Stuff from Way Back #15: These Christians Are Really Annoying

(Three weeks ago I posted a piece on Albert Göring, who was being considered for inclusion in the Israeli Righteous Among the Nations for his work in rescuing Jews. Apparently he did not make it, presumably because of a rumor of a Jewish father, which would make him ineligible, and Israel avoids the embarrassment of having Reichsmarschall Göring’s brother among the honored.)

The Roman persecution of Christians is a well-known episode in the history of the religion, but inasmuch as these events occurred almost two millennia ago, there is no longer a Roman Empire and the Church was the winner, one might expect that some distortion has crept into the popular narrative. And it has, primarily because few people have any real knowledge of the Empire beyond what Christianity and Hollywood have suggested and even fewer understand the nature of traditional Roman religion. As a result a key fact has been lost: so long as you observed Roman tradition the state did not give a damn what gods you worshipped (at least until the state became Christian).

At first of course Rome did not even notice the new cult. Those with any knowledge of Judaea assumed it was yet another Jewish heresy, doomed to disappear, as in fact the sect of Christian Jews did. As the adherents of the new faith spread and multiplied, it was popular dislike that first caught the attention of the authorities. Like the Jews, Christians were monotheists, compelled by their beliefs to deny the existence of other gods, and they were doing this in a society that was completely polytheist. Polytheist societies are generally tolerant when it comes to religion, even in states with a religious establishment supporting a divinely connected kingship, as in the Sumerian city-states and Egypt. Inasmuch as deities were typically personifications of natural phenomenon, it was easy to identify gods across cultural lines, and in any case no one (excepting perhaps Akhenaten) was about to deny the existence of other gods and certainly not resort to violence in order to teach others a lesson.

Into this world come the Christians, telling their neighbors that the gods of their fathers do not exist and that they are wasting their time worshipping idols. Of course the Jews had been doing this for quite a while, but apart from small communities in some of the cities of the Empire, they were essentially a phenomenon localized in Judaea, and in any case they did not proselytize. Early Christians were in fact confused with Jews, but as their numbers grew, people realized this was something new – and very annoying. And if modern evangelicals are any indication, these early Christians likely often displayed a holier-than-thou attitude; they had the good news after all.

There was also a feeling that for all their professed love these people actually hated mankind. The first generation or so of Christians believed that the Christ would be returning soon, perhaps in their lifetimes, and there was consequently talk of what would happen then. And if Revelations is the guide, it would be unmitigated horror, suffering and death for non-believers, which was of course virtually all of humanity. There were also rumors of strange and disgusting rites, such as incest and cannibalism, the sort of things that are said of the despised and alien throughout history. Natural disasters and unexplained misfortunes were blamed on them. The Christians were strangers in a strange land and initially played the same role of the “other” that the Jews would play in medieval and modern Europe.

Capping it all off was the growing suspicion that they were disloyal as well as obnoxious. The traditional religion of Greece and Rome was primarily civic in nature, concerned with the cohesion and well-being of the community, and as such, it was closely connected to the idea of the state. The sacrifices and rituals were communal, designed to keep the community in the right relationship with heaven, and in the case of Rome this led to the emergence of priesthoods, such as the Pontifex Maximus, that were actually state offices. The holders of these positions were not “priests” in the familiar sense of the word, that is, representatives of a centralized church, as the priests of the temple of Amon-Re or the Catholic Church. Their job was not to intercede for or counsel the individual, but to conduct the rituals necessary for the survival and prosperity of the community.

As a result, honoring Jupiter Best and Greatest and his colleagues was more of a social act than a religious one, declaring ones good standing as a member of the community. If the worshipper had other more personal concerns regarding heaven, he would turn to gods more pertinent to his situation, especially traditional local deities among the provincials. As with most things, Rome had always had a laissez faire attitude regarding non-Roman religions, so long as there was no threat to public order and morals, such as led the Senate to ban certain Bacchanalian rites in 186 BC. She was even ready to tolerate an extremely intolerant religion, Judaism, because it was essentially local and no threat to the state. Nevertheless, denying the existence of the Olympic gods was in fact directly assaulting one of the foundations of the state and endangering the well-being of the society.

Even so, Christianity might have gone unnoticed were it not for the fact that they quickly became almost universally unpopular, even hated, and their vociferous rejection of the Roman gods struck people as disloyal. Constantly claiming that their god was their only true “king” and master also did not sit well in an autocratic society, and the ideas of their founder/prophet regarding the poor and the rich were absolutely revolutionary in a world always dominated by the propertied classes. So, there was in fact public disorder in the form of anti-Christian riots, which the authorities were compelled to deal with. All the evidence indicates that the Roman government was completely aware of the essentially innocent nature of the new religion, but Roman officials were hardly likely to defend an unpopular minority in the face of overwhelming public displeasure.

