Within the modern political right today, many who are of a pagan or Nietzschean persuasion argue that Christianity is a degenerative element within society. They blame Christianity for being one of the main factors that led to the decline of the West that we are currently living through. Their arguments range from the argument that Christianity is irrational and superstitious to the idea that Christian teachings make a society weak and its people unable or unwilling to defend themselves from outside attack. This view of Christianity is one that they share with some of the leading figures of the enlightenment. Edward Gibbon in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire argues that the major cause of the decline of the Roman empire was the rise of Christianity.
In this article I would like to narrate aspects of roman history which are generally ignored in order to show that prior to the rise of Christianity, Rome was culturally and spiritually facing many of the same problems we are today. As the traditional Roman belief system declined, people sought answers in various new cults and philosophies. Ultimately it was only Christianity which could provide answers for a Roman empire which was rotting from the inside out.
In order to understand the vastness of the change in religion and morals that would occur in Rome, we must get a picture of the traditional beliefs that characterized the early Roman republic. The Romans were a conservative people: they valued tradition, discipline, frugality and moderation. They were also deeply religious, even superstitious, believing that they were maintaining a set of religious practices and institutions given to them by their second king, Numa Pompilius. Their early religion was a combination of ancestor worship, local Latin gods, and some gods and traditions imported from the Greeks and Etruscans. That being said, the traditional Roman belief system was not based on a systematic pantheon, or even a fixed set of gods. Rather core to roman belief was the Mos maiorum, or "ways of our ancestors". The Mos maiorum was a combination of several important elements. Firstly there were Roman religious institutions such as the Vestal Virgins tending to the sacred fire, or the office of the Pontifex Maximus (supreme priest). Then there were religious celebrations such as the Festival of the Latin peoples on Mons Albanus where Jupiter Latiaris (who was identified with Latinus, father of the Latin peoples) was celebrated. The traditional religious beliefs of the Romans worked to strengthen the republic by upholding the values of the Roman people and supporting the state. The political traditions, morals and way of life of the Romans were deeply intertwined with their religious belief and there was not even the concept of the separation of the religious sphere and the public or private spheres of life.
However, by the late Roman republic, prior to the birth of Christ, there was a collapse in traditional Roman values and religion. Rome’s most famous writers, such as Cicero, spent a great deal of their time writing about the death of traditional republican virtues. In fact, Cicero was a member of the conservative faction of the late roman republic. One of the main concerns of this political faction was the restoration of Roman virtue in order to reverse the decline of the republic. Another member of this faction, Cato the Elder, commented on the rise of what can best be described from a modern perspective as proto-feminism and degeneracy in women.
In 195 BC, Roman women blockaded the Forum in order to protest the Oppian law. The law was instituted during the second Punic war. When facing potential conquest by Hannibal, the Romans had instituted the law to restrict how much wealth a woman could possess and display in order to have as much wealth as possible to dedicate to the war effort. The law was maintained after the war and used to instill public virtue by restricting the ostentatiousness and materialism of women who wished to show their superiority over others by spending on lavish clothing and jewelry. However, in a break with republic tradition, as women were not allowed to participate in politics, the women of Rome filled the streets to harangue the men until they gave in and repealed the law. Cato described the situation thusly:
“Citizens of Rome, if each one of us had set himself to retain the rights and the dignity of a husband over his own wife, we should have less trouble with women as a whole sex. As things are, our liberty, overthrown in the home by female indiscipline, is now being crushed and trodden underfoot here too, in the Forum.”
Cato went on to warn that allowing women to join politics would soon lead to female equality, and with it the overthrow of Roman family values. In order to further illustrate the situation with Roman women in the late republic we can turn to a story about Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi brothers. While she was speaking with a group of Roman women, they asked her why she did not wear extravagant clothing and jewelry, Cornelia answered by calling her sons and pointed to them saying “these are my jewels”. Cornelia was famously a model of Roman virtue, but what’s notable about that story is that Cornelia was exceptional for her virtue because every other woman in Rome was focused on getting social clout by consuming expensive goods.
The changing attitudes of women in this period coincided with the Roman republic becoming the dominant Mediterranean power after defeating its rivals. One effect of Rome expanding in this way was the import of foreign cultures to Rome. The major foreign influence during Cato’s period was Greek. Cato was strongly opposed to Greek philosophers and sophists coming to Rome and popularizing their doctrines, as he thought Greek culture was subverting Roman traditions and turning Roman men effeminate.
Nevertheless, Cato was unable to stop the spread of Greek philosophy, and eventually, the primacy of Rome’s Mos maiorum was supplanted by various philosophical schools and mystery cults. Importantly, the syncretic nature of Roman religion—its lack of dogmas and systematic theology—gave it an attitude of tolerance towards most foreign belief systems. The one exception to this was the treatment of strict monotheistic and intolerant faiths like Christianity, which the romans attempted to eradicate through persecution. It was typical of Rome’s encounters with other cultures that they would absorb the foreign belief systems into their own. But as we shall see, this led over time to the dilution of the traditional Roman belief system and its decline and replacement by a disunified mosaic of various cults and philosophies.
