Many similarities in different forms...how the Roman world was very much like our own, and how the Church responded.
The similarities between Imperial Rome and America are often astounding. Certainly we've had other empires in the past with more of a universal military and political character granting them perhaps a stronger claim to the Roman analogy. But Rome like America, was also the source of a powerful cultural imperialism. And like America, Rome wasn't really original in its cultural creations, it was how it transformed or Romanized the other cultures. Today we would say, it was the packaging.
When one considers American culture, disinterested in the past, deliberately anti-intellectual, market driven, and defined by consumer products and catch phrases, one finds it to be neither very deep or original. Largely commercial and corporate driven, sometimes tending to the cheap and tacky, always short termed and seemingly founded upon planned obsolescence, American culture is powerful, transformable, and constantly changing. At least that's how America is often perceived, and Rome was no different. Greed and power.
We borrow extensively from other cultures and modify everything from food to music, art, and architecture. Like Rome, we have a culture that's very distinct and yet the roots are shallow. Not only can it quickly change and shift, sometimes radically so, and in a short time. Older cultures clashing with modernity have also undergone similar changes, but they experience greater pains while still retaining some veneration for the past. Here, one generation can completely shed the antecedent generations forms and values and barely look back. Older Romans like our World War 2 generation lamented the social changes, but does the change point to the fact that their stable Old Order was perhaps not as solid as they thought?
There are social issues the Romans dealt with very reminiscent to our present situation. In the late Republican period the Patrician class bought up the countryside and effectively ended the era of the old and venerable family farm. The agrarian backbone of the old Roman culture was ruined. We've experienced something very similar in the United States in the 20th century.
The impoverished rustics poured into the cities and lived crammed in multi-level apartment buildings, and much to the horror of the cultured urbanites, they brought their country ways with them. The overcrowded cities became crime-ridden fire traps, filthy and loud. In Rome the cart traffic was so heavy and congested they banned them from entry during daylight hours. All night long the residents of the city were tormented by the rumble and clacking of wagon wheel on cobblestone as the city's supplies were delivered.
The rich fled and developed a 'villa' lifestyle only coming into the city when necessary. In the Eastern United States we've seen similar developments. Farms and mini-mansions are the desire of the wealthy who own large tracts of land often for privacy as much as for use. And if not in the countryside, then in upscale developments, gated communities, or segregated suburbs. The descendants of Appalachian and Mid-western farmers are now huddled in the run-down ramshackle houses in small towns from the Mississippi to the Piedmont, Blue Ridge, and Alleghenies. These dilapidated old houses in scarred and sad old towns, hint of a past time when the wealthy lived in the now dilapidated mansions in the center of town, and the poor were out in the country. The situation has reversed as it did in Roman times.
The small farmer could not compete with the wealthy's most powerful tool of labour…the slave. Today, we don't have slaves, and don't need them. We have technology, tractors and industrial farming methods. Not exactly slaves, the Mexican population in America serves a somewhat analogous role. Many come here due to the collapse of their farming markets, partly due to American economic policy. As the Mediterranean became the Mare Nostrum, the Roman dominated sea, it was easy to 'outsource' agricultural needs. North Africa became the breadbasket of the Empire. The Italian farmer unable to make a living sold out to the large landowner with his army of slaves (the equivalent of a big corporation)…and moved into the city.
The frontiers were under threat. Invaders often crossed with impunity, often not to raid or conquer but they sought a word neither we nor the Romans appreciate much….security. Think of the Latin American influx once again. Both the Pax Romana and the American state are unusually stable. As the Roman empire progressed they lost their political stability first, then they lost economic stability and finally military. And then by the fifth century the western portion of the Empire was done.
In modern America due to our cultural tempo and the way in which everything is integrated, we are likely to lose all at one time, or one will quickly precipitate the other.
It’s the same, but in a different form.