Apart from their refusal to pay even lip service to the imperial cults, there was actually a legal problem for the new church. Since the time of Augustus (27 BC-AD 14), the first emperor, new clubs and associations were prohibited unless they were specifically granted imperial approval. The reason was clear: private associations could easily harbor conspiracies against the state (as they did during the collapse of the Republic), and autocrats tend to be very sensitive about this issue. And here was a new and offensive cult spreading throughout the cities of the Empire.
As it happened, the Empire was mellow about the whole issue, and generally confronted the issue only when it could not be avoided because of public clamor. This was certainly the case under Trajan (98-117), who when asked what to do with Christians by his governor in Bithynia, Pliny the Younger, instructed him not to search them out but only act when it was unavoidable. The typical procedure was to require the Christian to make a token sacrifice, a pinch of incense, to an imperial cult, generally that of Roma et Augustus. For the authorities this was far more a pledge of allegiance than a religious act; perform this one act and you would get your “ticket,” your libellus, and could go home and worship whatever gods you pleased. Of course, for a Christian this was apostasy, and though many took the plunge, many did not, which baffled the Romans, who could not fathom such religious fanaticism.

Decius: "Smoke 'em"

Decius: “Smoke ’em”

The result of all this was that violence against Christians was for two centuries limited to popular outbursts, such as blaming Christians for the fire in 64 (encouraged by Nero), and the odd official currying favor with the locals. Not until the third century was there an actual persecution in the sense of the central government taking Empire-wide action against the religion, and this would come during the Anarchy (235-285), a fifty year long civil war that essentially killed the Empire, even though it would stagger on for another century or so. During his short reign Decius (249-251) required that all Christians be put to the test and imprisoned if they refused, and this was repeated, with more severe penalties, by Valerian (253-60) in 257-258. Both of these men were ruling during a period of widespread instability coupled with serious barbarian invasions and internal military revolts and were desperately attempting to restore loyalty to the state. An obvious target was the Christian community, which was now highly organized and blatant in its rejection of the state religion, which now included deified emperors.

Diocletian (285-305) ended the Anarchy, but the Empire would never again come close to the stability and economic well-being it enjoyed before 235, and the history of the Late Empire was one of military autocracy alternating with periods of civil war. In 304 Diocletian launched the last anti-Christian crusade, destroying churches and sacred books and imprisoning priests, but it ended with his abdication the following year and seems to have petered out because of lack of popular support. His ultimate successor, Constantine the Great (305-337), legalized Christianity with the Edicts of Toleration (311-313), and with his conversion it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Valerian: "Crush 'em"

Valerian: “Crush ’em”

And then the real persecutions begin, as the government implements a continuous policy of crushing polytheism and eliminating the pagani (“rural folk”), so called because the old cults hung on the longest in the rural areas. Unlike those carried out against the Christians this persecution was moved by nothing other than simple religious intolerance.

Diocletian: "Eat 'em"

Diocletian: “Eat ’em”

In the end Christians themselves would slaughter tens of thousands more Christians than the Roman Empire ever did.

Paris 1572 - Christians killing Christians

Paris 1572 – Christians killing Christians

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Stuff from Way Back #5: Hannibal: The Sunset Years

"Die, Roman scum!"

Most everyone has heard of Hannibal Barca and his
exploits against the Romans during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC).  Undefeated in Italy, he fought his last engagement in 202 at Zama in
North Africa, where P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus gained the distinction
of being the only man to defeat him in battle.
Not quite.  There was also Eudamus
the Rhodian.

By the terms of the peace treaty that was signed in 201 Carthage was stripped of her possessions and reduced to being a
Roman client, her independence and political importance at an end.  Her commercial activities certainly did not
cease and she was able to pay her annual war
indemnity to Rome, but a corrupt and oppressive oligarchic government
began to exploit the people, who at last turned to Hannibal.  In 196 he was
chosen suffete, one of the two annually elected chief magistrates of the
Carthaginian republic.  Under his
leadership the popular assembly broke the back of oligarchic power, and Hannibal attended to the finances of the state, so improving matters
that in 191 Carthage offered to pay off the remaining forty years of
reparation payments in one lump sum.

Loved by the people, Hannibal nevertheless had in the dispossessed oligarchs a block
of powerful enemies, who in turn had influential friends in Rome.  Prominent among
these friends was M. Porcius Cato, a rival of Scipio and a man soon to be consumed
with an almost hysterical fear and loathing of Carthage.  Acting on
behalf of the anti-Barcid oligarchs, Cato claimed that Hannibal was conspiring with the Seleucid king Antiochus  III, with whom Rome was gradually sliding towards war.  In 195 a commission was sent to Carthage to complain, and Hannibal, suspecting what the outcome would be, fled east to Tyre, the mother city of Carthage.  He then moved on
to Antioch, the Seleucid capital, and thence to Ephesus, where he found the king.  A frightened Carthaginian government
meanwhile formally exiled him.

The arrival of Rome’s worst nightmare at the Seleucid court only worsened
the deteriorating situation in the east, and in 192 the Aetolians captured the
key port of Demetrias and convinced Antiochus to strike now by sending an
army to the Balkan peninsula.  Hannibal is said to have urged the king to give him ten thousand
infantry and one thousand cavalry, with which he would stir up Carthage and then invade Italy.  But it is difficult
to believe that Hannibal could possibly imagine assaulting Italy with such a meager force, and more likely he suggested
simply that an attempt be made to arouse Carthage, a plan that would fit better with Antiochus’ apparent more
limited goal of asserting his equality as a Mediterranean power by rebuffing Rome in the Balkans.
These limited war aims, potential jealousy and discontent among the his
generals and the reluctance of Greek troops to serve under a “barbarian”
probably explain why Antiochus made such little use of the great captain.  In fact, Hannibal’s sole command in the war was a naval squadron.

When Antiochus was booted out of Greece in 191, the naval war heated up, and later in the year
the king sent Hannibal to Phoenicia to collect reinforcements for the main Seleucid fleet
at Ephesus.  It is hard to
avoid the impression that Hannibal
was sent simply to give him something to do, and the king probably did not
expect that Hannibal would actually be fighting a naval engagement on his
own.  But in the summer of the following
year as he was bringing his ships north, he ran into a Rhodian squadron sent to
block him off Side on the Anatolian shore.
Hannibal formed a line perpendicular to the shore and awaited the
Rhodian attack.

The Rhodian force was inferior in numbers, but the skill
of Rhodian sailors was legendary, while the Phoenician crews were unused to the
heavier warships Antiochus had ordered built after his taste of Roman boarding
tactics the previous year.  Actually, as
the battle opened, the Rhodian admiral, Eudamus, hardly displayed great
skill.   Because of a poor deployment and resulting
confusion, he found  himself engaging the
enemy left, commanded by Hannibal,
with only five ships.  But the Rhodians
quickly sorted themselves out, and superior seamanship began to tell as Rhodian
ramming tactics punched hole after hole in the Seleucid line.  Hannibal’s right and center were soon in serious trouble, and
ships from the victorious Rhodian left were able to speed to the rescue of
Eudamus.  With the battle now clearly
lost, Hannibal began to retire and was followed by the rest of his
fleet, more than half his ships having
been disabled.

Hannibal had been defeated in a serious engagement for only the
second time in his life. The battle of Side was a relatively small-scale affair,
but it did prevent the linkup of the two Seleucid fleets, and control of the
sea was decisively lost a month later at the battle of Myonnesus.  The war ended in early 189 with
Antiochus’  defeat at Magnesia in Asia Minor, at which battle Hannibal
does not seem to have been present, probably for the reasons mentioned earlier
and perhaps because Antiochus was overconfident.  The peace settlement included a demand for
the surrender of the Carthaginian, but the Romans, probably influenced by
Scipio Africanus, who was with the Roman delegation, took no real action.  Hannibal escaped first to Gortyn on Crete
and then on to King Artaxias I of Armenia.

The last stage of Hannibal’s military career took place under King Prusias I of Bithynia on the Black
Sea coast.  Sometime around 186 Prusias began a war with
his major Anatolian rival and loyal client of Rome, Eumenes II of Pergamum, but all that survives of this war is a naval
anecdote.  Pressed by a numerically
superior Pergamene fleet, Hannibal
defeated them by hurling aboard the enemy ships pots filled with poisonous
snakes, causing panic among the crews. The war became a stalemate, and both
kings appealed to Rome, which in 183 sent T. Quinctius Flamininus to settle
the war.

Whether on instructions from the Senate or his own
initiative, Flamininus demanded from Prusias the surrender of Hannibal.  Seeking to
avoid violating at least the letter of the law of hospitality, Prusias left it
to the Romans to capture the Carthaginian themselves, and they surrounded his
house with troops.  Discovering that
every exit was guarded, Hannibal
committed suicide by taking poison.  At
the end, according to Livy and Plutarch, he proclaimed “Let us relieve the
Roman people of their long anxiety, since they find it tedious to wait for the
death of an old man.”

One of the greatest captains in history was dead,
needlessly, at the age of sixty-three. Ironically, his old rival Scipio
Africanus died in the same year, himself an exile from his mother city.  And thirty-seven years later Carthage would follow its most famous son into extinction, also
at the hands of Rome.