Among the Roman elite, the philosophies of Epicureanism and Stoicism became very popular as they both offered a program for self-development and Stoicism upheld an ethic of duty. Both philosophies broke with the Roman religious tradition in that they were materialistic, and leaned somewhat towards atheism.
Stoicism argues that the universe is made of two elements: matter which is inert, and fire which is the logos which animates matter and gives it a form. This logos-fire is more like a spark which gets the whole mechanism of the universe going, and all things in the universe follow cycles of development according to their first principles. Politically, the founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, was something approaching an anarchist. In his Republic, he wrote of an ideal world that would have no borders, equality of all people, no temples to the gods permitted, and equality between men and women. While later Stoics such as Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius maintained the materialistic metaphysics, they dropped the anarchist politics in favour of total obedience to the state and acceptance of one’s place in the world.
Epicureanism proposed a world that was made of atoms which are falling through space. These atoms swerve sometimes, and their motions create the reality we experience. The Epicurean proposition was that one ought to seek pleasure and avoid pain. According to Epicurean thought, the best way to do this is to retreat from society and live communally with a group of friends: this challenged the Roman value of public service. The Epicurean philosopher Lucretius famously wrote On the Nature of Things, in which he outlined an atheistic materialist worldview. Lucretius did not deny that there were gods—rather, he argued that the gods did not care about the world and were off on their own, living their lives separate from Man. Thus, according to Lucretius, prayers and other religious rituals performed by the Romans had no effect as the gods weren’t listening.
Those who didn’t abandon Roman religion for these philosophies joined the rising eastern mystery cults like those of Bacchus, Isis, Mithras, Sol Invictus, Cybele, and many others. Mystery cults promised their followers that they could gain eternal life by going through an initiation ritual in which they pledged themselves to worship the particular god of that cult. Some of these cults were more offensive to the Mos maiorum than others. For example the cult of Bacchus would hold rituals called Bacchanalia where the members would get drunk in order to lose their inhibitions and then engage in orgies. The Cybele cultists performed a ritual wherein the men castrated themselves and dressed up like women.
Other cults were seen as beneficial by powerful institutions and therefore promoted to the point at which they superseded the traditional Roman religion in importance. For example, the cult of Mithras was valued by the army because it promoted masculine and warlike virtues. The god Mithras however, was imported from the Persian Zoroastrian tradition.
Much later though, still prior to the conversion of the empire to Christianity, we see the decay of Roman religion and morality reach its logical conclusion in the late Roman republic.
The political context for this period of rapid religious and philosophical change was the continuous expansion of Roman territory and growing political violence and chaos within the republic. In the late republic, there was the murder of the Gracchi brothers, the civil war between Marius and Sulla, the civil war between Caesar and Pompei, the murder of Caesar, the civil war between the murderers of Caesar and the followers of Caesar, and the civil war between Marc Antony and Octavian. The republic finally came to an end when Octavian defeated Marc Antony and took power as the first Roman emperor. Octavian, who we now know as Augustus, was himself a conservative and was deeply concerned with the decline of Roman society.
One of Augustus’ very revealing policy concerns was with low birth-rates, which suggests that low birth-rates amongst Romans was a problem by the time he took power. Indeed, Augustus made a great effort to increase the Roman birth-rate, especially among the upper classes. To that end Augustus implemented a set of laws known as the lex julia de Maritandis Ordinibus and the lex Pappia Poppaea. These laws included legal penalties for unmarried people, awards for citizens who had 3 or more children, and prohibitions against senators marrying certain classes of people, such as freed slaves. According to some scholars, part of the motivation may have been to preserve the ancient Roman bloodlines which traced their ancestry to the foundation of the Roman state. The whole Roman political system was founded on classifying political rights by ancestry, and so the basic building block of the Roman state was the ancient clans, such as the Julii, Claudii and Cornelii.
However, in the centuries following the reign of Augustus, we see that his reforms failed to halt the decay of Roman religion and morality. Quite the reverse occurred. The reign of the emperor Elagabulus, lasting four years from AD 218 to AD 222 appears as an extreme manifestation of the degeneration of Rome. Elagabulus was a Syrian boy who took the imperial throne at age 14. From his ancestors he inherited the title of Head Priest of the Syrian sun god Elagabal, also known in Latin as Sol Invictus. Elagabalus elevated Elagabal to be the highest god of the roman pantheon, replacing the Roman god Jupiter as the traditional head.
Alongside this religious controversy, Elagabalus also raised controversy for turning the imperial palace into a brothel with himself as one of the prostitutes. According to Cassius Dio in his Roman History, Elagabalus took both male and female lovers, including a Vestal Virgin. For the Romans the virginity of the vestal virgins was sacred and bedding one as Elagabalus did was blasphemy. Elagabalus also put on women’s clothes and makeup and demanded that others refer to him as a lady. Cassius Dio also recounts that Elagabalus put out a call to physicians all across the empire offering money to whoever could surgically complete his transformation.