Many of these rural refugees crammed into the first century equivalent of tenements, struggled to find employment, and retreated to the public baths in order to get clean- and I imagine at times to escape winter in their miserable apartments. The baths were a social convention, massive public works projects everyone seemed to appreciate. But of course the baths were immodest places of nudity. Despite gender segregation, there are many Christians today (myself included) who would not be comfortable with such a setting.
And yet I know of no protest, no boycott on the part of the early Church. In fact there is the famous apocryphal story of the Apostle John on his way to the baths but then refusing to enter when he learned Cerinthus the famed Gnostic leader was within.
My point? It was a morally decadent society much like ours, in some ways better and in some worse, but the Christians of that day, very conscious of their pilgrim-status did not react or think the way most Christians, particularly American Christians think today.
Do we have pagan temples and temple prostitutes today? Not exactly, but we certainly are riddled with idolatry, sometimes in more subtle forms. But when one considers what was happening with these temples I think we can draw a parallel.
When you looked at the statue of Venus, just as when you look at a probably more familiar statue of Mary, the image or representation is idealized. That doesn't have to be exactly what Venus/Aphrodite was supposed to look like, nor with Mary. These images represent certain characteristics associated with the theologies of the subject. With Venus, you have a certain type of sensual femininity, desire, pleasure, etc… With Mary you have holiness and purity, a hybrid of both matron and maid, and depending on the artist and time period sometimes, a certain level of sensuality.
I'm not advocating statues of Mary. I'm just trying to make a point.
When the Roman devotee visited the Temple of Venus, the woman he selected was meant to represent the goddess. Their act was meant to represent something along the lines of communion or sacramental union. It was an act of worship and for the woman, her act was service to the goddess, she was acting in a priestly/intercessory/mediatorial role.
So the pleasure was in itself an act of devotion. We would call it self-worship and indulgence, but to the Roman, his pleasure glorified the goddess. She was glorified by the devotee being happy and fulfilled. It was literally sexual communion by proxy, or mediatorial sexual fellowship.
So any woman could be a Venus. Venus (or the Greek form, Aphrodite) was a universal idea, represented by any woman who fulfilled the imagery.
I think of this as I stand in line at the grocery mart and am confronted by a multitude of women staring at me from glossy magazine covers. These women, these Aphrodite's, are available in all shapes and sizes, skin tones and hair colours, but the message is universal…worship me and you will have the desires of your heart. Look at me, am I not the one, the goddess?
Our whole sensualized culture, pornography and all that goes with it, is nothing more than our modern expression of Venus worship. Will we someday have pagan temples with prostitutes once more? My guess is no. Our idolatry is more subtle and in some ways more abstract and sophisticated. They had materialism and all those sorts of temptations as well, but pre-modern societies also had a tendency to rank image-worshipping idolatry in a way we (generally speaking) do not today. There are exceptions of course. Large numbers of Roman Catholics are in modern industrial societies and they still engage in direct idolatry when it comes to statues. Rapidly modernizing India is still very Hindu and thus very often engaged in image veneration. But modern technology offers things even traditional age-old tactile experience cannot compete with, and thus the forms of idolatry are often more imperceptible to those not looking.
In fact with modern technology we can make the simulation better and more exciting than the real thing. In real life you can't get the camera angles, effects, and editing that a movie or magazine can give. It's no wonder pornography ends up so addictive and drives the user to always seek something more…more perverse, more sensual. The real thing no longer can satisfy. Real life cannot compare. We have a whole generation of young people who are literally sexual burnouts by the time they finish being teenagers. A real girl can no longer satisfy. They've seen it and done it all, and how disappointing it must be in light of the powerful technological presentation. A real flesh and blood girl can't compete with the lighting, sounds, and effects of cinematography. Is it any wonder so many then turn to more deviant tastes? Always seeking something more, and yet never satisfied. At some point most people put the brakes on. Their consciences, even seared, arrest them. Those that no longer have consciences, abandon the imago dei, the image of God and revert to beast-like status. This may express itself in terms of sexual behaviour, or in the most extreme forms, violent criminals, rapists, and deviant serial killers. Our Adversary finds great joy in the image-bearers perverting the image, when man made in the image of God acts like a non-man...an animal.
