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Build up to a revolution
, 2 Sept. 2006
This review is from: Pagans and Christians: In the Mediterranean World from the Second Century AD to the Conversion of Constantine (Paperback)
In the autumn of 312CE a revolution took place. It was a relatively violent one that had an improbable beginning. The classical world was turned upside down. The old gods were banished. The temples destroyed and ancient festivals and rituals were forgotten or appropriated in a new guise. The revolution extended over the whole of Europe and much of Turkey and Egypt over a period of some two centuries during its most intense and violent phase. The improbable event was emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity - and once this became the "legal franchise" any competition was ostracised or hunted out of existence.
Yet what kind of world was the world of the "Pagan"? This book lovingly brings to life the kind of religion that prevailed in the civilised Western world from around 500BCE to around 400CE and its increasingly fraught relationship through its ups and downs with Christianity. Most of the action centres from 150 to 312CE. Paganism is losely defined and we can see that all it stands for is "other than Christianity". We begin to see the world of the Pagan that existed not just in the areas once occupied by the Romans but also extending east to the Middle East and beyond. Regions that were subsequently overrun by alternative versions of monotheism, perhaps taking their cue from Western Christianity.
This subject would be too vast for any canvas. Noted scholar Robin Lane Fox teases together the most vital threads of Paganism and Christianity, how they were similar, how they differed and how they were united. The book is a monumental work of some 800 plus pages yet we can see that the scope is yet narrow. Nothing here about architecture or specific details of daily life. You are expected to come with some background knowledge though the book is suitable for the interested beginner.
Paganism gives way to Christianity in a well balanced gradation of chapters. Towards the end, the revolution is only summarised. This book is concerned with the build up. We note that Christianity's triumph was slow and convoluted - even improbable.
We are treated to topics such as oracles, the prominent sites of paganism with good maps, the distinctions between Greek and Roman approaches to paganism - the attitudes of Pagans to different gods, their views on sex and marriage and their topics of concern. Civic metropolitan life (including private lives) in general leaps out of the pages. We begin to understand what the gods meant to the ancients. Many details are blurred, e.g., on Pagan attitudes to re-incarnation. I feel that Fox's grasp of this issue is vague and uncertain. He does not advance the ideas from Protograros and Meno (Plato) or Pythagoras. There may be other areas in this book that a Classical scholar could pick holes in. Perhaps the ideas of Gnostic Christians and the various sects of Christianity and their differences are not highlighted.
On Christianity in general the topics are fuller than for Paganism - the latter is presented more as a pastiche to contrast it to its evolving rival. A very large chapter on the Christian view of sex, marriage or celibacy. On bishops, martyrdom, Constantine's conversion and a blow by blow analysis of one of his famous speeches which is restored to its true context. Fox seems to have done quite a bit of detective work and his brilliant knowledge of Latin and Greek has given him a razor sharp understanding of certain issues that other scholars would miss. There is a section on Mani and his religion.
Entertaining, gripping, this book never gets too sentimental and remains a balanced portrait of the nuts and bolts of the evolution of early Christianity as a gentile religion. We can see the good and bad sides of both camps - wanton animal sacrifice vs., intolerance and irrationality? Perhaps the Christian intolerance was a symptom of how they had been persecuted quite a few times by successive emperors. The persecution is put under a microscope. Christianity's claims to compassion are also vivified.
This is a book on the general evolution and involution of that aspect of culture we call religion in a very broad sense and thus useful for anyone interested in history. Sensitive, poignant with blunt edges.
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