In the midst of the mass dissension of the late republic, the Roman author Virgil wrote the Messianic Eclogue. The Messianic Eclogue, written around the year 40 BC, was the fourth in a series of poems. What is special about the Messianic Eclogue is that it is presented by Virgil as a prophecy of a baby boy sent by heaven who will come to save the world. Along with being a prophecy, I would argue we can read it as a prayer by Virgil, living as he was during a period of violence and social decadence.
In the Eclogue, Virgil wrote that the child would usher in a new age. He would be a firstborn boy, a child of the gods and the heir of Jove who would carry the life of the gods in him. His birth would usher in a new millennial aeon which would see the age of iron pass away and a new golden race would be born. He would rule over the world and bring peace. Yet he would also bring new wars, a new age of heroes with Achilles rising to take Troy and the Argonauts once again roaming the seas. The child would destroy evil in his reign.
Virgil heavily relied on rustic imagery, presenting the prophesied new world as an Arcadian state. Milk and honey would flow, and for the boy nature would proffer its bounty. Uncultivated lands would flourish, and blooms of flowers would caress the child’s cheek. In their book Virgil's Messianic eclogue, its meaning, occasion, & sources; three studies, professors Joseph B. Mayor, W. Warde Fowler, and R.S. Conway argued that Virgil took inspiration from the book of the prophet Isaiah. The book of Isaiah is an ancient book of prophecy in the old testament, traditionally dated to the 8th century BC, with liberal scholars dating it to the 6th century BC. In any case, it was written several hundred years before Virgil was born and so had the time to percolate around the Mediterranean. As noted earlier, Roman imperial expansion brought Rome into contact with many foreign ideas, including the writings of the Israelites. To get a sense of the similarities between Virgil and Isaiah, it is worth looking at Isaiah’s predictions of the coming of Christ.
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” - Isaiah 9:6
“But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.” - Isaiah 11:4
Ultimately, though Virgil did not know it, several decades later St. Paul brought news of the fulfillment of his Eclogue when he preached in the Areopagus in Athens, described in Acts 17:16-34. Even though the Epicureans and Stoics in Athens mocked St. Paul, their philosophy withered, and Virgil’s prayer was answered.
Indeed, from the Apology of Aristides, written by a Greek philosopher who converted to Christianity, we know how radically they had been shaped by their faith. Aristides wrote his apology in the 2nd century AD as a letter to the emperor Hadrian to convince him to stop persecuting Christians. Aristides described how Christians treated each other like brothers, helped widows and orphans, and fasted in order to give their food to the poor. Whenever one of them was arrested by the Roman authorities for being Christian, the others would tend to his needs and pay his bail if they could. Aristides concludes his description with this observation: “And verily, this is a new people, and there is something divine in the midst of them”.
Indeed this quality of seeming to the Romans like a new race of men allowed the Christians to spread their faith throughout the empire. Christianity in its early years spread largely amongst the poor and the forgotten, with Christian charity to the needy being one of the most powerful arguments for conversion. At first, Christianity spread mainly in cities, with the people in the countryside sticking to their pagan practices. This is actually the origin of our word “pagan”, which comes from “paganus”, denoting a villager from the countryside. Yet even then the Christian ethos served to bring the countryside over. This is exemplified by the life of Saint Martin, 4th century AD Bishop of Tours. Saint Martin started life in the Roman army, however he eventually became a bishop in the church. He disliked the city and so spent most of his time preaching in the French countryside. He lived a life of poverty and was famous for his charity; his most famous act was cutting his cloak in half to give it to a beggar. He was loved by the peasants so that when he died they flocked from all over to his funeral. Ultimately, Saint Martin was largely responsible for the conversion of the French countryside to Christianity and the importance of his legacy is highlighted by the fact that Saint Martin’s day is an important folk festival in Germany to this day.
Of course the beginning of the political victory of Christianity of Christianity over all other worldviews in the Roman empire occurred a few years before the birth of Saint Martin, when emperor Constantine received a vision from God and ordered his men to paint the Chi-Rho (symbol of Jesus Christ) on their shields. Following this, Constantine defeated the larger army of the pagan emperor Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian bridge in AD 312. As a result of his victory, Constantine became Roman emperor and the following year after the battle, he issued the edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity and ended the persecution of it.
For his victories, Constantine was recognized as a Saint by the Christian church, thus making him the first of the sainted Christian warrior kings. The Western Roman empire fell in AD 476, but the Eastern Roman empire centered in Constantinople lasted for another thousand years, its existence grounded by its Christian faith. Meanwhile, in the West, while the Roman empire had fallen, the people still remained, holding to their Christian faith even while everything around them collapsed. These local populations eventually mixed with the Germanic tribes who invaded from the north and became part of a developing European identity known until recently as Christendom, which we now call Western Civilization.
Christianity rose up in the ruins of a traditional Roman culture which had begun to collapse prior to the birth of Christ. Where many Romans looked to materialist philosophies or eastern pagan cults, it was Virgil’s hope in a Son of Heaven coming to save the world which found fulfillment.