T HE Roman world was bounded on the west by the Atlantic Ocean, on the north by the Rhine and the Danube, on the east by the Euphrates, on the south by the Desert of Sahara. The Egyptian world had been dependent on the Nile; the Assyrian and Chaldean world had been dependent on the Tigris and the Euphrates; the Roman world enclosed the Mediterranean Sea.
Outside of these boundaries lay the greater part of Africa, of Asia, and of Europe.
In Africa were savage people, whose descendants even to this day are separated from civilization by the wide barrier of the desert.
In Asia were three nations whose history antedated the time when Athens and Rome were country villages. With China and India, the Roman world was connected by an adventurous commerce. Every year merchantmen sailed down the Arabian Gulf and across the Indian Ocean to Ceylon. There they met traders from the ancient markets of the East, and returned with cargoes such as laded the ships of Solomon,—"ivory and apes and peacocks," with spices, gems, and rich embroideries. But Persia was an enemy. Beyond the Euphrates the Persians remembered the day when they had ruled the world, and prayed for another Cyrus who should make them masters of the world again. They menaced Rome continually. Sometimes they succeeded in destroying Roman armies. Once they took a Roman emperor captive, and the rumor drifted back to Italy that the King of Persia, whenever he mounted his horse, stepped on the emperor's neck.
In Europe, on the wide plains of Russia, in the thick woods of Germany, hordes of barbarians, impelled by mysterious forces such as summon the tides and the birds, were threatening the South. Already, in the Old Testament, the Book of Zephaniah was filled with the terror of the Scythians; and in the New Testament, the Epistle to the Galatians was written to the people of a province which had been seized and settled by invading Gauls. The Rhine and the Danube, rising only thirty miles apart, made a boundary line between the empire and these tribes, guarded by the camps of the legions.
Between Italy and Greece, the deep cleft of the Adriatic Sea divided the Roman world into two parts. The divided parts differed in tradition and in language. In the East—in Greece and Syria and Egypt—the Romans had conquered countries which had ancient and splendid traditions, and were more civilized than their conquerors. In the West—in Italy and Spain and Gaul—the Romans had overcome peoples few of whom had any history, and who had imitated the civilization and adopted the traditions of their masters. As for language, Greek was spoken by all persons of education in the Roman world during the first and second centuries of our era. Marcus Aurelius wrote his "Meditations" in Greek. It was not until the beginning of the fifth century—almost at the end of the period which comes within the compass of our present study—that the West had a satisfactory Latin Bible. Nevertheless, as time passed, the Latin language spread through the Greeks despised it; and by and by in the West Greek was forgotten. Thus the conditions were prepared for the political and theological misunderstandings which eventually divided the West and the East.
The Roman world was filled with cities. The civilization was intentionally urban. The government encouraged the centralization of social life, gathering the people into municipalities, dignifying the great towns with stately public buildings, and providing places of amusement. Out of these central cities, men went to work on the farms, coming back at night. The ruins which are found to-day in places now desolate and remote show both the extent and the splendor of this civic life. Every city had its wall and gates. Colonnaded streets led to the forum. There was a public bath, and a public library, club-houses and temples, a theatre for plays, an amphitheatre for games. Water was brought in aqueducts from the neighboring hills for use in private houses, and for fountains in the squares.
In the multitude of cities, certain of them shone like the greater stars: in Italy, Rome and Milan and Ravenna; in Africa, Carthage and Alexandria; in Syria, Antioch and Cæsarea; in Asia Minor, Nicomedia and Ephesus; in Greece, the cities of the Pauline Epistles—Philippi and Thessalonica, Athens and Corinth; Constantinople appeared at the beginning of the fourth century.
The cities were connected by substantial roads. They penetrated everywhere, like our railways: for the sake of trade and of travel, for purposes of peace and of war. Straight they ran, across the valleys and over the hills, ,and were constructed with such skill and made of materials so lasting that many of them are used as highways to this day. From the golden milestone in the Roman forum they extended over the empire—to Hadrian's wall in Britain, to the oasis of Damascus, to the Cataracts of the Nile.
