From one point of view the edict seemed to affect the Christians but slightly. They had long been accustomed to send their children to schools in which the most famous teachers were pagans; but now they believed that the Emperor desired to use all the public schools throughout the Empire for proselytising purposes. In the end this edict did more good than harm to Christianity. It shewed in a striking way both the stedfastness and the resources of the Christians. The two most distinguished Christian teachers, Prohaeresius of Athens and C. Marius Victorinus of Rome, at once resigned their appointments. The former was the most esteemed teacher in the East, Libanius only excepted. Julian did his utmost to win him over to paganism. When he remained firm, the Emperor offered to make him an exception to his rule; but the Christian refused to accept any concession which was not to be shared by his humbler brethren. Christian teachers all over the East assiduously devoted themselves to acquire the elegancies of the Greek tongue and to write school-books in that language which could serve as substitutes for the authors they were forbidden to use.
The Emperor naturally abolished the Labarum, and changed all other Christian into pagan emblems. He permitted, encouraged, the worship of his statues; he purged the Praetorian guard (not the whole army) of Christians. He also dismissed from his service all Christian attendants, and endeavoured to make the civil service completely pagan.
At least one distinguished Christian had little cause to thank Julian for his toleration, and his treatment of Athanasius almost suggests that the Emperor felt that the great bishop was the opponent from whom his plans had most to fear. On Julian's edict restoring to their homes and properties Christian bishops who had been banished by Constantius, Athanasius naturally returned to Alexandria and was warmly welcomed by his people. Julian was indignant. He insisted that his edict had not authorised the banished bishops to resume their ecclesiastical work, and ordered Athanasius to be sent away from the city and then from Egypt. “By all the gods,” he wrote to the governor of Egypt, “nothing could give me more pleasure than that thou shouldst expel from every corner of Egypt that criminal Athanasius, who has dared, during my reign, to baptise Greek wives of illustrious citizens. He must be persecuted.”
11. Julian's endeavours to reform Paganism by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.
Julian's efforts to restore and put new life into paganism are much more interesting than his attempts to damage Christianity. He called the religion he had so fervently adopted Hellenism, and his co-religionists Hellenes: Christianity was a barbarian cult, its supporters Galilaeans. But in reality the Christianity of the fourth century had absorbed much of what was best and most enduring in Hellenism; while the religion of Julian drew more of its contents from Oriental than from Hellenist sources. One cult into which he had been initiated and which he greatly esteemed, Mithraism, was the only one of those Oriental religions which seems to have been entirely unaffected by Hellenist thought.
The religion which Julian attempted to force on the Empire was a mosaic of decadent philosophy, bloody sacrifices, rituals old and new, “spiritualism” and divinations of all sorts. Its piety came from the cult of the Mysteries. It contained so much that was new that it was much more an attempted reconstruction or reformation than a revival of paganism.
Julian was quick to see that no religion could be universally accepted which had not behind it some common stable truths, and that Christianity had gained enormously from that compact system of doctrine which it had laboriously built up during the three centuries of its existence. If critics, like Celsus, had made capital out of the intellectual differences within Christianity, paganism was in a worse case. Heathenism had no basis of intellectual certainty; it had no universally accepted or acknowledged system of doctrine. If pagan philosophy were appealed to, it was anything but an harmonious system — one teacher said one thing only to be refuted by another. The Hermotimus of Lucian had somewhat wickedly shewn that the opinions of philosophy were as various as the thinkers were numerous. But the philosophic thinking of the age of Julian was eclectic, and Neoplatonism was supposed to reconcile all sorts of opinions. By ignoring some and rounding off the sharp corners of others it might be plausibly made out that all philosophies really meant to say the same things if they were only rightly understood. So Julian went to Neoplatonism for the intellectual basis or dogmatic theology of his new catholic State Religion. His philosophical acumen was by no means equal to that of his masters and he modestly confessed it. Iamblichus had taught him all that he knew, and that philosopher, in the opinion of Julian, had so explored the heights and depths of human and divine thought that nothing remained for any man save to accept his conclusions. The Neoplatonic thought of a Trinity of existence took the central place of the Christian in this new pagan theology.
