Hans-Friedrich Mueller is Professor of Ancient and Modern Languages at Union College. I heard (twice!) a talk he gave, based on a book by Catherine Nixey titled The Darkening Age — the Christian Destruction of the Classical World.
Nixey was brought up in a religious environment, and got the traditional “sunday school” story of Christian monks preserving, through the Dark Ages, the writings of the ancient world. She was shocked to find out that in fact such preservation was almost accidental and was overwhelmed by a much bigger tale of destruction and suppression. Her aim in writing was to present this other “untold” side of the story.
The religion of the ancient Greeks and Romans was what we call “pagan,” with a pantheon of deities like Zeus and Athena (Jupiter and Minerva to the Romans). Actually the word “pagan” was a Christian coinage intended to be derogatory; it derived from “pagus,” meaning “countryside.” Hence a religion of country bumpkins.
The change came when the Roman Emperor Constantine I (ruled 307–337 AD) converted to Christianity, making it now the state religion. But Professor Mueller observed that it’s actually hard to convince people to change their religion. He pointed to conflict in his own family concerning his marriage, involving two kinds of Christianity; and of course between paganism and Christianity there is a far bigger gulf. The conversion was accordingly achieved by much violence and repression.
Indeed, Mueller started by reading from Nixey’s account of what happened at Palmyra, a Syrian city, in 385 AD. “The destroyers came from out of the desert,” it began. A large “swarm” of Christian men, targeting everything pagan in Palmyra. Described in detail was the dismemberment of the beautiful marble statue of Athena, likened to a rape. “The triumph of Christianity had begun.”
In an unmistakeable reprise of this past, Palmyra’s ancient monuments were again ravaged, in 2016, by ISIS, with a quite similar religious impetus.
Hypatia was not a marble statue, but an actual woman, a notable philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, in Alexandria, Egypt. In 415 AD, she was lynched by a Christian mob at the direction of their bishop. Professor Mueller gave a graphic description but I will spare my readers here the ghastly details.
Meantime, however, we’ve all been told how Christians themselves had suffered persecution in prior centuries. This is part of the mythology Nixie sought to debunk. While the Romans did require everyone to partake in some pagan rituals, and executed refusers, this wasn’t a big thing. Mueller quotes a letter from the Emperor Trajan (98–116 AD) to a Roman governor, embodying a kind of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The Roman state practiced a whole lot more religious tolerance before Constantine’s conversion than afterward, with persecution of pagans far more severe than what Christians had experienced. Indeed, Christians persecuted each other far more, over doctrinal disputes.
Nixey thinks not only that Christianity’s triumph by violence and oppression was a crime, but also that something valuable was lost. Pagan religious practice was a part of civic community life, and may have accorded more holistically with human nature. Professor Mueller noted in particular that ancient pagans had more open attitudes about sexuality, that were probably healthier, in comparison to Christianity’s frankly twisted up doctrines.
The ancients more generally took religion less seriously, tending to view their gods as being merely symbological or metaphors.
Poseidon, for example, was the personification of the sea. But most intelligent people were not so silly as to imagine the gods were actual beings. Religion was for them a way to acknowledge our context within the natural world. It was not something central to their lives, as it is for high octane modern Christians or Muslims, for whom god does play a big role in the world and in their lives.
The degree of violence and social upheaval experienced in past civilizations, as depicted in Professor Mueller’s talk, was actually pretty typical throughout human history. Our own societal dispensation, with its separation of church and state, ethos of tolerance, and constraints upon violence and other forms of governmental power, is something not to be taken for granted. Yet there are fools today actually trying to tear this down.
Also there’s a notion that modern monotheism is a somehow more advanced religion than silly childish paganism with belief in many deities. A humanist might agree only insofar as belief in just one god approaches the correct number.