It was an age of travelling. The journeys of St. Paul, from Jerusalem to Damascus, from Damascus to Antioch, from Antioch to Cyprus and Galatia, to Athens and Corinth, to Malta and Rome, illustrate the facility with which men went from place to place. Along the roads journeyed government officials with numerous retinues, rich patricians going from their houses in the city to their houses in the country, leisurely persons out to see the sights, philosophical lecturers seeking audiences, Roman soldiers, Jewish merchants, missionaries of Isis and of Mithra, ,preachers of Christianity. Some walked; some rode on mules, which millionaires shod with silver shoes; some were borne in carriages made comfortable for sleeping or reading. Posts marked the miles. Every five miles there was a posting-station, with relays of horses in the stables, for hire. The messenger who carried the news of the death of Nero from Rome to Spain travelled [travelled should be traveled] at the rate of ten miles an hour. The aged bishop of Antioch, in a tragic emergency, went to Constantinople, eight hundred miles, in a week, over fresh-fallen snow.
The bales of the merchants contained linen from Egypt, rugs from Babylonia and Persia, silks from China, furs from Seythia, amber from the Baltic, arras cloth from Gaul, spices from Ceylon. The postmen carried letters, newspapers (acta diurna), and books in handsome bindings or in paper covers from the publishers in Rome to the booksellers and the librarians in the provinces. It was an age of constant correspondence. Officials, all over the empire, made their regular reports to Rome. Much of our knowledge of the time comes from letters—epistles of Paul, epistles of Ignatius, epistles of Pliny, familiar letters of Ambrose to his sister. The last of the great Romans, Symmachus, kinsman of Ambrose, patron of Augustine, wrote nine hundred and fifty extant letters, occupying a disappointing amount of space in them with explanations why he had not written before.
The constant transportation and communication over these roads aided the extension of a new religion. So did the spread of commerce which established Jews in all important cities. So did the universal language which enabled the preacher to address the people directly, without the need of an interpreter. So did the imperial discipline, which made the roads of the Roman world more safe for unarmed travellers than roads in England in the eighteenth century. There was a cosmopolitan quality in the common life which did not appear again, after the fourth century, until it was restored by the railway and the telegraph in our own time.
The administration of the Roman world was centred in the emperor. He determined the general situation. If he was strong, the common life was uplifted. If he was weak, selfish and pleasure-loving, he gave over the empire to his favorites, and the court was in confusion. He was an absolute monarch.
There were, indeed, certain restraints upon this imperial power. Nominally, the Senate must be consulted. But during the period with which we are now concerned, the Senate was in subjection. Practically, during a great part of this time, the army made the emperors. The Roman world, in this aspect of it, was a rough, military democracy. Emperors were chosen by the acclamation of the legions; at first, at the capital, where the soldiers put down one and set up another in return for competing imperial promises; then on the frontiers, exalting their own commanders, and sometimes choosing men who had risen to command from the lowest ranks.
Maximin the Goth was born a peasant. He was remarkable among his rude companions for his height and his strength: he was eight feet high, and could out-wrestle anybody in the neighborhood. Thus he got into the army. He attracted the attention of an emperor by running for miles beside his horse over a rough country, and then throwing a dozen stout men in succession. He rose to be a captain, then a commander. He was made emperor by his troops. He never saw Rome; his court was in his camp.
Philip the Arabian, who succeeded him, began life as a brigand. He became a soldier, and his fighting qualities made him an emperor.
A world in which a Gothic peasant and an Arabian brigand could ascend the imperial throne had in its order an element of informality and of popular opportunity which may fairly be called democratic.
But, once upon the throne, the Roman emperor held possession of his high place, even above the law. Constantine could kill his wife and son, Theodosius could order the massacre of seven thousand citizens, Commodus and Caracalla could hunt their enemies through the streets of Rome like wolves in the woods. The emperor was independent even of public opinion. He feared only the soldiers and the assassins.
The period of the Early Church, after the Apostolic Age, from the days of Ignatius to the days of Augustine, begins about the year 100, by which time most of the books of the New Testament had been written, and ends soon after the year 400, when the barbarians were actively engaged in the destruction of the Roman Empire. It is divided into two parts at the year 313, when the Edict of Milan granted liberty in religion. Before that time the Roman court was pagan; after that time, it was nominally Christian.
The two centuries which thus make the first part of the history of the Early Church saw three eras of imperial administration.
For eighty years (98-180) there were four strong and good emperors. They were among the best of all the rulers of mankind. Under Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius the world was governed by philosophers, whose sincere intention was to rule their people well.
Then for eighty years (from the accession of Commodus in 180 to the death of Gallienus in 268) there were nearly twenty emperors, good and bad, but more bad than good. Thus the peace and prosperity of the second century were followed by the adversities of the third. Some of these adversities proceeded directly from the weakness or the wickedness of the emperors. Some were due to calamities of nature, to a singular series of storms, earthquakes, fires, floods, plagues, famines, like the outpouring of the vials of doom in the Book of the Revelation. Some accompanied the victorious inroads of national enemies from the north and from the east.
After than, for forty years (268-313) four strong emperors redeemed the situation and saved the state. Claudius and Aurelian were victorious in battle. Probus reigned in such a time of peace that he employed his soldiers in the work of draining marshes. Diocletian in his court at Nicomedia eclipsed the splendor of Oriental monarchs. His abdication was followed by some confusion, out of which Constantine emerged triumphant.
The century which followed, being the second part of the era of the Early Church, was troubled by contentions between rival emperors, by wars of theology waged by Christians against Christians, and by the steady advance of the barbarians. In the history of this period (from the Edict of Milan in 313 to the death of St. Augustine in 430) there are four outstanding imperial names. Constantine (311-337) tried to make the empire Christian; Julian (361-363) tried to make the empire pagan again; Valens (364-378) tried to make the empire Arian. They were theological emperors. Theodosius (379-395) was the last ruler of the united Roman world. After him, the division between the East and the West became definite and permanent. He was followed by his incompetent sons, Honorius and Arcadius. Rome was taken by the Goths, and Carthage by the Vandals.
The society of the Roman world in the age which thus extends from Trajan to Theodosius was composed, as we say, of higher and middle and lower classes. The higher classes were the patricians; the middle classes, the plebeians; the lower classes, the slaves.
The patricians were persons of ancient descent and abundant means. They held, for the most part, the great honorary offices, consular and senatorial. They lived in magnificent houses on the Palatine Hill, whose ruins still attest the spacious and luxurious manners of the time. In the summer, they retired to their villas in the country, among the mountains, by the lakes, and on the cool borders of the sea. They are described from the point of view of an unsympathetic outsider in the satires of Juvenal.
Juvenal had no part in the festivities of patrician society. He observed them from a distance, and in the spirit of the reporter who gets his information from the servants and writes it down for a constituency which is willing to believe anything bad about the rich. There were foolish and extravagant and vicious persons in that society, no doubt, as there are to-day under like conditions. But the great part of it was composed, then as now, of pleasant, kindly people, sometimes too content with their privileges and unmindful of the wants of their neighbors but living indignity and virtue, and even in simplicity. There were extravagant and spectacular dinner parties; there were Roman ladies who eloped with gladiators. But these things are easier to write about than the plain goodness of decent domestic life, and have, for that reason, a prominence in the record which is out of all proportion to their importance.
We have an example of the high-minded patrician in Pliny. His people had lived by the lake of Como since the beginning of the empire. He had been brought up by an eminent soldier, who had been governor of Upper Germany, and had twice refused the acclamation of the legions called him to the imperial power. He had had the advantage of the society of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who was forever in pursuit of knowledge. From him he learned habits of literary industry, and of restrained and simple living. He was educated in Rome under Quintilian, who put the chief emphasis of his instruction on the moral side of life. There he came to know and revere the Stoics, the Puritans of their time, and to appreciate their severe virtues without following their skeptical philosophy. He served in the army as tribute of a legion. Then he entered upon the study of law, and attained conspicuous success in that profession. He had such charm of speech that a crowded courtroom attended upon his orations even when he spoke for seven uninterrupted hours. In the intervals of his legal business, he devoted himself to literature, read the classics and wrote books, which, according to the fashion of the time, he read aloud, as he did his speeches, to his friends. He wrote letters, which were afterwards published. One of them we shall find interesting and valuable in connection with the history of the Christians. He was made governor of the province of Bithynia, to straighten out its tangled finances. He lived happily with his wife, Calpurnia. When he made his long speeches she had relays of messengers to tell her how the argument proceeded from point to point. When she was absent he was not content unless he had two letters from her every day. In the summer, they went to one of their places in the cool country, delighting in the scenery, and in the progress of the farm. In his native place by Como, he paid a third of the expense of a high school,, and endowed a public library.
These benefactions were characteristic of the time. Partly by tradition, partly by the urging of public opinion, the patricians exercised a splendid generosity. The Roman millionaire spent a great part of his money for the welfare and the glory of the city. The extant inscriptions record his gifts, endlessly. Now he built an aqueduct, now an arch; here he endowed a temple, there a public bath; sometimes he paved a road, sometimes he provided a feast for all the citizens, or a free sow of gladiatorial fighting. Herod Atticus, who died in the same year with Marcus Aurelius, was the most liberal benefactor of the Roman world. To Olympus he gave an aqueduct, to Delphi a hippodrome, to Corinth a marble theatre roofed with carved cedar, to Thermopylæ a bath with a colonnade. Money, he said, is to be used for the common good. Gold which is not well spent is dead.
The plebeians included all of the free population under the patrician class. They were of all degrees of wealth and poverty.
Many of the wealthier of them had come into the Roman world as slaves, taken in war. But the wars of Rome were often fought with nations who were superior to the Romans except upon the field of battle. The slaves brought back from such wars were more intelligent, much more cultivated and in the higher arts of life more able, than their masters. The Romans put them in charge of their estates and of their business. The emperor found among them the most efficient public servants, whom he might place over the departments of state. Under these conditions many slaves purchased their liberty. They applied themselves to trade, to commerce by land and by sea, to the management of factories and mills. Some of them grew very rich. Some of them were sore beset by the temptations which like in wait for those who have suddenly exchanged poverty for wealth, being millionaires who had no traditions and did not know what to do with their money.
Over against the picture of the patrician Pliny we may set the picture of the plebeian Trimalchio, to whose famous banquet we are bidden in Petronius's novel, the "Satiricon." Trimalchio had been brought as a slave from Asia, in his childhood. He had won the affection of his master and mistress, and had inherited their property. So extensive were his investments in exports and imports that a single storm on the Mediterranean had cost him a million dollars. In his gorgeous house were four vast banqueting halls. His bees came from Hymettus, his mushroom spawn from India. He owned estates which he had never seen. Now he gives a dinner. One course represents the signs of the Zodiac. The follows a boar, served whole, with baskets of sweetmeats hanging from his tusks; in ruses a huntsman and stabs the boar, and out fly thrushes which are caught in nets as they fly about the room. Then the ceiling opens, and down comes a great tray filled with fruits and sweets. The meal is accompanied by singing and instrumental music, and floods of wine. Trimalchio is a man of letters, and a poem of his own composition is recited, in which famous heroes and heroines play strange parts. Niobe is imprisoned in the Trogan horse, Iphigenia becomes the wife of Achilles. Rope dancers amuse the company. Gradually, wine overcomes the hosts and guests. Slaves come in and take their places at the table, while the cook gives an imitation of a favorite actor. Trimalchio and his wife have a lively quarrel, in the course of which he flings a dish at her head. Finally, the noise is so great the town watch come running in thinking that the house must be on fire.
The rich plebeians are better represented by the fine tombs which they built for themselves and their families, whereon they caused to be inscribed, like armorial bearings, the symbols of their honest trades.