Three worlds exist. First and highest is the realm of pure ideas where the Supreme Principle, the One, the Highest Good, the Great First Cause, lives and reigns. Below it is the intellectual world over which presides the same Supreme Principle, but now represented by an emanation from Itself, wholly spiritual, the Logos of the Platonic philosophy. The third is the world of sense existence, the universe of things seen and handled, and there, as beseems its surroundings, the ruler, the emanation from the Supreme Principle, assumes a visible form and can be seen while adored.
The “common man,” of course, could not be expected to understand or care for such high matters; but pagan philosophy had never thought much of the “common man” (which was its weakness), and he had always the gods nearest him to worship in that instinctive way which was alone possible for an intelligence such as his. Yet, Julian, with more sympathetic feeling for his needs than most pagan thinkers, made provision that even he should be taught the underlying unity and catholicity of his ancestral faith. Just as in Christianity, Jesus was the revealer of the Father, and men were taught to see the One Supreme God in the Son Incarnate, the Mediator, so Julian called on all men to see in the great orb of day the visible manifestation of the Supreme Principle, the First Cause, Who has begotten him and placed him in the heavens, the medium through which He dispenses His benefits throughout the universe of men and things. Even Christians, Julian thinks, might come to see this if their minds were not so darkened. They believe in Jesus, whom neither they nor their fathers have ever seen; but they do not believe that the God Helios is the true revealer of God, Helios whom the whole human race from the beginning of time has seen and has honoured as their munificent and potent benefactor, Helios the living animated beneficent image of the Supreme Father, Who is exalted above all the powers of reason. Man has body as well as soul, he has senses as he has capacities for intellectual thinking, therefore he needs visible gods to represent the gods invisible whom the Supreme Principle has sent forth from Himself and who suit the religious needs not merely of the different nations and tribes of mankind but also of the various divisions of men such as shopkeepers, tax-gatherers, dancers, etc. These thousands of deities are all in their places representatives of the One Supreme Principle, Who has sent them forth and on Whom they depend. The sun among the stars is an emblem of this divine unity in diversity.
Having thus demonstrated, as he believed, by exhortations and treatises, the unity which underlay the surface diversity of polytheism, Julian gave full scope to his desire to honour every manifestation of the one Supreme Principle, and to make use of every means whereby man could both shew his reverence for and seek communion with the divine. His first care was to make it clear to all that the worship of the old gods was to be the privileged cult. Bishops were banished from the antechambers and audience halls of the palace and in their stead came pagan priests and Neoplatonic philosophers — chief among them being Maximus the “medium.” The Emperor was unwearied in issuing decrees that all the ancient temples were to be thrown open and that the ceremonies of all the ancient cults were to be duly performed. It might be said that he converted his palace into a temple — so determined was he that every heathen festival should be observed and every detail of appropriate rite and sacrifice duly attended to — and it was said that his knowledge of the various rituals surpassed that of the priests themselves. His devotion to the whole sacrificial system of paganism has been recorded both by enemies and friends. We are told of one solemn sacrifice at which the victims included one hundred bulls, rams, sheep and goats, as well as innumerable white birds from land and sea. He issued minute directions about the number of the sacrifices which were to be offered by day and by night in the reopened temples. He wished that all the old gods should be invoked — Saturn, Jupiter, Apollo, Mars, Pluto, Bacchus, Silenus, Aesculapius, Castor and Pollux, Rhea, Juno, Minerva, Latona, Venus, Hecate, the Muses, etc. etc.; but personally, like the pagans of the age he lived in, he was more devoted to the deities of Oriental origin — to the Attis cult, to Mithras, and most of all to Isis and Serapis. Dionysos, whose cult had many of the Oriental characteristics, seems to have been his most favoured among the gods of Greece.
