The soul of the Roman Empire

Map of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent
Image credit: Tataryn vis Wikipedia

According to tradition, in the early days of ancient Rome, King Numa Pompilius established a religious institution: the Vestal Virgins.  The Vestal Virgins were chaste priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of home and hearth.  Their duty was to maintain the sacred flame in the temple of Vesta.  The Romans believed that as long as the sacred flame was maintained, Rome would prosper, but that if it should ever be untended, it would lead to Rome’s destruction.  The rites of the Vestal Virgins were faithfully maintained throughout the centuries.

Until 394 CE, when on order of the Christian emperor Theodosius, those rites were discontinued and the virgin priestesses dismissed.  For many pagans living at the time, this abandonment of an ancient order, along with the associated forsaking of the ancient gods of Rome, were why the western empire fell on hard times in the 400s CE, eventually collapsing completely by 476.  Rome in particular was sacked by 410.  (Don’t get too spooked by this.  Rome was also sacked much earlier in its history in 387 BCE, presumably despite the efforts of the Vestal Virgins.)

Since then, there have been many theories about why the western empire fell.  Of course, one plausible narrative is that the empire’s external enemies simply became strong enough to collectively overwhelm it.  Under this narrative, the invasion of the Huns in Europe was pivotal, along with the pressure the Eastern Empire was under from the Sasanian Empire that prevented it from sending aid to the west.  In this view, the fall of the Western Empire is more about the ferocity of the Huns than anything else.

But there’s always been a sense that the empire rotted from within.  Much of the speculation about the fall looks at events in the empire going as far back as its founding in 27 BCE.  But looking at developments in the first, second, or third centuries, when the empire continued to function for centuries afterward, has long struck me as little more than an excuse to indulge in moral grandstanding.  Often this type of speculation says more about those doing it than anything about ancient history.

The fact is that the Roman Empire was never an ideal state.  From the beginning it was a military dictatorship that lurched from one succession crisis to another, often resulting in civil war.  On many occasions the empire fragmented among multiple leaders proclaimed emperor by their local legions.

The real question isn’t what caused the empire to fall, but how it managed to hold together through all of these crises.  Civic virtue doesn’t appear to be what held it together.  Some other quality was important.  Something that must have changed in the later part of its history.  (At least in the western half.  The external enemy narrative seems more compelling for the Eastern Empire’s later fall in 1453 CE.)

I think through much of its history, there was a sense in the empire that it was civilization, while the rest of the world was alien and barbaric, or maybe that the Greco-Roman civilization was the only one worth having.  Perhaps another way of saying this is that the culture of the empire was very different from the neighboring regions.  This distinction between the empire and its neighbors, this shared identity, may have been enough, despite frequent upheavals, for the people of the empire to repeatedly piece it back together again.

Until the century from 376 to 476 CE.  During that period, the Western Empire lost control of its borders and countryside, and long before its “official” fall in 476, ceased to be an effective state.  What changed?

I think the answer is Christianity.  Now, this isn’t a polemic against the Christian faith.  Contrary to what Edward Gibbon and others might have thought, I doubt there was anything in the Christian doctrine* beliefs in the afterlife or ethics that, in and of itself,  weakened the empire.  To counter that suggestion, we only have to look at all the successful Christian societies that have existed since then, including for many centuries, the Eastern Empire (aka the Byzantine Empire).

But I think there are a couple of important aspects of Christianity worth considering.  The first is that it was exclusive.  To be a Christian was to forsake all other gods and religions.  (Early Christians were often called “atheists” by their pagan contemporaries because they denied all but one of the gods.)  That was unusual in the ancient world.  Most pagan religions didn’t really care whether you worshiped other gods.  The only other known religion that did was Judaism.

But Judaism didn’t share the second important aspect of Christianity, its evangelistic nature.  Christianity was both exclusive and expansionist, a faith that encouraged adherents to find converts, one that saw its mission as bringing as many people into the fold as possible.  This combination meant that every time Christianity gained a convert, paganism lost an adherent.  In other words, these aspects of Christianity is what made pagan religions easy pickings for it.

Contrary to traditional Christian narrative, there was nothing miraculous in the spread of Christianity.  Bart Erhman in his book, The Triumph of Christianity, points out that it only took a modest growth per year, compounded across centuries, for Christianity to become a substantial minority of the empire’s population by the end of the third century with millions of adherents.

Prior to that period, the empire had never persecuted Christians in any consistent sustained manner, but that changed in the closing decades of that century.  Until then, Christianity had been an oddball fringe cult, but its growth was bringing it increasingly into mainstream society, along with a perception of its threat to the traditional cults.  The persecutions in these decades, under the emperor Diocletian, would become known as the Great Persecution.

Students of history know that the persecutions ended in 313 CE under the first Christian emperor, Constantine.  For a few decades, the empire was more or less tolerant of multiple faiths.  But in the latter part of the fourth century that started to change, perhaps as a reaction to the last pagan emperor who tried to reverse Christianity’s ascent.  As the number of Christians increased, the empire became increasingly intolerant of paganism, culminating in emperor Theodosius declaring Christianity to be the only legitimate religion in 380 CE.

The roles from a century earlier were now reversed.  Paganism found itself persecuted, and engaged in a losing cultural battle.  According to Erhman, by 400, half the empire was Christian.  But the other half remained pagan.  Consider what this must have done to the society, what the consequences must have been for its social cohesion.

And Ehrman points out that the western half of the empire was actually behind the east in its conversion rates.  In other words, there were more pagans in the west, indicating that proclamations of Christianity as the only legitimate religion were probably far more traumatic there than in the east.

Finally, consider that Christianity had already spread across the borders into the Germanic tribes.  This meant that when those (Christian) tribes were fleeing the Huns, looking for refuge inside the borders of the empire, many Christians within the empire may have felt more affinity with them than with Roman pagans.  The cultural distinction between the empire and its neighbors, along with the shared identity, at least in the west, was no more.  (There remained a strong cultural distinction in the east, particularly after the rise of Islam, which may be why it endured for another millenia.)

Of course, this is admittedly speculation on my part.  One of the problems with talking about the cause of a civilization’s collapse, is that a society’s decline and fall is usually not a time when detailed and careful records are kept.  Ultimately, we may never know the real reason.  Indeed, it’s almost certainly wrong to talk in terms of any one reason when there were probably a multitude of causal factors.  But this explanation strikes me as more plausible than most I’ve heard.

Or we could just blame the Huns.

* Edited wording to address Steve Ruis’ point in the comments.

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37 Responses to The soul of the Roman Empire

  1. Steve Ruis says:

    First you say “I doubt there was anything in the Christian doctrine in and of itself that weakened the empire.” then you say “But I think there are a couple of important aspects of Christianity worth considering. The first is that it was exclusive.” and “Christianity was both exclusive and expansionist, a faith that encouraged adherents to find converts, one that saw its mission as bringing as many people into the fold as possible.”

    I think those points are doctrinal and contradict your soft pedaling before. Prominent Christians of the time preached tolerance of religions like Christianity when they were on the outs, but when they became accepted, long before they became “the” state religion of Rome, they became decidedly less tolerant. Pagans were deplored and “nonconforming Christians” were too. (What constituted a non-conforming Christian became a state matter of Rome.) The east-west problems of Rome were exacerbated by the east-west problems of Christianity, as well as the bishops unending competition for control and influence.

    This could not have not contributed to the fall of the empire. But … empires are unnatural and destined to fall, it only takes time. Looking for who to blame is a silly exercise. It is not as if we could learn of the mistakes of the Roman, Persian, British, Qin, empires and then learn how to do it right, it cannot be done right and even if it were for a short time, things change and then it would be done wrong and … oops.