But most of the plebeians were poor. They were impoverished in party by the extension of patrician estates which drove men from the farms, and in part by the presence of a vast population of slaves by whom most of the work of the community was done. Even for such poor folk as these, however,—the tenement lodgers of our modern cities,—there were pleasures in the civic life. The public baths were municipal club-houses. There were marble benches by the playing fountains along the shady streets. There were numberless fraternities, some of them organized in the basis of social congeniality, some on the basis of a common trade, to which a poor man, even a slave, might be admitted. There were public dinners, on festal occasions, served on tables spread in the streets for all the people. The women had their societies. The mothers' clubs determined the fashions and the social behavior of Rome.
Among the public pleasures a great place was held by the plays and the games. The theatre, which among the Greeks had given opportunity to the highest genius of the race, was mostly abandoned by the Romans to triviality and indecency. The plays were of the order of low-class vaudeville. The greatest interest centered in the amphitheatre. When Vespasian built the Colosseum he made forty-five thousand seats, and there was standing room for five thousand more. The area could be planted with trees for forest-fights with wild beasts, or flooded with water for battles of boats. There the tragedies were actual tragedies. The spectacle was so fascinating that Tertullian, in order to keep the Christians from attending it, promised them far more delightful spectacles in heaven where they should look down upon the agonies of persecuting princes and hostile heathen roasting in the flames of hell. And Augustine tells of a friend who being urged to go to the games against his will resolutely shut his eyes. Instinctively opening them at the sound of a great cry, he could not get them shut again.
Below the plebeians were the slaves. They made a great part of the population. A large house might have four hundred of them, a large estate four thousand. By some they were regarded as humble friends; some doubted whether they had human souls. They were in some measure protected by the law, but well into this period of history a lady might have her slave whipped to death if she broke a mirror; and at best they were in the bonds of servitude, with all which that inevitably implies on both sides, for the slaves and for their masters.
The Roman world, thus constituted politically and socially, was filled with interest in religion. There had been a time of scepticism, when the sacred institutions of Numa had been discredited and neglected. The philosophers had resolved the gods into ancient heroes magnified, or into personifications of the powers of nature. The temples had been deserted and the venerable liturgies forgotten. But this was only one of the ebb-tides in the ever-moving sea of human life. The years of spiritual dearth were followed by years of spiritual plenty. The first three centuries of the Christian era were marked by a general enthusiasm of religion. Christianity began in the midst of a religious revival.
One of the manifestations of this religious spirit was a widespread interest in Greek philosophy.
The Epicureans, indeed, denied the essential propositions of religion—the providence of God and the immortality of the soul. The gods, they said, dwell serenely aloof from human life, having no interest in our concerns; and the soul is perishable.
But the Stoics vindicated the everlasting reality of religion. They believed in a living God, immanent in the world. All things are therefore good, and the wise man will so regard them, no matter how bad they seem to be. "Everything," says Marcus Aurelius, "is harmonious with me which is harmonious to thee, O universe. Nothing for me is too early or too late, which is in due time for thee." All men are brethren, having one divine father. The artificial distinctions which divide society, even the differences which appear in nations and in races, have no real existence. We are all members of one body. It is the divine intention that we shall love one another. The highest good in human life is to live virtuously and to serve our neighbor. Stoic teachers were going about making converts to these excellent doctrines, preaching sermons, comforting the sad, directing the perplexed, and giving counsel to disturbed consciences.
Plutarch, who rejected the philosophy of the Epicureans because of their materialism, and the philosophy of the Stoics because of their pantheism, believed in the personality of God, following the revived philosophy of Pythagorians. The Pythagoreans realized the difference between good and evil, attributing evil not to God but to matter. Thus they distinguished between the spirit and the flesh in man, holding that the spirit is in bondage to the flesh and can attain its freedom only by abstinence and purification and the subduing of the senses. They had their saints, by whose example they were inspired. While the Christians were reading the lives of Christ, the pagans were reading the lives of Pythagoras and of Apollonius of Tyana. They found a place for all the ancient gods, who entered their monotheistic system as angels and archangels.