The office of Pontifex Maximus was an Imperial prerogative and the one most prized by Julian. He was unwearied in the performance of all the duties it required and he used it in his attempt to create that Catholic Pagan State Church. The very conception is decisive proof that Julian aimed, not at the revival but at a thorough reconstruction of paganism. He had the thought of a great independent spiritual community, wide as the Empire — a community so holy and separated that men and women who abandoned Christianity could only be admitted into it after the performance of prescribed purifying rites. This community was to be ruled over by a priesthood set apart for the service and forming a graded hierarchy. At the head of all was the Pontifex Maximus; next came pagan metropolitans or the high-priests of provinces; under them were high-priests who had rule over the temples and priests within the districts assigned to them. It is improbable that Julian had completed the hierarchical organisation of the Empire before his death, but large parts of the East had been put in order. We have some briefs which he, as supreme pontiff, sent down to his metropolitans in which he regulated many things from the dress and morals of the clergy to the training of temple choirs — so minute was the interference of the Pontifex Maximus. Now it is possible that one form of paganism, the Imperial cult, had been strictly organised in the West and its provincial priests may have had some jurisdiction over the ministers of other cults; Maximin Daza had attempted to do something similar in the East; but the attempt to gather every cult of polytheism into one organised communion was not merely new; it was a startling novelty. Julian's conception of a pagan priesthood entirely devoted to the service of religion was certainly not Hellenist; nor was it Roman; it was Oriental; the cults of Egypt, of Syria and of Asia had separated priesthoods. It was a new thing to be introduced into a universal State Church whose religion called itself Hellenism.
Julian thought a great deal about this priesthood of his and recognised its supreme importance for the reformation he dreamt of making. As the priest, from the office he fills, ought to be an example to all men, he should be selected with care — if possible a man of good family, neither very rich, nor very poor; but the indispensable qualifications are that he loves God and his neighbour. Love to God may be tested by observing whether the members of his family attend the temple services with regularity (Julian was very indignant when he discovered that the wives and daughters of some pagan priests were actually Christians), and love to one's neighbour by charity to the poor. Julian further insisted that the priest must be careful about what he reads. He is to shun all lascivious writings such as the old comedies or the contemporary erotic novels. He is to be equally circumspect in his conduct. He must not go to the theatre, nor to spectacles, and is not to frequent wine-shops. He is not to consort with actors nor to admit them to his house, he is even recommended not to accept too many invitations to dinner. On the other hand he is to see that he is master within his temple. He is to wear within it gorgeous vestments in honour of the gods whom he serves; but outside the sanctuary, when he mingles with men, he is to wear the ordinary dress. He is not to permit even the commander of the forces or the governor of the province to enter the temple with ostentation. He is to know the service thoroughly and to be able to repeat all the divine hymns. Occasionally he is to deliver addresses on philosophical subjects for the instruction of the multitude.
Julian also desired that the priests should organise schemes of charitable relief, more especially for the poor who attend the temple services. He thought that some such widely organised scheme might help to counteract the popularity of the “Galilaeans.” He seems also to have contemplated the institution of religious communities of men and women vowed to a life of chastity and meditation — another proof that his so-called Hellenism was based much more on Oriental religions than on those of Greece.
The Emperor in all this legislation or advice was at pains to declare that he was acting, not as Emperor, but as “Pontifex Maximus of the religion of my country.”
