Religious transformation in the Roman Empire (pt.II.)


The Isis cult is in marked contrast in many respects. Women played a major role, though perhaps not so dominant a role as has sometimes been suggested. The goddess and her rituals were widely disseminated throughout the Empire and she had many public temples, festivals and processions in her honour, often as part of the official religion of the cities. Isis herself claimed that she was the queen above all and that she incorporated all the other deities of the Roman world. The evidence of the cult is plentiful, including a whole temple and its ritual equipment preserved at Pompeii. In the case of Isis, the mysteries cannot have been such a central element of the cult as they were in Mithraism; it is hard to judge even whether they were the highest aspiration of the goddess’ most devoted worshippers.

We have many inscriptions recording individual devotion to the cult, but only one sustained text giving an account of an initiation; that text is the last section (Book xi) of Apuleius’ famous novel The Golden Ass. The hero Lucius, who has spent most of the novel bewitched into being an ass, is finally saved by the goddess and in his gratitude seeks initiation into her mysteries. Apuleius does no more than hint at the rewards on offer to the initiate: Lucius’ everyday life is certainly transformed – he moves to Rome, becomes a successful lawyer and joins an Isiac group in their devotions. The novel is discreet, witty and even teasing, but it presupposes a rich religious life based on the group of initiates and a priest who offers spiritual guidance. For Lucius at least, his gratitude to the goddess, guided by her own appearance in his dreams, demands his passionate devotion to her worship.

In many ways, the most paradoxical cult of all was that of Attis, the shepherdboy-god from Asia Minor. He was part of the circle of Cybele, the Great Mother Goddess, who loved him and mourned his loss. She was identified with the Magna Mater, to whom the Romans built a temple after the Hannibalic War (218-201 BC); we know from a cache of statuettes under the platform of the temple that Attis came to Rome at the same time as the Magna Mater. The mystery cult of Attis seems, therefore, to have developed under the protection of the Roman state itself, at the very moment when the Bacchic cult was being destroyed by the same authorities. Attis in myth was the beloved of the goddess, and died as a result of his love. He was, at one stage of the modern debate, thought to be a clear example of the god whose death and rebirth symbolically foreshadowed the death and rebirth of his mortal followers. The evidence for this seductive interpretation is all too flimsy: in one version of the myth, the goddess in grief at Attis’ death begs Jupiter to save him for her; Jupiter does what he can, but the result of his efforts is that Attis remains incorruptible but incapable of movement – except that he can wiggle his little finger. The myth is not a guarantee of afterlife, but a parable about the limitation even of the gods’ control over fate.

In all these cases, it is far from clear whether the initiate received benefits in this world or the next or both; also, whether the afterlife was an important issue for the cults’ adherents. If these cults did provide a bridge from civic religion to new forms of religion, as has often been thought, they do so not so much in their doctrines, or in the quality of religious experience, as in their structure. They consisted of people who had chosen membership of this particular group and undergone a ritual that provided a link between the members of the group. But the commitment seems less than total and there is no real sign that the initiates cut themselves off from the worship of other gods. To judge by the evidence of archaeology, the Mithraists at least allowed other gods within their sanctuaries. The people of the mysteries had some quality of experience in common, but they were far from being a people apart.

The beginning point and the end point of the slow process of religious change are both clear. The journey between them is too badly documented for there to be much confidence in any detailed account of what was happening. The easy story would be to see the arrival of Christianity as the sole cause of the change; but in fact there are many other factors to be assessed. First, in many cities of the diaspora there was a Jewish community before the time of Christianity, which would already have offered an alternative religion; it is true that there is no evidence that these Jewish groups sought to make full converts, but all the same Gentiles sometimes attached themselves voluntarily to Jewish synagogues. Secondly, amongst pagans as well there were developments towards at least an elective element in their religious lives. Again long before the emergence of Christianity, the Bacchic cult in Italy was condemned by the senate and persecuted: the surviving decree shows that it was the articulated structure of the Bacchic cells that the senate was set to destroy. The Bacchic cult did not apparently involve such a complete rupture from pagan practice as did Christianity two or three centuries later. But it is sobering to reflect that the treatment of the Bacchists had in fact been more not less violent and methodical than the later persecution of Christians.

Christianity emerged into the awareness of pagans as a variant version of Judaism, not as a new religion at all, and it is probable that in its very early days there was much confusion as a result. What is more, the earliest followers of Christ did not form a single coherent group; it took many decades, even centuries, to create a unified orthodoxy, with a single church organization and doctrine, and orthodoxy at all dates had variant views to contend with. Already in the Acts of the Apostles, a central theme is the potential split between those (apparently based in Jerusalem) who wished to keep the new movement within Judaism and those who wished it to expand to include Gentile converts. There were, of course, fundamental differences between Christians and traditional Jews, but it is hardly surprising if pagans took time to understand these.

One fundamental difference was that, unlike the Christians, the Jews living in the cities of the Roman Empire maintained their own traditions very much as did other ethnic groups, Egyptians, Syrians in the west or Italians in the east. Their religious activities may have attracted others to join with their practices, but the Jews seem not to have sought converts, while joining Egyptians or Syrians did not involve abandoning the traditions of your own city or community. Another difference that developed quite quickly was that those who joined the Christians acquired a special name: Jews were Jews because their ancestors were Jews; most Christians were Christians because they had decided to be. It is important to see that this was a critical moment of change. However, there were similarities as well: both Jews and Christians rejected the gods – all the gods. For this reason, Christians in the east were for a time called simply ‘atheists’. For different reasons, neither group would participate in pagan sacrifices. On the other hand, Gentile Christians did not maintain the dietary rules or the practice of ritual circumcision that made Jewish customs such a talking-point among hostile pagans.