Another manifestation of the contemporary religious interest was the welcome which was given in the Roman world to religions from the East.
From Phrygia came the religion of Cybele, the Magna Mater, the Mother of the Gods. Her Asiatic priests came with her, bringing their strange language and strange ceremonies, worshipping a meteoric stone. With Cybele came Attis, a god who being violently put to death had come to life again. On the 24th of March, called Sanguis, the day of blood, the votaries of this religion mourned the death of Attis, as the Hebrew women in the vision of Ezekiel had mourned the death of Tammuz. They lamented with wild cries, and horns and drums and flutes, with mad dances. On the 25th of March, called Hilaria, they celebrated the resurrection of Attis, with rejoicings equally unrestrained, with feasts and masquerades and revelry.
From Egypt came the religion of Isis and Osiris ( = Serapis). After a baptismal initiation, the disciple passed through successive grades of approach to a central secret which was disclosed to those only who had thus made themselves ready to receive it. Daily services of litanies and hymns, matins and vespers, following immemorial usage, attended the opening and the closing of the shrine. On the 28th of October was enacted in a kind of passion play the death of Osiris, killed by Set the god of evil, with weeping and mourning. Three days after, the lamentation was changed to cries of joy: "We have found him, let us rejoice together!" Osiris had risen from the dead.
These religions, together with that of Mithra, which we will consider later, were mystery religions. The led their disciples on from grade to grade till they were taught at last a doctrine too sacred to be told to the common world. This doctrine, connected with the nature myth of the dying and reviving god, was a doctrine of redemption. It was at the hart of these religions as it was also at the heart of the Orphic mysteries of Dionysus, and of the Eleusinian mysteries of Demeter. Attis, Osiris, Dionysus, Demeter,—each is a god who dies, and rises from the dead. Each is a symbol of the great course of nature wherein vegetation dies from off the face of the earth in the winter and appears again alive in the spring. Each represents a primitive belief that man must somehow enact this necessary order, by his mourning and rejoicing, in order to make sure that, after the winter, spring will follow. Each religion lifted this physical idea to a spiritual significance, and from the miracle of the resurrection of the plants inferred the miracle of the resurrection of the plants inferred the miracle of the resurrection of the body, and the immortality of the soul. These were, accordingly, redemption religions, helping men out of the slavery of sin, and promising them life everlasting.
But the philosophers—Epicurean, Stoic, Pythagorean—and the priests, with their mysteries from Phrygia and Egypt, touched only a few of the people. In the main the Roman world continued in the old religion.
The old religion was indeed attacked by the influences of foreign conquest. The victors brought back in triumph to Rome not only the kings of vanquished peoples but their gods. It was discovered that they were many in number, with perplexing similarities and dissimilarities. Also the old religion was attached by the invasion of knowledge. The boundaries of the region of mystery in which the gods dwelt were set back. The world was better understood. It was perceived that some of the events of life could be explained by other reasons than those which were pronounced by priests.
It was perceived, also, that whole tracts of life were beyond the range of the conventional religion, which took no account of sin and made no provision for salvation. The old religion was prosaic and practical. The purpose of it was to secure the favor or avert the anger of the gods, and this was done by mercantile transactions—so much paid and so much obtained in return. Spiritual needs were not considered, spiritual blessings were not asked nor desired. The contention between light and darkness, between summer and winter, between life and death, which in the East symbolized the contention between good and evil in the soul of man, was indeed represented in the mythology of Greece and Rome, but it was only faintly reflected in religious aspiration. When the sense of sin and the consciousness of the necessity of salvation awoke in the Western mind they found no satisfaction in the official religion.