The same is largely true with the entertainment of violence. Romans watched gladiatorial shows and we are horrified at their banal treatment of bloodshed and death. We don't have that today…but we do have movies and video games. And like pornography these are more real than reality. A movie can get you up close, get the different angles, slow motion shots of blood flying through the air, the expressions on faces…all the things you can't really experience in real time and in real life. Our modern manifestations of violence are far superior, especially with the latest in video and audio technology. Even a calm conversation between two people can seem like an action sequence with the frenetic camerawork and camera work. Others have written of these pop-culture problems elsewhere. I'm not trying to critique our culture, there are others much more apt. Rather, I want to show our culture though different than Rome, exhibits similar traits albeit in a different form. If we are attuned, we will see these things. And taking in the full scope of history and the story of the early Church…we can then relate with some wisdom to our present situation in the 21st century.
First I would point out, the Christians of the early centuries did not flee Roman cities because of their wickedness. They did not quit going to the markets and forum. They did stay away from gladiatorial shows and the temples, but they did hide or try and live in a separate commune or quarter. I mention this because I know many Christians today who won't go to a mall because they (or their teenage sons) might see an improperly dressed girl. The males of the house won't go to a grocery store because of the magazine covers. I appreciate the zeal behind this proscriptive behaviour, but I don't think it is according to knowledge. And regarding our children, we need to protect them, but we also have to teach them how to live and grant them wisdom. We shouldn't be afraid of the pagans. Our children need to encounter the pagan world, but they need to do it with us right alongside of them, talking and explaining. I've known some parents who really insulated their kids, to an extreme, and it all backfired because once out of the home they ran amok. I believe in protecting them, but I want to avoid fear-based and sacralist-based pieties.
I don't see these types of retreat in the early church. They lived in the culture and dealt with it.
The Roman government desiring to keep peace and stability realized if they abandoned the urban Mob to fate, the people with nothing more to lose would in time turn violent and demand food for their hungry children. Law and order would break down.
For stability and security, rather than humanity, they endeavoured to keep them occupied and fed. Some would find work, some could join the legions, and others would just live, maintaining the crude habits and customs of the countryside though now in a cosmopolitan and urban milieu. It was better to have them fat and happy so to speak, than wandering the countryside, squatting on the villa-estates of the wealthy and stirring up trouble. Grumble though they did, the wealthy were happy to pay their taxes to subsidize the Mob, the urban poor. Otherwise, when society broke down, the rich would be at great risk. Either pay some now and keep the peace or risk losing it all. But along with that strain of thought, some of the wealthy have long realized if the poor do a little better, they will have something to work for, something to protect and defend and invest in of their own. They will then also have an interest in the security and welfare of the state. By elevating them a little, everyone would in the end be helped. But there were others who despised the Mob, lamenting the turns and tangles of history, wistfully desiring the older and simpler days of the Republic. They were long gone and would not return, and those of the ruling class who felt this way despised their peers who worked with and supported the poor. The Patricians themselves began to connive and scheme for power, often using the Mob as a tool or weapon in their fight.
Sound familiar? Maybe some readers have not looked at it that way. Many seem to think the government doles out benefits because of some kind of ideological commitments. That might be true for some in academia, and many a lower-tier social worker. But for those with political power, they (I assert) support benefits and services to maintain social order and peace, and to win votes (maintain their power). Though their rhetoric is often couched and posited in terms of moral imperative or indignation, many of us are not fooled.
Did the early Church protest this type of socialism? No. Does that mean they supported it? It doesn't mean that either.
Take some comfort, we are not alone in having to wrestle with how to live as Christians in a complex, stable, but quite wicked society.