    On Wed, Apr 25, 2018 at 12:58 PM, SelfAwarePatterns wrote:

    > SelfAwarePatterns posted: ” According to tradition, in the early days of > ancient Rome, King Numa Pompilius established a religious institution: the > Vestal Virgins. The Vestal Virgins were chaste priestesses of Vesta, the > goddess of home and hearth. Their duty was to maintain t” >

    Liked by 2 people

    • Steve,
      My point about Christian doctrine were about its views on the afterlife, turning the other cheek, and other aspects that some historians have focused on before. But I’ll admit I could have used better language. I edited the language a bit (and referenced this comment).

      “But … empires are unnatural and destined to fall, it only takes time.”
      Well, true, but everything is destined to fall sooner or later. The western Roman Empire lasted for 500 years. That’s longer than most empires in history. It’s far longer than the United States has been around so far. And if we consider the empire to have lasted until Constantinople’s fall in 1453, it’s one of the longest lasting, if not the longest lasting empire in history. (I’ve seen some people assert that Egypt or China lasted longer, but that’s ignoring the breaks between “kingdoms” and “dynasties”.)

      If we measure success by longevity, the empire was successful for a long time. If your criteria for success is never ever failing, then nothing will ever be successful, because everything fails eventually. It’s highly unlikely the United States will be around in 1000 years, and if it is, it will likely be something we wouldn’t recognize. But even though the US will fail someday, I wouldn’t regard the current US as a failure.

      “Looking for who to blame is a silly exercise.”
      Trying to understand the causal factors for historical events is silly?

      Liked by 2 people

  2. J.S. Pailly says:

    Your analysis makes a lot of sense to me. I’m far better read on Caesar’s times than Constantine’s, but my gut instinct has always been that Christianity must have had something to do with the fall of the Western Empire. It’s just feels like too much of a coincidence that the Empire converts to Christianity and then, within another century or two, collapses.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. I think the early empire gets a lot more attention (movies, books, etc) than the later part. For a long time, I didn’t know much about the later period.

      I used to think it was extremely fortunate for Christianity that it managed to spread throughout the empire just before it fell. It never occurred to me that the spread might have been part of the cause, or that the transition to Christianity was painful for the pagans.

      There’s an interesting movie called ‘Agora’ which, while it takes dramatic liberties, gives an idea of what the empire was like c. 400 CE.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Mike,
    I have an affinity for reductions as you know. Perhaps I’m not sufficiently educated in this period of time to be confident about your point in a nutshell (if you do indeed have one). Would it be that Christianity’s greedy demand that its patrons forsake all other divine beliefs, as well as its general goal to make its own narrative universal, gave competitors a greater sense of hatred for it, and thus state support gave non-Christians greater incentive to rebel? If so, unfortunately I don’t consider myself knowledgeable enough about this history to comment on its plausibility. Perhaps so. If this isn’t an effective reduced assessment of your speculation however, can you provide one?

    One thing that seems interesting here is our perspective that it’s a shame that the Roman Empire fell. I suppose that this is natural given our own western roots. Perhaps in the east the fall of Rome was and is a happy thought? I wonder if Putin smiles about it?

    For modern humanity we might go larger than state based empires to address western culture versus the rest. Christianity has been crucial to its spread, or certainly in Latin America. Furthermore that the west has been first in the game of hard science and industrialization has put it in a position today of might. I sometimes feel that democracy is progressively winning the war, especially given the spread of information, and that this will help erode the corruption that festers so prominently in so many places. The thought is that perhaps our reasonably aligned confederation of western states will one day become universal, and so evolve into a representative world government? Here there would still be plenty of reason for police, though regional disputes would be handled through legal means rather than overt aggression. It’s a nice thought, though reality seems far more spicy.