Nevertheless, the ancient ways remained. The creeds and rites of the old time continued to be observed by ignorant persons, by peasants on farms and in villages, and by those who were naturally conservative, to whom any change from the traditional order involved the probability of some sort of bad luck. They continued to be observed also by cultivated persons, by whom they were associated with art and letters, with the refinements of society, and with the long past. Among these people the ceremonies of religion were family customs, connected with distinguished and revered ancestors. In spite of all the criticisms of sceptics, and the discontent of devout souls, the old religion dominated the Roman world. Christianity found it everywhere in control. Everywhere it pervaded the whole of life.
It was a domestic religion, associated with every detail in the conduct of the household. The door was consecrated to Janus, and the hearth to Vesta. The house was under the protection of the Lares, the contents of it were guarded by the Penates. Ceres presided over the growth of the grain; Flora attended to the blossoms, and Pomona to the fruit in the orchard. There was a divinity for every act of life from birth to death. And neglect of the invocation of the proper god at the proper time was likely to involve serious consequences. There is an ancient instinct, which we formally discredit and call superstition, which whispers to the soul of man that he would better do what his fathers did before him. It is one of the silent forces which they who were converted out of paganism had to defy. When things actually did go wrong, in those days when the relation of effect to cause was very imperfectly perceived, even the Christian was tempted to think that the old gods were taking their revenge.
The Roman religion pervaded all the affairs of business. Not only were the transactions of exchange and barter, the occupations of industry, and the administration of law, conducted in the language of religion, under the patronage of the gods, but it touched all manner of employment. With its shrines and temples and images and liturgies, it engaged the services of the mason, the carpenter, the blacksmith, the goldsmith, the weaver, the dyer, the embroiderer, the musician, the sculptor and the painter. The schoolmaster gave instruction in its sacred books. Sowing and reaping depended on it. War waited for it. In a time when fighting was considered a normal part of the life of man, and the army was the most important institution of the state, the site of every camp was marked by the shrines of the soldiers, and the captains consulted the will of heaven before going into battle. When they were victorious, they all joined in a public thanksgiving to the gods. Religion entered into every department of civil life. Nobody in the employ of the government could possibly evade it. Every office had its sacred image. Every oath was taken in the name of the gods. Every senator as he entered the Senate-house cast grains of incense into the fire which smouldered before the statue of Victory.
The ancient religion included in its province all kinds of social pleasure. Its well-filled calendar abounded in festivals, which called the people together for processions and sacred feasts, with lighting of lanterns and decoration of house-doors with wreaths. To it were consecrated the theatre and the amphitheatre, and the plays and games were offered to the gods, like the sacrifices on the altars, as a vital part of religion; the idea being that the gods were as much interested in athletic sports as men.
To break with the Roman religion was thus to sever one's self from almost the entire round of social life. Even in the epistles of St. Paul we see what possible compromises might be involved in accepting an invitation to dinner, the meat of which might have been offered to an idol. What could a Christian do in those cities where there was an image of a god at every corner of the street, and where the entrance into every shop and market, into every employment, industrial, civil or military, and into every kind of amusement, was through some sort of pagan rite! The Christians stood apart from the common life. They were considered by their perplexed neighbors to be enemies of society.
And this religion was not only thus inclusive and pervasive, but it was of obligation. The emperor was the official head of it, and was himself divine among the gods. The political value of such a doctrine is evident enough, and it did not seriously offend men in those days when even the greatest of the gods were hardly more than human beings magnified, and when a god could be welcomed into Rome, or else expelled, by an act of the Senate. The emperor was the embodiment of the empire. The worship of the emperor, which consisted in burning incense before his statue, was a declaration of allegiance. Among the many and various religions, East and West, over all the local and provincial cults, this was the one universal creed. Otherwise, one might select and reject; Rome was tolerant of all religious differences; the only limit to religious liberty was the law which forbade men, in the zeal of their own creed, to deride or assault their differing neighbors. But the emperor must be worshipped by every man: that was imperative. To refuse this worship exposed the Christian to the charge of conspiracy or treachery against the state.
It was in the midst of such a world—political, social and religious—that Christianity appeared, a strange, unparalleled and menacing phenomenon. The world received it with instinctive enmity. The new religion was compelled to struggle for its life.