From a pagan point of view these developments have quite dramatic implications. For the first time pagans as such found themselves under serious challenge. Traditionally, the pagans have been seen as very ill-equipped to face such a challenge, because they were supposedly facing a crisis caused by their religion’s long slow decline into inanition. Modern views have on the contrary detected major areas of vigorous pagan activity: partly, these are in the area of the mystery cults and the development of Mithraism; partly, it is in the life of the great oracles in the east, where records of them survive long into the imperial centuries, implying a commitment nobody would have expected; partly, it is the reformation of pagan thoughts and pagan philosophy in the third and fourth centuries. What we can see clearly is that the opposition between pagans and new forms of religion slowly forced the pagans to redefine their own position. They became by force of circumstances a single religion and an alternative to Christianity; this must be the process by which ‘pagan-ism’ was finally invented.

Part of that process of redefinition was the persecution of the Christians, the parading of those who chose to deviate from the pagan version of civic life. Our information about this comes mostly from later Christian sources, especially martyr-acts, which had a specific role in the memorializing of its saintly heroes and heroines by the later church. These are not the best sources for establishing what really happened. But we have enough information to see that there were persecutions and that an apparatus of suppression did exist; but it is also clear that this was employed only very erratically and that it was no part either of the imperial authorities’ purpose or of the real activity of governors to conduct a methodical suppression by searching out the Christian groups and eliminating their activities. The Emperor Trajan declared precisely that they should not be sought out, but should be brought to trial only if denounced by persons who declared their names and hence took responsibility for the denunciation. This policy will have meant that persecution took place only when Christians came into conflict with the civic authorities. Only in the third century AD did persecutions begin to take on a more imperial aspect and even then it is not clear how far this was a considered decision.

The key to understanding the progress of Christianity may well lie in events in the cities large and small throughout the Empire. It is clear that cities had come to contain groups both of Jews and of Christians who were at odds with the sacrificial cult that lay at the centre of pagan civic religion. We get glimpses of this plurality, but we have all too little information of how it worked in practice. Did the Jews and Christians attend the regular pagan festivals and thus reconcile themselves formally with pagan opinion? Or did they simply absent themselves and live their own separate lives? Both groups seem to have contained members who were socially and economically successful; at least, it is certain that not all their members were drawn from the excluded groups of society and some scholars have argued that from the beginning they included members of high status. It is very hard to maintain that they were secret and separate.

In the case of Jewish communities in particular, there is some evidence of visible separateness. In some cities, synagogues were built in central, even prominent, sites. Those who attended them must have been known to the community as a whole. These seem to have included pagans, who had not converted but were informally attached to the communities and sometimes even Christians – to judge by the attacks on their backsliding by their bishops. An inscription from Aphrodisias, a notable city in Asia Minor near the west coast of Turkey, shows us a situation of a Jewish community which seems to be far more integrated into civic life than we would have predicted. It is evidently maintaining at least some parts of a Jewish tradition; but it has as patrons and supporters a number of local people, some of whom declare that they occupy prominent positions in the city itself, serving on the city’s council. The implication seems to be that this community at least was thoroughly accepted and even supported at an almost official level.

It may be argued that the crucial change should be looked for not simply at the level of religion in the cities, but more generally in the life of the cities themselves and their relationship to the whole Empire. Pagan religion was a matter of large numbers of local traditions – rituals, festivals, myths, gods and goddesses – which overlapped with those of their neighbours but thrived on local enthusiasm and commitment. Like everything else in the Empire, this activity depended heavily on the commitment of the local wealthy classes; innumerable inscriptions from the early imperial period show how they were responsible for funding and organizing the religious life of their co-citizens.

In the later period, particularly during and after the third-century troubles (235-84 AD), the flow of information about such benefactions comes to an end. There are no more inscriptions from the cities of the Empire detailing the devotion of the civic elites to the cities in which they lived. At the same time, legal sources contain much material on the controversial issue of excuses for avoiding local duties. What this suggests is that local elites, whose members had once been committed to their own communities, were now avoiding these local obligations and devoting themselves instead to the service of the central government and its bureaucracy. This change of attitude was not at all the result of events in the religious sphere, but it would have had dramatic effects on the religious sphere. If the local backers of pagan activity were abandoning it and transferring their enthusiasms elsewhere, then it would not be surprising if the effect was to encourage Christian groups to become more active and to find it easier to make converts. This is no more than one possible theory, but it does have suggestive power and needs to be tested in terms of the surviving record in individual cities and communities.

The term ‘pagan’ (paganus) originally meant country-dweller, rustic, and was apparently used by the early Christians as an unfriendly term for those who had persisted in the old pre-Christian religious ways. We do not know where or why this usage began, but it was adopted by modern writers and is today the established usage in the writing of ancient history. Some contemporary writers have preferred to use ‘polytheism’ and ‘polytheist’; but, at least when writing about earlier periods, this is definitely misleading, since it implies that the Romans thought that having many gods was what defined their religion. They did not. They believed that there were many different gods and goddesses and that all sensible people from all over the world recognized that simple fact. Only when in competition with Jews and Christians in late antiquity, were they forced to acknowledge that the number of gods had become a major issue of contention. In many other contexts today, the word ‘pagan’ either has become a pejorative term for religions of which the speaker disapproves, or else refers to religious movements of the current age which are distinct from, even if in some way similar to, the religions of the Graeco-Roman world. Perhaps a replacement of the term would be desirable for these reasons, but none is available at the moment that would not be more misleading still.


Books of interest can be found at the bottom of the page here


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