Pagans and Christians

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

There is an admonition from historian Herbert Butterfield that the task of the historian is not to study the origins of things but to analyze how the past came to be our present. Pagans and Christians is a monumental analysis of the transition from the pagan Roman world to the Christian empire. Robin Lane Fox sets for himself the difficult and at times all but impossible task of re-creating the feel and force behind pagan culture in the second and third centuries. To this he adds a comprehensive view of the nascent Christian culture and a reevaluation of the significance of Constantine’s conversion, presenting a challenge to the traditional historical view that Christianity met deep-seated needs among the people that the dying Greek and Roman gods could not fill. Lane Fox maintains that pagan (that is, nondoctrinal and nonorthodox from a Christian perspective) religion was far from decaying in the century leading up to Constantine and that the Christian triumph said more about the nature of Christianity than about any lack in paganism.

Part 1 describes life in the pagan empire, especially as it centered on civic duty and cultic ritual. Part 2 details the spread (not necessarily the numerical expansion) of Christianity, and part 3 traces the centrality of Constantine in the rise of the Church and the change from a pagan to a Christian culture.

Much of the archaeological evidence the author considers did not exist a mere lifetime ago. A study of epigraphs or inscriptions now enables the historian to trace an individual’s movements over a period of decades and to build a picture of how city life changed in the empire by the changing nature of the inscriptions (especially those in connection with the oracular temples). Lane Fox’s findings allow him to take issue with Plutarch, who lamented the decline of the oracle texts in verse (sometime around the first decades of the second century) and their replacement by simplistic and unambiguous responses from the gods. That, said Plutarch, served only to undermine the popular belief in the inspiration of the oracles. People no longer inquired about the great questions of state, but only about plagues and famines, where simple or vague replies were all that was needed. Where was the Homeric grandeur of old?

Plutarch’s writings have been taken as evidence that with the corresponding rise of Christianity the old pagan religion was losing its hold. Yet Lane Fox maintains that even in the imperial period paganism flourished. He explains the loss of Homeric ambiguity, seemingly abundant in the classic age of Herodotus, by suggesting that the oracles of the classic age may have survived in texts mainly as literary fictions and that the use of riddles and Homeric poetry by the oracles may well be overestimated. The author points out that loss of literary quality reflects changing social contexts, not the loss of pagan religiosity. Since the function of pagan religion was to respond to the fears of the people (and polytheism could always supply a god who needed placating), nothing of great literary value or complexity was required. Apollo the oracle mirrored his time. In the second and third centuries, the prophets who spoke for the god still reveled in puns and genealogies. At Delphi in central Greece, Apollo sounded Platonic, as he did at Didyma (outside Miletus) and at Claros (in eastern Greece, where some three hundred civic inscriptions at the temple have been found). The cult (or worship) of Glycon, a shaggy snake, was another story. His oracle emerged in the 150’s in a small town on the southern coast of the Black Sea. The snake would consult with his prophet, Alexander. There were those who ridiculed the whole affair, yet it appears that Glycon was consulted for some thirty years (much too long for Alexander to be a simple fraud) and that in Glycon, Alexander had merely introduced a new form of the cult of Asclepius (son of Apollo and god of medicine). The shedding of the snake’s skin was somewhat analogous to the illness one shed under the care of the god. Alexander had been educated in the Pythagorean school of Asclepius; it is no wonder Glycon spoke like a Pythagorean, not a Platonist.

The second and third centuries witnessed a revival, not a decline, of the oracles. Simple credulity of the people was not the explanation; frauds had always existed, and skepticism toward the gods had never been silenced. Lane Fox attributes the rise to the civic support of the cultic temples offered by public benefactors, whose largess to their particular city won special honors for the donors. It was a form of civic pride, made possible by an era of Roman peace and stable prosperity. There was rivalry among the cities, either to construct temples for themselves or to make multiple pilgrimages to the sites of Didyma or Claros. Delegations from Greek cities would pay those at the large temple to inscribe a record of their visits; such inscriptions fed not only the temple’s treasury but that of the latter-day historian as well. Fear played its part; in times of earthquakes or plague, a local Apollo might command a city delegation to make a pilgrimage to Claros to make propitiatory sacrifices.

The author disputes the contention by some historians that public benefactors used the temples to control the religious life of the people. For the most part, oracles spoke to individuals not to cities as a whole; the upper class did not control the interpretation of the oracles; and it is unclear what kind of control was needed—certainly not against any professed “holy men” who may have become heretics. Lane Fox points out that, strictly speaking, the pagan use of the word holy applied not to individuals but to places and that pagan religious thought forms did not in fact recognize heretics. In a polytheistic world, there was no orthodoxy to break, no proscribed texts, no clerical authority-structure against which to rebel. The author concludes that the oracles served to placate the fears the people had toward the anger of the gods and were not used somehow to control heretical individuals.

Pagans and Christians offers a corrective to an interpretation of the rise of Christianity put forth by Edward Gibbon in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788). Gibbon maintained that reason had triumphed over the superstitions of the gods, destroying the vitality of their cults, and that Christianity had stepped into the vacuum, providing a resting place for the devout heart. Such a view is a misreading of the skeptics writing in those early centuries; Lane Fox writes, “we have seen a different world, one where the gods were still ’evident,’ standing beside their clients in dreams and guiding them with words or signs of their will.” The vacuum did not exist; those who chose Christianity chose only one of many options, and an extreme one at that.

The author gives scant attention to the mystery cults of Eleusis, Mithras, and others as being unrepresentative of pagan worship; it is also his attempt to disarm Christian apologists who cited the mystery religions as evidence of the “devilish” core of paganism. Lane Fox’s evocation of the oracles at Claros shows cultic ritual more intriguing than devilish. Sometime after the mid-130’s, visitors to Claros would meet by night with the temple staff, composed of a thespode (a singer of oracles who served for life), a prophet, and a secretary, as well as a temple priest. The prophet had been fasting and praying for the previous twenty-four hours, and he, along with the thespode and perhaps the secretary, would lead the visitors underneath the temple to the sacred spring. The prophet, primed for utterance, would taste the water.First came the incoherent sounds of inspiration, induced by the solemn occasion and the expectations which surrounded the sip of Apollo’s water. Then came a second,...

(The entire section is 3225 words.)