E. B. White
There have been numerous books on the subject of paganism and early Christianity, but this is the first major work in English to set both side by side and explain how one gave way to the other. In his brilliant narrative, Robin Lane Fox confirms the enduring importance of the pagan religion in the ancient world. He then shows how Christianity first took root as an obscure cult practised by a persecuted minority, until eventually, through a series of unforeseen shifts, it became the official faith of the Roman Empire. The product of ten years’ work, this is a magisterial study of one of the most important periods in Western history.
‘The change from pagan to Christian brought a lasting
change in people’s view of themselves and others; to
study it is to realise how we, still, live with its effects’
Robin Lane Fox begins his acclaimed history by exploring the importance of pagan worship in the Roman Empire, both in the city and in the country. He shows how it affected everything from the protection of sacred forests and springs to civic acts of worship such as ritual sacrifices and processions. Religion, particularly in cities, was deeply entwined with citizenship, and priests were public servants just like lawyers or civil servants. So important was religion to a city’s cohesion that private cults were denounced, since they gave too much importance to individuals. This was also an age of close encounters with the divine, when gods were believed to walk the earth, with actual sightings recorded at shrines and during incantations. Through public records and accounts of oracles and omens, Lane Fox challenges Edward Gibbon’s theory that paganism had declined before the advent of Christianity. Christian converts, Lane Fox argues, ‘were not abandoning a static or dying religious culture. Rather, they were joining the most extreme option.’
Part II focuses on the lives of the earliest Christians, including the martyrs and visionaries, but also the ordinary converts who clung to pagan pastimes such as the entertainments of the circus. There were radical differences between the old beliefs and the new. Unlike paganism, Christianity was an intellectual, contentious force: debate raged on topics such as the resurrection of the body as well as the soul, and the time and nature of the world’s end. Lane Fox distinguishes between the more sophisticated Christian thinkers and those who believed that Christ would literally return on a cloud. Some clear patterns emerge – female converts outnumbered male ones, and the new religion spread faster in cities than in the countryside. Visions, prophecies, celibacy and persecution were part of everyday life, but the most important feature of early Christianity – the one which truly elevated the faithful in the eyes of their fellows – was martyrdom. ‘The most excellent Christians in the early Church were neither the virgins nor the visionaries. They were the Christians whom pagans put to death.’
‘Violence made excellent viewing, and the crowds could be utterly callous. “Well washed, well washed,” called the crowd in Carthage when martyrs in their arena spattered themselves in blood. Their shout was a hideous misuse of a popular salutation which was uttered in the public baths.’
In Part III, Lane Fox considers the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, the events leading up to this momentous decision and its far-reaching effects. In 249, the Emperor Decius issued an edict ordering animal sacrifices to the gods throughout the empire, on pain of death. Faced with persecution on such a wide scale, the rules of Christianity became less intransigent and sins such as adultery were no longer seen as grounds for excommunication. By 300, the edict had lapsed and Christians were no longer considered a threat. Nonetheless, Constantine’s conversion just a decade later was ‘one of history’s great surprises’.
‘To what, though, did it all lead? A sermon is only a sermon, and whatever Constantine might say at Antioch, people’s lives were not so easily changed.’ Yet change had begun: Christians could now worship openly, and the Church received and redistributed new donations, including some from Constantine himself. The once-persecuted faithful were soon in a position to force their own dogma on others.
‘From far and wide they came to hear it,
hard-bitten Roman soldiers, women, men
of letters, the Emperor Hadrian and his
entourage ... The statue [of Memnon] was
a wonder for Greeks and Romans only, a
whispered intimation of their hero’s
presence. Sometimes he spoke and
sometimes he was silent’
The fascinating story of the Western world’s transition from paganism to Christianity can be traced through the illustrations in each volume of this new edition. The images in Part I focus on pagan sites and statuary; these convey the personality of the Greco-Roman gods, as well as some Eastern deities widely adapted by the Romans, and what they meant to worshippers. Part II is illustrated with early Christian art, predominantly the frescoes of the Roman catacombs but also some unusual pieces discussed in the text, such as a series of statuettes illustrating the life of Jonah, a popular story of redemption. Part III is dedicated to Constantine and his legacy, including a series of portrait busts that show how the spread of Christianity influenced and altered the classical aesthetic.
Robin Lane Fox has been University Reader in Ancient History at Oxford University since 1990 and Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at New College, Oxford, since 1977. His publications include Alexander the Great (1974), also published by The Folio Society, The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible (1991), The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian (2005) and Travelling Heroes: Greeks and Their Myths in the Epic Age of Homer (2008). Pagans and Christians was first published in 1986.