Pagans and Christians 
by Robin Lane Fox.
Viking, 799 pp., £17.95, October 1986, 0 670 80848 2
Show More
Show More

‘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.

Part One ends with two chapters, ‘Seeing the Gods’ and ‘The Language of the Gods’. The first is not so much a matter of representation in paint or stone – though statues, some worked by ingenious mechanisms, were important – nor even of the awe-inspiring holy places, Delphi, Didyma, Claros, as of visions whether seen in dream or waking. Ever since Homer it had been believed that on rare occasions the divine might be glimpsed in human disguise and Lane Fox aptly reminds us of the incident in the Acts of the Apostles when Barnabas and Paul are mistaken for Zeus and Hermes. Often seeing and hearing were combined in the oracular centres where consultation of the god, most frequently Apollo, might be preceded by incubation and fasting and lamp-lit ceremonies. The gods were consulted on a great variety of personal problems and answers would be sent to places as distant as Hadrian’s Wall or the remoter corners of the Black Sea, questions and answers being recorded on stone. An expert at riding bulls bare-back wanted to know whether his performance did Apollo credit. In rather different vein, the city of Oenoanda in Asia Minor sent an embassy with attendant choir to Claros to inquire what was the nature of God. The oracular reply was delivered by an interpreter or Thespode in hexameter verse and duly recorded on stone. In the second century, we hear of a new cult being successfully inaugurated, our source being the satirist Lucian. At Abonouteichos in Paphlagonia on the Black Sea, one Alexander claimed that the god Asclepius had manifested himself in the shape of a huge serpent with whose help oracles were given and mysteries enacted, unbelievers such as Lucian and Christians being excluded. The cult survived both its founder and Lucian’s satire.

It is difficult to compare the life of the ordinary pagan in the second century with that of the Christian because the evidence for the latter is so sparse. There were no church buildings and naturally enough you did not go out of your way to advertise your beliefs in stone if at any moment this might be used as evidence against you. Christians formed a small minority; admission to their ranks was not easy and baptism was usually administered after a two-year apprenticeship. Most of them belonged to the humbler classes and a majority may have been women, although Pliny, writing to Trajan, had already noted that they were ‘of every age, rank and sex’. They offered an alternative society open on terms of spiritual equality to all. In the middle of the third century Christian villagers in the Fagyum were bitterly divided about the nature of the Resurrection: was it to be a continuation of this life in the flesh or not? The great Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, spent three days with them, convincing them and their fundamentalist bishop that it would not be. It is not easy to imagine a pagan parallel.

The material is more abundant in the third century. Archaeology has its contribution to make and we have the letters and other writings of the early Fathers. Figures such as Cyprian of Carthage and Gregory Thaumaturgus, the latter a pupil of Origen, a graduate of the Beirut law school and then a missionary bishop, give scope to Lane Fox’s descriptive powers and invite the occasional Gibbonian comment, but it is still the exceptional rather than the ordinary that we learn about. In the early fourth century we are better informed and one incident Lane Fox narrates points up the resemblance between pagan and Christian. As the former took his problems to the oracle or the diviner, so the latter took his to the holy man. We find St Hilarion, one of the early desert ascetics, running a clinic: advising childless women, helping a charioteer suffering from a stiff neck, taming a Bactrian camel that was out of control, even blessing a Christian race-owner’s horses that were up against powerful opposition from a pagan sorcerer. Another and earlier story illustrates the alternative society of the Christians. In the later second century the Church was divided about the merits of the ecstatic prophet Montanus whose followers claimed to speak with the words of the Spirit and so give inspired guidance on difficult problems of Christian conduct. Montanus was excommunicated in 170 and (on one interpretation of the evidence) appealed to a not unsympathetic Bishop of Rome, whereupon the Asian churches referred the issues to what was regarded as the highest possible authority – the judgment of prisoners awaiting a martyr’s death at Lyons whose behaviour had demonstrated their possession of the Spirit: they wrote to Rome upholding the cause of orthodoxy. The incident testifies both to the close-knit and efficient organisation of the Church and to the profound influence on its development of the persecutions.

For these, and so for a picture of Christian life at its highest level, we have a unique source in the acts of the martyrs and of this Lane Fox takes full advantage in a brilliant chapter on ‘Persecution and Martyrdom’. After sifting the genuine from the spurious and later re-edited versions, we are left with the contemporary accounts, whether diaries kept by those awaiting martyrdom or, more often, the reports of friends visiting the prisoners and going on to describe their sufferings. It is easy to understand both the authority the martyrs wielded in their communities and the baffled incomprehension of some of their judges: ‘worship your own god by all means, but why not pay a minimum of tribute to the state’s gods as well?’ The martyrs are among the ‘over-achievers’ (to whom another chapter entitled ‘Living like Angels’ is devoted), the perfectionists, who were not representative of the rank and file except in as far as they stood for the ideal. Already the two-standard morality is coming into being with the question of how the weaker brethren should be treated. This problem came to the fore as the result of a major change in the mid-third century when, instead of leaving the occasional persecution to the provincial authorities or the city councils, the state took the initiative itself, launching an Empire-wide campaign, in the second phase concentrating on the leaders of the churches and finally aiming also at the total destruction of property, especially books. Tertullian’s claim was being justified. In the years of quiet between the waves of persecution other changes took place; on occasion Christians are found on town councils, or taking part (not as victims) in the games or serving in the army; some were highly educated in the Classical tradition – witness Julius Alexander, ambassador, architect, Biblical scholar.