    The greatest challenge I see here is the Social Credit System that China is implementing. When people do things that their government likes, such as write positive things about it on the internet, their credit scores can go up. Conversely negative behavior, such as associating with a person who has a low score, can be penalized. Apparently this score is formally being used to regulate a person’s internet speed, ability to fly, employment potential, and so on. Then there’s the informal implications given the shunning of lower scorers that should thus occur, with the converse for top.

    Though obviously dystopian, I don’t currently see what will cause this system to come crashing down. Given such levers divergents should soon be cowed into submission, or simply escape. Parents there today are surely teaching their children to follow government suggestions, and not for the good of society, but rather for the good of their children. China should thus become a unified organism unlike any other state. Furthermore I suspect that this could help it become even more wealthy per capita than people in the west. Regardless, many anti western countries should end up taking this road as well, given the safety that this should provide totalitarian governments. Yes it could be a spicy future for humanity indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric,
      On your reduction of my view, I wouldn’t put it in those words (I prefer less judgmental language), but I think you have the essentials. It’s worth noting that any successful religion that was exclusionary and expansionist would have caused a similar reaction. I’m sure there were expansionist cults before Christianity, but I don’t think we know of any that were also exclusive. Of course, we know of at least one exclusive religion (Judaism) prior to Christianity, but it wasn’t expansionist. I think that combination, in a cultural evolution sense, was an innovation of Christianity (later replicated by Islam).

      I sometimes wonder if Judaism’s and Christianity’s insistence that there is only one truth didn’t have a broader effect on western culture, one that might have eventually helped with the development of science. Ancient peoples seemed to have a fairly loose attitude toward truth, being more concerned with appeasing the gods than believing particular things about them. Although ancient philosophers did seem concerned with truth, so maybe not.

      On the idea of a representative world government, I agree it would be good to see. Will it ever happen? I don’t know. History seems like a long story of government consolidation, from hunter-gatherer bands, to tribal villages, confederations, states, empires, etc. A world government seems like the ultimate culmination of that trend. The question is how it happens. Right now, there are a lot of vested interests to contend with, but there were vested interests in the earlier systems as well, so who knows.

      Yeah, that Chinese Social Credit System seems pretty overbearing. Interestingly, I’m currently reading a sci-fi novel (Ninefox Gambit) about a puritanical society that routinely changes people mentally (performs psychosurgery on them) to achieve the desired adherence to doctrine and duty. It’s an interesting, albeit often disturbing, read. It would be the equivalent of a government like China simply altering people to raise their social credit. (There’s also a lot in the story about religious wars between camps favoring differing calendar systems, and this appears to have some kind of effect on the technology. Don’t completely understand it yet, but it’s interesting.)

      I think you make a good point that what might ultimately be a sustainable government isn’t necessarily one that gives its citizens maximum freedom. The Roman Empire is a perfect example. While living in it was probably better than many other historical societies, I wouldn’t want to live in it (even a technologically modern version). It was, by modern standards, a police state. In many ways, Chinese society is probably better than it was, not that I’d want to live in it either.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mike,
      It’s good to hear that I did end up getting your message right.

      On the theistic virtues of being expansionist, observe that there’s another significant trait of Christianity that Judaism lacks. Christianity provides punishing and rewarding consequences, or a hope for Heaven and a worry about being cast into Hell. Even if Judaism were also an expansionist religion, I doubt that it could be nearly as effective a social tool without presenting its followers with the extreme consequences that Christianity provides.

      On China’s SCS being “pretty overbearing”, it’s interesting to me how calmly people are taking this. Maybe 16 years ago I recall being lectured by my English father in law about how my government was keeping tabs on us Americans in order to mold us into some kind of homogeneous superstructure. I was skeptical given how prominent that sort of fear happens to be in America. How could this survive our democracy? So I figured that I might at least appease him by agreeing that everything he mentioned and worse was happening in China, but no luck. He needed me to understand that western governments are doing this. Otherwise it didn’t matter to him.

