The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Draw the map when you get there

January 14th, 2008 · No Comments · history

I had promised a review of Franz Cumont’s Oriental Religions in Roman . It is difficult for me to stop where I am with the book and make these few statements, as I desperately want to spend more time tracing out the various ideas and go about verifying his assertions.

In these few lectures, Franz Cumont sketches a remarkable diagram describing the development of Roman Paganism during the period of Empire. He shows how Cybele cults from Phrygia paved the way for Asian mystery cults from Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia to dominate and balkanize the Empire.

Possibly the most remarkable aspect of the book is that its author remains deliberately disinterested in the development of Christianity throughout. Even more intriguing, the author takes few pains to hide his Eurocentric pride in his Christian heritage, but makes an honest showing of limiting his subject matter to pre-Christian Roman religious cultures. The man is a good storyteller, so the book is an easy — if epic — read, even if he gets a little preachy now and again.

For all the wonders in this book, the historian Cumont allowed his biases to blind him, and his obstinacy in the matter very nearly breaks the book. Insightful as he was in the nature of ancient cultures, his distaste for astrology and folk magic was so severe as to prevent him from completely understanding the motivations of the Asian faiths. He even wasted an entire lecture bellyaching on the evils of magic and astrology.

At the end of the last lecture, after he brought everything together to show the process of the transformation of Roman paganism, he said the thing I had not expected. His thesis was that the of the Roman upper class at the time of the Roman adaptation of Christianity was the natural result of three centuries of civilizing, Hellenistic influences on wild, pagan cults of Asia.

This religion was no longer like that of ancient Rome, a mere collection of propitiatory and expiatory rites performed by the citizen for the good of the state; it now pretended to offer to all men a world-conception which gave rise to a rule of conduct and placed the end of existence in the future life. It was more unlike the worship that Augustus had attempted to restore than the Christianity that fought it. The two opposed creeds moved in the same intellectual and moral sphere, and one could actually pass from one to the other without shock or interruption. Sometimes when reading the long works of the last Latin writers… scholars could well ask whether their authors were pagan or Christian. In the time of Symmachus and Praetextatus, the members of the Roman aristocracy who had remained faithful to the gods of their ancestors did not have a mentality or morality very different from that of adherents of the new who sat with them in the senate. The religious and mystical spirit of the Orient had slowly overcome the whole social organism and had prepared all nations to unite in the bosom of a universal church. (Emphasis mine.)

The version of history I was given from Church when I was a kid said that there was one True Church that descended from the Apostles upon whom the Holy Spirit of God had descended — as told in Acts! Through regular Apostolic Succession, the Eastern and Roman churches received direct revelation from God. At the same time, the early Christian churches were portrayed as furtive, dangerous organizations, always under the threat of official pain and torment.

What I didn’t get was how a tormented minority organization with all these alienating behaviors actually accumulated members. I could see some people attracted to danger, and maybe a few others seeking truth or revolution. But I never could grok how such a movement would have ever reached the upper echelon of old Roman families. One thing I’ve always been looking for was that dramatic cultural shift that demarcated the initiation of the new Christian era. Now, Cumont tells me that such a shift could not have ever existed. I knew the information: I had read it many times before. The import had not made itself clear as it did this time, and perhaps it was due to Cumont’s presentation.

He gently brings you around, starting from the humble, staid beginnings of the Roman Republic cults, already atrophied by the time of Empire. Then, he follows one thread after another: he describes the home country and principle elements of each of the major mystery cults that invaded Rome — and what effect each had on the culture of Romans. Phrygia, Egypt, Phoenicia/Carthage, Assyria, and Persian faiths each reflected through the Greek syncratic lens to have a peculiar effect on the Roman psyche. Cumont describes each vividly, and with a good deal of humor, weaving together a tapestry of late Roman pagan culture that looks shockingly like proto-Christian theology.

A common feature of many of the imported Asian faiths was the ‘Savior’ or healing figure. A number of surprisingly familiar rituals were associated with Mithras, Attis, and Osiris: it was the popularity of all of the competing ‘Savior’ cults (grouped together in Greek lingo: Christian) that invoked the Imperial dictum to combine everything into a single, Imperially controlled system called “Christianity”. Other, later, machinations would impose the “Jesus of Nazareth” character on the theology.

I don’t think it was as clear to me before this book just how much more imposing the established Mithras, Attis, and Osiris cults were in and around the when the Jesus movement was first gaining ground. The mechanism for how all of these blended together is now crystal clear.

I highly recommend Cumont’s book, even though I was a bit disappointed in his Phoenician and Persian coverage. The overall theme is worth walking through and the perspective he gives of ancient cultures is really unique and easily acquired. I fully anticipate a later revisit of this work.

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