not ethnocentric so much as ahistorical

Daniel A. Foss (U17043@UICVM.BITNET)
Wed, 10 Apr 1996 19:21:14 CDT

prior to the rise of Christianity and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Mahayana
Buddhism, our taken-for-granted preconception as of today of religion did
not exist. That is, we posit some body of tenets or beliefs (in addition to
rituals, ceremonies, deities, formulas of adoration or worship public and
domestic) whereto the believer subscribes. The faith is *portable*, that is,
it can be transferred from one cultural context to another, where for the
people of the latter, the possibility of *conversion* exists. Not merely
the possibility, but established procedures for transforming pagans, infidels,
gentiles, heathen, or other unbelievers targeted for missionary effort, into
*true believers*.

Prior to Christianity in the Roman Empire, there was no such thing as a
religion to which conversion was possible, hence this most readily explains
why Christianity was persecuted, as it was over a sustained period (though
waves of persecution were of short duration). The existing high cultures
were dual. The Romans asserted the primacy of *mos maiorum*; the Greek-
speaking Eastern provinces that of the *ta patria*. Each of these had some
of the meaning, or rather, emotional resonance, of the Chinese Confucian
version of the Dao, specifically, the Dao of the Ancient Kings. The Latin
and Greek notions of ancestral tradition subsumed the deities of the state
religion and their worship; the legitimacy of the political order as a whole;
and the due subordination of inferior to superior all the way down the social
scale. The Dao of the Ancient Kings did the same, with rather more emphasis
on hereditary monarchy and the great chain of hierarchy down to the subordi-
nation of women to men; but unlike the Mediterranean analogues, it had
uncontested hegemony over all other elite cultures, even more so provincial
cultures, in the Empire. One could not be "converted" from Confucianism in
most periods, and we find Confucian scholars taking avid interest in Daoist
and Buddhist texts. Where Confucianism turned exclusivist, as it did in the
later Tang under the influence of the teachings of Han Yu (770-824, I think),
with the confication of Buddhist Church property coming in 841-845, this was
invariably associated with the political crisis of the state.

In the Mediterranean, the high-cultural Ancestral Traditions failed to
mesh, notwithstanding some heroic efforts at meshing hero stories, such as
the Aeneid. Neither, as mentioned, attained hegemony over the other; the
two main languages spread into new regions in the Near East (Greek) and
remoter parts of Europe, North Africa, and enclaves within the Greek-speaking
area, such as Beirut (Latin). But neither one attained unchallenged hegemony
of the Civilized-over-Barbarian type, as found in China. The conquests were
too recent; the Roman Empire lacked the sophistication of the Chinese centra-
lized bureacracy of the contemporary Han Dynasty. The Roman principate, says
Fergus Millar, The Emperor In The Roman World, was "a personal monarchy of
remarkably primitive type." As such, it had to extend privileges to Celts,
Arabs, or Illyrians for acceptance of the merest veneer of its high culture
in architectural and educational form, and for largely-unpaid labour in
collecting taxes, military recruitment, and law enforcement. The tribal
gods, tribal language outside the cities, and much of customary practices
remained unchanged: The Celtic deity Ceraunos may have been equated with
a Roman god, but Ceraunos he was and remained locally, to the fourth

As Ramsay MacMullen put it Paganism in the Roman Empire, 1982, "The Roman
Empire was an assemblage of *thousands of tribes*." [italics in original].
There was no official system of Paganism whereto lesser, localized systems
of Paganism descwnded in graded hierarchy, as in Chinese religion reserving
ceremonies for the worship of Heaven to the Emperor alone; lesser deities
were recognized by the state in graded ranks, much as officials of the state
which certified them and who they often were whilst alive. Instead, merely
greater or lesser patches in the patchwork.