      Well this matters to me. Through a simple credit scoring system (no need for sci-fi mechanisms like taking “soma” or “psychosurgery”), I believe that the Chinese people will essentially become a unified organism. Observe that individual citizens here should still be able to think freely as workers, scientists, and so on. When it comes to effective output behavior however, each person will have to consider well publicized rules and so proceed accordingly given how visible they are to their government’s instruments. As a unified organism with teleological direction, China should thus largely be free of the destructive fights which occur as we free worlders forge our countless separate paths. With such unity it should progressively become extremely wealthy, as well as be emulated by Russia, Iran, and so on.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric,
        On Judaism, it depends on which sect you’re talking about. Ancient Israel had numerous divisions. Your description matches the Sadducees, a sect favored by the upper class, who didn’t believe in any afterlife. There were also the Pharisees and Essenes, who did believe in an afterlife. (The Pharisee sect would largely go on to define Judaism after the Romans erased Israel.) And it’s worth remembering that Christianity itself started as a Jewish sect.

        On your concerns about China’s scoring system, you seem to be assuming two things. The first is that people won’t learn how to game the system. It’s a simple fact of life that when a society expects people to behave like something other than…well, people, they find ways to be human while paying lip service to whatever cultural memes they’re required to.

        Second, you’re assuming that the Chinese have figured out the correct traits for a successful population. History shows that anytime someone thinks they’ve figured that out, and constrain society to their views, they’re virtually always wrong. Even if they start out being right, what makes for success is a constantly shifting thing, and these kind of regimes are usually slow to adapt.

        I’m not sure whether this will make you feel better or worse, but my reading of history is that societies succeed or fail often in spite of these cultural memes or state policies. Success or failure seems to be more related to the natural resources a society has access to, its location within trade networks, the strength of its adversaries, and other factors largely beyond the control of its leaders or culture.

        That’s not to say that leaders are irrelevant. Just that competent leaders in a society are constrained in what they can do by economic and strategic factors, and because they’re competent, they generally understand these constraints. (Incompetent leaders don’t, and can often damage their societies because of it.)

        Liked by 3 people

  4. Mike,
    It actually wasn’t just an afterlife that I was referring to, but rather an associated punishment to worry about and reward to hope for given mortal behavior. Do you know of any religions before Christianity that preached eternal implications anywhere near as strongly? Your understandings would be welcome since I’ve not truly looked into this matter. Whether this element did begin with Christianity or somewhat earlier, I consider it to be a true paradigm shift.

    Moving now to China, yes at this point I don’t see how its citizens will be able to perpetually game their emerging system. While it may not be quite as absolute as beating Christianity’s omnipotent god, it does seem pretty close to me. But then as for the second assumption, no I’m not saying that China has already figured things out. I’m saying that they’re developing a system that should be constantly tweaked to combat the public’s attempts to game it, and in the quest to build greater and greater overall wealth. I’m talking about another paradigm shift, and by definition it takes more than history to assess them beforehand (though I do consider the history that you’ve provided to be spot on). I’d like you to consider the full scope of China’s tools here. If you have plausible reasons to believe that they wont be sufficient then I’d love to hear them. Otherwise, welcome to my own new expectations for humanity! (Actually they’ve only struck me in recent months.)

    Consider how China is retiring standard currency in favor of traced electronic forms. Thus every time a person either pays for something or gets paid, the details of this will provide government information. With such information about their citizens, algorithms should pretty much assess each person’s situation. Regardless every transaction would help fashion a given person’s social credit score. If people knew that everything they do to get money, as well as what they spend their money on, will be judged to either hurt or help them through an incredibly important score, this should have quite an effect upon behavior.