Part of the appeal and much of the strength of the Church lay in its cohesion and discipline (in spite of schisms and heresies), in the welcome it gave, on terms, to all and sundry, in its system of authority under which bishops were appointed for life – something for which there was no parallel in the mystery cults or elsewhere in paganism. But what perhaps counted for most in an age of anxiety was the atmosphere of confidence and hope, an attitude of mutual support and, at its best, of Christian love. This was reinforced by a factor of which Lane Fox does not take account: the constant reading and study of the Scriptures. They provided continuity, fostered the sense of identity in the Church and, once the canon of the New Testament was effectively settled in the second century, were a controlling element against the wilder apocryphal acts and gospels and the movements associated with them.

With Part Three the pace quickens. After a preliminary chapter, the figure of Constantine dominates the book, and narrative takes second place to argument. In the first chapter Lane Fox looks at some different aspects of the history of the Church between the two waves of persecution: that in the middle of the third century and that under Diocletian and his colleagues in the opening years of the fourth century. While civic life declined in the economic and political troubles of the period, in religious life there was what the author well calls a drift to monotheism. Apart from a small group of intellectuals, prominent among them Porphyry, who attacked the basic doctrines of Christianity, pagans and Christians were getting closer together; there is some evidence that on occasion Christians were less resented by their pagan neighbours than were the soldiers and officials who were the agents of persecution. An unwelcome complication both for Christians and the authorities in this period was the irruption into the Empire from Persia of the Manichaean movement. Part-Gnostic, part-Zoroastrian, part-Christian heresy, the movement was international in scope and powered by a fervent evangelism.

A crucial question for the understanding of the first half of the fourth century is the size of the Christian minority. As late as the end of the third Lane Fox puts it at less than 5 per cent. There is no hard evidence and estimates have to be made on inferences from disconnected facts. His figure strikes me as improbably low. If it is correct, we are left wondering why the state should so concern itself with such a small and largely passive minority; even more why an emperor should offer tax remissions to cities willing to initiate persecution.

Then the unpredictable happened. The Church was divided on the issue of how traditores, those who had surrendered the Scriptures to the agents of the state and those who had lapsed under stress of persecution, were to be treated, and in the Arian controversy it was on the verge of facing a major theological crisis. Yet within a few years of the end of the persecution it found itself the recipient, at any rate in the West, of legal privileges, splendid new buildings, donations of all kinds. Already well-disposed to the Church in 310 but still a pagan, Constantine placed himself and his army under the protection of the Christian god as a result of the vision he had had the night before the decisive battle for Rome in 312. Starting from Constantine’s conversion, the genuineness of which he does not doubt, Lane Fox traces his religious policy and the development of his beliefs in his letters and edicts as well as in his actions. His account culminates in an analysis, as fascinating as it is detailed, of the Oratio ad Sanctos, attributed to Constantine and attached to Eusebius’s Life. The geniuneness, the date and the occasion of this speech have been much debated: Lane Fox argues persuasively that it is Constantine’s own work and was delivered on Good Friday 325 to a synod held in Antioch and presided over by Ossius (or Hosius), Bishop of Cordova and Constantine’s ‘minister for Church affairs’. On this interpretation we get a direct insight into Constantine’s view of the relations between church and state: a view derived from his conviction that his own career was the work of divine providence, supremely exemplified by his victory over the pagan Licinius, the last of his rivals, in 324. The speech was followed by his decision to summon an ecumenical conference at Nicaea over which he himself presided. Of this Lane Fox remarks that ‘among his other innovations it was Constantine who first mastered the art of holding, and corrupting, an international conference.’ Now sole ruler, Constantine was careful not to persecute or even offend his pagan subjects: his anger was reserved for those who endangered the unity of the Church and by so doing might call down the anger of heaven upon the Empire; to his mind the peace of the Church and that of the Empire were indissolubly connected. Lane Fox’s interpretation of Constantine’s career will be much discussed by experts. I find it convincing.

While Lane Fox’s account of the how of one of the most momentous events in the history of Europe, both East and West, is clear enough, that of the why of the transformation this event set on foot seems inadequate. Success had something to do with it: no disaster attended the ruler of the world when he abandoned the ancient gods and such success made it feasible to enlist in the ranks of the new faith such potent figures from the past as the Sybil and Virgil: there were new prophets and wise men, new holy places to take the place of the old. And there was always the effect of the Emperor’s own example. In addition to these factors, Lane Fox includes among the causes of the Christian triumph the legal privileges, the use of force (at a later stage) and the intrinsic appeal of Christianity as seen, for example, in its concern for the sick and poor. None the less, if we assume that the Christian minority was no larger than 5 per cent about the year 300, the speed and completeness of the transformation, and the failure of the pagan reaction, are astonishing. Earlier in the book Lane Fox, remarking on the continued vitality of the pagan cults, concedes that such religion ‘is not to be mistaken for religion in the strong Christian sense’. Perhaps there is a clue here. To take an example at random: the sayings of the desert Fathers of the fourth century reveal a depth of religious experience, and one widely shared, which nothing in the pagan world of the time can parallel. This difference in ‘religiousness’ (to use Lane Fox’s term) becomes steadily more explicit in the literature of the fourth century. Can we hope that Lane Fox will extend his study to the absorbing personalities and debates of this century?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences