Culture, Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Politics

Pagan Rome & Neo-Pagan America

Pagan Rome & Neo-Pagan AmericaThe opening paragraphs of Diane Moczar’s book, The Church Ascending, say this,

“What do you think the following passage describes?

‘Once upon a time, there was a country. After a revolution in which it overthrew the rule of a foreign king, it became a small republic. Its religion was simple, emphasizing republican virtues such as piety, discipline, patriotism, and simplicity of life; most citizens were small landowners. The people had a talent for practical rather than theoretical accomplishments; they were fine builders, engineers, and administrators.

The country began to expand, at the expense of its neighbors, and conquer native peoples. It developed cities and an urban culture and began to use slave labor to an increasing degree. It became very wealthy. And as it came into contact with other cultures, it took in ideas and influences from all over the world. People began to say it was losing its own identity.

The early religion declined, and many people took up exotic cults from the East, while intellectuals tended toward atheism. The old republican virtues broke down, and civil war broke out. Birth control, abortion, infanticide, divorce, and homosexuality became common. There was a woman’s liberation movement.

People stopped reading, except for digests and popular science, and the language became debased. There was a craze for spectator entertainment: sports of all kinds, but also other spectacles, which grew more obscene and violent as time went on, and the jaded popular taste demanded new thrills.

Pollution was widespread, and many people died of a mysterious new disease. Economic problems, such as inflation and high unemployment, developed. But what many citizens feared most of all was terrorism and war from ruthless barbarian powers to the East.’

This is, of course, a word picture of ancient Rome, from its origins to its decline. But it also bears an eerie resemblance to the history and current state of our own country. Other nations – particularly England – have also viewed Roman history as a mirror of their own world. Certainly it holds many lessons and warnings for those who would understand the growth and decline of civilizations, the overextension of superpowers, and the role of moral decay in political collapse.”[1]

This is a striking sketch of ancient Rome, as the author indicates, because it is a depiction of the historical trajectories of our own country, and Western Civilization as a whole.

In addition to the Moczar reference, consider this illustrative description of the pagan environment St. Paul found himself doing his missionary work,

“Travelers throughout the empire found a diversity not only of beliefs and rituals but also of landscapes – geographical and otherwise. Yet unifying and dominating the religious, political, civic, recreational, and architectural landscape of the Mediterranean basin in the first century was the cult of the emperor. Devotion to the emperor – including not only the reigning emperor but also his family and his predecessors, especially Julius and Augustus – was a multifaceted affair that permeated the culture. It was a form of religious and nationalistic, or theopolitical, allegiance, both to deified humans (the emperors) and to a cultural and political entity (the Roman Empire). In many respects, therefore, it was one of the most fundamental cohesive elements in the empire, helping to hold its diverse constituencies together.

The cult of the emperor was in some ways a continuation of the Hellenistic ruler cult, which was known in much of the territory that became the Roman Empire. But for Rome it was a very significant change in attitude behavior from the period of the Roman Republic, and it met with some resistance in Rome itself. Perhaps the change was inevitable, however; after all, as ancients and moderns alike have often assumed, no one but (a) god could subdue and then control a huge portion of the known world. From the time of Julius on, Caesar was not only the top political but also the top religious figure, the chief priest (pontifex maximus). Julius was treated in many ways like a god even before his posthumous elevation to deity, at which point his (adopted) son Gaius Octavius (Augustus) and successor became, naturally, the son of god. And even before Augustus was formally deified after his death in A.D. 14, he initiated programs dedicated to himself, Julius, and Rome that would become the imperial cult.

This cult spread like wildfire throughout the empire during the first half of the first century, especially in the cities, and most especially in the colonies (extensions of Rome) in Greece and Asia Minor like Pisidian Antioch, Corinth, and Phillipi. (Recent scholarship has demonstrated the falsity of the common notion that the imperial cult did not flourish or impact Christians until the time of Domitian at the end fo the first century). In provinces Roman citizens were expected to participate in the cult of Rome and the divine Julius, while noncitizens were to be devotes of Rome and Augustus.

By the end of Paul’s ministry as recorded in his letters and Acts, temples for the imperial cult had been erected, or were being erected, in nearly all the major cities of the empire; these temples were often the largest and most central sanctuaries in a city. The huge, elevated imperial temple at Pisidian Antioch was visible for miles. Even more modest temples for the cult, such as the one at Corinth dedicated to Octavia (the sister of Augustus and wife of Mark Antony, who divorced her for Cleopatra), were impressive edifices. In addition to temples, cities erected other buildings and monuments dedicated to the emperors, as well as statues of them. Sometimes imperial statues were placed inside temples devoted to other gods. Coins, which previously bore the images of gods, now also bore the image of the emperor. Cities celebrated the reigning emperor’s birthday, accession, conquests, and so on, resulting in a busy calendar of ceremonies, festivals, parades, and contests (athletic, gladiatorial, and other types) in his honor. Cities – and within cities, leading citizens – vied to sponsor the most impressive events and erect the most monumental structures. The emperor was everywhere, all the time – sponsored by his friends.

The imperial cult, then, was in part a form of prestigious civic and patriotic service, a kind of ‘God and country’ phenomenon. Public oaths of allegiance were part of this theopolitical activity. But the cult also encompassed more explicit forms of religious devotion to the emperor and to Rome. These included ceremonies honoring the ‘genius’ (‘immortal spirit,’ but also a kind of guardian deity) of the emperor, sacrifices offered by the imperial priests, the burning of incense, special meals and so on. The imperial cult was a multifaceted ritual of power – human and divine.

All these cultic activities were, in fact, both religious and political, and devotion to the emperor and devotion to the empire were inseparable. Behind and within the activities was a theology, a set of convictions about Rome as the gods’ choice to rule the world, an election proven and displayed in Rome’s victories throughout the world, and in the ‘peace’ those victories achieved. The emperor was divinely appointed and empowered patron, protector, father, and epitome of Rome and its power. Augustus was the bringer, and his successors and guarantors, of peace and security – in a word, of salvation.”[2]

Given everything that has been said in these lengthy passages, should we be surprised that America can fit this exact description, from its beginning to modern times, when the founders themselves looked to pagan Rome as the exemplar model of good government?

 

– Lucas G. Westman


[1] Pg. 3-4

[2] Apostle of the Crucified Lord, Gorman, Pg. 15-17

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