Over-Achievers

C.H. Roberts

  • Pagans and Christians by Robin Lane Fox
    Viking, 799 pp, £17.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 670 80848 2

‘We are a third race,’ claimed Tertullian. Were the early Christians really so different and, if they were, how and why? This is the principal question Robin Lane Fox sets out to answer in this compelling and readable book, which is also a major work of historical scholarship. It is a study of differing and competing religions in the second and third centuries AD: not so much of ideas and systems as of how ordinary pagans and Christians behaved and thought, their cults, their visions, their sense of divine activity in oracle and prophecy. (A strange omission is any treatment of Christian cult and liturgy.) He writes with an easy command of multifarious sources: poets, essayists, novelists, letter-writers, martyracts, papyri and, above all, the mass of inscriptions, especially those from Asia Minor and North Africa. All this is controlled by and collated with the latest academic discussions and archaeological discoveries. He gives scope to his own feelings and sensibilities, but not at the cost of obscuring facts or to the detriment of a critical judgment. All notes are properly kept to the end of the book.

Part One is devoted to the pagans; and if we ask who they were, the only answer is that they were the great majority of the inhabitants of the cities round the coasts of the Mediterranean who were neither Jews nor Christians, and lived securely under the Roman peace. The opening chapter vividly evokes the varied activities of a typical city: Lane Fox’s method is to describe a system in terms of particular incidents and individuals. With sympathy and imagination (backed by hard evidence) he depicts provincial life: its hierarchy of officers, its processions, its wild-beast shows and games (sometimes gladiatorial), its embassies to other cities or to shrines, escorted maybe by statues of its particular deities, or by choirs of children, the life of its gymnasium. Of all this the civic cults were a part, an essential element in the city’s identity. Naturally, it was the well-to-do who left records on stone of their careers, their benefactions, the priesthoods they held, the oracles they consulted. How much religious feeling was involved it is often difficult to say, but Lane Fox is right to emphasise the continuing vitality of the cults: Christianity did not step into a vacuum. (Rather more discussion of the Imperial cult would have been welcome: did failure to conform mean something more for the ordinary provincial than refusal to stand for the National Anthem does today?) For religion in a personal sense, we have to turn to the mystery cults, such as that of Mithras or the Iobacchi in Athens, some of which had a world-wide association of worshippers; their supreme deity, if there was one, was never exclusive and would accommodate other cults. (It was the refusal to make such accommodation on the part of Jews and Christians that exasperated their pagan neighbours.) For intellectuals, there was the religious philosophy of the Hermetists, for whom mysticism sometimes made moral demands that brought their views close to those of Christians: but Lane Fox, while bringing out what they had in common – a belief in angels, visionary experiences, epiphanies – emphasises that these cults were ‘an option, not a church’, still less a church open to men, women and slaves that affected all aspects of life. Underlying the religion of the cities was the deeply-felt fear of the unpredictable, of the anger of the gods manifested in natural disasters or in invasions; if disaster was to be averted, such anger must be appeased by the appropriate traditional rites.

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