    I’m suggesting that there will be a tremendous dichotomy to future humanity. First there’s our free world, where people individually make their ways with some privacy, and in competition with others, housed by governments which hopefully facilitate reasonably fair play. The other is a highly visible and controlled world where individuals can either play by government rules, or be broken by a system that normal people shouldn’t be able to beat.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric,
      One of the problems with talking about pre-Christian religions is that our documentation about them is, by and large, limited. Often what we do know about them is from material written down long after they were living religions, so it’s often not from the point of view of actual adherents.. But there were some that had an afterlife with punishments and rewards. The one that springs to mind is ancient Egyptian religion. In it, a recently deceased person’s heart was weighed against a feather (to see whether it was heavy with sin). If they passed, meaning they had lived according to the Egyptian concept of ma’at, promoting social order, then they entered Osiris’ realm, but if they didn’t they were consumed by a demon.

      What might have been an innovation of Christianity is the concept of an eternal hell. Interestingly, this was a development after the apostolic fathers had left the scene. Originally, the Christian afterlife was resurrection in this world, with the punishment being thrown into a lake of fire and dying a second death. But somewhere along the line, the concept of an eternal hell got introduced. The only thing close to that I know of before Christianity was the Greek concept of Tartarus, but its existence implies that Christianity wasn’t the first to come up with the general idea.

      On China, I can’t offer much more than what I said above. We’ll see over time how it turns out.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mike,
      I knew that I could count on you for some salient points of history on religion. Still the eternity element in itself isn’t quite what I’m suggesting brought this theoretical paradigm shift. Eternal punishment/ reward is simply a continuation of the general theme that I’m referring to. The theory is that some religions have evolved to become extremely compelling, not just by providing narratives, but rather narratives that have immediate personal consequences for its believers . If I believe that certain things which I’d like to do will also have extremely negative consequences for me supernaturally, then I should tend to not do them. If I believe that certain things which I don’t want to do will have extremely positive consequences for me supernaturally, then I should tend to do them. With both a “do this” and “don’t do that” element, humanity should thus have become religion’s oyster, so to speak. Though there may have been some positive and negative supernatural consequences before Christianity, and though Christianity may not have been extremely strong in this regard when it began, the point is that it did evolved to become an amazingly effective platform for altering the behavior of its believers to its own ends. Without this element, and beyond factors of formal expansionism and exclusivity, I suspect that religion today would be small ball, and thus science would have generally destroyed it by now. I’m saying that the minor position of “faith” is able to fight such a formidable battle against the major position of “reason” today, given “Pascal’s Wager” types of consequences.

      Regarding China, it looks to me like we have a bit of a “wager” here as well. As I understand your position, it’s that their SCS is a standard historical platitude that may or may not survive for very long, though is certainly not in the category of “paradigm shift”. I conversely suggest that is. I suspect that through such teleological direction, and not unlike the central processor which gave multicellular organisms algorithmic direction (and might have brought the Cambrian explosion), China will become unified unlike any other human society. This should bring this institution great power. If so, democracy may indeed fall to such state controlled “organisms”, or at least provide an associated split in our species.

      China’s full program rolls out in 2020, and I suspect that in five or ten years from now we’ll have a pretty good sense of which of us had a better sense of it. Furthermore I can note we’ve been discussing these kinds of things heavily for about twenty months, which implies that in five or ten years we may still be taking with each other. Actually we have lots of bets going that I hope you lose. For this one however, I hope that you win.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric,
        If you mean punishment or reward from the gods, then that idea definitely predates Christianity. There’s little doubt that all the ritual and sacrifices were to appease deities.

        There is some controversy about how much ancient pagan religions cared about morality. There seems to be a broad scholarly consensus that they didn’t. There’s little if any discussion in the Iliad and similar works of the gods caring about justice. However, we have to remember that Greek and Roman religions weren’t “book religions”. What we see in the epic poems, although we certainly learn a lot about the source societies from them, can’t be taken as a comprehensive description of the living religion of the time.

        (Interestingly, William Dever has pointed out in his books that this is likely true of even pre-exilic Hebrew religion, that the religion of the common people was probably only tangentially related to what got preserved in the early books of the Bible, although the behavior that is repeatedly condemned in the early texts (idolatry, polytheism, etc) give us clues about what the populace as a whole was actually doing.)

        We do have evidence of pre-Christian religions caring about morality (at least in terms of how those societies defined “morality”). Plato’s Euthrypro dilemma makes little sense if the gods don’t care about justice by the 4th century BCE. We also have the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1754 BCE) and the Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2100 BCE), both of which invoke the gods as their source of authority. And we have the Egyptian concept of Ma’at, along with a goddess of that concept, which certainly seems to imply that Egyptian morality had a religious component. (Of course, in ancient cultures, everything had a religious component.)

        That said, there is a point back on the development scale where primitive religions don’t care about morality. But from what I’ve read, it tends to be in societies that don’t encode their morality at all, such as hunter-gatherer societies. This makes sense if you think about it, since these societies are small enough that reputation can serve as the behavioral modifier. But as Ara Norenzayan pointed out in his book ‘Big Gods’, once a society becomes large enough, they tend to develop gods that care about social behavior. Importantly for this discussion, it appears to happen well before the rise of Christianity, generally anytime the government of a society grows beyond small city-state scale.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah Mike, that makes sense. As a society gets bigger and thus less manageable through normal personal relations, there should be a tendency to use religion to impose greater governing influence. The Ten Commandments, which might be 3400 years old, was surely written for this reason. Still without establishing believed supernatural consequences, as I see it the circle isn’t quite complete.

      Yes those little Greek city-states with their flawed gods aren’t all that strange, since they weren’t vast empires like Rome. Even by the time of Plato’s Euthrypro in Athens I don’t think the element that I’m referring to existed. Euthrypro was having his father prosecuted, not because he thought that the gods would punish him if he didn’t, but rather because he believed that what his father had done was wrong in the eyes of the gods that he was taught to honor (and do so above his father). (Actually our human sacrifices to appease gods suggests divine evilness, or the opposite of what I’m referring to.)

      I see from Wikipedia that Ma’at might somewhat qualify. Of course like all the rest it puts self preservation first. An impious king could bring famine and blasphemy could cause blindness. (Funny how blasphemous people didn’t seem to go blind regardless of that edict.) But Wikipedia also talks about “be good or you’ll be punished” types of things, which does get to the theme that I mean. I don’t want to suggest that Christianity brought the first example of this, but rather that at some point it seems to have exploited it to a degree that I don’t yet have a sense of previously.

      Did hatred for Christianity contribute much to the fall of Rome? I’m not sufficiently educated there to comment, though perhaps. But Christianity has certainly thrived regardless of Rome’s fall. Why? I think largely through the hope and worry in a supernatural realm that it eventually came to provide its believers. This element might be considered a paradigm shift that continues to place faith over reason for much of humanity, and even in this age of science.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I wonder what you’d make of the Nietzschean analysis of early Christianity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have passing familiarity with his overall assessment of Christianity (slave morality, etc), but can’t say I’ve ever read about his take on early Christianity. What would you say are the main takeaways?

      Liked by 1 person

      • The main takeaway I’d think is important here is that the nature of slave morality infected the Roman Empire with a sort of self-hatred.

        With the inversion of all values, the slaves make everything naturally appealing into an evil. For example, beauty becomes evidence of vanity, power is corrupt, poverty is noble, blessed are those who weep, etc.

        If a large enough group of people believe that beauty and power are bad, while weeping and poverty are good, they probably aren’t going to be super interested in the maintenance of civilization.

        A good example of this is St. Augustine’s City of God. “Yes, the barbarians just sacked Rome, but that’s no big deal because God’s city is coming and all this earthly nonsense is best ignored. “

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think there’s definitely always been a strain of Christianity that thinks like that. It continues to this day. When New Orleans was flooding after hurricane Katrina, I knew some people who initially celebrated that the “den of iniquity” was being destroyed, at least until they saw the actual suffering. On the other hand, some of the ancient pagan mythologies seemed just as self loathing in their own way. The Ages of Man, and its depressing narrative of decline, comes from the foundational Greek poet Hesiod.

          The problem I see with blaming Rome’s travails on that are all the successful Christian societies that have existed since then, including the Eastern Roman Empire. (Success as being sustainable across multiple centuries.) Granted, northwestern Europe was in a dark age afterward, but then there have been other dark ages in history, notably the one after the Bronze Age collapse, long before Christianity was around, and Europe’s dark age still had polities like the Frankish Empire.

          Liked by 1 person

          • You make good points. However, I think there’s a distinction between people I’d call Pauline Christians and Constantinian Christians. The Pauline Christians take the Biblical ethics seriously. They are the ones who love the poor, find corruption in beauty etc. The Constantinian Christians more or less ignore Biblical ethics but take the symbols very seriously.

            In modern terms, the Paulines would be your friendly neighborhood socialists while the Constantinians would dutifully attend your local mega church in order to learn about the prosperity gospel. The West went Pauline initially, the East went megachurch.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Steve also talked about the east-west divide. I know there was definitely a divide in medieval times (culminating in the “Great Schism”), but I haven’t seen anything about it in ancient times. Not that there weren’t fissures, but most of what I’ve read talked about the conflicts between camps like Arianism and the Nicene Creed. Can you point me to any material that discusses an early east-west divide?

            Liked by 1 person

          • I’m mostly going on Mike Duncan’s “History of Rome Podcast.” Starting after the crisis of the 3rd century and really ramping up with Diocletian the East became ever richer and more densely populated while the West declined.

            Further, Christianity in the East was largely driven by the royal families, specifically Constantine. These are not folks you would mistake for Judean fishermen. In the west, by contrast, Christianization was driven by priests and missionaries – folks who took the slave morality a little more seriously.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Thanks. I listened to the earlier parts of that series, but never made it out of the Republic period. From what I recall, the East was always richer, but it took a while for the west’s cultural cache to wane. But I’m primarily interested in this idea of the Christian divide. Would you happen to recall which episode (or episodes) it was discussed in? No worries if not.

            Liked by 1 person

          • I don’t remember but I’ll look.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Episode 137 goes into the various schisms and differences in style that erupted almost from the beginning. I think that’s the one. 😛

            Liked by 1 person

          • Thanks Ben! I’ll check it out.


      • Mike,

        I wanted to give you some credit. A while ago we talked about how the Roman Republic started falling apart and I blamed the Gracci. You suggested that the Senators were more to blame.

        Well, I went and did some more research and it appears you are absolutely correct and I was totally wrong. This is sending a big part of my thesis in a completely new direction. Thanks for setting me straight!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I enjoyed reading your analysis. I’ve always been bad at grasping history, unless I can see it through a particular filter or perspective, like a biography, or in this case, a thesis about the power of shared identity and cohesion. You do such a good job of condensing a massive subject, and I appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Tina! Your comment reminds me of all the textbook treatments we got in grade school, and how dry they typically were. Often the publishers were trying to avoid controversy and not offend school boards, but the result was a boring narrative without the humanity and real drama that took place, so I know where you’re coming from.

      I don’t know if you’ve ever read any history outside of school, but many of the (non-academic) books on history are pretty captivating. For example, James McPherson’s ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’ about the American civil war, or David Kennedy’s ‘Freedom From Fear’, often had me on the edge of my seat, even though they aren’t told from any one perspective.

      Anyway, glad you enjoyed the post. It’s something I had intended to post years ago, but never seemed to get around to it. Reading Bart Erhman’s book on the spread of Christianity is what finally triggered me to do it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. When an Empire falls, there is always a multitude of reasons…I wouldn’t blame Christianity. Usually when one people group conquers another, they just want it more than the people living there. The natives of Italy were unable to withstand the Goths and were unwilling to deal with them until it was too late. Add inept leadership at the top (Honorius, etc.) and you get very poor decisions when it came time to fight them off.


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