The upkeep of the gods of *thousands of tribes* cost money. In the third
century, social plus political plus economic-demographic crisis (brought on,
in the latter case, by epidemics of measles and smallpox which swept the
Eurasian landmass end to end) ended the slave-gang system which provided
cash crops to the cities, which no longer had the urban population living
leisuredly off the countryside, where the latter no longer had the cash to
pay for the urban amenities no longer for sale in the market which no longer
existed, and where the scarcer labour and soldiery had to be paid for in
money which did not exist from taxes which were uncollectible. In what is
called, thus, "the third-century crisis," the upkeep of the gods disappeared,
as quantified by numbers of inscriptions. Christians, like all monotheists,
had been based in the cities: Monotheists have less than no interest in the
amorous lives of deities; it's simply shocking! (The agriculturalist, with
a vested interest in the growth of vegetation and fecundity of mammals not
least herself had other ideas, some of them comparable to daytime television.)
The chicken-or-egg causal problem of the conversion of peasantries is not at
this time resolved. The two provinces wherein the treatment of peasantries
was beastliest, Egypt and Africa, coincidentally the food-supply requisition
areas for Rome and Italy, converted earliest, in the third century; this
proved rather a headache to the authorities in later times, when Africa would
breed guerrillas, terrorists, and fundamentalists; Egypt became the Hot Zone
for heretical theology, escapists from duly constituted authorities who, as
monks, used the same word, *anachoresis*, formerly having the sense, "escape
into the desert for tax-evasion." On the other side of the causal arrow, the
upkeep of the Egyptian pantheon and their temples collapsed very suddenly;
that of Thoth survived as a Roman cavalry base. Isidism, on the other hand,
had an appeal to those not of Egyptian birth, in part by offering temple
dancing not all that dissimilar to that of South India which the British
tried vainly to suppress; this in Rome itself, where the "mimes" were
called "bum-wagglers."

The notion that the Roman Empire was all that different, Eternally
speaking, from India, as a civilization, needs to be, in general, examined.
Caste system and all (*honestiores*, *humiliores*, and outcastes beneath

The legitimating principle of the Imperial institution had been remarkably
feeble; I have coined for it the term "Aggravated Bolivian System Of Govern-
ment." Until quite recently, the Bolivian senior officers would come to power
by the simple procedure of declaring, "My turn!" Contested coups were infre-
quent; the ousted head of state was exiled in peace and plenty. The Roman
variant required that the loser was killed; until such time as another general
was able to succeed, the son of the deceased ruler was permitted to hold
office till assassinated. The thuggish generals of 284-337, whose language
would be called Old Albanian, were forced into extreme policies to solve
the problem of conversion. Diocletian's persecutions failing, Constantine
first made heresy and schism punishable as state crimes (315); then commenced
in 324 to run Christianity the Army way; which after three centuries of
denouncing principalities and powers, the bishops assembled at Nicaea in 325
meekly accepted. (The dubious may have stayed home.) Constantine's son,
Constantius II (337-361) declared himself competent in definition of the
faith as Vice-Gerent of Christ On Earth. His successor, Julian, 361-3, was
sufficiently taken with his religious omnipotence that he made the effort
to reverse the trend. This was most reveling of what "paganism" had been.

Julian "The Apostate" declared himself in favor of *any ancestral tradition*
whatever. True to his principles, he included the tradition of the Jews, which
somewhat inaccurately by this time, he construed as a truly ancestral one. As
an initiate into the Eleusinian Mysteries, Julian found the animal sacrifices
as found, most notably, in the Book of Leviticus *disgusting*. Notwithstanding
this, he ordered the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, destroyed by Titus
in the year 70. This did not occur in the few months of life remaining to
Julian; construction materials, money, and skilled personnel tended to sink
into bottomless pits of corruption even for the highest priorities of state.
And there were slight earthquakes, which Christians hailed as the Wrath of
the Christian God. Had Julian succeeded, he might have affected the subsequent
development of Judaism, but not much else.

The assassination of the Emperor Julian has not been solved to this day;
not even the direction of the fatal arrow is agreed upon: whether from the
Persian enemy or his own soldiers. (It should be emphasized that this was an
*aggressive war*, as the Romans were greedily expanding to the East at the
very time the Germans were coming through the window, so to speak. The
objective was control of the Silk Road, carrying lucrative Chinese silk
toward Roman Antioch, through Mesopotamia. Much of what we "know" of what
the Roman Empire was about is dubious.)

By 379, when Theodosius formally decreed Christianity the State Religion,
and even more, by 392, when paganism was officially persecuted, most inhabi-
tants of the Roman Empire had been *converted* from *something else*, an
*unprecedented situation* historically.

Daniel A. Foss
<who waited a week for someone else to do it>