12. The Mysteries and Pagan Piety by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.
One feature of Julian's attempt to make the worship of the gods the universal and privileged religion of the Empire is too characteristic of the age to be entirely passed over. In the opening pages of this chapter, in which the living paganism of the third and fourth centuries is briefly described, it is shewn that the old official worships of Greece and Rome lingered as mere simulacra and that the real religious life of the times was fed by Oriental faiths which had introduced such thoughts as redemption, salvation, purification, the Way of Return, etc. It is not too much to say that whatever of the old pagan piety remained in the middle of the fourth century had attached itself to the worship of the Mysteries; and that pious men, if educated, looked on the different initiations and rites of purification taught in the various cults to be ways of attaining the same redemption, or finding the same Way of Return. Julian belonged to this age. He was a pure-hearted and deeply pious man. His piety was in a real sense heart religion, and, like that of his contemporaries, clothed itself in the cult of the Mysteries; while his nervous, sensitive character inclined him personally to the theurgic or magical side of the cult, and especially to what reproduced the old Dionysiac ecstasy. Hence the dominating thought in Julian's mind was to reform the whole public worship of paganism by impregnating it with the real piety and heart religion of the Mysteries cult. The one thing that was really reactionary in the movement he contemplated was the return to the worship of the old official deities, but he proposed to attempt this in a way which can only be called revolutionary. He endeavoured to put life into the old rituals by bringing to their aid and quickening them with that sincere fervour which the Mysteries cult demanded from its votaries. This is what makes Julian such an interesting figure in the history of paganism; while it in part accounts for his complete failure to do what he attempted. He tried to unite two things which had utterly separate roots, whose ideals were different, and which could not easily blend. For the religion of the Mysteries was essentially a private cult, into which men and women were received, one by one, by rites of initiation which each had to pass through personally, and, when admitted, they became members of coteries, large or small, of like-minded persons. They had entered because their souls had craved something which they believed the initiations and purifications would give. It was a common saying among them that as sickness of the body needed medicine, so the sickness of the soul required those rites to which they submitted. What had this to do with the courteous recognition due to the bright celestial beings which was the central thought of the official religion of Greece, or the punctilious performance of ceremonies which was believed to propitiate the sterner deities of Rome? Mysteries and participation in their rites may exist along with a belief in the necessity and religious value of the public services of a state religion; but whenever the latter can only be justified, even by its own votaries, on the ground of traditional and patriotic propriety, Mystery worship may take its place but can never quicken it. When the whole piety of paganism disappeared in the Mysteries cult, it estranged itself from the national and official religion; and the Mysteries could never be used to recall the gods of Olympus for whose banishment they had been largely responsible.
No edicts of an Emperor could change the bright deities of Olympus into saviours, or transform their careless votaries into men who felt in their hearts the need of redemption and a way of return. Yet that was what Julian had to do when he proposed to impregnate the old official worship with the fervour of the Mysteries cult. It was equally in vain to think that the Mysteries cult, which owed its power to its spontaneity, to its independence, to its individuality, could be drilled and organised into the national religion of a great Empire. It was a true instinct that led Julian to see that the real and living pagan piety of his generation had taken refuge within the circles of the Mysteries, and that the hope of paganism lay in the spread of the fervour which kindled their votaries; his mistake lay in thinking that it could be used to requicken the official worship. It would have been better for his designs had he acted as did Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, the model of genuine pagan piety in the Roman senatorial circle (princeps religiosorum, Macrobius calls him). Praetextatus contented himself with a dignified and cool recognition of the official deities of Rome but sought outlet for his piety elsewhere, in initiations at Eleusis and other places and in the purifying rite of the taurobolium. The sentimental side of Julian's nature led him astray. He could not forget his early studies in Homer and Hesiod (he quotes Homer as frequently and as fervently as a contemporary Christian does the Holy Scriptures) and he had to introduce the gods of Olympus somewhere. He tried to unite the passionate Oriental worships with the dignified Greek and the grave Roman ceremonies where personal faith was superfluous. The elements were too incongruous.
13. Julian's failure by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.
In spite of all the signs of a reaction against Christianity Julian failed; and for himself the tragedy of his failure lay in the apathy of his co-religionists. In spite of his elaborate treatise against Christianity and his other writings; notwithstanding his public orations and his private persuasions, Julian did not succeed in making many converts. We hear of no Christians of mark who embraced Hellenism, save the rhetorician Hecebolius and Pegasius, a bishop with a questionable past. The Emperor boasted that his Hellenism made some progress in the army, but at his death the legions selected a Christian successor.
It is almost pathetic to read Julian's accounts of his continual disappointments. He could not find in “all Cappadocia a single man who was a true Hellenist.” They did not care to offer sacrifice, and those who did so, did not know how. In Galatia, at Pessinus where stood a famous temple erected to the Great Mother, he had to bribe and threaten the inhabitants to do honour to the goddess. At Beroea he harangued the municipal council on the duty of worshipping the gods. “They all warmly praised my discourse,” he says somewhat sadly, “but none were convinced by it save the few who were convinced before hearing.” So it was wherever he went. Even pagan admirers like Ammianus Marcellinus were rather bored with the Emperor's Hellenism and thought the whole thing a devout imagination not worth the trouble he wasted on it. The senatorial circle at Rome had no sympathy with Julian's Hellenic revival. No one shewed any enthusiasm but the narrow circle of Neoplatonist sophists, and they had no influence with the people.
Yet Julian's attempt to stay the progress of Christianity and to drive back the tide which was submerging the Empire, was, with all its practical faults, by far the ablest yet conceived. It provided a substitute and presented an alternative. The substitute was pretentious and artificial, but it was probably the best that the times could furnish. Hellenism, Julian called it; but where in that golden past of Hellas into which the Imperial dreamer peered, could be found a puritan strictness of conduct, a prolonged and sustained religious fervour, and a religion independent of the State? The three strongest parts of his scheme had no connexion with Hellenism. Religions may be used, but cannot be created by statesmen, unless they happen to have the prophetic fire and inspiration — and Julian was no prophet. He may be credited with seizing and combining in one whole the strongest, anti-Christian forces of his generation — the passion of Oriental religion, the patriotic desire to retain the old religion under which Greece and Rome had grown great, and the glory of the ancient literature, the superstition which clung to magic and divinations, and a philosophy which, if it lacked independence of thought, at least represented that eclecticism which was the intellectual atmosphere which all men then breathed. He brought them together to build an edifice which was to be the temple of his Empire. But though the builder had many of the qualities which go to make a religious reformer — pure in heart and life, full of sincere piety, manly and with a strong sense of duty — the edifice he reared was quite artificial, lacked the living principle of growth, and could not last. Athanasius gave its history in four words when he said “It will soon pass.” The world had outgrown paganism.
Whatever faults the Christianity of the time exhibited, whatever ills had come to it from Imperial patronage and conformity with the world, it still retained within it the original simplicity and profundity of its message. Nothing in its environment could take that from it. It proclaimed a living God, Who had made man and all things and for Whom man was made. That God had manifested Himself in Jesus Christ and the centre of the manifestation was the Passion of our Lord — the Cross. Whatever special meanings attach themselves to the intellectual apprehension of this manifestation, it contains two plain thoughts which can be grasped as easily by the simplest as by the most cultured intelligence, and was therefore universal as no previous religion had ever been. It gave a new revelation of God — a personal Deity, whose chiefest manifestation was a sympathy with all who were beneath Him and a yearning to deliver them at all costs to Himself. It gave, at the same time, a new revelation of man, made in the image of God and therefore capable of far-off imitation; his life no longer ruled by the precepts of a calculating utilitarianism nor curbed by a statutory morality, freed from the chains of all taboos and rituals, inspired by the one principle “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” and this thought made vivid by the vision of a pure active Divine Life which spent itself in the service of mankind.
Some of the Oriental religions, notably those of Mithras and Isis, were groping after this idea of “brother man”; the Imperial world was, in a vague way, advancing towards it; but the Cross of Christ shewed its highest and clearest manifestation. Therefore Christianity teaching that every follower of Christ, in so far as he was really a disciple, should imitate the Master, could set the stamp of the Cross on every portion of human life and on every social institution. It was the religion of the Cross, the religion whose watchword was “brother man.” It was therefore universal and to it the future belonged.
If such things can be dated, the death of Julian marks the triumph of Christianity in the Roman world, eastern and western. The exclamation, “Galilaean, Thou hast conquered,” is a fable which clothes a fact. Yet it would be a grave mistake to say that paganism disappeared suddenly either from the East or from the West.
14. Survivals of Paganism in the East by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.
In the East it never recovered its position as a state religion, but it existed as a private cult practised by no inconsiderable proportion of the people. It did not offer the strenuous resistance to Imperial anti-pagan legislation which was to be seen in the West. The number of Christians had always been much larger and it is more than probable that many of the laws against pagans were supported by public opinion. Julian's immediate successors practised a policy of toleration for all religions, and contented themselves with professing and favouring Christianity. It was the religion of the Imperial household and of the great majority of the population — nothing more. Pagans lived on free to worship what divinities they pleased. Even when Valens and emperors who came after him renewed and enforced laws against pagan worship no traces are to be found of anything like a general persecution. Accusations were listened to and procedure taken against numbers of wealthy persons in the hope of filling the Imperial treasury; but the mass of the people remained untouched. Whole districts, which were notoriously poor, were exempted from the operation of the laws. During the reign of Valens a large number of temples fell into ruins, but probably it was not the operation of the law which caused their destruction. The more celebrated temples were often in possession of large yearly revenues derived from lands and other endowments and in charge of the hereditary priesthood who presided over the worship. As paganism decayed these priesthoods frequently secularised the revenues, took possession of them and were content to see the edifices fall into ruin. Still paganism remained rooted in many of the old noble families of the East, and in such aristocratic households the place of private chaplain was filled by a Neoplatonic philosopher. As many of the members of this nobility were called to occupy high places in the civil administration of the Empire, they were able to protect their co-religionists and took care to see that the anti-pagan laws were not enforced within their jurisdictions. Optatus, praefect of Constantinople in 404 was a pagan. In A.D. 467 Isocasius, the quaestor of Antioch, was accused of paganism. Phocas took poison to prevent himself being obliged to embrace Christianity as late as the time of Justinian. Many of the more famous literary men — Eunapius, Zosimus, perhaps Procopius — were strongly anti-Christian. Pamprepius, a Neoplatonist, famed for his power of divination, an avowed pagan, drew a salary from the public revenues and, along with distinguished generals like Marsus and Leontius, aided Illus in his revolt against the Emperor Zeno in 484. But by the end and indeed throughout the whole of the fifth century thoughtful paganism had become a sort of Quietism and exercised no influence on the public life of the population. When Theodosius the Great succeeded in uniting the orthodox Church with the Imperial administration, when the great bishops were placed in possession of powers almost equal to those of the governors of provinces, the Church became the guardian of the rights of the people and the interpreter of its wishes. The Church, in that age of bureaucracy, had a popular constitution; its clergy came from the people; the services were in the language of the district; its bishops were the natural and sympathetic leaders of the people; and the whole population gradually became included within the Christian Church.
Athens and Achaia long remained the last stronghold of paganism in the East. The Eleusinian and other mysteries, the great heathen festivals celebrated in Athens and in other cities of Hellas, attracted crowds of strangers from all parts of the Empire. Religious beliefs, patriotic associations, thoughts of material prosperity combined to make the people of the towns and districts resolute to maintain and defend them. So strong were the popular feelings that it would have led to riots, probably to attempted insurrection, to enforce the Imperial legislation against temples, sacrifices and the celebration of pagan ceremonies by night. The emperors found it necessary either to exempt Hellas from the operation of these laws altogether or to suffer their non-enforcement. The Eleusinian Mysteries continued until the famous temple was destroyed by the Goths under Alaric. The Olympic Games were celebrated until the reign of Theodosius I (394). The great and venerated statue of Minerva remained to protect the city of Athens until about 480. The great temple of Olympia remained open until its destruction — whether by the Goths or by command of Theodosius II is unknown.
In the fourth and fifth centuries Athens remained the most distinguished intellectual centre of the time. The teachers in its schools, for the most part Neoplatonists who resolutely refused to accept Christianity, maintained the old pagan traditions. Their influence was recognised and feared. Theodosius II forbade private teachers to give public lectures under pain of banishment. Justinian, determined to crush the last remains of paganism, confiscated the funds which furnished the salaries of the professors, seized on the endowments of the Academy of Plato, and closed the schools. The persecuted philosophers fled to Persia to avoid imprisonment or death and remained there until King Chosroes obtained from the Emperor a promise that they would be unmolested if they returned to their homes.
15. Paganism in the West, and its influence on literature and Christianity
In the West paganism shewed itself much stronger. It displayed its greatest tenacity in Rome itself, and there were many reasons why it should do so. The old paganism had been closely connected with the State and when it ceased to be the privileged religion it had no common centre round which to rally. In Rome it was otherwise. Its stronghold was the Senate, and all the elements of opposition to Christianity could group themselves round that venerable assembly. The Senate had lost its powers but its prestige remained, and the Emperors were chary of attacking its dignity. It represented the ancient grandeur of Rome and was the heir and defender of old Roman traditions. The city was full of monuments of Rome's past greatness. They were, for the most part, temples built to commemorate signal victories, and were visible signs of the old religion under which Rome had grown to greatness. The Senate took pride in preserving these witnesses of the past splendours of the Imperial city and in seeing that the old ceremonial rites were duly performed in spite of anti-pagan legislation. During the second half of the fourth century and into the fifth, the pagan senators of Rome flaunted their religion in the face of the world. They were at pains to record on their family tombstones and other private monuments that they had been hierophants of Hecate, had been initiated at Eleusis, had been priests of Hercules, Attis, Isis or Mithras. In spite of the edicts and efforts of the sons of Constantine and of successors of Julian paganism was the state religion of Rome down to 383. Its worship was performed according to the old rites. The days consecrated to the old gods, and others added in honour of the newer Oriental deities, were the Roman holidays. Every year on 27 January the Praefectus urbi went down to Ostia and presided over “games” in honour of Castor and Pollux. All these costly ceremonies, sacrifices and shows were provided for out of the Imperial treasury. They were part of the state religion, and the Senate were determined that they should be so regarded. The Emperor might be a Christian, but he was nevertheless Pontifex Maximus, the official head of the old pagan religion, and they believed themselves justified in performing its rites in his name.
The Emperor Gratian delivered the first effectual blow against this state of matters. He refused to assume the office of Pontifex Maximus, probably in 375. In 383 he ordered that the great pagan ceremonies and sacrifices should no longer be defrayed out of the Imperial treasury, and saw that he was obeyed. He took from the ancient priesthoods of Rome the emoluments and immunities which they had enjoyed for centuries. He removed from the Senate House the statue of Victory and its altar on which incense had been duly burnt since the days of Octavius. The last great battle for the official recognition of paganism raged over these decrees. It lasted about ten years. Symmachus and Ambrose, both representatives of old Roman patrician families, were the leaders on the pagan and on the Christian side. The pagan party in the Senate fought every inch of ground against the advancing tide of Christianity. Its leading members enrolled themselves in the ancient priesthoods and assumed the dignities of the sacra peregrina. They provided for the sacrifices and other sacred rites at their own expense. They spent their means in restoring ancient temples and in building new ones. They had high hopes of a pagan reaction under Maximus, who had defeated and slain Gratian; under the short-lived Emperor Eugenius, who promised on his leaving Milan to meet Theodosius in battle that, on his return, he would stable his horses in Christian basilicas. The victory of Theodosius (394) on the Frigidus ended these hopes. They revived again for the last time when Alaric made Attalus a rival emperor to Honorius and when that ruler gathered round him counsellors who were for the most part pagans professed or secret. But paganism was not destined to obtain even a temporary victory. Perhaps, as Augustine said, it only desired to die honourably. Its political defeats did not quench the zeal of its lessening number of votaries. They engaged in polemical contests with their opponents. They wrote books to prove that the invasions of the barbarians and the weakness of the Empire were punishments sent by the gods for the abandonment of the ancient religion, and called forth such replies as the Historia adversus paganos of Paulus Orosius and the De Civitate Dei of St Augustine.
The tenacity of paganism in the West was not confined to Rome. The poems of Rutilius, the Homilies of Maximus of Turin and of Martin of Bracara, the Epistles of St Augustine, the history of Gregory of Tours and the series of facts collected in the Anecdota of Caspari, all shew that paganism lingered long in Italy, Gaul, Spain and North Africa, and that neither the persuasions of Christian preachers nor the penalties threatened by the State were able to uproot it altogether. The records of district ecclesiastical councils tell the same tale.
Literature may almost be called the last stronghold of paganism for the cultivated classes all over the Empire. It is hard for us to sympathise with the feelings of Christians in the fifth century for whom cultivated paganism was a living reality possessed of a seductive power; who could not separate classical literature from the religious atmosphere in which it had been produced; and who regarded the masterpieces of the Augustan age as beautiful horrors from which they might hardly escape. Jerome had fears for his soul's salvation because he could not conquer his admiration for Cicero's Latin prose, and Augustine shrank within himself when he thought on his love for the poems of Vergil. Had not his classical tastes driven him in youth from the uncouth latinity of the copies of the Holy Scriptures when he tried to read them? Christianity had mastered their heart, mind and conscience, but it could not stifle fond recollection nor tame the imagination. In some respects paganism ruled over literature. The poet Claudian, whether he was heathen or Christian, lived and moved and had his being in the world of pagan thought. Sidonius Apollinaris could not string verses without endless mythological allusions. Rutilius, a hater of Christians and of their religion, adored with heart and soul the Dea Roma, Urbs Aeterna. Perhaps the dread of the power which seemed to lurk in literature was heightened by the courteous and kindly intercourse of Christians with pagans during the years of the last struggle. The Church owed much to the schools and was almost afraid of the debt. Basil and Gregory had been fellow-students with Julian at Athens. Chrysostom had been a pupil of Libanius, and acknowledged how much he owed to the great anti-Christian leader. Synesius had sat in the class-room of Hypatia at Alexandria, and never forgot some of the lessons he had learned there. And paganism never shewed itself to greater advantage than during its last years of heroic but unavailing struggle. Its leaders, whether in the Schools of Athens or among the Senatorial party at Rome, were for the most part men of pure lives with a high moral standard of conduct — men who commanded esteem and respect. Immorality abounded, but the pagan standard had become much higher. Christians and heathen were full of mutual esteem for each other. The letters exchanged between Symmachus and Ambrose reveal the intimacy in which the nobler pagans and earnest-minded Christians lived. Even the caustic Jerome seems to have a lurking but sincere affection for some of the leaders of the pagan Senatorial party. It is curious too to find that many of those stalwart supporters of the old religion of Rome were married to Christian wives, and that their daughters were brought up as Christians while the sons followed the father's faith. Jerome has drawn no more charming picture than that of the old heathen pontiff Albinus, the leader of the anti-Christian party in Rome, sitting in his study with his small grand-daughter on his knees, listening to the child while she repeated to him a Christian hymn she had just been taught by her mother. Theodosius II, most theological of emperors, married the daughter of a pagan who had taught philosophy in the Schools of Athens.
Yet however near pagans and Christians might approach each other in life and standard of conduct, a great gulf separated them. In the grey twilight of that fifth century, when men whose sight seemed clearest looked forward to the coming of a night of chaos, the Christian whisper of consolation was better than the pagan thought of destiny. The difference went further than ideals. If it be strange to find practical statesmen like Ambrose and Augustine, able to see that the pressing need of the times was upright citizenship, defending that ascetic life which threw aside all civic duties and responsibilities, surely it is stranger still to find those pure-minded, noble pagans forced by religious partizanship to be the zealous defenders of the bloody gladiatorial spectacles and the untiring opponents of all attempts to better the unhappy lot of actors and actresses condemned to life-long slavery in a calling which then could not fail to be disgraceful. If the dying world was to be requickened, it was not paganism that could bring salvation. So it slowly, almost unconsciously, passed away before the advancing tide of Christianity.
Means were found of reconciling many festivals to which the populace was devoted, both in town and in country, with the prevailing Christian sentiment. It was evil to fete Bacchus or Ceres, but there could be no harm in rejoicing publicly over the vintage and the harvest. The Lupercalia themselves were changed into a Christian festival by Pope Gelasius. Many a tutelary deity became a patron saint. The people retained their rustic processions, their feasts and their earthly delights. The temples were left standing. They became public halls where the citizens could meet, or exchanges where the merchants could congregate, while the statues of the gods looked down from their niches undisturbed and unheeded.
So when the Teutonic invasion seemed to overwhelm utterly the ancient civilisation, the Church with its compact organisation was strong enough to sustain itself amid the wreck of all things, and was able to teach the barbarian conquerors to assimilate much of the culture, many of the laws and institutions of the conquered, and in the end to rear a new and Holy Roman Empire on the ruins of the old.
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